Doc Huston

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News — At The Edge — 1/20

Hard to imagine a week with more dystopian issues

  • Thought-provoking article — words have no meaning —which undermines civilization.
  • Present issues bleeding into the future — healthcare can refuse patients yet more uninsured, and free speech and privacy attacks — moves us back toward the Dark Ages.
  • Future issues — jobs and AI risks — suggest volatile situation ahead.

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Thought-Provoking Issue –

It’s the (Democracy-Poisoning) Golden Age of Free Speech —

“For most of modern history, the easiest way to block the spread of an idea was to… find the right choke point, then squeeze…[because] broadcasting and publishing were difficult and expensive…bottlenecks and concentrated in a few hands….[That’s] obsolete… when almost any event is recorded by smartphone-­wielding mem­­bers of the public….

This should be the golden age of free speech…if you can believe your lying eyes…[not] lost in a sea of posts from hundreds of millions of content pro­ducers? Does it play well with Facebook’s algorithm? Is YouTube recommending it?….

[Now] flow of the world’s attention is structured, to a vast and overwhelming degree, by just a few digital platforms…[who] use massive surveillance of our behavior, online and off, to generate increasingly accurate, automated predictions of what advertisements we are most susceptible to….

But there’s nothing natural or inevitable about [it]….[Humans] equipped with few defenses…beyond our ability to acquire knowledge and stay in groups that work together…[and] particularly susceptible to glimmers of novelty, messages of affirmation and belonging, and messages of outrage toward perceived enemies… ‘a social-­validation feedback loop’….

A personal post looks almost the same as an ad [or]…New York Times article [and]…same visual feel as a fake newspaper…. [Also] posts are targeted and delivered privately, screen by screen… fragmented and submerged into billions of individual capillaries…[and] simultaneously become a set of private conversations happening behind your back….

[T]his invalidates much of what we think about free speech — conceptually, legally, and ethically. The most effective forms of censorship today involve meddling with trust and attention, not muzzling speech itself…. They look like epidemics of disinformation, meant to undercut the credibility of valid information sources….[They] don’t break any laws or set off any First Amendment alarm bells…[yet] serve the same purpose that the old forms of censorship did….

John Stuart Mill’s notion that a ‘marketplace of ideas’ will elevate the truth is flatly belied by the virality of fake news…. How can you cure the effects of ‘bad’ speech with more speech when you have no means to target the same audience that received the original message?….

In the liberal tradition, free speech is usually understood as a vehicle…for achieving certain other societal ideals: for creating a knowledgeable public; for engendering healthy, rational, and informed debate; for holding powerful people and institutions accountable; for keeping communities lively and vibrant.

What we are seeing now is that when free speech is treated as an end and not a means, it is all too possible to thwart and distort everything it is supposed to deliver.

Creating a knowledgeable public requires at least some workable signals that distinguish truth from falsehood. Fostering a healthy, rational, and informed debate in a mass society requires mechanisms that elevate opposing viewpoints, preferably their best versions….

Today’s engagement algorithms, by contrast, espouse no ideals about a healthy public sphere…even as we drown in more speech than ever….

In the past, it has taken generations for humans to develop political, cultural, and institutional antibodies to the novelty and upheaval of previous information revolutions….

[T]the core business model [of]…Tech platforms…is far too compatible with authoritarianism, propaganda, misinformation, and polarization. The institutional antibodies…against censorship and propaganda thus far — laws, journalistic codes of ethics, independent watchdogs, mass education…are no longer sufficient….

The rules and incentive structures underlying how attention and surveillance work on the internet need to change…[and] involve huge trade-offs…. These are deeply political decisions…[about] digital surveillance, attention-­channeling, harassment, data collection, and algorithmic decision­ making.need to start the discussion. Now.” https://www.wired.com/story/free-speech-issue-tech-turmoil-new-censorship/

Present issues bleeding into the future –

Trump Will Protect Health Workers Who Reject Patients On Religious Grounds —

“Department of Health and Human Services is creating the Division of Conscience and Religious Freedom to protect…health care workers who refuse to take part in procedures …[reversing] policy that barred health care workers from refusing to treat transgender individuals, or people who have had or are seeking abortions….

Opponents of the new division are preparing…legal challenges. ‘Medical standards, not religious belief, should guide medical care. Denying patients health care is not liberty.’” https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2018/01/18/578811426/trump-will-protect-health-workers-who-reject-patients-on-religious-grounds

3.2 million more people were uninsured at the end of 2017 than at the end of 2016 —

“[T]he connection between a lack of insurance and mortality suggests that for every 800 people without insurance for a year, one will die — meaning that 4,000 more people may have died during the year….That increase in the percentage began in the first quarter of Donald Trump’s presidency….

[Driver] was people declining to buy their own insuranceas part of the…tax-overhaul bill….[T]he nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office…found that the repeal would lead to…4 million more by 2019…[and] could mean 16,250 more deaths a year….

[Largest] percentage of uninsured…among those 25 and under…[poor] and nonwhites…[with] those earning under $36,000 a year…without insurance jumped from 20.8 to 22.8 percent…black Americans…jumped from 12.5 to 14.8 percent…[Hispanics] nearly 30 percent. Obamacare had been narrowing the gap between whites and nonwhites….

CBO’s projection that the number of uninsured…will continue to increase [as]… the Trump administration scaled back outreach efforts to promote enrollment….Those without insurance [often]…with large health-care bills…forced to declare bankruptcy….[W]as one year ago…Trump pledged …‘insurance for everybody.https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/politics/wp/2018/01/16/3-2-million-more-people-were-uninsured-at-the-end-of-2017-than-at-the-end-of-2016/?utm_term=.1285074e24bf

Arizona’s G.O.P. Senators Assail Trump for His Attacks on the Press

“Jeff Flake, Republican… took to the Senate floor …to castigate…Trump for his ‘assaults’ on American media and to compare the president’s words to those of a former Soviet dictator… ‘to describe his enemies…

When a figure in power reflexively calls any press that doesn’t suit him ‘fake news,’ it is that person who should be the figure of suspicion, not the press’….

[Senator] McCain joined…in calling for the president to stop attacking the news media….’We cannot afford to abdicate America’s longstanding role as the defender of human rights and democratic principles throughout the world. Without strong leadership in the White House, Congress must commit to protecting independent journalism, preserving an open and free media environment, and defending the fundamental right to freedom of opinion and expression’….

Both Mr. Flake and Mr. McCain warned that the president’s…[attacks] put journalists around the world in danger and set a poor example for countries led by authoritarians and dictators.

No longer can we turn a blind eye or deaf ear to those assaults on our institutions and… an American president who cannot take criticism, who must constantly…distort and distract, who must find someone else to blame, is charting a very dangerous path…. And a Congress that fails to act as a check on the president adds to that danger.” https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/17/us/politics/flake-mccain-trump-freedom-of-the-press.html

The House just renewed a warrantless surveillance law without any privacy reform —

“[P]art of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act known as Section 702…[has] a loophole…for the surveillance of American citizens in…spying operations on foreign targets.

The House bill extends the legality of the surveillance…largely split along party lines, with Democrats opposed…[and] does absolutely nothing to defend the vast majority of law-abiding Americans from warrantless searches, and in many ways it expands…ability to spy on Americans…[as] fear-mongering and misinformation pushed this flawed bill.’” https://techcrunch.com/2018/01/11/surveillance-section-702-passes-house-2018/

Future Issues –

The battle between techno-optimists and productivity pessimists continues —

“From 1995 to 2004 output per hour worked grew at an annual average pace of 2.5%; from 2004 to 2016 the pace was just 1%…[and] in the G7 group of rich countries, the pace has been slower still….[I]n America, the slowdown began in 2006…[and] stagnated despite swelling research spending….

Productivity pessimism remains the norm among official forecasters…[and] technological progress be divided into two categories:

  • the sort that replaces labor with machines
  • that which creates new, more complex tasks for humans…

[Historically] in balance, encouraged by market forces….[T]he two forces can, in theory, fall out of sync. For example, if capital is cheap relative to wages, the incentive to automate could prevail permanently, leading the economy to robotize completely…[and] for now, biases towards capitaland away from thinking up new tasks for people.

Another risk is that much of the workforce lacks the right skills….[C]an take years for the transformative effects of general-purpose technologies such as artificial intelligence to be fully felt. If firms are consumed by efforts to automate, and such investments take time to pay off, it makes sense that productivity growth would stall. Investment has not been unusually low…but it has shifted away from structures and equipment, towards research-and-development spending….

The risk is that without sufficient investment in training, technology will relegate many more [to]… low-skilled…[and] pay or working conditions might have to deteriorate. If productivity optimists are right [problem]…not be the quantity of available work, but its quality.” https://www.economist.com/news/finance-and-economics/21734457-battle-between-techno-optimists-and-productivity-pessimists

Should internet firms pay for the data users currently give away? —

[We’re] all digital laborers, helping make…the fortunes [of]…firms like Google and Facebook…..

If the economy is to function properly…and if a crisis of technological unemployment [avoided]…[must] change the relationship….People ‘pay’ for useful free services by providing [data]…[that] become part of the firms’ capital….[The] startups that might challenge internet giants cannot train their AIs without access to the data only those giants possess….

[A]s AI improves [and]…displacement by technology grows…the value generated in the economy accrues to profitable firms rather than workers….[T]he share of GDP paid out to workers…once thought to be relatively stable…[has] been declining over the past few decades….

[So] data should be treated as…the property of those who generate [it]… unless they agree to provide it…in exchange for payment…[and] might be sold multiple times, to multiple firms…[to] spread the wealth generated by AI. Firms could also potentially generate better data….Might not such systems attract data mercenaries, spamming firms?….

[For] effective negotiation with internet firms might require collective action: and the formation, perhaps, of a ‘data-labor union’….Each person…pumping out the fuel that makes the digital economy run. Both fairness and efficiency demand…income generated by that fuel should be shared more evenly…. The tricky part is working out how.” https://www.economist.com/news/finance-and-economics/21734390-and-new-paper-proposes-should-data-providers-unionise-should-internet

Research for Beneficial Artificial Intelligence

“[I]n Jurassic Park…Jeff Goldblum’s character laments…scientists who created the dinosaurs ‘were so preoccupied with whether…they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should’….

AI researchers have also focused primarily on figuring out what they could accomplish, without longer-term considerations…[and] seeing with some of the issues of bias and discrimination…popping up….[There’s] culture within AI research…accepting of the idea that the developers aren’t responsible for how their products are used….

If we’re directing it towards beneficial intelligence, we’ve got to define our terms… and it’s rare that you could benefit everybody….

’The universe of possible intelligent agents is infinite[so]…not enough…aim for an intelligence that is in alignment with goals of humanity…a very narrow target in a vast sea of possible goals…so most intelligent agents would not make a good optimizer for our values resulting in a malevolent or at least indifferent AI (which is likewise very dangerous).

It is only by aligning future superintelligence with our true goals, that we can get significant benefit out of our intellectual heirs and avoid existential catastrophe’….AI systems must do what we want them to do.” https://futureoflife.org/2017/12/27/research-for-beneficial-artificial-intelligence/

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Doc Huston

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