Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Is there an artful approach to artificial intelligence?

During the week concluding 2017’s first half, three New York Times stories addressed the potential social dangers of Artificial Intelligence. Is this a mere coincidence, or is it rather a symptom of growing alarm? Previously economists have noted that just as industrialization eliminated many jobs only to create new ones, automation has done the same. But some economists now suspect that this time it will be different.

Kai-Fu Lee penned the most thoughtful of the week’s three stories. He notes, “Unlike the Industrial Revolution and the computer revolution, the A.I. revolution is not taking certain jobs (artisans, personal assistants who use paper and typewriters) and replacing them with other jobs (assembly-line workers, personal assistants conversant with computers). Instead, it is poised to bring about a wide-scale decimation of jobs — mostly lower-paying jobs but some higher-paying ones, too.” These will include, “Bank tellers, customer service representatives, telemarketers, stock and bond traders, even paralegals and radiologists,” who will, “gradually be replaced by such software.” In time robots and self driving vehicles will replace a slew of other jobs.

Lee notes that A.I. software is being developed faster than most people realize and that it has the potential to disrupt society in two ways. He asks; “we are thus facing two developments that do not sit easily together: enormous wealth concentrated in relatively few hands and enormous numbers of people out of work. What is to be done?”

Some who have pondered this question believe that education is the key to creating jobs in this soon-to-come economy. But Lee believes education is only a partial solution. “Artificial intelligence is poorly suited for jobs involving creativity, planning and “cross-domain” thinking — for example, the work of a trial lawyer. But these skills are typically required by high-paying jobs that may be hard to retrain displaced workers to do.” Lower paying, people-skill, jobs can’t easily be performed by artificial intelligence but, “How many bartenders does a society really need?”

Lee, among others, suggests that in addition to educating workers, a universal income may also be required. To prevent massive unemployment, Lee believes that service jobs which today are poorly paid, or done by volunteers, will acquire greater status. Wealth held by A.I.’s landlords and other wealthy people and companies will need to be taxed to pay for the new, and newly remodeled, jobs necessitated by A.I.

This means higher taxes, a solution applied during the Great Depression of the thirties, World War II, and the Cold War. However, high taxation went away in the Reagan era and it shows no sign of returning soon. Although high progressive taxes brought about a period during which America had a broader and more prosperous middle class, that approach has been unpopular in recent years. Instead, tax cuts, particularly for the wealthy have been used under the theory that wealth would trickle down and benefit society at large. These tax cuts have given the economy a few short-lived bumps, but they’ve also increased the nation’s deficits. Today, the top 20 percent of Americans hold roughly 90 percent of the country’s wealth. Recently both the Congress and the Senate proposed tax plans that would leave more than 20 million Americans without health insurance. Though universal health care is the norm in most well-developed nations, it’s an idea that remains unpopular in the United States. Lee and others who propose universal income are unrealistic: if universal healthcare is too socialistic for the United States, then a universal income will meet the same resistance.

Before universal income, or something like it, can become a reality, America’s economic attitudes will need to change. The difficulty here is that those with the most money influence our political process in a variety of ways—and they seem set on preserving their wealth. Today many Americans face poverty and economic uncertainty. The growth of A.I. will soon put more money in fewer hands increasing the misery of the 80 percent of Americans currently sharing 10 percent of the wealth.

Lee writes from Beijing. Perhaps his solution will work in China. But unless something major changes here, it won’t work in the United States.

Lee makes a secondary point as well. China and the United States are the two countries most likely to advance advanced A.I. technology. As they do so other nations may be plunged into poverty. Lee concludes, “…we are going to have to start thinking about how to minimize the looming A.I.-fueled gap between the haves and the have-nots, both within and between nations. Or to put the matter more optimistically: A.I. is presenting us with an opportunity to rethink economic inequality on a global scale. These challenges are too far-ranging in their effects for any nation to isolate itself from the rest of the world.”

Read more:
The Real Threat of Artificial Intelligence
Daily Report: Automation’s Effect on Developing Tech Economies
Robocalypse Now? Central Bankers Argue Whether Automation Will Kill Jobs

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Bad Argument

 Some, while admitting that climate change is real, argue that it isn't a big deal, that human causation hasn't been proven, and that doing something about it would cause job losses and hurt the economy. Apparently these people don't read newspapers, or if they do, they read the ones that use very small words. Science has known about climate change and the human activity causing it for over 5o years. The science is entertainingly explained in under an hour in the Cosmos episode, The World Set Free

A July 8, 2015 Guardian headline  states, "Exxon knew of climate change in 1981, email says – but it funded deniers for 27 more years." Why do you suppose Exxon did that? Let me take a guess. Because it would cause job losses and hurt the economy. That's oil industry jobs and the oil industry economy. 

Keeping a secret for 27 years in order to protect your business model is shortsighted. It would have been more sensible to diversify and develop other energy sources. Had Exxon done that, today it would be an industry leader in renewable energy. But it chose to be dishonest and self-serving instead.

Many of the politicians who argue that climate change interventions will cost jobs and hurt the economy receive major funding from oil industry associates. But that, in itself, doesn't make the argument  a bad one. It's true that climate change interventions will cost jobs and effect the economy. The effects will be primarily in the energy sector, although not all of it. Those portions of the energy sector invested in renewable energy will instead create jobs and thrive.

The argument is deceptive because it doesn't take the entire economy into account. Climate change is already affecting the economy's agricultural sector. Droughts, floods and crop-killing heat waves are happening now and will become worse. Climate change will devastate jobs and economies far beyond what can be gained by protecting the status quo. It's time to cut the crap and act responsibly.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Armageddon, anyone?

Good omens : the nice and accurate prophecies of Agnes Nutter, witch
Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
Fiction 384 pages
William Morrow, 1990, 2006

According to the bit in the back of the book, this novel has become a "cult classic" since its publication. The book's sales rank on Amazon supports this claim. I haven't read any of Pratchett's books, but I've read a few by Gaiman. I didn't like this one as well as those.

Gaiman has a talent for taking mythological themes and making them believable. But this book is more of a farce, and as such, it failed to suspend my disbelief. This story, like others by Gaiman, draws from mythology, but unlike American Gods, the mythology isn't Norse, African, or Hindu, but Christian, and that will offend some, or at least cause discomfort. Believers don't like to see their beliefs treated like myths.

 Good Omens is about a friendship between a demon and an angel. Neither sees any sense in a war between Heaven and Hell and prefer to thwart, rather than assist during Armageddon. Crowley, the demon, and Aziraphale, the angel, have lived amidst humanity for so long that they no longer see things in such black and white terms as pure good or evil. They no longer fit in with the bureaucrats of Heaven and Hell. Unfortunately their sophisticated viewpoint isn't universal; satirizing conventional behavior just doesn't work for me.

I find no humor in society's increasing polarization of beliefs and attitudes, in the absence of dialog between left and right, religious and secular, rich and poor. Envisioning Heaven and Hell populated by rigid thinking, bureaucratic zealots simply doesn't amuse me. The world is full of such people already and their numbers are steadily increasing. Maybe Armageddon is coming after all, and that's just not funny.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

The hidden meaning of fairy tales


The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales
Bruno Bettelheim
Non-fiction 328 pages
Vintage Books, 1989, 1976

If you’ve taken courses on fiction writing or literature, it’s likely that you’ve heard about the hero’s journey. Joseph Campbell introduced this concept in his 1949 work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell, a popularizer of mythology, drew upon themes from Jungian psychology in his structural analysis of hero myths.

Child Psychologist, Bruno Bettelheim, while acknowledging Jung’s contributions, used a more Freudian approach in his analysis of fairy tales. Although there’s some degree of similarity between Bettelheim’s later and Campbell’s earlier work, Bettelheim makes no mention of Campbell.

Bettelheim is careful to point out, however, that fairy tales are not like myths. They serve different audiences and functions. Myths end in tragedy while fairy tales end happily. Fairy tales allow children to integrate id impulses with their developing egos. Myths, instead, are the voices of the superego. They moralize, while fairy tales allow their hearers to form their own conclusions.

Referring to Hercules having to choose between two women, one representing virtue and the other pleasure, Bettelheim says, “The fairy tale never confronts us so directly, or tells us outright how we must choose. Instead, the fairy tale helps children to develop the desire for a higher consciousness through what is implied in the story. The fairy tale convinces through the appeal it makes to our imagination and the attractive outcome of events, which entice us.”

He later elaborates, “Myths project an ideal personality acting on the basis of superego demands, while fairy tales depict an ego integration which allows for appropriate satisfaction of id desires. This difference accounts for the contrast between the pervasive pessimism of myths and the essential optimism of fairy tales.” I don’t agree entirely. Star Wars is often cited as an example of the hero’s journey. That movie ended happily rather than in tragedy. While Oedipus is certainly a tragedy, I’m not convinced that all myths must be pessimistic.

Bettelheim’s approach is primarily Freudian. As such, his interpretations deal with orality, sexuality, sibling rivalry, and the child’s sense of impotence. Campbell’s myth interpretation draws from the Jungian perspective. As such, it minimizes the importance of id, ego, and superego and emphasizes Jungian personality structures such as self, shadow and anima. Since the passing of Freud and Jung, neuroscience has identified many structures in the brain, however none are identical to those structures named by Jung and Freud. Nonetheless, those elusive structures remain useful for understanding both human personality and literature.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Garden Glass


The modestly sized Denver Botanic Gardens makes good use of its 24 acres. Over the last several years, the gardens have hosted a variety of excellent sculptural exhibits. In 2007, for example, 60 stone sculptures by contemporary Zimbabwean artists were exhibited. In 2010, twenty monumental works by Henry Moore were exhibited. Concluding this month, massive groupings of blown glass grace the gardens.


These are the work of veteran glassblower, Dale Chihuly (born 1941). After leaving the first American glass program at the University of Wisconsin, Chihuly worked at the Venini glass factory in Venice. His work is now shown in over 200 museum collections internationally.

Chihuly’s installations blend well into the Denver Botanic Gardens. Tall red glass fronds stand against tall grass. Ponds are filled with glass flora and boats laden with glass spheres and tubes. Bulbous glass vegetation grows a midst desert loving yucca bushes. After sunset, night blooming tubers and trees light the gardens.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Galaxy Jest

Like many Chicagoans of my generation, I grew up watching old science fiction movies after school. Invariably, the character playing a scientist offered up an explanation for whatever tragedy threatened to befall humanity. Usually this came in the form of a ravaging monster, and the explanation generally involved mutation caused by radiation.

Like a child, I always bought the explanation. Of course, at the time I was a child. Recently I encountered a book description in which the hero was the richest man in the galaxy. “Really?” I thought. “There are an estimated 200 billion stars in our galaxy. How could anyone determine who its richest man is? Sounds like bad science to me.”

Putting galaxies to extravagant uses is not unique to this book. Other examples abound. Like the movie, Interstellar, for example. Its story has astronauts taking a wormhole ride to another galaxy in search of a habitable planet.

I can’t understand why. Our galaxy is thought to be 100,000 light-years across. Given so much space there should be a habitable planet right here in the Milky Way. Some speculate that the nearest one could be just 13 light-years away. So why travel so far?

Apparently they decided to go to another galaxy so they could use a wormhole conveniently located near Saturn. But how do they know the wormhole leads to another galaxy? What’s to stop it from leading to a different location in our galaxy, or to another universe altogether? And if they knew they were going to another galaxy, why didn't they name the movie Intergalactic instead of Interstellar?

Like with other science fiction movies, a scientist offered an explanation. The scientist is theoretical physicist, Kip Thorne. He was instrumental in modeling the appearance of the movie’s black hole. Despite his efforts, I don’t buy the premise. To me it’s just plain stupid to go looking for a place to live in another galaxy when there’s plenty of nice real estate closer by. And that’s why I won’t be seeing Interstellar.

About Me

My photo

Dave Loeff (davelef.com) is an author and graphic designer. In addition to fiction, Dave writes about graphics, travel, and other topics. Find him at http://truthandtalltales.com.

Dave worked domestically in the sewn goods industry, before he became a buyer in Taiwan. He subsequently worked as a mental health clinician, technical writer, computer technician, and graphic designer.

His freelance services include conversion of manuscripts into eBooks, photo retouching, book design and illustration,