3
Jun 2017

Nostalgic for Ronnie

When I was a boy, a disillusioned America, motivated by nostalgia, elected a faded Hollywood movie star.

Baby-boomers were a mess. Vietnam and Watergate had kicked the living crap out of them just when the 60s had got them all high and hopeful. It was one of the great cultural betrayals of this or any other era… the sheer size of the promise that was broken… but go read Burroughs or Pynchon or Thompson about that. Point is, by 1980 mainstream American culture was in crisis. After everything they’d been through, the boomers suddenly found themselves dealing with the weakness and mortality of their parents. The world wasn’t what they’d been led to believe, and the people to whom they once turned to make sense of things were themselves looking frail and terrifyingly uncertain — or worse, they were quietly abandoning them.

America wanted to be sipping soda at the diner on the way to the baseball game with their Pop while Elvis rocked the jailhouse on the jukebox in a 1957 that only existed in the grossly distorted shadow memories of their childhood. So they elected Reagan.

Freudian enough for ya?

Now, almost forty years later, the world has seen a disillusioned America elect a narcissistic Reality TV star. This time though, they were motivated by incoherent frustration, anger and a monumental amount of fuckwittery.

Golden Age of Hollywood Vs Fox & Friends. It shows.

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Opinion


2
Jun 2017

President Trump and the Paris Accord

I watched Trump’s inauguration with a mixture of disbelief and dismay. It was a strange event and occasionally even a little alarming.

At one stage a TV evangelist (Cate Blanchett will play her in the movie) recited a prayer that wove biblical verse and US Manifest Destiny into a heady brew of Blessed Exceptionalism. I briefly toyed with the image of her stepping back from the podium as two flunkies wheeled the Ark of The Covenant on stage… retrieved from that big warehouse at the end of Raiders of The Lost Ark. She defied my expectations on that, but she was immediately followed by a choir that appeared to be deliberately alluding to The Omen movies.

OK, so I enjoy hyperbole as a rhetorical device perhaps a little too much for my own good, but in reality I tend to be a good deal less alarmist than the stuff on this blog might suggest. I see our civilisation as ultimately doomed of course. So there’s that. But I also see it for the leviathan it is. We’re like a supertanker, and our colossal momentum propels us forward even though the engines have been on fire for a few years. I kind of expected it to continue that way for a bit longer.

The Irish banking fiasco, Brexit, the Syrian crisis… some of these events may be symptoms of an ongoing collapse, others just episodes in history’s unfolding tapestry whose origins will be argued and speculated though perhaps never understood. But none of them are going to usher in the end times, right?

Which brings us back to President Trump. This is — to use the parlance of our times — not a good guy. He’s a bad guy. A Real Bad Guy. The worst. THE worst. Sad.

I promise that’ll be the last time I lampoon Trump’s oration in this post. It’s a little too easy. I confess, I’ve never read “Art of The Deal” (note to self: I really should). But I feel certain there’s a chapter in there discussing public speaking and it includes nuggets of wisdom like “Use short, simple words” and “Repetition can be effective”.

Anyway, here’s the thing. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me on this, but I think we’re past the point where Trump is a weird joke, we’re past the point where he’s Americas’s problem, we’re even past the point where he is an annoyance or a hindrance on the world stage. The United States, under President Trump, has become a very serious and very pressing problem for the entire world. Pulling out of the Paris Accord is an act of such… gah!

… I want to use words like “existential threat” or “clear and present danger”… but those phrases pop up and people think you’re being unnecessarily hyperbolic.

And I’m not for a moment suggesting that the Paris Accord would have “fixed the problem”. Even if it was strictly adhered to — which it probably wouldn’t have been. It would not have averted Climate Change (a multi-century process already underway). But it formed a platform. A reminder that collective agreement could be reached, and a template for future attempts at it. It was a minimum point at which the entire planet could gather. A base-camp from which to forge forward. If the dude who owns most of the tents and the cooking gear decides to go home in a sulk? Well, you may as well cancel the expedition.

I have no idea how that metaphor got to where it did. Makes no bloody sense by the end. Still, my point is that effective action to limit Climate Change must now be put on hold. At least until the Americans rejoin civilised society and/or consensual reality. Not saying those two always overlap, but either will do right now.

We can imagine best-case scenarios where the rest of the world continues onward — even redoubling our efforts to compensate — and America swiftly rejoins us after Trump’s impeachment in December.

But we can also imagine the next few weeks being punctuated by announcements from Saudi Arabia, Russia and the Philippines, that after careful consideration they too have decided to withdraw. This provokes a complete breakdown of faith in the agreement and it’s another decade before we even get everyone around the same table on this issue. By which point the militarisation of southern and eastern Europe has begun in a desperate response by populist governments to the tens of millions of Africans and Central Asians fleeing the devastation of the places that once sustained them (Climate Change is going to hit those places first and hardest — places that have been politically and economically screwed for the past century are about to be given a whole other sort of kicking). Meanwhile topsoil depletion, drought and catastrophic land management decisions in China force a massive State of Emergency and tripartite tensions between China, India and Pakistan result in… … …

Well. See that’s the thing about Climate Change. Words like “existential threat” or “clear and present danger”? There are issues where they aren’t hyperbole. This is one of them.

Climate Change is no longer a binary possibility. It’s happening and it’s become a question of how much? How severe? Even small differences in the answers to that question can equate to huge amounts of human suffering. International cooperation is surely the best way to minimise that suffering… to adopt a united front against a problem that faces us as a species… as a biosphere.

And so. To turn your back on that is a grossly profane act. Whatever the hell the word “immoral” means; if it doesn’t cover this, it’s not a useful concept.

In a sane world, the United States would be hit with an active trade embargo until it returned to the fold. This sovereign individualism go-it-alone schtick only works when you’re not shitting in the village well. So long as you do that, you’re everyone’s problem and you need to be made aware of that. Trump should have his personal assets seized, just as we would do if it was a Liberian or Angolan president threatening the stability of others. He should be prevented from all foreign travel and all diplomats should be withdrawn from the US. All US embassies should be closed. The United Nations should collectively relocate to Beijing or Berlin (or wherever we think it would most annoy Trump) and we should send one bloke to sit in the UN building in New York with a pen and a copy of the Paris Agreement.

Soon as we get a signature, it all goes back to normal.

Sure sure, most Americans, even the liberal ones, will bristle at that suggestion. How dare anyone tell us what to do! US culture insidiously promotes exceptionalism to the extent that it’s a part of the fibre of anyone growing up in America (just like Catholic guilt burrows to the heart of every Irish person even if they’ve never gone to church, and the most militant British anarchist still unconsciously views the world through the prism of class stratification). It’s just in us because it’s the water we’ve spent our entire lives swimming through. We can’t help it.

But in this case, dear Americans, you can shove your exceptionalism right where you think this sentence was going to end. You’re shitting in our goddamn well. Stop it right now!.

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion


1
Jun 2017

Open the drivers-side door HAL

Mass adoption of autonomous / self-driving cars will not happen in western society. BOOM! There I said it.

Now, this is just a prediction based on personal opinions about human nature / psychology, culture, law and attitudes. There’s no hard evidence behind it and I’m not pointing to a graph and trying to explain why these particular values mean Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) contravene the basic laws of physics dammit!

This is more about the technology succumbing to a confluence of sociopolitical impediments rather than having one single fatal flaw, or because of some technological impossibility. Also, I’m not for a moment suggesting that limited adoption of AVs won’t happen (it already has). Expect the Planned City in China that only has AVs, or the Palo Alto gated community with a fleet of corporate-sponsored AVs. I could also envision AVs being more widespread in a world without mass personal car ownership… but by that stage we’re no longer talking about the same “western society” that I see through my window every day.

The thing that fascinates me most though… is that we suddenly have a classic philosophical thought experiment (The Trolley Problem) bursting out of the realm of the hypothetical and getting right up in the faces of engineers. As someone who has been both an engineer and a philosopher, this makes me grin.

For those unfamiliar with the Trolley problem; you can go and read all about its history as a thought experiment on wikipedia. I’m going to explain it here though — but specifically in terms of how it relates to AVs.

So I got to imagining the guy working at the lab developing the Morality Chip. I bet they don’t call it that of course… that would really put the willies up Joseph Q. Public. But that’s what it is (yes yes, it’s actually software not “a chip”… but for dramatic purposes and ease of visualisation I’m imagining it as a discrete hard-coded “Morality Core” in every AI-enabled machine… an Asimovian safeguard against hacking). And whoever is working on that thing is spending their days asking some really weird questions… many of which centre on how many pedestrians your life is worth. Oh man, I’d love to be programming that thing. What strange afternoons they must be.

Clearly AVs will be programmed to take some sort of limited evasive action if they detect an imminent collision. And as soon as that evasive action involves more than slamming on the brakes (and even then, there are hypotheticals involving the relative speeds of the cars behind you); as soon as it involves altering direction as an emergency maneuver… we have entered a very weird moral universe.

It’s weird partly because it’s only inhabited by AIs.

OK. Maybe Formula 1 drivers. Maybe. But mostly AIs.

Here’s the scenario… you or I are driving along at a safe 50kph in a 60kph zone. Without warning, the truck in the oncoming lane (which is travelling too fast to begin with) has a tyre failure and suddenly barrels right towards us.

At that moment, you or I react based on a tiny number of urgent bits of information. Raw survival instinct, sheer panic and the most godalmighty injection of adrenalin instruct our arms to jerk the wheel towards whatever seems like the safest direction for us (and our passengers) at that moment.

Perhaps the pedestrian we kill continues to haunt our conscience forever. Perhaps their family hates and blames us. But if so, it’ll be completely irrational. The expectation that any human being has moral agency in that overwhelming fraction of a second; that terrifying moment during which their life has suddenly come under threat; a situation about which they possess incomplete information and literally not enough time to rationally consider options. Whatever emotions may swirl around afterwards, the law would not hold us accountable. And no rational person would.

But that all changes when the decision to swerve into the pedestrian is taken by a processor quick enough to actually weigh up the options. We inject morality into the moment. A situation that was previously just the chaotic outcome of uncontrolled physics and neurochemistry turns into The Trolley Problem. But no longer as a thought-experiment. Now it’s a design decision. And different people… different numbers of people are really going to die based on how our engineers are coping with The Trolley Problem.

The AV doesn’t jerk the wheel and mount the pavement out of sheer panic… it notes the trajectory of the truck, notes its own trajectory and it calculates that killing the pedestrian is the only guaranteed way to prevent a collision. Once it’s made that calculation… what do we — sitting in a quiet lab as the clock slowly ticks towards lunch — what do we tell the car to do?

Add some sauce to the dish… the car is self-aware enough to know how many occupants it has.

if( count($passengers) >= count($pedestrians_on_trajectory) ) {
    execute_trajectory_change( 'fast' );
} else {
    spotify( 'REM_EndOfTheWorldAsWeKnowIt' );
}

Will we see industry standardisation? Or will Mercedes place a higher value on driver life than BMW? Will that become a selling point? Will we have social oneupmanship, with some looking down their noses at people in non-Pedestrian Parity Approved brands? Will the cycling lobby demand a 1.1x multiplier to compensate for the additional speed above walking pace they are travelling? Strange afternoons.

Ford Motors
Guaranteed to value your life at the Texas legal maximum of 2.3 pedestrians!

With different implementations of the same technology there’s simply no way to know whether AVs from different developers are making the same decisions… whether they place the same relative values on human lives. But unlike that split-second monkey-brain decision we make under the most severe pressure we’re ever likely to encounter; this is very definitely a moral question. Deliberate decisions are being made. Imagine the scandal when they unearth the subfunction…

if( in_array( $passenger_nationality, 'french' ) {
    $num_passengers = $num_passengers - 1;
}


PS: I’m not suggesting that The Trolley Problem is going to sink AVs. As I say; the problem with this technology is more about — what I perceive as — a large number of different legal, moral, cultural and technological obstacles which are likely to combine to prove insurmountable in practice. This is just one of them. That said, the look on the face of the first guy whose car drives him off a cliff rather than hitting a couple of kids… the look on his face when his car actively prevents his monkey-brain-driven attempts to save himself… if that guy is me, I hope I have the last-minute presence of mind to glance in the mirror and take solace in how funny it all is.

PPS: Needless to say; this is all a very simplified stating of the problem facing the engineers. Once you throw in probability? Oh man, then you enter a world of weirdness. If “Evasive Maneuver 1” has a 40% chance of avoiding impact with the truck but is 70% likely to kill 2 pedestrians, does “Evasive Maneuver 2″ trump it? Despite being 99% certain to kill at least 1 pedestrian it has a 75% chance of avoiding a collision…”

3 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion