Tag Archives: futurism

An Artificial Intelligence That Can Debate: The Promise And The Perils

Even in an era as divided and chaotic as this, there’s still a place for reasonable debate on important issues.

Yes, I understand it’s hard to say that with a straight face these days.

Yes, I’ve been to comments sections, Reddit, and 4chan.

Yes, I know how ugly the discourse is right now, but that’s exactly why I’m bringing this up.

In general, people are curious. Even though they cling to cherished beliefs and refuse to change their minds when confronted with evidence, we’re still curious about things that are different. It’s not always honest, but it’s a powerful feeling. Even if you despise those on the other side of the debate, a part of you will still wonder why they hold the opinions they have.

That’s why debate is such a powerful tool. Humans are such a social species by nature. We’re hard-wired to interact, connect, and discuss things with one another, even when we don’t agree. It may frustrate us to no end, as anyone who has debated a creationist can attest. However, the fact we keep doing it is proof, in my opinion, that there’s still value in the process.

Regardless of how you feel about the merit and value of debating, the whole process might become more complicated in the near future. That’s because IBM, the same company behind Watson, the Jeopardy playing computer, just created an artificial intelligence that can debate at the same level as a skilled human debater.

Here’s an excerpt from a piece in TechXplore on this new system. It’s not as scary as some of the things we’ve seen from Boston Dynamics lately, but it’s still intriguing.

TechXplore: IBM’s AI debating system able to compete with expert human debaters

IBM has developed an artificial intelligence-based system designed to engage in debates with humans. In their paper published in the journal Nature, the team members describe their system and how well it performed when pitted against human opponents. Chris Reed with the University of Dundee has published a News & Views piece in the same journal issue outlining the history and development of AI technology based around the types of logic used in human arguments and the new system developed by IBM.

As Reed notes, debating is a skill humans have been honing for thousands of years. It is generally considered to be a type of discussion in which one or more people attempt to persuade others that their opinion on a topic is right. In this new effort, the team at IBM has created an AI system designed to debate with humans in a live setting. It listens to moderators and opponents and responds in a female voice.

Now, before you get too nervous, it’s worth noting that this AI is far from the kind of advanced artificial intelligence systems I’ve mentioned before. This is not the kind of AI that will become Skynet or Hal 9000, no more so than Watson or AlphaGo. This is a system is very much a narrow AI, as in it’s made to excel at a specific task.

We have AI’s that can beat world class chess players and Jeopardy champions. This AI just happens to excel at debate. However, that has implications that go beyond simply outclassing the best human debaters in the world at the moment. In fact, this is one form of AI that might not need human-level intelligence to incur a major impact.

Take a moment to think about how erratic and inconsistent most debates are. No matter how intelligent or informed you are, it tends to get messy fast. That’s why so many comments sections and Reddit threads devolve into shouting matches and personal attacks. The end result is people becoming more angry and unreasonable, which can have major real-world consequences.

However, what would happen if every debate on any issue included someone who was better than the best debater on the planet? Even if the two people on each side of the debate were dumb and inept, such a presence would have a major impact on the discourse.

That’s because winning a debate has little to do with how well someone knows a particular subject. It also has little to do with how forcefully and clearly someone explains a topic. Again, people who debate creationists know this all too well. Winning a debate doesn’t mean proving your expertise. It means proving the merit of your argument.

An AI that can do that may not convince someone that they’re wrong about something. However, losing a debate tends to have a lasting impact. Just ask any aspiring politician. It can also lead people to question their beliefs, even if they still cling to them. That, alone, can be powerful.

For proof, look no further than the story of Megan Phelps-Roper, a former member of the infamously hateful and dogmatic Westboro Baptist Church. She was as locked into her beliefs as anyone could possibly be. She was raised by religious zealots and indoctrinated into strict religious dogma from the time she was a child. She’s not someone whose mind is prone to change.

Then, she got into a discussion with someone on Twitter of all places. That person began a conversation. It started as a nasty debate, but it evolved into something that led her to question her beliefs. Ultimately, she left that hateful and bigoted environment. She’s now an activist against the same religiously motivated hate that she once fostered.

It’s a powerful story, but one that couldn’t have happened without a debate. To date, people have only been able to have those debates with other people. Not everyone is equally skilled. In fact, I would argue most people are woefully unskilled at debating anything and I include myself in that category. I am not good at it, either. I freely admit that.

Now, there’s an AI system that can theoretically win any debate the same way other systems can defeat any chess player. That does hold promise if it can be used to temper the heated rhetoric that has caused real-life hostilities. At the same time, there are reasons for concern.

What side would this system be on?

Moreover, who decides what position these AI systems take?

If no one decides, then how does the AI determine which side on a debate it takes?

These are relevant questions because if you have an AI that can win any debate, then the side it takes really matters. That can be used for good when countering dangerous disinformation, like those from the antivaxx crowd or hate groups like the Westboro Baptist Church. Like any tool, though, it can be weaponized for ill.

I can easily imagine political organizations getting a hold of these systems and trying to use them to benefit their agenda. I can also see some trying to use it to spam message boards, social media, and Reddit threads to derail certain movements or arguments. That’s a powerful tool and we can’t be certain that those using it will use it responsibly. That’s the dilemma with all technology. It can be used for good and for evil. With technology like artificial intelligence, the stakes are a lot higher, as are the perils. This technology may not be as dangerous as a more advanced AI, but it could be a precursor to just how disruptive this technology can be.

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What Keeps Bitcoin From Being A (Bigger) Part Of Our Future

I consider myself an enthusiast of technology. On many occasions, I’ve wildly speculated about emerging technology and expressed unapologetic excitement about certain trends. In general, I have the utmost respect and support for those who share this passion. I don’t always agree with their outlook or speculation, but I get where they’re coming from.

Then, there are Bitcoin enthusiasts. I’ll just come out and say I have mixed feelings about them.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to diminish what a remarkable technology Bitcoin is. It is a complicated and, at times, confusing technology. Even the Wikipedia page only does so much to explain what it is, where it came from, and why it matters. That’s not surprising. There was plenty of confusion about the internet too when it first emerged.

While I don’t consider myself an enthusiast, Bitcoin has sparked my curiosity. I do sometimes look into major news stories and developments surrounding the technology. The fact that it has lasted over a decade and made some people legitimate millionaires is proof enough that Bitcoin has real, tangible value. Those who keep saying that Bitcoin is just a fad or will crash are becoming increasingly scarce.

I’m convinced that Bitcoin, and other cryptocurrencies like it, are here to stay. They’ve proven that they have value in an increasingly digital landscape. As the internet becomes more prevalent and accessible, their role will only grow. That being said, I’m not yet convinced Bitcoin’s role will go beyond a certain point.

Those who say Bitcoin is the future of money are likely talking in hyperbole.

Those who say Bitcoin and the blockchain are the most revolutionary technologies since email are also likely exaggerating.

I don’t doubt for a second that these people believe in what they’re saying. I just haven’t seen enough to warrant that kind of enthusiasm. The issue isn’t as much about the merits of the technology as it is about how it’s being used. I’m not just referring to its role in the illegal drug trade, either.

At the moment, Bitcoin is fairly accessible. If you have a smartphone and an internet connection, you can download a simple wallet for free. If you do a quick search for a Bitcoin ATM, you can purchase Bitcoins with the same ease you would when purchasing a gift card. It’s what you do after that where the issues arise.

What exactly can you buy with Bitcoin that you can’t buy more easily through other means? That’s not me being facetious. This is where I tend to diverge with Bitcoin enthusiasts. I understand that some major ecommerce sites accept Bitcoin, namely Overstock. I’m also aware that more and more retailers are accepting Bitcoin.

However, the only ones taking advantage of that option are those who go out of their way to use Bitcoin. For most people, especially those who aren’t as tech savvy, there just aren’t enough benefits to warrant the extra effort. On top of that, Bitcoin does have some lingering flaws that are hard to work around. Then again, you can say the same thing about traditional money.

None of that even begins to highlight the growing issues associated with mining Bitcoins.

Now, that could change. It’s not a certainty, but it is a possibility. Like any new tech, the issue isn’t always about whether or not it works. Bitcoin clearly works and it’s been working for nearly a decade. It’s whether or not there’s a “killer app” to entice ordinary people to go through the effort of learning about, acquiring, and using Bitcoin.

The problem is that, thanks to incidents like the Silk Road, the primary use of Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies like it have been for the purchase of drugs or other illicit services. Regardless of how you feel about the politics surrounding illegal drugs and services, that’s the reputation Bitcoin has. It’s just a way for criminals and their cohorts to operate.

That’s not a killer app. It’s also not sustainable.

In order for Bitcoin to play a bigger part in our future, it needs to have a good, meaningful use. It took cell phones decades to find that. Just being able to make phone calls, remember phone numbers, and occasionally host a game of solitaire wasn’t enough. Other apps like music, video chatting, and cameras had to get into the mix before the public and the market embraced them.

That’s what Bitcoin needs. I don’t claim to know what that entails. I think Bitcoin has to get to a point where using it is as simple as using a credit card or debit card. It also needs a particular use or product that will justify the physical and financial investment. That use also can’t be illegal. It’s no secret that the internet owes much of its early growth to the porn industry, but porn isn’t illegal.

Bitcoin, in my opinion, will need something bigger than porn. It might also need to wait until more parts of the world are connected to broadband internet. Maybe it involves voting, enforcing contracts, or the development of new peer-to-peer networks, such as Open Bazaar. I don’t know. I’m not smart enough to figure it out at the moment.

In the meantime, I’ll certainly keep an eye on Bitcoin. I don’t deny it has its uses in the current world. It’s just too limited right now. Whether it has a large or small role in the future that awaits us remains to be seen.

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Thought Experiment: When Does Technology Make Us Non-Human?

The following is a video from my YouTube channel, Jack’s World. It explores another thought experiment about technology and how it’s affecting us, as a species. I’ve covered this sort of thing before and the implications. I’m looking to see if there’s an audience for this on my channel. Enjoy!

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Filed under Artificial Intelligence, futurism, human nature, Jack's World, technology, Thought Experiment, YouTube

The First CRISPR Patients Are Living Better: Why That Matters After 2020

It’s been a while since I’ve talked about CRISPR, biotechnology, and the prospect of ordinary people enhancing their biology in ways straight out of a comic book. In my defense, this past year has created plenty of distractions. Some have been so bad that my usual optimism of the future has been seriously damaged.

While my spirit is wounded, I still have hope that science and technology will continue to progress. If anything, it’ll progress with more urgency after this year. A great many fields are bound to get more attention and investment after the damage done by a global pandemic.

We can’t agree on much, but we can at least agree on this. Pandemics are bad for business, bad for people, bad for politics, and just objectively awful for everyone all around, no matter what their station is in life.

There’s a lot of incentive to ensure something like this never happens again is what I’m saying. While we’re still a long way from ending pandemics entirely, we already have tools that can help in that effort. One is CRISPR, a promising tool I’ve talked about in the past. While it wasn’t in a position to help us during this pandemic, research into refining it hasn’t stopped.

Despite all the awful health news of this past year, some new research has brought us some promising results on the CRISPR front. In terms of actually treading real people who have real conditions, those results are in and they give us reason to hope.

One such effort involved using CRISPR to help treat people with Sickle Cell Disease, a genetic condition that hinders the ability of red blood cells to carry oxygen. It affects over 4 million people worldwide and often leads to significant complications that can be fatal.

Since CRISPR is all about tweaking genetics, it’s a perfect mechanism with which to develop new therapies. Multiple patients have undergone experimental treatments that utilize this technology. In a report form NPR, the results are exceeding expectations for all the right reasons.

NPR: First Patients To Get CRISPR Gene-Editing Treatment Continue To Thrive

At a recent meeting of the American Society for Hematology, researchers reported the latest results from the first 10 patients treated via the technique in a research study, including Gray, two other sickle cell patients and seven patients with a related blood disorder, beta thalassemia. The patients now have been followed for between three and 18 months.

All the patients appear to have responded well. The only side effects have been from the intense chemotherapy they’ve had to undergo before getting the billions of edited cells infused into their bodies.

The New England Journal of Medicine published online this month the first peer-reviewed research paper from the study, focusing on Gray and the first beta thalassemia patient who was treated.

“I’m very excited to see these results,” says Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley, who shared the Nobel Prize this year for her role in the development of CRISPR. “Patients appear to be cured of their disease, which is simply remarkable.”

Make no mistake. This is objectively good news and not just for people suffering from sickle cell disease.

Whenever new medical advances emerge, there’s often a wide gap between developing new treatments and actually implementing them in a way that makes them as commonplace as getting a prescription. The human body is complex. Every individual’s health is different. Taking a treatment from the lab to a patient is among the biggest challenge in medical research.

This news makes it official. CRISPR has made that leap. The possible treatments aren’t just possibilities anymore. There are real people walking this planet who have received this treatment and are benefiting because of it. Victoria Gray, as referenced in the article, is just one of them.

That’s another critical threshold in the development of new technology. When it goes beyond just managing a condition to helping people thrive, then it becomes more than just a breakthrough. It becomes an opportunity.

It sends a message to doctors, researchers, and biotech companies that this technology works. Some of those amazing possibilities that people like to envision aren’t just dreams anymore. They’re manifesting before our eyes. This is just one part of it. If it works for people with Sickle Cell Disease, what other conditions could it treat?

I doubt I’m the first to ask that question. As I write this, there are people far smarter and more qualified than me using CRISPR to develop a whole host of new treatments. After a year like 2020, everyone is more aware of their health. They’re also more aware of why science and medicine matter. It can do more than just save our lives. It can help us thrive.

We learned many hard lessons in 2020, especially when it comes to our health. Let’s not forget those lessons as we look to the future. This technology is just one of many that could help us prosper in ways not possible in previous years. We cheered those who developed the COVID-19 vaccine. Let’s start cheering those working on new treatments with CRISPR.

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Filed under biotechnology, CRISPR, futurism, health, technology

Why We Should Treat Our Data As (Valuable) Property

Many years ago, I created my first email address before logging into the internet. It was a simple AOL account. I didn’t give it much thought. I didn’t think I was creating anything valuable. At the time, the internet was limited to slow, clunky dial-up that had little to offer in terms of content. I doubt anyone saw what they were doing as creating something of great value.

I still have that email address today in case you’re wondering. I still regularly use it. I imagine a lot of people have an email address they created years ago for one of those early internet companies that used to dominate a very different digital world. They may not even see that address or those early internet experiences as valuable.

Times have changed and not just in terms of pandemics. In fact, times tends to change more rapidly in the digital world than it does in the real world. The data we created on the internet, even in those early days, became much more valuable over time. It served as the foundation on which multi-billion dollar companies were built.

As a result, the data an individual user imparts onto the internet has a great deal of value. You could even argue that the cumulative data of large volumes of internet users is among the most valuable data in the world.

Politicians, police, the military, big businesses, advertising agencies, marketing experts, economists, doctors, and researchers all have use for this data. Many go to great lengths to get it, sometimes through questionable means.

The growing value of this data raises some important questions.

Who exactly owns this data?

How do we go about treating it from a legal, fiscal, and logistical standpoint?

Is this data a form of tangible property, like land, money, or labor?

Is this something we can exchange, trade, or lease?

What is someone’s recourse if they want certain aspects of their data removed, changed, or deleted?

These are all difficult questions that don’t have easy answers. It’s getting to a point where ownership of data was an issue among candidates running for President of the United States. Chances are, as our collective data becomes more vital for major industries, the issue will only grow in importance.

At the moment, it’s difficult to determine how this issue will evolve. In the same way I had no idea how valuable that first email address would be, nobody can possibly know how the internet, society, the economy, and institutions who rely on that data will evolve. The best solution in the near term might not be the same as the best solution in the long term.

Personally, I believe that our data, which includes our email addresses, browsing habits, purchasing habits, and social media posts, should be treated as personal property. Like money, jewels, or land, it has tangible value. We should treat it as such and so should the companies that rely on it.

However, I also understand that there are complications associated with this approach. Unlike money, data isn’t something you can hold in your hand. You can’t easily hand it over to another person, nor can you claim complete ownership of it. To some extent, the data you create on the internet was done with the assistance of the sites you use and your internet service provider.

Those companies could claim some level of ownership of your data. It might even be written in the fine print of those user agreements that nobody ever reads. It’s hard to entirely argue against such a claim. After all, we couldn’t create any of this data without the aid of companies like Verizon, AT&T, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. At the same time, these companies couldn’t function, let alone profit, without our data.

It’s a difficult question to resolve. It only gets more difficult when you consider laws like the “right to be forgotten.” Many joke that the internet never forgets, but it’s no laughing matter. Peoples’ lives can be ruined, sometimes through no fault of their own. Peoples’ private photos have been hacked and shared without their permission.

In that case, your data does not at all function like property. Even if it’s yours, you can’t always control it or what someone else does with it. You can try to take control of it, but it won’t always work. Even data that was hacked and distributed illegally is still out there and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Despite those complications, I still believe that our data is still the individual’s property to some extent, regardless of what the user agreements of tech companies claim. Those companies provide the tools, but we’re the ones who use them to build something. In the same way a company that makes hammers doesn’t own the buildings they’re used to make, these companies act as the catalyst and not the byproduct.

Protecting our data, both from theft and from exploitation, is every bit as critical as protecting our homes. An intruder into our homes can do a lot of damage. In our increasingly connected world, a nefarious hacker or an unscrupulous tech company can do plenty of damage as well.

However, there’s one more critical reason why I believe individuals need to take ownership of their data. It has less to do with legal jargon and more to do with trends in technology. At some point, we will interact with the internet in ways more intimate than a keyboard and mouse. The technology behind a brain/computer interface is still in its infancy, but it exists and not just on paper.

Between companies like Neuralink and the increasing popularity of augmented reality, the way we interact with technology is bound to get more intimate/invasive. Clicks and link sharing are valuable today. Tomorrow, it could be complex thoughts and feelings. Whoever owns that stands to have a more comprehensive knowledge of the user.

I know it’s common refrain to say that knowledge is power, but when the knowledge goes beyond just our browsing and shopping habits, it’s not an unreasonable statement. As we build more and more of our lives around digital activities, our identities will become more tied to that data. No matter how large or small that portion might be, we’ll want to own it as much as we can.

It only gets more critical if we get to a point where we can fully digitize our minds, as envisioned in shows like “Altered Carbon.” At some point, our bodies are going to break down. We cannot preserve it indefinitely for the same reason we can’t preserve a piece of pizza indefinitely. However, the data that makes up our minds could be salvaged, but that opens the door to many more implications.

While that kind of technology is a long way off, I worry that if we don’t take ownership of our data today, then it’ll only get harder to do so in the future. Even before the internet, information about who we are and what we do was valuable.

This information forms a big part of our identity. If we don’t own that, then what’s to stop someone else from owning us and exploiting that to the utmost? It’s a question that has mostly distressing answers. I still don’t know how we go about staking our claim on our data, but it’s an issue worth confronting. The longerwe put it off, the harder it will get.

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Filed under Artificial Intelligence, biotechnology, Current Events, futurism, Neuralink, politics, technology

Buying My First Bitcoin: My Reason And Experience

I talk about the future a lot on this site. That’s because, in general, the future excites me. I genuinely want to see some of the emerging technologies under development manifest. From advanced artificial intelligence to hacking our own biology to sex robots, I think these developments will lead to some major upheavals in society and I want to be around to see them.

I don’t know if I’ll live long enough to see all of them, but I want to make the effort. I want to experience the future and not just speculate about it.

This brings me to Bitcoin. Now, before I go any further, let me disclose that I am not one of those hardcore, uber-libertarian Bitcoin fans who see Bitcoin as the technology that will bring down corrupt governments and banking cartels. I’m also not among those who think Bitcoin is a total scam. For this technology, I try to keep my perspective balanced.

I see Bitcoin the same way I see email. It’s basically a digital form of a tangible thing/service that we’re familiar with. Email was a supplement to regular mail. Bitcoin is simply a supplement for money. Email didn’t end all forms of regular mail. As such, I don’t see Bitcoin ending all other forms of money.

As for the technology behind it, I’m no expert, but I definitely see the value. Bitcoin, unlike other currencies, has no boarders. It has no middlemen or central authorities. It doesn’t require a big bank or some other financial institution to authorize it. All it requires is an internet connection and a smart device with an app.

Beyond the money, the technology behind it, most notably the blockchain, has some exciting applications. It promises to change the way we process, manage, and scale big data. It has the potential to create secure, decentralized operations that can’t be run from the top-down by the future Mark Zuckerbergs of the world.

Even if you think Bitcoin has no inherent value, I hope you see the value in that.

Now, I have been following news about Bitcoin since 2013. I remember the first time it became a major source of headlines. It was primarily associated with black market economies on the dark web, namely the Silk Road. That was not necessarily a good association, but that didn’t stop Bitcoin from growing considerably in both value and use.

However, I didn’t invest in it or seek to buy any Bitcoins. Some of that was mostly because it was still so new. I wasn’t sure what to make of it and I didn’t necessarily trust the early Bitcoin wallets. It also didn’t help that some of the early Bitcoin exchanges went completely bust.

I understand this era still created plenty of Bitcoin millionaires. Those people are the lucky ones. Even after 2013, I don’t think we’ll see Bitcoin create any more millionaires like that. I still watched Bitcoin with a skeptical eye. I didn’t want to buy in until I could be sure it was able to weather these upheavals.

In hindsight, I think I waited too long. At this point, I think Bitcoin has proven its worth and its utility. It’s been around for more than a decade now. If it were a bubble or a scam, it would’ve failed long ago. Even if I’m late to the party, I can safely say that I have finally joined in.

Granted, I didn’t put my whole life savings into Bitcoin. I decided to start off small and honestly, it was a lot easier than I thought.

Here’s what I did to get my first batch of Bitcoin money.

Step 1: I downloaded a basic Bitcoin wallet, namely BRD. It’s the simplest, least cumbersome wallet I could find.

Step 2: I compiled about $100 in cash. These were just a bunch of $20 bills I had in my drawer. They were actually bills I got from Christmas cards. Since I buy most of my stuff with credit cards and my phone, I really didn’t have much use for them.

Step 3: I went to a gas station up the road from my house, which had a Bitcoin ATM. I used that ATM to purchase $100 in Bitcoin. It took less than four minutes.

That’s it. That’s all I did. I didn’t have to give my bank account number to anyone. I didn’t have to give my credit card number to anyone. I just took some bills that I probably wasn’t going to spend anyways and turned it into digital currency. I have every intention of purchasing more down the line.

In terms of loose change or extra bills, I believe Bitcoin is actually better than just letting that paper money gather dust. Unlike bills, Bitcoin’s value actually has the potential to go up. That’s something paper money rarely does.

It’s a key part of Bitcoin’s legendary volatility. That sort of thing turns a lot of people off and I understand that. They don’t want to wake up one mourning and find out their money lost half its value.

However, I would counter that paper money would lose that same value, but just over a longer period of time. It’s like owning fruit. It’ll only ever rot. It’s never going to get fresher. Bitcoin is a bit more like a game of cards, but with the odds in your favor.

Sometimes the value goes up.

Sometimes the value goes down.

Overall, due to the scarce nature of Bitcoin, its value is inclined to go up.

That $100 was only going to get less valuable sitting in my drawer. At least with Bitcoin, there’s at least a possibility that $100 could be worth a lot more later this year. Compared to what inflation does to money, I’ll take those odds.

For now, I just wanted to share my experience. I genuinely believe that Bitcoin and the technology behind it is going to be a big part of our future. It may not completely replace money, but it will improve on what we’ve got.

I’ll share more stories as the year unfolds. In the meantime, I’ll leave everyone with this little anecdote.

The first known Bitcoin purchase was on May 22, 2010 when a man named Laszlo Hanyecz bought a pizza for 10,000 Bitcoins. As of this post, one Bitcoin is valued at $32,711. That means someone payed $327,110,000 for a pizza.

That must have been a damn good pizza.

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Filed under Bitcoin, Current Events, Jack Fisher's Insights, real stories

Our Future Robot Overlords Will Now Be Able To Dance (Thanks To Boston Dynamics)

As bad as last year was for so many people, there were some things that 2020 just couldn’t stop. When it comes to technology, a global crisis has a way of hindering certain processes while accelerating others. For many, that meant more telework and reliance on streaming media to stave off boredom.

However, it may very well end up being the case that 2020 proved just how frail human beings and their societies are. It only takes a tiny microscopic virus to send our entire society to a screeching halt. It’s sobering, but it’s probably going to be a source of humor for our future robot overlords.

I tend to be optimistic about the future and technological trends. I’m also somewhat of a pragmatist. I realize that we human beings have a lot of limits. Emerging technology, especially in the field of artificial intelligence, promises to help us transcend those limits.

Right now, it’s still mostly fodder for science fiction writers, futurists, and Elon Musk wannabes. We’re not quite there yet in terms of making a machine that’s as smart as a human. However, we’re probably going to get there faster than skeptics, naysayers, and the general public realize.

It won’t happen overnight. It probably won’t even happen in the span of a single year. When it does happen, though, hindsight will make it painfully obvious that the signs were there. This was bound to happen. We had ample time to prepare for it. Being fallible humans, we could only do so much.

In that sense, I suspect that years from now, we’ll look back on what Boston Dynamics did to close out 2020. This company, who has a history of making robots that look way too advanced to exist outside a Terminator movie, decided to do something with their robots that would leave an indellible mark on the year.

They succeeded by teaching their robots how to dance.

I know it already went viral, but it’s worth posting again. Remember this video and this moment. Chances are it’ll be a major indicator years from now that this is when robots began catching up to humanity in terms of capabilities. At this point, it’ sonly a matter of time before they exceed us.

When that time comes, will we be ready? Will we embrace them while they embrace us?

If they don’t, just know that they will now be able to dance on our graves.

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Filed under Artificial Intelligence, Current Events, futurism, technology

Big Tech, AI Research, And Ethics Concerns: Why We Should All Worry

In general, I root for technology and technological progress. Overall, I believe it has been a net benefit for humanity. It’s one of the major reasons why we’ve made so much progress as a global society in the past 100 years.

I’ve sung the praises of technology in the past, speculated on its potential, and highlighted individuals who have used it to save millions of lives. For the most part, I focus on the positives and encourage other people to have a less pessimistic view of technology and the change it invites.

That said, there is another side to that coin and I try not to ignore it. Like anything, technology has a dark side. It can be used to harm just as much as it can be used to hurt, if not more so. You could argue that we couldn’t have killed each other at such a staggering rate in World War II without technology.

It’s not hyperbole to say that certain technology could be the death of us all. In fact, we’ve come distressingly close to destroying ourselves before, namely with nuclear weapons. There’s no question that kind of technology is dangerous.

However, artificial intelligence could be far more dangerous than any nuclear bomb. I’ve talked about it before and I’ll likely bring it up again. This technology just has too much potential, for better and for worse.

That’s why when people who are actually researching it have concerns, we should take notice. One such individual spoke out recently, specifically someone who worked for Google, an organization with deep pockets and a keen interest in Artificial Intelligence.

According to a report from the Associated Press, a scholar named Timnit Gebru expressed serious concerns about Google’s AI research, specifically in how their operating ethics. For a company as big and powerful as Google, that’s not a trivial comment. This is what she had to say.

AP News: Google AI researcher’s exit sparks ethics, bias concerns

Prominent artificial intelligence scholar Timnit Gebru helped improve Google’s public image as a company that elevates Black computer scientists and questions harmful uses of AI technology.

But internally, Gebru, a leader in the field of AI ethics, was not shy about voicing doubts about those commitments — until she was pushed out of the company this week in a dispute over a research paper examining the societal dangers of an emerging branch of AI.

Gebru announced on Twitter she was fired. Google told employees she resigned. More than 1,200 Google employees have signed on to an open letter calling the incident “unprecedented research censorship” and faulting the company for racism and defensiveness.

The furor over Gebru’s abrupt departure is the latest incident raising questions about whether Google has strayed so far away from its original “Don’t Be Evil” motto that the company now routinely ousts employees who dare to challenge management. The exit of Gebru, who is Black, also raised further doubts about diversity and inclusion at a company where Black women account for just 1.6% of the workforce.

And it’s exposed concerns beyond Google about whether showy efforts at ethical AI — ranging from a White House executive order this week to ethics review teams set up throughout the tech industry — are of little use when their conclusions might threaten profits or national interests.

I bolded that last sentence because I think it’s the most relevant. It’s also the greatest cause for concern. I suspect Ms. Gebru is more concerned than most because the implications are clear.

When a tool as powerful as advanced AI is developed, who gets to determine how it’s used? Who gets to program the ethical framework by which it operates? Who gets to decide how the benefits are conferred and the harms are reduced?

Moreover, how do you even go about programming an AI with the right kind of ethics?

That’s a very relative question and one we can’t avoid if we’re going to keep developing this technology. I’ve tried to answer it, but I’m hardly an expert. Ms. Gebru was definitely in a better position than me or most other people with a passing interest in this field.

Then, she gets fired and starts expressing concerns publicly. The fact that she can and Google isn’t facing much in terms of repercussions should be concerning. It may also be a sign of the larger challenges we’re facing.

Google, like many other organizations researching advanced AI, is a profit-seeking tech company. They’re not some utopian technocrats. They’re a business who is obligated to make their investors happy. Advanced AI will help them do that, but what kind of consequences will that invite?

If profit is the primary motivation of an advanced AI, then what happens when it encounters a situation where profit comes at the cost of lives? There are already human-run companies that make those decision and people die because of them. An advanced AI will only make it many times worse.

Once an artificial intelligence system is as smart as a human, it’s going to be capable in ways we don’t expect and can’t control. If it’s ethics and goals aren’t aligned with us, then what’s to stop it from wiping humanity out in the name of profit?

It’s a distressing thought. It’s probably a thought that has crossed Ms. Gebru’s mind more than once. She may know how close or far we are to that point, but the fact that this is already a conflict should worry us all.

We’ve already become so numb to the greed and excesses of big business. Tech companies may conduct themselves as this team of future-building visionaries intent on making the world a better place, but the profit motive is still there. Like it or not, profit is still a hell of a motive.

Eventually, artificial intelligence will get to a point where it will either adopt our ethics or choose to formulate its own, which may or may not align with ours. When that happens, no amount of profit may be worth the risk.

Now, we’re still a ways off from an artificial intelligence system on that level, but it’s still quite possible that there are people alive today who will grow up to see it. When that time comes, we need to be damn sure these systems have solid ethical frameworks in place.

If they don’t, we really don’t stand a chance. We’re a society that still kills each other over what we think happens when we die without seeing the irony. Even a marginally advanced AI will have no issues wiping us out if we make doing so profitable.

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Vaccine Update: The Impact Of The Moderna Vaccine (Beyond COVID-19)

Sometimes, it takes a terrible global crisis to spurn huge leaps in technology. World War II was arguably the greatest crisis of the modern era, but it helps advance some of the greatest technological leaps in history. We can argue whether those advances were worth all the death and destruction, but there’s no denying that our world wouldn’t be the same without them.

The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t on the same level as World War II, but it is, by most measures, the greatest crisis the world has faced in the past 50 years. It hasn’t just caused hundreds of thousands of deaths and immeasurable amounts of suffering. It has completely disrupted this big, interconnected world that we’ve come to depend on.

We’ve all lost something in this pandemic. Beyond the loved ones who have perished, our entire sense of security and hope has been shattered. We now realize just how vulnerable we were and how inevitable this was. As bad as it is, there is some good coming out of it.

Usually, a crisis like this helps break down the barriers that divided us and hindered progress, technological or otherwise. Never before has the world been more united or engaged in a singular effort. Before 2020, we probably didn’t know much about vaccines or vaccine research. We just knew that Jenny McCarthy tried to be relevant again by protesting them.

That’s changing now. The global effort to create a vaccine for this terrible disease has been watched and agonized over for months. Most recently, we got a much-needed glimmer of hope from Pfizer, who reported that their vaccine is 90 percent effective. I celebrated this news like everyone else.

Then, we got an even greater glimmer of hope from the other vaccine front-runner by Moderna. Not only is their vaccine in the final phase of testing, like Pfizer. It’s even more effective and promises to be easier to store and distribute.

CNN: Moderna’s coronavirus vaccine is 94.5% effective, according to company data

The Moderna vaccine is 94.5% effective against coronavirus, according to early data released Monday by the company, making it the second vaccine in the United States to have a stunningly high success rate.

“These are obviously very exciting results,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease doctor. “It’s just as good as it gets — 94.5% is truly outstanding.”

Moderna heard its results on a call Sunday afternoon with members of the Data Safety and Monitoring Board, an independent panel analyzing Moderna’s clinical trial data.

This is objectively great news in a year when we’ve had precious little of it. These two vaccines may very well be the one-two punch we need to end the COVID-19 pandemic and return to some semblance of normalcy. I would still like to go to a movie theater or baseball game at some point in 2021. These vaccines may make that possible.

However, I’d like to take a moment to speculate beyond this terrible pandemic that has uprooted so many lives. I know that’s not easy to do when the crisis is still very relevant and inflicting plenty of suffering. I still think it’s worth attempting, if only to imagine the better world that emerges from this mess.

That’s because both these vaccines aren’t like your typical flu shots. For one, flu shots aren’t nearly as effective as what Pfizer and Moderna reported. According to the CDC, you’re average flu shot is between 40 and 60 percent effective. That’s still important because the flu can be deadly. Anything you do to reduce it can only further public health, in general.

The problem is the flu shot, and most vaccines like it, are based on old technology. At their most basic, they take a non-infectious or weakened strain of a pathogen and use it to amp up your body’s immunity. It’s crude, but it works. Literally nothing has saved more lives than vaccines.

The problem is that vaccines are notoriously hard to develop. They take a long time to test and an even longer time to approve. Until this pandemic, there just wasn’t much incentive to improve on that process. Now, after these past 8 months, the incentive couldn’t have been greater.

That’s what sped up the development of mRNA vaccines, the technology behind both Pfizer and Moderna. It was reported on as far back as 2018. While this technology isn’t completely new, it has never been developed beyond a certain point. There just wasn’t any incentive to do so. A global crisis changed that.

Very simply, an mRNA vaccine does one better on traditional vaccines by using RNA to develop immunity. It’s not as easy as it sounds. To develop that immunity, it has encode itself with just the right antigen. That way, the antibodies it creates can attack the desired pathogen.

In the case of COVID-19, the mRNA vaccine attacks the distinct spike protein the virus uses to attach to host cells. It’s like a missile targeting a specific individual in a large crowd by locking onto the distinct hat they wear.

This approach has the potential to be much more effective at generating immunity to a particular disease. Instead of trying to mimic a virus, it just gives the immune system the necessary software it needs to do the work. It could potentially revolutionize the way we treat and prevent diseases.

For years, certain viruses like the flu and HIV have confounded efforts to develop a vaccine. Beyond the problems I listed earlier with regards to testing, the difficulty of creating a particular immune response to a particular antigen is very difficult. These viruses mutate and change all the time. With COVID, vaccines do have an advantage because they have a distinct feature.

The challenge for future vaccines against future pandemics is quickly uncovering a particular antigen that the mRNA can be coded for. In theory, all you would have to do is find the one key antigen that’s common to every strain of the virus. While viruses like the flu are notoriously diverse, they can only change so much.

It’s akin to trying to identify an army of spies in a large crowd. They may all look different on the outside, but if they all have the same socks, then that’s what you code for. With some refinements, an mRNA vaccine can stop a pandemic in its tracks before it ever gets beyond a certain point.

That assumes we’ll continue to refine this technology after the COVID-19 pandemic has passed. I certainly hope that’s the case. This year has traumatized entire generations with how much pain and suffering it has inflicted. I sincerely hope that gives plenty of motivation to develop technology like this. That way, we never have to endure a disruption like this again.

To all those who helped develop this technology and these two vaccines, I hope you appreciate the impact you’ll make with this technology. The number of lives they could save is incalculable. Future generations may not remember your names, but they will be forever grateful for this wondrous gift you’ve given them.

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Artificial Intelligence Is Learning Law: Is Government Next?

It’s inevitable. As technology advances, certain industries are going to become obsolete. That’s why the horse-and-buggy industry is incredibly limited. It’s also why companies don’t make typewriters or LaserDisk movies anymore. Once better tech becomes available, an industry either adapts or disappears. Just ask Blockbuster.

Sometimes, it’s obvious that an industry is becoming obsolete. Again, just ask Blockbuster. As soon as something better, easier, and more convenient comes along, it’s only a matter of time before it takes over. However, it’s when things aren’t quite as obvious where more dramatic changes occur.

In terms of dramatic change, few things have the potential to generate more than artificial intelligence. I’ve highlighted that many times before, but a lot of that potential depends on advances that haven’t happened yet. They’re still likely to happen at some point, which may or may not be in my lifetime. They’re just not there yet.

That said, AI doesn’t have to become advanced on the level of Skynet or Hal 9000 to impact and/or disrupt major industries. The AI technology we have now is already having an impact. It may only be a narrow form of AI, which is AI that’s focused on performing a specific task, like playing chess. Its potential is still immense and some fields are feeling it more than others.

One industry that might feel it first is law. Now, at the risk of inspiring one too many lawyer jokes, I’m going to try and keep things general here. I’m also going to try and fit in some personal experience. I know some lawyers personally. I’ve been in law offices and I’ve seen how they work. You don’t have to be that much a visionary to understand how AI could change this industry entirely.

Recently, TechNews did a story on how artificial intelligence is learning basic legal operations and learning it quite well. Given the massive amounts of data and technicalities included in American law, a narrow AI is ideally suited to handle such tasks. However, I don’t think the piece fully grasps the implications.

TechNews: Lawyers Beware: Artificial Intelligence Is Learning Law – And Doing Frighteningly Well

AI or artificial intelligence is starting to find its footing in the legal field. The world is now on the brink of revolution in legal profession spearheaded with the extensive use of AI in the entire industry, specifically by the in-house lawyers.

Just like how email greatly changed the way people conduct their business on a daily basis, AI is also expected to become an ever-present force and an invaluable assistant to almost all lawyers.

But the million-dollar question now is, what does the future look like for AI as far as the legal industry is concerned? A much bigger question is, will AI soon replace real life lawyers?

These are not unreasonable questions. What will happen to the current legal industry if much of the legal grunt-work can be handled by an AI? What will happen to the industry when it’s no longer necessary to have a huge team of overpaid lawyers to conduct competent legal operations?

As someone who has been in his share of law offices, I can make a few educated guesses. I can easily imagine firms shrinking their office space, but expanding their operations. Most of the legal offices I’ve gone to dedicate 80 percent of their office space to storing documents and secure research material. Very little is left or necessary for the actual people doing the work.

The recent pandemic has only revealed that plenty of this work can be done form home or remotely. Some legal proceedings are even unfolding through Zoom calls, albeit with mixed results. It’s a step in that it undermines and disrupts the traditional model for handling the law. It also raises a much larger question that the TechNews article didn’t ask.

Once AI learns the law, then is learning government next?

It’s a natural progression. Governments make and administer laws. An AI that specializes in the law would also have to learn government, as well. A narrow AI might be able to process the general bureaucracy of a government, but what happens when those systems become more advanced?

I’m not just talking about a scenario where an AI becomes the government, which I’ve already speculated on. An AI that has perfect expertise in both law and government operations could have many less obvious effects. Inefficiencies that often go unnoticed in a bureaucracy are suddenly harder to overlook. Inconsistencies that rarely get fixed, due to that bureaucracy, can finally be remedied.

In theory, a sufficiently advanced AI, which need not be as intelligent as a human, could do more than just document legal and government proceedings. It could formulate new laws and policies on its own. Some may seem outrageous from a basic non-lawyer human perspective, but make perfect sense within a functioning legal system or government.

It may still seem like just another tool for lawyers to stay organized, but I think it could be more than that. If an AI makes both legal and government systems more efficient, then what will that mean for those in government? Would politicians be better able to implement their agenda if they have tools like AI at their disposal? Would that necessarily be a good thing?

This is where things get both tricky and political. No matter how confident you are in your political persuasions, the party you favor will not always be in power.

It may seem like politics is trending a certain way, but those trends change quickly. People who think their party is strong now can’t imagine a time when they’ll lose that strength. It happens regularly in any democracy.

Like it or not, your party will one day be out of power. When that happens, do you want the other party having a more efficient means of implementing their policies?

I’m sure everyone’s answer to that question will vary. What no one is certain of is how we’ll keep up with ever-improving AI systems, regardless of what industry they’re in. It’s one thing for a system to make it easier to stream movies or keep track of groceries. It’s quite another when it becomes intimately involved with our laws and our government.

The TechNews article expressed some concern, but only with respect to how it affects the current law industry. I believe AI, even if it’s focused only on law, will have a far larger impact. That’s not to say that AI will render law firms and governments obsolete.

If ever there was one domain in which foresight is critical, it’s this. Some industries can and should become obsolete. Others, like how we govern our society, need a more careful approach. We simply cannot afford our laws and our government to end up like Blockbuster.

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