Artificial superintelligence without the body

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It has not been the case before in the history of humanity that we have stood on the brink, scientists say, of creating artificial intelligence that, by working on itself, can become vastly superior to the intelligence that designed it, meaning ours. If we are on that brink today, as some say (for reference in non-technical language: Part 1, Part 2), it is certainly time for humanity to take stock of the immense opportunities and threats for the human race that our choices will determine – or maybe, cynics will say, is it not too late already to have the debate once the danger makes it to Newsweek?

Anyway, that’s not my topic today. My topic is the decoupling of intelligence from the body. So far, living beings have always developed an intelligence that was rooted in the body: predator or prey, fight or flight, the amygdala a barely differentiated lump of tissue; then the neocortex, tools, language, agriculture, architecture, civilization, Mozart, Tolstoy, Lost. Our intelligence grows out of the senses in our body. We feel hunger, recognize the smell of a loved one’s skin, sink our feet in the sand, rejoice in a dance step. Sensory deprivation results in cognitive impairments. Also, biology has endowed us with wetware that runs efficiently, consumes very little energy, is capable of amazing feats and cannot be replicated other than by making babies. On the hypothesis that the brain learns through the body, we have built AI robots endowed with senses, proprioception, and the ability to learn from their environment: and yet, the intellectual abilities of our best humanoids today lie somewhere between those of a very smart fly and those of a rather dumb rat. So, this avenue may teach us a lot about certain things such as rehabilitative medicine, or preventing loneliness in old people, but it is not designed to move us closer to Singularity-type intelligence.

That intelligence, or Superintelligence, will be different and alien. It won’t miss the body, its pleasures and constraints, because it will only have a functional notion of what it means to have a body, and will make for itself as many types of bodies as needed, most likely single-purpose ones: a swarm of dust to survey the Earth, machines to mine it, fabs to print out hardware, A/C systems to cool down the circuits, nanomachines to swim in our blood (assuming we’re still around). There won’t be a need for a general-purpose body, and maybe even for what we call personal identity. Just like a jellyfish cannot comprehend the human experience, we will not be able to comprehend the Superintelligence experience. Because we have a body, and bodies will be out of fashion, a happy evolutionary detour but not a final destination. Whether this means human immortality or human extinction, I do not know, but I lean towards calling it extinction: just like we have no memory of our jellyfish days, the Superintelligence may well no longer need to remember its human roots, and may discard the very memory of humanity on the way to its own realization, and perhaps demise. Bodies, life, intelligence itself might be over and done with well before the heat death of the universe, or any other ultimate fate.

So enjoy your body, because you’d be far less intelligent without it. Nourish it, keep it healthy, listen to it, forgive it. Whatever comes after us, and however we may fail, biological bodies will have been our own special learning tool, our delight, our strength. Whoever comes next, they can’t take that away from us.

Image credits: At the Mountain of Madness 2, Howard Lovecraft, by ivany86 over at deviantart.

Bitcoin and beyond: a few thoughts

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Much ink has been spilled on Bitcoin and its smaller cryptocurrency siblings. I’ve recently thought a lot about the impact of cryptocurrencies on financial systems and on the world at large. While I do not expect that any conclusions may stand for long, I’ve tried to sum up what I understood so far and digest it for my readers here. Apologies for any technical inaccuracies – please highlight them in comments.

First, a few thoughts on what’s new and different about Bitcoin:

  • The intellectual and technical work that Bitcoin stands on, my geekier friends agree, is an astonishing leap forward from everything we’ve seen before. Satoshi Nakamoto is not one person, as multiple disciplines from cryptography to software engineering were involved in its conception, but may have been a small group of people with the extraordinary discipline to publish some brilliant open source code and yet not to come forward and reveal themselves, at least so far. Code that is an achievement in that it is not just smart, but also amazingly robust. If Satoshi Nakamoto were one person, his achievements would be on par with those of Sir Tim Berners-Lee.
  • The main reason why it’s difficult to explain Bitcoin to people is that it’s a system where flows, not stocks, are certified. If I start with $100 in my bank account, I deposit $50, and then I take out $30, my bank knows what I did, knows that I have a new balance of $120, and can print me a statement with that balance. If I do the same with Bitcoin, all that’s monitored is the flow: “in 50” and “out 30” are recorded on a ledger replicated on thousands of servers all over the world, but my new balance of 120 – just like my old balance – is strictly my information, and nobody else has it. The Bitcoin community validates the flows; the algorithm cares not one bit about stocks.
  • The total quantity of Bitcoin in the Bitcoin system is algorithmically predetermined, and in that sense is the only stock that matters to the system. This also means that, at some point (roughly around the year 2140), mining will stop and the quantity of Bitcoin will be fixed. No central bank, commercial bank or other authority will be able to print more. As we’ll see below, this has important macroeconomic implications.
  • Other things that strike people as weird are that Bitcoin is strictly a bearer instrument (you lose it, you have no recourse) and that transactions, once validated, are irreversible – unlike with your credit card or your PayPal account, there is no chargeback mechanism. Transactions are final.
  • Most importantly, a “trustless” network that keeps working with no central authority and never collapses – because trust is distributed and resides in the consensus mechanisms that enables the endless replication of the blockchain – is in itself a concept that takes a bit of time getting used to.
  • Volatility? Oh yes, plenty. Don’t stash your mom’s retirement nest egg in a Bitcoin wallet. That’s not what it’s for, really.

Where different players stand:

  • Economists are intrigued, but do not believe that at a macro level Bitcoin can power a sophisticated economy. While the developer community is working to overcome this limitation, for example, Bitcoin as it stands today can carry out only a limited number of transactions: 7 transactions per second. (Visa, depending on which source you believe, is said to support 10,000-50,000 per second).
  • Also, there is not enough Bitcoin in the system, and there never will be enough for a significant world economy to adopt it to the exclusion of other currencies. If output is to grow and the quantity of money cannot grow, deflation wreaks havoc because the debt in the system becomes unsustainable. And “debt is to capitalism that which Hell is to Christianity: seriously unpleasant but absolutely necessary”, claims economist Yanis Varoufakis (yes, he who just became Finance Minister of Greece).
  • Regulators are walking a fine line. Err on the side of protecting consumers from risk, and you stifle innovation; err on the side of fostering innovation, and a lot of people will go bust. Not because the Bitcoin technology per se is unsafe, but because issues come up at the edge, in the wallets and exchanges that sit at the crossroads of Bitcoin and fiat currencies. The blockchain is resilient and continues to function when mayhem happens, but people get burned.
  • London is trying to ride the Bitcoin wave, with a light regulatory touch and a Chancellor of the Exchequer who has voiced support for cryptocurrencies as an enabler of financial innovation – although the Treasury review he commissioned is taking longer than expected. New York State is working on a “BitLicense” regulatory framework, although critics say it is too restrictive for New York to become a Bitcoin hub. The US Commodities Futures and Trading Commission says Bitcoin is a commodity, not a currency, and falls under its remit. The European Central Bank and the European Banking Authority have highlighted risks for consumers, recommended that banks refrain from buying or holding bitcoin, and then mostly kept silent: one gets the feeling that they would really rather see the whole headache go away. But Bitcoin has no borders, does not reside anywhere and recognizes no nations: shouldn’t we aim for a global framework, instead of burdening the ecosystem with incompatible rules, lack of interoperability, and unsustainable compliance costs?
  • Financial institutions, though listening to regulators out of one ear, are eager to become players in the Bitcoin economy, or at least to be seen as such. See the recent investment by, among others, BBVA and the NYSE in Coinbase.
  • There already are better ways than Bitcoin to implement an alternative and decentralized payment network. Ripple, although not perfect, is said to be one. Stellar is another one.

What’s next?

  • Expecting that Bitcoin will be a major world currency five or ten years from now would be a bit like betting in 1995 that AOL would be the dominant Internet service in 2015. It’s still very early days. The entire Bitcoin system is barely six years old. We haven’t seen anything yet, really.
  • In addition to finance, there are a lot of things you can do with a system that decentralizes the hard work of certifying a transaction between two parties. Indeed, some go so far as to say that Bitcoin isn’t the point of the Bitcoin technology: “Bitcoin as a currency has been a red herring driven by speculative investment, but that’s not the ultimate potential or the most exciting thing about it” (Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong, quoted in Quartz). In other words, a virtual currency is just one application enabled by the blockchain: it has been and is important as an incentive to participants (miners) and to create liquidity in the system, but it won’t be the only use of the technology in the future.
  • Sidechains – ledgers that experiment with features that might be added the Bitcoin core, or might serve some entirely new purpose, without actually jeopardizing the stability of the blockchain – will be big. See Austin Hill and Adam Back’s Blockstream, which is now backed by Reid Hoffman.
  • Under so-called “Bitcoin 2.0” frameworks, you can make money programmable, for example tag a certain bitcoin for spending only with certain counterparts. You can also have a bitcoin represent other types of assets than money, such as a car, a company share, a vote in an election (video).
  • The most ambitious project inspired by the Bitcoin blockchain (but entirely separate from it) seems to be Vitalik Buterin’s Ethereum, not just a platform allowing for contracts written as computer code, but an entire scripting language and programming environment to create an ecosystem with self-enforcing contracts, distributed autonomous corporations, and perhaps entirely novel models for political organizations.
  • Would a software-based societal model be resilient enough to cope with the real world, or would it be too brittle to withstand shocks by reacting intelligently? Would the utopistic libertarians willing to delegate a part of their life to a blockchain risk waking up in a dystopia of inequality, polarization and control? Hard to say. What we can say is that as a society we need to understand the technology, weigh the upside potential against the risks, and make collective choices that will serve us well for the future.

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Images credits (and recommended article): Quartz. Thank you to some of the smartest among my friends and colleagues, who helped me clarify my thoughts on the topic: Giovanni Daprà, Vincenzo Di Nicola, Raffaele Mauro and Stefano Quintarelli.

Gone Girl: if you didn’t get the “Cool Girl” rant, think again

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Why is Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn such a powerful novel? Because nothing is black-and-white and everything is ambiguous: how we fall in love, how far we go to please someone else, how we might go about reclaiming ourselves – even if the fiction brings the premise to extreme consequences.

Why is Gone Girl by David Fincher such a weak movie? Because it’s black-and-white. People who have only seen the movie – and not read the book – women who have only seen the movie – easily buy into the typecasting of Amy as the horrendous psycho killer and Nick as the poor, cute, loving husband victimized by his traitorous wife.

But the novel is more subtle than that. Amy, you see, has a point. Amy is right, right in her diagnosis of what happened to her marriage. (Not in the actions she takes – I am not condoning or advocating – spoilers ahead – framing people for crimes they have not committed, absconding in search of a new identity, or extracting revenge by locking husbands into sadistic marriages). Amy is right because she understands what happened to her when she tried to be a Cool Girl for Nick: she gave up her identity. The first crime she committed was against herself.

Here is a good chunk of the “Cool Girl” rant, those three or four pages that expose the moral core of the novel, and the source of Amy’s anger.

That night at the Brooklyn party, I was playing the girl who was in style, the girl a man like Nick wants: the Cool Girl. Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.


Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. For a long time Cool Girl offended me. I used to see men – friends, coworkers, strangers – giddy over these awful pretender women, and I’d want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them. I’d want to grab the poor guy by his lapels or messenger bag and say: The bitch doesn’t really love chili dogs that much – no one loves chili dogs that much! And the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They’re not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be. Oh, and if you’re not a Cool Girl, I beg you not to believe that your man doesn’t want the Cool Girl. It may be a slightly different version – maybe he’s a vegetarian, so Cool Girl loves seitan and is great with dogs; or maybe he’s a hipster artist, so Cool Girl is a tattooed, bespectacled nerd who loves comics. There are variations to the window dressing, but believe me, he wants Cool Girl, who is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain. (How do you know you’re not Cool Girl? Because he says things like: ‘I like strong women.’ If he says that to you, he will at some point fuck someone else. Because ‘I like strong women’ is code for ‘I hate strong women.’)

I waited patiently – years – for the pendulum to swing the other way, for men to start reading Jane Austen, learn how to knit, pretend to love cosmos, organize scrapbook parties, and make out with each other while we leer. And then we’d say, Yeah, he’s a Cool Guy.
But it never happened. Instead, women across the nation colluded in our degradation! Pretty soon Cool Girl became the standard girl. Men believed she existed – she wasn’t just a dreamgirl one in a million. Every girl was supposed to this girl, and if you weren’t, then there was something wrong with you.

But it’s tempting to be Cool Girl. For someone like me, who likes to win, it’s tempting to want to be the girl every guy wants. When I met Nick, I knew immediately that was what he wanted, and for him, I guess I was willing to try. I will accept my portion of blame. The thing is, I was crazy about him at first. I found him perversely exotic, a good ole Missouri boy. He was so damn nice to be around. He teased things out in me that I didn’t know existed: a lightness, a humor, an ease. It was as if he hollowed me out and filled me with feathers. He helped me be Cool Girl – I couldn’t have been Cool Girl with anyone else. I wouldn’t have wanted to. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy some of it: I ate a MoonPie, I walked barefoot, I stopped worrying. I watched dumb movies and ate chemically laced foods. I didn’t think past the first step of anything, that was the key. I drank a Coke and didn’t worry about how to recycle the can or about the acid puddling in my belly, acid so powerful it could strip clean a penny. We went to a dumb movie and I didn’t worry about the offensive sexism or the lack of minorities in meaningful roles. I didn’t even worry whether the movie made sense. I didn’t worry about anything that came next. Nothing had consequence, I was living in the moment, and I could feel myself getting shallower and dumber. But also happy. […]

I was probably happier for those few years—pretending to be someone else—than I ever have been before or after. I can’t decide what that means.

But then it had to stop, because it wasn’t real, it wasn’t me. It wasn’t me, Nick! I thought you knew. I thought it was a bit of a game. I thought we had a wink-wink, don’t ask, don’t tell thing going. I tried so hard to be easy. But it was unsustainable. It turned out he couldn’t sustain his side either: the witty banter, the clever games, the romance, and the wooing. It all started collapsing on itself. I hated Nick for being surprised when I became me. […]

So it had to stop. Committing to Nick, feeling safe with Nick, being happy with Nick, made me realize that there was a Real Amy in there, and she was so much better, more interesting and complicated and challenging, than Cool Amy. Nick wanted Cool Amy anyway. Can you imagine, finally showing your true self to your spouse, your soul mate, and having him not like you? So that’s how the hating first began. I’ve thought about this a lot, and that’s where it started, I think.

If you’ve read this far, also read this meta-rant by Shannon Kelley and this Slate piece by David Haglund about how the rant was mangled into the movie (“the passage is not just a critique of men. Quite a bit of it, in fact, is a critique of women… The Cool Girl speech is fundamentally about wishing all women would think for themselves”).

So, don’t buy the Hollywood version. Read the book and think for yourself.

On privilege, awareness, debate and moving forward

You might say that my antennae are finely tuned to issues of gender in the workplace as reported by the media, but the latest crop of interesting reads has been, if ever, more depressing than usual. I will not dwell on the vicious backlash against women who brought to the media’s attention physicist Matt Taylor’s poor outfit choice in a press conference about a comet landing – if only because I tend to defend women’s right to wear whatever the hell they want -, other than to quote writer Roxane Gay (someone I will return to) and her essay “Blurred Lines, Indeed” (previously published as “What men want, America delivers“): “It’s hard to be told to lighten up because if you lighten up any more, you’re going to float the fuck away. ”

So, here is a multi-industry selection of recent articles pointing to the inescapable fact that, again in Gay’s words, “the problem is not that one of these things is happening, it’s that they are all happening, concurrently and constantly”:

  • In finance: “When I was younger, I assumed that it would change. […] The results of this generational experiment are now in and they are pathetic.” From “Men alone should no longer run finance“, John Gapper, Financial Times, Dec. 3, 2014.
  • In asset management“One in five women in asset management has suffered sexual harassment at work… another third of female asset management staff had experienced sexist behaviour at work on a weekly or monthly basis… 15 per cent had felt pressured to exploit their sexuality at work…” From “Sexism still plagues fund management“, Chris Newlands and Madison Marriage, Financial Times, Nov. 30, 2014.
  • In architecture: “In the UK […] one recent survey found the number of women in architecture firms fell from 28% to 21% between 2009 and 2011.” From “If women built cities, what would our urban landscape look like?“, Susanna Rustin, The Guardian, Dec. 5, 2014.
  • In technology: “Women make up a tiny fraction, roughly 15%, of people working in technical roles in the tech industry. And amazingly, that percentage is dropping, not rising. Multiple studies have found that the proportion of women in the tech workforce peaked in about 1989 and has been steadily dropping ever since. […]The women I know in tech are tough, resilient and skilled [… ] The women who quit tech aren’t fragile. I think they’re fed up.” From “Why women are leaving the tech industry in droves“, Sue Gardner, LA Times, Dec. 5, 2014.
  • In videogames: “The campaign grew and morphed and got a name, “gamergate.” Very few people came out looking good in the ensuing hashtag war—an example of social media at its worst, with childish insults, sarcasm, disingenuousness, and threats of rape and other violence. […] Unfortunately, law enforcement hasn’t shown a willingness to take online threats seriously.” From the weirdly titled “The Gaming Industry’s Greatest Adversary Is Just Getting Started” (does one really become the greatest adversary of the industry by way of cultural criticism?), Sheelah Kolhatkar, BloombergBusinessweek, Nov. 26, 2014.

This latter article prompted an interesting discussion among some of my Facebook friends, in particular a (male) friend claiming that videogames aren’t really that bad in their depiction of women, and that the academic in question – Anita Sarkeesian – was overrreacting to online haters’ threats, since they are rarely carried out. I find it hard to describe the frustration I felt. Here was a man – a good friend, and not someone I believe would indulge in online hate – telling me, a woman, that another woman was wrong to fear for her safety. Perhaps this is what black males in Ferguson feel like when they are told by white authorities that the police is there to protect them, I replied.

But the point is, I don’t really know what black males in Ferguson feel like. I can attempt the necessary exercise in empathy – as one does, for example, in storytelling of many sorts -, but outside that exercise I can only truly speak to what I feel, if and when I am able to articulate it. If the lottery of life has allowed me a privilege, it is my job to be aware of it, just as it is for others who have a different type of privilege. I learned this in another of Roxane Gay’s essays, “Peculiar Benefits” (you can find it, along with the one quoted above, in her collection Bad Feminist), which suggests the beginning of a personal agenda for each of us who is somehow privileged:

There is racial privilege, gender (and identity) privilege, heterosexual privilege, economic privilege, able-bodied privilege, educational privilege, religious privilege and the list goes on and on. At some point, you have to surrender to the kinds of privilege you hold because everyone has something someone else doesn’t. […]

We tend to believe that accusations of privilege imply we have it easy and because life is hard for nearly everyone, we resent hearing that. Of course we do. Look at white men when they are accused of having privilege. They tend to be immediately defensive (and, at times, understandably so). They say, “It’s not my fault I am a white man.” They say, “I’m working class,” or “I’m [insert other condition that discounts their privilege],” instead of simply accepting that, in this regard, yes, they benefit from certain privileges others do not. To have privilege in one or more areas does not mean you are wholly privileged. […]

You don’t necessarily have to do anything once you acknowledge your privilege. You don’t have to apologize for it. You don’t need to diminish your privilege or your accomplishments because of that privilege. You need to understand the extent of your privilege, the consequences of your privilege, and remain aware that people who are different from you move through and experience the world in ways you might never know anything about. They might endure situations you can never know anything about. You could, however, use that privilege for the greater good–to try to level the playing field for everyone, to work for social justice, to bring attention to how those without certain privileges are disenfranchised. While you don’t have to do anything with your privilege, perhaps it should be an imperative of privilege to share the benefits of that privilege rather than hoard your good fortune. We’ve seen what the hoarding of privilege has done and the results are shameful.

This should be, perhaps, if enough people in good faith agree, a way to move forward.

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Photo: https://www.facebook.com/roxane.gay

 

Personal branding at the top

Dear readers, it is not often (yet) that one gets invited to blog on LinkedIn, and even more infrequently does one get to use pictures of Queen Rania, Marc Andreessen, and Sir Richard Branson to make essentially the same point.

I would love your comment and feedback on these three blog posts in a series titled Personal branding at the top:

QueenRania

marc-andreessen-handsSir Richard BransonI hope you find them a good read and you get some inspiration for your own personal brand, too!

Update Sept. 30: See the fourth and (I think) last post in the series, where I take a case study from close to home (Mr. Rosso and I are both from a small town near Vicenza in Northern Italy) and highlight effective habits and improvement opportunities:

Renzo Rosso Instagram 26 09 14

20,000 Days on Earth. Nick Cave on himself

20000daysonearth-1Jane Pollard and Iain Forsyth’s 20,000 Days on Earth, a docu-fiction on the polyhedric Nick Cave shown at Sundance and Berlin earlier this year, is coming to theatres at last.

Cave gets to make music,talk about his creative process, drive people around while having conversations with them, and narrate himself in flashes and bursts such as this one (from the NY Times Magazine):

The first time I saw Susie was at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. And when she came walking in, all the things that I have obsessed over for all the years, pictures of movie stars, Jenny Agutter in the billabong, Anita Ekberg in the fountain . . . Miss World competitions, Marilyn Monroe and Jennifer Jones and Bo Derek . . . Bolshoi ballerinas and Russian gymnasts . . . the young girls at the Wangaratta pool lying on the hot concrete, all the stuff I had heard and seen and read . . . all the continuing never-ending drip-feed of erotic data . . . came together at that moment, in one great big crash bang, and I was lost to her. And that was that.

It takes a remarkable woman to inspire this description; it also takes a man with an unusual poetic imagination to put it in words. This is a movie I look forward to.

 

Set up two-factor authentication now

Screenshot_2014-09-03-08-13-41 If you have no idea what this screenshot means, then your online accounts are not sufficiently protected.

Google Authenticator is a little smartphone app (iTunes; Play Store) that you can – and should – use to ensure that whoever logs into your account on Gmail, Dropbox, Tumblr and so on not only has your username and password, but also is in physical possession of your smartphone, i.e. is most likely to be you. This is important in general, but phenomenally important for your primary email account, since whoever gets into that has a good shot at full-scale identity theft if they want to.

Two-step verification means that when you login to Gmail from a new machine, after your usual username-and-password step, you are asked for a six-digit verification code; and you obtain the code – which changes constantly – by opening the Authenticator app on your smartphone. You only have to do this once if you check the machine as a trusted computer (obviously, don’t do this at shared computers).

Here are the instructions for Gmail and all other Google services; here is an article from the Financial Times (login required) that explains how to do the same thing to protect any nude photos you might have on iCloud through Apple’s two-step verification.

Finally, even if this post is about taking your online privacy seriously, let me close on a lighthearted note from the FT’s Chris Nuttall:

Have hackers put any nude photos of me out on the web?

Not if you haven’t taken any of yourself. If you have, they probably won’t have bothered trying to hack you unless you’re a celebrity.