Thursday, March 30, 2017

Reflecting on AI

A nice reflection on AI, its current status, and future possibilities by Namit Arora - with a very useful set of links.

"As for the more dramatic claims about AI, my view, which I articulated in The Dearth of Artificial Intelligence (2009), remains that even if we develop ‘intelligent’ machines (much depends here on what we deem ‘intelligent’), odds are near-zero that machines will come to rival human-level general intelligence if their creation bypasses the particular embodied experience of humans forged by eons of evolution. By human-level intelligence (or strong AI, versus weak or domain-specific AI), I mean intelligence that’s analogous to ours: rivaling our social and emotional intelligence; mirroring our instincts, intuitions, insights, tastes, aversions, adaptability; similar to how we make sense of brand new contexts and use our creativity, imagination, and judgment to breathe meaning and significance into novel ideas and concepts; to approach being and time like we do, informed by our fear, desire, delight, sense of aging and death; and so on. Incorporating all of this in a machine will not happen by combining computing power with algorithmic wizardry. Unless machines can experience and relate to the world like we do—which no one has a clue how—machines can’t make decisions like we do. (Another way to say this is that reductionism has limits, esp. for highly complex systems like the biosphere and human mind/culture, when the laws of nature run out of descriptive and predictive steam—not because our science is inadequate but due to irreducible and unpredictable emergent properties inherent in complex systems.)"

Looking at the World with Human Eyes

A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece on 3 Quarks Daily arguing that thinking of realistic AI as being hyper-rational was a mistake, and that AI that is convincingly "real" will, in fact, be convincingly irrational - albeit not necessarily in ways that humans are.

This article reports on an attempt to develop a machine learning system for image analysis that makes mistakes similar to humans. This is much more than just a "cute" idea. As the report says, quoting David Cox, the study's lead researcher:

"Algorithms that make decisions in a similar way to us could also be easier to understand and trust, says Cox. Computer systems sometimes make mistakes that humans wouldn’t – like Tesla’s Autopilot system failing to notice a white trailer against a bright sky. Systems trained on brain data would make mistakes in a more human way. “And if you make mistakes that a human would make, humans will continue to trust that system,” says Cox."

Ultimately, the effort to make the irrationality of intelligent machines similar to that of humans will fail because machines capable of autonomous learning will go in unpredictable directions, but it isn't a bad place to start.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Artificial Stupidity

My new 3QD piece on the nature and future of AI:

"With exponential growth in computational power and availability of data, the unthinkable (literally, that which could not be thought) is now almost possible: Optimal – or near-optimal – choices can be calculated in real-time from vast amounts of data, even in some very complex tasks. And, thanks to the magic of machine learning, the mechanisms underlying these choices do not have to be specified by brain-limited humans; they can be inferred by the machines using the available data. So is AI finally going to give us the idealized rational agents of economists’ dreams? That is extremely doubtful! True, unlike the mechanisms of most human learning, the algorithms of machine learning are often based on rational objectives, but, like humans, machines must also learn from finite – albeit much larger – amounts of data. Thus, like humans, they too must fill in the gaps in data with heuristics – interpolating, extrapolating, simplifying, and generalizing just as humans do, but possibly in very different ways. And therein lies the rub! For now, machines try to learn something close to the human notion of rationality, which is already quite different from human thinking. But as intelligent machines progress to increasingly complex real-world problems and learn from increasingly complex data, the inferences they make will become less comprehensible, not more, because the complexity of the tasks will make the decision-making more opaque. And if machines are to become truly intelligent, they must become capable of learning rapidly like humans and other animals. But what they learn in that case will necessarily be even more biased by their priors and even less clearly interpretable to human observers – especially since many of these priors will themselves be acquired through learning."

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Inherent Bias

All demagogues and salesman are instinctive experts at exploiting what Kahneman and Tversky called "the availability heuristic" - having a particular exemplar come to represent a whole category because it is more readily available to the mind. This is, of course, the basis of stereotyping and ultimately of all bigotry. It is also an inescapable - and useful - feature of human cognition. The ability to evaluate a category in terms of a few exemplars is very useful when you're a hunter-gatherer on a dangerous prehistoric savannah and can't afford to see every kind of predator before learning to recognize dangerous animals. It is even useful in everyday life today, where quick decisions on whole categories of books, movies, foods, etc., that we do or do not like saves us a lot of time and effort for other. more useful things. The problem is that the bias carries over to judgments about categories of people. That is why no civilizational imperative has been more difficult to sustain throughout human history than the equality of all humans, and also why no bias has been exploited more successfully by tyrants and demagogues through the ages. Now we are seeing it again....

Trump's Foreign Policy

A look at Trump's incoherent, chaotic, foreign policy. This quote is spot on:

"As a result, not only is there nothing even close to a Trump doctrine, which would be more than anyone should expect, but even saying what the administration’s policy is on any given major issue is virtually impossible. This is not just embarrassing, but dangerous. The world will not wait until we get our act together. Left to their own guesswork, adversaries and allies can easily miscalculate the strength of our support or opposition. And other nations—friends like Germany, but also competitors like China—will move to fill any vacuum left by the confusion over America’s basic approach. All this suggests that the handwringing during the campaign about the potential for Trump to squander America’s global position by deliberately shifting the country toward a posture of isolation was misplaced. What is emerging is something else entirely; an abdication of our leadership by default."

But it is dangerously incorrect to claim, as the headline does, that Trump has "no foreign policy". The lack of coherence is, in fact, a policy, not an accident. This should not be confused with any sort of "three-dimensional chess" or "deliberate confusion". That is too optimistic a view of what we have. Rather, Trump's foreign policy reflects his view of the world and America's place in it. He sees both in simplistic, "toy world" terms, and does not feel the need to have a coherent policy beyond brandishing the military and threatening world leaders randomly without thinking. Policies are seen as necessary in situations that are recognized as being too complex for ad-hoc decision-making. Trump does not see the world in those terms. He plans to run the presidency as he has run his business: As an opportunistic enterprise. Of course, this will quickly lead to disaster on multiple fronts, not just in foreign policy. As others recognize the superficiality and arbitrariness of Trump's governance, whole industries will arise to take advantage of this. Breitbart is only the first of these. The price, of course, will be paid by the country and, indeed, the whole world. Trump isn't just the dog that has caught the car; he's the dog who has managed to get in the driver's seat. And we are all passengers in that car....

Jihad vs. McWorld

I remember reading this celebrated (and oft-mentioned) piece "Jihad vs. McWorld" by Benjamin Barber when it was originally published 24 years ago (yes, I was already an Atlantic subscriber then :-), but I think I only truly understand it now. The term "prescient" doesn't even begin to capture all the ways in which this analysis has remained valid through a quarter century of global upheaval. Anyone who hasn't read it should read it for the same reason as that one must read 'Heart of Darkness' or '1984': It captures the truth of our world beyond simple description.

Reading this now, I find it impossible to select a single paragraph to quote. Each one is more apt than the other! But here is how Barber begins the analysis:

"The tendencies of what I am here calling the forces of Jihad and the forces of McWorld operate with equal strength in opposite directions, the one driven by parochial hatreds, the other by universalizing markets, the one re-creating ancient subnational and ethnic borders from within, the other making national borders porous from without. They have one thing in common: neither offers much hope to citizens looking for practical ways to govern themselves democratically. If the global future is to pit Jihad's centrifugal whirlwind against McWorld's centripetal black hole, the outcome is unlikely to be democratic—or so I will argue."

That last insight - that BOTH forces work against democracy - is the crucial one.

H/t Richard Florida on twitter

Thursday, March 2, 2017


Remembering J.K. Galbraith and a very important period in South Asian history.

Embodied Mathematics

This beautiful piece by Margaret Wertheim makes a profound point that is surprisingly little-appreciated: The universe computes from quarks to galaxies. We may need complex math to describe physics, chemistry and biology, but physical, chemical, and biological systems embody that math in their very being. They calculate and solve the complicated equations for free - just by existing! Once upon a time, in the pre-history of half a century ago, we did use this capability in the form of analog computers. Now we're beginning to use it again in exploiting biochemistry and quantum mechanics to do computations.

The World According to Mark

I feel so much better knowing that My Lord Mark the Benevolent is working to make the world a better place and to lead humanity to the next stage:

"There’s no perfect analogue for what Zuckerberg is proposing, but it’s closest to the role that major religions have played throughout history. Facebook is to become an organizing space where you meet people, engage with your neighbors and your world, organize to make changes in your community, relax with people like yourself, and receive information that helps you participate in government. And like religions — but unlike virtually any other organizing force in human history — Facebook is truly, intrinsically, global."

Actually, for all his noble intentions, what Mark Zuckerberg is discovering is the fact that, in complex systems, almost all consequences are unintended.

Counting on One's Fingers

Before there was fitbit or Apple Watch, there was this abacus on a ring....

Presidential Rank

Lists are both meaningless and interesting. This annual ranking of US presidents by historians is a good example. An especially remarkable fact is that, with the election of Donald Trump, the lower bound of this list is now fixed for all future time....

Hello, Pleistocene Park!

The mammoth will walk again, and a whole new menagerie will follow.

Shooting for the Stars

The future of space travel will not be an exclusive American or American-Russian project. Others are making remarkable strides. This achievement by India - the launching of more than 100 satellites in one mission - is a remarkable feat! It shows that the even more rearkable mission to Mars was not a one-off thing.

What Does the President Not Need to Know...

"Spies Keep Intelligence From Donald Trump on Leak Concerns", reports the Wall Street Journal. This is truly terra incognita. We have only seen things like this in movies:

"The current and former officials said the decision to avoid revealing sources and methods with Mr. Trump stems in large part from the president’s repeated expressions of admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his call, during the presidential campaign for Russia to continue hacking the emails of his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton."

The Future of America

This article continues the theme from another recent post about the changing demographics of America,. The sub-five year old population is already majority non-white. That's the future. The question is whether this diverse population will thrive. This paragraph really stood out to me in this article:

"Today, nearly half of young people under age 18 are racial minorities and a quarter are first and second generation immigrants. And this fraction will grow as the white population continues to age. Policies that invest in their future—their education, their health and their families’ well-being—will be essential for strong national growth. This will only occur if the older mostly white generation understands this and is willing to support the investment that this next multicultural generation needs."

That's a really important issue.

The New Jim Crow

Hillary Clinton's defeat in the 2016 presidential election may have had many fathers, but one of the most important and least visible was the systematic voter suppression machine that Republicans have deployed in recent years. Democrats have begun to reverse it a bit with help from the courts, but now with Republicans and Jeff Sessions in charge of Justice, this may be an exercise in futility. The best hope of liberals will be countering this bigotry with aggressive voter outreach, education, mobilization, and support.

Homer's Homelands

A beautiful, interesting map showing the homeland of every character in the Iliad.

With Time Running Out ...

Are we living in Weimar America? I don't think so. This is a 250-year old established democracy and the world's undisputed superpower, not a fragile, recent republic erected on the ashes of a defeated country. But this does not mean that the country is not in real peril. Unhappy societies, like unhappy families, have their distinct ways of being unhappy. Ours will not be like Germany in 1930; it will be like America in 2017. And, in this interview, Timothy Snyder is absolutely right about the fact that the window of time to prevent a crisis is brief. And he's right when he says:

"The temptation in a new situation is to imagine that nothing has changed."

Our imaginations need to be deployed better.

The Indus Valley Mystery

This very interesting interview of the Indus Valley scholar, Asko Parpola, suggests that, at last, the enduring mysteries of the Indus Valley Civilization may be relenting slightly.

Swarajya is not normally a fount of insight :-), but here the erudite Dr. Parpola keeps the focus on reality....

The Stranger in Our Midst

Human history is a chronicle of migration. We populated the world by moving out of Africa and reaching every corner of the globe. Throughout recorded history (and surely through all of unrecorded history), human populations have migrated due to war, famine, disease, natural calamity, and in search of better opportunity. One thing that has always traveled with these migrating populations is the opprobrium of their hosts. With a few exceptions, migrants - especially in large numbers - have aroused the natural xenophobia of settled populations. The idea that the diversity introduced by the migrants is, in fact, a force for renewal is both modern and unnatural for the human lizard brain - as described in this wonderful review of four books.

Jigar ....

A wonderful ghazal by Jigar Muradabadi

Unequal Death

The distribution of mortality and its causes is very non-homogeneous across the United States. Appalachia, in particular, is like an ugly scar on the map with substance abuse snuffing out lives and hopes every day.

The Chinese Play Chess

The Chinese were making international deals when the Drumpfs were still hunter-gatherers. Not surprised that he's getting outmaneuvered already.

The Nazis and the Mathematicians

Amazing piece on how Jewish German mathematicians coped with the rise of Nazism. Who knew imaginary numbers were "Jewish"!

Via Pramathanath Sastry

The Fringe at the Center of Things

Pity the authoritarianist movement that finally found its "Superman", and he turned out to be an incompetent fool....

Filling In

American Rainbow

A very important story. It's already too late to keep the US from becoming a majority non-white country by about 2045 or so. Already, the 5-years and under population is majority non-white.

What this may mean, however, is that we'll start seeing a reversal of the North-South political split that has developed over the last 40 years. The South will become increasingly Latino and trend more Democratic, while the Midwest and even some states in the Northeast may trend Republican (or Trumpian) as white identity becomes stronger. We saw a preview of that in 2016, though I think this is not yet a real thing.
Ultimately, I think that the Republican Party will either disintegrate or abandon its solid conservatism long before the realignment is complete. However, there are many X factors in this, including Trump and terrorism.

Naziri and Jigar

فلک سراسر بازار دہر غم چیدہ است
نشاط نیست کہ یک جای ہست و یک جا نیست
ہوای وصل کسی میکند کہ بلہوس است
در ان دلی کہ محبت بود، تمنا نیست

falak saraasar-e baazaar-e dehr gham cheedast
nishaat neest ke yek jaai hast o yek jaa neest
havaai-e vasl kasee mi-kunad ke bolhavas ast
dar an dilee ke mohabbat bovad, tamanna neest


Heaven has made sorrow available (for purchase) everywhere in the marketplace of the world;
Not like joy, which is found in some places and not in others.
Only worshippers of Greed seek union (with the Beloved);
The heart that is filled with Love is devoid of Desire.

The second couplet reminded me of a wonderful couplet by Jigar Muradabadi:
بیٹھے ہیں بزم دوست میں گمشدگان حسن دوست
عشق ہے اور طلب نہیں، نغمہ ہے اور صدا نہیں

baeThay haeN bazm-e dost mayN gumshudagaan-e husn-e dost
ishq hae aor talab naheeN, naghma hae aor sadaa naheeN


The ones lost in the Beloved's beauty are sitting in the Beloved's company;
(In their hearts) there is Love but no Desire, there is song but no sound.

No poet in all of Urdu literature is better than Jigar at capturing the ineffable states of mind in universal ways - a modern sensibility in classical form. His poetry needs much more appreciation than it get today

A Visual Feast

Google releases the mother of all visual databases. Let the algorithms roll!

Not a Moment to Waste

آکہ نہ ای کہ در چہ نفس سود عمر تست
از ہر نفس اگر نہ عیاری گرفتہ ای
نظیری نیشابوری

aageh ne-i ke dar che nafas sood-e omr-e tost
az har nafas agar na ayaaree girefte-i

Naziri Nishaburi

You know not in which moment your life's fulfillment lies if you do not draw value from every one of your moments.

Naziri, who came to India from Iran as a young poet, became a protege of the erudite poet and scholar, Mirza Abdur Rahim Khan-e Khanan, son of Bairam Khan and one of Akbar the Great, closest companions. A master jeweler by craft, Naziri settled down in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, and became quite prosperous. A Shi'i Muslim by faith, it is reported the he was quite strict in religious observance and professed a dry orthodoxy (khoshki mi-varzeed). Nevertheless, his poetry, far from being dry or dull, represents the highest pinnacle of wit, insight, eloquence, and beauty in the entire tradition of the Indian branch of Persian poetry (sabk-e hindi)

Things Fall Apart

Another very interesting Turchin piece on the decline of cooperation among American elites. He sees societal history as a cyclical process with alternating "integrative" and disintegrative" phases. The former is characterized by high cooperation and low socioeconomic inequality, whereas the latter shows the reverse. This model suggests that American democracy (and the world in general) is in a disintegrative phase.

Intra-Elite Competition

Peter Turchin's insightful article on intra-elite competition as a major force in societal transformation.

Wolfram Unbound

How to talk to aliens: The Wolfram way. An endlessly fascinating (and almost endless) piece on interstellar travel, communicating with aliens, cellular automata, and a whole lot of other stuff.....

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Bedil and Evolution

 Zulfiqar Khan makes a very interesting point on the great Indian Farsi poet, Abdul Qadir Bedil (1642–1720), who was famous for encompassing complex - and often surprisingly modern - ideas in his poetry:

Bedil on Evolution:

Last night, before going to bed, I was reading a ghazal (a special form for a Persian/Urdu poem) by Bedil and this couplet made me stop and think. More than a century before Darwin was even born, Bedil has discussed evolution frequently in his poetry. In this particular verse, Bedil suggests that since everything found in nature has something else very similar, it means that nature doesn’t create things out of nowhere but, in fact, it continues to perfect them from their previous versions (generations?). Just like before making a portrait, an artist first draws a sketch, Bedil argues that humans once used to be apes before they reached to this present form. And this shows what a wonderful poet Bedil was, he put his entire argument and conclusion in just one beautiful couplet:

هیچ شکلی بی‌هیولا قابل صورت نشد
آدمی هم پیش از آن‌ کادم شود بوزینه بود

(Translation: There is no portrait, for which a sketch was not first drawn. Therefore, the man, before he could become Adam, was once an ape.)

Of course, this does not capture the main ideas of evolution, but it does recognize the fact that humans and apes are fundamentally the same kind of animal - a truly revolutionary idea for the 18th century! 

To Sleep, Perchance to Forget

This is an interesting piece but I find it baffling and sad that an article on this topic fails to mention who first came up with the idea that dreaming may be caused by an "unlearning" process where the brain cleans up the memories it has formed recently. It was Francis Crick - of Crick & Watson double helix fame - who, having nabbed the Nobel for that discovery, spent the last few decades of his life at the Salk Institute thinking about the brain.

On the Precipice of Autocracy

"How to Build an Autocracy" by David Frum - probably the defining pieceso far about the real danger that the election of Donald Trump poses. The article ends on an optimistic note, but the darkness comes through.

The Ancestor's Tale

So the last common ancestor of all vertebrates - living 540 million years ago in the Cambrian period - crapped out of its mouth. Understandably, this has led some to think of a certain recently elected official. One wag on twitter wrote: "The circle of life is complete." Another said" "I didn't know our president was that old."

The Secret Life of Whales

Nature continues to surprise, amaze, and educate. Who knew that menopause in whales could be so interesting?

A Blessed (Chinese) Curse

I think we're now going through the most interesting time in history in our lifetimes, and while it is frightening and disturbing, it is also exciting to live in such times and be part of such world-changing events. In particular, I think the younger ones among us are about to get an opportunity that not every generation gets: To stand up for fundamental Good in the face of real danger - not just because of Trump, but because of all the changes happening in the world, of which Trump is just one manifestation. At other times, only some choose to confront great questions, and some have such questions thrust upon them. In this time, we will ALL have to confront the issue of who we are deep down - what is the bedrock beyond which we are not willing to be pushed, whatever the consequences. In a way, it is a welcome moment of clarity. Lives derive meaning from such moments, and it is in such moments that the world is transformed.

The World As Reality Show

Probably the best analysis of Donald Trump's ambitions that I have seen recently. A must-read. And must-groan!

Dr. Seuss Speaks from Beyond the Grave!

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Cohen Unleashed

Eliot Cohen is incandescent! And he's totally right. The question is whether he retains his influence on the Right.

"The question is, what should Americans do about it? To friends still thinking of serving as political appointees in this administration, beware: When you sell your soul to the Devil, he prefers to collect his purchase on the installment plan. Trump’s disregard for either Secretary of Defense Mattis or Secretary-designate Tillerson in his disastrous policy salvos this week, in favor of his White House advisers, tells you all you need to know about who is really in charge. To be associated with these people is going to be, for all but the strongest characters, an exercise in moral self-destruction.

For the community of conservative thinkers and experts, and more importantly, conservative politicians, this is a testing time. Either you stand up for your principles and for what you know is decent behavior, or you go down, if not now, then years from now, as a coward or opportunist. Your reputation will never recover, nor should it."

Greek Mythology in Balochistan

A typically entertaining and informative piece by the inimitable Salman Rashid.

Folk history - mostly wrong - is rife all over South Asia, with various tombs of Hazrat Ali and the Prophet's hair and horseshoe littering the landscape. Of course, we have Adam's own crash site in Sri Lanka, and sacred abodes of deities scattered about in the unlikeliest places. Why not graves of Mohammad bin Qasim's soldiers - even if they look like 18th century Sindhi graves. Perhaps Mohammad bin Qasim originated the design a thousand years earlier ....

I'm Nobody? Not a Chance

A Self-Inflicted Catastrophe

Why Hillary Clinton really lost is not something that liberals would like to hear about - not because they would have to acknowledge the strength of their opponents but because they would need to recognize their own immaturity in the face of an existential choice. As Ben-Shahar points out:

"This story is mostly wrong. Trump did not win because he was more attractive to this base of white voters. He won because Hillary Clinton was less attractive to the traditional Democratic base of urban, minorities, and more educated voters. This is a profound fact, because Democratic voters were so extraordinarily repelled by Trump that they were supposed to have the extra motivation to turn out. Running against Trump, any Democratic candidate should have ridden a wave of anti-Trump sentiment among these voters. It therefore took a strong distaste for Hillary Clinton among the Democratic base to not only undo this wave, but to lose many additional liberal votes."

A significant number of liberals who would have voted Democratic could not sufficiently overcome their childish (and mostly Right wing-fueled) dislike of Clinton to vote for her, and ended up electing Trump. An equally important factor, in my opinion, was the complacency created by the media narrative of Clinton's inevitability, which allowed lazy Democrats in a few big urban areas like Philadelphia, Detroit and Milwaukee to take a voting holiday. And a lot of blame must go to the Clinton campaign for not anticipating these problems and addressing them.

This also highlights the huge significance of Comey's first letter, which came just in time to tank Clinton's numbers without giving her a chance to recover.

Istanbul! Istanbul!

Two delicious new books on the city celebrating 17 centuries of being at the crossroads of history.

Sokal Revisited

A re-analysis of Alan Sokal's monumental 1996 hoax, arguing that it had virtually no effect on its intended target. Bonus: Steve Weinberg.