News — At The Edge — 9/8 – Hacker Noon

Civilization is hurdling to a fork in the road — Internet as bad acid trip, AI developing curiosity, growing surveillance capitalism — with our future dependent upon selecting the right road to pursue.


The Internet Is Acid, and America Is Having a Bad Trip —

“[We’re] living in a ‘consensual hallucination’…like a lucid dream, where the future [is] less a place we arrived at than a thing we created together [as]…a ‘designer reality’….

[Timothy Leary] the high priest of LSD…[believed] digital technologies were…psychedelics — only better, because you didn’t need to convince people to take [it]…to be put into a psychedelic state….

[Still] one’s experience is dependent on…the mindset with which someone approaches the experience, and the setting, or environment, in which one takes the drug….

[Originally] in a larger cultural tapestry…[Internet] was characterized by a higher intention for humanity, the planet, and the fabric of reality….[Unfortunately] only one of its threads was compatible with the marketplace…[that] hallucinated a world with infinite potential for growth….Social media seemed to rise to that occasion…[with] formerly marginalized fringes moved to center stage.

But then came 9/11….Almost overnight, the unprecedented openness of digital culture transformed into the repression of surveillance capitalism….

[We’re] trying to operate this new, paranoid society on what amounts to a psychedelic substrate — with little or no awareness of how our sets and settings are determining our results….The set and setting of the politician lead to targeted propaganda and digital fascism…[now] having a bad trip.

We don’t realize that we are living in a media environment that offers us an unprecedented capacity over reality….[Currently it’s] rendering our fear, paranoia, greed, and panic…[thus] so little hope…[and] a large part of the appeal of…Trump’s other fantasies….[Yet, there’s] people who can guide us from this bad trip [to]…universal human flourishing [everywhere].”

A sense of curiosity is helpful for artificial intelligence —

“SOFTWARE that can learn is changing the world, but it needs supervision…[and] large sets of data that describe the task at hand…[or] to set a specific goal within a highly structured environment…[for] the algorithm try out lots of possibilities until it finds one that achieves the objective….

But supervised learning has weaknesses. Human guidance is expensive, involving manual tasks…or designing virtual environments…[that] cannot be used for other lessons[or] very realistic….

If AI is going to really take off, then something more is needed [curiosity]…[or] artificial agents that use their own intrinsic reward systems to inspect the world around them and gather data….The first generation of curious AI used ‘prediction error’…looking for things that deviated significantly from what it predictedbut it had a big flaw…[becoming] obsessed with…[things t]hat serves no useful purpose….

This problem is fixed by concentrating on the rate at which an agent’s prediction error changes…as a signal for the agent to move on to something else is equivalent to giving it a boredom threshold….

[Such] curiosity-driven learning works well across a range of virtual environments, despite the fact that their agent was told nothing about the [task]… nor given any signal when it [failed]… or reached a higher level….

[Others] mimics evolution…[starting] with a set of random algorithms [to] chooses the one that looks good for the task at hand, then generates a set of algorithms derived from it…most suited for the job…[and] yield serendipitous results that goal-driven optimization cannot….

[So] a more complete set of learning algorithms is emerging…more suited to sparse environments devoid of much data.”

Phone Numbers Were Never Meant as ID. Now We’re All At Risk —

“[N]o piece of standard personal information has more value than your phone number…[as] companies and services…rely on smartphones to confirm — or ‘authenticate’ — users…[but] it means that a single, often publicly available, piece of information gets used both as…a skeleton key into your entire online life…..

[Hackers] profited from it for years. Companies don’t seem interested in catching up….Identity management experts have warned for years…[but] United States doesn’t offer any type of universal ID, which means private [companies]…[and] government itself have had to improvise….

’The bottom line is society needs identifiers… [that] can’t be used to somehow take over the authenticator….

The use of phone numbers…has led to the rise…[of] SIM swapping attacks…[stealing] any calls and texts…[and] changing your phone number can be incredibly inconvenient.…

[However] smartphones could generate unique identifiers…[number] valid for the life of the device, and…change whenever you got a new phone….

Substantive change likely won’t come unless the government mandates it….[So] try to cut your phone number out of as many signups and logins as possible.

Privacy groups ask senators to confirm US surveillance oversight nominees —

“A coalition of privacy groups…[want] lawmakers to fill the vacant positions on the government’s surveillance oversight board, which hasn’t fully functioned in almost two years.

The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board [PCLOB]…helps to ensure that intelligence agencies and executive branch policies are falling within the law…[with] access to classified programs…[balances] privacy and civil liberties rights….

[Lost a] quorum early last year…[and] Trump administration, putting…[it’s] work largely on ice….31 privacy…and rights groups… signed on to the letter calling on the senate panel to push forward with the hearings and vote on the nominees….

[In] eleven years since Congress created the PCLOB as an independent agency, it has only operated with a quorum for four and one-half years….Without a quorum, the PCLOB cannot issue oversight reports, provide the agency’s advice.’”

Evolving the New Economy: Tim O’Reilly and David Sloan Wilson —

“‘Evolving the Future’…[is] the maturation of evolutionary theory to…where it can be used to improve the quality of life at all scales, from individuals to the planet….The more man confronts the dangers of the unknown, the more conscious he becomes….

[‘As] general principle of ecology…an ecosystem is stable…because it contains such diversity that some of its many types of organisms are bound to survive despite drastic changes in the environment….[So] the effort of civilization to…maintain security for its individual members, ‘necessarily creates the conditions of crisis because it fails to deal with change’….

[W]e can compare two master theories….

  • The first asserts that the pursuit of lower-level self-interest robustly benefits the common good. This is the basic concept of laissez-faire….
  • The second is Multilevel Selection (MLS) Theory from evolutionary biology…shows how adaptations can evolve — or fail to evolve — at any level of a multi-tier hierarchy, such as from genes to ecosystems…or from small groups to global-governance in human [systems]….

The general rule of MLS…is ‘adaptation at any given level requires a process of selection at that level and tends to be undermined by selection at lower levels….[So] what’s good for me can be bad for my family; what’s good for my family can be bad for my clan; all the way up….

This is profoundly antithetical to the invisible hand metaphor as commonly understood, although it leads to a…more legitimate conception of the invisible hand….

When Google, Facebook, Amazon, or Uber build a marketplace…[they’re] building an algorithmic system for management of their marketplace…[so] if they model the world incorrectly, the system…will fail….

Similarly, if Google directly provides more…of the services…once provided by other websites, they will eventually impoverish the environment on which their core search engine depends, much as Microsoft impoverished the PC software development ecosystem….

Those who say ‘government should stay out and let the market decide’ fail to understand how many rules there are– tax policy, for example — that already shape the market and its incentives’….

Who Gets What — and Why…ought to be the central question of economics…[as] a kind of managed evolution….

[MLS] leads to a radical conclusion: policies must be formulated with the welfare of the whole earth….Hence, the objectives of…Amazon, Google, or Facebook count as…much as governmental policies….’The Customer is the Whole Earth….

The opportunity for AI is to help humans model and manage complex interacting systems’…to understand the value of the various inputs to the system, and rewarding them in an optimum proportion, keeping long term sustainability in mind…[not] treat materials and labor as costs…resources to be exploited…[with] only capital is treated as a primary source of value….

Centralized planning won’t work…[because] always be unforeseen consequences….

[T]he desire for global welfare to override…nation, corporation, various social identities, and…[self-interest] must be a matter of aligning lower-level interests with higher-level interests…which is a managed cultural evolutionary process, similar to the artificial selection of plants and animals, except in this case it is the artificial selection of social systems. This requires:

  1. a well-defined target of selection
  2. monitoring planned and unplanned variation
  3. replicating best practices, realizing that the details of their implementation are likely to be sensitive to context….

[It’s] one in which small groups, working independently, communicate by clearly defined signals…[though] each group has its own fitness function…[and] expected to relentlessly optimize…[and] any group may be checked by [another]….

The art of management is to shape these functions so that they drive the entire [system] in the direction it wants to go…[for] an overall fitness function for the organization….Open-source software development…[is] outstanding example’….

[W]hen [systems] become established, they often set rules and strategies that are counter-productive….[MLS] paradox seems to be that you need both small groups, where the innovation happens, and conditions that allow the innovations…to spread rapidly…’an architecture of participation’….[Genetic] drift is greater in isolated populations…[ex.] ancient Athens, Renaissance Florence, or Silicon Valley…then spread…[not] homogenization….[So] we must function in two capacities:

  1. As designers of social systems (by managing the cultural evolutionary process)
  2. As participants in…systems that we design.

As participants, we need not have the welfare of the whole system in mind, but as designers we must. In short, higher-level selection is the invisible hand that winnows lower-level behaviors that function well at the system level from…larger set of lower-level behaviors that do not….

[Our] tech platforms…are the first algorithmically managed economies…[at] scale that rivals many traditional economies in complexity…[yet] evolve much faster…and how to make them sustainable….

But when the platform owners act like peak predators, become extractive, and despoil their environment, they fail….[Similarly] political economics is indeed evolution in action.

If we rise to the challenges of our environment, if we adapt…we flourish; if we don’t… we struggle and eventually fail.”

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May you live long and prosper!
Doc Huston

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