Saturday, February 18, 2017

Singularity Attacks!

The AI Threat Isn’t Skynet. It’s the End of the Middle Class.

- by Cade Metz

IN FEBRUARY 1975, a group of geneticists gathered in a tiny town on the central coast of California to decide if their work would bring about the end of the world. These researchers were just beginning to explore the science of genetic engineering, manipulating DNA to create organisms that didn’t exist in nature, and they were unsure how these techniques would affect the health of the planet and its people. So, they descended on a coastal retreat called Asilomar, a name that became synonymous with the guidelines they laid down at this meeting—a strict ethical framework meant to ensure that biotechnology didn’t unleash the apocalypse.

Forty-two years on, another group of scientists gathered at Asilomar to consider a similar problem. But this time, the threat wasn’t biological. It was digital. In January, the world’s top artificial intelligence researchers walked down the same beachside paths as they discussed their rapidly accelerating field and the role it will play in the fate of humanity. It was a private conference... the enormity of the subject deserves some privacy... but in recent days, organizers released several videos from the conference talks, and some participants have been willing to discuss their experience, shedding some light on the way AI researchers view the threat of their own field.

The rise of driverless cars and trucks is just a start. It’s not just blue-collar jobs that AI endangers.
Yes, they discussed the possibility of a superintelligence that could somehow escape human control, and at the end of the month, the conference organizers unveiled a set of guidelines, signed by attendees and other AI luminaries, that aim to prevent this possible dystopia. But the researchers at Asilomar were also concerned with more immediate matters: the effect of AI on the economy.

“One of the reasons I don’t like the discussions about superintelligence is that they’re a distraction from what’s real,” says Oren Etzioni, CEO of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, who attended the conference. “As the poet said, have fewer imaginary problems and more real ones.”

At a time when the Trump administration is promising to make America great again by restoring old-school manufacturing jobs, AI researchers aren’t taking him too seriously. They know that these jobs are never coming back, thanks in no small part to their own research, which will eliminate so many other kinds of jobs in the years to come, as well. At Asilomar, they looked at the real US economy, the real reasons for the “hollowing out” of the middle class. The problem isn’t immigration... far from it. The problem isn’t offshoring or taxes or regulation. It’s technology.

Rage Against the Machines

In the US, the number of manufacturing jobs peaked in 1979 and has steadily decreased ever since. At the same time, manufacturing has steadily increased, with the US now producing more goods than any other country but China. Machines aren’t just taking the place of humans on the assembly line. They’re doing a better job. And all this before the coming wave of AI upends so many other sectors of the economy. “I am less concerned with Terminator scenarios,” MIT economist Andrew McAfee said on the first day at Asilomar. “If current trends continue, people are going to rise up well before the machines do.”

McAfee pointed to newly collected data that shows a sharp decline in middle-class job creation since the 1980s. Now, most new jobs are either at the very low end of the pay scale or the very high end. He also argued that these trends are reversible, that improved education and a greater emphasis on entrepreneurship and research can help feed new engines of growth, that economies have overcome the rise of new technologies before. But after his talk, in the hallways at Asilomar, so many of the researchers warned him that the coming revolution in AI would eliminate far more jobs far more quickly than he expected.

Indeed, the rise of driverless cars and trucks is just a start. New AI techniques are poised to reinvent everything from manufacturing to healthcare to Wall Street. In other words, it’s not just blue-collar jobs that AI endangers. “Several of the rock stars in this field came up to me and said: ‘I think you’re low-balling this one. I think you are underestimating the rate of change,'” McAfee says.

- Found this article on Wired. You can read the complete article Here.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

It's Not 1984... It's Brave New World.

Neil Postman (March 8, 1931 – October 5, 2003) was an American author, educator, media theorist and cultural critic, who is best known for his 1985 book: "Amusing Ourselves to Death" ...a historical narrative which warns of a decline in the ability of our mass communications media to share serious ideas. Since television images replace the written word, Postman argues that television confounds serious issues by demeaning and undermining political discourse and by turning real, complex issues into superficial images, less about ideas and thoughts and more about entertainment.

On February 2, 2017, Neil's Son, Andrew Postman published the following article in the Guardian...

My dad predicted Trump in 1985 – it's not Orwell, he warned, it's Brave New World

Over the last year, as the presidential campaign grew increasingly bizarre and Donald Trump took us places we had never been before, I saw a spike in media references to Amusing Ourselves to Death, a book written by my late father, Neil Postman, which anticipated back in 1985 so much about what has become of our current public discourse.

At Forbes, one contributor wrote that the book “may help explain the otherwise inexplicable”. CNN noted that Trump’s allegedly shocking “ascent would not have surprised Postman”. At, Richard D Land reflected on reading the book three decades ago and feeling “dumbfounded … by Postman’s prophetic insights into what was then America’s future and is now too often a painful description of America’s present”. Last month, a headline at Paste Magazine asked: “Did Neil Postman Predict the Rise of Trump and Fake News?”

Colleagues and former students of my father, who taught at New York University for more than 40 years and who died in 2003, would now and then email or Facebook message me, after the latest Trumpian theatrics, wondering, “What would Neil think?” or noting glumly, “Your dad nailed it.”

The central argument of Amusing Ourselves is simple: there were two landmark dystopian novels written by brilliant British cultural critics – Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – and we Americans had mistakenly feared and obsessed over the vision portrayed in the latter book (an information-censoring, movement-restricting, individuality-emaciating state) rather than the former (a technology-sedating, consumption-engorging, instant-gratifying bubble).

The misplaced focus on Orwell was understandable: after all, for decades the cold war had made communism – as embodied by Nineteen Eighty-Four’s Big Brother – the prime existential threat to America and to the greatest of American virtues, freedom. And, to put a bow on it, the actual year, 1984, was fast approaching when my father was writing his book, so we had Orwell’s powerful vision on the brain.

Whoops. Within a half-decade, the Berlin Wall came down. Two years later, the Soviet Union collapsed.

“We were keeping our eye on 1984,” my father wrote. “When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.”

Unfortunately, there remained a vision we Americans did need to guard against, one that was percolating right then, in the 1980s. The president was a former actor and polished communicator. Our political discourse (if you could call it that) was day by day diminished to soundbites (“Where’s the beef?” and “I’m paying for this microphone” became two “gotcha” moments, apparently testifying to the speaker’s political formidableness).

The nation increasingly got its “serious” information not from newspapers, which demand a level of deliberation and active engagement, but from television: Americans watched an average of 20 hours of TV a week. (My father noted that USA Today, which launched in 1982 and featured colorized images, quick-glance lists and charts, and much shorter stories, was really a newspaper mimicking the look and feel of TV news.)

But it wasn’t simply the magnitude of TV exposure that was troubling. It was that the audience was being conditioned to get its information faster, in a way that was less nuanced and, of course, image-based. As my father pointed out, a written sentence has a level of verifiability to it: it is true or not true – or, at the very least, we can have a meaningful discussion over its truth. (This was pre-truthiness, pre-“alternative facts”.)

But an image? One never says a picture is true or false. It either captures your attention or it doesn’t. The more TV we watched, the more we expected – and with our finger on the remote, the more we demanded – that not just our sitcoms and cop procedurals and other “junk TV” be entertaining but also our news and other issues of import. Digestible. Visually engaging. Provocative. In short, amusing. All the time. Sorry, C-Span.

This was, in spirit, the vision that Huxley predicted way back in 1931, the dystopia my father believed we should have been watching out for. He wrote:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture.

1984 – the year, not the novel – looks positively quaint now. One-third of a century later, we all carry our own personalized screens on us, at all times, and rather than seven broadcast channels plus a smattering of cable, we have a virtual infinity of options.

Today, the average weekly screen time for an American adult – brace yourself; this is not a typo – is 74 hours (and still going up). We watch when we want, not when anyone tells us, and usually alone, and often while doing several other things. The soundbite has been replaced by virality, meme, hot take, tweet. Can serious national issues really be explored in any coherent, meaningful way in such a fragmented, attention-challenged environment?

Sure, times change. Technology and innovation wait for no man. Get with the program. But how engaged can any populace be when the most we’re asked to do is to like or not like a particular post, or “sign” an online petition? How seriously should anyone take us, or should we take ourselves, when the “optics” of an address or campaign speech – raucousness, maybe actual violence, childishly attention-craving gestures or facial expressions – rather than the content of the speech determines how much “airtime” it gets, and how often people watch, share and favorite it?

My father’s book warned of what was coming, but others have seen and feared aspects of it, too (Norbert Wiener, Sinclair Lewis, Marshall McLuhan, Jacques Ellul, David Foster Wallace, Sherry Turkle, Douglas Rushkoff, Naomi Klein, Edward Snowden, to name a few).

Our public discourse has become so trivialized, it’s astounding that we still cling to the word “debates” for what our presidential candidates do onstage when facing each other. Really? Who can be shocked by the rise of a reality TV star, a man given to loud, inflammatory statements, many of which are spectacularly untrue but virtually all of which make for what used to be called “good television”?

Who can be appalled when the coin of the realm in public discourse is not experience, thoughtfulness or diplomacy but the ability to amuse – no matter how maddening or revolting the amusement?

So, yes, my dad nailed it. Did he also predict that the leader we would pick for such an age, when we had become perhaps terminally enamored of our technologies and amusements, would almost certainly possess fascistic tendencies? I believe he called this, too.

For all the ways one can define fascism (and there are many), one essential trait is its allegiance to no idea of right but its own: it is, in short, ideological narcissism. It creates a myth that is irrefutable (much in the way that an image’s “truth” cannot be disproved), in perpetuity, because of its authoritarian, unrestrained nature.

“Television is a speed-of-light medium, a present-centered medium,” my father wrote. “Its grammar, so to say, permits no access to the past … history can play no significant role in image politics. For history is of value only to someone who takes seriously the notion that there are patterns in the past which may provide the present with nourishing traditions.”

Later in that passage, Czesław Miłosz, winner of the Nobel prize for literature, is cited for remarking in his 1980 acceptance speech that that era was notable for “a refusal to remember”; my father notes Miłosz referencing “the shattering fact that there are now more than one hundred books in print that deny that the Holocaust ever took place”.

Again: how quaint.

While fake news has been with us as long as there have been agendas, and from both sides of the political aisle, we’re now witnessing – thanks to Breitbart News, Infowars and perpetuation of myths like the one questioning Barack Obama’s origins – a sort of distillation, a fine-tuning.

“An Orwellian world is much easier to recognize, and to oppose, than a Huxleyan,” my father wrote. “Everything in our background has prepared us to know and resist a prison when the gates begin to close around us … [but] who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements?”

I wish I could tell you that, for all his prescience, my father also supplied a solution. He did not. He saw his job as identifying a serious, under-addressed problem, then asking a set of important questions about the problem. He knew it would be hard to find an easy answer to the damages wrought by “technopoly”. It was a systemic problem, one baked as much into our individual psyches as into our culture.

But we need more than just hope for a way out. We need a strategy, or at least some tactics.

First: treat false allegations as an opportunity. Seek information as close to the source as possible. The internet represents a great chance for citizens to do their own hunting – there’s ample primary source material, credible eyewitnesses, etc, out there – though it can also be manipulated to obfuscate that. No one’s reality, least of all our collective one, should be a grotesque game of telephone.

Second: don’t expect “the media” to do this job for you. Some of its practitioners do, brilliantly and at times heroically. But most of the media exists to sell you things. Its allegiance is to boosting circulation, online traffic, ad revenue. Don’t begrudge it that. But then don’t be suckered about the reasons why Story X got play and Story Y did not.

Third: for journalists, Jay Rosen, a former student of my father’s and a leading voice in the movement known as “public journalism”, offers several useful, practical suggestions.

Finally, and most importantly, it should be the responsibility of schools to make children aware of our information environments, which in many instances have become our entertainment environments, but there is little evidence that schools are equipped or care to do this. So someone has to.

We must teach our children, from a very young age, to be skeptics, to listen carefully, to assume everyone is lying about everything. (Well, maybe not everyone.) Check sources. Consider what wasn’t said. Ask questions. Understand that every storyteller has a bias – and so does every platform.

We all laughed – some of us, anyway – at Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s version of the news, to some extent because everything had become a joke. If we wish not to be “soma”-tized (Huxley’s word) by technology, to be something less than smiling idiots and complicit in the junking of our own culture, then “what is required of us now is a new era of responsibility … giving our all to a difficult task. This is the price and the promise of citizenship.”

My father didn’t write those last words – our recently retired president said them in his final inaugural address. He’s right. It will be difficult. It’s not so amusing any more.

- Andrew Postman

Andrew Postman has written more than a dozen books, including the novel Now I Know Everything.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

CalExit + State of Jefferson = Ecotopia!

As the election results came in on the evening of November 8th, 2016… frustrated Westerners grew increasingly outraged. Their dissatisfaction was triggered as their votes were seemingly rendered non-impactful by the 3 hour time difference from the closing polls on the East Coast. By the time Washington State, Oregon and California’s (let alone the temporal laggard: Hawaii) Electoral College votes overwhelmingly went to Hillary… it was already too late. No one out West (but a select few) expected the apparent outcome that would elevate “the Donald” to President-elect status.

In the days that followed, massive protests erupted up and down the West Coast. Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, LA… all mobilized a robust counter-strike against the Empire. Signage proclaiming: “Dump Trump” “Not my President” “Love trumps Hate” festooned the angry (yet, as always, somewhat festive) uprising. Although mostly peaceful… there was some violence. “Fuck Trump” and “Kill Trump” graffiti was marked on a block in Oakland before being set on fire, where more than 6,000 were part of what allegedly was one of the most violent protests. In Los Angeles, protesters blocked a freeway, started fires and waved Trump heads on sticks outside City Hall. 

Amid the rebellion, a group calling for California to secede from these United States was rekindled. Calls for “CalExit” began to circulate amongst the protesters. Yes California, a nonviolent campaign to establish the country of California using any and all legal and constitutional means to do so, had submitted a new petition asking voters to start the process. The Yes California Independence Campaign hopes to put a question on the November 2018 ballot authorizing an independence vote in spring 2019.

The group proposed the idea more than two years ago… but now that the Donald has won the presidential election, the CalExit movement is gaining serious traction. Yes California’s Vice President, Marcus Ruiz Evans says if a majority of Californians approved the measure proponents hope to make their case to the United Nations. One minor catch… the only way for California to legally secede would be to change the Constitution… which requires the approval of Congress and 38 states.

None the less… increasingly alienated Californians have had enough. This is not, however, the first such popular uprising out West…

State of Jefferson

Up in the “Frontier Counties” of Northern California (& Southern Oregon), there has for decades been an interstate secessionist movement brewing, intended to create the 51st State of Jefferson. The following is a description and brief history of the movement… 

After attempts in the mid 19th century at forming the State of Jefferson prior to becoming Oregon… and then again in the 1930s, citizens attempted the best known of such movements in the region. During 1940 and 1941, organizers attracted media attention by arming themselves and blockading Highway 99 (well before Ike Eisenhower’s militarized interstate highway system) to the south of Yreka, California, where they collected tolls from motorists and passed out proclamations of independence. When a California Highway Patrolman turned up on the scene, he was told to "get down the road back to California." 

The movement was created to draw attention to the area by proposing that Southern Oregon and Northern California secede from their respective State governments to form a separate State within the United States. A perceived lack of attention and resources from their state governments led to the adoption of a flag design bearing a gold pan and two X's, a "double cross." The movement quickly ended however after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. - Wikipedia

In recent years, the lack of adequate representation of California’s frontier counties in the state capitol: Sacramento, has resurrected the movement. Although Southern Oregon shares Northern California’s sentiment, the State of Jefferson is most visibly militant between Redding, CA and the CA/OR border. If the CalExit movement in Southern California is perceived as progressive in political slant, the State of Jefferson is equally conservative. The liberals in So Cal find their balancing counterpart in No Cal’s Tea-party ranching communities. Hey, it takes all kinds.

The entire West Coast’s alienation from the rest of the US of A... has been politically evident for decades. For the last 25 years, Washington, Oregon, California, and Hawaii have consistently been a democratic stronghold… always showing a resounding Blue (indigo in CA) on the political map. Within the same timeframe, the West Coast’s international trading economy with Pacific Rim Countries grew larger than domestic trade with our own East Coast. The US West’s economic interests are literally more aligned with other Pacific Rim countries, such as Japan & S Korea, than they are with the US east coast.

Mount Hood, Oregon’s majestic 11,249 ft strato-volcano, is the second most photographed mountain in Japan (Mt Fuji is first). This fact illustrates the geo-political reality that the US west coast rightly belongs in the Pacific “ring of fire” economy, vs. the US east coast’s more EU aligned trans-Atlantic economy. 

The times being what they are… the idea of a 51st State of Jefferson may not go far enough for what is called for on the West Coast. The vision of an independent west coast did not begin with CalExit, however…  


Ecotopia: The Notebooks and Reports of William Weston is a seminal utopian novel by Ernest Callenbach, published in 1975. The society described in the book is one of the first ecological utopias and was influential on the counterculture and the green movement in the 1970s and thereafter. The citizens of Ecotopia share a common aim: they seek a balance between themselves and nature.

Scientific discoveries in the fields of ecology and conservation biology, the urban-ecology movement, new approaches to urban planning, the renewable energy movement, were primary influences on Callenbach’s vision. Callenbach’s concept did not reject high technology (or any technology) as long as it did not interfere with the Ecotopian social order and serves the overall objectives. Members of his fictional society prefer to demonstrate a conscious selectivity toward technology, so that not only human health and sanity might be preserved, but also social and ecological wellbeing. - wikipedia


Cascadia is a bioregion and possible proposed country located within the western region of North America. Potential boundaries differ, with some drawn along existing political state and provincial lines, and others drawn along larger ecological, cultural, and economic boundaries.

The country is envisioned to consist of Washington, Oregon, portions of other U.S. states and British Columbia, Canada. At its maximum extent, Cascadia would stretch from coastal Southeast Alaska in the north into Northern California in the south, and inland to include parts of Idaho, Western Montana, Wyoming, and Yukon. More conservative proposed borders include the land west of the crest of Cascade Range, and the western side of British Columbia.

As measured only by the combination of present Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia statistics, Cascadia would be home to slightly more than 15 million people (15,105,870), and would have an economy generating more than US$675 billion worth of goods and services annually. This number would increase if portions of Northern California, Idaho, and Southern Alaska were also included. By land area, Cascadia would be the 20th largest country in the world, with a land area of 534,572 sq miles. - Wikipedia

Under some definitions, Cascadia is energy sufficient, due to the high propensity for renewable energy resources (mostly hydroelectric and geothermal) and supplies many other western states such as California and parts east with electricity.

The area from Vancouver B.C. down to Portland has been termed an emerging mega-region by the National Committee for America 2050, a coalition of regional planners, scholars, and policy-makers. This group defines a mega-region as an area where "boundaries  (between metropolitan regions) begin to blur, creating a new scale of geography." This megacity begins to mirror William Gibson’s “Sprawl” concept, albeit a West Coast version. 

Given the changing politico-economic environment, the 21st Century vision of Ecotopia/Cascadia would not only encompass the Pacific Northwest, it would include California and Hawaii. BC is considered... but might prove too entangling with our great ally and trading partner to the north: Canada. Adding California to the Ecotopia concept would add over 2 trillion dollars annually, creating a national economy that would arguably weigh in as one of the Planet’s top economic powerhouses. This would combine the natural resources, tourism and renewable energy economy of the Pacific Northwest, the Hawaiian Islands strategic location (and tourist economy) …to California’s mighty agricultural, entertainment and technology base. The combined economy would total well over 3 trillion dollars, annually.

In an era of Brexit, the Trump Presidency and the increasing Popularist, Nationalist tendencies, both domestic and abroad… it becomes increasingly evident that new alliances, new sovereignties, new loyalties are rapidly morphing.  What were once common interests are looking increasingly foreign. More and more, the American Midwest considers the West Coasters as elitist and... quite frankly... suspect.

Meanwhile… out West, Marijuana is not only legal for medicinal purposes… it is fast being legalized for recreational activity, as well. Western growers within the Humbolt growing region in N California, in Southern Oregon, not to mention Hawaii’s legendary “Maui Wowi” growers… have applied good-old yanky ingenuity to create the West Coast’s newest Multi-Billion Dollar Industry. Even as the mid-west and the Rust Belt brought Trump and his brand of “Newspeak” to power, the situation couldn’t be mellower… in Ecotopia.

The above scenario is more of a West Coast pipe dream, than a reality. As mentioned above… the only way for California to legally secede would be to change the Constitution… which requires the approval of Congress and 38 states. Based upon recent presidential election results and the anecdotal opinion of America’s heartland populations toward those crazy West Coasters (especially Californians)… it does not appear that the rest of the US would miss the West Coast at all.

One thing I know… the New Ecotopia wouldn’t need a wall to separate themselves from the rest of the States… Immigrants will be welcome! The new Ecotopian's border will be drawn by a mindset that marks the High Frontier. The new Ecotopians will identify their latitude with attitude!

Saturday, January 21, 2017


Inauguration - in·au·gu·ra·tion  (ĭn-ô′gyə-rā′shən) noun.
1.  A formal beginning or introduction.

What? don't frown… it just… went down! 
– from “It's fun being weird” 

Will wonders never cease! On January 20th & 21st… the American public has been given the gift of new beginnings. One vision of such was presented to us by our new president on Friday, in his inauguration speech (Another vision was characterized by the more massively attended Woman's March on Washington on Saturday). Sure, Trump's vision was a dark, dystopic one, with fascist undertones… but this is the vision that the Donald advertised during his hit reality show presidential campaign. Corporatocacy, here we come.

For those of us who voted for Trump… it’s time to own his vision of Amerika. Remember, he promised not to touch Medicare and Social Security… America’s desperately needed social safety nets. In this day and age of massive population migration caused by war and climate change… of massive unemployment due to globalization and automation… we will need these safety nets more than ever. Now is the time to increase such programs, during such a profound cultural transition, not eliminate them. Reality check: the jobs are not coming back.

For those of us who didn’t vote for the Donald, a couple of things… first: buck it up! Now is not the time to whine… it is the time to rise as part of the loyal opposition… as activists in the American resistance movement. If we don’t like the Donald’s vision… we must come up with an alternative… bring something better, more creative, to the table. Elements of such include: compassion, tolerance, peace, unity and love. In the tradition of the trickster, Operation MindFuck is a good place to start.

(besides... it's fun being weird, you should try it some time!)

Second: it’s always darkest right before the dawn. We need to move together to bring about a future we can all live with. Don’t despair! We must be brave and keep the faith that darkness will give way to light. Together we can build a compassionate future… but we will have to work for it! Nothing good comes easy… It’s roll-up-sleeves time.

Lastly, a reminder to us all… We are all in this together. Regardless of our good intentions, we are here now. As the French philosopher, Joseph de Maistre said: “Every nation gets the government it deserves.” So again… in these dark times, the American public has been given the precious gift of new beginnings… let us embrace the opportunity for change… for change is the only true constant in Universe! Let us all inaugurate the power of love… right where we are standing now. Let us seize this inaugural opportunity to move together into a shared brave new future where all peoples, regardless of creed, ethnicity or gender... enjoy the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

After all... isn't that what America is all about?

Monday, January 16, 2017