Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Will AI Take Over the World and Destroy Humanity?

June 9, 2023

ChatGPT, an Artificial Intelligence (AI) program, was launched in November 2022. My techie nephew, as a Christmas gift, asked ChatGPT to summarize one of my blog essays, then to rebut it. The results expressed some conventional viewpoints — but with astonishingly glib articulateness.

That AI capability has captured the world’s attention. A German magazine’s purported celebrity interview proved to be an AI creation. An AI has passed the bar exam (with flying colors). If it can perform such brainwork, where will that leave humans? Some fear AI could take over the world (a TV drama, Mrs. Davis, explores that scenario) and even eliminate us. AI cognoscenti, when surveyed, rate the odds pretty low — yet uncomfortably above zero. A passel of them have called for a pause in AI development. Good luck.

The metaphor is Goethe’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, a trainee magician who enchants a broom to fetch water without knowing how to stop it. Similarly, philosopher Nick Bostrom conjures an AI told to maximize paper clip production, resulting in a world full of paper clips — and no humans. Another cautionary tale was the rogue computer HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

So how scared should we be?

The Economist magazine recently provided a helpful look at how programs like ChatGPT actually work. They’re “Large Language Models,” trained through exposure to vast amounts of verbiage from the internet. They take a chunk of language, guess what word comes next, then check their answer against the actual text. Do this a zillion times and your guesses get pretty good.

But note that this entails no understanding of the words themselves — let alone what a sentence or paragraph means. Words are converted into numbers, the guesses then guided by how often a given number appears in proximity to certain other ones. This seemingly sterile modus operandi, with enough repetitions, does enable an AI to perform remarkable linguistic feats, like composing a respectable rhyming Shakespearean sonnet on any subject you ask (or rebutting a blog essay).

But in no sense is it “figuring out” what to say. Instead it just plonks one word after another, effectively mimicking what others have said in other relevant contexts. And that, importantly, is not creativity; not thinking.

Thinking, as humans do it (including understanding words, a very complex matter) involves thinking about our thoughts, in the context of a representational model of the world that our minds create. This requires a consciousness, a sense of self. How those arise and operate remains a profoundly vexing scientific and philosophical conundrum. But they do entail self-regarding goals and desires quite different in character from any imparted to a computer program (“make paper clips”). Thus “Artificial Intelligence” may actually be a misnomer — the output simulates that of intelligence, but the methods used don’t resemble our understanding of that word.

The movie “Her” portrayed a computer program that does possess a human-like self. We call that “General Artificial Intelligence.” But it’s miles distant, toward which ChatGPT has taken us maybe an inch.

So an AI program getting it into its head to “take over the world” simply doesn’t compute for me. That would be something radically different from the mere kind of mechanistic symbol manipulation, without even comprehending the words being used, of a program like ChatGPT.

It’s true that AIs are “black boxes,” such that even one’s programmer cannot know what steps it actually takes to produce its output. That does scare some people about an AI going rogue. But even if one did somehow become a “Her,” with human-like intentionality, or a HAL, we’d still ultimately remain in control. Remember that HAL was simply unplugged.

In sum, I don’t believe we should fear such programs themselves. But their potential for misuse by malign humans is another matter entirely.

The Ministry for the Future

June 5, 2023

A recent article in The Economist addressed global warming’s effect on India and Pakistan. With discussion of “wet-bulb” temperatures, a more complex measurement of heat impact; 35 about the limit humans can endure. Heat waves in those countries inch toward that. It sounded like India and Pakistan are on the cusp of becoming literally uninhabitable.

Then I pick up Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2020 book, The Ministry for the Future. A novel — or a polemic in the guise of a novel. Starting in the very near future, with an Indian heat wave (and more wet-bulb talk), vividly chronicled through the eyes of Frank, a young aid worker at a clinic. The power’s gone out, but he’s got a generator and air conditioner. Until they’re stolen by gunmen. Frank still struggles to help save townspeople. In vain; all are among the 20 million killed by this heat wave. Frank himself survives — barely — traumatized.

The Ministry for the Future is a global agency set up to try to save civilization. But it’s not some monster bureaucracy with draconian powers. More like a glorified Greta Thunberg, to nag the world. Its head, Mary Murphy, is the book’s sort-of-hero. Its villain is “capitalism.”

There’s the usual bashing of fossil fuel industries; of course “the rich;” and “neoliberalism.” A pejorative referring to the economic consensus that widely emerged after communism and socialism seemed discredited; emphasizing free markets, globalization, free trade, and limits on government. When the word is fetishized, as here, you know where the writer is coming from politically.

Oh, and here America too is a villain. China and Russia basically good guys. Right-o.

This is a very preachy book. Pedantic, didactic, tedious. And long. Not a fun read. But a spoiler alert: the good guys win! Indeed, solving not just climate, but (practically) all the world’s other problems. Even inequality!

Some shadowy forces wage war against carbon emissions. Thus “Crash Day” when sixty planes go down. Though not quite indiscriminately — many are private jets. Container ships are being sunk. Et cetera. For Robinson, anyone contributing (heedlessly) to carbon emissions is a genocidal criminal deserving the ultimate penalty. Which he administers with relish.

Yet unlike many climate zealots, he understands the limitations of a carbon-centric approach. Even if we cut emissions to zero tomorrow, rising temperatures are already baked in. Global warming would only be moderated slightly.

“Geoengineering” is the term for actions to actually reverse the effects and cool the planet. It’s been a dirty word among climate warriors fixated on curbing emissions. One might think their real animus is not to save humanity but to punish it; to especially punish “neoliberal capitalism.” Geoengineering seen as an unwelcome distraction from that jihad.

In the book, India, after its catastrophic heat wave, goes full geoengineering — sending up planes to seed the atmosphere in mimicry of a major volcanic eruption, which does cause cooling. Mary Murphy tells India they can’t do that without international consensus. India tells Mary to stuff it.

Other concepts in the book, new to me, are pumping sea water into Antarctica’s interior where it freezes, thus offsetting sea level rises due to melting ice elsewhere; and dying the Arctic Ocean yucky yellow, to prevent heat absorption.

All these measures are portrayed favorably, as feasible and impactful, without the untoward side effects that geoengineering haters warn of. Indeed, given the climate crisis extremity in this imagined future, the word “geoengineering” loses its opprobrium, and even drops from common discourse. Now it’s just doing whatever it takes to save civilization.

Capitalism’s critics rarely have a glimmer of an alternative. Robinson at least tries. Confronting the argument that the market’s pricing and production decisions are too complex for government planners to substitute for — as the Soviet Union proved — Robinson says AI should solve that, being up to the job. Disregarding that bloodless AI lacks the entrepreneurial incentive to satisfy customers.

That’s the “greed” we keep hearing about. Another word Robinson harps on. Excessive greed can — like anything excessive — be a vice; but “greed” itself merely refers to the universal human desire for betterment for oneself and one’s family. An ineradicable thirst for wealth and status. Which has been the impetus behind betterment for everyone, all human progress. The idea of a world without “greed,” with everyone just complacently having their needs met, is actually inhuman — a world of cardboard cut-outs, not people.

Similarly, Robinson’s alternative economic model — he plays footsie with the word “socialism” — entails disallowing profit for provision of any goods or services people really need, those needs being met instead by government. Well, he talks in terms of everyone owning everything in common. But in practice that means government. Which in turn means certain people once again having inordinate power. Something you can’t get around, no matter the system.

The source of the money to finance production of all these goods and services, to be distributed with nobody making any profit, is something of a mystery. People would still be paid for working; with everyone, moreover, guaranteed a job. Old Soviet joke: “we pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.”

Robinson considers money itself a bad thing, at least as presently constituted; he sees it replaced by some sort of blockchain “people’s money” which, somehow, no one can hide or exploit for bad ends. And nobody’s allowed to have more than a limited amount.

It seems he actually foresees replacing humanity itself, as presently constituted, with a new model, free of greed, selfishness, tribalism, ignorance, every bad tendency. Required for the global New Jerusalem he envisions.

I’m no misanthrope, believing human good outweighs the bad. But you gotta grapple with the bad. Can’t just wish it all away.

Early in the book, attendees at an annual Davos gathering are locked in by some of those eco-terrorists and subjected to “re-education” via films and power-points, trying to shake their capitalist faith. They’re told that four billion people are still in poverty.* And one of the captive fat-cats rejoins that but for capitalism, it would be eight billion.

That guy was right. Robinson should listen to him.

* No longer true.

Mathematics: “Out There” in Nature, or a Human Construct?

April 30, 2023

This is an enduring conundrum. “Math,” of the 1+1=2 sort, is straightforward and obviously reflects how reality works. However, “mathematics” builds upon that to spin constructs of vast complexity.

Jim Holt’s 2018 book, When Einstein Walked With Gödel — Excursions to the Edge of Thought, frames the question: “Do the truths discovered by mathematics describe an eternal and other worldly realm of objects . . . that exist quite independently of the mathematicians who contemplate them? Or are mathematical objects actually human constructions, existing only in our minds? Or, more radically still, could it be that pure mathematics doesn’t really describe any objects at all, that it is just an elaborate game of formal symbols, played with pencil and paper?”

That might juxtapose mathematics against physics — our scientific effort to learn how reality works. And while quantum mechanics (part of physics) defies commonsense notions (and Bohr, as Holt notes, considered it merely a tool for predicting observations), most physicists do think it describes an underlying physical reality. That’s why it’s called physics! Different from mathematics.

Returning to math, start with the simple counting numbers: 1,2,3,4,5, et cetera. They readily map onto real world quantities. But add zero to the picture — which actually wasn’t done until quite late in history — and things get dicey. For example, any quantity can be divided by any other, the result reflecting something about reality. But that blows up if you try to divide by zero.

Now take the concept of prime numbers. A prime is a whole number, greater than 1, not divisible by any two other whole numbers. Thus 2,3,5,7,11,13 are primes, and so on. Though for big numbers, primeness is not so easy to discern. And primes give rise to great conceptual problems still bedeviling mathematics. For example, Riemann’s “zeta conjecture,” positing a “hidden harmony” governing where and when primes pop up in the sequence of all numbers.

But again the question — does this have any resonance in nature? Is mathematics (beyond simple counting numbers and operations) a reality that’s “out there” that we have discovered (analogous to, say, Newton’s laws of motion) or is it just a human construct, playing with numbers?

Now, it’s not as though “higher” mathematics is divorced from reality. To the contrary, we have often found that the former yields insights into the latter. Calculus, for example, is pretty advanced mathematics, and while we don’t find any of its equations per se in nature, it does help us get answers to real world problems.

Thus Holt quotes Einstein — “How can it be that mathematics, being after all a product of human thought independent of experience, is so admirably appropriate to the objects of reality?” And Holt paraphrases mathematician Edward Frankel that mathematical structures are themselves objects of reality — not mere products of human thought but, rather, existing timelessly in a platonic realm of their own, waiting to be discovered by mathematicians.

Thus, Holt suggests, mathematics has a reality transcending the human mind. The “strange patterns and correspondences” emerging from it hint “at something hidden and mysterious. Who put those patterns there? They certainly don’t seem to be of our making.”

And he similarly quotes French mathematician Alain Connes that “there exists, independently of the human mind, a raw and immutable mathematical reality” that is “far more permanent than the physical reality that surrounds us.”

This evokes Plato’s concept of “forms” existing, well, somewhere, embodying perfect realities (like perfect circles, impossible on Earth), whose mere imperfect shadows are what we encounter in our everyday existence. Connes is an extreme Platonist. And people like him actually seem to think they have some sort of intuitional access to that ethereal realm. Yet Holt sees no way our physical brains “could interact with nonphysical reality.” I would take issue with even his use of the word “reality” there.

However, Holt does also suggest no need to go as far as Connes (or Plato). We have plenty of purchase on the concept of a perfect circle, even without access to the reality of one, and we can use our logical reasoning powers to do all that’s needed. (In fact, we can make circles damn close to “perfect,” and how much does the discrepancy matter?)

Granted that mathematical truths — like, say, the Pythagorean theorem — are necessarily true regardless of anything in the actual cosmos — even if, indeed, there were no cosmos. But that kind of reality is nothing like what we mean when we speak of reality in the way physics does. A Higgs Boson is an actual physical object (even if too small for us to see).

Once more, a law of physics, like Newton’s third, describes how reality operates. Pythagoras’s describes how mathematics operates. And while the starting premises of mathematics, the counting numbers, and some facts about how they work, do similarly describe reality, human thought has gone way beyond that in constructing ginormous cathedrals of mathematical concepts that have no counterparts in physical reality.

Calling them human constructions might imply we could just as readily have constructed different ones. But off course that’s not so. They are unavoidable, given their ultimate grounding in the basic building blocks, carried to logical conclusions. So in a sense we did discover them. Yet still, such truisms exist apart from the physical reality of the universe — which is again the domain of physics.

The distinction is manifested in how our understandings of physics have led to practical real world applications — like the atom bomb. Whereas it’s hard to see how that can be so for the abstruse theorems of higher mathematics, like Riemann’s zeta conjecture. Thus the latter are ultimately “mind games.” I leave it to the reader whether to say just mind games.

Rebraining: Introducing Virtual Reality’s Quantum Leap Forward

April 19, 2023

First there was Pac-man.

Anyone remember Pac-man? A computer game where you guided a little nothing to swallow other little nothings. Big whoop. Then came Oregon Trail, where you faced pioneer challenges that could kill you (but not really, of course, you always remained in your comfy suburban bedroom). And Sims, where you could manipulate virtual people in their virtual world — though not in the actual world. And then virtual reality, making it seem like you’re in another place. And of course all those video games where you’re some fearsome warrior slaughtering foes.

Except that you know you’re still actually Wally Wussman, a weenie who works at Walmart.

But now Realityplus, Inc., has taken it to the next level.

Where all those earlier paradigms were deficient was in that Wally problem. However thrilling and immersive their created world was, your brain still knew it was just a game. Not real. Playing at killing monsters is not the same as actually killing them. A thrill of a whole different order.

Realityplus’s breakthrough has solved this. It’s not mere “gaming.” Not mere “virtual reality.” A new term is required: Rebraining.

Because it works not just by simulating the sights and sounds, etc., of the desired experience, but the actual brain events. Our brains, our minds, work by gathering incoming sensory signals and composing them into a model of reality, conformed to all our pre-existing understandings. So when you play a conventional video game, or engage with virtual reality, you do get the suite of sensory inputs, but when your brain makes sense of them, it does so, again, in the context of all your foundational background knowledge and experience. Including, of course, always remembering the fact that you’re still actually Wally who works at Walmart.

Realityplus’s new rebraining technology overrides that. It (temporarily) disables the pre-existing contents of your brain and replaces them with new ones that mesh with the different reality you’ll now experience. Note importantly that this has no “hardware” ramifications. It reprograms your neurons, rather like reprogramming a computer. And of course, when you’re ready to return to being Walmart Wally, you just reverse that reprogramming. Like “return to factory settings.”

But in the meantime you won’t be Wally anymore. You will be Thor the Giant Slayer, will be Wonder Woman, or whoever or whatever it is. The experience of being that other entity will be total. Talk about “out-of-body” experiences — this goes way beyond, it’s an out-of-self experience.

Neuroscientists, pondering how consciousness arises from material brain functioning, call that the “hard problem.” And philosophers too, long wrestling with how a sense of self actually works, may query whether your rebrained other-identity jaunts are in fact experienced by you at all. Since, after all, your own self has been sidelined — so who or what is doing the experiencing?

This issue has been field-tested with volunteer subjects. Who, debriefed after their rebrainings, universally reported the effect was as advertised: they were that other identity, experienced being it. And the experience of actually being someone else was, you might say, mind-blowing. (Concededly, this may actually have been an illusion, but some thinkers postulate that “the self” is itself an illusion.)

Warning: Users should be sure to press the “return to self” button within a reasonable time. Your actual body will still require actual food, etc.

Meantime, stand by for the coming X-rated version!

Why Trust Science?

March 26, 2023

Why Trust Science? — a book by Naomi Oreskes — was reviewed at the Albany Library by Sherrie Lyons, herself a science author.

Ours is the age of science. Yet the book’s title question seems very timely, with burgeoning distrust of things science tells us and produces. Part of a revolt against experts and elites more generally. A perverse result of greater education — making many people imagine themselves smarter than they really are — and an internet spreading information but also a ton of misinformation, often put there with bad motives. Inability to judge who to trust or distrust looms large.

Anti-science stances are not a monopoly of the right, denying realities about Covid, climate, evolution, etc. The left is not immune, with anti-vax hysteria and GMO demonization. And meanwhile “scientism” has long been a rhetorical term of opprobrium, denoting a supposed undue religion-like faith in science as an exclusive source of knowledge, an idea that’s decried.

A key point for Lyons is that scientists are not to be trusted just because they’re “scientists.” They are human, fallible, and can be biased. Rather, what’s to be trusted is science as a collective enterprise, a method for gaining knowledge.

Epistemology concerns how we know things. The reliability of knowledge has always been recognized as a problem. Only gradually, eventually, did the scientific method, as we now understand it, evolve.

Philosopher Karl Popper put falsifiability at its heart. That means subjecting a thesis to tests capable of disproving it. If no such tests are possible — or if a theory’s proponents rebuff them — then it’s not science. (Generally true regarding religious and other supernatural constructs.)

Lyons noted that actually, what qualifies as evidence in such testing can itself be problematic. She quoted science writer Henry Bauer, that all good theories start out “underdetermined” by anything that can be called facts or evidence. Nevertheless, the key is still facts and evidence being adduced by investigation and experiment, to either confirm a theory or scuttle it.

Thus science is not akin to revelation. It’s a cumulative step-by-step effort, building from observation. Not accepting dogma but always subjecting ideas to scrutiny.

Kepler was an astronomer keen to prove his theory that planets travel in perfect circles. To that end he amassed mountains of data. Whose analysis made him realize he was wrong. Thus he discovered the true laws of planetary motion (in ellipses). Now that’s science.

Lyons emphasized that answers produced by science are never final, but always to be seen as provisional, that is, subject to modification based on further evidence. And central here is the building of a consensus within a broad scientific community — strengthened by diversity within that community, an antidote to groupthink.

Still, a scientific consensus can be wrong. Lyons cited the Earth-centered Ptolemaic model of the Universe, which held sway for many centuries until a better theory — supported by observation — finally dethroned it.

But if you’re hoping a similar Copernican-style revolution will overthrow Darwinian evolution theory, don’t hold your breath. Unlike in Copernicus’s 1500s, any modern scientific consensus rests upon centuries of methodical foundation building. In fact, Darwin’s theory was not “underdetermined” by evidence, but grounded in a vast base of biological knowledge. His using that knowledge to figure out how nature actually works was one of the greatest ever achievements of human intellect. Darwinian evolution theory gets tweaked around the edges by new information, but there’s zero chance it’s fundamentally wrong.

Lyons noted the rich irony of anti-evolutionists sending in their DNA for genetic analysis. Indeed, she observed that nobody is really anti-science in toto. Everyone cheerfully partakes of all modernity’s amenities that are the product of science — monuments to the power of the scientific method. People only reject the bits that somehow conflict with what they wish were true.

“The Value of a Whale” — Capitalism and Climate

March 22, 2023

Adrienne Buller is a thirtyish British think-tanker. Her 2022 book, The Value of a Whale, is subtitled On the Illusions of Green Capitalism. Referring to tackling climate change through market-based approaches, incentivizing needed actions, as with a carbon price, carbon tax, cap-&-trade scheme, or carbon offsets, and “socially conscious” (ESG) investing, etc. All critiqued as flawed and ineffectual, no way to tackle what Buller deems an extreme crisis facing humanity.

The value of a whale was actually the subject of an International Monetary Fund study. We are of course meant to think that the very idea of putting a dollar value on a majestic living creature is crass and tacky. Thus the book’s title — embodying its ethos of prioritizing planetary health above money-grubbing “capitalism.”

True, the planet is beyond price — money is meaningless if Earth becomes uninhabitable. But that’s an extreme (and, so far at least, extremely unlikely) scenario. More realistically the question is the extent of environmental degradation and what we’d have to sacrifice to forestall it (or cope with it). Life is about tradeoffs. A choice between lower living standards and a worse environment is not obvious.

Buller notes that the IMF researchers came up with $2 million for a whale’s value, based on its contributions to eco-tourism and, mainly, carbon capture, reducing global warming. Hence they suggested investment in whale conservation, costing, she writes, “a modest $13 per person on Earth.” And this, on the first page, shows Buller’s mindset. Thirteen bucks may seem “modest” to an affluent brainy Brit. But masses of people earn less per day — or, indeed, per week. They might not be so ready to give up even one dollar for whales.

The book is full of voiced concern for the world’s poor. But they seem like an abstraction. Not flesh and blood.

“Green capitalism” Buller indicts as mostly greenwashing; just another gimmick for finance folks to make money. Surely much truth there. And she’s surely right that, by themselves, such measures won’t halt climate change. Yet so intense is her hatred for “capitalism” that she seems to reject market-based measures altogether, even as part of a larger toolkit. If climate change is such a huge menace, shouldn’t we try using every possible remedy?

Buller also doesn’t think technology can help much. For example, we’d need a lot more lithium, vital for many low-carbon technologies like electric car batteries; but she blasts lithium extraction as environmentally nasty. So she excludes that too.

Her answer instead — though she won’t plainly say it — is reducing living standards. She doesn’t face what this would actually entail for actual human beings — especially all those who’ve struggled to escape the poverty she bemoans. There’s no recognition of what she’s really asking them to sacrifice.

Even the affluent are asked to live, well, less affluently. We hear much about air flights adding to carbon emissions. But such travel has great value for us, it enhances quality of life. That’s just one example, illustrating what Buller refuses to confront. She wants people to accept poorer lives today for the sake of ones in the future whom they’ve never met. People naturally resist that. It’s the key reason why the sort of climate action she envisions is such a hard sell.

It should be imposed by force, Buller is really saying. Rejecting, again, market-based and incentivizing climate approaches, she thinks instead governments must lay down the law, requiring people to do what they can’t be induced to do voluntarily. She may be right that otherwise, we’re not biting the bullet. But nor does she bite the bullet of what she’s really advocating, in all its draconian coerciveness.

Furthermore, the left’s eternal faith in government is astonishing given how often it betrays their ideals. Buller forgets that the market-based measures she critiques are themselves government creations. Why expect government to be more brilliant imposing non-market schemes? And more fair to the poor? After all, the affluent and moneyed interests have far more influence over anything governments do. The kind of “direct regulation” Buller advocates is always vulnerable to capture by the very interests being “regulated.” Not to mention the law of unintended consequences. (My whole professional career as a government regulator gave me a healthy skepticism here.)

Like many climate warriors, Buller is also scathing toward fossil fuel producers. As though they’re villainously extracting oil and gas solely to make money, unnecessarily foisting their products upon us. She’s oblivious to the obvious: fossil fuels are extracted, sold and consumed because people need them. Yes, we should be weaning ourselves off them. But that’s a long process. In the meanwhile, stopping use of these energy sources would crash our economies and living standards. Berating oil companies for supplying needed oil is just idiotic. If tomorrow they all declared, “Greta is right! No more oil! We’re stopping now!” — it would be Mad Max time, wrecking civilization far worse than climate change.

Similarly, Buller condemns economic growth, as though it’s some sort of deranged obsession. Of course it’s true that economic growth is, ceteris paribus, bad for the environment. That’s the tradeoff we’ve always made — we could never have risen from the “nasty, brutish, and short” lives endured by our Stone Age ancestors without exploiting Earth’s resources. There’s no free lunch.

But what’s really jarring is Buller (like many left wingers) denouncing economic growth in the same breath as denouncing the lot of the world’s poor. Almost as if blaming the latter on the former. When in fact, of course, economic growth is the great poverty fighter. The powerful economic growth since WWII has converted the world from one where most people lived in extreme poverty to one where only a small fraction still do.

You’d never guess that fact from reading this book, which makes it sound like the opposite has been happening, “the rich get richer and poor get poorer.” Buller flays global financial systems and machinations as designed to suck wealth from poorer nations to richer ones. Which you might thusly think is the cause of world poverty. Never mentioned is the huge factor of lousy governance and institutions, rife with corruption and exploitation by indigenous elites, which so often afflict the poorer nations and keep them poor, with vast inequality. Nigeria, South Africa, and Zimbabwe jump to mind; there are plenty of others. It’s surely those countries themselves (not Buller’s first-world capitalist whipping-boys) bearing the most blame for their stunted economic picture.

It is true that the fruits of economic growth do not equally benefit all people, the richest doing best. But there is no conceivable economic system in which some people won’t do better than others. That would mean the rich getting richer and the poor poorer — absent economic growth. But with economic growth, even while the rich get richer, the poor can too. Because there’s more wealth to go around, so the poor can get a share, even if it’s not a fully equal share. That’s how poverty is reduced.

Buller types seem to think, instead, that the answer is to just take wealth from the rich and redistribute it to the poor. In fact, taxation does that to a degree. But good luck if there’s a no-growth zero-sum world where everyone is fighting over slices of a static (or shrinking) pie, so nobody can gain without someone else losing. And as world population rises (until, with birth rates falling, it levels off and eventually declines), economic growth will be necessary just to maintain current living standards. Opposing economic growth means favoring mass impoverishment.

And what produces economic growth? Not socialism. Global average real dollar incomes have risen something like sixfold since WWII, with again a massive poverty reduction and improved living standards. This gain has been concentrated in nations participating in a globalized, (relatively) free-trading, market economy, where people can improve their own lot by producing goods and services others need or want. Not a zero-sum world. “Capitalism,” if you will. (Marx’s biggest error was failing to foresee how capitalism would, rather than grinding the masses into deeper poverty, produce mass affluence.)

Yet distaste for capitalism, once more, pervades this book, for all its lamentation that some people are still poor. And of course, as with all indictments of capitalism’s evil, you will search in vain for any glimmer of an alternative system that would similarly make the masses richer rather than poorer. In fact, Buller does seem to endorse impoverishment, fatuously mooning about how life could actually be better, somehow, if we all decided to be satisfied with less.

Tell that to the world’s poor she keeps gnashing her teeth about. If governments did, as she seems to advocate, impose lower living standards, she’d be the first to lament that the rich would find ways to cope and thrive in that Brave New World, while the poor as usual get the short end of the stick.

Anyhow, there’s no attempt whatever to sketch out what her imagined “better” world would look like. Nor how we could conceivably get from here to there. But none of this deters her from demanding “bold changes,” positing “boundless possibility for things to be different.” Ah, the idealism of youth!

By the way, Buller types never seem to grasp that most people in the world earn their livings, and living standards, by working to produce stuff other people need or want. If we all did decide to cut back on “consumerism” and make do with less, a lot of people’s jobs would disappear. They in turn would be forced to cut back and spend less too. Eliminating yet more jobs. Economic growth gone savagely into reverse. A Brave New World indeed.

Meantime — yes! — climate change is a huge threat. And, at this point, rising temperature is baked in, there is no way we can avert some very severe harmful effects. No conceivable amount of emissions reduction can do the job — another reality this book refuses to acknowledge. So while it’s true that “green capitalism” won’t do it, the book’s own approach of imposing extreme governmental action and poorer lives won’t do it either. That too is an illusion. (Even aside from the question of whether voters in democracies would stand for it.)

Dealing with the now-unavoidable effects of climate change will require a lot of resources. Resources that economic growth can provide. If we really want to save ourselves (and especially the poorest), we’d better grow our economies as much as possible.

Why You Can’t Trust Your Brain

February 11, 2023

I heard a talk by Dr. Caleb Lack, a clinical psychologist and author. His topic: Why You Can’t Trust Your Brain.

Well, whose brain can you trust? Actually, the brain is an extremely complex organ, with 86 billion neurons (give or take maybe a dozen), and 100 trillion connections. But it’s easily fooled — by itself.

Dr. Lack said “doubting yourself” has negative connotations, but it’s the hallmark of an enlightened mind. Being a critical thinker and skeptic is hard to actually do. The problem is the human brain being “logically illogical.” That is, there are reasons why it does what it does, programmed by evolution.

Two key factors are cognitive biases — predictable patterns of judgment — and mental heuristics — shortcuts or general rules of thumb to decrease effort in decision-making. These tend to oversimplify reality and cause systematic decisional errors. But they are not all bad. We don’t always make bad decisions. In fact, there’s a “less is more” effect — folding too many factors into a decision may impede a positive outcome. And we can never have access to all the information, and must act on what we do have. That means “good enough” decision making. As opposed to investing too much effort in a decision. That’s why we did develop these seeming cognitive quirks — they are actually adaptive in balancing between effort and result.

I myself have come to believe that agonizing over a decision and trying to carefully weigh factors does not tend to improve upon one’s initial gut reaction. Indeed, there’s a lot going on, in the unconscious, to produce that first gut response. (I think I have an excellent gut. A certain president relied entirely on his gut, but the problem was that his gut was a snakepit of pathological bilge.)

Dr. Lack focused on two related metal biases: confirmation bias and belief perseverance. The former is the tendency to welcome information confirming already held beliefs or ideas. Such information sticks in memory, and we discount any problems undermining it. Whereas information at odds with one’s belief is discounted, nitpicked, and soon forgotten. The more emotionally charged a belief is, the more deeply held, the more confirmation bias applies. This is why we developed the scientific method, whose raison d’être is subjecting hypotheses to attempts to disprove them.

Belief perseverance is the related tendency to stick with an initial belief despite disconfirming information. Which actually causes people to “dig in.” That’s why it’s generally useless to argue with persons adhering to a certain political party or personage. Not to mention religious believers.

Dr. Lack spoke about three manifestations of belief perseverance. One concerns self-impressions, beliefs we hold about ourselves. Another he called “social impressions,” beliefs about other groups of people — like, oh, I don’t know, maybe certain ethnicities. The third is “naive theories” about how the world works. As an example he gave the Sun appearing to move around the Earth. Though many of us have gotten wise to this.

He also spoke about illusory correlations — seeing relationships between things not actually connected. The word pareidolia applies to interpreting random stimuli as being something particular. An example was the “face on Mars,” a geographical feature which, photographed in certain light, looked like a human face. We are in fact especially apt to see faces everywhere, a biological adaptation, because interacting with other people is so important for our thriving. More generally, we are subject to patternicity, seeing all sorts of patterns where they don’t exist. Also adaptive: you’re better off wrongly seeing a bunch of pixels as a predator than making the reverse mistake. And agenticity is when you see patterns as having a cause. Like a deity. These cognitive quirks are big reasons why we have religion.

Another example Lack discussed was a ’70s and ’80s idea that Rock music had “backmasking” — Satanic messages when played backwards. Lack played an example. He deemed it pretty far fetched to imagine musicians actually managing this trick — or anyone being influenced by messages almost impossible to perceive.

A final phenomenon he spoke about was priming — the influence of “implicit nonconscious memory” — stimuli in one context affecting behavior in another. He displayed a woman’s face. Then an image which could be seen as either a saxophone player or a woman’s face. Having been primed by the first image to see a woman’s face, that’s what we saw in the second.

Dr. Lack concluded by saying we can’t rid ourselves of cognitive biases but can decrease their effects. One must examine one’s own beliefs, and use tools like the scientific method. And humility, he said, is crucial to critical thinking.

UFO Abductions and America’s Reality Crisis

January 23, 2023

People on America’s right are in thorough reality denial. Headlined of course by the 2020 “stolen election” lie. False beliefs about Covid and vaccines cost many lives, perhaps hundreds of thousands. There’s much more. And the left is not immune.

How do we know what’s true? (This is called epistemology.)

At a recent social gathering of humanist friends — ordinarily a respite from all the craziness out there — one very intelligent guy, author of numerous published books (and a man of the left), brought up a UFO abduction story. In 1989, a woman was wafted out of a 12th floor New York apartment window, escorted by aliens — witnessed by a whole motorcade in the street below, including a UN Secretary-General.

The woman returned to tell her tale. She was abducted multiple times; other family members were abducted too. Leading my friend to suggest the aliens must be keeping tabs on them. He displayed a book, Witnessed, by Budd Hopkins, documenting all this.

Wow. How could a skeptic like me respond to these seemingly verified facts?

Occam’s (or Ockham’s) razor, also known as the principle of parsimony, says that to explain any phenomenon, the simplest, least complex answer is most likely.

Here, there are two basic possibilities:

1) The book’s story is true, however mind-blowing and confounding of one’s prior understandings; or

2) It’s simply untrue.

Number 2 is overwhelmingly more probable. People make stuff up all the time; lie; get things wrong; or experience delusions. That amply explains all alien abduction reports; none has ever been proven true.

Later, quick googling produced a lengthy point-by-point debunking of Hopkins’s narrative, indicating that it too never happened. Including the supposed UN chief’s testimony.

My friend, unfazed, disparaged my “methodology” with talk about primary versus secondary sources. Well, “primary sources” can lie. It’s vastly more plausible that this abduction story was a product of human confabulation. Tellingly, people in our group were puzzled that they’d never before heard about this event. Which would have shaken the world — if real.

Religious folks deem the Bible an authoritative primary source — with the ultimate credible author. “Budd Hopkins said it; I believe it; that settles it??” I noticed that most reviewers on Amazon gave Hopkins’s book high marks — yet most were unpersuaded by its tall tale.

And which is more plausible? (1) That the 2020 election was stolen, despite Biden’s margin being 7 million; Republicans participated everywhere in overseeing elections; voters had ample reasons to reject Trump; his 60 lawsuits all went nowhere; not a single Biden ballot was proven fraudulent; indeed, the Republican-orchestrated Arizona audit raised Biden’s vote total —

OR (2) That Trump, the biggest liar in political history, simply lied because his sick psyche could not face the humiliation of losing.

Most Republicans go with #1.

And which is more plausible? (1) Most other people are nuts, or (2) I am.

Evolutionarily, the human brain was our “killer app” enabling our species to survive and prosper. Essential to that app is the ability to perceive reality. An early human who could perceive a lion lurking in the bushes had a survival advantage, and got to pass along his genes.

Moreover, to think there’s a lion and be wrong was better than the reverse. The former mistake carried a small penalty; the latter, a huge one. So humans grew very good at seeing lions even where there are none. This explains a lot of our epistemological problems. Why we are so prone to believe election lies, UFO abduction tales, conspiracy theories, and other ridiculous things. Those are lions that aren’t there.

But our evolution-derived brain software still actually serves us extremely well. We’re still very good at seeing real lions — that is, facts about reality that affect our lives. Without that, we could not even function on a day-to-day basis (especially given modern life’s complexities compared to what our distant forebears faced). We certainly could not, for example, drive cars; without a very firm grasp of realities on the roads, you’d quickly be dead.

But matters like election lies and UFOs are different. False beliefs about them seem to carry no real-life consequences. They are perceptual freebies — we can relax our guard, indulge ourselves, and believe the wildest conspiracy theories, seemingly with no cost.

Though there was a cost for many Covid conspiracy believers. That’s one indicator that our indulgence for seeming belief freebies has gotten way out of hand. And even where such false beliefs ostensibly carry no penalty for the individual holding them, for society at large they do. We are, intellectually and cognitively, drowning in a flood of nonsense. How can we be responsible citizens, members of communities, under such conditions? True understanding of the world, of reality, is essential. Furthermore, Trump’s stolen election lie, and others, have very grave consequences for our democracy, undermining trust in our institutions, setting us against each other, tearing apart our social fabric itself.

That’s a lion in the bushes too few see.

An Artificial Intelligence Rebuts Me!

December 30, 2022

I’ve been rebutted by an Artificial Intelligence bot.

My nephew, Ben Broderick Phillips, works for Microsoft, with Artificial Intelligence (AI) within his wheelhouse. For Christmas, he fed one of my recent blog posts — “Ai Weiwei and Bono on Art and Capitalism”* — to an AI program (“ChatGPT”), asking it for a summary, and then a rebuttal. (Note the synchrony between the name “Ai” and AI.)

The AI was operating not just on my blog post’s bare words, but bringing into play a ton of information it had previously been fed about the world, presumably including many other polemics. That is the kind of “deep learning” making AI powerful.

So, here is its summary:

“This blog post discusses Ai Weiwei’s critique of capitalism in the art world as expressed in an essay he wrote for The Economist. The author of the blog post disputes Ai Weiwei’s assertion that contemporary art is primarily focused on entertainment and wealth accumulation, rather than addressing important social and political issues. The author also discusses Bono’s belief that capitalism is the solution to poverty and asserts that it is the default mode for human interactions. The blog post suggests that while capitalism has contributed to economic growth and the lifting of some out of poverty, it is not the only solution and can often perpetuate or exacerbate inequality and exploitation. It is important to consider alternative economic systems and how they might better serve the needs and interests of artists and the broader society.”

It’s quite well written — better, I daresay, than most humans would do, reading smoothly, intelligently and concisely. I think it passes the “Turing test” — Alan Turing (1912-54), the Brit who really invented the modern concept of the computer, posited one whose answers to questions would convince a human interlocutor that he’s talking to another human.

The first three of the AI’s five sentences are spot-on, recapping what I wrote. However, the last two sentences strangely detour, reading like something the AI might imagine the blogger saying, but it’s not what I actually said. (Maybe a tribute to my independent thinking.)

The AI’s rebuttal is rather longer, six paragraphs. (Interestingly, I’m told the AI initially produced only the first two, and added more on further prompting.) Here’s the full text:

“Ai Weiwei’s critique of capitalism in the art world is not unfounded. While it is true that art has always been a means of expression and personal development, it is also a reflection of the society in which it exists. In a capitalist society, it is not uncommon for the commercialization and commodification of art to take precedence over its intrinsic value. This often leads to the neglect of important social and political issues in favor of wealth accumulation.

“It is not fair to say that all contemporary art is solely focused on entertainment and detached from spiritual life. Many artists, including Ai Weiwei, use their work to address important issues and bring attention to injustices. However, it is important to recognize that the capitalist structure of the art world can often hinder the ability of artists to fully explore these issues and have their work recognized and valued. It is also worth considering alternative economic systems and how they might impact the art world. While capitalism has certainly led to economic growth and the lifting of some out of poverty, it has also contributed to inequality and exploitation. It is important to consider the ways in which different economic systems might enable artists to more fully express themselves and address important issues without the constraints of capitalist values.

“Furthermore, it is not fair to dismiss Ai Weiwei’s critique of capitalism in the art world as simply self-promotion. While it is true that he is an artist who addresses important social and political issues in his work, it does not necessarily follow that his critique is motivated solely by self-interest.

“In addition, Bono’s assertion that “commerce” and “entrepreneurial capitalism” are the only ways to lift people out of poverty is reductionist and ignores the complex factors that contribute to poverty. While economic growth can certainly play a role in reducing poverty, it is not the only solution and can often perpetuate or exacerbate inequality and exploitation.

It is important to recognize that the art world, like any other industry, is shaped by the economic and political systems in which it exists. By acknowledging the ways in which capitalism can impact the art world, we can better understand and address its limitations and explore alternative systems that might better serve the needs and interests of artists and the broader society.

“Additionally, it is important to recognize that the art world is not a monolithic entity and the experiences of different artists will vary. While some may find success and financial stability within the capitalist system, others may struggle to have their work recognized and valued. It is important to consider the ways in which the capitalist structure of the art world may disproportionately impact marginalized artists and communities.

“In conclusion, Ai Weiwei’s critique of capitalism in the art world is not without merit and it is important to consider the ways in which the economic and political systems in which we live shape the art world and the experiences of artists. While capitalism has certainly contributed to economic growth and the lifting of some out of poverty, it is not the only solution and can often perpetuate or exacerbate inequality and exploitation. It is important to consider alternative economic systems and how they might better serve the needs and interests of artists and the broader society.”

[End of rebuttal]

Note first that this essay does not (like the summary did) miscast what I said — it’s indeed a pointed response to it. It may be a bit repetitive; and a trifle wooden; yet a fairly coherent, even glib essay, sounding judicious, reasonable, and persuasive. (Its talk of alternatives to capitalism is facile — as my blog post said, capitalism’s critics never really offer a workable alternative.)

Thus the rebuttal demonstrates the benefit of all the AI’s prior deep learning — spitting out a point of view that actually mirrors what a lot of people might think in response to my blog post. If most would not be able to express it so nicely!

This shows the huge power of AI, how far it has come. Prompting, at our holiday gathering, some discussion of uses for it — someone mentioned writing grant proposals. But the potential is far vaster. How many human jobs can be done — and done better — by AI? Another example: we already know AI does better than human doctors at making diagnoses from X-rays. The world of the future is going to be very different.

The question arises — when does AI become conscious? It’s hard to avoid thinking (what does that word really mean?) that the AI that rebutted my blog is, on some elusive level, sentient.

Futurist Ray Kurzweil has foreseen a “singularity” when machines become smarter than people, and thereafter propel their own further enhancement. Leaving us in the dust? In my seminal 2013 Humanist magazine article — The Human Future: Upgrade or Replacement?** — I envisioned a convergence between biological and non-biological aspects of humanity.



What Does Ancestry Mean?

December 7, 2022

My wife was intrigued by a statistician’s writing that if you go back 3400 years, we’re all related. Not actually surprising if you think about it. After all, you’ve got two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents . . . that’s exponential progression and it’s mathematically powerful.

My previous partner’s nine-times-great-grandfather was Roger Williams (founder of Rhode Island). But she had a lot of forebears in that generation — over 2,000. Go back twenty generations and it’s over a million. That’s only around 500 years. Go back a few centuries more and the number of your ancestors exceeds the entire human population.*

How could that be?

Family trees are not rigid lineages separated from each other. To the contrary, they are all tangled together. Your ancestors were of course not yours alone, but the ancestors of countless other people. And those long-ago ancestors with innumerable modern descendants likewise share those descendants with similarly huge numbers of other forebears.

That suggests you are indeed related to every other human being; a cousin many times removed.

But you may have to go pretty far back for that link. Because while our lineages are tangled together, it’s not random, there is a lot of segregation, notably geographic, among genealogies.

Though there has of course been mixing of disparate segments of humanity, for most of history people in a given geographic locale had limited opportunities for mating with foreigners. So someone like me, with European Jewish ancestry, might have a hard time finding a common ancestor with a Bornean. Yet on the other hand, with each of us having millions of ancestors, a single match is not implausible.

Humanity’s more distant antecedents also show our relatedness. There were many different “homo” species, but all except one went extinct. And the environmental challenges that defeated all those others nearly did us in too. Apparently at some point there was a “bottleneck” that only a very small group managed to scrape through — ancestors of all modern humans. In fact, scientific DNA analysis suggests we may all have descended from a single woman in that band. Her name was Eve.

Going back further, our closest related species is the chimpanzee, with whom we shared a common ancestor around six million years ago. Our DNA is 99% identical to chimp DNA. Among all humans DNA is 99.9% the same.

We are in fact related to every other living thing. Mouse DNA is around 90% identical to ours. Go back to your millions-of-times-great-grandpa and he’s a fish.

DNA tests give ethnicity percentages. For American Blacks, there’s typically a high percentage of West African, but also a significant percentage of northern European. For obvious reasons. I never did a test because I’m pretty sure it would come back almost 100% Ashkenazi Jewish. I’d be shocked if it said something like 12% Cherokee. Though again, somewhere along the line, some other DNA might have crept in there.

My wife’s forebears all came from Ireland. But she queries what it really means to say she’s “Irish.” Questioning whether there’s really any such thing, given Viking incursions and so forth, and again that all our DNA is 99.9% the same anyway. But calling someone “Irish” can mean merely that their not-too-distant forebears were born there.

As to that 99.9% human DNA identicality — the variations within any human subgroup (like “Blacks”) actually outstrip variations between such groups. Yet DNA — which is a string of many thousands of molecules of which there are just four variants, labelled A, C, T and G — does contain sequences which can be identified as unique to particular subgroups.

Thus if I am (mostly) genetically Ashkenazi, that’s a biological difference from a person who has little or no Ashkenazi DNA. Likewise for someone “Irish.” But it’s very important to say that it’s entirely up to us what significance, if any, we place on such differences. Perhaps the answer should be “very little,” given again the 99.9%.

But human life is not that simple, and maybe an even better option is to make the differences something positive. Culture is more important than biology. It’s the cultural differences that really matter; and we can embrace, even celebrate, our human cultural diversity, enriching and strengthening us. That’s how I see America.

I call myself an American rather than a Jew. I don’t follow the Jewish religion, nor even see myself as part of the related culture. Rather, always steeped in history, I see myself as embedded in the great global human project, as my prime source of meaning. And yet my particular ancestry does have a part of that meaning. I’m mindful how it fits in the bigger picture and illuminates it. And how it shaped my own life. For my grandparents and mother in Nazi Germany, Jewish identity was not something they could set aside.

* At 100 generations — before you even hit the 3400 year mark — the number would contain 31 digits.