Chelsea King Tragedy

A tragic update.  She was murdered:

Chelsea King was last seen out running in San Diego and this appears it may be a stranger abduction.  Help the family find her:

There’s a lot of activity on Twitter and Facebook about this case so it may be a good test of whether those tools can be used effectively to spread the word fast on missing persons and bring them to safety in that critical short time frame immediately after abduction.

America’s Got Talent, Oregon

The rumors were true.    America’s Got Talent, the hit NBC TV Show, is auditioning talented folks from our area and I think mostly from Talent, Oregon right down the street at the Talent Middle School.

My *very talented daughter* is now regretting that she didn’t try out but hey, that’s show biz I guess.    We know a lot of the folks who are going to perform so hopefully they’ll…. win the million dollar prize at the end of the 2010 series!

Thanks to the Ashland Oregon Shakespeare Festival down the road, dozens of high quality local theaters like the Camelot Theater here in Talent, proximity to California and popularity as a California retirement area, PLUS a great all around place to live, Southern Oregon probably has a lot more talent than your average small rural town.

America’s got Talent, Talent Oregon!   Woo Hoo!

Recycling Cost vs. Benefits

As I brought in my recycling bin today I thought “well, curbside recycling sure seems like a great innovative idea, a well run program and a clear example of where major change made a positive difference”.     Then I realized that I was making the same mistake advocates always make with respect to this type of thing – I was only looking at the benefits and not the costs.

Naturally the internet came to the rescue of my ignorance, though I don’t have time to find the real answers.

This article was a good start at some of the challenges of even making a determination:

I have NOT changed my mind but I have realized how ignorant I am about the costs involved in these programs.   Based on the article and the fact that we tend to exaggerate the tiny spaces we need here in USA to landfill huge amounts of garbage,  I’m now thinking that recycling  probably is *very expensive* and may not be a good use of economic resources when landfill space is cheap and abundant.

This is a great research project for later when I have more time to kill, but some factors that don’t appear enough in analyses of these things are:

1.  Value of the time spend by individuals to participate.

2. Energy resources used to recycle things.  On a small scale some “obsessive” types of folks make a lot of separate “recycling” trips.  I’d like to know at what point the energy costs of a separate recycling trip outweigh the energy savings of the recycling.  My guess is that driving more than a mile with a bag of cans is … very environmentally unsound.    Of course most will combine this trip so it’s not separate, but all behaviors should be considered.

On a larger scale there are HUGE costs to set up these programs.   Separate trucks, runs, gas, etc.    The inefficiency of having TWO runs vs ONE run is a very large issue, and I’m anxious to see if recycling advocates do a good job of looking at the energy costs in this equation.    Historically energy analyses border on the insanely incompetent, failing to take into account things like “present value” when showing that it’s *economically* a good idea to put in energy efficient windows when in fact this cost is usually enormous compared to the modest annual savings.    There are energy benefits that are NOT economic, but those need to be expressed in some way other than pretending there is money saved.

(Quick example.  Let’s say you replace  20 old windows at $400 each with high quality insulated double panes.    That is $8000 spent *today*.     The energy savings from this, unless you live in Alaska and probably not even then, will need to be on the order of $400 per year just to give you a yield on that investment of 5%.   My total heating bill for the year is under  $1000 here in Oregon and clearly new windows won’t knock that back 40%, so….

Artificial Sociopaths – Will Thinking Machines Go Bad? Not likely!

I’m in a fun email exchange with a bunch of clever folks talking about how “thinking machines” might come to be and might be mean to us so I wanted to post my thoughts about that.   I’m not posting the others because I don’t have their permission yet…

I really hope more folks will chime in here as this is the most important topic in the world  even though most folks don’t realize that yet.    It should become clear within a few years that we are likely to be interacting with self-aware computers in as few as 10-15 years.

The key point I wanted to make is optimistic.   We’ve seen how computer approaches dramatically improve our very limited abilities to calculate and analyze things, and I predict  that  when machines attain consciousness and the ability to communicate effectively with humans extraordinary improvements will become commonplace.

I’d also predict that the machines are very UNLIKELY to pose a threat to humanity.   Humans have tended towards greater compassion as we’ve progressed, and we’ll pose few threats to the thinking machines which will likely quickly find ways to protect themselves, so I think the worse likely case it that they will choose to ignore us.    I’m hoping they’ll help us out instead.   Note all AI efforts seek “friendly AI” so the programmers are working to make helpers not adversaries.    However I also believe (unlike most people) that our early approaches will not matter much in terms of what the superintelligence eventually becomes.   Humans will catayze the process of machine self awareness, but then our brains will process things too slowly to continue our participation in the evolution of intellect.

Philosophically speaking I’d suggest that computer thinking will NOT be “fundamentally different” because I think our rational thought is confined by the laws of the universe, most of which are well described by science and confined by mechanistic principles.  However the machines will be much faster than ours and proceed along more rational lines, unclouded by the emotions and cognitive biases that plague our thinking.   They’ll be better than us.

Is this optimism based on faith or science or ?    I’d say it’s speculation based on common sense observations of how the world works and trends in the world, many of which point to superintelligent, self aware machines within decades.   Faith – to my way of thinking – is an appeal to believe things that cannot be rationally deduced from the facts and data.  I’m not a big fan of that approach to knowledge.

To which somebody replied that I was expressing a lot of misguided techno faith and also that the machines would likely be sociopathic without the benefit of human thought approaches.

Wow, you really don’t like this idea of friendly artificial super intelligent machines?!   Come on, they’ll be more fun than the internet!     Also, unlike current chess programs they’ll often let us win to maintain our fragile human egos.

Interestingly your concerns about the potential for a sort of sociopathic AI are along the lines of some researchers in this area and also some concerns expressed earlier.   Although I’m not worried about that much, I see it as a very separate issue from how likely we are to see these machines – which I’d argue is “extremely likely”, almost to the point of inevitability because to me the enhancement of our intelligence via technologies represents a very “natural” (though dramatically accelerated) progression from our primal evolutionary heritage:

I”m surprised you see me as having “blind faith”.   I think faith approaches are irrational almost by definition and don’t offer much insight.  I also would argue that the advent of thinking machines and what I contend to be their likely friendliness are derived from human and machine observations and histories.    Note how humans already have merged with machines in several ways.    Contact lenses, Cochlear Implants, BrainGate and Emotiv headsets (which use brain waves to control computers), and many more.  I see the next level of interaction as intellectual enhancement devices.   It’s not a creepy sci-fi vision at all, rather the logical progression of how humans, pre-humans, and even many animals have used our intellects to develop and interact with useful tools.

Many (including me) think that thinking machines will come *after* many more rounds of slow merging of humans with computing devices.   If you are concerned about sociopathic computers this should come as some comfort because it’s most likely to be part of the ongoing process of co-evolution where humans and machines work together.  Currently only half of that equation can think autonomously but soon (I hope) both we and the machines will work together.

I may be wrong here, but I’m not using faith-based thinking.    In fact I think faith is one of the main impediments to people seeing the inevitable reality of what is to come.   As suggested in an earlier note the advent of thinking machines may challenge many of the conventional religious beliefs that many hold very dear.   I actually think this tension will be far more likely to create acts of violence than we’ll see from the thinking machines, who will very quickly evolve to a state where they could simply … leave the planet (another reason I don’t think there’s much to worry about here in terms of superintelligent machines gone bad.

Does your Storytelling Trump the Truth?

One of the greatest confusions of my life has been watching otherwise very sharp folks descend into a sort of silly crazed madness – or at least incoherency – with respect to complex topics like politics, economy, global warming, etc.

AT THE VERY LEAST a thinking person should realize that we generally don’t have enough data or enough experiments to draw firm and certain conclusions about most complex topics, yet most of us seem to want to do exactly that.     I like to think I’m open minded about most things and generally happy to entertain even the most skeptical views of ideas I hold dear, but I’m sure I fall into this incoherency sometimes too.   However I try to insist to myself that I’m going to let the facts drive my conclusion rather than create stories and then fit in only those facts that support them.

Happily I think I …. finally …. understand why smart people can believe such dumb things, or support their views so strongly without regard to a reasoned analysis of all the information.

Storytelling trumps the truth !

It is not clear to me why we humans are so enamored with stories as opposed to data analysis, but clearly we have a huge preference for the storybook versions of things.     This is fun and entertaining when it comes to films, theater, music, and reading stories to your kids.    Unfortunately our storytelling obsession often gets in the way of good science, politics, and economics, all of which are best driven by cold hard facts and cool, rational interpretations of that data.

The storytelling obsession is SO powerful in fact that I often have people argue with me over something that is downright totally obvious if you view it rationally for even a moment.    It’s the idea that we should all work very strongly against politically motivated spending patterns and try to prioritize spending so we spend where it does the most good.    Most people will initially agree with this, but as soon as you say, for example, that we should take money AWAY from keeping comatose folks alive and put that money towards prenatal care in the Bronx (or, heaven forbid, Africa!),  many people do the descent into irrationality and say things like “well, what if it’s your friend who is in a coma?”.      If you say we should cut the defense budget they say (irrationally) “But how will we protect ourselves”, as if spending and protection obviously go hand in hand.      Stories allow us to spin and bend the data and analysis to our own agendas, and this is not a healthy process.

Many will relate personal stories or create stories to describe scenarios where – in some limited set of circumstances – they would have been hurt by a system that did not prioritize things in their way.    OF COURSE we will all have times when a rational system does not meet our needs!    This happens all the time.    But political / storytelling  spending – which is now rampant – will in all cases virtually guarantee we have suboptimal allocation of resources.

The answer is that a rational person recognizes that we’re all in this together and we need more rational rules about spending and we’ll all need to live with (or die by) those rules.    Sure there can be processes for exceptions to the general rules, but it’s simply not rational to suggest, as many do, that “we should always spend all the money in the world to save every single person”.

I think see these storytelling effects best on the far left and right of issues.    These can be political where President Obama is portrayed as a conservative corporate stooge by the incoherent left and a communist non-citizen by the incoherent right.   Neither view lines up with any but a delusional view of reality, yet both are fairly popular (and incompatible) ideas.

On a global scale we see religious fanatics use storytelling to weave their madness and bring continued instability to many regions.     I’d argue that a major challenge for many nations is to abandon leaders who are primarily charismatic storytellers in favor of resolute and analytical problem solvers.    Ideally you’ll find people who are both and in my opinion Obama may fit that bill if he can extricate himself from old school Democratic party economic delusions.

David Brooks on Charlie Rose, Tea Parties, Defense Spending Cuts.

David Brooks is one of the most thoughtful pundits practicing punditry, and I especially enjoy him on Charlie Rose where he’s not having to counter Mark Shield’s silly and often irrelevant points made on PBS’ “The News Hour”.     Despite the obvious ideological differences, even President Obama isn’t immune to the intelligent observations of Brooks, who has met several times with the President.

I especially enjoyed his point about the wisdom of *moving slow*.    I tend to be in the group that says “let’s try something new and bold”, but Brooks makes the case that slow, gradual change is the best course and one of the reasons for the great success of the American experiment.    He also seemed to feel this was by design – the founders wanted checks, balances, and thoughtful innovations rather than radical ones.      One could reasonably say that the US was born, revolutionarily, from a movement that advocated huge change in a short time, I think it’s also true that the founders recognized their own limitations and the limitations of government, which was why our new republic was designed more to temper the powers of Government and the ruling class than to enhance them.    This point is currently lost on many Americans but soon it’ll be clear to most that big Government is going to fail us … again.    Not out of bad intentions, rather from what the founders understood so well –  Government that governs best, governs least.

Unfortunately it’s the Tea Party movement that has become the main advocate for small Government, but the Tea Party folks are carrying the baggage of two unsustainably dumb ideologies along with them.    The first is their hypocrisy with respect to spending.  There are calls for cuts in entitlement programs (important) and also for trivial things that don’t matter (dumb), but Tea Party has NO calls for the necessary large cuts in defense  spending – one of the few big ticket budget items that eventually MUST be cut and SHOULD have been massively cut years ago.      We spend over half the global military spend – about $550,000,000,000 each year – and the return on this extraordinary investment is not even clearly positive.     Massive military responses often spawn more ferocious counterinsurgencies, so the idea that we must “root out” terrorism or face greater terror is unproven.     We don’t have enough data to know how our trillions in anti-terror spending will shake out so I’m not advocating anything here other than cuts in spending, which at least free up funding for things that have a proven return on investment.   [NOTE – Brooks and Obama would disagree with massive cuts in defense budget, though I think one of the great military minds of the century, President Dwight Eisenhower, is rolling in his grave watching how his predictions about the rise of a “military industrial establishment” have come true and, along with entitlements, have completely broken our bank. ] The second huge problem with the Tea Party movement is their remarkable enthusiasm for intolerance.   Sara Palin?   Tom Tancredo?   The people who are now clearly speaking for many in that movement are generally not very bright or capable, and also they are frequently using the kind of confrontatational, intolerant speech that should have been abandoned long ago, though it’s also true that the American left – now in power – is reaping some of what they sowed with the huge disrespect they showed the Bush Administration.

Ironically the solutions to many American problems are very clear, we just don’t have a party that reflects what we need which is a small and innovative government and a smart and innovative private sector.    Liberals need to abandon so much “hand holding” and demands for big Government and conservatives need to abandon their love of massive defense spending and social class warfare.

Nope, not holding my breath!