April 02, 2014
Forcing people to be nice is bad
The automated boycott - Practical Ethics post where I find myself defending Brendan Eich and quoting Maggie Gallagher in regards to whether to boycott Mozilla for his support prop 8. The short of it: boycotts should be used to pressure companies to behave themselves, not to pressure individuals to be nice - nor pressure companies to pressure them to be nice.
March 28, 2014
It is rare that architecture manages to make me angry, but here is a design that succeeds: Sung Jin Cho's Seawer: The Garbage-Seascraper. This won a honourable mention in Evolo's 2014 Skyscraper Competition. I assume it won it for nice design (it is indeed nifty looking) and being green.
The catch is that it fails to solve the problem it claims to solve.
The official motivation is that there is too much garbage in the ocean, forming things like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Enormous amount of non-biodegradable plastic (6 times the plankton biomass, apparently) causing damage to the ecosystem. It would be good if it could be removed somehow.
Unfortunately the proposed solution is a floating skyscraper that filters the seawater using baleen filters. Leaving economics and practicality aside, I think the design could work (it is not too different from a Salter sink). But filtering away all plastic will also filter away all the plankton: anything that is effective at removing plastic will also remove the wildlife.
The design claims it could remove 50,000 tons of garbage per year, cleaning 100,000 square km per year. Assuming the patch size mentioned in the proposal (1,392,482 square km) that would require a Seawer to filter for 14 years in order to clean the patch. This might actually be slow enough to allow the wildlife to recover from losing 7% each year. Assuming only one Seawer is used, of course.
The fundamental problem here, and the reason I got annoyed, is that this is exactly the same thing as I ranted about back in 2010: "But this doesn't matter much to the proposer, since the main point seems to be to make a cool, green project rather than solving the problem. I have earlier ranted a bit about how many designers love to come up with green designs that will never have the least environmental impact but provide them with social gratification."
Indeed, the imagery is the same: pictures hinting at floating fridges and furniture at a density one could walk on (rather than fine confetti in the water column), then a beautiful project that turns it all into blue water. That the project is unlikely to ever be built does not really matter - after all, it was part of a blue sky design contest giving kudos to its originator. But the end result is a non-solution reinforcing an erroneous understanding of what the situation is.
I still like the design. But I wish this creativity had either been used to solve a real problem well, or just created something lifting our spirits.
March 20, 2014
Rebecca's Evil Twin
It is interesting to see how journalists copying each other produce misinformation.
A while ago Rebecca Roache (and me, but she is the star and lead author on our paper) was interviewed in Aeon about enhancement and punishment. She got plenty of space to explain the tricky interplay between feelings of revenge, ethical theories of just punishment, how law enforcement actually works, and how future technology could complicate things. (It all began in this Practical Ethics post and has now led to some talks - and an upcoming paper, we promise!)
As soon as Aeon showed up the story was reported by the Daily Mail, immediately turned senastionalist: "Could we condemn criminals to suffer for hundreds of years? Biotechnology could let us extend convicts' lives 'indefinitely'". I assume the readers of the DM might feel this is a bit too wussy still.
Then the Telegraph turned it into "Prisoners 'could serve 1,000 year sentence in eight hours'" - now it is not just life extension, but superspeed drugs.
And then Slashdot reports "Time Dilation Drug Could Let Heinous Criminals Serve 1,000 Year Sentences" - by now the drug seems like an almost real thing, 1,000 year sentences are apparently a good thing, and the readers of Slashdot now think poor Rebecca is a nasty psychopath for promoting such a thing. Sigh.
If this was just a cascade of credulous media outlets copying each other I would not be that concerned - annoying, but a bit like agonizing over YouTube comments. However, the coverage also led to a post on Practical Ethics by Luke Davies taking Rebecca to task for her approval of these technologies. Except that most of this post of course builds on the distorted versions of what she actually said. The great irony is that he is now doing many of the arguments we have in our paper... and commenters are further outraged by the ruthless retributionist Rebecca. I am annoyed that the stupidity now has come home to our office again.
This is a sign we need to improve the epistemic systems of our society so noise does not overwhelm signal. Every step of filtering introduces bias, and as stories are rapidly bounced through a series of media they quickly become strongly distorted (image). And if a few hot buttons get pressed, the result gets even crazier (see this and this!)
A simple rule: before you comment or write an article about anything, check out the original source. People who just respond to a summary are filling our heads with filth, and should be treated with the same disdain as people who spit on the floor.
March 13, 2014
Simulating the arrival of emulations
A small working paper about when to expect brain emulations: Monte Carlo model of brain emulation development
The model is simple, but produces a some useful predictions. The main one is not where the peak is - sure, everybody will quote me on it, but it is fairly dependent on your assumptions about the brain. Similarly the probability of failing to ever get WBE because computing power falls short depends a lot on brain assumptions and what Moore's law scenario one gets.
What I think is important is that we can go from a world where WBE has a very low chance of happening to a world with a high chance in just 20 years. If we get WBE from a breakthrough in scanning or neuroscience rather than hardware improvements allowing us to scale up small animal brain simulations, then there is room for an impressive overshoot where a lot of copies or very fast emulations become suddenly possible.
Perhaps most important is that different viewers can insert their own assumptions into the model and explore their consequences. We can update it as new data arrives, and get scenario distributions for the future. That will help us figure out where we are in relation to the emergence of WBE.