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When four researchers decided to see what would happen when robots issue speeding tickets and the impact it might have on the justice system, they found out two seemingly obvious things about machines. First, robots make binary decisions so if you’re over the speed limit, you get no leeway or second chances. Second, robots are not smart enough to take into account all of the little nuances that a police officer notes when deciding whether to issue a ticket or not. And here lies the value of this study. Rather than trying to figure out how to get computers to write tickets and determine when to write them, something we already know how to do, the study showed that computers would generate significantly more tickets than human law enforcement, and that even the simplest human laws are too much for our machines to handle without many years of training and very complex artificial neural networks to understand what’s happening and why, because a seemingly simple and straightforward task turned out to be anything but simple.

Basically, here’s what the legal scholars involved say in example form. Imagine you’re speeding down an empty highway at night. You’re sober, alert, in control, and a cop sees you coming and knows you’re speeding. You notice her, hit the breaks, and slow down to an acceptable 5 to 10 miles per hour over the speed limit. Chances are that she’ll let you keep going because you are not being a menace to anyone and the sight of another car, especially a police car, is enough to relieve your mild case of lead foot. Try doing that on a crowded road during rush hour and you’ll more than likely be stopped, especially if you’re aggressively passing or riding bumpers. Robots will issue you a ticket either way because they don’t really track or understand your behavior or the danger you may pose to others while another human can make a value judgment. Yes, this means that the law isn’t being properly enforced 100% of the time, but that’s ok because it’s not as important to enforce as say, laws against robbery or assault. Those laws take priority.

Even though this study is clearly done with lawyers in mind, there is a lot for the comp sci crowd to dissect also, and it brings into focus the amazing complexity behind a seemingly mundane, if not outright boring activity and the challenge it poses to AI models. If there’s such a rich calculus of philosophical and social cues and decisions behind something like writing a speeding ticket, just imagine how incredibly more nuanced something like tracking potential terrorists half a world away becomes when we break it down on a machine level. We literally need to create a system with a personality, compassion, and discipline at the same time, in other words, a walking pile of stark contradictions, just like us. And then, we’d need to teach it to find the balance between the need to be objective and decisive, and compassionate and thoughtful, depending on the context of the situation in question. We, who do this our entire lives, have problems with that. How do we get robots to develop such self-contradictory complexity in the form of probabilistic code?

Consider this anecdote. Once upon a time, your truly and his wife were sitting in a coffee shop after a busy evening and talking about one thing or another. Suddenly, there was a tap on the glass window to my left, and I turned around to see a young, blonde girl with two friends in tow pressing her open palm against the glass. On her palm, she wrote in black marker "hi 5." So of course I high-fived her through the glass much to her and her friends’ delight, and they skipped off down the street. Nothing about that encounter or our motivations makes logical sense to any machine whatsoever. Yet, I’m sure you can think of reasons why it took place and propose why the girl and her friends were out collecting high fives through glass windows, or why I decided to play along, and why others might not have. But this requires situational awareness on the scale we’re not exactly sure how to create, collecting so much information that it probably requires a small data center to process by recursive neural networks weighing hundreds of factors.

And that’s is why we are so far from AI as seen in sci-fi movies. We underestimate the complexity of the world around us because we had the benefit of evolving to deal with it. Computers had no such advantage and must start from scratch. If anything, they have a handicap because all the humans who are supposed to program them work at such high levels of cognitive abstraction, it takes them a very long time to even describe their process, much less elaborate each and every factor influencing it. After all, how would you explain how to disarm someone wielding a knife to someone who doesn’t even know what a punch is, much less how to throw one? How do you try to teach urban planning to someone who doesn’t understand what a car is and what it’s built to do? And just when we think we’ve found something nice and binary yet complex enough to have real world implications to teach our machines, like writing speeding tickets, we suddenly find out that there was a small galaxy of things we just took for granted in the back of our minds…

teddy bartender

One of the big dangers of being a professional pundit is that you can chase yourself into a slow downward spiral of having to up the ante on your best known subject matter to keep up interest from those who expect a certain slant from you. If you’re best known for telling your viewers that the other side of the political divide wants to destroy the country as you know it, that side better be up to something ever more dire every week at least or you’re stuck with a rehash of the same old stories. And tech writer and skeptic Evgeny Morozov seems to be doing the same thing as our hypothetical pundit, going from scathing, well-informed criticism, to blaming technology even though the humans are clearly at fault, and finally to the slippery slope of the Old Fogey Squad as he forsees a dystopian future created by our over-reliance on smartphones and apps. But not only does he recite the technophobic talking points, he also makes the same mistake as virtually every well-meaning Luddite makes when speaking out against the feared technology.

Basically, it seems that technophobes forget that all the apps and gadgets they fear will enslave the world are operated by humans and have an off button. If you want to disregard what an app tells you, you can use said off button and… wait for it… shut it off. Surely the Luddites know this, you might argue, why else would they implore you to turn off your computers and phones? Well, allow me to cite Morozov’s downright asinine example of a smart kitchen that will warn you what ingredients not to mix stifling culinary innovation. New recipes and flavors are created when an ambitious cook takes chances and an app telling the cook what to do and what not to do would only be an impediment to creativity. But what if the cook just wants to get the dish right and give its flavors an initial test run? After all, when I find a new recipe I stick to it, make it exactly by the book, and when I actually taste it, I might get the idea to do something new with it. So when I first make the dish, the app would be very useful. Next time? It gets shut off and I experiment.

Similar lapses in realizing that humans have a mind of their own also come up when the modern technophobe will invariably declare that googling is making us dumber by making remembering facts, figures, or routes irrelevant. Whatever information is brought back has to be remembered to be useful, and it had to have been required in a proper context. Your phone or computer isn’t just going to tell you what to do next, you’re going to ask it for some tidbit of information that you need to know at a given moment. When traveling, isn’t it nice to get a map and directions for an unfamiliar city? And if you stumble across a word or a term you don’t know, wouldn’t finding out what it means in just a few seconds be a good thing? If anything, having a search engine in your pocket would encourage you to get answers from trusted sources when you need them. To think that we’ll be worse off because we can use smart tools to get things done makes about as much sense as declaring that GPS and information boards make traveling more difficult because they take away from the art of line navigation and orienting oneself with sextants.

So on an on we go down the slippery slope as people unable to decide for themselves what app is useful and what app isn’t, and substituting their own free will for a machine’s instructions, are all in dire need of saving by the technophobes who will bring them to either the technology-free nirvana of their ancestors, or who will carefully filter what phones, computers, and apps can still be used as not to overwhelm those poor, sad technophiles unable to understand why there’s an off switch on their devices and how to use it, much less make choices as to when to listen to the app and when to ignore it. Of course not every app in an app store is useful and far from every technological solution to a problem is a Nobel Prize-winning idea to put it mildly, but that’s why we have markets that decide what ideas people like, what solutions they find useful, and which will give them the creeps or are more trouble than they’re worth. Maybe the Luddites should put a bit more trust in their fellow humans rather than trying to be strict, overweening parents who want to do what they think is best for their offspring rather than let them learn on their own?

surveillance camera array

New America Foundation’s fellow Charles Kenny recently outlined his case for Big Brother for a group of casual policy wonks and argues that because a lot of biometric and surveillance data could be used for good, we should let it be used to catch tax cheats, keep tabs on criminals and crime patterns in general, and more efficiently allocate help to the poor. It’s not a new argument, in fact it’s the political science version of the benevolent technocratic authoritarianism you could hear from some TED luminaries if you spend a little time in the right circles. But there’s a reason why it’s not a very popular idea and why it has a lot of skeptics, and those skeptics are not from the tinfoil hat contingent by a wide margin. Give a government wide-ranging powers to track you and intervene in your daily life, and you open up enormous potential for abuse. The trains might run on time, just like in Mussolini’s Italy, but at what social and personal costs? What happens if you manage to run afoul of the government’s plan for how to best use you to boost GDP?

To be fair to Kenny, he’s not necessarily advocating that Big Brother is great, but that there are some benefits to programs to which we reflexively react with fear. Well meaning projects to find and catch criminals or stabilize shaky economies have been used as arguments for benevolent authoritarians for centuries, and they do tend to feed into many people’s preference for stability even if it’s at the cost of democracy. After all, people have to eat and it’s a lot easier to buy food when you have a government agency looking after your jobs and your safety. And while people tend to trust themselves not to be dangerous lunatics, the reality is that they often don’t object if their neighbors were periodically watched just in case because hey, you never know what might happen, right? One day you’re living next to perfectly quiet people and the next, bam, there’s an axe murder, the police are on your front porch, and there’s a maniac on the loose.

But again, there’s huge potential for abuse involved here. We could do such seemingly positive things as monitor all traffic and tell people when they should or shouldn’t drive, or even route all traffic by communicating with mandatory GPS units. We could also have a computer monitor an electronic version of all your health records and recommend you a diet and exercise regimen for a healthier lifestyle. However, we would also be taking away your choices and your responsibility for your own actions. People like to have choices. Yes, they hate traffic and yes, they want to be healthier and live longer, but they also want to be in control behind the wheel and if they want a doughnut at 3 am, then by FSM’s noodles they want the option to have one even if a protein bar would be better for them. Plus, and here’s the dark side of all this paternalism, who will enforce all this order and how will punishments be meted out for not following the rules? If we’re dealing with a government that can track you anywhere, how far can or will it go to discipline you?

mma bout

A few days ago, I mentioned a hobby that has absolutely nothing to do with blogging, computers, or skeptical transhumanism to keep my head clearer and take my mind off work. To those of you who read the post and didn’t click on the link, the hobby is krav maga, a mixed martial art. If you think this is some sort of weird male nerd overcompensation, let me tell you that my wife goes to the same practice sessions and what I see her do on the canvas definitely makes me doubt her claim that she’s a lover not a fighter. So considering how much time I spend learning how to do what you’d see in a UFC fight, when a Facebook friend posted a link to an article about a high profile bout and the first comment called MMA a low point of civilization and base entertainment not unlike pornography, exploiting people for profit, I got a wee bit steamed. My reply was swiftly followed by assertions that MMA fighters are working class kids with no other job prospects who get savaged in the ring to cheering crowds and are then cast aside like porn starlets who simply aren’t keeping up with the pace of the industry anymore, ending up broke and alone.

Now aside from the fact that there’s no evidence for this assertion and my own experiences at the gym definitely contradict this (the vast majority of the people I see doing sport fighting have office jobs during the day or are college students), I was obviously riled up. What the hell was all this? Was the person making these sweeping statements and going by old stereotypes in boxing movies on the lookout for a victim to defend from an oppressive society? Did his visceral hatred of seeing someone take a blow to the head make him blind to the fact that some people want to fight and challenge themselves, and that fighting is an insanely complicated sport? Now, we did settle the discussion like adults, and one of the points brought up did make me think. Are UFC’s top fighters objectified much in the same manner as adult performers? Are they just kept around as long as they provide entertainment and then dismissed while those who watch them work are only interested in what they can do, not who they are as people? Well, yes. But who isn’t?

If you dwell in a cubicle farm for most of the day, especially in a large company, you’re reduced to the amount of work you do, just like an MMA fighter is reduced to stats, and porn stars are reduced to the amount of views and money they bring in from a certain demographic. Constant objectification lies at the core of post-modern nihilism that rejects the patterns of life we’ve been told we should follow and the documents that sum up who we are in a resume. And one big part of living in today’s society is coping with being objectified in one way or another, though we only really complain about it happening in public when the objectification happens in an area of life that we’ve been conditioned to see as base vices. The MMA critic on Facebook complained that fighters get pummeled for entertainment (wrath) and that porn stars become sex objects in adult videos (lust), but he probably didn’t even think to make a peep about HR seeing you as John Q. Public, employee number 1375-23J, cubicle 44B. If anything, this last type of objectification can be even worse, reducing a person to hours on a spreadsheet or burndown chart.

And that makes me wonder. If I am going to be objectified, is it really so bad that I was objectified when doing something uniquely human, something raw, emotional, and irrefutably alive than as lines of code, items in production, and hours billed? If anything, being seen as a unit of work on dashboards and charts is far more dehumanizing than having your technique for elbowing your opponent in the ring analyzed and trainers making sure you can execute a really painful block enough times? At least here you have a chance to excel in a way that lets people see your pain but also your dedication and the ability to control your aggression as a sequence of techniques rehearsed a thousand times to commit them to muscle memory. We can ask the same question about adult video performers. Yes they’re a gateway for someone’s sexual gratification but they get the benefit of being objectified in raw passion and emotion, uniquely human qualities that a slot on an office chart could never have. Having a personality is what we reserve for those who become famous by distinguishing themselves enough to be featured in the mass media…

malt shop

Perhaps one of the things I love hearing most as a techie about the tools my profession creates for making communication easier and more convenient is how these tools are destroying decent society and are supposedly turning people into hyperactive idiots. Almost invariably, this comes from old fogeys, either in age or at heart, who think their Luddism is the cure for what they see as the ills of the modern world. But what if the social malaise they want to treat so badly is not a problem at all but an outdated practice that needs to change or die off completely? For the past few weeks, a number of big news sites have been lamenting the death of dating and courtship in today’s wired world, blaming online dating, new inequalities between genders, and even texting for the near demise of the traditional courtship ritual your great grandparents would’ve endured, citing fictional characters or those with poor communication skills as examples of its swift demise at the hands of technology and the economy. So, courtship is dead? Terrific, good riddance.

Now, it’s important to point out that the good, old-fashioned dinner-and-a-movie dates are alive and very well, and a lot of married couples still have date nights. Go out on a weekend and you will see plenty of couples holding hands or getting to know each other over dinner with that stiff awkwardness so many people have during the first half an hour of a first date. Where the writers reading dating’s eulogy go way off the rails is by failing to consider that official numbered dates of the looking-for-my-soulmate variety are not the only way men and women enjoy each others’ company anymore and serious relationships can start from casual hook-ups, just hanging out on a regular basis, or just come together by going with the flow. My wife and I had one date in three years and shacked up about a week after we met. The arrangement was supposed to last a few months and you know how that worked out if you paid attention to the previous sentence. She’s still here. We didn’t have to court. We just enjoyed each other’s company after our first date.

This relaxed let’s-see-what-happens attitude seems to be the new face of dating and it removes a lot of pressure from meeting someone new or formally committing to a person until you really, really get to know him or her. One of the biggest reasons I usually avoided dating other Russian immigrants was because the culture is still typically set on traditional courtships and parents are organizing dates and referring potential suitors to their children. From the very first date, you’re under a microscope and everything about you is being evaluated for your potential as a spouse while you’re assured that this is totally not what’s happening at all, you’re just having fun. I was not and I’m guessing it wasn’t fun for her either, especially the post-date parental interrogations that start with "so, what do you think?" Would anyone with the option to avoid all this really want to go through these uncomfortable motions? Dating isn’t solely about finding a spouse anymore, it’s about getting to know people better and seeing what they’re like to be around.

Using a fictional bed-hopper as done by The Atlantic, or collecting quotes about how someone misunderstood a rather vague text doesn’t prove that technology is killing the concept of a date or that there is no dating today any more than a short text instead of a phone call proves that conversation is dead and gone. As helpfully pointed out at Slate, the courtship process usually detailed by those who aren’t aware that society has moved on from the 1890s puts far too much pressure on women to find husbands and reads like a manual on how to be a fake, hollow shell of the person you actually are. Women are encouraged to be perfect little Stepford wives-to-be and whom they marry is secondary as long as they get married, while men are left to navigate a dating world where any warmth or genuine affection are to be treated as warning signs because they’re not lady-like and unsuited for a proper wife. If that’s not a recipe for misery, I really don’t know what is and it’s asinine to think that with today’s options for casual dating and taking things slow and naturally we’d still be living by such backwards, prudish, totalitarian rules.

For all the talk about how technology is making the dating scene confusing and encouraging all those young whippersnappers to consider more dating options and have fun doing it instead of settling down, the old fogeys don’t seem to realize that creating this assembly line of families in their social engineering experiment by outmoded rules is what dehumanizes people while texting and online dating are really putting the choice for how they want to run their love lives back into their hands. Rather than mourning the writhing decay of courtship, we should be celebrating it by picking up a phone and texting that cute guy or girl we recently met "hey there, wanna hang out tonight?" And if he or she replies yes, say what you want to happen. Imagine that. Hanging out with no pressure or expectations with life-long consequences, and getting married when you think you’re ready and it makes sense rather than spend your youth playing a role and trying to find a spouse as the elders impatiently tap their feet and ask why it’s taking so long. What evils has modern technology wrought on the young adults of today, am I right?

machine gun

In the wake of the tragic school shooting Connecticut, there’s been an attempt at some public dialog about gun control, as there usually is after every mass shooting. Well, dialog is probably too strong of a word. It’s really more like an exchange of hyperventilating memes in which we’re bombarded by one side insisting that any attempt to slow down purchases of powerful weapons must be an effort by the government to enslave them, complete with enough Godwins to qualify the objections as hysterical, while the other insists that the "gun culture" is what makes people who aren’t exactly all that mentally stable to begin with kill strangers instead of seeking help. Of course we have plenty of reasonable people on both sides of the fence willing to compromise, but as the current custom dictates only the loudest and the most obnoxious tend to get noticed since they are generally a very noisy and persistent crowd who won’t let you overlook them.

Personally, I have no problem with people owning guns or using them for protection. If someone breaks into your house and comes at you with a weapon, by all means, warn and fire at will. But I’d also like to see background checks and mandatory training for new gun owners, not just brief safety classes where obvious things are briefly covered as everyone dozes off. There’s should not be any issues with keeping track of what guns are being sold and the paranoia that the state will come and seize your guns, therefore you need a secret stash of high powered weaponry to defend yourself from an uppity government is absurd. If the government really wants your guns, it has everything from stealth bombers to tanks and highly trained commando units on call, and while we can invoke Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq until the cows come home, comparing these asymmetric conflicts to an extremely well armed dictatorship on a massive purge is just wrong.

The wonks at Foreign Policy crunched the numbers specifically to addess this issue and found absolutely no correlation between gun ownership and freedom or democracy. In the top eleven countries in the world by gun ownership there are peaceful quasi-socialist utopias like Finland, Switzerland, and Sweden. But there are also authoritarian states like Saudi Arabia and Iraq, the latter being very gun saturated both before and after Saddam. Even more interesting, the very first Arab nation to topple its authoritarian ruler during the Arab spring, Tunisia, is virtually gun- free at one weapon per 1,000 people. Egypt was also no better armed and the large number of Libyan gun owners didn’t pose much of a threat to Qaddafi for decades. And when they did, an air campaign by NATO was crucial for their victory. Likewise, the decently armed Syrians are in what can only be described as a stalemate with Assad who, to put it mildly, doesn’t have what a member state of NATO would call advanced weapons. So guns don’t mean freedom.

In the end, it all comes down to the people and the history of the country. Nations used to very strong authoritarians and violent overthrows when those in power don’t share well won’t think to use their guns in a mass uprising without something very exceptional driving them to do it. In the United States, where freedom, independence, and debate are prized, people are willing to give administrations that would exceed their authority hell, even if it’s just verbal. Plenty of Americans even think that the Second Amendment was written to give citizens the authority to overthrow an overly powerful government if they so desire. From a historical perspective, this view seems very improbable since the verbiage focuses on militias and the security of the state, not freedom from future tyrants. The founding fathers needed militias to boost their armies in case on an invasion to swarm and peck away at enemies. Considering that they limited the right to vote to white, land owning males just like them, created the electoral college to overrule popular vote if they saw fit, and Washington himself rode with an army regiment to suppress an armed rebellion, it’s unlikely that they were such devoted libertarians that they were fine with armed uprisings.

Furthermore, it’s not ridiculous to think that if you want to own something designed specifically to injure and hurt others, you should have a background check and some training before you can buy it. If anything, the training will help in a situation where it should actually be used, although it’s probably best to leave things like trying to stop a crime in progress to the experts. The same wonks at FP who analyzed worldwide gun data also note that in the overwhelming majority of all cases where guns effectively stopped public shootings, the people who wielded the guns were highly trained professionals. This is why I’m always puzzled when an ardent gun right supporter boosts the case for anyone to have any gun he or she wants with an argument that features the effective use or possession of guns by soldiers, SWAT members, and police officers who spend months training and years in the field, trained to stop crimes or shoot the right targets through a rain of gunfire. That’s basically their job. Comparing them on an average citizen is like trying to compare a veteran stunt driver to someone who just got his or her license.

Average people can’t fight to shoot well enough in an actual confrontation without training and those who are convinced they’ll turn into a Navy SEAL or and Army Ranger in a real crisis are a menace to themselves and everyone around them. They can absolutely defend themselves in a controlled environment like their homes, or push away a weaker or incompetent attacker in they get jumped in a dark alley, but faced with someone much better armed or with experience, they need skills to escape alive or accurately return fire. There’s a reason why in martial arts classes you do the same drills over and over again, day in, day out even as you learn new moves. And soldiers in basic training and commandos in advanced programs don’t simulate various combat scenarios on a constant basis just because they have nothing better to do. To argue that their constantly honed ability to handle weapons and disarm opponents means that anyone needs to be able to buy any weapon no questions asked makes no logical sense.

Owning a gun doesn’t make you a superhero or keep sinister government forces at bay. If you want to save lives, sign up for martial arts and marksmanship classes, then apply to your police department. If you want to defend the government from turning into a dictatorship, vote for the politicians who will keep the party in power in check, or become active in politics yourself. If you want to defend yourself of hunt, no one should stop you as long as your background check isn’t going to feature a string or armed robberies across the country and you’re willing to take a few hours to learn how to properly use your weapon if you’ve never shot guns before. But if you are convinced that guns will give you superpowers and mean you can intervene in very dangerous situations, or that the government should fear your guns if they choose to pass laws with which you don’t personally agree, I would suggest doing a little self-reflection. You might be writing lots of verbal checks that your self-defense skills won’t be able to cash when real danger strikes. A whole lot of data gathered around the world for many years says so.

intense blue eye

It’s a frequent societal stereotype that women in porn must have been sexually abused as kids, otherwise they would never go into this line of work. You can hear it from social conservatives in their dire warnings about porn addiction and from feminists who find all porn to be merely an exploitation of women for the enjoyment of men, alike. So one would think that to put the idea of the typical porn star as dealing with molestation or abuse through hypersexuality to rest, all one would have to do is have them take a survey, right? It seems fairly straightforward and it’s just what one study has done. After a survey administered to 177 women being tested between their videos, it found that 36% report being molested as children. If that sounds rather high, a control group of women who presumably had nothing to do with pornography reported a stunning 29% rate of sexual abuse. Basically, when taking the small sample sizes into account, it looks like the stereotype is wrong and women in porn are not predominantly survivors of molestation.

Oddly, note that according to the surveys, nearly a third of all women have been molested and often cited numbers say that anywhere between 20% to 40% of women have experienced some sort of sexual abuse as children. That’s disturbing to say the least, but the matter if also rather problematic because nearly all of these studies are relying on self-reporting on surveys given to convenience samples of women, which is science jargon for "asking whoever’s first available to fill out the questionnaire." This could easily produce a skew because the samples are not a truly random slice of the population but more homogenous demographic groups and the answers will reflect experiences typical for their group as well as their interpretation of what it means to have been sexually abused. Some groups of women may report a very low incidence of abuse during one study and a totally different group would report a very high one in a later one. And while a sample of women will consider a particular episode in a gray area during their childhood to be abuse, others would have forgotten and never reported it, or considered odd but not abusive.

So what does all this mean? It means that this study is certainly not definitive and could well be skewed, especially because women in porn know that people are eager to stereotype them into their image of what a female porn starlet should be: a hapless victim degrading herself because she was denied a proper childhood and now suffers from self-esteem issues that manifest as an over-active sex drive. When they’re doing self-selection and self-reporting, a bias simply could not be ruled out. And this, as well as the comments on the results of this study on news sites, is the other result from this study I find extremely disturbing. There really seem to be people who want female porn stars to be "damaged" so they can rationalize their choice to have sex on film as something only a person who "has issues" would do. And I’ll bet cash money that those exact same people commenting on how those poor abused dears whose father figures had boundary problems would go on to watch porn with those poor abused women. It’s not just a few weirdos watching it; only social media use exceeds online porn viewing. And not by much at that.

There’s something fundamentally unhealthy and downright bipolar in how we view porn and sex in general here in the U.S., and even this small study and the issues it raises gives us a peek at that. We cannot be a society that promotes unrealistic, self-indulgent piety and prudishness, just as we also can’t demand that everyone must embrace every sexual position, arrangement, kink, and relationship with nothing less than an orgasmic grin. This is absolutely a case in which the golden median is not a fallacy but a good approach. Humans are wired for sex. We enjoy it, we enjoy watching it, entire areas of our brain are dedicated to lust and encouraging us to find new mates, and all this enjoyment evolved to coax us into reproduction. To stigmatize natural urges and demean those who we end up watching doing the very things we said only "damaged" people do, fueling an industry that pays them for doing them in the process to the tune of billions per year, is hypocritical at best. And it’s especially bad when it’s done for irrational reasons like the wholehearted embrace of cold, haughty, snobby prudishness as the social norm…

See: Griffith, J., et al. (2012). Pornography actresses: an assessment of the damaged goods hypothesis Journal of Sex Research, 1-12 DOI: 10.1080/00224499.2012.719168

stylized pokemon

If you went to college, you certainly remember taking a class in which you didn’t want to spend a whole lot of time on that 23 page paper on the farming techniques of 13th century serfs and the impact of said techniques on feudal agriculture. So you did some browsing around and padded the points you did research with page after page of boring fluff, betting that the professor was going to skim it here and there before giving it a grade. No shame in that, we’ve all done it. But did you know you can also do the same thing with blog posts and books, and make a living from repeating that padding technique? A good, recent example of that is a post by Keith Floor over at Cosmic Variance, in which he spends hundreds of words arguing that science could never be an effective substitute for religion. His thesis summed up in the one sentence it needed to be? People like just so stories and science doesn’t have them, therefore they’ll stick to the stories in which they’re special and important enough to be the children of a deity.

How is this argument new? Why is it so important that the same thing was published in Nature? And even more importantly, how is this a good argument? I would want to hear someone tell me that my AI research is going to get a $15 million development grant from DARPA next year and instead of consulting full time and researching part time, I can flip these roles and do what I love for the next five to ten years. But if it’s not true, maybe I should take note and not make plans on the story I want to hear, and focus on the consulting because that’s what pays the bills? This is the problem with accommodationism and mollycoddling faith in a nutshell. We can’t be nice and say that we’d never dream of challenging someone’s faith because that’s what this person really wants to believe. We tried that. It doesn’t work. We don’t need people to give up on every fun or interesting idea out there and apply Occam’s razor to every thought they have. But we do need them to make decisions based on facts. When people believe that they have the divine right to do as they wish, they can do a lot of damage and make very bad choices.

What we’d be doing if we didn’t advocate for science leading the way would be no different than the extreme of the self-esteem movement. Instead of telling little Johnny or Suzie that they really need to spend more time doing math and unless they do, their GPA isn’t going to get them into any college without years of remedial classes, we’d be telling them that math probably isn’t their strong suit and it’s ok that they got a D in geometry. Obviously the A in English means that they’ll be talented writers and literary critics so they shouldn’t worry about that mean old math. But we know that’s not true and that a D in math is a really bad thing. This is the same reason why we can’t tell the faithful that it’s ok to treat some people as less than equal because we know that a person from a different faith or with a different sexuality is just as biologically human as anyone and therefore, deserves the same rights. And this is why we can’t just let creationists preach their gospel of willful ignorance, because we know they’re wrong, we know they ignore facts, and we know that they’re coming from a place of denial. When we excuse a belief in myth, the faithful will take it as a license to ignore facts. Why should we give them this license?

wired cyborg girl

Unlike most skeptical podcasts, Skeptically Speaking isn’t new to tech skepticism and I’m glad to say that I played my small part in that, doing a segment on Kurzweilian Singularitarianism, and participating in a two-part debate on transhumanism thanks to hostess Desiree Schell’s interest in all things high tech. Last week, the show returned to the teach arena with tech writer Michael Chorost, whose work advocates the slow but seemingly inevitable emergence of a collective human hivemind connected over the web thanks to various computer implants and mind-reading devices. Unlike many tech writers who very casually talk about how the future will see cybernetic enhancements as commonplace, Chorost actually has some firsthand experience with this field. He has cochlear implants, and for his project, he interviewed experts who know a thing or two about how to put a chip into a human. As a result, his predictions when it comes to devices that may go into our brains or be worn on our bodies are uncannily plausible, if not already workable. However, the idea that we can integrate into a seamless collective consciousness is simply way too utopian to seriously consider. Why? Well, here’s a list…

Facebook would now require surgery. Certainly a device to tell your friends when you’re having lunch or post holographic pictures of yourself having a good time with just a simple thought sounds nifty. And sure, we could run some electrodes to your speech motor cortex and wire a few more to another cortex that would control when a picture gets taken, then send the request to your smartphone with the update’s contents. But are you really willing to undergo very invasive elective surgery? Not only that, but it will also be expensive, risky (it is your brain after all), and you can bet your retirement fund that insurers will do whatever they can not to cover this sort of medical procedure. Yes, this idea is far from new. Intel has been interested in hooking users up to all sorts of home electronics for years and computer scientist Kevin Warwick used himself as an experimental subject to prove the idea to be workable with a few simple implants. But devices designed to truly read your mind are relegated to Brain Gate which is intended for patients with severe brain or spinal cord damage for whom the risk of surgery is more than worth it. For them it’s a criticial quality of life issue that makes their existence more bearable. For a healthy social media power user? Probably not so much.

Who do you want in your hivemind? Humans may have evolved as social mammals whose psyche can suffer if they’re cut off from social interaction for a long period of time, but they also have strong opinions and ideas, and tend to separate into groups, cultures, and cliques. And to be really blunt about it, some people are really stupid and really damn obnoxious, which is why YouTube and Yahoo comment sections are widely considered places where rational discourse online goes to die a horrible death by a thousand partisan insults and racial slurs. So let’s say that somehow, there’s a way to inject you with nanobots that connect your mind to the internet via wi-fi. And you now have a few million YouTubers and the lowest rated Yahoo commenters screaming into your skull. Sounds about as fun as implosive diharrea, you say? Well, welcome to the hivemind. As a blogger, I already get the periodic UFO-obsessed lunatics hollering at me and if you excuse me, I wouldn’t necessarily like them to verbally vomit directly into my brain. Sure, I suppose we could create a way to block out those with whom you don’t want to interact but we’ll still have to start with them being able to dive into our minds first, otherwise, we’re sort of negating the entire point of having an open hivemind.

Say goodbye to the little white lies. While there are countless studies showing that humans lie to each other all the time, you probably don’t need to see all of them to know that’s true. And it’s not just the big lies like “the mortgage market is just fine!” or “I did not have sexual relations with that woman!” or “I am not a crook.” No, a lot of the lies we tell are really subtle and intended not to hurt each others’ feelings. Remember when you told her that she looked great in the tight-fitting dress? Or assured him that he could still party like he was in college despite the extra 20 years and 30 pounds? Or told you boss that you like his wacky golfing tie? Yeah, say goodbye to all that because people will now be able to know exactly what you’re thinking. She’ll know that she fills out her dress like a stuffed sausage, he’s way past his party prime, and that you think your boss’ ties are annoying and tacky. After all, they have access to your mind and if you share too much, maybe without realizing to filter your thoughts a little better, any private discussion or even emotional reaction can be sensed and registered. Even with great caution and really good self-censorship you’re still vulnerable to being found out because your mind is online and someone can simply hack his or her way into it to figure out what you really think for personal reasons or to collect blackmail material. Which brings us to…

Expect horrific security breaches. Some of the most depressing people in the IT industry are security consultants. Want to feel like a virtual nudist surrounded by peeping toms who aim their high powered telescopes at you every minute of every day? Just chat with them for a minute or two. Among all sorts of scary things, you’ll find that internet security is basically a joke, usually because it’s there as an afterthought, a quick, easily hackable hash of a password or a cheap SSL cert. Bad design, bugs, lack of foresight, and out of date software opens vulnerabilities and there are a lot of people who’d like to exploit them for fun and profit. People already share way, way too much on social media sites, so much so that the security paradigm of asking personal questions is virtually useless, and they have to use keyboards and click buttons. Imagine how much over-sharing there will be if you’re interfacing with the web via thought! Mind-hackers could get your PIN, the combination to your safes, your banking and work passwords, any useful things you may know, and juicy blackmail fuel mentioned in the previous section. Have you read about “sextortionists” blackmailing victims into sending them nude pics and sexual videos? Now imagine them hacking into your augmented brain, tapping into your optic nerves and watching you have sex or masturbate in the shower while you think you’re alone. Feel free to shudder. I’m doing that right now. The shuddering, the shuddering. Perverts…

Now, all in all, someone actually hijacking your brain isn’t very likely because the implants would probably be embedded in motor cortexes and trying to create some feedback would cause a twitch or a headache rather than allow for actual mind control. But is that sole protection you’ll have from the internet trolls messing with your mind, people reading into your thoughts to find out what you really think, opening gateways to let strangers steal your secrets, and opening yourself up for all sorts of embarrassing and mentally damaging security breaches, worth it? Despite the tech luminaries of the world preaching the Gospel of the Coming Homo Interneticus, we’re just not there as a society and it’s very likely that we may never be. Yes, more of us are now communicating with each other via the web than ever and more and more implants are coming in the near future. But we need our security, our alone time, and most implants will be medical in nature and intended to swap out bad joints, failing organs, or give mobility to those paralyzed by strokes or injury. Making sure that you can think your way to a Twitter update is a very, very low priority for the vast majority of computer scientists and doctors. And when you consider the downsides of sharing your mind with the entire world, that’s probably a good thing.

lost at baikonur

In the interest of full disclosure and not to pull a Lehrer on you, you should know that today’s posts was originally a comment I left on Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog prompted by a discussion about the end of the shuttle program and why NASA didn’t get a chance to have another vehicle waiting to take its astronauts into orbit as soon as the last shuttle was grounded. Since then, I’ve tried to rephrase and expend it, but since I managed to say exactly what was on my mind, exactly how I wanted to say it, all the rewritten drafts just seemed to fall short for me and the text of the comment just kept on coming up. So instead of trying to rewrite my thoughts on why research, development, and exploration have been suffering lately, I’ll simply make them into a post with a few additions and the relevant backstory on their origins as comments for Phil’s readers.

Humans can do amazing things when they’re motivated to do them, but they’re also prone to resting on their laurels and slacking off. The powers that be now are afflicted with two conditions that are nearly fatal to any scientific endeavor; the WIIFM disorder and the GE syndrome. These conditions are not on any diagnostic manual, but they should be, especially when it comes to public discussions about the future of science and technology in the United States.

WIIFM (What’s In It For Me?) disorder manifests itself as the inability to evaluate the promise of a future venture outside one’s immediate concerns and desires and results in willful ignorance of what scientific research and exploration delivers. Example: people arguing that they don’t care to spend any money of space flight because they need jobs while negating to reason that by investing in space exploration and commercializing its applications will create the jobs they want. Combined with political demagoguery which casts the civilian government’s involvement in anything other than propping up banks on demand as being just one step short of summoning Satan from the fiery pits of Hell, this leads to a dearth of both funding and interest in scientific exploration, as well as lack of concern for the long term effects of this neglect.

The GE (Good Enough) syndrome is a chronic unwillingness to reach above everyday, mundane mediocrity to try and do something great. Those suffering from it are worried about just living out their lives as uneventfully and stably as possible, taking their chronic boredom with the way things are as “the way things are supposed to be” and lashing out at those who want to try, to dream, and to pursue something new and something great, calling them careless, wasteful dreamers who are missing sight what’s really important: to be just as complacent and bored as they are. Hey, it was good enough for their parents, it’s good enough for them, and by FMS’s left meatball, it should be for you too.

We’re not in danger of giving up on space because we suddenly won’t be able to reach it again or develop the technology that lets us explore far and wide. But we are facing a very real threat of one day taking the final step into space because those who were selfish and apathetic shut down space agencies while insisting that keeping their cubicles or paying their electric bill is far more important than humanity’s future. Only when we try to set goals other than “make lots of money,” or “make sure Timmy gets As in school so he can make lots of money too,” or “do what I think an invisible man in the sky who so happens to agree with my every opinion telepathically told me,” are we going to see renewed public interest in, and funding of, space exploration and bleeding edge science and technology.

The money, jobs, stability, and other benefits will follow when we invest in our long-term future after realigning our priorities and try to follow our aspirations. I really hope we’re seeing a generational thing on its way out because when I’m an old geezer, I’d like to see more and more mad scientists trying bizarre new things in their labs and help them out with something crazy I was able to build after getting the funds to do some serious curiosity-driven, hypothesis-generating experiments of my own. What makes humanity great was its penchant for exploration and its innate curiosity. Even as kids we want to touch everything, know everything, and see everything. And today, we’re beating these winning traits that made modern civilization possible out of them and praising this as a “return to the important basics in a tough time” rather than recognizing this as a triumph of those with no vision and mundanely vain ambitions over the dreamers whose work can not only create new jobs and careers, but advance humanity. That’s both very scary and very sad, and the WIIFM/GE attitudes simply cannot be allowed to dominate the public forum without a serious challenge.