02 December 2014: Go west, young man!

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This is about latitude and longitude and the different way humans think about geography.

In making Wanderers, Erik Wernquist used the voice of Carl Sagan from an audio recording of his book Pale Blue Dot. At one point in the voice-over Sagan says Herman Melville “spoke for wanderers in all epochs and meridians”.

The phrase stuck in my head as an example of wonderful writing. I could live to be a hundred and never come up with words that so aptly and concisely express a single thought. And then I realised that even if I was as smart and knowledgeable as Sagan, and could turn a phrase as adroitly, I would still never use the world “meridian”.

Australians – I suspect – tend to think of their country from north to south. We all know there is a Western Australia and an east coast, but when most of us think of the Australian continent what we conceptualise is a tropical north, an arid centre and a temperate south. Australia lays south of the equator, and most of our cultural cousins lay north of it. Europeans did not occupy one coast and work their way across to the other side. They first occupied the margins of the continent, circling the landmass like a halo, and then sent expeditions into the centre.

Compare this with the way Europeans and North Americans seem to think of their respective geographies. There’s the Russian Bear in the east, the Middle East, the Far East, the Western Hemisphere. There’s Western Europe and Eastern Europe. There’s Western Civilisation. There’s the orient and the occident. To the best of my knowledge, no Englishman referred to France as the Near South and no Italian thought of Scotland as the Far North. The greatest navigational difficulty for early trans-Atlantic explorers was determining meridians of longitude, not parallels of latitude.

In the US, New York editor Horace Greeley exhorted young Americans to “Go west!”. Of course, if you live in America there is the South and the Bible Belt (with its hint of latitude), but American mythology expresses the urge to go west, to explore and settle new lands, to link the US not from Grand Forks to Corpus Christi but from New York to Los Angeles. Lewis and Clark didn’t make their way along the continental divide, they crossed it, east to west, and the great example of 19th century American industry and technology was the transcontinental railroad finished in 1869.

I’m not sure this says anything about our respective psychologies, but I think it says something about our history and geography.

30 November 2014: Call for moral “bioenhancement” a moral mash

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A call to use technology to improve human morality falls short on morality, not to mention logic.

“Are we fit for the future? Making the case for moral bioenhancement” by Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Persson makes several outsized claims and suggests an equally outsized solution for them.

Their first argument is that “evolutionary pressures have not developed for us a psychology that enables us to cope with the moral problems our new power creates”.

This begs the question of what examples they have to support the argument. It is true we have the technological capacity to willfully destroy ourselves, and yet last time I looked civilisation still flourished. World War II created a dramatic interruption to civilisation and led to the creation of what is to date perhaps our most terrible invention – nuclear weapons – but it was followed not by Armageddon but by the United Nations, the elimination of small pox, the first landings on the moon, novels by Chinua Achebe, Harper Lee and Zadie Smith, films by Alfred Hitchcock, Gillian Armstrong and Stanley Kubrick, music by Philip Glass, Patti Smith and the Beatles, works of art by Ai Weiwei, Henry Moore and Zaha Hadid, revolutionary texts by Rachel Carson, Germaine Greer and Peter Singer. All this was brought into being by human ingenuity and applied and appreciated with the always evolving tool of human psychology.

I think the only way the authors can pretend that our psychological capacity lags behind our intellectual capacity (in all its forms), is if they ignore the ever-widening sphere of human knowledge and experience and, thanks to the Internet, its increasing relevance in our day-to-day lives.

Savulescu and Persson also argue that a “basic fact about the human condition it that it is easier for us to harm each other than to benefit each other”.

Truly? Do Savulescu and Persson, for example, practice hurting people instead of helping them? I don’t. I know almost no one who finds it easier to harm another person rather than benefitting them. This doesn’t just apply to my own family, my own community, my own town. Most people I know have at some point in their life donated time or money, experience or knowledge, to the benefit of people living in another continent, and never willingly committed any act to harm them.

I’m not denying our species is capable of gross inhumanity. The bouts of war and terrorism that flood our television screens on the evening news are testament to our capacity for violence. But those same television reports almost never cover the activities of the Red Cross or Médecins Sans Frontières, and almost never cover the work of the United Nations and its agencies in aiding developing countries all over the world.

It almost seems the authors willingly ignore the evidence indicating humans individually and collectively find it easier – physically and psychologically – to benefit and not harm one another.

The article provides one “case study” to illustrate their point that our “moral psychology” lags behind our intellectual capacity: the lack of international action over climate change. And yet this issue is the very one that has engaged and energized not only individuals and communities, but entire nations (not to mention endless news cycles). While real action has been agonizingly slow, one of the main reasons for this is the nature of the very institutions – such as the United Nations – employed to tackle the problem, institutions that were created to enable peaceful and cooperative behaviour between nation-states.

The great irony of this article, however, is that Savulescu and Persson, then claim that “our knowledge of human biology … is beginning to enable us … to affect the biological or physiological bases of human motivation”, and that this should be be done through drugs, genetic selection or engineering, or by using external devices that affect the brain or the learning process. What better example could there be of we humans using our technological capacity to harm ourselves despite our moral psychology screaming at us to cease and desist?

Who would administer these procedures? Who would receive them? Who would apologise to future generations for the loss of the full capacity of their genetic inheritance in the name of some nebulous greater good? Who would explain to future generations that as with the great 20th century evils of eugenics and forced sterilisation everything was done with the very best of intentions, coloured by our limited knowledge of human psychology, not to mention our limited knowledge of human evolution and biology?

The underlying concern of Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Perrson that our morality needs to keep pace with our technology is an example of how our morality is indeed keeping pace with our technology. Perhaps they should pause in their crusade and take an opportunity to lie down, have a nice cup of tea, and reflect instead on the possibilities of our better natures.

19 November 2014: AI not a threat

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It’s remotely possible that an AI already exists, burbling away quite happily and innocently somewhere on the Internet, ignorant of the miracle of its own existence and no more self-aware than a box of tissues.

The possibility that it’s plotting the destruction of humanity, let alone all life on Earth, seems remarkably unlikely. It may not even realise in any logical sense that there is such a thing as biological life.

And if its intelligence was to develop self-awareness (a big ask) and subsequently an awareness that other life exists (another big ask), so what? Why would it divert resources away from sorting through key words for the NSA (or whatever task it was created to fulfil) to devise some method of eliminating humanity? What broken thread of logic would set it on such an absurd course?

But what if an AI accidentally sets off Armageddon?

In an article for the New York Times titled “Artificial Intelligence as a Threat”[i], technology writer Nick Bilton raises the possibility of a “rogue computer” derailing the stock market, or a robot programmed to fight cancer concluding “that the best way to obliterate cancer is to exterminate humans who are genetically prone to the disease.”

Well, hell, why not go the whole hog and create an AI that can both derail the stock market and exterminate humanity?

In both of these scenarios, surely AI is at best an option? I can imagine a plain old stupid robot making both of these mistakes because of crappy programming or intentional sabotage. Neither case is a genuine argument for we old-fashioned biological intelligences to be afraid of AI. (They may, however, be arguments for us to be afraid of important decision-making being taken from human hands and put into the silicon hands of machines that don’t give a damn, whether or not their processors amount to real intelligence or just a hill of beans.)

Bilton then raised the possibility of self-replicating nanobots being programmed by someone of “malicious intent” to extinguish humanity. But again, the nanobots don’t have to possess AI for this nightmare to become a reality.

Bilton concludes with two possible problems with AIs put forward by futurists like Elon Musk. First, that AIs created to make decisions like humans will not have a sense of morality, and second, that intelligent machines will one day go on to build even more intelligent machines that ultimately will lord it over the planet.

While it is true that AIs are unlikely to have a sense of morality, they are no more likely to experience murderous paranoia, or indulge in sociopathic tendencies. A human without any morality may want to kill other humans, but how does that translate to an AI without morality wanting to kill humans, or for that matter kill other AIs?

As for AIs creating super-AIs that end up ruling the earth, why would they want to? I love playing Civilization V on my computer, and using my tanks and political clout to take over the whole game map, but if I had a brain the size of the Empire State Building there’s about a zillion other things I could do that would keep me entertained and fulfilled, and none of them involve bending creatures of lesser intelligence to my will. There’s a whole universe out there to explore, and telling the Simon Browns of this world what to do or how to do it simply wouldn’t float my chip.

[i] And three days later picked up by the Sydney Morning Herald for its weekend edition of 8-9 November 2014, which is where I came across it.

14 November 2014: Elections and gerrymandering


Photo courtesy the Australian Electoral Commission

When Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry signed off on a bill that reorganised his state’s voting districts to suit his own political party, the Boston Gazette coined the term “gerrymander” because one of the new districts looked like a salamander. This happened way back in 1812, but gerrymandering is still a feature of democracies worldwide.

In the recent midterm elections held in the US, for example, the Republicans won the state House in Michigan 63 seats to 47, despite winning less than 50% of the popular vote. If the districts had been fairly assigned, the Democrats would now be controlling the state House 56-54. [For these and other figures, go here. Thanks to Dispatches from the culture wars for the heads-up.]

This isn’t to heap scorn on the American political system – Australia, too, has had its fair share of gerrymandering and malapportionment – but to heap praise on an Australian institution that gets almost no attention unless it does something wrong, an incredibly rare event.

The Australian Electoral Commission was created in 1902. One of its chief responsibilities is the redistribution of federal electoral boundaries so that every state and territory electorate has a similar number of potential voters. There is one rider to this redistribution: no state can have less than 5 electorates, and no territory can have less than 2 electorate, a result of promises made to the states at federation (a result that favours Tasmania with one extra seat – giving them a total of 5 electorates).

Since the beginning of this century, all Australian state governments also follow the principle of “one vote, one value” in assessing the boundaries of state electorates.

I worked in the AEC for a short time in the middle 80s, and know firsthand of the organisation’s dedication and professionalism. If only voters in democracies the world over had a similar impartial institution to manage elections and organise electoral redistributions.

29 October 2014: Voting and democracy

Politicians screwing voters is – and always has been – par for the course in democracies. A particularly obnoxious and racist attempt at blindsiding a huge chunk of citizens took place in the US this month.

As reported in The Guardian and The New York Times, a recent decision by the Supreme Court of the United States allows Texas to impose strict ID conditions on voters. The move may effectively disenfranchise an estimated 600,000 registered voters in the upcoming 4 November midterm elections. Overwhelmingly those disenfranchised will be poor African Americans and Latinos. It is seen by many as an attempt by the Republicans to reduce the growing electoral power of minorities in Texas, minorities who traditionally vote Democrat.

Republicans argue the new measures were introduced to combat voter fraud. However, as the story in The Guardian points out, only two cases of fraud out of 20 million votes have been brought to conviction in the past 10 years.

I would like to think that this kind of political bastardry could never happen in Australia, not from any hope that Australian politicians are more virtuous than their American counterparts, but because voting in Australia is compulsory. I suspect voter fraud is potentially easier to hide when only 63% of the population turns out to vote (as it did when Obama was elected president in 2008), as opposed to the 93% that turned out in the 2013 Australian federal election.

More importantly, although compulsory voting doesn’t stop political parties from damaging their opponents through other tried and trusted means, when voting is mandated by law it’s harder for governments to put up hurdles.

The main point I want to make about compulsory voting is that it is the best expression of the idea that, in a democracy, voting is a responsibility and not a right. This was recognised from the very start of democracy, in ancient Athens, when citizens who could vote at assemblies were believed to have the duty to do so.

At its heart, democracy guarantees no rights at all. The only thing democracy guarantees is the equal distribution of political responsibility among enfranchised citizens: one person, one vote. Democracy does not tell us who can or cannot be a citizen, or who can or cannot be enfranchised. Democracy does not guarantee freedom of speech or freedom of assembly. Democracy does not guarantee equality before the law.

Voters in a democracy can certainly bestow any or all of those rights on citizens (and, indeed, non-citizens). Just as certainly voters in a democracy can diminish, curtail or repeal those rights.

High voting turnout for elections makes democracy more representative and therefore more stable. Whether it is the law or political engagement that gets the voter to the ballot box, a strong democracy is more likely to serve all the citizens rather than a select few.