lördag 22 juli 2017

Om synen på universitet

Väldigt mycket blir bättre här i världen, och min grundinställning är att om vi (mänskligheten) sköter våra kort rätt så väntar oss en blomstrande framtid. Likväl drabbas jag ibland av stunder då bekymren ter sig svårövervinnerliga. Det kan t.ex. handla om vissa av de katastrofscenarier jag diskuterar i min senaste bok Here Be Dragons, eller (allt oftare de senaste två åren) om vad som händer i politiken (Putin, Trump, Berxit etc). Men det är inte ofta en nyhet så till den grad fyller mig med pessimism som den nyligen rapporterade opinionsundersökning som anger att...

Hur påverkar man ett sådant opinionsläge? Hjälper det överhuvudtaget att tala förstånd med en folkopinion som verkar ha kastat allt vad förstånd och rationalitet vill heta överbord?1 Och vad skall vi annars göra?

Fotnot

1) Timothy Snyder skriver i sin bok On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (som jag nyligen utnämnde till obligatorisk läsning) om Victor Klemperers beskrivning av auktoritarianismens nedmontering av sanning och rationalitet i fyra moder. Efter att ha gått igenom de två första (det oförblommerade förnekandet av verifierbar verklighet, respektive det hypnotiska upprepandet av fraser som "Crooked Hillary" och "Build that wall") redogör han på s 67-69 för de två sista:
    The next mode is magical thinking, or the open embrace of contradiction. The president's campaign involved the promises of cutting taxes for everyone, eliminating the national debt, and increasing spending on both social policy and national defense. These promises mutually contradict. It is as if a farmer said he was taking an egg from the henhouse, boiling it whole and serving it to his wife, and also poaching it and serving it to his children, and then returning it to the hen unbroken, and then watching as the chick hatches.

    Accepting untruth of this radical kind requires a blatant abandonment of reason. Klemperer's descriptions of losing friends in Germany in 1933 over the issue of magical thinking ring eerily true today. One of his former students implored him to "abandon yourself to your feelings, and you must always focus on the Führer's greatness, rather than on the discomfort you are feeling at present". Twelve years later, after all the atrocities, and at the end of a war that Germany had clearly lost, an amputated soldier told Klemperer that Hitler "has never lied yet. I believe in Hitler".

    The final mode is misplaced faith. It involves the sort of self-deifying claims the president made when he said that "I alone can solve it" and "I am your voice". When faith decends from heaven to earth in this way, no room remains for the small truths of our individual discernment and experience. What terrified Klemperer was the way that this transition seemed permanent. Once truth had become oracular rather than factual, evidence was irrelevant. At the end of the war a worker told Klemperer that "understanding is useless, you have to have faith. I believe in the Führer".

Väldigt dystert alltsammans, men Snyder påminner oss om att framtiden inte är ristad i sten, och att vi genom att göra motstånd kan hejda tyranniets framväxt.

tisdag 18 juli 2017

Som hastigast i P1:s Studio Ett

Med anledning av Elon Musks senaste utspel om hur artificiell intelligens (AI) kan utgöra ett hot mot mänskligheten sände Sveriges Radios Studio Ett idag ett knappt tolv minuter långt inslag om saken, med start cirka 1:18:45 in i programmet. Medverkade i inslaget gjorde jag och AI-forskaren Fredrik Heintz, som jag faktiskt uppträtt tillsammans med i P1 en gång tidigare.

En del blev sagt om behovet av att beakta säkerhet och risker, men inslaget hade kunnat bli betydligt bättre om programmakarna varit mer professionella såväl redaktionellt (diskussionen framstod som tämligen ostrukturerad och oförberedd från deras sida) som tekniskt (programteknikerna avböjde mitt förslag om att i förväg prova de olika möjligheter till uppkoppling jag har här ute i den obygd där jag just nu råkar befinna mig, ett beslut som fick uppenbara konsekvenser i programinslaget). Dessutom tycker jag att Fredrik avslutade det hela snudd på ovärdigt genom att reducera perspektivet på denna viktiga och för mänskligheten kanske avgörande fråga från det globala till ett snävt nationellt övervägande om att Sverige behöver skärpa sig för att hänga med i utvecklingen. Jag får trösta mig med att programledaren i alla fall gjorde lite relkam för min bok Here Be Dragons.

söndag 9 juli 2017

Required reading: Timothy Snyder

President Trump's encouragement of violence against media he perceives as oppositional, which took place on Twitter last week, is just one of his many many steps on the slippery slope towards authoritarianism and fascism. These steps by him and his administration urgently need to be resisted. I know of no better guide to such resistance than the American historian Timothy Snyder's marvelous little book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.1 The book contains exactly what the title says, thus drawing heavily on experiences from the twentieth century. It is generally considered bad manners to compare contemporary phenomena to counterparts in Nazi Germany, but I dont't think this particular code of polite behavior should be carried too far, as there are important parallels to be drawn between, e.g., Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler - parallels that we need to understand. Snyder does not shy away from this. His book is organized in the following twenty concrete lessons.
    1. Do not obey in advance.
    2. Defend institutions.
    3. Beware the one-party state.
    4. Take responsibility for the face of the world.
    5. Remember professional ethics.
    6. Be wary of paramilitaries.
    7. Be reflective if you must be armed.
    8. Stand out.
    9. Be kind to our language.
    10. Believe in truth.
    11. Investigate.
    12. Make eye contact and small talk.
    13. Practice corporeal politics.
    14. Establish a private life.
    15. Contribute to good causes.
    16. Learn from peers in other countries.
    17. Listen for dangerous words.
    18. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.
    19. Be a patriot.
    20. Be as corageous as you can.
Each lesson begins with three to five sentences summarizing its take-home message, such as the following in Lesson 1:
    Most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then offer themselves without being asked. A citizen who adapts in this way is teaching power what it can do.
Then follows just a few pages elaborating and giving historical examples, and then on to the next lesson. The entire book is just 126 sparsely typeset pages, and can easily be read in an hour or two, but deserves to be read again and - for someone who's a slow learner like myself - yet again. I warmly recommend it - no, I insist you should read it. Doing so and learning Snyder's lessons is, at the current moment, most urgent for Americans, but Europeans (and others) should do the same, because we are not immune to the development that is currently most visible in the United States. One day in the not-so-distant future, we may plausibly see a Marine Le Pen as president of France, and a Geert Wilders and a Jimmie Åkesson as prime ministers of the Netherlands and Sweden, respectively. Hungary is already there, and Poland is well on its way. When a government with an authoritarian inclination comes into power, we are in a better position to resist it the more prepared we are, and reading Snyder is one of the best ways to prepare.

I also recommend the May 29 episode of Sam Harris' podcast, where Harris interviews Snyder about the book. Some 26 minutes into the episode, Snyder emphasizes the pivotal role of Lesson 1:
    [This lesson] is number 1 for a bunch of reasons. [...] It is at the core of what historians understand about authoritarian regime changes: Nazi Germany in particular but also in general. Namely, that at the very beginning, whether it's the takeover in Germany itself or it's the Anschluss in Austria, [...] authoritarian leaders require consent. This is a really important thought, because when we think of authoritarians, we then think of villains and then we think of super-villains, then we think of super-powers, we imagine these guys in uniforms who can stride across the stage of history and do whatever they want. And maybe towards the end, something like that is true, but at the beginning it's not. At the beginning, interestingly, people will in a sense have more power than they do normally, because they have the power to resist. The problem is that we don't usually realize that. [...] We tend to [...] look for the new true north and align [our compasses] with that. We follow along; we drift. Most of the time that's appropriate, but sometimes it's an absolute disaster.
See Lesson 1 in Snyder's book for a scholarly historical perspective on this, and for the remaining 19 lessons. If you are at all literate, if you care at all for liberal democracy, and if you can spare just a few bucks, then you have no excuse for not getting the book. Order it now. And then read it. Just do it.

Footnote

1) Also very much reading is Snyder's 2012 book with Tony Judt: Thinking the Twentieth Century. More than once in the last couple of years, I've found myself wishing that Tony Judt were still around to help us navigate these difficult times. Alas, he isn't, but Timothy Snyder is among his best replacements.

torsdag 29 juni 2017

A conversation with Thore Husfeldt on his Cast IT podcast

Last month I visited computer scientist Thore Husfeldt at the IT University of Copenhagen, in order to appear with him in the fifth episode of his recently launched video podcast Cast IT. The podcast, marketed as "a popular science podcast about foundations of information technology", is in my opinion an excellent initiative and features plenty of interesting discussions.

Thore and I talked for (what seemed to me like just a few minutes but was actually) 1 hour and 17 minutes, engaging in some of the central topics of my book Here Be Dragons: Science, Technology and the Future of Humanity: existential risk, artificial intelligence and the hypothetical scenario known as an intelligence explosion (a.k.a. the Singularity). I enjoyed our discussion, which was both informative and (despite our difference of opinion on some of these topics) friendly, and I hope some of the readers of this blog might enjoy it too.

måndag 26 juni 2017

Wireheading in the White House

We humans, as well as rats and many other beings, have pleasure centers that reward us when we act in evolutionarily adaptive ways, such as when we eat or procreate. Wireheading happens when we figure out how to get the reward in our brains without actually doing what evolution wanted us to do in the first place. The most immediate way to wirehead is to hook up electrodes to the right parts of the brain and obtain direct electrical stimulus, as in the pioneering 1954 study on rats by James Olds and Peter Milner; Wikipedia informs us about subsequent studies showing how "rats will perform reinforced behaviors at the exclusion of all other behaviors. Experiments have shown rats to forgo food to the point of starvation in order to work for brain stimulation or intravenous cocaine when both food and stimulation are offered concurrently". Joelle Renstrom has a nice blog post about this.

Parallels to drug addiction among humans are obvious. Another example is the use of contraceptives in connection with sex; science fiction writer Peter Watts has a wonderful poem about this kind of wireheading.

Now for what is going on with the Trump administration. It has of course always (since 1789) been the case that the President of the United States receives pleasurable positive feedback when he does good work. Now, if he is unable to do good work, or if he is simply lazy, he can try to wirehead and get fake positive feedback without actually doing any good work, such as through rallies with enthusiastic followers in Florida or Iowa, or through North Korea-style cabinet meetings, or through typing tweets that generate thousands of likes and retweets.

I am not in general against wireheading (in particular, I am not opposed to the use of contraceptives), as in many cases I think the hedonic utility obtained is a more important value than whatever it is that the wireheading circumvents. But the White House is not the right place for this. What happens in the White House has so far-reaching consequences for the rest of the world that the single-minded quest for the maximization of just one man's hedonic well-being (which, ironically, doesn't even seem particularly successful) with zero regard for others should preferably take place at some other location where the potential for collateral damage is not as large.

lördag 24 juni 2017

Two conferences, two moods, two photos

During the last two weeks I've participated in two rather different academic conferences, and I'd like to share a couple of photographs that illustrate the rather diverse states of mind that the conferences put me in.1

First I took part in the IS4SI (International Society for Information Studies) 2017 Summit in my hometown Gothenburg. The invitation I received early on to give a keynote lecture (in which I spoke on the topic Should AI Armageddon scenarios be taken seriously?) generated further invitations to various sessions at the conference, so I ended up also participating in a panel discussion on The good information and communication society - from theory to actions, as well as contributing to a session on transhumanism (speaking on Aspects of mind uploading). All in all, the conference had its ups and its downs, and on at least one occasion I had trouble staying awake, as the following photo indicates.

The next week I went on to the 24th Ulvön conference on environmental economics, where I contributed a talk on Energy vs information: environmental exonomics meets singularitarianism. This annual meeting (this was the second time I participated; the first was in 2007) is truly enjoyable for many reasons including its intellectual content, the general friendliness of its participants, and its traditional menu on the final evening (surströmming - pretty much my favorite dish!).

Footnote

1) Photo credit to Torbjörn Lundh and Jason Shogren, respectively.

söndag 11 juni 2017

Läs Derf Backderf!

Genom SVT:s kulturprogram Babel den 21 maj i år blev jag varse den amerikanske serietecknaren Derf Backderf. Jag har nu läst hans båda serieromaner My Friend Dahmer och Trashed, vilka båda är mycket bra, och starkt oroande om än på lite olika vis. Jag rekommenderar dem varmt.

Derf Backderf (som egentligen heter John i förnamn) föddes 1959 och växte upp i en medelstor stad i Ohio. Det slumpade sig inte bättre än att han var klasskamrat med Jeffrey Dahmer, som kort efter att deras vägar skildes åt i samband med high school-examen begick sitt första mord, och som 13 år senare skulle bli känd under beteckningen "the Milwaukee Cannibal" som en av USA:s värsta och mest bestialiska seriemördare, men 17 liv på sitt samvete. Dahmer dömdes till (mångdubbelt) livstids fängelse, och blev ihjälslagen av en medfånge 1994. Men My Friend Dahmer utspelar sig (till allra största delen) innan Dahmer blev mördare. High school-skildringar har ofta ett mörkt stråk i sig (jag tänker här framför allt på flera böcker av Stephen King), men den här boken är nog den svartaste jag läst i genren, och möjligen överhuvudtaget. Den är skriven med vad jag uppfattar som total ärlighet, utsökt fingertoppskänsla och stor medkänsla med huvudpersonen; Backderf är dock noga med att poängtera att hans sympati med Dahmer helt och hållet tar slut när denne tar steget från troubled teenager till kallblodig mördare. Vad som (utöver de mord man vet skall komma) är mest omskakande är vuxenvärldens enhälliga vägran att se de uppenbara tecknen på att Dahmer var i desperat behov av hjälp. Både lärare och föräldrar hävdar efteråt att de inte lade märke till att han avvek på något särskilt vis från den typiske lite stökige tonåringen.

Trashed är, liksom My Friend Dahmer, övervägande självbiografiskt baserad, och behandlar det moderna konsumtionssamhällets bokstavliga baksida. Konkret får vi ta del av Backderfs korta karriär, 19 år gammal, som renhållningsarbetare; han har dock valt att förflytta handlingen från sent 1970-tal till något som mer liknar nutid, möjligen för att smidigare passa in aktuella fakta kring amerikansk sophantering. De unga sopgubbarnas självironiska jargong (som ibland för tankarna till Martin Kellermans Rocky, fast bättre), och de många dråpliga händelserna (måhända inget för den äckelmagade) borgar för nöjsam läsning, men insikterna i modern (om uttrycket tillåts) sophantering gör boken upprörande och skrämmande. Till skillnad mot hos oss i Sverige - där vi för all del överkonsumerar med negativa konsekvenser för miljön, om än inte lika illa som i USA - domineras amerikansk sophantering ännu av dumpandet av osorterat avfall i enorma landfills, med stora konsekvenser för miljön. För den som inte nöjer sig med exempelvis global statistik över olika länders koldioxidutsläpp i vederläggandet av Vita husets fullkomligt absurda uttalande i samband med det nyligen annonserade utträdet ur Parisavtalet, att "the United States, under the Trump administration, will continue to be the cleanest and most environmentally friendly country on Earth", så kan Trashed erbjuda en hel del kompletterande ammunition.