The Search for Intelligence (here on earth)

Never mind artificial intelligence. It’s real human stupidity we should be worried about. Two classic examples of learned incompetence and lowest common denominator thinking.

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Digital Vs. Human (Art & War)

Some people seem to really be enjoying this chapter from my book Digital Vs. Human. Here’s a little taste….

I have a habit of writing notes on fragments of paper. Lines I’ve overheard, book and film reviews, statistical gems. I habitually tear pages out of magazines and newspapers, too. Sometimes I write things down on my phone, although I find that since these digital notes are fixed in one place they don’t go walkabout. My physical notes constantly make a run for the nearest exit. They get lost and randomly reappear next to other disconnected scraps of information, which results in cross-fertilisation. Notes, if you haven’t noticed, are inherently social.

One such piece of flotsam is an article that surfaced a year ago from the depths of The Atlantic magazine. On the first torn page, I’d highlighted a quote from the philosopher Bertrand Russell. The quote is long, but ends with the words ‘only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built’. How do you compete with a line like that? I might have missed it, too, in which case this book could have turned out very differently. What was it that Picasso said? ‘You have to have an idea of what you are going to do, but it should be a vague idea.’ I agree. Precisely.

Picasso’s quote reminds me of another by the sculptor Henry Moore. He said, ‘The secret of life is to have a task, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for your whole life. And the most important thing is — it must be something you cannot possibly do!’ The point of this, for me at least, is the question of how you should live knowing that whatever you do will ultimately result in defeat. What is the point of anything if we ultimately die? How can you continue living when you know that you’ll never write anything to compare with these lines or create anything of enduring substance?

These questions, in the context of lifeless technologies that never truly experience love, hope, failure, disappointment, or regret is a wholly practical one. If, one day, smart machines do almost everything that humans can, including bonding emotionally with humans, then what is the point of us? Each generation has new inventions, a great number of which distance us from reality in some way. But the questions resulting from these inventions are always, ultimately, the same.

Who are we? Why are we here? Are we just stardust, a meaningless accident, or is there purpose here? You can get lost in space with this. The more we know, the less, it seems, we understand. Each new invention generates more ignorance and uncertainty, not less. But that’s fine. The trick is to humbly hold your nerve and let go, becalmed in your own cosmic solitude. The point is that there is no point.

The alternative is quiet desperation. Life may be meaningless. It is certainly baffling and absurd and can only really be understood by looking at it backwards. It’s also deeply wonderful. But knowing all this can be blissful and deeply therapeutic. Looking at a grain of sand or a silicon chip in this context produces a blissful and secure serenity. Interacting with old human-made objects and ancient landscapes similarly unburdens us. They all take us home, to our childhood, and to the birth of possibility. Only by glimpsing human continuity in this manner can we discover our true selves. The immense passing of time forges a connection that’s quite beautiful.

The realisation that we’re part of everything and nothing simultaneously can be hugely liberating. It reminds me of an old joke, retold in the science fiction film Bicentennial Man: ‘This Buddhist walks up to a hot-dog vendor and says, ‘Make me one with everything.”’ A similar point is made by Brian Cox, the physicist and television presenter with the twinkle of starlight in his eyes. The thought of our blue pinprick of a planet amid the enormity of dark space initially makes one feel that we are totally insignificant. But then, from the void, comes the dawning realisation that we are hugely special and unique. The eternity of space is affirmation that we all count in some way. It is the vastness of the nothingness beyond that gives technicolour intensity to the now. Carl Sagan once said that ‘By far the best way I know to engage the religious sensibility, the sense of awe, is to look up on a clear night.’ How Twitter and Facebook work in this context is beyond my earthly understanding. Then again, perhaps the success of both has to do with the validation that we exist and are alive right now. You are here, as it were.

If you like this I’ll post some more from this chapter…. 😉

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Brain Eno giving good quote

Sorry. It’s starting to become quote central. But I like this. A lot. Get over it. This man has a brain the size of a planet.

This is from SciFoo via Guy Weber via Roberto Trotta at Imperial.

I may actually blog something from my own small brain shortly….

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Quote of the week (for Sherborne school)

One day ladies will take their computers for walks in the park and tell each other, “My little computer said such a funny thing this morning”.
Alan Turing (1949?)

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Random scribble (not mine).


I like this because when people think in terms of the future there’s often a heavy focus on technology. But it seems to me that you have to take into account culture and politics too (and a bunch of other things, but culture and politics are pretty key). And of course everything influences everything else. Just a thought. Happy Monday.

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Russia’s useful idiot

Just too good not to mention this. So today the child King was crowned. It’s possible that he will turn out to be far better than anyone expects. But I doubt it. Self-interest, conflicts of interest, cronyism and plain stupidity will dominate in my view. And those naughty links with Russia? It was a book written back in 1980. A book that explored what might happen if the Soviet Union gained control over the US Presidency.

Not really prediction, but I’ll classify it as such.

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All in the mind

There’s been quite a bit in the news recently (in the UK at least) about mental health. Lots of discussion about possible treatments and solutions but next to nothing asking the question “why?” In my book, Digital Vs. Human, I predict that a mental health epidemic will be one of the biggest – if not the biggest – major health issue this century.

One of the reasons is more people living and working alone. Specialisation at work might be another culprit as could the lack of secure employment. Global uncertainty could be another factor another. But the main cause, in my view, is connectivity and in particular our use of social media. In the past our identities were created internally and remained mostly private. This gave people a certain resilience. Increasing they are now created externally and publically, which creates tremendous vulnerability.

As I say in the book:

Susan Greenfield thinks that Facebook and sites like it create ‘ephemeral connections between imaginary identities’. This means that people are becoming increasingly fragile and less able to cope with anything remotely negative.

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Quote of the week

“But the Turing test cuts both ways. You can’t tell if a machine has gotten smarter or if you’ve just lowered your own standards of intelligence to such a degree that the machine seems smart. If you can have a conversation with a simulated person presented by an AI program, can you tell how far you’ve let your sense of personhood degrade in order to make the illusion work for you?

People degrade themselves in order to make machines seem smart all the time. Before the crash, bankers believed in supposedly intelligent algorithms that could calculate credit risks before making bad loans. We ask teachers to teach to standardized tests so a student will look good to an algorithm. We have repeatedly demonstrated our species’ bottomless ability to lower our standards to make information technology look good. Every instance of intelligence in a machine is ambiguous.

The same ambiguity that motivated dubious academic AI projects in the past has been repackaged as mass culture today. Did that search engine really know what you want, or are you playing along, lowering your standards to make it seem clever? While it’s to be expected that the human perspective will be changed by encounters with profound new technologies, the exercise of treating machine intelligence as real requires people to reduce their mooring to reality.”

Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget.

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School bans snowballs


A school near me has banned kids from throwing snowballs. Oh come on, you’ve got to be kidding me. This is balls.

It reminds me of something I wrote in my book Digital Vs. Human.

‘Efficiency’ reminds me of a primary-school teacher in Norfolk, England, who closed classroom blinds so that the small children wouldn’t be distracted by snowflakes falling outside. As the poet W.H. Davies wrote: What is this life if, full of care, We have no time to stop and stare.

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Big Tech Backlash

So I wrote the below (not the above!) back at the end of December, but things seem to be emerging strongly already.

Back-lash against Big Tech

This is partly a story about wealth, income and opportunity polarisation. It’s partly one about tax evasion, the avoidance of regulation and various ethical and moral responsibilities. And it’s partly one about privacy and whose data they are using.

In the Sunday Times culture section last weekend Bryan Appleyard, one of my favourite columnists, wrote about the web stifling originality, eroding our sense of self and the artistic backlash against Silicon Valley that is gathering pace. Full article here.

This could, I am all too aware, be a case of confirmation bias on my part. It’s the theme of my book Digital vs. Human and also one promoted by Gerd Leonhard, Jaron Lanier, Sheila Jasanoff and Evgeny Morozov et al.

There was also a piece on Radio 4 over the weekend talking about the need for criticism to be applied to technology so I think this is building. If the economy booms maybe this trend will disappear, but if things turn nasty big tech will remain on the radar of things people dislike or distrust.

List of my 2017 Top Trends.

Intro extract from John Battelle. Source link here.

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