Thursday, September 30, 2004

Corporate Supermen

Back in the late seventies, I saw a TV documentary about life in the future. The documentary (Tomorrow's World*) predicted that, thanks to automation, we would soon spend our days without work, trying to find entertaining things to do. Amusingly, the characters in the documentary seemed to spend a lot of time jumping up and down on trampolines. Occasionally, the characters would stop in the computer room just to check everything was working right.

Instead, we now work harder than ever. What happened?

Faster communications and free markets have invigorated competition, and this has trickled down from the corporate world into our personal lives. We now compete for jobs with people all across the globe. In America, our work ethic is very strong. With a combination of spirit and technology, we have held our own against the competition year after year.

However, on our current course, corporations are becoming superhuman.

As automation improves, corporations will need fewer and fewer workers. In the past, there was always something people could do that machines couldn't. Within 30 years, machines will be able to do absolutely anything a human can do. It won't be a sudden transformation. I predict that in about 15 years, a machine costing $100K will be able to do what 90+% of employed people can do. People won't be able to compete, at least not for significant amounts of money.

In 2020, if you want to start a business (assuming you have capital), you're going to build a business-to-business (B2B) corporation. Consumers won't have any money, so B2C business models will be unattractive. You'll make a lot more money if you can service corporations. The economy will be made up exclusively by corporations. These corporations will own their own natural resources, the means of production, and humans will be increasingly irrelevant to the economy. The few owners of these companies will be fantastically wealthy. Everyone else will have no significant income and no capital.

This could spell disaster. Yet, with social change, we might see a new renaissance.

If we can harness this productivity for the good of all people, we will largely free ourselves from work, and usher in an age of art, philosophy and prosperity. It won't be easy, least of all for the United States.

One controversial solution is to tax corporations and corporate owners and provide everyone with a basic income. This might be $25K per year. Not much? It may be more than you think. With corporations completely automated, the cost of goods will be relatively small.

The idea of paying people for nothing sounds perverse. What is the incentive to be better than we are? This is a fair question. How do we incentivise self-improvement? What will people do without work to fill their days? It's not an easy question to answer.

Ironically, making a transition from work might be hardest for Americans. Our work ethic is so strong that life without work is almost inconceivable to us.


*Man, this takes me back.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Out of Iraq

Army Lt. Gen. William E. Odom is the former director of the National Security Agency. According to Odom's analysis, the U.S. has already missed all its chances to accomplish its original goals of establishing a democracy in Iraq. Iraq may not even acheive stability.

Now, we are truly faced with a Vietnam-style situation in which the United States realizes that it must leave, but is unwilling to do so. Unlike Vietnam, a poorly managed pull-out from Iraq could significantly worsen our overall security. Whereas pre-invasion Iraq was contained very effectively, we now face the prospect of civil war in Iraq. Civil war would erase the gains in prosperity of the Kurds of Northern Iraq, and create a power vacuum that would be filled by neighboring forces from Iran, Syria and Turkey. The resulting chaos would be the perfect breeding ground for terrorism. Instead of being a monolithic enemy that strives for its own survival, Iraq will become a base for terrorists who cannot be deterred by any means.

To make matters worse, Bush's foreign policy has forced the Iranians to pursue nuclear weapons on an accelerated schedule. In the lead-up to the invasion, the U.S. made it clear that there was nothing Saddam Hussein could have done to avert war. The U.S. systematically dismantled the U.N. inspection regime in order to remove all obstacles to invasion. Bush even turned down opportunities to kill terrorist mastermind Al-Zarqawi before the invasion so that he could falsely claim there were terrorist ties to Hussein (even though Al-Zarqawi operated from Kurdish Iraq, outside of Hussein's control). The message was clear: if you're part of the "axis of evil", you will be invaded. The only way to deter U.S. invasion is to possess your own nuclear deterrent. Both Iran and North Korea received the message loud and clear.

Odom now says that each day we stay in Iraq worsens our predicament. If he's right, and I believe he is, how do we extricate ourselves from this mess?

Perhaps Iran is the key.

What if the U.S. could do a deal with the Iranians for stability in Iraq?

The U.S. would promise Iran
  • trade and oil contracts,

  • cultural exchanges,

  • a non-agression pact,

  • some political influence at the U.N.,

  • and major influence over Iraqi affairs


in exchange for
  • an end to terrorist sponsorship,

  • termination of Iran's nuclear program, whether civilian or military, guaranteed by U.N. or E.U. inspections,

  • and Iranian protection of Kurdish areas of Iraq.


Though I shudder at the very thought of making deals with Iran, it actually makes a lot of sense. A well crafted agreement could snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in Iraq. Iran could become a reformed member of the family of civilized nations. Despite the history of conflict between the two states, I think that there's reason to believe that the peoples of Iran and the United States could reach a prosperous new arrangement.

Iran knows that eventually the U.S. will withdraw. Iran is now working to establish its influence over Iraq. It appears that former neoconservative darling Ahmed Chalabi has been cooperating with the Iranians, possibly in the role of a double-agent. This raises the question: why should Iran deal with the Americans when it knows that Iraq will be under its control eventually? In essence, the price the U.S. is willing to pay Iran for a smooth exit will only increase with time.

The answer may lie in Iran's relations with the U.S., and in particular, the threat of U.S. military action to prevent the development of Iranian nuclear armament.

After the World Trade Center attacks, the United States was in a position to establish a new world order. The U.S. could have made it clear that countries that support terrorism would be held responsible for terrorist acts against allied interests. A nuclear attack in New York would be answered by a compensatory attack on the cities of terrorist sponsors. At the same time, the U.S. could have offered carrots to those nations willing to cease terrorist sponsorship. Carrots would have included trade and political influence.

In late 2001, the necessary invasion of Afghanistan was a symbol of America's awesome military power. We were in a perfect position to mend relationships around the world. We might have traded, say, $100 billion in oil for peace across the Arab world (half what we've spent on the Iraq war). For years, the Iranian dictatorship has been teetering on the brink of collapse from within, with young Iranians struggling for democratic freedoms. Iran was ripe for political change catalyzed by American policy overtures.

Ironically, Osama bin Laden's attack on America should have backfired. The horrific attrocities of 9/11 gave the United States a position from which it could have dispatched justice to bin Laden, and yet made symbolic overtures to the Islamic world.

Fortunately for bin Laden, George W. Bush has fanned the flames of holy war, and a chance for the eradication of organized terrorism was lost. Bush's "justice" will be no justice at all, for it demands more pain and suffering for us and for future generations.

Now we find ourselves in far weaker bargaining position. Our forces are overstretched, dramatically reducing the deterrent power of our military, and the political situation now favors the totalitarian regimes in the region.

Will a deal with Iran facilitate an exit strategy for occupying U.S. forces?

Don't expect to see any international political schemes, like the one above, hatched by members of the Bush administration. The plan's not simple enough for their tiny minds.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

The Question of God

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PBS aired another great documentary this month. The Question of God examined the lives and writings of Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis, and featured a roundtable discussion among believers and non-believers.

Kudos to PBS for airing a program that encourages people to think for themselves.

At first, I was most interested in the roundtable discussion. I'm fascinated by the reasons people give for their belief.

Then, the life story of C.S. Lewis struck a chord. C.S. Lewis, J.R.R Tolkein and several other Oxford University intellectuals formed an informal group called the Inklings. The Inklings met during the 1930's and 1940's, a time when science, logical positivism and reductionism were on the rise. Dissatisfied with the scientific worldview, the Inklings set out to discredit the new philosophies of science. At least that is my perception.

So how does one discredit a philosophy that was founded upon reason and logic? With an appeal to emotion. The Inklings wrote stories and poetry that were designed to strengthen the emotional attachment to irrationality. For example, Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings was intended as a criticism of technological progress.

Most of all, I was struck by the parallels between the Inklings and the American political right. Both were forced to adopt a campaign based on emotion and deception because they had no alternative. There can be no reasonable support for what is intrinsically irrational.

Meanwhile, the proponents of enlightenment and reason are shocked and heartbroken to see people taken in by these appeals to emotion and thoughtlessness.

Should we do nothing and hope that scientific and technological progress will render emotional appeals moot?

Today, superstitious luddites fiercely oppose stem-cell and longevity research. They don't have reasons to support their positions, but then their appeals are not designed to stand up to tests of reason. However, once the technology is here, very few people will refuse a stem cell treatment for a terminal disease, or refuse a gene therapy that will give them an extra 1,000 years of life.

Then again, maybe we should do something to promote reason while we still can.

Can we find a way to encourage people to make decisions based on reason instead of animal passion? Or should we copy our opponents: treat people like sheep and fill their heads with nonsense that stirs their hearts?

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

On Intelligence

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Jeff Hawkins has written a book called On Intelligence, subtitled How a new understanding of the brain will lead to the creation of truly intelligent machines.

I first met Jeff Hawkins in 1997 when I visited Palm Computing for a developer training session. At the time, I was one of a few independent software developers writing applications for the Pilot handheld computer (later known as the PalmPilot). Hawkins invented the PalmPilot and brought handheld computers into the mainstream. Jeff is smart and confident, yet he maintains a sort of informal humor that's very charismatic. He's what you might call an inspirational engineer. It's almost as if he's the kind of transcendent nerd that we mere mortal nerds aspire to be (Sorry, Jeff!). After reading this book, I'm ready to follow Jeff on a new adventure...

Hawkins has been interested in how the brain works for a long time. Over almost two decades, he has put together a model of how the brain works. On Intelligence describes this model in enough detail to make his theory testable.

According to Hawkins, the brain is continuously making predictions based on learned patterns. It then compares the predictions with the real world enabling our brain to draw attention to those things of interest in our environment. Memorized patterns also enable us to react quickly enough to catch a ball or run down stairs without falling over. Despite having relatively slow bilogical circuits in our head, we can perform tasks that elude even the fastest computers.

Hawkins points out that the neocortex where the higher functions reside is highly generalized in structure. The regions of the neocortex that process audition are functionally the same as those that handle vision or touch. The differences lie in the way these regions of the neocortex are wired to our senses and motor controls, and the way these regions have been trained through experience.

Hawkins presents a model in which the basic component of the neocortex is an auto-associative memory. Auto-associative memories are neural networks that can learn a pattern, then regurgitate the pattern given just a piece of the original pattern. For example, suppose you have trained a collection of auto-associative memories so that each one recognizes a picture of a letter of the alphabet. If we now expose the collection of memories to a picure of a dot above a line (i.e., the top half of the letter i or j), the memories for the letters i and j will both be activated. In other words, the memories of i and j were retrieved when only part of the letters were seen. This enables us to see a partially obscured object, yet still recognize the object. This is very difficult for computer software to do today, even with billions of computer operations per second.

Auto-associative memories can learn to recognize patterns in an invariant way. For example, it doesn't matter what font or color I use to write this blog; you can recognize the letters and words independent of their size and color. Even changes in their geometry won't fool your brain. Your brain has invariant representations of letters that are triggered by their general shapes, not by specific instances of letters you have seen in a particular size or font.

Hawkins argues that a hierarchy of auto-associative memories creates representations of patterns that are more and more invariant with each layer. Eventually, you have an auto-associative memory unit at the top of the hierarchy that is triggered by higher level concepts like "bee".

I'll try to describe in my own words how this might work. Perhaps one layer of a-a memories recognizes colors as yellow or black independent of minor color differences. Another layer recognizes the stripe pattern independent of the size of the stripes. Another layer hears the pitch of the bee's wings flapping. Another layer correlates the visual appearance with the auditory effect. Yet another layer remembers the sting of the bee. Finally a layer correlates all of the effects together.

Now the magic of this setup is feedback. If you can trigger the top layer of the hierarchy, all the other layers light up at the same time. You think of a bee and you see stripe patterns and think about the pain of being stung.

Hawkins has devised more than just an abstract model of thought. He has a detailed model of how the various types of neurons work together to make all of this happen. He also backs up the abstract model with known mental phenomena. In the appendix, Hawkins describes several experimental predictions, allowing the scientific community to falsify the model.

Hawkins is quite critical of traditional, symbol-based AI. He describes how in his model the brain is able to outperform supercomputers, and why it's not just a matter of making faster computers. Still, Hawkins is optimistic about the prospects for building intelligent machines (he doesn't like to call them computers). He ends the book by inspiring the reader to make commercial and scientific use of this new model of intelligence.

The book was co-authored by Sandra Blakeslee, a New York Times science writer. It reads quite well, and there are a lot of examples to illustrate each point the authors want to get across. I found that there were actually too many such examples, but then, I was pretty impatient to get to the good bits!

I don't have enough knowledge of neuroscience to fault anything Hawkins said about physiology. As for his model, it is very compelling. Just last month, I cooked up a similar hierarchical model of intelligence based on some reading I did on artificial neural networks. It was interesting to see how the brain actually implements some of the feedback that my theoretical model relied upon.

There are several areas that I still have questions about. One question is about emotion and blood chemistry. How does the brain know what is important? Is it really just a matter of seeing patterns in the world that don't match predictions? Do chemical signals influence how the neocortex stores information? Body chemistry might provide the neurological equivalent of global variables in computer software. It seems to me that this global effect would be a natural way that evolution could provide motivation for learning and action. This seems to be missing from Hawkins's approach.

Reservations? I had a couple.

Hawkins offered some praise for Searle's Chinese Room argument. I find the Chinese Room argument unconvincing. The argument is analogous to arguing that humans aren't really intelligent because none of the neurons in our brains really understands anything by itself - it just transmits electrical impulses according to some simple rules. Hawkins sees true intelligence as a matter of "world simulation", so, to the extent that the Chinese Room does not do this, it is not intelligent by his definition. Yet, in order for the Chinese Room to give the correct answer, it must be doing such modeling anyway.

Finally, Hawkins argues that our intelligent machines will not have emotions. However, I'm not so sure that this will be the case. A general purpose intelligence based on this model might have to have emotion in order to be correctly motivated.

"Uncle Owen! This R2 unit has a bad motivator!"

I recommend this book to anyone interested in models of consciousness and intelligence (artificial or otherwise). The book is non-technical, but it's still detailed enough to get its concepts across.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

This about sums it up...

Michael Tomasky writes about The Pathetic Truth.

Democrats keep thinking that voters will do something as improbably nutritional as study a health care plan (as, surely, a scattered few do), and that the media will show themselves eager to write articles and broadcast discussion segments about health care plans. Both assumptions are folly.


George W. Bush has a record the Democrats should have made mincemeat of. Right about now, the media should be writing, and American voters should be thinking: Golly, a million jobs lost, millions more in poverty, manufacturing down; no WMD's, 1,000-plus dead, Iraq on the brink of civil war, al Qaeda larger than ever and still recruiting, acts of worldwide terrorism on the rise, North Korea and Iran responding to the cowboy routine by going nuclear.

This guy has me pegged.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Archimedes

When religion ruled the world, they called it the dark ages.

I just watched Infinite Secrets on PBS. This is one of the most moving documentaries I have ever seen.

Apparently, in about 300 BCE, Archimedes almost discovered calculus. Calculus is the key to modern science. Physics, chemistry, electronics, astronomy, you name it.

In high school, I happened to learn physics before I learned calculus. There were problems I could think of that I could not solve exactly. I knew that in principle I needed to sum up in an increasingly large number of increasingly small volumes. Calculus solved these problems. The first time I saw calculus was the first time I truly connected with mathematics. I could finally see solutions to problems I had already formulated.

Anyway, as far as I knew, credit for the invention of calculus is shared by Sir Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz. Newton and Leibniz produced their works around 1670 CE.

Nova's Infinite Secrets tells of how Archimedes was murdered by the Romans in 212 BCE at the age of 70. When religion cast the classical world into the abyss of the dark ages, mathematics and science died. Around the 10th century, the last known copy of Archimedes "Method" was washed, cut into pieces and used as parchment for a prayer book (known as a "palimpsest").

In the 20th century, the palimsest was discovered, lost and then rediscovered.

Now, an international team of scholars is piecing together Archimedes work and finding that his mathematics was far more sophisticated than we thought.

The scene where three researchers, each from a different nation, work together in peace to learn Archimedes' work was pretty powerful.

The scenes re-enacting the destruction of the manuscript by a bunch of primitive screwheads made me apoplectic. Just imagine how many millions will have died for this almost 2,000 year delay in human progress.

Blood pressure slowly returning to normal...

P.S. I remember being similarly moved by Cosmos back in the 1980's when Carl Sagan described the destruction of the great library at Alexandria. BTW, Cosmos box set gets 5 stars at Amazon after 137 reviews. Game, set and match, Sagan.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Caribbean Blues

Hurricane Ivan has devastated the Caribbean island of Grenada.

It's interesting to look back at the U.S. invasion 21 years ago. I remember the invasion being controversial, but remember feeling that it was relatively insignificant on the scale of the cold conflict with the Warsaw Pact.

I tend to be an apologist for CIA anti-communist activity during the cold war. Now, in retrospect, our cold war covert actions really don't look very smart (Iraq, Iran, Chile, etc.). Still, those were the days, eh? Remember when our enemy was large, monolithic and possessed self-interest?

Anyway, let's hope that the U.S. will help rebuild the island that it invaded two decades ago.

Another Caribbean island, Montserrat was rendered largely uninhabitable by a volcanic eruption in 1995. The United Stated took in about 300 refugees who then started new lives here. Now, the U.S. government, as a "consequence of 9/11", wants to chuck them out of the country. I say, as long as they have productive lives here, they should be allowed to stay. It costs us nothing and makes us look good.

Bush does it again. He never misses an opportunity to turn a friend into a foe.

Actually, Bush probably doesn't even know about this personally. He's probably never heard of Montserrat. You see, he also never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity to learn something new.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Ciao!

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Yesterday, on a whim, I picked up a copy of Italian Dance Anthems + Euro Hits published on Ultra Records.

I knew I was guaranteed at least one great track, Mai Ai Hee by O-Zone, which I've heard on XM 81 (BPM).

As it turns out, the disc is really quite good. I instantly liked twelve of the seventeen tracks.

Now, there are many who will say that this disc is filled with cheese. Still, it's pretty solid cheese. This disc has some outstanding eurodance songs, filled with strong melodies and harmonies.

This kind of music continues in the tradition of the lightweight, outlandish 80's pop that I love. You know, back in the days when musicians would actually dress up for performances, and show some real joie de vivre. It's campy, but heartfelt. Grungy, sour, unplugged, downbeat, self-conscious, pretentious bands need not apply.

Aquapura's 17 and Benassi Brothers' Illusion are in English, but I really like listening to the tracks that sound Italian (Paps 'n' Skar's Mirage and Gabry Ponte's Figli De Pitigora). Some of the tracks that feature Italian lyrics or Italian accents have a distinctly romantic quality. Note: I don't speak Italian, so they could be saying something exceedingly silly, and I would still be impressed!

The music is mixed and mastered competently. The transitions between these short songs are quite abrupt, but they're not too disturbing.

Now... Put your hands in the air!

Toyota

The big automobile companies have always resisted change. This is to be expected. Change brings risk.

Auto companies resisted seat belts, emissions and fuel economy standards. Of course, when the government mandated these technology ehancements, the auto manufacturers complied and profited at the same time. Tax incentives and regulation reduce competitive risk, and allow companies to innovate.

Thanks to our Big Oil administration, we're not likely to see fuel efficiency standards upgraded anytime soon. Bush and Cheney are ex-oil company executives, and 31 of their appointees are alumni of the energy industry (including four cabinet secretaries and the six most powerful White House officials). Upgraded CAFE standards would reduce our dependence on oil, and, if you're an oil man, you don't want that. Especially not when increasing oil prices are going to bring increasing profits to you and your friends.

With our government no longer standing up for the people, our future rests in the hands of corporations. It's very rare, but once in a while, a corporation actually does something right. That's why I want to single out Toyota for commendation.

You've probably seen the lovable Toyota Prius. It's practical, efficient (60 MPG!!!), and certainly a lot less boring than most other cars on the road.

Now, Toyota is taking pre-orders for its new RX-400h hybrid SUV. This is a machine that turns out 270 horsepower, but gets better than 28 MPG. Lexus has taken more than 9,000 orders, setting a new record for vehicle pre-orders.

Toyota has taken a big risk. They've invested in hybrid technology early, and are going to show the world that it is possible to greatly improve fuel efficiency without compromises. When buyers flock to Lexus and Toyota to buy their guilt-free cars and SUV's, American cars are going to look like Ford Pintos.

I drive an American muscle car, and I'm willing to pay a high price for the privilege. However, I still feel a bit guilty every time I see a Toyota Prius.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Buzzflash

Stay informed.

Read BuzzFlash.com.

Buzzflash has links to the kinds of articles that typically appear on page A234 of the New York Times, but which should really be splashed on the front page. Don't read it for more than half an hour a day. It's bad for your blood pressure.

Two other sites I recommend are Salon.com and Eric Alterman's Altercation Weblog.

That is all.

Monday, September 06, 2004

Quoting Mussolini

Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of State and corporate power.
-Benito Mussolini

Corporations exist to make money for their shareholders. Investors want to see consistent profitability and indications of future profitability. How the corporation gets its wealth is irrelevant to the investor as long as the share price keeps going up.

As an example, consider your mutual funds. Do you know who you are investing in? Do you care? Probably not. When you chose your mutual fund you were interested in the returns you would receive over the life of your investment.

Any of you have Microsoft stock that you purchased in the 80's or early 90's? Good for you! You've made some huge returns on Microsoft stock over the years.

Fair enough. Corporations have given America much of its strength.

Unfortunately, for the reasons I gave above, corporations don't care about Americans or America. No one invests on that basis. That's why giant companies like Tyco register their companies offshore to avoid paying taxes. In a time of war no less.

That's why Enron was literally laughing it up as California wildfires shut down power plants.

Fortunately, this is a nation for the people, by the people and of the people.

When we reform Medicare, we make sure that, um,... we the people can't negotiate drug prices with big pharmaceutical firms. Rats.

When we update fair trade legislation, we make sure that the people, er, the big monopolies get a fair shake. Darn.

The most amazing part of the deal is that, by my reckoning, less than one in five Americans know they are being ripped off, poisoned and blinded by their own elected officials (Republicans*) in the name of corporations. Since the news networks are almost totally controlled by corporate influence, the people aren't going to find this stuff out by watching any major network.

I consider myself to be centrist and pro-business. But we are now seeing a breakdown in the checks and balances that should be present in our system of government.

Let corporations do their business. Let government do ours.**


*President Bush excluded. He was appointed, not elected.

**Don't give me any "government doesn't work" nonsense. Think government can do better? Show some guts and fix it. Don't outsource it to Worldcom, Halliburton or India.

Saturday, September 04, 2004

Logical Positivism Debate

In the 1930's and 1940's, a group of philosophers known as the Vienna Circle developed an approach to philosophy called Logical Positivism.

It will come as a shock to many to learn that the Logical Positivists solved most of the major philosophical problems well-before World War II. Why is this fact so deeply obscured? I have a theory.

Unlike science, philosophy creates no "technology". If your science is bad, so is your technology. Bad technology fails people in concrete ways, both in the marketplace and on the battlefield. Take away the marketplace and you get T.D. Lysenko.

Bad philosophical analysis can actually be more entertaining than good philosophical analysis. So when you go to the Dean and ask for funding to study the philosophical underpinnings of "the glory of God" or somesuch nonsense, you'll probably get a grant.

I've spent the last few days engaged in a lively and informative debate about Logical Positivism.

You can read the debate at the Undead Philosophy blog.

I think that Logical Positivism is primed for a comeback. Perhaps my discussions on Nicolas's blog will lead to a more robust and politically savvy formulation of Logical Positivism.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Wikipedia

While brushing up on my Logical Positivism, and ended up back at Wikipedia. Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia. Reading Wikipedia takes me back to my childhood when I would spend hours reading through our ancient encyclopedias. The particular books we owned (I forget the brand), had a very reductionist bent. That must be where I get my empiricism from!

Anyway, I highly recommend Wikipedia. The WikiMedia project also has a free dictionary and a collection of free textbooks and manuals. Most WikiMedia resources are available in multiple languages.