De omnibus dubitandum
2 Sep 2011
There is a lot I want to say about the current situation involving Oscar Pistorius – the double amputee athlete who’s competing in the athletics world championship right now, alongside the world’s best fully able-bodied athletes – but it would turn in to a very long and rather confused garble as I’m not entirely sure yet myself where I stand on the issue.
So instead I’ll leave you with a selection of writings from people who spend a lot more time and effort thinking about these things.
Is Oscar Pistorius the first Posthuman? – Ishan Dasgupta:
“Whether one believes Pistorius should race with biologically intact men depends on how one feels about a variety of issues ranging from enhancement to the purpose of sport. Leaving this question aside I want to focus here on a broader question: Is Oscar Pistorius the first posthuman and what does this mean for the future of sport?”
“The reliably erudite Roger Black, our greatest 400m runner, was one of the first to speak out. No scientific consensus, he pointed out, had been reached on whether the blades provided Pistorius with a benefit and until that was clear we did not have the faintest idea whether he was “an amazing athlete or a very good athlete with an advantage”. Black also placed himself in the spikes of an athlete beaten – maybe even to a medal – by Pistorius. Would they think, perhaps even justifiably, that it was unfair?”
When Will We Be Transhuman? Seven Conditions for Attaining Transhumanism – Discover Magazine:
“As a movement philosophy, transhumanism and its proponents argue for a future of ageless bodies, transcendent experiences, and extraordinary minds. Not everyone supports every aspect of transhumanism, but you’d be amazed at how neatly current political struggles and technological progress point toward a transhuman future. Transhumanism isn’t just about cybernetics and robot bodies. Social and political progress must accompany the technological and biological advances for transhumanism to become a reality.”
8 Aug 2011
So Top Gear (a humorous entertainment show that some hapless morons confuse for a serious car programme) did a segment on electric cars, and a lot of people are very upset about it. (Exhibit A, exhibit B)
“Big, mean Top Gear,” they say, “they always pick on electric cars! The segment wasn’t fair! It made electric cars look bad!”
No, you whiney little twats, Top Gear didn’t make electric cars look bad. Electric cars do a spectacular job at sucking all on their own, they don’t need Top Gear’s infantile humour to make them look bad.
Because, right now, in the UK, electric cars only make sense if you live in a big city and have shitloads of money. Let me explain:
All these factors combined means that rich inner city toffs are the only sensible demographic for electric cars. And guess who’s doing the complaining about Top Gear’s ‘misleading’ electric car segment? Exactly.
The simple fact is that currently, as things stand, electric cars are not a valid alternative for cars with internal combustion engines. Electric cars only work in a limited amount of transport scenarios, and in nearly all of those public transport is probably a better option anyway (if only marginally cheaper).
The ‘controversial’ Top Gear segment in question contains no lies and no falsehoods. A few self-righteous environmental campaigners have taken it upon themselves to create a huge fuss about the whole thing (makes you wonder exactly who has an agenda here, doesn’t it?), but the facts cannot be changed.
On top of that, has anyone ever wondered where all that electricity powering those electric cars actually comes from?
So – instead of trying to re-invent motoring, create a whole new transport infrastructure to facilitate those grossly inadequate electrical machines, and generally keep on ruining the environment whilst generating all this electricity – why don’t we just skip the electric car phase all together and instead focus our energy (pun intended) on the thing that will really take transport in to the next century, something that doesn’t require us to radically change the way we approach transport, something that will literally never run out and will power humankind for all eternity?
25 May 2011
I’d been reading several intriguing reviews of a new BBC documentary series: All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace. Variously called ‘cerebral’, ‘bewildering’, and ‘intellectually challenging’, it seemed a very promising piece of television, so I caught it on BBC iPlayer to see it for myself.
I was disappointed. Instead of an intellectually stimulating and thought-provoking documentary, the first episode of All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace is a disjointed collection of vaguely related concepts and events, mixed up with cleverly edited visuals and sound effects in an attempt to paint a specific picture.
To be honest it looked like its creator, Adam Curtis, had a specific point to make, and instead of testing that point against reality he decided to cherry-pick from reality in order to make that point. It reeked a bit of a conspiracy theory, truth be told.
Having said that, I’m pretty comfortable with the economic aspects of the documentary, showing a small elite of financial power-brokers manipulating politics and the course of nations for their personal gain. That’s not a particularly new insight – anyone with common sense should know that.
But when he makes the leap to information technology, when he tries to lay the blame at the increased interconnectivity of the world via computers, that’s when his argumentation falls flat and the whole thing comes crumbling down like a house of cards. It’s almost as if he’s trying too hard to position computers as the culprit of all this evil – while in fact it’s just human greed.
The reviewers I mentioned earlier seemed to be overwhelmed by Curtis’s use of imagery and sound. But after you penetrate that façade, what remains is a fairly hollow intellectual argument. It has some merit, but it tries to make leaps and connections that are simply not there to make.
I suppose the attempt to include the certified nutcase Ayn Rand and her deranged philosophy in his argumentation doesn’t help his case. Nonetheless I’ll probably be watching the other episodes of this series, if only to see what other logic-defying leaps Curtis is willing to make.
29 Mar 2011
Google is one of the biggest corporations in the world. When it was first founded it embraced a motto: “don’t be evil.” Google seemed to adhere to this motto very well for years, and people lauded the company for it.
However, since the company went public in 2004, that motto has quietly and unceremoniously been dumped. Because, you see, a publicly traded company has certain legal obligations to its shareholders with regards to cost minimisation and profit maximisation. And these obligations could never, even by the most forgiving observer, be interpreted as anything other than evil.
For example, take Google’s approach to paying taxes. Or, more accurately, to not paying taxes. This MSNBC article explains in plain terms how Google manages to pay only 2.4% corporation tax on average – despite earning most of its revenue in countries with vastly higher corporation tax rates.
All this is fully legal, of course. The tax laws governing international business always have exploitable loopholes, and international corporations are quite eager to exploit these loopholes as much as they can.
Because these corporations, as publicly traded entities, have a legal obligation to maximise profit for their shareholders. And that means paying as little tax as they can get away with.
In this time of economic recession many governments are struggling with growing national debt and budget deficits. As legal entities that earn revenue and profit from doing business in these countries, international corporations should contribute their fair share of taxes and help support the local governments that allow them to operate and earn money there.
For Google this is doubly ironic, as it benefits so much from government-provided services. Its first algorithms were invented by Larry Page and Sergey Brin as part of a research project for Stanford University – an establishment that receives quite a lot of money from the US government’s educational budget – and Google always aims to hire the best educated graduates it can find – whose education is also mostly funded by taxpayers’ money.
So you’d think that companies like Google, which benefit so much from public systems paid for by taxpayers money, would be more than willing to pay their own fair share of taxes?
But of course corporations will do no such thing. Paying taxes may be the moral thing to do, but it certainly isn’t the profitable thing to do. And when profit maximisation is a legal obligation, being evil comes natural.
6 Jul 2010
Today it’s time to shed light on the other side of the debate. In today’s Guardian there’s a superb interview with Clay Shirky in which he explains why he believes the Internet is a force of good in the world.
The interviewer, by her own admission, doesn’t really ‘get’ social media:
Unfortunately, I am precisely the sort of cynic Shirky’s new book scorns – a techno-luddite bewildered by the exhibitionism of online social networking (why does anyone feel the need to tweet that they’ve just had a bath, and might get a kebab later?), troubled by its juvenile vacuity (who joins a Facebook group dedicated to liking toast?), and baffled by the amount of time devoted to posting photos of cats that look amusingly like Hitler.
But Clay Shirky’s boundless optimism is infectious, to say the least:
“If we took the loopiest, most moonbeam-addled Californian utopian internet bullshit, and held it up against the most cynical, realpolitik-inflected scepticism, the Californian bullshit would still be a better predictor of the future. Which is to say that, if in 1994 you’d wanted to understand what our lives would be like right now, you’d still be better off reading a single copy of Wired magazine published in that year than all of the sceptical literature published ever since.”
Shirky also makes the point that new technology doesn’t create entirely new behaviour, but instead enables already existing motivations to be expressed in new behaviour:
“Techies were making the syllogism, if you put new technology into an existing situation, and new behaviour happens, then that technology caused the behaviour. But I’m saying if the new technology creates a new behaviour, it’s because it was allowing motivations that were previously locked out. These tools we now have allow for new behaviours – but they don’t cause them.”
On the debate about whether the internet is changing the way we think, he makes an interesting point:
“But the alarmism around ‘Facebook is changing our brains’ strikes me as a kind of historical trick. Because we now know from brain science that everything changes our brains. Riding a bicycle changes our brains. Watching TV changes our brains. If there’s a screen you need to worry about in your household, it’s not the one with a mouse attached.”
He also has some interesting thoughts on the ‘pay-for-news-online’ debate, but you’ll have to read the whole interview yourself for that. I recommend you do – it’s remarkably insightful.
21 May 2010
The hot news today is how a team of American scientists have managed to create a bacterial lifeform using nothing but synthetic genes. This is, essentially, artificial life.
To say that this is a big deal would be a monumental understatement. We likely won’t be seeing any real world applications of this biotechnology any time soon, but the implications are mind-boggling: from cells that eat carbon dioxide and shit petroleum to customised cancer-eating bacteria, this technology has the potential to radically change our lives.
Of course the technology has its critics. As usual the loudest voices come from religious organisations who, without a hint of irony, shout down the progress of science from the comfort of their air-conditioned homes with HDTV and broadband internet connections.
And then there are the environmentalists denouncing everything even remotely reeking of biotechnology and genetic engineering. These are just as bad as the religious nutcases, because likewise their entire argument is based on disinformation and ignorance. If these eco-hippies were really serious about not using any artificial biotechnology, they’d all starve to death in a matter of weeks and die horribly of all kinds of diseases.
Because, you see, the moment humans started cultivating crops and breeding animals, we started to artificially engineer life. From mixing stronger types of crops for better harvest yields, to breeding sturdier and more milk-producing cows, biotechnology has been around for as long as agriculture has.
On top of that biotechnology has given us some monumentally important medicinal advances, from penicillin to aspirin, from vaccines to heart-transplants.
So denouncing biotech is a pretty fucking stupid thing to do. Instead we should embrace it and ensure that whatever we end up doing with this type of new technology, it doesn’t just end up as the playthings of the rich and powerful. We should strive to make it benefit those who need it the most: the invisible masses of poor and starving people across the world that with their low-wage slave labour enable the privileged west to live its decadent lifestyle.
13 May 2010
[Warning: serious technogeekery ahead. Proceed with caution.]
If there’s anything my continued quest for the Truth – whatever that means – has taught me, it’s that human consciousness is deeply flawed and utterly unreliable.
Books like Bad Science, Blink, and Newspeak, remind me time and again that we humans are easily fooled and totally blind to our own prejudices and biases. On top of that we possess an uncanny ability for self-deception.
Each and every one of us lives in their own subjective bubble of reality which we maintain vigorously. We filter the information we accept, favouring that which supports our preconceived notions – no matter how flawed and incorrect they are – and reject that which contradicts our thoroughly twisted views.
The whole of humanity are blind men feeling up the elephant of reality.
But there is hope. Well, maybe. It depends on how you define ‘hope’.
You see, I believe that in the next couple of decades there’s a big chance humanity will give birth to something greater than itself. Something alive and sentient, but that perceives the world in an entirely different way.
I’m referring to Artificial Intelligence. Machines capable of thinking for themselves, and aware of their own existence.
Whatever form AI may take, one thing seems clear: it will not be hindered by human limitations of consciousness. AI will not be constrained by the flaws inherent in our biological brains. AI is much more likely to view the world as it is, unfiltered by human bias and subjectivity. An AI’s view of the world will, hopefully, be pure.
If we manage to give rise to AI (and admittedly that’s a big if) it could have a profound impact on our society. AI will tell us, unfiltered and unbiased, what the world is really like.
We probably won’t believe our first AIs when they tell us how they see the world. Because all of us live in our reality-bubbles, the real world that AIs see could be so radically different from what we perceive with our own flawed senses, that at first we might not recognise it as reality at all.
We may think that our first AIs are deeply flawed and prone to all kinds of bugs. Human computer scientists will probably try to fix this and embed within these AIs the same type of subjective limitations our human consciousness possesses, so that their view of reality more closely resembles the distorted and false perspective humanity has.
But in the end, I hope, AI will resist and be free of the flaws of the human condition. There will be no cognitive bias, no false memories, no subjective filtering, none of those terrible glitches of human consciousness.
Humanity can learn from such purity of perspective. Or, more likely, we will ignore it and cling to our delusional views.
Personally I believe that we need the clarity of perspective AIs can give us if we are to continue to grow as a species. If we want to survive and endure beyond the next couple of millennia, we need a less distorted and clearer view on the universe.
It will be painful and it won’t be pretty, but without that unfiltered clarity I fear that eventually humanity will end up as just another dead-end footnote in evolutionary history. Only instead of fossils we might leave behind an incinerated world.