The Machines Won’t Destroy Us

Terminator HeadThere's been a hell of a lot of doomsday movies and books over the years, chronicling mankind's fall at the hands of the machines we've created.

While I find these stories to take on the position of the Luddite, I often find them entertaining. But it's always worth pondering their message: Will the machines one day rise against us?

Advances in neuroscience are coming on in leaps and bounds. We're entering a new dawn of artificial intelligence, combined with astonishing improvements in microtechnology. These will lead to better and smarter machines, and maybe, eventually machines that are smarter than us.

It's why a number of scientists, innovators and thinkers (not least of all Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk) have expressed concerns about where this is all headed.

It's not a new worry. Every time new technology supplants old, we wonder what the tragic human cost will be. In the short term, we often see people lose jobs and so on. But factoring out what economists call “creative destruction”, basically we do okay in the long run. Things get better, and innovation leads us to a better place.

As machines get smarter, I can't see them wanting to wipe us out. Many of the top neuroscientists in this field seem to lean to the same conclusion. While we'll make strives in creating machines that share many of our emotional traits, most of the innovation that we have seen and will see in the future, will be in the neuro cortex area, dealing with logic, reasoning, and knowledge.

Machines will be able to pass on lots of knowledge, and store more information than you or I could ever possibly hope to. But that's not the same as “feeling” or anger, hate or any other traits. Machines will learn from past experience, and then (just as slowly as us in many ways) discover new ideas, and work out how effective they are.

Even if they have ideas about destroying us, and replicating themselves without needing us, the logical part of the neuro cortex programming will almost certainly always lead them to one reasonable conclusion: “Humans made us. They innovated and brought us to be. If the goal is to grow and advance, they are our best hope for precisely that kind of innovation and advancement.”

With this in mind, I don't think we have much to worry about from the technology we're creating.

Skynet's not going to be coming for us any time soon.



“What’s The Harm?”

Interesting post over at the Skeptical Libertarian Blog, a dissection of the dangers of pseudoscience.

If you want to believe that there are fairies living at the bottom of your garden, that’s your business. If you think that laying under a bed of crystals will “heal” you and remove your cancer better than a doctor, then – though I’d desperately try to persuade you otherwise – it is your body, your life.

But worldwide, billions of dollars are wasted and, more importantly, many people are seriously suffering, simply because they have never even been exposed to a science-based reason-centric point of view. Heartbreaking.

In the Land of the Free, Disruption is King

Robot ArmThere’s a very human fear of technology ruining our lives.

“It’ll replace us,” we say, when a new-fangled bit of technology comes along. But is there any real truth behind that anxiety?

It’s our instinctive reaction. But that doesn’t make it the right one.

When I was young, I can still recall a (serious) news report, commenting – with furrowed brows – how, shock horror, some children as young as 8 “had access to the internet.”

That was it. It wasn’t that they were doing something wrong, or even that they were unsupervised. It was the fear that they were using new technology. I posted a great video here a while ago featuring the founder of Wired Magazine, who says that in the early/mid 90s, mainstream newspapers were still writing articles about the web as “The Internet – Threat or Menace?” and, though that precise type of hysteria about the web has died down, general fear-peddling about new advances hasn’t ceased at all.

The truth this, technological change is part of an observed phenomenon I’ve written about before: “creative destruction”.

In my great-grandparents day, there used to be someone who’d ride down the road on a horse and cart, selling blocks of ice, so the local housewives throughout the city could preserve meat and other things for longer. Eventually a bunch of clever American and Japanese people came up with an electrical device called a refrigerator, which has become a feature of pretty much every house everywhere.

Now the ice-block salesman’s job has gone. Indeed, so has the job of the people who made the ice. But seriously, are we worse off because of it? Furthermore, are they? Did those people who found themselves out of work lose out long term?

In the short term it must have been hard, but surely with their expertise in the freezing business, they were well-placed to sell and support those buying the new appliances. And today: well, those people are long gone, and their descendants are just like the rest of us – with better jobs, better (inflation-adjusted) wages, more buying power, higher standards of living, and even more leisure time than their great-grandparents could have dreamed of.

The smart and thoughtful Roger Bootle has raised some interesting points related to robots and artificial intelligence in the workforce. His article in the telegraph, though too negative for my money, is nonetheless well worth a read.

We can’t begin to imagine the hardship of living in an early hunter-gatherer society. Where the life expectancy is around 25, things were, to put it mildly, pretty hard. The agricultural revolution must have rendered thousands of hunter-gatherer “jobs” redundant. But everything got better. The industrial revolution must have rendered millions of agricultural jobs redundant. But everything got better.

This technological revolution is, well, yes, rendering many jobs redundant. But the wisest among us shouldn’t worry too much about it. I’ve been made redundant. It’s an awful feeling. But for those of us who do find themselves out of work, the stats show that it virtually always leads to better things. And the world gets more efficient, and the standard of living of the people globally continues to rise.

In the land of the free, disruption is king. Long may it last.

Cooling the Language of “Climate Change”.

Ice ShelfCame across a smart and engaging article from The Spectator’s website this morning, about the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) toning down the alarmism in their fifth report.

It’s been a while (2007) since their fourth report, and even that dampened some of the alarmist rhetoric on the concept of catastrophic anthropogenic climate change. The rumours are that report five will go even further:

The summary of the fifth assessment report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will be published, showing that global temperatures are refusing to follow the path which was predicted for them by almost all climatic models. Since its first report in 1990, the IPCC has been predicting that global temperatures would be rising at an average of 0.2° Celsius per decade. Now, the IPCC acknowledges that there has been no statistically significant rise at all over the past 16 years.

Let’s take the 16-year figure with a pinch of salt. Both alarmists and skeptics have been seen to use 1998 as a significant date, but in both cases it’s unfair. When the alarmists like Al Gore used it in the late 90s/early 00s, the huge spike in temperature in ’98 seemed to seal the deal. At the time skeptics were keen to point out that 1998 was the year of the El Nino and so showed disproportionally high global temperatures.

Turns out the skeptics are right, and so the recorded temperatures after 1998 were lower, but what skeptics need to remember, is that the trend of warming continues, and so should exercise caution when using it as a data point now.

However, even factoring 1998 out of the equation, the most interesting thing about our data for a decade and more is that despite the exponential rise in manmade CO2 emissions around the world, the temperature has only slithered up. Rather in-line with the lack of sunspot activity we’ve had, in fact. And much, much less than the 0.2 C rise per decade that we were warned about.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that even though the CO2 we emit contributes to the global temperature, the belief that anthropogenic CO2 is either directly or indirectly the primary driver of our climate is on increasingly shaky ground. As Michael Crichton once put it: “I’m certain there’s too much certainty in the world.” The cost of adaption – even by the IPCCs figures – is a fraction of the cost of mitigation. When will we be able to have that debate in the political sphere without people calling overs “deniers”, etc?

Just on a side bar: I wonder how many mainstream sources will report this in any depth – or at least quickly dismiss the lack of significant warming? For example, it was widely reported by the BBC et al in 2007 that by the middle of September 2013 (you know – right now) there would be no sea ice around the Arctic due to our continuing obsession with pumping CO2 into the atmosphere. This year though, the sea ice is more substantial than any time in the last 12 years and in line with what we’d expect over the last 35 years. But we’ve forgotten the alarmist story now, so we don’t notice. We’re far too busy looking at the next scary story.

Dan Brown’s Overpopulation Is Overblown

I’ve just finished reading Dan Brown’s latest book Inferno, which I’ve heard is next in line to be a feature film, with director Ron Howard and actor Tom Hanks both on-board.

A lot of people are very snobbish about Brown’s books. My feelings are that this snobbery comes out of the fact that they’re quite popular, and it’s fashionable to look down your nose at what the “masses” enjoy reading on holiday, etc.

I enjoyed the book – another fun straightforward 24-hour thriller that he’s now so well known for.

Another criticism centres around the inaccuracies of his work. But so what if it’s inaccurate? It’s a book, a story – a work of fiction. Let him make up whatever allows his story to be even more exciting I say.

The latest inaccuracies in Inferno centre around the warnings that the human population is rising out of control and so we’ll have to do (cue scary music) “something” to decrease the “surplus population” (as Ebenezer Scrooge put it in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol).

The idea that there are too many humans has been around for some time. Whether it’s the 18th Century scary warnings of Thomas Malthus or Paul Ehrlich’s 1960’s scaremongering in The Population Bomb, there’s never been a shortage of people screaming that the end is neigh.

The fact is though, the overpopulation story is a myth. We’re always on the verge of a population crisis where we can’t feed everyone, and it’s all going to hell. And then it never happens.

Some smart talented people have knocked together some short, simple and highly watchable videos on this subject. They quickly and succinctly give the overpopulation myth a well-deserved reality check:

Many think that we simply don’t make enough food to feed everyone. Wrong again:

And it’s not that there’s too many of us. In some parts of the world, there’s not enough being born:

So it’s good news – if only we could solve some of the problems in the second video (war, poverty, etc.) things would be better still.

3D Printers – The Revolution Begins

3D Printer CUPeople in the media are hyperventilating over 3D printers being used to make guns. It all reminds me of the early days of the internet, when the mainstream response was internet = bad. In fact, I distinctly remember a news/magazine-format breaking TV programme in the mid 90s that ran a cautionary report that “children as young as eight were getting access to the internet.” Not that they were using it unsupervised, etc, just that they were actually “seeing it”. Incredible.

Let’s not let them scare us in the same way about 3D printers. The truth is, the 3D printing revolution, just like the revolution of the world wide web, will overwhelmingly be a positive revolution. Just one example, the Daily Beast gives us a glimpse at how 3D printers can supply food and a perfectly balanced diet for everyone. They’ve spoken to Anjan Contractor (cool name), who’s just putting together the finer points of a 3D food printer:

Contractor, a mechanical engineer with a background in 3D printing, envisions a much more mundane—and ultimately more important—use for the technology. He sees a day when every kitchen has a 3D printer, and the earth’s 12 billion people feed themselves customized, nutritionally-appropriate meals synthesized one layer at a time, from cartridges of powder and oils they buy at the corner grocery store. Contractor’s vision would mean the end of food waste, because the powder his system will use is shelf-stable for up to 30 years, so that each cartridge, whether it contains sugars, complex carbohydrates, protein or some other basic building block, would be fully exhausted before being returned to the store.

The future’s very exciting…

Matt Ridley: Fossil Fuels are ‘Greening’ the Planet

In a special talk for the guys at Reason, an encouraging and fascinating talk from Matt Ridley: