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A Better West

March 3, 2018 Leave a comment

In my last blog post I talked about how most economic and social indicators show the superiority of Western civilisation, but I also mentioned that I recognise that it has real problems. Today I want to talk about one of the biggest problems: our work environment.

This seems to be a major flaw in our society because the majority of people feel disillusioned with their work, and because work is still the most important part of many people’s lives, this seems to be an immediate issue which we should be paying attention to.

As I have said in previous posts, there will probably be no need for most people to work at some point in the not too distant future, so the problem might go away then, but no doubt that will introduce a whole pile of new problems as a result. But that aside, what can be done about work dissatisfaction until then?

Before I answer that I should mention another significant issue with modern society: inequality of pay. It is not unusual to find situations where CEOs, and other high ranking position, are paid at a rate which is hundreds of times more than the median rate for the company they are in charge of. I would say this is unjustified because I see no reason to think that most CEOs are doing a lot more than what any reasonably intelligent person could do, but even if it was justified from that perspective, would it be desirable anyway?

Also there are the biggest barriers to people enjoying their work, according to many surveys: lack of autonomy, incompetent and excessively authoritarian management, and micromanagement and unwarranted bureaucracy and paper work. Note that many studies indicate these factors not only prevent people from enjoying their work, but they prevent the organisation working efficiently as well.

Finally, there is a common situation in many companies (and other types of organisations) where the staff are not motivated to put in extra effort to make the company work better, and this is often related to the other points I have made above. If a person is dissatisfied with their work and is being paid poorly, what motivation do they have to put extra effort into their work?

As you will probably have guessed by now: I have an answer for all of these issues.

Every person in an organisation should take ownership of the day to day operations. Yes, I know that word “ownership” is often used as a business bullshit buzz word and has lost most of its meaning as a result, but I am using it here in a more literal sense.

What I propose is that every person’s pay should be made up from a base rate, plus a bonus depending on how well the organisation is doing. That would encourage people to work more enthusiastically because they would be motivated by their own best interests. They would literally have ownership of the organisation and its profits.

And, of course, because jobs will become increasingly unnecessary, people will get the base amount whether they work or not.

Many companies complain that they cannot afford to pay their workers the minimum wage, especially when there is a call to increase that basic amount. This idea would remove that barrier because everyone would get paid according to what the organisation can actually afford. There would be no false stories about how little is available for pay increases, because they would just naturally occur as a result of the company being successful. And if there was a genuine case of hardship that is allowed for as well, because the everyones’ pay will decrease to compensate.

And decisions could be made based on this system as well. No managers would be necessary because all the parties involved in a decision could be part of it. The vote could be biased towards the higher paid members (because they got that pay through being more highly valued), or to those who have worked there the longest, or maybe towards those who have made successful decisions in the past. Of couse, this would be a computerised voting system so all the details would be accounted for automatically.

Note that there are a few of issues which need to be tackled to make this system work.

One difficulty with this idea comes when the organisation might be (perhaps temporarily) running at a loss. Should the staff then have their part of the loss deducted from the base? I think not, but maybe they should have it deducted from future gains, so that no one ever gets less than the base amount.

Second, the financial position of the company needs to be made known to all interested parties, including the employees. The secrecy which surrounds this stuff nowadays is unnecessary and can too easily be used for dishonest purposes, so I think it should be dispensed with anyway.

Additionally, organisations which are not primarily driven by profit, such as charities, government services, etc, would need to find a different way to evaluate their success. And financial success should not be the only measure of success, even for private companies.

Third, there needs to be agreement on what the minimum base is for everyone and what percentage of profits each member of staff gets. I would suggest a vote amongst all members of the staff assigning value to each position.

You might think that everyone will want to give themsleves all the extra pay but I doubt whether that would happen, because people to have an innate sense of fairness, plus they know that id certain key staff leave as a result of low wages the company will fail.

Fourth, how can his fit in with the current model we have where part of the companies profits are distributed to shareholders? Well, I would like to dispense with that aspect of capitalism completely, because I think the people working at the company should be the only shareholders. Obviously this cannot be done too quickly or suddenly but it should be a long-term aim.

Needless to say, these requirements, especially the second one, present a few difficulties, but every system has difficulties, and I think we need to try new ways of managing work, despite the risks involved.

If everyone is part of the same team, and everyone can gain or lose in the same way that should fix, or at least significantly improve, the problems I listed above. It wouldn’t be easy to do, because the current power elite have a lot to lose, but it’s something which must be done.

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West is Best

February 24, 2018 Leave a comment

Warning: This post makes the controversial claim that Western civilisation is superior to all others. If you are a “snowflake” and are likely to be “offended” by controversial opinions of this sort, you might not want to read this post.

I am often seen as a defender of Western civilisation against alternatives, such as Islamic or indigenous cultures, but I’m not trying to say that everything about the Western World is perfect, and everything about the alternatives is wrong. Far from it, in fact.

Actually, my real aim is to reject the simplistic (and yes, yet again, I will say it: politically correct) notions that everything about traditional and other alternative cultures is so wonderful and better than what we have created for ourselves in the West.

I have a large collection of maps (over 100 – I really like maps) showing various aspects of different parts of the world, and while looking at them I noticed similar patterns indicating the superiority of Western nations. So here’s a description of some of these maps…

Look at a map of the world showing life expectancy. In the top category is most of Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, Israel, and Jordan. The US isn’t in the top category, but is in the second top, just a few years behind. So clearly the best life expectancy is found in the Western World, plus a few others.

But what about the worst? Well, that would be most of Africa, where some countries (for example, Angola) have a life expectancy of less than half the top category! Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia are also fairly bad, with a life expectancy 20 to 30 years less than the top category.

So if a long life is important the western world (plus a few others) is clearly superior. But what do other indicators show?

What about happiness? In the top category is all of North America, Scandinavia, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Switzerland, and Brazil. All of Africa is unhappy or very unhappy, and so is most of Asia.

Next, let’s look at freedom. Well, it’s the usual suspects: Canada, most of Europe, Australia, New Zealand, the USA, most of South America, India, Mongolia, Japan, and a few countries in Africa (including South Africa). But most of Africa and most of Asia are not free.

Now let’s look at peace. The most peaceful countries are Canada, New Zealand, Chile, Scandinavia, Japan, Germany, and a few other central European countries. The rest of Europe, Argentina, and a few other countries in various locations are the next most peaceful. The US is somewhere near the middle. Most of Africa and Asia (including Russia) are near the bottom.

So let’s look at corruption. The least corrupt countries are New Zealand, Canada, Scandinavia, Germany, and the UK. The USA, Australia, and Japan are also fairly high. Africa is right at the bottom, followed by Asia and South America. The least corrupt country, New Zealand, scores about 90, while the most corrupt, Somalia, scores less than 10.

Finally, let’s look at intelligence. Do I even need to tell you? I don’t, but here are the countries in the top categories: Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the USA, and Russia are in a high category, but China and Japan are even higher. Needless to say, most of Africa is very low. In fact, in some countries the average IQ is less than 65, making the average person technically mildly mentally retarded.

There are a few issues with what I have presented above.

First, I know I mixed up countries and regions. For example, I know Scandinavia isn’t a country, but the countries in that region tend to cluster together so using that label was just convenient.

Second, have I just cherry picked attributes which fit my hypothesis? Well I don’t think so, because I looked at many others too, and I just couldn’t get anything which didn’t make the West look good. One possible exception is air pollution deaths where the data was difficult to see a real pattern in, but at least this is one where I was relieved to see Africa do relatively well!

Third, are the measurements done by Western countries, and would some innate bias just make them look good as a result? There might be some element of this happening, but it is unlikely that the same result would occur for every measure I looked at. Also, I found multiple maps from multiple sources for most measures and they generally agreed fairly closely.

Fourth, what exactly are Western countries? Have I labelled countries that way based on positive results rather than the other way around? Well, no. What is a western country is not always well defined, but people know them when they see them. They usually have all or most of these characters: democratic governments; capitalist economies, usually with significant socialist aspects; traditionally Christian but often tending towards atheism now; still dominated by the culture of a European power which controlled them in the past; usually speak English, apart from Europe. One definition at Wikipedia shows Canada, Australia, New Zealand, most of Europe, and the USA. Sound familiar?

Fifth, it seems that the evidence is irrefutable, but the reasons are more interesting. For example, some people might say the non-Western countries are repressed by the West and prevented from reaching their full potential. Or they might say they are improving, but are just a bit behind the West, and they just need a chance. Or maybe this is all just part of the global conspiracy by old white men designed to maintain their position of power. I’m not planning on discussing the reasons here, but I find all of these constitute improbable conspiracies.

Sixth, many of the attributes I selected are difficult to measure and might involve some self-assessment, subjective opinion, or varying interpretation based on political and philosophical preferences. For example, how can freedom or happiness be measured in a culturally independent way? Maybe they can’t, but I maintain the overall picture is so overwhelmingly clear that any variations caused by imprecise measurements aren’t that important.

So it seems to me that the conclusion is inescapable: the Western World is the best, and New Zealand (where I live) along with Canada, Australia, and Scandinavia look like the best of the best! Anyone who disagrees is welcome to try living in Russia, or Somalia, or Afghanistan. Judging by the maps they would be booking a return flight pretty quickly. Make sure it is on a western aircraft (Airbus or Boeing), OK?

Join the Mansplainers

February 19, 2018 Leave a comment

If you can be classified as a white, middle-aged male, then you are in the unfortunate position of being in one of the least advantaged groups in society today. I say this because of the numerous examples of affirmative action and political correctness which support every group in society except that one. And these forces are not always premeditated because they are often a manifestation of a zeitgeist which has little basis in reality but has evolved through various ill-defined social and political processes.

The supporters of these phenomena will claim they are based on a real reaction against the existing power structure and that any attempt at alternative explanations is simply “mansplaining”. This is very convenient for the followers of these PC modes of thought because they can reject any criticism by labelling it as mansplaining, and at that point it requires no further comment. In fact, the refusal to enter into any meaningful dialog, or to look at alternative views, is a common characteristic of modern political correctness.

And this has extended into exactly the areas where it shouldn’t exist. In many US universities some subjects just cannot be discussed without a violent and unreasoned backlash from the politically correct extreme left. And many speeches, discussions, and debates have had to be closed down, just because a subject is deemed too sensitive to even contemplate hearing any view which deviates from what is considered “appropriate” by the self-appointed arbiters of what is congruous with social norms.

The most ironic point of all this is that the students causing the trouble are generally hugely privileged themselves, and likely to become more so in the future. Plus their experience of life and their knowledge of the world in general is usually pathetically insubstantial. But it really does take a genuinely ignorant person to have such total confidence in their beliefs, no matter how extreme they might be.

People like Ben Shapiro, Anita Alvarez, Charles Murray, Milo Yiannopoulos, Ann Coulter, Bret Weinstein, and Jordan Peterson, as well as many others, have been shut down at American colleges recently. I admit that some (especially Yiannopoulos and Coulter) have deliberately controversial messages, but many are models of reason and fairness. And what is the problem with controversial opinions anyway? In most cases the person is never even allowed to speak and the points made by protestors against the speakers are generally laughably naive and inaccurate.

It should be noted that many of the obstructed speakers are “old, white guys” – although there are also women involved, and even one openly gay person – so this isn’t just a reaction to “mansplaining” in the most simple sense, but I think that is the most important component.

Of course, there are many occasions I have been accused of indulging in this myself. But it has got to the point now where I don’t see it as a criticism much any more, because I am starting to view mansplaining as a good thing. If no one else is going to be sensible, open-minded, rational, and fact-based then I guess us old (or middle-aged) white guys are going to have to do it, just like we have done the vast majority of anything worthwhile in the past!

Because it is exactly that group (old white guys, AKA OWGs) who have done the most for society. Sure, I agree, most of the really evil people in history were OWGs, but both aspects should be acknowledged. Just because some people who are currently out of favour (you know who the prime example is here) belong to that category don’t assume there is nothing good about OWGs. And never reject their opinions by applying silly tags like “mansplaining”.

As I said, if mansplaining is just a way the politically correct members of society label the opinions of the most influential and brilliant group in society I say bring it on. I’m happy to mansplain as much as possible.

And I would like to say at this point that I welcome any other groups into join me as a “mansplainer”. Women are very welcome, people of any age and race are also welcome, and your cultural, sexual, religious, or ethnic background is irrelevant. I would ask you to join the mansplainers, because the truth doesn’t belong to any one group.

No More -isms

February 10, 2018 Leave a comment

I am often challenged about why I reject various beliefs, such as liberalism, theism, libertarianism, or feminism. My thoughts on this are, that if you identify with a particular doctrine with is described with a word ending in -ism then you are probably being needlessly dogmatic. But then I remembered that I often identify with two (and maybe more) of those myself: atheism and skepticism.

So why would I ridicule one person’s belief (like the belief in libertarianism or feminism) while I give myself a free pass to pursue beliefs of my own? Well, maybe I’m just a hypocrite – that’s certainly possible – but I would like to use a slightly more generous interpretation of the situation and say that my beliefs are more a lack of a commitment to a particular idea than a close allegiance to one.

So atheism isn’t really a dogma of any kind, in fact it’s the antithesis of that, because it specifically precludes acceptance of any dogmatic, religious belief. I do agree that skepticism is in a slightly more debatable category. It could be seen as a belief system in some ways – in fact one meaning of the word refers to a specific philosophical system. But that’s not the meaning I’m using here. In this context skepticism refers to the preference for treating new truth claims with a level of suspicion until good, objective evidence for them is demonstrated.

So I think I can defend my -isms fairly well, but what objection to I have to the others? Well, the main one is that they are just unnecessary. Not only do they provide no positive benefit, but undue adherence to them is potentially dangerous. People who take their beliefs too seriously might follow the belief’s dictates instead of looking at the facts of specific incidents in the real world.

For example, there might be a need to decide whether a new industry – let’s choose self-driving cars as an example – should be regulated to ensure safety standards. A libertarian (that is, someone who follows libertarianism) might be tempted to say that more regulation is always bad and that the market should decide.

But not only do we see numerous examples of market failures (in fact the phrase “market failure” has become a common one in these sorts of discussions) but it can be shown through pure logic that markets often don’t work.

That’s not to say that markets don’t work quite well in some situations, but they certainly cannot be relied on in every possible place they might be used. But a true follower of libertarianism will think they do work everywhere, or at least will think they work in a far wider range of situations than a careful examination of the facts would support.

So there’s really no need for libertarianism at all, because anyone looking at the facts and at the outcomes required in a particular situation could just use common sense, and logic, and examination of the consequences in the real world to see whether a market or a regulation is a better choice.

So let’s look at another -ism now, let’s really jump out of the frying pan and into the fire and look at feminism. Is feminism necessary? Well, as you could probably guess from the general tone of this post, I don’t think so.

I know many people claim feminism is just wanting equality for women, but of course that is often not true, just like libertarianism isn’t usually simply about the fair and appropriate use of markets. Feminism in many cases goes far beyond that and demands special privileges for women, equality where it already exists, and is generally biased towards a female-centric worldview.

I’m not saying that there have been no good outcomes from feminism, but I am saying that the usual realisation of it can easily produce many bad outcomes too. There are many situations where females are now enjoying benefits because the bias is now in the opposite direction to what many feminists imagine. For example girls seem to be getting more benefit from our education system, women enrol in universities at a greater rate than men, women live longer lives, and they get less punishment under the law, etc. Hell, maybe I should be a masculinist!

And the issues where feminism might be useful – such as equal pay, equal participation in society, etc – don’t require feminism, they just require fairness. And most people have an inherent sense of fairness. I want women to have equal rights, but I am certainly not a feminist!

I see the down-side of -isms all the time. I see people react to an event which is actually quite nuanced in simple-minded, thoughtless ways, simply because of a knee-jerk reaction they have caused by their favourite -ism.

Note that I have picked on that particular suffix because it is catchy, but other worldviews which end in a different suffix, like Christianity, should also be included in my argument for completeness.

I know they are not doing this deliberately – and that’s what makes the whole phenomenon even more scary and dangerous – but the sort of thought that is going on is like this: there’s an event I want to comment on; I am a (insert your favourite -ism here) so I should think this; I will write some tedious, biased crap on the appropriate discussion forum.

And when a more nuanced person, like myself (well OK, sometimes I take a hard line to make a particular point, but I do make an effort to see both sides of most stories) comes along and points out any deficiencies in these arguments there is rarely a reasoned rebuttal to those points, because the person makes that comment just because that’s the way things are always portrayed according to their -ism.

If I suggest we need a new regulation to decrease greenhouse gas emissions to reduce climate change the libertarians will usually disagree, saying government regulation never works and we need less government involvement, not more. But they could admit that the market is the cause of climate change, not the solution, while still maintaining that markets are a useful tool in society overall. But if you follow libertarianism you really cannot say that.

And if I dare to suggest that females are already doing well in our education system and they really don’t need any further assistance, then the feminists will attack me with allegations of sexism and mansplaining. If they just admitted that there are situations where women are given an unfair advantage as well as other situations where the opposite is true, then they would be easier to take more seriously. But if you follow feminism almost everything looks like an attack on women and sensible discussion is difficult.

So I say abandon your -isms. That doesn’t mean to switch to another, even worse, belief system which just doesn’t happen to end in -ism, of course. So those who libertarianism shouldn’t switch to anarchy, and if you currently follow feminism, please don’t become a feminazi!

Evil Jesus

February 7, 2018 Leave a comment

I have heard many atheists arguments diminished by an admission that the teachings of Jesus are inherently good and that, even if he never existed in any form recognisable from the New Testament, at least the thoughts attributed to him are beyond reproach.

Well, here is my deeply meaningful, intellectual, theological response to this idea: bullshit!

Sure, there is stuff in the NT which can be seen as being really positive, but I think the overall tone and message is quite negative, although I fully agree that the tone can be interpreted in more than one way, and this can easily lead to totally contrary conclusions.

This is very much the problem with theology and some philosophy too. If we just look at the thoughts of an individual person, whether it be Jesus or Wittgenstein – especially when they are presented in metaphors and imprecise language – it is very easy to take whatever meaning you want from them.

But I also think there are parts of these people’s thoughts which cannot be honestly misconstrued, and I think in Jesus’ case this is both unmistakable and deeply flawed.

The fact that many modern Christians are quite moral people and exhibit quite decent behaviour overall is more to do with changing ethical standards, mostly separate from theology, than anything which is specifically part of a religion. They know what is right and look for a message in the NT supporting that view. When slavery was considered OK that idea was found to be supported by Jesus, but once social norms changed and slavery became unacceptable, a different message was found to support that.

My point is (and this is one I have made before) that religious texts are like Rorschach Inkblot Tests: the pattern is in the viewer’s mind, not on the object being viewed (whether it is an inkblot or the Bible).

But some inkblots, along with some texts, do have an obvious meaning which requires some effort to get past and be ignored, and the New Testament, contrary to common claims, can easily be seen as an exhortation towards hate rather than love.

So what are the negative messages portrayed by the character of Jesus in the NT? Well there are three I want to concentrate on here: the idea that people must accept Jesus as their saviour or face eternal torment in Hell, that this life is unimportant compared to what you will get in Heaven after death, and the eschatological message which warns of signs of end-times eventually resulting in the return of Jesus and eternal happiness for the select few.

I know some people will debate whether these messages are genuine, and others will say they are real but should be seen as positive rather than bad, while others will say something like “sure that is true, and they may seem bad, but those are God’s rules and we have to live by them”.

In this post I want to concentrate on why these things are bad, rather than try to justify them in the context of the Bible, so let’s just say these are either the only fair interpretation, or at least one very viable interpretation of the Bible, especially the NT.

In previous posts I have discussed why I think the Christian dogma of salvation through Jesus is evil. Basically my argument is that God gives us free will, yet punishes us when we use it. It’s sort of like walking up to a voting machine (where they have them, like the US) and pulling the lever for the “wrong” party resulting in a safe falling on your head and killing you.

And it’s like there’s a sign in the voting booth saying “you can vote for either party, but if you choose the wrong one you will die in a horrible accident”. Not only that, but both parties claim they are the one you should vote for to avoid the horrible punishment. And people who don’t vote are treated even worse than those who do!

And just as the final icing on the cake, we are supposed to praise and thank this god for the system he has created, because of the claim that he has offered an escape from an evil rule he created. Gee, thanks God, you’re so thoughtful, but why not just make it 100% clear which is really the right party, or give us real free will and forget about the punishment for using it!

The idea that this life is unimportant compared with what might come later is also very harmful. All the evidence indicates we only have one life, so any dogma discouraging people from not making the best use of it has got to be seen as really negative.

I suppose you could make a case to say that people are more likely to be accepting of their place in life, and experience a lot less stress as a result of believing in a better life after death. But this is also very harmful because it stops people from striving for something better. And the temptation for a political elite to use this superstition to keep the “lesser ranks” under control is a very insidious problem.

Finally there is the “end times” problem. If people think the world will soon end, and their current lives will be replaced with a far better one in heaven, then they are unlikely to get involved in any long term projects to make the world better. For example, why try to reduce climate change when the main effects won’t be obvious for 50 years and the Rapture will have already happened by then making the whole problem irrelevant? This is a genuine issue because there are politicians who have made this exact point.

But it gets far worse than that, because many people not only expect Armageddon at any time, but they would like to try to speed up the process. They have been waiting for the final battle between good and evil for 2000 years and they can’t wait much longer for that final destruction. Anyone with this belief isn’t going to hesitate to use the nuclear option, or to start wars in politically sensitive areas of the world.

It is clear that these criticisms don’t just apply to Christianity, of course, because it is obvious that Judaism and Islam (and probably other religions I know less about) are possibly even worse on some of these points.

But I have picked on Christianity for two reasons: first, it is often seen as the most forgiving and peaceful religion, where a case could easily be made for the opposite; and second, it is the most dominant religion in the world today, especially in the most dominant country. Whether Donald Trump really believes all the Christian BS he seems to espouse is highly doubtful, but the fact that he has to pretend to be a believer is telling in itself.

The Doomsday Clock is currently set closer to midnight than for any time since the Cold War. I’m not saying we can blame this completely on religion, and especially not on any particular religion, but those irrational and evil ideas can’t be helping. Thanks a lot, evil Jesus!

Utopia or a Dystopia?

February 5, 2018 Leave a comment

I have been interested in artificial intelligence for years, without being too deeply involved in it, and it seemed that until recently there was just one disappointment after another from this potentially revolutionary area of technology. But now it seems that almost every day there is some fascinating, exciting, and often worrying news about the latest developments in the area.

One recent item which might be more significant than it seems initially is the latest iteration of AlphaGo, Google’s Go playing AI. I wrote about AlphaGo in a post “Sadness and Beauty” from 2016-03-16 after it beat the world champion in the game Go which many people thought a computer could never master.

Now AlphaGo Zero has beaten AlphaGo by 100 games to zero. But the significant thing here is not about an incremental improvement, it is about a change in the way the “Zero” version works. The zero in the name stands for zero human input, because the system learned how to win at Go entirely by itself. The only original input was the rules of the game.

While learning winning strategies AlphaGo Zero “re-created” many of the classic moves humans had already discovered over the last few thousand years, but it went further than this and created new moves which had never been seen before. As I said in my previous post on this subject, the original AlphaGo was already probably better than any human, but the new version seems to be completely superior to even that.

And the truly scary thing is that AlphaGo Zero did all this in such a short period of time. I haven’t heard what the time period actually was, but judging by the dates of news releases, etc, it was probably just days or weeks. So in this time a single AI has learned far more about a game than millions of humans have in thousands of years. That’s scary.

Remember that AlphaGo Zero was created by programmers at Alphabet’s Google DeepMind in London. But in no way did the programmers write a Go playing program. They wrote a program that could learn how to play Go. You could say they had no more input into the program’s success than a parent does into the success of a child whom they abandon at birth. It is sort of like supplying the genetics but not the training.

You might wonder why Alphabet (Google’s parent company) has spent so much time and money creating a system which plays an obscure game. Well the point, of course, is to create techniques which can be used in more general and practical situations. There is some debate amongst experts at the moment about how easily these techniques could be used to create a general intelligence (one which can teach itself anything, instead of just a specific skill) but even if it only works for specific skills it is still very significant.

There are many other areas where specialised intelligence by AIs has exceeded humans. For example, at CERN (the European nuclear research organisation) they are using AI to detect particles, labs are developing AIs which are better than humans at finding the early signs of cancer, and AIs are now good at detecting bombs at airports.

So even if a human level general intelligence is still a significant time away, these specialised systems are very good already, even at this relatively early time in their development. It’s difficult to predict how quickly this technology might advance, because there is one development which would make a revolutionary rather than evolutionary change: that is an AI capable of designing AIs – you might call this a meta-AI.

If that happens then all bets are off.

Remember that an AI isn’t anything physical, because it is just a program. In every meaningful way creating an AI program is just like playing a game of Go. It is about making decisions and creating new “moves” in an abstract world. It’s true that the program requires computer hardware to run on, but once the hardware reaches a reasonable standard of power that is no more important than the Go board is to how games proceed. It limits what can be done in some ways, but the most interesting stuff is happening at a higher level.

If AlphaGo Zero can learn more in a week than every human who ever played Go could learn in thousands of years, then imagine how much progress a programming AI could make compared with every computer scientist and programmer who ever existed. There could be new systems which are orders of magnitude better developed in weeks. Then they could create the next generation which is also orders of magnitude better. The process would literally be out of control. It would be like artificial evolution running a trillion times faster than the natural version, because the generation time is so short and the “mutations” are planned rather than being random.

When I discussed the speed that AlphaGo Zero had shown when it created the new moves, I used the word “scary”, because it literally is. If that same ability existed for creating new AIs then we should be scared, because it will be almost impossible to control. And once super-human intelligence exists it will be very difficult to reverse. You might think something like, “just turn off the computer”, but how many backups of itself will exist by then? Simple computer viruses are really difficult to eliminate from a network, so imagine how much more difficult a super-intelligent “virus” would be to remove.

Where that leaves humans, I don’t know for sure. I have said in the previous post that humans will be redundant, but now I’m not totally sure that is true. Maybe there will be a niche for us, at least temporarily, or maybe humans and machines will merge in some way. Experts disagree on how much a threat AI really is. Some predict a “doomsday” where human existence is fundamentally threatened while others predict a bright future for us, free from the tedious tasks which machines can do better, and where we can pursue the activities we *want* to do rather than what we *have* to do.

Will it be a utopia or a dystopia? No one knows. All we know is that the world will never be the same again.

The Future of Driving

January 31, 2018 Leave a comment

In a recent post, I talked about how electric power seems to be the inevitable future of cars. This is probably not too surprising to most people given the way electric cars have become so much more popular recently, and how the company Tesla has successfully captured a lot of headlines (in many cases deservedly so, because of its technical advances, and in other cases mainly because of the star status of its founder, Elon Musk).

But a much greater revolution is also coming: that is self-driving cars. In the future people will not be able to comprehend how we allowed people to drive and how we tolerated the massive amount of inefficiency, and the huge number of accidents and deaths as a result of this.

In my previous post I commented on how I am a “petrol-head” and enjoy driving, as well as liking the “insane fury” of current petrol powered supercars. I commented on how electric cars have no “soul” and this would appear to apply even more to self-driving cars. Before I provide the answer to how this travesty can be avoided, I want to present some points on how good self-driving cars should be.

First, there is every indication that computers will be far better than humans at driving, especially in terms of safety. Even current versions of self driving systems are far better than the average human, and these will surely be even more superior in the future once the algorithms are refined and more infrastructure is in place for them.

Whether computer controlled cars are currently better than the best humans is debatable, because I have seen no data on this, but that doesn’t really matter because being better than the actual, flawed, unskilled humans doing most of the driving now is all that is required.

In fact, the majority of accidents involving self-driving systems now can be attributed to human errors which the AI couldn’t cope with, because they still have to obey the laws of physics and not all accidents can be avoided, even by a perfect AI.

So if we switched to self-driving cars, how would things change? Well, to get the full benefit of this technology all cars would need to be self-driving. While some cars are still driven by humans there will always be an element of unpredictability in the system. Plus all the extra infrastructure needed by humans (see later for examples) will need to be kept in place.

Ultimately, as well as all cars being self-driven, the system would also require all vehicles to be able to communicate with each other. This would allow information to be shared and maybe for a central controller to make the system run more efficiently. It might also be possible, and maybe preferable, to have a distributed intelligence instead, where the individual components (vehicles) make decisions in cooperation with other units nearby.

The most obvious benefit would be to free up time for humans who could do something more useful than driving. They could read a book, read a newspaper, watch a movie, write their blog, do some work, etc, because the car would be fully automated.

But it goes far beyond that, because all of the rules we have in place today to control human drivers would be unnecessary. There would be no need for speed limits, for example, because the cars would drive at the speed best for the exact conditions at the time. They would use factors like the traffic density and weather conditions and set their speed appropriately.

There’s no doubt that even today traffic could move much faster than it does if proper driving techniques are used. The problem is that drivers aren’t good enough to drive quickly. But speed and safety can co-exist, as shown by Germany’s autobahns where there is often no speed limit, but the accident rate is lower than the US.

There would be no need to have lanes and other symbols marked on roads, and even the direction vehicles are travelling in the lane could be swapped depending on traffic density. All the cars would know the rules and always obey them. Head-on crashes would be almost impossible even when a lane swaps the direction the traffic is flowing in.

The same would apply to turning traffic. A car could make a turn into a stream of traffic because communications with the other cars in that stream would ensure the space was available. There would be no guessing if another driver would be polite enough to create a gap, and no guessing exactly how much time was needed because all distances and speeds would be known exactly.

I could imagine a scene where traffic was flowing, turning, and merging seemingly randomly at great speed in a way that would look suicidal today, but was in reality is precisely coordinated.

Then there’s navigation. Most humans can follow GPS instructions fairly well, but how much better would this be when all the cars shared knowledge about traffic congestion and other delays, and planned the routes based on that, as well as the basic path?

Finally there’s parking. No one would need to own a car because after completing the journey the car could go and be used by someone else. It would never need to park, except for recharging and maintenance, which could also be automatic. All the payments could be done transparently and the whole system should be much cheaper than personally owning and using a car, like we do now.

The whole thing sounds great, and there are almost no disadvantages, but I still don’t like it in some ways because my car is part of my identity, I like driving, and the new world of self-driving electric cars sounds very efficient, but seems to lack any personality or fun.

But that won’t matter, because there will be two ways to overcome this deficiency. First, there might be lots of tracks where people can go to test their driving skills in traditional human driven – maybe even petrol powered – cars as a recreational activity, sort of like how some people ride horses today. And second, and far more likely, virtual reality will be so realistic that it will be almost indistinguishable from real driving, but without the risks.

And while I am on the subject of VR, it should be far less necessary to travel in the future because so much could be done remotely using VR and AR systems. So less traffic should be another factor making the roads far more efficient and safe.

In general the future in this area looks good. I suspect this will all happen in about 20 years, and when it does, people will be utterly shocked that we used to control our vehicles ourselves, especially when they look at the number of accidents and fatalities, and the amount of time wasted each day. Why would we drive when a machine can do it so much better, and we could use that time for something far more valuable?