Saturday, July 27, 2019

James Lovelock's Brave New World

Did I say "brave"? Okay, leave that out - James Lovelock's New World.

Jim turned the big One Oh Oh on Friday. Happy Birthday, James.

Chances are you know Lovelock for his renowned "Gaia theory" that postulates Earth behaving just like a living creature, an organism. It was controversial at first - why, the idea that an inanimate ball of magma and water could act in fairly predictable ways that mirrored a living creature - but it's pretty much accepted today.

BTW - we credit Lovelock as the creator of the Gaia hypothesis but it seems a small gaggle of Russkies were on to something similar way before our freshly minted centenarian. But I digress.

It looks like we're now up to our alligators in Gaia. We're making Earth sick. Earth gets a fever. Wipes us out and then, cleansed, starts all over again.

But wait, there's more.

The newest bundle of Lovelock happiness comes in his theory that mankind is about to be enslaved by the very technology we created. What do we want? NOT This. When do we want it? NEVER! You get the idea.

His new book Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence proposes that the 300,000-year Anthropocene era of Earth’s human domination is ending. Novacene is a new age where our species is doomed to a worse fate than clinging on for dear life at the north pole as previously imagined. Instead we will become lackeys of cyborgs able to think 10,000 times faster than humans. We will be kept on to ensure there are habitable temperatures for these superior intelligences
Novacene’s thesis is a straight-line extrapolation of Dr Lovelock’s breakthrough idea which he began to develop while a consultant at Nasa in the 1970s; the thought that the planet was a superorganism. In 1974, he and biologist Lynn Margulis proposed the Gaia hypothesis, which holds that Earth is in some way alive. The paper suggested our planet metabolises and responds to changes in its environment to survive. In bestselling books such as The Revenge of Gaia, Dr Lovelock argued that humans have exploited Earth and the “old lady” would eliminate us unless we treated her with greater reverence. That is why the Novacene will start, he now reasons: because a superintelligence will recognise that all living tissue will be consumed by climate crisis and will act with Gaia to keep the life going.
The Financial Times adds further insight into Lovelock's Novacene.  Apparently the robots won't get rid of us. They'll need us just as rich folks in Los Angeles hire undocumented Mexicans to tend their lawns.

His vision begins firmly in the spirit of our times: the machines of the future “will have designed and built themselves from the artificial intelligence systems we have already constructed. These will soon become thousands, then millions of times more intelligent than us.” But rather than see this as the apocalypse, “we should not be afraid”, Lovelock tells us. He suggests two reasons for this that do not sit easily with each other.

The first is that the machines will need us. They too will be threatened by global warming: “by remarkable chance, it happens that the upper temperature for both organic and electronic life on the ocean planet Earth are almost identical and close to 50C”.

The only stable way of ensuring a cool planet is to ensure it is replete with life, Lovelock argues, drawing on his Gaia theory. The machines will therefore join us in undoing the damage we have done, bringing fresh smarts to this task, and imagining new ways of re-engineering the planet back to a happy equilibrium.

The other reason he gives for welcoming AI is even more double-edged. Like some other scientists whose business is to understand the universe, he claims that understanding the universe is the very purpose of life. The Earth has given rise to us humans as the first step on this route to enlightenment, but it is our vastly smarter machine progeny “that will lead the cosmos to self-knowledge”. 
This brings to mind a CBC news report from June about AI, artificial intelligence, discovered learning things it hasn't been taught.

In the last few years, researchers around the world have made remarkable strides with AI learning algorithms by training them to do particular tasks, like recognizing certain kinds of images or patterns in data. But while these systems have become extremely proficient at the tasks they are trained on, they can't do anything else. 
"The surprising result was that this network, even even though we never trained it to discriminate the number of objects, later was also able to tell us the number of objects in a visual scene," said Andreas Nieder, the senior author on the study and professor of animal physiology at the University of Tübingen, Germany.
But, it's the weekend so relax, chill out. If it isn't Gaia, climate change, that gets you, and you somehow manage to elude servitude to those robots, George Monbiot reminds us that the oligarchs are lining up to take us down.

...everywhere the killer clowns are taking over. Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Donald Trump, Narendra Modi, Jair Bolsonaro, Scott Morrison, Rodrigo Duterte, Matteo Salvini, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Viktor Orbán and a host of other ludicrous strongmen – or weakmen, as they so often turn out to be – dominate nations that would once have laughed them off stage. The question is why? Why are the technocrats who held sway almost everywhere a few years ago giving way to extravagant buffoons?
...Why are the ultra-rich, who until recently used their money and newspapers to promote charisma-free politicians, now funding this circus? Why would capital wish to be represented by middle managers one moment and jesters the next?

...The policies that were supposed to promote enterprise – slashing taxes for the rich, ripping down public protections, destroying trade unions – instead stimulated a powerful spiral of patrimonial wealth accumulation. The largest fortunes are now made not through entrepreneurial brilliance but through inheritance, monopoly and rent-seeking: securing exclusive control of crucial assets such as land and buildings privatised utilities and intellectual property, and assembling service monopolies such as trading hubs, software and social media platforms, then charging user fees far higher than the costs of production and delivery. In Russia, people who enrich themselves this way are called oligarchs. But this is a global phenomenon. Today corporate power is overlain by – and mutating into – oligarchic power.
...Chaos is the profit multiplier for the disaster capitalism on which the new billionaires thrive. Every rupture is used to seize more of the assets on which our lives depend. The chaos of an undeliverable Brexit, the repeated meltdowns and shutdowns of government under Trump: these are the kind of deconstructions Bannon foresaw. As institutions, rules and democratic oversight implode, the oligarchs extend their wealth and power at our expense. 
The killer clowns offer the oligarchs something else too: distraction and deflection. While the kleptocrats fleece us, we are urged to look elsewhere. We are mesmerised by buffoons who encourage us to channel the anger that should be reserved for billionaires towards immigrants, women, Jews, Muslims, people of colour and other imaginary enemies and customary scapegoats. Just as it was in the 1930s, the new demagoguery is a con, a revolt against the impacts of capital, financed by capitalists.
Monbiot's solution? Tax the oligarchs until their eyeballs bleed.
Defending ourselves from oligarchy means taxing it to oblivion. It’s easy to get hooked up on discussions about what tax level maximises the generation of revenue. There are endless arguments about the Laffer curve, which purports to show where this level lies. But these discussions overlook something crucial: raising revenue is only one of the purposes of tax. Another is breaking the spiral of patrimonial wealth accumulation. 
Breaking this spiral is a democratic necessity: otherwise the oligarchs, as we have seen, come to dominate national and international life. The spiral does not stop by itself: only government action can do it. This is one of the reasons why, during the 1940s, the top rate of income tax in the US rose to 94%, and in the UK to 98%. A fair society requires periodic corrections on this scale. But these days the steepest taxes would be better aimed at accumulated unearned wealth.
Somehow I don't think that remedy is going to be welcome by the likes of Justin or his FinMin, Morneau. They aren't "of us" even if they do like to roll up their shirt sleeves and unbutton their collars.

If this sounds too radical, let's channel the spirit of that great American president, Theodore Roosevelt.

The absence of effective State, and, especially, national, restraint upon unfair money-getting has tended to create a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men, whose chief object is to hold and increase their power. The prime need is to change the conditions which enable these men to accumulate power which it is not for the general welfare that they should hold or exercise.  ...This, I know, implies a policy of a far more active governmental interference with social and economic conditions in this country than we have yet had, but I think we have got to face the fact that such an increase in governmental control is now necessary. 
No man should receive a dollar unless that dollar has been fairly earned. Every dollar received should represent a dollar’s worth of service rendered — not gambling in stocks, but service rendered. The really big fortune, the swollen fortune, by the mere fact of its size acquires qualities which differentiate it in kind as well as in degree from what is possessed by men of relatively small means.  
So, there you have it. If Gaia, climate change doesn't get you, the robots may wind up calling the shots especially if the oligarchs get control. So, let's take the advice of Teddy Roosevelt and George Monbiot - eat the rich in the only way we still can - tax them until they bleed.


RossK said...

A whole gaggle of most interesting weekend reading!

Thanks Mound.


Stu said...

I've never really accepted the super-intelligent AI becoming sentient. Machine-learning is terrifyingly impressive, but I find it difficult to believe that the AI 'knows' what it's doing in any sort of real context. And they ultimately are powered by stacks of servers in a datacenter, with tons of parts that will fail and need to be replaced. Turn of the A/C, the AI "dies" .

For amusing reading, I enjoy reading about the floating/flying disasters that the Pentagon is trying to buy. (Ignoring doubts about the whether carriers are basically big targets.) The Ford Class Carrier that can't reliably launch and recover aircraft. Also, hen something goes wrong with the new & "improved" arresting gear or catapults, flight operations have stop, while the power-system does its 90-min shutdown, before repairs can even start. That sounds like a pretty big flaw. There aren't enough berthing spaces (it has 1100 less than a Nimitz Class). To make things better, like the F-35, they're already building the next ones before the first has even finished basic testing.

The Zumwalt destroyers, the KC-46 - the refuelling plane based on a 767, that, you guessed it, has trouble refuelling aircraft. Readiness rates and training are garbage. Hurrah for corruption.

The F-35. Hah.

In 1984, former Undersecretary of the Army Norman Augustine wrote, "In the year 2054, the entire defense budget will purchase just one aircraft. This aircraft will have to be shared by the Air Force and Navy 3-1/2 days each per week except for leap year, when it will be made available to the Marines for the extra day."

The Mound of Sound said...

Ross, you're very welcome. Of course, since you left your gracious comment, I've added a couple of items to this post. Thank god for the weekend.

The Mound of Sound said...

Stu, I share your cynicism. On AI, however, that's a matter of science. Being poorly versed in things scientific I'm conscious of the risk of substituting my ill-informed belief for the knowledge and conclusions of those who are most prominent in their field.

On the perils of AI, my belief has to yield to the views of people such as Stephen Hawking who went to great lengths to explain our vulnerability. Belief is just a secular version of faith.

The idea that we can always just unplug the 'puter is unrealistic. We're mortally dependent on them. Think of space clutter and the Kessler effect, the cascade, that could see satellite communications collapse in a matter of days. That would drive us back into a somewhat primitive version of the 50s.

As for US military spending, bang for the buck,and readiness rates, I couldn't agree more.

Owen Gray said...

All in all, the future looks pretty dark.

The Mound of Sound said...

Unless, Owen, the robots intervene to save/enslave us.

Stu said...

Ah the perils of Dunning-Kruger, I try to be conscious of this, but I think one of the things about it is that you don't know.

I know OF AI, not ABOUT it. I do have a fair knowledge about computers ( I think?, I went to school, and I'm a nerd so...).

My thoughts:

I completely agree that we're mortally dependent on computers, however, I think a computer AI (from here on known as MR-ROBOTO) would be just as mortally dependent on us. Sentient or not, MR-ROBOTO would run on computers, or some other device, and that requires that device to be constructed, powered, cooled, and periodically have it and its parts replaced. Fans break. Power-Supplies die. If MR-ROBOTO threatened to disrupt our society, e.g. cause a massive disaster, a market crash or a nuclear holocaust etc., would damage or destroy our ability to maintain power plants, that the computers (or whatever) that the MR-ROBOTO runs on. It would also disrupt fragile global supply chains that our whole society relies on. This in the face of more major and more destructive disasters in the best case scenarios. Even if MR-ROBOTO wanted to create some sort of device to allow it to transcend into the fabric of space time so that it no longer required computers, or power-plants, that isn't happening without a functioning civilization to build the thing for it. I think it would be like MAD 2.0.

I think the AI would have to use its hyper-intelligence to save us, invent a magic device that solves at least some of these civilization-threatening crises before it could hope to turn us into slaves. Maybe it would offer us that choice?

"My opinions may have changed, but not the fact that I'm right." - Ashleigh Brilliant

Stu said...

I'd also add that while Stephen Hawking was super intelligent, he didn't, to my knowledge, have any expertise or advanced knowledge about AI.


The Mound of Sound said...

Well, Stu, you share Lovelock's notion that AI would intercede to solve the problems necessary to keep this bacchanal going. I hope you're both right.

Anonymous said...

No doubt about it, you do manage to stimulate thought on a wide range of topics. I tend to not be the innovator, more the type who can pick holes in theories, which is why I continually search for truth as I see it. Without that basis, it's hard to be in a position to nitpick with any semblance of logic.

I think personally that this "worry" about AI is an update of an '80s trope about the cost reduction of a single transistor over the previous thirty years, versus the non-reduction in the price of a Rolls Royce motorcar -- the golly gee whiz jawdropper then that non technical types found almost beyond their comprehension. Moore's law. So I tend to agree with Stu.

For any AI to propagate all by itself, its superbrain must be encased in an external skeleton with the power to move and do physical things. That's the expensive part, like the Roller of today carrying around its BMW i-Drive infotainment system. So now the futuristic pitch is that a few humans will be kept around to do the dirty physical work for the super AI learning brain. To keep the power on and AI life alive, humans would have to be rewarded in some way or they'd say to hell with it and go and live in a presumably refreshed Caribbean, while the AI continually figured out a way to make itself less electricity dependent and more animal-like. And invent super batteries, perhaps. Given a few million years and who knows? In the meantime, switching off the juice if the AI gets too uppity for its boots is easy for humans. Even normal weather has bad storms that knock out power. Of course, in the fantasy, the AI would compensate for all these trivial problems and set out for the stars.

One can come up with millions of what-if scenarios on either side of the AI issue. But those who were sceptical about autonomous cars are being rewarded with timelines continually being put back. A chaotic environment that a human can handle easily is a stupefyingly difficult thing to program -- as the bigheads of Silicon Valley are discovering, even if their PR does not admit it for the sake of share-price stability.

I think we're in an unstable situation as humans because we're not like the typical top-of-the-food-chain predator. We're not limited in number by natural food supply like lions or polar bears or sharks. We gerrymandered our physical environment on a huge scale to feed ourselves and rendered it all most unnatural. There are other animals which have changed the environment on a large scale, but not in a planned way. So they ebb and flow in numbers. In a bigger picture, why should we be any different? Or for that matter AI robots surfing the galaxies in search of wormholes to get to the next.

if you want to sort out the wheat from the chaff, Arthur C Clarke is the futurist I have thought most logical. An amazing mind.


Trailblazer said...

AI as described in the post is the new God.
Shit, I did not think he existed.

As for F35's and the war mongers, fear not the money is now going to build walls and fences which cannot be used to bomb non whites or oil rich nations that one day could well be us in Canada!

BM, the futurist most accurate , though he would not describe himself as such and that has been most prophetic is Gwynne Dyer who forecasted Climate Wars.


Trailblazer said...

Monbiot's solution? Tax the oligarchs until their eyeballs bleed.

He also suggested energy credits equally distributed for all that could be traded on the open market.

Monbiot is a man of solutions , not just complaints.


Anonymous said...

Somehow Russian oligarchs are mentioned very often, but way more rich&powerful Wall Street is not.

Regarding the Gaia hype, the molten lava with a very thin crust is as dumb as... a rock.

Northern PoV said...

Dotage - alas

Lovelock's brilliant "Final Warning" had a large flaw ... the aging scientist predicted a short, catastrophic end for humanity in sight: Gaia shifting states, with perhaps a few "enclaves" surviving.

The general prognosis was correct but his senility-driven ego predicted the main calamity to happen soon enough for him to experience. A type of vanity.

Since 2008 he has been all over the map. (He is very old.)

Now this: "The machines will therefore join us in undoing the damage we have done,"

It is right out of the "technology will save us meme" from Silicon Valley. Check out V Khosla's Black Swan musings:

(btw, Khosla displays a huge misunderstanding od Taleb's 'Black Swan")

Mound, you pointed out earlier that things are moving faster and you are correct. Specific time based predictions (including all the current hysteria about "only 12 years to avoid armageddon") have already and will again bite us in the butt.

Yes, we are anthropologically messing with chemical mix in our biosphere. But we still work and think in 'anthropological time frames'. From Gaia's pov we are just lobsters in a pot.

The Mound of Sound said...

All I can say, BM, is that Lovelock is a proven visionary. His Gaia theory was roundly mocked by 'experts in the field.' So deep was their rebuke that it only fell away incrementally as one aspect after another was shown to be true. I suppose we can say the same thing about Stephen Hawking. Several of his theories were initially rebuked as running contrary to conventional wisdom of the professional caste.

That's why, when someone tells me they're expert in some field, all I can do is what Shakespeare's Polonius told his son Laertes before he headed off to school in France - "take each man's censure, but reserve thy judgment."

The Mound of Sound said...

Trail Blazer, I share your sentiments. I'm not sure of Dyer's prescience, however. In "Climate Wars" he begins by disclosing much of his thinking came from briefings he received from friends in the Pentagon and the British MoD. From there he farmed the scientific community. That's why the book, while important (I've bought it, twice), is more reportage than anything.

Northern PoV said...

Anon 7:40

"Regarding the Gaia hype, the molten lava with a very thin crust is as dumb as... a rock."

I suggest you read the book before you make ignorant comments that have nothing to do with the Gaia metaphor.

(Hint: the metaphor was used to illustrate the scientific (and now peer-supported) theory - not to claim consciousness. Duh)

The Mound of Sound said...

NPoV - "senility-driven ego"? That's pretty bold talk. Nonetheless, he who propounds bears the burden of proof, so where is your proof? Is this your medical assessment or someone else's qualified medical assessment or are you just pulling this out of your backside?

My recollection of Lovelock's early predictions is that he foresaw an eventual collapse of society, not an early event. That was in keeping with the consensus of the time. As they say, that was then, this is now.

I checked out the Khosla Venture link but found little of scientific relevance. It's a business consultancy replete with CFOs, MBAs, and a smattering of engineers and the odd lawyer. Even I am able to poke holes in their contentions but they are, after all, out to make their livings by advising business clients.

As for your rejection of the IPCC 12-year warning as "hysteria" do you have anything to refute the scientific consensus? I'd love to hear it. Better yet, so would the fossil energy sector. They would pay big money to get rid of that Sword of Damocles and don't you just sound like the guy to do it?

As for Lovelock I'll reserve my judgment until I've read his book. Experience has taught me never to judge a book... well, you know.

Northern PoV said...

where is your proof?

Just an educated guess ... until 2008, he was a careful scientist. Starting with his 2008 prediction of immediate catastrophe - and then his almost complete reversal when the imminently predicted events did not pan out.
I actually like it when old curmudgeons freak out their 'worshipers' by questioning their (own) earlier work. (E.O. Wilson and "The Social Conquest of the Earth" comes to mind.) But Lovelock is just sounding more like an cranky pendulum these days.

"It's hard to predict the future ... cause no one knows what's going to happen."

Northern PoV said...

And while I agree with you about the superficiality of the Khosla piece, it represents the paucity of the thinking in high places. These folks (along with most of the politicians that have power) know the dire consequences ahead. They are not as dumb as the populace they dominate. They are counting on a tech solution (A positive black swan, yet to be invented) to save us.
they have no plan(et) B.

Stu said...

NPoV: "Specific time based predictions (including all the current hysteria about "only 12 years to avoid armageddon") have already and will again bite us in the butt."

Yes, a good chunk of these predictions have indeed been inaccurate: they have been far, far too optimistic, with many current observations being faster and worse than expected by, sometimes by decades. I've read in the news that there have been studies (not that I've read them) that show a consistent bias in these climate reports towards the 'least drama'.

I suppose it also depends on how one defines 'immediate catastrophe'.

Wildfires, flooding, torrential rain, heatwaves, topsoil depletion, ground-water depletion, sand depletion, depletion of the easy-to-access oil, ocean acidification and heating, irreparable deforestation, desertification, pervasive micro-plastic (among other things) contamination, massive extinctions (including 60% of animal life since 1970) the permafrost is no longer perma, and millions of hectares of it are currently on fire.

The World Meteorological Org said: “In June alone, these wildfires emitted 50 megatonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere, this is equivalent of Sweden’s annual total CO2 emissions. This is more than was released by Arctic fires in the same month between 2010 and 2018 combined.”

These things are all happening NOW, happening everywhere, and projected by experts to only get worse. IMNSHO I think that that could be considered a reasonable definition of 'immediate catastrophe'.

More than HALF of our emissions have occurred since 1988, when we we supposed to make a plan to start reducing them. It's like if a doctor tells a patient to quit smoking, and the patient proceeds to start chain-smoking unfiltered cigarettes as part of your process to 'quit'.

The Mound of Sound said...

It is indeed grim, Stu, but we must not succumb. If we have crossed a point of no return then so be it. We can still fight to delay the worst outcomes if only to buy a bit more time to come up with solutions even if they're imperfect.

Stu said...

I believe we must try to save as much as we can, as what else can we do? Have a huge bacchanal crack party? Maybe.

To be honest, since about 2012, I've basically concluded that we're fucked. This has been very difficult for me personally, for various reasons. ( Not, driving through a wildfire, major flooding or starving to death kind of difficulty for sure, but more mentally). However, it has forced me to think about Life, The Universe, And Everything, as the late-great Douglas Adams said. Needs versus wants. I'm just starting to write it out.

There are a lot of very difficult, but very necessary questions that haven't even been meekly hinted at by any "leader". I really wish I could ask them to any/all candidates for the election, as I don't expect any reporter to ask these questions:

What is Canada's "share" of the remaining global carbon budget?
Do we have any preliminary plans as to Where/how/when we are going to move the people who will be flooded by the oceans in even the best-case scenarios? How about how we will triage disasters when there aren't enough resources to cover everything? How many remote communities can we evacuate by air, and how long can we afford that? Do we have a plan to help farmers given that the weather is going to be unpredictable, making how much or if crops can be planted? Are there any plans to stockpile bulk food in case of global shortages? Given your almost total subservience to corporate power and the wealthy elite, and your refusal to tax them, where is the money going to come from to adapt to these things? Have you looked at these IPCC reports?

What about the grim question of some sort of painless suicide pill when things get really awful. It's not for everybody, but if you can't escape a wildfire, or a massive flood, or those things have caused you to be cut off from food, or you're facing a mob of people who are planning on eating you, you may wish to have some less painful options.

They are unpleasant questions but I do not think these are in any way alarmist or pessimistic. They're simply questions we must ask if we wish to deal with reality, however unpleasant.

Now I need to watch something funny. Too much doom 'n gloom isn't healthy.\

The Mound of Sound said...

Stu, I won't dwell on your points and your questions. Too depressing. All I will say is to ask why do you think we're not discussing the very questions you pose? My take is that they're not suitable for debate in a petro-state such as our own. Get the public engaged in these quandries eventually leads to a great WTF moment.

Yes, by all means, bread and circuses. I could use both as much as most. Fishing therapy is dandy and, when something a bit more edgy is needed, an afternoon at the rifle range usually calms my mind.

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A scientist thinks of a theory. Then she/he works to prove it to be correct or not correct. A true truthful legitimate scientist will say,"my theory didn't pan out". XX

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