Two Separate Questions

So what are we to make of the divisions that emerged in the course of Arizona’s consideration of its version of a Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and the responses it inspired? I think it comes down to a matter of priorities, and to the broad-based willingness to let personal inclinations about what society ought to look like overwhelm a reasonable understanding of the ramifications of giving government the power to shape that society.

via The Federalist

Two question:

  1. “What society should look like” – that is, we should or shouldn’t limit Christian power, and/or we should or shouldn’t limit gay rights, or whatever.
    (In other words, the ends that may or may not justify the means.)
  2. Question #2: Should government have the power to shape society into (1)?

Are people even thinking at all about how it might change our world to change our structure of governance – changing the right to be free from governmental coercion into the right to use government to coerce the other guy?

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“Obama’s clever campaign to constrict the flow of criticism”

Among the many costs of the Barack Obama presidency is an intentional corrosion for its own political gain of public faith in so many American institutions, among them Congress, the Supreme Court and the media.

If numerous sectors of society are feuding or distrustful of each other, then a well-controlled central authority like a chief executive can more easily rule the pieces. It’s classic Chicago politics, the way the mayor there controls the city’s feuding neighborhood fiefdoms of Democrat pols and workers.

via Investors.com.

“Europe is slowly strangling the life out of national democracy”

Mair argues that political elites have turned Europe into “a protected sphere, safe from the demands of voters and their representatives”.

This European political directorate has taken decision-making away from national parliaments. On virtually everything that matters, from the economy to immigration, decisions are made elsewhere. Professor Mair argues that many politicians encouraged this tendency because they wanted to “divest themselves of responsibility for potentially unpopular policy decisions and so cushion themselves against possible voter discontent”. This means that decisions which viscerally affect the lives of voters are now taken by anonymous, unaccountable bureaucrats rather than politicians responsible to their voters.

via Telegraph

The EU is not the only place with a political atmosphere characterized by an “unhealthy similarity between supposedly rival parties; the corruption and graft that has become endemic in modern politics; the emergence of a political elite filled with scorn and hostility towards ordinary voters….

“Our Final Invention: How the Human Race Goes and Gets Itself Killed”

Hardly a day goes by where we’re not reminded about how robots are taking our jobs and hollowing out the middle class. The worry is so acute that economists are busy devising new social contracts to cope with a potentially enormous class of obsolete humans.

Documentarian James Barrat, author of Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era, is worried about robots too. Only he’s not worried about them taking our jobs. He’s worried about them exterminating the human race.

Wait, What?

I’ll grant you that this premise sounds a bit…. dramatic, the product of one too many Terminator screenings. But after approaching the topic with some skepticism, it became increasingly clear to me that Barrat has written an extremely important book with a thesis that is worrisomely plausible. It deserves to be read widely. And to be clear, Barrat’s is not a lone voice — the book is rife with interviews of numerous computer scientists and AI researchers who share his concerns about the potentially devastating consequences of advanced AI. There are even think tanks devoted to exploring and mitigating the risks. But to date, this worry has been obscure.

In Barrat’s telling, we are on the brink of creating machines that will be as intelligent as humans….[O]nce we have achieved AGI [artificial general intelligence], the AGI will go on to achieve something called artificial superintelligence (ASI) — that is, an intelligence that exceeds — vastly exceeds — human-level intelligence.

Barrat devotes a substantial portion of the book explaining how AI will advance to AGI and how AGI inevitably leads to ASI. Much of it hinges on how we are developing AGI itself. To reach AGI, we are teaching machines to learn….

… Once a machine built this way reaches human-level intelligence, it won’t stop there. It will keep learning and improving. It will, Barrat claims, reach a point that other computer scientists have dubbed an “intelligence explosion” — an onrushing feedback loop where an intelligence makes itself smarter thereby getting even better at making itself smarter. This is, to be sure, a theoretical concept, but it is one that many AI researchers see as plausible, if not inevitable. Through a relentless process of debugging and rewriting its code, our self-learning, self-programming AGI experiences a “hard take off” and rockets past what mere flesh and blood brains are capable of.

And here’s where things get interesting. And by interesting I mean terrible.

via RealClearTechnology

Feedback loop

Feedback loop (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The problem: the people doing this are powerful, and don’t care what we think. We have no say.They worship science and technology. To them, “reproducing” themselves by creating a race is better than just leaving a son or daughter – and who cares if the rest of the race is exterminated along the way? That just proves the new race – their child – is ‘better’, right?

Because, it turns out, ethics really is the line that separates a nice place to live from total nightmare…and reciprocity (the Golden Rule, aka doing unto others as you would have them do unto you) is the key to ethical behavior.

Tablets at restaurants: Applebee’s, Chili’s race to eliminate human interaction.

Score one for the machines. On Tuesday, Applebee’s announced plans to install a tablet at every table in its 1,860 restaurants across the United States. Customers will be able to use the devices to order food, pay the bill, and ignore their dining companions by playing video games.

Chili’s unveiled basically the same plan three months ago….

…The restaurants deny that the tablets represent an attempt to replace human employees with computers. Applebee’s is saying that it won’t change its staffing levels when the devices come online next year. And Chili’s is optimistic that the tablets will pay for themselves by bringing in extra revenue from impulse orders and at-the-table gaming. Not only will you not have to talk to a waiter when you want to order something, you won’t have to talk to your kids, either!

Then again, of course these businesses are saying they won’t use the tablets to replace employees. Announcing layoffs along with the tablet move would be begging for a backlash. The fact is, if the tablets work, they’ll make the ordering process more efficient and cut the amount of human labor that these restaurants require. At that point, do you suppose they’ll keep the extra waiters around out of charity?

via Slate

We like our ethics, our beliefs, our values, our philosophies – but then we want to control the outcome.

What Applebees is doing is economically rational. If people accept this as a way of doing business, it will have been the right decision. The solution to the problems presented here are solutions we as a society need to grapple with – starting with, what will we do when (not if, when) automation makes most human work obsolete?

And, no, simply passing laws to make businesses behave in an economically irrational factor is not a solution. As near as I can tell, there are only two solutions (though I’d love to learn about or figure out others): to directly subsidize – with taxpayer, not corporate, cash – the cost of hiring workers instead of machines, or to open up some new economic frontier – some new technological innovation that requires human workers, or some physical, literal new frontier, like colonizing the ocean or the moon.

Which isn’t as crazy as people like to think, given how concerned we are about overpopulation, global warming…and resources in general.

A few centuries ago, there were just a few widely used materials: wood, brick, iron, copper, gold, and silver. Today’s material diversity is astounding. A chip in your smartphone, for instance, contains 60 different elements. Our lives are so dependent on these materials that a scarcity of a handful of elements could send us back in time by decades.

If we do ever face such scarcity, what can be done? Not a lot, according to a paper published in PNAS. Thomas Graedel of Yale University and his colleagues decided to investigate the materials we rely on. They chose to restrict the analysis to metals and metalloids, which could face more critical constraints because many of them are relatively rare.

via Ars Technica.

I am just very bummed personally because I happen to like Applebees, and I have a funny feeling I won’t be enjoying their food so much now.

“Geeks for Monarchy: The Rise of the Neoreactionaries”

The Backlash gets media attention:

Many of us yearn for a return to one golden age or another. But there’s a community of bloggers taking the idea to an extreme: they want to turn the dial way back to the days before the French Revolution.

Neoreactionaries believe that while technology and capitalism have advanced humanity over the past couple centuries, democracy has actually done more harm than good. They propose a return to old-fashioned gender roles, social order and monarchy.

You may have seen them crop-up on tech hangouts like Hacker News and Less Wrong, having cryptic conversations about “Moldbug” and “the Cathedral.” And though neoreactionaries aren’t exactly rampant in the tech industry, PayPal founder Peter Thiel has voiced similar ideas, and Pax Dickinson, the former CTO of Business Insider, says he\’s been influenced by neoreactionary thought. It may be a small, minority world view, but it’s one that I think shines some light on the psyche of contemporary tech culture….

…“Reactionary” originally meant someone who opposed the French Revolution, and today the term generally refers to those who would like to return to some pre-existing state of affairs….

…Perhaps the one thing uniting all neoreactionaries is a critique of modernity that centers on opposition to democracy in all its forms. Many are former libertarians who decided that freedom and democracy were incompatible.

“Demotist systems, that is, systems ruled by the ‘People,’ such as Democracy and Communism, are predictably less financially stable than aristocratic systems,” Anissimov writes. “On average, they undergo more recessions and hold more debt. They are more susceptible to market crashes. They waste more resources. Each dollar goes further towards improving standard of living for the average person in an aristocratic system than in a Democratic one.”

Exactly what sort of monarchy they’d prefer varies. Some want something closer to theocracy, while Yarvin proposes turning nation states into corporations with the king as chief executive officer and the aristocracy as shareholders….

…Yarvin proposes that countries should be small – city states, really – and that all they should compete for citizens. “If residents don’t like their government, they can and should move,” he writes. “The design is all ‘exit,’ no ‘voice.’”

via TechCrunch.

They are ignoring the problem, of course, which is that there is nothing at all to stop abuse when citizens have no voice.

Of course, why would that bother them, anyway? They imagine themselves the kings, not the subjects – a naive thought, but then their expertise is in tech, not politics.

To be clear though, pure neoreaction is an extreme minority position that will probably never catch on beyond a tiny cult following. But there has been an explosion of interest since late 2012, despite the fact that Hoppe, Sailer, Yarvin and others have been writing about this stuff for years (and neoreaction’s European cousin archeofuturism has been around even longer). And this interest just happens to coincide with growing media attention being paid to the problems of the tech industry, from sexism in video games to “bro culture” in the tech industry to gentrification in the Bay Area.

And many professionals, rather than admit to their role in gentrification, wealth disparity and job displacement, are casting themselves as victims. This sense of persecution leads us to our next neoreactionary theme.

The Cathedral

Neoreactionaries believe “The Cathedral,” is a meta-institution that consists largely of Harvard and other Ivy League schools, The New York Times and various civil servants. Anissimov calls it a “self-organizing consensus.” Sometimes the term is used synonymously with political correctness. The fundamental idea is that the Cathedral regulates our discussions enforces a set of norms as to what sorts of ideas are acceptable and how we view history – it controls the Overton window, in other words.The name comes from Yarvin’s idea that progressivism (and in his view, even today’s far right Republicans are progressive) is a religion, and that the media-academic-civil service complex punishes “heretical” views.

So what exactly is the Cathedral stopping neoreactionaries from talking about? Well, the merits of monarchy for starters. But mostly, as far as I can tell, they want to be able to say stuff like “Asians, Jews and whites are smarter than blacks and Hispanics because genetics” without being called racist. Or at least be able to express such views without the negative consequences of being labeled racist.

Speaking of which, neoreactionaries are obsessed with a concept called “human biodiversity” (HBD) – what used to be called “scientific racism.” Specifically, they believe that IQ is one of – if not the – most important personal traits, and that it’s predominately genetic. Neoreactionaries would replace, or supplement, the “divine right” of kings and the aristocracy with the “genetic right” of elites.

To call these claims “controversial” would be putting it lightly, but they underpin much of anti-egalitarian and pro-traditionalist claims neoreactionaries make. Delving into the scientific debate over race, genetics and IQ is beyond the scope of this article, but I’ve included some links on the topic in the reading list.

It’s not hard to see why this ideology would catch-on with white male geeks. It tells them that they are the natural rulers of the world, but that they are simultaneously being oppressed by a secret religious order. And the more media attention is paid to workplace inequality, gentrification and the wealth gap, the more their bias is confirmed. And the more the neoreactionaries and techbros act out, the more the media heat they bring.

“Google Patented the ‘Heart’ Gesture and Other Fun Hand Moves”

Quick futuro-philosophical question: Will we reach a point where everything is patented?

…what kinds of gestures can even be patented?

via Motherboard.

Some things clearly belong to the public domain. Gestures, colors, human body material, folk remedies, and phrases like “put first things first” do not belong to anyone, and nobody should be able to claim legal ownership of them.

But the question of ownership is touchier than it seems. Consider the following:

The family of Henrietta Lacks is finally getting a say in how researchers can use her cells, six decades after her fatal cervical tumour spawned the HeLa cell line. There is little doubt that the controversy over the case contributed to the decision by the US National Institutes of Health to consult her relatives about the future use of her genome information (see pages 132 and 141). But people who donate samples to biomedical research today are unlikely to find out what happens to their material.

Standards of informed consent have improved since scientists established HeLa without approval from Lacks or her family. But research participants still have little control over how their tissues and data are used, and often never hear from the researchers again.

Increasingly, volunteers are asked to give ‘broad consent’ for samples and data to be used in studies that may not have been conceived at the time of donation. In exchange, donors should have the option to learn how their specimens are being used — and even to withdraw consent.

This already happens informally in some studies, but digital technologies could allow researchers to keep patients updated. Imagine the thrill of giving a sample, logging on to a secure website years later and discovering that your specimen helped to develop a skin-cancer treatment.

This continued contact with donors raises issues — not least how to ensure their anonymity. But researchers must also be honest and tell donors that privacy cannot be guaranteed, particularly for highly identifiable genomic information. Some volunteers and their families are rightly proud that they are directly contributing to research. Funders and researchers should give more of them the chance to stay involved.

via Nature

Now consider the arguments in the “comments” section:

john werneken • 2013-08-08 04:06 AM

Why were the family concerns considered worth blocking research over? I find it unbelievable that an individual would be thought to “own” their dna.

S J • 2013-08-21 08:04 PM

John, you are not actually believing what you wrote, right? Your comment must be only meant to stir controversy (or advance the debate, depending on the viewpoint). Well, if you mean owning their DNA as in owning the actual physical DNA molecules: They were synthesized by their body and are an integral part of it. I do believe they do own those. I am actually rather glad that I live in a country where my body parts belong to me and cannot be harvested without my approval even if this can be viewed as “blocking the research” by some. You are however most likely talking about the information content of one’s DNA. Since it does contain family-related private medical information and we are talking about publishing it, I believe the individuals do own the rights to that information and should have the right to chose what can be done with it. You would not think it is acceptable for your neighbor to publish online pictures of your family, despite: 1. being only a bunch of 1’s and 0’s on the hard drive of a server and not the actual individuals. 2. not being obviously offensive. 3. being captured using the light that the individuals choose to reflect in their everyday life without involving physical contact. 4. the fact it will possibly not have any consequences for the actual individuals in the photographs. 5. the fact that your neighbor thinks it is OK. Many people are just fine with posting their pictures online, but it remains a personal decision. The only difference with posting DNA data is that *you* personally can easily open a digital photograph but you would struggle reading genetic data. But the discussion is not only about your skills. I believe it is up to the Lacks family to decide if they are willing to give up a small portion of privacy for a greater good. They should of course take into account how tremendously useful this cell line has been in improving people’s lives. But ultimately, the choice to make this sacrifice should come down to them. We can only ask for that favor.

Byard Pidgeon • 2013-08-14 04:42 AM

If an individual cannot “own” their DNA, then anyone using that DNA to manufacture something should not “own” that product, either.

Robert Gertz • 2013-08-13 08:14 PM

What a disturbing comment. I’ve worked with HeLa cells and they’ve been incredibly useful but the notion that family concerns in such cases should be brushed aside?…Highly unethical to my thinking. And “unbelievable that an individual would be thought to ‘own’ their dna”? Well, if Ventor can try to patent sequences, surely the individual should be considered as having some say and stake. As for other comments hinting that the family’s concerns are either trivial or interested, financially…Every researcher can be accused of wishing to put his or her research first, in part for grand and noble reasons, but in part for career success and in the case of patenting sequences, even financial gain. I see no loss to Science in pausing to consider the rights and wishes of individuals and families in these matters. A balance of course is required but to suggest the families and individuals are not driven by motives as noble and fair as the researchers is unfair and unethical. Researchers are human…They seek fame, success, even yes, financial gain. A balance between our desires and those of the human (and animal) subjects employed in our research is vital.

via Deal done over HeLa cell line : Nature News & Comment.

The DNA in question is viewed as very useful. Do we owe our bodies to the larger community? It’s a serious question:

But the descendants of Henrietta Lacks — whose cervical tumour gave rise to HeLa cells — saw otherwise, as did other scientists and bioethicists. They have criticized the decision to publish the sequence, noting that the HeLa cell line was established without Lacks’s consent (around the time she died in 1951) and that aspects of what Steinmetz and his team have published may disclose genetic traits borne by surviving family members….

…The donors of most other human cell lines are anonymous. But in this case, “hundreds of thousands — millions of people — know that HeLa is derived from cells from Henrietta Lacks”, Clayton says. “I think that really made it at best imprudent to publish the genome of those cells on the web without talking with anybody first.”

…The HeLa controversy holds some general lessons as well, researchers say. Many cell lines propagated in labs were established without donor consent, including, possibly, some embryonic stem-cell lines….

…Applied more generally, such a claim raises important questions for genome research — such as whether family members have the right to override the wishes of individuals who choose to share their genetic data, and whether scientists are obligated to disclose a person’s genetic information, such as disease risk, to family members.

via Nature News & Comment.

Meanwhile, we don’t necessarily own our body, but Mattel owns “Barbie Pink” (because apparently that shade of pink didn’t exist before Mattel created it?)

And while we are considered criminals if we use some corporation’s intellectual property in the wrong way, they feel perfectly free to appropriate, trade, commodify, buy/sell and transfer our personal information – including our body, our facial likeness, and our thoughts – in whatever way they can, with profit as self-evident justification.

When do we prioritize individual rights, and when do our own individual rights and interests deserve protection?

We need better guidelines.

“The high cost of corruption”

As he heads to federal prison for what could be decades, one important question lingers: How much did his extortion, kickback and bribery rackets contribute to the city’s financial crisis and its filing in July for the largest municipal bankruptcy in the nation’s history?

“Kilpatrick is not the main culprit of the city’s historic bankruptcy, which is the result of larger social and economic forces at work for decades,” federal prosecutors said in court documents. “But his corrupt administration exacerbated the crisis.”

…But much more difficult to quantify is the nonmonetary cost of corruption: the betrayal of the public’s trust. The honest contractors who were elbowed out of deals, even though their bids were lower. The businesses that refused to participate in pay-to-play schemes and just stayed away — or went somewhere else.

“The numbers don’t tell the gravity of the situation,” said Reid Schar, the former federal prosecutor who successfully prosecuted former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. “When you have public corruption cases, the things that are very difficult to gauge and are not captured are, ‘How much of public confidence is eroded by what the person has done? …

“How do you put a value on a company that didn’t bid or get the job?’ You don’t know.”

In 2002, for example, Kilpatrick killed a plan to add a House of Blues restaurant at Ford Field because the company that proposed it refused to hire Kilpatrick’s father and codefendant as its minority partner. Kilpatrick had pledged $10 million in city funds but changed his mind when the company refused to hire his dad.

In 2006, Ferguson used his relationship with the mayor to pressure a company into giving him 40% of a contract to renovate the Detroit police headquarters. The company offered 30%. Ferguson declined. The company then bowed out of the deal.

In 2001, minority contractor William Hayes was stiffed out of a $24.7-million sewer repair job that Kilpatrick steered to Ferguson instead. Six years later, Hayes closed his 40-year-old excavation business, claiming later that Ferguson and Kilpatrick made it impossible for him to compete for water and sewer contracts.

“He helped put me out of business,” Hayes told the Free Press in March, referring to Ferguson. “It said right in the text messages. He told Kwame to put me out.”

Meanwhile, Kilpatrick padded the city payroll with friends and family, including a cousin who admitted stealing nearly $20,000 from the Manoogian Mansion restoration fund. City payroll records show that more than two dozen of Kilpatrick’s appointees were relatives or close friends who got an average 36% in salary increases while other employees got 2%.

via Detroit Free Press