Archive for August, 2016

They’re Taking Over!

August 31, 2016 Leave a comment

As an IT professional and technology enthusiast I generally feel quite positive about advances where computers become better than humans at yet another thing. Many people thought that a computer would never beat a human at chess, but now it is accepted that computers will always be better. When our silicon creations beat us at chess we moved on to another, more complex, game, Go. But now computers have beaten the world champion at that too. And in the process made a move that an expert described as “beautiful and mysterious”.

So what’s next? Well how about one of the most esteemed jobs in our society and one which most people, who don’t really understand what is going on, might say would be the last that a mere machine could tackle. I’m talking about law, and even the top tier of the legal profession: being a judge.

Before I start on that I would like to make an important distinction between the approach to the two games above: Chess and Go. Most computers solve Chess problems by using brute force, that is considering millions of possible moves and counter-moves and taking the move that leads to the best outcome. But that wasn’t practical for Go so the program instead learns how to play by playing against other players and against itself. It really could be said to be learning like a human would and that is the approach future AI will probably use.

An experiment was done in the UK which replicated court cases and compared the AI’s decision with a judge’s. The computer agreed with the judge in 31 out of the 32 cases – maybe the judge got the last case wrong!

Computers do well evaluating complex and technical areas such as international trade dispute law, but are also useful for more common laws, such as divorce and child custody. Plus computers are much better and faster at doing the research tasks that law firms currently use legal professionals for. Another highly rated job that won’t exist much longer maybe?

An expert has stated that creating a computer system that can answer all legal questions is easy, but getting that system used in most societies (which might be quite resistant to change) is the difficult part!

I find the idea of replacing lawyers and judges with computers quite appealing for a few reasons. First, traditionally it has been poorly paid manual workers who have been at threat of being replaced so it is nice to see society’s elite aren’t immune. Second, there are so many cases of terrible decisions being made by judges that having an unbiased computer do the work instead seems like a potentially good idea. And third, if highly rate jobs like these can be replaced then the idea of replacing other jobs becomes easier (the medical profession will be next).

It all sounds quite exciting, as long as you can get over the rather obsolete idea that all humans should exist just to work. But there are a few more unsettling possibilities which are also being tested now. One is to predict whether people convicted of crimes are likely to re-offend in future. There are already claims that this system is biased against blacks. Unfortunately the algorithm in use is secret so no one can ever know.

And that brings me to what is maybe the key point I want to make in how I think this technology should be implemented. Allowing computers to control important aspects of our society, like law, needs to be transparent and accountable. We cannot trust corporations who will inevitably hide the details of what their programs do through copyright and patents. So all the code needs to be open source so that we all know exactly what we are getting.

Many people will just deny that the computer takeover I am describing can happen, and many will say that even if it can happen we shouldn’t let it. I say it can happen and it should happen, but only if it is done properly. Private business has no place in something so critical. We need a properly resourced and open public organisation to do this work. And everything they do should be completely open to view by anyone.

If we do this properly the computer takeover can be a good thing. And yes, I know this is a cliche, but I will say it: I, for one, welcome our silicon overlords!



August 21, 2016 Leave a comment

Frank Zappa was a controversial figure, both because of his sometimes odd behaviour, and because of his counterculture ideas. I have never been a fan of his music (I have nothing of his in my collection) but – as often happens on the internet – I recently came across some quotes of his and was quite impressed with them.

As I often say, quotes don’t really mean a lot because they generally just represent an opinion a person holds. But they are a useful starting point for a discussion of the subject of the quote. Also, even though I often start with this warning about not taking quotes too seriously, I also use them in many blog posts and enjoy discussing them. And this post is no exception…

Quote number one: “Without deviation progress is not possible.”

Few people would debate this idea. In this context progress is defined as “development towards an improved or more advanced condition” (Oxford British English Dictionary). Clearly a prerequisite for improvement is change. Of course change doesn’t guarantee improvement because it could just as easily lead in the opposite direction, but without it nothing can get better.

That is why I find conservatives so annoying. They might be afraid of change leading to a situation which is worse (for them in particular) in future, but without change everything stagnates, and to allow for things getting better we must be prepared to take risks.

Of course this concept of an “improved or advanced condition” is a difficult one. There is clearly an element of subjectivity here, and someone dedicated to the political, religious, or social status quo will see any change as the opposite of improvement. On the other hand, few people would suggest that things are perfect the way they are and nothing can get better without deviation from the current norms.

Quote number two: “The whole foundation of Christianity is based on the idea that intellectualism is the work of the Devil. Remember the apple on the tree? Okay, it was the Tree of Knowledge. You eat this apple, you’re going to be as smart as God. We can’t have that.”

While it is always dangerous to stereotype any group and to criticise all members equally I think there is a clear tendency towards this in Christianity. I see it in both the Bible itself, in other religious texts, and in the attitude of many Christians.

I think that the core value of faith as the ultimate manifestation of valuing ignorance. Faith is celebrated in most religions yet essentially it is believing something without any real understanding or critical examination of the phenomenon.

As the quote says, they Garden of Eden myth is an obvious example of the how religions tend to warn against the dangers of knowledge, and there are many others. In reality it is not usually the individual who is in danger after gaining too much knowledge, it is the religion which is threatened. It is no coincidence that as education and knowledge levels increase, religiosity decreases.

I often see in the debates I have with religious people that when I destroy their arguments I am accused of spreading dangerous rhetoric, inspired by the devil, and the conversation is shut down on that basis. Or the person simply says they will keep their current beliefs even though they aren’t true, because they have “strong faith” (as if this was a good thing).

It seems that Zappa has truly discovered the essence of religion with this one!

Quote number 3: “Drop out of school before your mind rots from exposure to our mediocre educational system. Forget about the Senior Prom and go to the library and educate yourself if you’ve got any guts. Some of you like Pep rallies and plastic robots who tell you what to read.”

I think it’s rather harsh to say that the inevitable outcome of exposure to our education system is “mind rot” because I think it has a place in teaching the basics. But the vast majority of time people spend in education is a total waste and I think that, after learning good reading skills, basic math, and how to research new information, there is probably little further point in education for the majority.

The more significant point is that traditional education most often doesn’t encourage a genuine search for knowledge and inhibits original thought and optimal use of a person’s talents.

And it is also a way to encourage people into adhering to societal norms, which brings me to the next quote…

Quote number 4: “The illusion of freedom will continue as long as it’s profitable to continue the illusion. At the point where the illusion becomes too expensive to maintain, they will just take down the scenery, they will pull back the curtains, they will move the tables and chairs out of the way and you will see the brick wall at the back of the theater.”

Yes, we are all slaves of our current politico-economic system and the claim of freedom is largely an illusion. Of course, things have been a lot worse in the past and at least there are certain freedoms available to us now. Freedom isn’t a true or false thing. There are different extents to individual freedoms.

A person with counter-establishment views like mine would not be able to express them at some points in the past for example, but there are numerous informal systems in place to make sure that no one with those sorts of views ever gets into a position where they can have any real influence.

Quote number 5: “Government is the Entertainment division of the military-industrial complex.”

The claim that government is just a facade and that corporations and other powerful groups are really in charge is another one which can’t be evaluated as simply true or false. There would be few people who would say that big business doesn’t have an influence which seems counter-democratic, but the idea that elected governments have no control is far too conspirational.

Finally, quote 6: “One of my favorite philosophical tenets is that people will agree with you only if they already agree with you. You do not change people’s minds.”

So if you started off thinking these quotes are nonsense, chances are you still will, even after I have tried to justify them. But I always look at my efforts to change people’s minds as a long term effort of gentle persuasion rather than an attempt to elicit a sudden revelation. After all, when I debate religious people it’s usually revelation I am arguing against!

I think that every little effort at chipping away at people’s irrational beliefs might lead to change in the long run. At least it would be nice if it did, but even if it didn’t, discussing ideas and representing opinions is always fun in itself.

OK, I can’t help it. One last quote (from the song “The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing”): “Those Jesus-freaks, well, they’re friendly, but, the shit they believe has got their minds all shut. An’ they don’t even care when the church takes a cut! (ain’t it bleak when you’ve got so much nothin’?)”

Yes, it seems bleak to me.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Ads

August 16, 2016 Leave a comment

I generally despise advertising. I dislike commercialism in general, but to me advertising seems to be the worst manifestation of commercialism. Basically it is the attempt by companies to persuade people, using whatever strategies they can, to buy stuff which it might or might not be in their best interests to buy.

It’s probably a bit unkind to tar all advertisers with the same brush, but in general it is at least a good approximation to the truth (a bit like the ads themselves, I guess, so there’s a bit of irony there). Some ads are quite entertaining I admit, at least the first 3 or 4 times you see them, after that they are just as tedious as all the rest. And some ads do make at least a superficial effort to impart real information, but none are truly unbiased appraisals of the truth.

But the worst ads are those which are nothing but lies. Regulations exist to prevent ads being misleading but these are ineffective for 2 reasons: first, generally the ad runs and does the intended damage before it is stopped by regulators; and second, it is possible to lie while still telling the truth (I will explain this bizarre claim below).

The latest example of the worst type of ad – which was not only full of lies but was clearly harmful to the community – was one run on New Zealand TV by a group called Fluoride Free New Zealand. As the name suggests, this is a group which wants to stop the use of fluoride in New Zealand drinking water.

So let’s look at some of the claims in their advertising…

First, they say that fluoride is a waste product from the fertiliser industry, and contains traces of lead, aluminium, arsenic, and sometimes uranium. It is has to be handled by workers in hazmat suits. And it cannot be released into water or air because it is toxic.

These things are all true… in a way. One source of fluoride is as a byproduct of an industrial process and the contaminants listed are genuine. But fluoride isn’t the only useful product derived from the waste of another process, and that in itself doesn’t make it good or bad.

And contaminants like those listed are everywhere in small quantities, not just in fluoride. In fact “clean” water contains hundreds of “contaminants” including arsenic, lead, and uranium. And these aren’t just from human sources – they are all natural parts of the environment. But they are in such small concentrations that they aren’t a hazard.

You can’t talk about toxicity without stating the dose. Everything is toxic in large enough quantities, even water. And everything is safe in small enough quantities, even uranium. When handling a concentrated form of a chemical it is often necessary to use protective clothing, but once that chemical is diluted it is totally safe.

The second claim is that fluoride doesn’t work. The anti-fluoride activists quote “facts” like the rates of dental decay in some parts of Europe where fluoride isn’t added to the water are as good as, or better, than the rates in places where fluoride is used.

Again, this is true. But there are a few factors they don’t mention. For example, fluoride is added to salt and milk instead of water in some parts of Europe. Also, fluoride occurs naturally in the water in many parts of the world so there is no need to add to what is already there.

Many of the people in the anti-fluoride camp aren’t stupid. They must know the facts that I have stated here. And they must also know that practically every expert in the field agrees that fluoride is safe and that it works. So they must know that their arguments are misleading at best, and yet they use them anyway.

Why? I guess for the same reason that people who, for political reasons, don’t want to accept the reality of global warming so deny all the evidence using exactly the same tactics as I have mentioned above. And for the same reasons that religious people reject the fact of evolution and continue to accept the most ridiculous nonsense that any competent, intelligent, unbiased person would laugh at. And for the same reason that some groups believe in 9/11 conspiracies, UFO cover-ups, vaccination dangers, and an apparently endless variety of other stuff.

There’s nothing much that can be done about these people because once they start venturing into the realms of conspiracies then all evidence against the conspiracy becomes part of it. Every new professional body which supports the use of fluoridation is just another part of the cover-up making their mission of exposing it even more critical. And if no professional bodies supported it then that would also indicate fluoridation should be rejected. There is nothing which can disprove their ideology.

So the nutters will always exist and we need to accept that, but they become dangerous when they start influencing the ignorant public with misleading propaganda in TV ads. But, as I said above, just about every ad is designed to do exactly that. So it becomes difficult to say which ads are OK and which aren’t.

I’m fairly sure that this campaign will be found to have been against the advertising regulations because it is so misleading. But the damage is already done. People have been exposed to those images of fluoride being scraped out of fertiliser factory chimneys and being distributed by workers wearing hazmat suits. Any correction is unlikely to erase those powerful images.

A Second Opinion

August 13, 2016 Leave a comment

I have a sort of dichotomous opinion on experts. In general I trust the consensus of experts in areas I consider to be fact-based, but at the same time I am always ready to look at alternative ideas, and there are some areas where I can’t decide if they should be in the “fact-based” category or not (economics being the prime example).

So I would trust the consensus of experts on climate change for example, because climate science is a fact-based discipline and the consensus is well established. I would not necessarily believe a single climate scientist though, because there are always odd views which are contrary to the majority belief and are usually (but not always) wrong.

And while I would trust scientists I would not trust the consensus of theologians, because theology isn’t primarily a fact-based subject.

That’s not to say that an individual opinion is always right or always wrong, or that non-fact-based groups like theologians are always wrong. I’m just playing the odds here. And I’m trying to establish where a second opinion is most likely to be useful.

In many cases I have seen situations where people have been given really bad health advice by medical experts. I would never trust a single doctor on anything important. I would always research the issue myself and get an opinion from a second medical professional.

Medicine is primarily fact-based, but can lack a lot of formal rigour. It seems to me that a lot of medical opinions are based on hunches rather than carefully considered evidence. Of course, because most doctors have a lot of training and experience their hunches are often right – but they also seem to be often wrong.

And there is a surprisingly high number of doctors (and other health professionals) who support treatments of dubious value. Acupuncture, for example, is quite widely recommended yet the evidence for its effectiveness is highly questionable. And don’t even get me started on the pharmacies which stock homeopathic remedies!

Of course, my distrust of expert advice doesn’t end with doctors, although they are often the most obvious example, probably because they are held in high esteem by society and because their actions often have significant consequences on people’s lives.

The issue arises in relation to all areas where expert advice is required. Many years ago I had to have my Mazda rotary serviced and it was basically “pronounced dead”. I understand the theory of how cars work pretty well but I’m not so good with the real-life practice so I just trusted the mechanic and had a new engine installed.

But it turned out that it was worse than the first one, and after talking to other experts it seems that the first one might have been OK all along. My failure to get a second opinion turned out to be a rather expensive error on that occasion.

Recently I was involved in a situaiton where I provided the second opinion. A computer user was having problems with her computer’s hard disk. She took it to a local retailer who had staff who claimed to be “computer experts”. After some time spent playing with the disk they announced it was unrecoverable. So she brought it to me and I had the data backed up and the disk going again with an hour.

That computer owner could have said goodbye to all her data (she had no backups, of course – they never do) by throwing away the existing disk and buying a new one. Instead she got a second opinion and everything is now OK.

I should emphasise that it’s not always that the first person is incompetent. Sometimes it really is a matter of opinion and sometimes a fresh approach is beneficial. It is very easy to not look at all the options and to form an opinion on something too quickly. I often consult with my colleagues on technical problems where I think a fresh approach might help. It’s just a sensible thing to do.

No human is infallible and mistakes can always happen – even Einstein didn’t get everything right. So second (or third or more) opinions are just common sense.

Here’s another interesting way to look at it: in many mission critical systems (spacecraft, weapons, etc) the critical sub-systems are triplicated. Any major binary decision (like to do something or not) needs 2 out of 3 systems ro recommend it. Maybe people should work that way too, by getting a second and third opinion.

Of course you shouldn’t trust me on all of this. I would encourage you to seek a second opinion!

It’s Nothing Personal

August 6, 2016 Leave a comment

Occasionally I get phone calls from someone trying to sell me a new product or service. Before they get too far into their sales pitch I usually say that I don’t want to waste their time because I just don’t respond to unsolicited calls of that type, no matter what the product is. Then I say it’s nothing personal. I have nothing against them personally, just what they have to do because it’s their job.

The same applies when I criticise people with pointless or wasteful jobs. I don’t dislike individual managers, for example, I just disagree with the whole idea of management, at least in its current form. Again, my criticism is not about them directly, and it’s not personal.

And when I say someone who has extremely conservative and pernicious political views is acting like an unthinking idiot I’m not directly criticising some flaw in their character (although it often sounds that way), I’m really criticising that particular belief which makes them look like an idiot rather than them actually being one.

And finally there’s religion. I think that most religions are deeply harmful and divisive. They are also irrational, childish, and just plain stupid. I know there are some good aspects to religions too, but I’m trying to look at these things on balance. Note that I said the religion is stupid though, not the believer. Most religious people are quite sensible and would agree with me on many other points, so clearly a blanket judgement that they are stupid is unwarranted.

I do have to say that sometimes individuals really are just plain stupid. And I do admit that occasionally I attack the person, not the belief, but that is not my usual strategy, not because attacking people is impolite (I don’t care too much about that) but because it’s just not an accurate response to the situation under discussion.

I see extreme religious or political views as being like a sickness. I wouldn’t call someone evil because they have cancer. It is the cancer which is evil – for lack of a better word – not the person. And generally extreme beliefs are very similar. They are “contagious” social phenomena which are passed from one person to another through mechanisms which are similar in their action to actual biological diseases.

And evolution naturally occurs on these social mechanisms. Maybe it is the ultimate irony that creationism is the result of evolutionary processes!

I think social evolution might have been a bit overdone by some people in the past but that doesn’t mean it is completely invalid. In fact, like biological evolution, it is inevitable.

Imagine a new idea arises in a population somewhere. The idea is prone to adjustments because it is either spread from an individual’s memory or if a text is involved it is open to interpretation. As the idea spreads different variations will arise. Those that are most likely to be passed on to other people will thrive and the others will die out. Eventually only those which are easiest to spread to the most new people will still exist.

That is the exact mechanism of biological evolution through natural selection. The idea (often known as a meme) is a gene, the variation in interpretation is a mutation, the passing of ideas to others is reproduction, and the relative success of different ideas is natural selection.

Note that in both biological and social evolution we would expect a massive amount of divergence of ideas and of varying levels of survival, and in both cases that is exactly what we see. For example there are tens of thousands of different sects of the basic idea of Christianity with varying degrees of success in terms of their following.

The critical thing about social evolution is that the selection mechanism doesn’t select the “good” ideas based on how true they are or even how useful they are to the individual’s life. It’s very much like the idea in Richard Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene”. It’s the gene or meme which is competing for survival, not the individual. The person is just a host.

The idea is selected on how well it can be spread and simple ideas which contain elements that the person wants to hear (like life after death) are easier to spread than complex ideas, which are usually the true ones (reality is often far more complex than fantasy).

I have noted recently that ideas which diverge from what is considered to be the norm, especially if they deviate from standard political correctness, often result in severe sanctions against the person. That is completely unfair and I should note that this treatment originates more often amongst those on the political left than the right. Of course, it’s not the left-leaning person’s fault that they are unreasonable. They are just the victim of a meme which is currently spreading very successfully!