Stuart Armstrong’s Posts

We may need to end all war. Quickly.

Public opinion and governments wrestle with a difficult problem: whether or not to intervene in Syria. The standard arguments are well known – just war theory, humanitarian protection of civilian populations, the westphalian right of states to non-intervention, the risk of quagmires, deterrence against chemical weapons use… But the news that an American group has successfully 3D printed a working handgun may put a new perspective on things.

Why? It’s not as if there’s a lack of guns in the world – either in the US or in Syria – so a barely working weapon, built from still-uncommon technology, is hardly going to upset any balance of power. But that may just be the beginning. As 3D printing technology gets better, as private micro-manufacturing improves (possibly all the way to Drexlerian nanotechnology), the range of weapons that can be privately produced increases. This type of manufacturing could be small scale, using little but raw material, and be very fast paced. We may reach a situation where any medium-sized organisation (a small country, a corporation, a town) could build an entire weapons arsenal in the blink of an eye: 20,000 combat drones, say, and 10,000 cruise missiles, all within a single day. All that you’d need are the plans, cheap raw materials, and a small factory floor. Continue reading

Football scandal shapes the future of a one world government

A recent football scandal has broken to the surface of what is likely a deep swamp of corruption. At least 680 matches are dubious, probably many more. But how come law enforcement haven’t been able to stamp out this epidemic? Well, as stated:

We are organized in Singapore, I flew from Budapest, the match is in Finland, we’re wagering in the Philippines using masked computer clusters from Bangkok to Jakarta. Our communications are refracted across so many cell networks and satellites that they’re almost impossible to unravel. The money will move electronically, incomprehensibly, through a hundred different nowheres.

No current legal system can cope. But legal football is huge business – if the current scandals persist, and start biting into the clubs’ bottom lines, they will put huge pressure on legal authorities to clamp down (or to seem to clamp down). And if not football, then the next major industry suffering from organised crime more than they benefit from it. Continue reading

Flu researchers impartially decide dangerous flu research is safe

Flu researchers have looked deeply at their own field, and decided that everything they were doing is all fine. Where the potentially hideously dangerous H5N1 bird-flu virus is concerned,

They said that the benefits of the research in preventing and dealing with a future flu pandemic outweigh the risks of an accidental leak of the mutant virus from a laboratory or the deliberate attempt to create deadly strains of flu by terrorists or rogue governments.

Outside scientists were instead of the opinion that:

[…] if airborne transmission became possible it would lead to a deadly flu pandemic killing millions of people because most of the individuals who are known to have been infected with H5N1 die from the virus.

and even other virologists claim:

The risks are clear for all to see and the benefits are qualitative, and that’s rather weak. Civil scientists are not here to increase the risk from microbes. We are not here to make the microbial world more dangerous.

It’s quite simple here. The flu researchers are not evil people, and they certainly believe they’re doing the right thing. But it is blatantly clear that people inside their own research community, are unavoidably biased in assessing the risks of their own research.

When you think you’re doing the right thing, but all outsiders are screaming for you to stop, that is the moment to step outside your own self-assessment and stop doing what you’re doing, and think deeply before continuing.

Think deep thoughts in the snow

“I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think”
― Socrates

But sometimes – stuck in a rut, going over the same things in the same environment, again and again – it can be so hard to think. To really, genuinely think, to explore new horizons and find new ideas and wisdoms – especially for those of us not lucky enough to have a Socrates to hand. It’s a real effort to lift your mind out of your fixed environment…

…unless the environment changes for you. For those lucky enough to have their lives completely disrupted by the English snows, don’t waste the opportunity. Now is the time for your mind to explore unusual places 🙂

Enlightened surveillance?

New York City contemplates using aerial drones for surveillance purposes, while North Korea buys thousands of cameras to spy on its impoverished population. Britain has so many cameras they cease being newsworthy. The stories multiply – it is trivial to note we are moving towards a surveillance society.

In an earlier post, I suggested surrendering on surveillance might be the least bad option – of all likely civil liberty encroachments,  this seemed the less damaging and hardest to resist. But that’s an overly defensive way of phrasing it – if ubiquitous surveillance and lack of privacy are the trends of the future, we shouldn’t just begrudgingly accept them, but demand that society gets the most possible out of them. In this post, I’m not going to suggest how to achieve enlightened surveillance (a 360 degree surveillance would be a small start, for instance), but just outline some of the positive good we could get from it. We all know the negatives; but what good could come from corporations, governments and neighbours being able to peer continually into your bedroom (and efficiently process that data)? In the ideal case, how could we make it work for us? Continue reading

Invoking and banishing the dread demon “Lead”

Some researchers have fingered a surprising culprit for the crime wave that ended in the 1990s: lead, mainly from leaded fuel. We know that lead leads to development difficulties in children, and in country after country, lead emissions closely mirror the crime rate 23 years later – after those children have grown up into mature, irresponsible adults.

A nice story – only problem is, people aren’t very interested in it. We prefer to tell stories about actual human villains, morality tales with clear blame and praise and entertaining situations (contrast the amounts spent fighting terrorism versus road accidents). Lead causing crime just isn’t sexy.

So to combat this universal human tendency, that causes us to misdirect our efforts and our focus, I propose we should treat Lead as an human-like villain. In its oily lair, the demon Lead rubes its metallic hands together in glee, imagining the millions of children whose developments it is stunting, and the thousands of young men it tipped into criminality, and the wailing of their victims. It plots further increases of its empire of crime, and gnashes grey teeth in frustration as heroic regulator squeeze its powerbase out of the air, the fuel, and the water.

You should already feel your emotional priorities shifting. This alternative visions should enable us to give Lead the attention it deserves, in comparison with other lesser threats with more appealing stories. Use our story-biases in the service of good – we can feel the appropriate amount of joy when we triumph over Lead; emotions, not just reason, are needed to keep up our motivations in dealing wit these threats.

And then the demon can be joined in its dark imaginary lair by the vicious Vampire Malaria, the Zombie-Lord of the Road Traffic Accident, and the bloody Psychopathic Death Cult of Cardio-Vascular Diseases. To arms, good citizens of the world, against these sinister anthropomorphised and correctly prioritised threats!

More theory needed: why things work

We have a lot of good theories as to why government policies don’t work. Regulatory capture explains why regulating agencies cosy up to the industries they’re suppose to reign in. Politicians’ relentless focus on short term economic growth and desperate chasing of positive headlines causes them to embrace ill-advised short-term measures (and forget about action on things like climate change!). Meanwhile, the civil service’s tenure and lack of accountability allows it to indulge in exuberant nest-feathering wastes of taxpayers’ money. Issues of status and pride saturate the decisions of all ranks of government officials.

These theories are not only intuitive, they are also backed up by research and evidence. And yet…

And yet… Continue reading

Singularity Summit: How we’re predicting AI

When will we have proper AI? The literature is full of answers to this question, as confident as they are contradictory. In a talk given at the Singularity Institute in San Francisco, I analyse these prediction from a theoretical standpoint (should we even expect anyone to have good AI predictions at all?) and a practical one (do the predictions made look as if they have good information behind them?). I conclude that we should not put our trust in timeline predictions, but that some philosophical predictions seem surprisingly effective – but that in all cases, we should increase our uncertainties and our error bars. If someone predicts the arrival of AI at some date with great confidence, we have every reason to think they’re completely wrong.

But this doesn’t make our own opinions any better, of course – your gut feeling is as good as any expert’s; which is to say, not any good at all.

Many thanks to the Future of Humanity Institute, the Oxford Martin School, the Singularity Institute, and my co-author Kaj Sotala. More details of the approach can be found online at http://lesswrong.com/lw/e36/ai_timeline_predictions_are_we_getting_better/ or at http://lesswrong.com/lw/e79/ai_timeline_prediction_data/

Technology is outrunning science

It’s a common trope that our technology is outrunning our wisdom: we have great technological power, so the argument goes, but not the wisdom to use it.

Forget wisdom: technology is outrunning science! We have great technological power, but not the science to know what it does. In a recent bizarre  trial in Italy, scientists were found guilty of manslaughter for failing to predict an earthquake in L’Aquila – prompting seismologists all over the world to sign an open letter stating, basically, that science can’t predict earthquakes.

But though we can’t predict earthquakes, we can certainly cause them. Pumping out water from an aquifer, oil and gas wells, rock quarries, even dams, have all been showed to cause earthquakes – though their magnitude and their timing remain unpredictable.

Geoengineering is another example of the phenomena: we have the technological know-how to radically change the planet’s climate at relatively low cost – but lack the science to predict the extent and true impact of this radical change. Soon we may be able to build artificial minds, though whole-brain emulations or other methods,  but we can’t predict when this might happen or even the likely consequences of such a dramatically transformative technology.

The path from pure science to grubby technological implementation is traditionally seen as running in one clear direction: pure science develops ground-breaking ivory tower ideas, that eventually get taken up and transformed into useful technology, year down the line. To do this, science has to stay continually ahead of technology: we have to know more than we do. But now it’s pure science and research that have to play catch-up: we have find a way to know what we’re doing.

Focus on the important things: reforming medical trials

As Ben Goldacre reveals, the status quo in drug testing is nothing less than a scandal. Pharmaceutical companies are suppressing and blocking information, perfectly legally, that is causing adults and children to die. Reforming the system wouldn’t be too hard – a registry for all drug trials, before they begin, should be enough to get rid of most of the problems of suppressed publications. And compelling all pharmaceutical companies to put their trial results in the public domain would help tremendously.

All of us are present, past and future users of medicines. Getting rid of ineffective and dangerous drugs should be the great moral crusade of our time: this is far more important in terms of death and suffering, than the relatively few people who suffer from terrorism, violent crime, or even road accidents.

Imagine a political party that pledged to reform the drug testing system and do absolutely nothing else during their term in parliament. This would be a party it would be morally imperative to vote into office. Nothing else on offer in politics comes anywhere near.

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