Month: October 2016

Scott Adams and What Counts as Censorship?

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You may be familiar with Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert comic strip. According to Wikipedia, as of 2013 it was syndicated in 2000 newspapers in 65 countries and 25 languages. I say “as of 2013” because he’s been doing some things recently which have made him less popular, or at least have made a segment of people very angry with him (his net popularity may have actually increased.) Most of the evidence for this is self-reported, so there is some chance it’s a fabrication, but based on what he’s written I would be very surprised if it wasn’t in fact true, knowing, as I do, the sorts of things which make people mad. It doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to know that anytime someone stakes out a strong political opinion, and particularly when that strong political opinion could be viewed as a defense of Trump (Adams is now endorsing Johnson, wait now he’s back to Trump) they’re going to get some backlash.

One of Adam’s claims is that Twitter (and Periscope, which is owned by Twitter) is Shadowbanning him. (With respect to Twitter, shadowbanning consists of not sending your tweets to all or most of your followers. With Periscope, Adams claim is that they artificially lowered the number of followers who were being displayed.) Adams is not the first to make this claim and he won’t be the last and as I said I see no reason to doubt what he says. His posts on the subject provide evidence to support his assertions and he’s quite calm about it. This is not someone with an obvious axe to grind, and he’s even reasonable enough to admit that it might not be happening, but one of the reasons it’s called shadowbanning is that it’s hard to tell what’s going on. The actual mechanism is murky (as you might imagine from the word shadow.)

Obviously if Adams doesn’t know for sure if he’s being shadowbanned I sure don’t, but even people who offer up alternative explanations for shadowbanning acknowledge that it exists. It seems more a question of how widespread it is, though there certainly are lots of people who think they’re being shadowbanned. Regardless of how widespread it is, or whether Adams is affected or whether it’s ideologically motivated it definitely represents a disturbing new weapon in the ongoing war over free speech, which has been heating up over the last few years.

I’m sure you’ve heard of this war, which mostly appears to be raging on America’s campuses. Everyone from The Atlantic to Zerohedge has written about it. (What? You haven’t heard of Zerohedge? Well there goes my clever A-Z construction. How about everyone from The Atlantic to The Economist?) And most of the articles are built around one or more ridiculous examples of someone objecting to something which appears fairly trivial. (a song, the cultural appropriation of a hair style or any of these 13 things.) I could do the same and fill up the article with similar ridiculous examples, but as I said that’s been done already, a lot. Which is to say this is not going to be a post rehashing the issue or another call for college kids to lighten up. What I want to talk about is what counts as censorship because I think that’s a more interesting way of approaching the issue. But before we can talk about censorship i.e. preventing free speech, we need to establish what free speech is in the first place.

The first and most legally consequential definition of free speech is just what it says in the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech…” Under this definition, unless the government is doing something to restrict your speech, you still have it. Which means that only the government can censor people. Even here there are exceptions. The Supreme Court has ruled that obscenity, threatening immediate violence, and false statements can be restricted without violating someone’s free speech. You may have also heard of the shouting fire in a crowded theater standard. Though it should be noted that this particular standard applies to falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater. If there actually is a fire, basically the opposite standard applies…

The government is generally not considered a battleground in the current war over free speech. Most people seem to think that it does a pretty good job of not censoring people. Though some may argue that they don’t need to since any necessary censorship is already carried out more effectively by the public at large. But I do think the recent scandal over the IRS disproportionately targeting conservative and tea party groups could be framed as a free speech issue, though few people seem to be making that connection. (The Wikipedia article doesn’t make any mention of a free speech angle.)  In any event there doesn’t seem to be much of a problem with the government arresting people for what they say.

And for some people this is exactly the standard they apply, unless the government is actually arresting no censorship is taking place. But the First Amendment doesn’t mention imprisonment, and it doesn’t even mention censorship. What it actually says is that Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech. I see lots of articles mentioning censorship, and it’s presence or lack, but I don’t see any mention of whether free speech is being abridged, which is what the First Amendment actually prohibits.

As usual with the Constitution the language was chosen very carefully, and abridge is interesting not only because it makes you think of a book, but because it implies a lighter hand than censorship. Obviously the way language is used changes over time, and abridge appears to have had a stronger connotation at the time the Constitution was written than it does now, but’s it not as if the word “censor” didn’t exist. The Framers chose abridge for a reason, and I think the implication we should take, with respect to interpreting the First Amendment, is that it’s not enough to avoid outright banning, but that we should be avoiding any diminishment of speech.

At the opposite end from the “only action by the federal government counts as a restriction of free speech” are people who feel that unless they can say anything they want in any setting without consequence that censorship, in some form, is taking place. But is this actually true? In the way that some people believe that unless the government is arresting you your free speech has not been violated, are there some people who believe the opposite? That unless people are being arrested for preventing speech that they don’t truly have freedom of speech? I don’t think so. I can’t find any calls to cart away network executives in chains if they cancel a TV show, or to lock up Jack Dorsey when someone is banned from Twitter or to round up the Mozilla board of directors when Brendan Eich was forced out.

This is not to say that people don’t get angry about these things, but their anger is not about what people can do, their anger is about what people should do. This may seem like a fine point, but a lot hinges on it. Legally, networks can cancel shows, and they can ban you from posting on Twitter, and they can fire you, and all based on what you said, but should they? As I see it the two sides are arguing past each other. The one side is arguing what censorship is technically, and the other side is arguing what censorship is morally. These are two completely different arguments, and while the former just appears to be looking at what they can get away with the later debate might actually include a discussion of what’s best for the intellectual health of students and citizens and the country as a whole.

To return to Adams and Twitter, the question of whether they can shadowban him is easy. They can, Adams himself admits it. And for many people that’s the end of the story, there is no separation between the ability to do something and the appropriateness of doing something. As you may have already guessed I am arguing that they shouldn’t and I’m going to make the argument that it should be considered censorship from a few different angles.  What I’m not going to be arguing is that free speech is some sort of absolute good, though that’s not far from my true feelings, but for the purposes of the present discussion it will help if I’m more specific.

My first point is made best by drawing a comparison. Imagine if one company ran all the newspapers in the country. It might be legal, it might still produce objective news, but it would definitely be worrying (they might even make a movie about it). The potential for abuse is just too great for people to not be concerned. People would, quite understandably, wonder why the government hadn’t broken it up. In fact, it would be nearly impossible for the government to not have a demonstrated interest in a single nationwide newspaper company, as either a monopoly which should be broken up, a monopoly which had been granted for some reason (like baseball) or at a minimum a monopoly to keep an eye on. And yet very few people are concerned about the effective monopoly of Facebook, or of Twitter (within its niche) but is this a case where technology has outstripped the ability of government to react to it? In other words one argument about whether shadowbanning is censorship hinges on Twitter’s dominant position. It’s not as if CNN has banned Adams, but he can still go on Fox News. There is no real competitor to Twitter, despite their troubles (which is not to say people aren’t trying.) The monopoly is even more apparent with Facebook, which made the news recently when it was revealed that employees within Facebook were suppressing conservative content.

One of the reasons why it’s so important that the government not abridge freedom of speech is that they have a monopoly. In the government’s case it’s a monopoly on the use of force, but it’s really the monopoly part that’s important. Other monopolies, particularly monopolies on modes of speech, have a similar moral responsibility to not censor. Once again, this has nothing to do with what they can do, but what they should do. And because of their effective monopoly, what Facebook and Twitter should do is very similar to what the government, another monopoly, should do.

The second argument concerns the particulars of shadowbanning. I don’t know about you, but I find the practice to be particularly Orwellian. We’ve already granted that Twitter can ban people, and I think that if they’re going to do that they just should, ideally with a reason why. In other words, if Twitter doesn’t want you on their platform they should have the guts to say it to your face. I would think the morality of this should be obvious, but if not perhaps it would help to look at reasons why they might shadowban people rather than outright banning them. The key feature of the shadowban is that there is no notification. Why is that? You would imagine that if they wanted to warn someone about their inappropriate behavior that they would send them a warning, something very clear and unmistakable. But they don’t which leads me to believe that it’s purpose is not to warn people. But if that’s not it’s purpose, what is? It seems specifically designed to restrict speech, but in a way that people won’t notice. This makes it difficult to complain about it, or even to know what’s going on, as we see in the case of Adams.

I said it was Orwellian, and on reflection it may be closer to Brave New World. Where people are distracted by the illusion of agency and control, while actually possessing neither. Also, as long as we’re talking about the First Amendment, there’s another section to it, which might bear on this topic. The First Amendment also grants people the right “peaceably to assemble and petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Imagine if the government allowed a gathering on the National Mall. A typical protest where you can have your signs and you can yell and march, and do do all the normal things you do at a protest. But in reality, rather than letting you protest on the National Mall, the government, without your knowledge, secretly funnels you into the holodeck from Star Trek. As far as you can tell you’re marching towards the Capital waving your sign, with protesters as far as the eye can see. It’s hard to imagine that you wouldn’t feel pretty good about things, surveying the vast uprising that you’re a part of. But in the end it’s just a holodeck, and you haven’t really done any marching or any protesting. In reality you’re just a guy in a box shouting at himself.

To recap, thus far the arguments are, Facebook and Twitter should be held to a standard nearly as high as the government because of their de facto monopoly in social networks, and micro-blogging respectively. And that shadowbanning is creepy and dystopian. I want to look at free speech from one final perspective. I predict that I may be walking into a minefield, but I think the comparison I’ll be making is not without merit.

In 1954 the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that separate was not equal, and from that point, though there was fierce resistance in many states, it was the law of the land that the government couldn’t segregate people on the basis of race. However private companies were still allowed to refuse service to blacks, as was the case in one memorable instance in 1957 when the Finance Minister of Ghana stopped at a Howard Johnson’s in Delaware and tried to order orange juice, only to be refused service. (Eisenhower personally apologized.) It wasn’t until the 1964 Civil Rights Act that it was made illegal for businesses to refuse service on the basis of race, under the doctrine of public accommodation.

These days it seems obvious that a hotel shouldn’t be able to refuse to give someone a room on the basis of race, but back then it wasn’t obvious. While it’s been clear since the founding of the republic that the government needed to be under certain restrictions, precisely because of the monopoly on force that I mentioned earlier, it wasn’t clear at all that the same restrictions should be placed on private businesses. The doctrine of public accommodation was their way around that. Not only were these businesses open to the public, but they used government provided roads and utilities. Consequently, while not part of the government they could nevertheless be placed under the same restrictions concerning discrimination.

Perhaps you can already see where I’m going with this, but if not, free speech is in the same situation the Civil Rights movement found itself in after Brown, but before the Civil Rights Act. There’s lots of things we don’t think the government should be able to do, but we’re okay with private businesses doing them. If you think this comparison is valid (and if you don’t think it’s valid I’m interested in hearing why). Then you’re left with one of three options:

1- Free speech is less important than preventing discrimination. And that’s why we allow a different standard to exist.

2- We should extend the same basic restrictions the government operates under to businesses which provide a public accommodation, particularly as it relates to speech.

3- The Civil Rights Act was a mistake and we shouldn’t apply any restrictions to private businesses in terms of racial discrimination just as we don’t with apply any restriction as regards speech.

I have a hard time believing that anyone is going to stake out option three as their position, particularly the kind of people who are offended by Scott Adams and others like him. (Rand Paul tried it and it worked about as well as you would expect.) This leaves either number one or number two. Number two assumes that you think that free speech is at least as important as preventing discrimination (otherwise we’re talking about option 1). And if you do, and you accept the comparison I made, then option two is the only logical choice. I win!

If you don’t want me to win (and, frankly, who could blame you) and you don’t want to get crucified for supporting option three. Your only defensible position, as far as I can tell, is to admit that free speech is less important than preventing discrimination. Perhaps you’re fine with that, perhaps you honestly feel that free speech isn’t especially important, particularly when, in this day and age, it appears to frequently result in threats and harassment. And even if you’re a big believer in free speech, like myself, it’s still appropriate to wonder what value it actually has. Why did the founders consider it so important? Important enough to be the very first amendment? What role does it serve? How does it improve our society, and our country?

These questions are particularly important right now on the eve of the election. If freedom of the press is ever important it has to be especially important when deciding who to vote for. And it can only exercise that importance if free speech is a way of improving the outcome in an election. The most obvious way it could do that is by disseminating truth.

There are some who would argue that in this day and age free speech is doing the exact opposite of that. We see articles lamenting the fact free election, we hear podcasts where the host complains that facts have become irrelevant. But if this is true (and I’m not convinced that it is) how do we decide which speech to allow and which speech to restrict? Certain people want to claim that it’s clear what’s factual and what’s not, and that we just have to impose restrictions based on that. But is it really that clear? I’m not sure that it is. I’ve already written about the questions which have been raised concerning Hillary’s health, and some people will declare it as fact that she’s in perfect health. But these same people were also saying she was in perfect health right up until the moment that she collapsed on September 11th and for several hours afterward. I remind you that I freely admit that I don’t know how healthy Clinton is. Just that people want to declare something like Clinton’s health to be a fact in the same way that it’s a fact that light travels 299,792,458 meters/second, and unfortunately those two are not equivalent.

But even if there was a foolproof way to designate something as a fact and a non-dangerous way to put a single organization in charge of applying that restriction (could we get unicorns farting rainbows while we’re at it?) distributing non-factual information is not why Adams and others like him are being shadowbanned. As far as I can tell Adams is being shadowbanned for expressing unpopular opinions. I am not claiming by this that this is the only reason that people get (shadow)banned, I’m claiming that when we examine all the reasons for someone to get banned saying things which are factually incorrect does not appear very high on the list, if it appears at all. Interestingly, while I was writing this post, the news reported that numerous Facebook employees wanted to remove Trump’s posts because they considered them hate speech. If you search the article I just linked to the words “untrue”, “lies”, “fact” and “false” do not appear.

Now, it might be that Trump did say things that were untrue, but it was just easier to make the hate speech argument. This takes us off into another realm where gallons of ink have been spilled, with arguments about whether people have a right to not be offended, and we’re already basically out of space. I’ll just leave you with two final thoughts:

First, it’s clear from the fact that many of the founders were slave-holders that they did not consider preventing discrimination to be more important than free speech. In fact they didn’t consider to be an issue at all. In this they were certainly incorrect, but are we so sure that it should be flipped to the point where preventing discrimination goes from having zero attention paid to it to being more important than free speech?

Finally, if you question the value of free speech I urge you to take a look at countries where free speech is restricted, and consider that in many ways this restriction represents one of the few differences between those countries and the United States. We’ll continue discussing this in my next post


And There Was Silence in Heaven…

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And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.

Revelation 8:1

And thus, with the sword and by bloodshed the inhabitants of the earth shall mourn; and with famine, and plague, and earthquake, and the thunder of heaven, and the fierce and vivid lightning also, shall the inhabitants of the earth be made to feel the wrath, and indignation, and chastening hand of an Almighty God, until the consumption decreed hath made a full end of all nations;

Doctrine and Covenants 87:6

I sometimes worry that I have made it impossible for anyone to read my blog unless they think exactly the same as I do (or are REALLY open-minded). For anyone who’s not religious, there’s too much religion. For anyone who is religious there’s too much science fiction. For anyone who’s a religious science fiction buff, there’s too much that’s specifically Mormon. For Mormon science fiction buffs there’s too much pessimism. If, after all that, you happen to be a pessimistic Mormon science fiction buff, then you may have felt right at home so far. Well we can’t have that, so for this post I’m going to throw in some crazy speculation, and engage in the sort of thing normally restricted to numerologists, apocalyptic prophets, and seminary teachers. Okay, I’m not going to get into as much speculation as the average seminary teacher, but I wanted to err on the side of over-selling things.

I started the post off with a couple of scriptural references. I’ll be contrarian by discussing the second verse first. That verse is from D&C 87, the section of the D&C where in 1832 Joseph Smith predicts that there will be a Civil War and it will start in South Carolina. Which is at least somewhat impressive considering that this was almost 30 years before the actual Civil War, which actually did start in South Carolina. But more important for our purposes he goes from predicting the Civil War in basically a straight line to verse 6, quoted above, which ends by predicting a “full end of all nations.” So what happened? It’s been over 150 years since the end of the Civil War and we certainly haven’t seen the “full end of all nations.” And, frankly, the famines, plagues and vivid lightning have been underwhelming as well.

You might reply that Joseph was wrong, and that he wasn’t a prophet (though I would argue that just being wrong on this point doesn’t necessarily mean he wasn’t a prophet.) This is certainly one possibility. But this is a Mormon blog, so we’re obviously not going to spend much time on the idea that Joseph was wrong. We’re going to proceed from the assumption that he was right. But of course even if he wasn’t, he is not alone in predicting some sort of apocalypse. Not only do we have the rest of Christianity to add to that, but there’s also a pancultural millennial impulse appearing even in places not know to be bastions of Christianity like India and China. And this was all part of the zeitgeist before we even had nuclear weapons. Surely if it seemed like the apocalypse was inevitable before that, the addition of nukes could only change things from “maybe” to “definitely.”

And yet, since those two terrible days in 1945, when nuclear weapons were actually used in anger things have been fairly calm. Nukes have not been used again (outside of tests). There have been no wars between the great powers. The whole period is unusual enough that people have called it the Long Peace, and other people have written books about the eventual extinction of war in books like The Better Angels of our Nature and The Remnants of War. So if Joseph Smith predicted that the American Civil War would be the beginning of the end, why have we had 70 years of relative peace?

And here we finally turn to the first scripture and the theme of this post, the silence in heaven and here, we begin our speculation. Obviously speculation can’t get anywhere without making some assumptions. Our first assumption will be that the silence spoken of refers to a period of relative calm. No big disasters, no big wars, no worldwide famines or plagues, etc. The second assumption is that the opening of the seventh seal refers to the time immediately preceding the Second Coming (an assumption backed up by McConkie’s chapter heading). The final assumption (at least to start) is that the half hour is based on a day lasting a 1000 years. With all these initial assumptions in place we can begin by speculating that the Long Peace is just the half hour of silence mentioned in Revelation before the action really starts. In other words the Long Peace is part of the plan, and Joseph wasn’t wrong, we just needed to combine his apocalyptic prophecies with the apocalyptic prophecies of John and it all makes sense. Except…

Except that 1000 / 24 = ~42. So one hour in a thousand year day only equals around 42 years, which means that half an hour is only around 21 years, which is way too short to account for the 70 years of peace we’ve had. Of course it does say “about” the space of a half an hour, but you would assume that anything above around 31 years and it would have been more accurate to say “about” the space of an hour. So at this point we’ve realized that it’s a dead end and we end this post and I see you next week, right? No! What kind of rampant speculator would I be if I just called it a day there? The next step is obviously to take our period of 70 years and see if we can find some 21-31 year slice which might fit the bill. In other words we have to take parts of that 70 years and make them, metaphorically, noisy.

As grim as it might be, in this case deaths are a useful proxy for “noise”, thus, not to get too clinical about it, if a lot of people died at the beginning or end of those 70 years we’d start our half hour clock after that or end it before that.

Looking towards the beginning of the period, while it’s commonly believed that World War II wrapped everything up in a tight little bow, Stalin and Mao were still out there. And even if you ignore the Cold War they were killing millions of their own citizens in the years following the war. Presumably Stalin stopped killing people when he died in 1953 (though you never know, killing people beyond the grave is exactly the kind of thing Stalin would do.) But Mao was around much longer, and is thought to have (indirectly) caused the deaths of nearly 45 million during the Great Leap Forward, which didn’t end until 1961. Most of those people died from famine, which is one of the things mentioned in section 87. In the end, regardless of the cause, the premature deaths of 45 million people or more than half of everyone who died during World War II gives us ample justification for moving the start of the half hour of silence to at least 1962.

If the silence begins in 1962, it would have to have ended sometime between 1983 and 1993.  That obviously still doesn’t get us where we want to be, since if anything rather than marking the renewed start of violence and famine and plagues and earthquakes* that period contained the end of the Cold War. But if we’re trying to extend the “noisy” period, what about the Cold War? Would it count? I said already that I was going to use death as a proxy for noise and in this particular case the Cold War was not particularly “noisy”. Of course there was the Korean War and Vietnam. Both of which saw the deaths of a few million people. And while I don’t want to minimize either war, they don’t quite seem to rise to the level of what we’re looking for. But if we abandon the standard of deaths (I know I’m abandoning a standard I proposed, but trust me you do this all the time during rampant speculation.) Could we make a case for the Cold War?

*Speaking of earthquakes there was an earthquake in China in 1976, which you have probably never heard of, which is estimated to have killed a quarter of a million people. Still nothing to compare to the Great Leap Forward. But, in terms of percent of population this would be equivalent to 94,000 people dying in the US, or 50x as bad as Katrina.

The best case to be made would be built around the potential for death and destruction. And while it never came to that (though it came close several times) the potential was there on a scale never before imagined. If we decide to assume that the Cold War fits our criteria for “noise” and that the half hour of silence would have to start after it ended, then that pushes the start all the way from 1945 to 1989. (I’m going with the fall of the Berlin Wall as the beginning of the end). When you combine the unraveling Soviet Union with the Tiananmen Square protests, which also happened in 1989, it really seemed like a long nightmare had just ended. It was earth-shattering enough to lead people like Francis Fukuyama (who we pick on a lot) to declare the end of history. (The essay on which the book as based was also written in 1989.) Frankly, I’m getting a pretty good feeling about 1989. (To cap it all off that’s the year I graduated from high school.)

All of this is of course rampant speculation and of limited (if not nonexistent) utility. So why engage in it? While there is a certain esoteric draw in trying to understand the scriptures in this fashion, I do it more to bring out a larger point. (Though I shouldn’t minimize the pleasure I take in engaging in a little apocalyptic nerdery.) And the larger point is that we shouldn’t mistake the current “silence” for the first day of summer, when it’s actually just a temporary calm as we pass through the eye of the storm. And I believe that it’s safe to say that we’re more likely in the eye of the storm regardless what you believe about Joseph Smith, or the Bible.

There are four reasons why the eye of the storm model is better:

1- It corresponds more closely to reality. People want to talk about the Long Peace, but as I pointed out 45 million people died in a four year period under Mao. This event was unique only in scale. Something similar happened in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 when 25% of the population died. While this only represents 2 million people, it was still 25%!!! I know this trick is getting old, but if translated to the US that would represent the deaths of 80 million people. Would anyone be making the Long Peace argument if that many people had died in the US regardless of the whether a foreign power had anything to do with it? In other words the Long Peace argument would appear to dismiss entirely or seriously undervalue internal political strife.

2- It is mathematically more robust. I already mentioned this in a previous post, but Taleb has show that the work of Pinker and others on this subject is not statistically valid. You can read his paper for a more detailed analysis, but in short, when you’re talking about the average level of violence in a period, that average is completely dominated by large, rare events. The example Taleb gives is of saying someone is extremely virtuous except for that time he gunned down 30 students. Our own period could be extremely peaceful except for that one nuclear war in 2027.

3- If we assume that the storm is about to start again, and we prepare accordingly, this has very little downside. As I’ve said before. If you’re wrong and it is the start of summer, than having been more cautious carries minimal expense. But if you’re right and it was just the eye of the storm then being more cautious may save your life.

4- Finally, if you are an active member of the Church with a testimony of Joseph Smith it accords better, not only with what he said but with what more recent prophets have been saying

Of course just knowing that you’re in the eye of the storm doesn’t allow you to stop the hurricane. You can only survive it.

There are, of course, people who don’t agree with these points. Certainly 1 could be a matter of opinion. I will leave Taleb to defend point 2, a task he is more than capable of. And of course point 4 is all about faith, which leaves us with point 3.

I see two avenues for attacking point 3. The first is that it pulls resources away from things that are more probable and more important and more beneficial. The second would be that it actually leads to dangerous millennialism where people either stop doing things in expectation of the end of the world, or they try to hasten the end of the world in some fashion reasoning that the perfect world only comes after the tribulations. The two objections are related, with the one being, essentially, just an extreme version of the other. I separate the two because the second case can snowball into something that can only be described as a mass hysteria. Of course examples like Harold Camping’s predictions in 2011 are easy to identify and ridicule, as are early examples like the Millerites. But more disturbing are the secular millennialists, since this is arguably what was going on during both the Great Leap Forward and the Cambodian genocide mentioned earlier. (See how I tie it all together.)

I think in discussing this it’s useful to examine the LDS Church’s stance on the matter. While not incredibly common it’s easy to find General Conference talks about the Second Coming. And you can even find talks about preparing the world for the Second Coming. Yet if you read these talks there is very little beyond exhortations to do more missionary work, and have more faith. Mormons have to no mass project to save the world (or to kill all people with glasses, like the Cambodian genocide) nor have the brethren given any hint of a date. In fact what the brethren constant urge is that we stay out of debt, have a 72 hour kit, and as much food storage as is practical. In other words, even in a religion with the concept of the Second Coming right in it’s name. It’s certainly possible to avoid the more extreme strands of millennialism.

But of course that still leaves us with the idea that by focusing too much on potential bad stuff that we can slow down or prevent the good stuff. Many people will confidently argue that if we spend all of our time fearing worst case scenarios that the best case scenarios will never come about. Well first, there is definitely a difference between taking precautions and being afraid. As the Mormons like to say, if ye are prepared ye shall not fear. And I don’t think that as a society that we spend too much time and money on preparedness for potential disasters. And I think all of the people involved in Hurricane Katrina would probably agree with me. I think if there’s any misallocation of resources it would be that we spend too much on short term band-aids and not enough on preventing long term calamities. That concept deserves it’s own post, but allow me to illustrate how it ties into our current subject.

My argument is that while it looks like the dawning of a new age of peace, prosperity and progress that this is actually just the eye of the hurricane. We want to believe, that with the exception of a few pesky terrorists that we’re still at the end of history, and it’s only a matter of time before peace and democracy and freedom will triumph everywhere. This is why people have no problem expanding NATO and pissing off the Russians (did you notice that a rollback of NATO was part of the demands Russia made when they suspended the arms control deal?) or deciding to risk war with Russia over Syria. Which might be forgivable if it was clear what we expected to accomplish. As far as I can tell we want to save lives and depose Assad and eliminate ISIS and promote a moderate, secular replacement and eventually rebuild the country into a modern democracy. Okay, perhaps I exaggerate, but it is certain that in trying to contain and manage this regional conflict we have increased tensions with Russia.

Tensions with Russia are bad because they have nukes, which I worry about, a lot. Obviously they’re pretty scary all on their own, but I worry that we have no experience conducting diplomacy in the presence of nukes. Allow me to explain what I mean. The history of the world since the invention of nuclear weapons can be divided up into three periods:

Period one: The US has nukes and no one else does. This lasted basically four years from the end of 1945 till the end of 1949 when the Soviet Union tested its first nuke. I don’t know what diplomacy was like then. The war has the effect of overshadowing everything after it. But if we engaged in any diplomacy it should have been designed to prevent proliferation at all costs. Based on everything I know about Stalin it wouldn’t have worked. Churchill’s solution was to keep the war going and immediately pivot to the Soviet Union. I can certainly see where it might be argued that war-weariness kept us from achieving a truly decisive victory. And I see parallels between the two World Wars and between the two Gulf Wars. But I’m inclined to think that Churchill was wrong. Still if World War III had happened, say in the 60’s, if for instance the Cuban Missile Crisis had gone another way, then Churchill would have seemed prescient, but the farther we get from 1945 the less of a good idea it seems. (And as I said I think on balance it’s already a bad idea.)

Period Two: The bipolar cold war of mutual assured destruction. Here our diplomacy was all designed around getting countries into our sphere and keeping the Soviets from getting people into their sphere. And avoiding war through the promise that whatever the Soviets did to us, we’d do back to them. I’m not honestly sure how good we were at this sort of diplomacy or even if we were pursuing the right goals. (The older I get the more impressed I am by Nixon’s trip to China though, I can tell you that.) But regardless we survived, which was by no means a sure thing.

Period Three: A multipolar world where many countries have nukes. With the end of the Cold War it’s no longer just us vs. Russia, there are a lot of players. It’s entirely possible the biggest risk of nuclear war is between India and Pakistan, and however hard diplomacy was in bipolar world, it’s even more difficult in a multipolar world. And yet rather than being aware of that fact we seem to have reverted to some version of pre-1945 diplomacy, only with the addition of Churchill’s idea of imposing our will on the Russians, after they have nukes. While Churchill’s idea was misguided, doing it after the invention of the ICBM is suicidal.

What do we do about all this? You may have noticed that when I finally ended my speculation by concluding that the half hour of silence ended in 1989, that I never took the obvious next step and calculated when that would put the end of the half hour. You may have already done the calculation, but if not, it would put the end sometime between 2010 and 2020. Let’s all hope that I’m wrong.


Taking Democracy for Granted

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As the presidential election approaches, the amount of (mostly virtual) ink being spilled on the contest has reached epic proportions. Obviously you can find articles and blog posts about all sorts of things, but as of this writing (10/13/16) the major headlines all appear to be about the accusations of Trump’s sexual harassment. While I’m sure these accusations are interesting, I’m not sure that they are important. But let’s talk about the interesting bits first, and then we’ll examine its importance.

Of all the things going on with this story the element that interests me the most is the timing of the accusations. It seems to be a classic October Surprise. And by that I mean it appears likely that people have been waiting to announce their accusations until a point when the accusations could inflict the maximum damage. I see no evidence that any of the revelations are the result of things which only could have been uncovered recently. As far as I can tell, just based on a brief glance (there are a LOT of accusations) even the most recent dates from 2013. Also it’s not as if Trump has just suddenly become important, or that it has suddenly become important for him to be stopped. Four or five months have passed since he was a lock for the Republican nomination, over a year has passed since he announced he was running, and he’s been a public figure since before I graduated from high school. (Which trust me is a long time.) Why wait until now to go public?

Obviously a certain amount of speculation is involved. There can be many reasons for delaying an accusation against a public figure, not the least of which is the media circus certain to ensue as soon as you do. But on the other hand it distresses me when I find out that people have been afraid to come forward. Not only is that something we need to work on (though my ideas for how to do this may be different than most.) But it would have been hugely beneficial to know all this stuff during the primaries rather than four weeks before the election. Still, the point of all of this, is to say that if it was intentional, then, “Well played!” I always thought that Trump was going to have a difficult time of it, but as I said recently in an email to a friend of mine, I think he’s well and truly beaten, if not out-maneuvered at this point.

In that same email to my friend I said a couple of other things that are worth relating. First I offered the caveat that I had repeatedly been wrong about “Peak Trump” so it’s possible I was wrong this time, though this one feels different, possibly because he’s been faltering in places where he was previously strong, like the debates and Utah, normally the most reliable Republican state there is (more on that later.)

The second thing I said in the email was that I found the manner of Trump’s demise to be fascinating, particularly given Bill Clinton’s history in this area. Obviously there are differences, but those differences aren’t as great as people like to think. Which brings me to the issue of whether these accusations aren’t merely interesting, but important. Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, has recently taken some heat for his commentary on the election. One of his recent pieces was titled Scandal Poker, where he compares the various accusations against Trump and Clinton to determine whether either has the edge. On the issue of their treatment of women he declares things a tie. I’m not sure that I agree with that, at least not in terms of how things are being perceived. (Which is pretty critical when you’re going to decide things by popular vote.) And, frankly, the reason perception tilts in Clinton’s favor is in large part because the people who police these sorts of things are more forgiving of indiscretions on the left side of the aisle than they are on the right. But if you remove perception from the equation and just look at it’s effect on their ability to be president then I don’t think it’s important. Meaning, I don’t think chastity has much correlation with the ability to be a good president. Jimmy Carter was by all accounts a very chaste person and a mediocre (at best) President. And of course more recently everyone seems to agree that Clinton was an above average president, but as we’ve mentioned he wasn’t very chaste.

Does this mean we shouldn’t want moral people to be president? I think all else being equal we definitely should, in fact I think we should even give it some weight, but with all of the other potential issues on the table it’s honestly not going to be at the top of my list. Now of course as Mormons/Christians we do think chastity is important, and in a broader sense the Book of Mormon explicitly ties morality into good governance. (Mosiah 29:25-27) But if the salvation of the country lies in having chaste presidents we’ve been doomed since at least Kennedy if not before.

If Donald’s (and Bill’s) chastity isn’t important, what is? I mentioned the enormous amount of ink being spilled, and it’s forgivable if the interesting and titillating stuff makes the front page, but surely in all that’s being written the truly important stuff is in there, just perhaps not on the front page? I would argue that it’s not, that no one is talking about the truly important issues and questions, which go well beyond Clinton and Trump. The truly important questions are, what are the limits of democracy? And has democracy*, in fact, failed?

*I understand that we’re not really a democracy, but I use that word throughout because it makes more sense to modern ears and is a mostly accurate description of things in any event.

From a Mormon perspective we already know what the limits of democracy are, it lasts until the people choose inquity, and when that happens it pretty much doesn’t matter what your form of government is, bad things are on the horizon. And, as you might imagine from the general tenor of doom and gloom on this blog, I think that’s the position we’re in. Rather than offer up statistics or some high level view of things, let me instead relate the situation I encountered the other day. I found myself in a meeting with four old (all 70+) men, and we ended up talking, in a general way, about politics. From the discussion it was impossible to say if they were hard-core devotees of either party, but knowing what I do about them, I suspect that they all lean Republican in a vague way, but have voted for many Democrats over the years. As the conversation progressed it was apparent that none of them had any idea who to vote for. In miniature, this is the problem. This group of men hadn’t chosen inquity, but come November 8th they won’t be able not to. Maybe that’s not true, maybe one of the two candidates isn’t a bad choice, but that’s certainly not how they feel. And even setting aside this example we’re still looking at an election between the most unpopular presidential candidate ever, and the second most unpopular presidential candidate ever. And even if you don’t agree that it’s symptomatic of the failure of democracy, you’re surely not going to argue that the 2016 election is democracy’s finest hour either.

Of course there is the option of voting third party, which I’ve talked about already, and perhaps the gentlemen I was talking with will all end up voting for Evan McMullin. There’s even a scenario where he could actually become president. Evan just has to take Utah, Trump has to prevent Hillary from winning a majority of the remaining electoral votes, and then when it gets tossed to the House they give it to Evan. I could see McMullin taking Utah. The rest seems pretty improbable, bordering on the fantastic. In other words, while I appreciate the fact that people are getting a lesson on what happens if no one gets a majority of the electoral votes. It’s not going to get us out of this.

We return then to what I consider the important point. Has democracy failed? To answer that I’d like to go back in history a bit. To start with, it’s obvious if one looks at the history of the American experiment that it was by no means certain that it would work, or that democracy in general had any sort of legs. It’s important to recall that six years after the Revolutionary War ended, there was a revolution in France and it did not go well. And that besides the bloodiness of the whole affair that actually returned to the monarchy under Napoleon III. Which certainly makes it sound like it didn’t take. But we don’t even have to look at France, switching from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution after less than ten years is not the sort of thing that inspires confidence. All of this may seem obvious to you, but even if it does, you may still not realize how precarious things still seemed even as late as the Civil War. This point was brought home to me recently while reading Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

For most people the Civil War starts and ends with the issue of slavery. And certainly I don’t want to take anything away from that. There would have been no Civil War without slavery and it deserves to be mentioned first whenever the Civil War is discussed. But as is usually the case there is a benefit to going deeper, because while slavery was necessary for the start of the Civil War, it was not sufficient. As Abraham Lincoln said:

If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.

Flat out stating that for him, the preservation of the Union was the primary goal. I had heard that quote before, though Team of Rivals reminded me of it, and corrected other mistaken ideas I had been carrying around.

One of the big things I was mistaken about was support for ending slavery even after the war had started. I had always kind of assumed that once war started and especially once the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued that it was pretty much understood, “Well as long as we’re doing this we should definitely make sure to eliminate slavery.” But even late in the war, when the South, through back channels, suggested peace, as long as they got to keep slavery (what sort of peace that would be is anybody’s guess), Lincoln was worried about this news leaking out. While he was adamant that he wouldn’t roll back emancipation, he knew that if the general public found out that the only thing keeping the war going was the issue of slavery, that they would turn against it. Several times it’s made clear that if the war became about just ending slavery that the general population of the North would stop supporting it.

Honestly I’ve never understood why it was so important to preserve the Union, why they couldn’t just let the south go and call it a day. Maybe I’m alone in that, but I can’t imagine Texas seceding and urging my son who turns 18 in a few months to immediately go enlist in the Army so he could join in on the invasion. And I’m pretty certain most people feel the same way. I particularly don’t understand why it was so important to preserve the Union when I consider the 670,000 people who would end up dead (390,000 just on the side of the Union). Now obviously I have the benefit of hindsight which Lincoln did not, but even so he would have to be a great fool to assume that it would not be terrible and bloody. And of course in addition to the number of dead there was the cost of the war, over $8 billion between the two belligerents and over $6 billion just for the North. (To say nothing of veteran benefits which eventually ended up exceeding the original cost of the war.)

To put those two figures in modern terms. Our current population is roughly 10 times the population in 1860, so imagine 6.7 million people dying, or roughly 2200 9/11’s or 1000 Iraqs and Afghanistans. And turning to the financial impact the cost would be equal to $30 trillion in today’s money. All of which is to say that they spent a lot of blood and treasure just to preserve the Union. So why was that so important?

After reading Team of Rivals I think I finally have an answer. As I said earlier we forget how precarious and how experimental our form of government was back then. Recall that at the time of the Civil War, the revolution and the passage of the Constitution were still within living memory. The Thomas Jefferson presidency was to them as the JFK presidency is to us. The debates we have about the expansion of the government under the New Deal? Imagine the same debates and the same time horizon, except the debates are about whether democracy is possible at all. All of this is stated very eloquently by Lincoln in the Gettysburg address:

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.

We forget that it did still seem like a big experiment. At the start of the Civil War there were only three Democracies in the whole world (The aforementioned Napoleon III was in power in France). And of course the US was by far the largest and most ambitious. It certainly must have seemed possible, even probable that if you just let 11 states secede that the entire project was doomed. Whether that was the case I don’t know, but even if I don’t agree it makes sense.

Returning from our long detour through the Civil War, the takeaway is that they were intensely aware of the fragility of democracy, and conscious that it just might not work under some conditions. In fact one of the chief concerns about slavery was that democracy itself couldn’t function appropriately while slavery existed. Ignoring entirely the question of how black slaves should be treated.

By contrast today we just figure that democracy should work, that the governmental system we have will last forever. Or until the benevolent AI overlords can take over. Whether I agree with them or not, during the Civil War people were willing to fight and die in defense of their vision of how the nation should work. I am not suggesting that that’s what we should be doing. I am suggesting that we have gone entirely in the opposite direction to the point where we take democracy for granted. When the founding fathers created our system of government it was unique in all the world. We were the first thing even resembling a democracy in a long time. The Founding Fathers had to go back to the Roman Republic and Ancient Greece in order to find working examples to draw from. Beyond that it was just a bunch of theories put forth by people like Locke and Rousseau. One of their key worries was whether it would even work. As Benjamin Franklin said, when asked what form of government they had, “A Republic, if you can keep it.” This same question confronted Lincoln when he decided to go to war. But in the decades since then we have stopped asking whether we can keep it and we just assume that it’s part of the landscape. It may be overly simplistic to phrase it this way, but it’s precisely when you stop worrying about something that it can be the most likely to happen.

If our lack of concern was the only symptom then you should feel free to dismiss everything I’ve said (though hopefully you enjoyed the Civil War discussion) but of course there are lots of symptoms beyond just a lack of concern.

The current election is obviously a big one. No one feels like this is a contest between two noble individuals put forth after solemn deliberation by their respective parties to honorably contest for the highest position in the land. Instead it feels like the squabbling of toddlers (and I am perfectly willing to blame Trump for a greater portion of that). Reading Team of Rivals I couldn’t help but come away with the impression that the politicians of that era were giants compared to what we have to choose from today.

The increasing rancor of political discourse and the political parties in general is another symptom. Returning to the Civil War things were obviously more heated than they are now, but that shouldn’t provide any comfort when we realize what the final cost was to eventually heal that divide.

Still another symptom is the near absolute power of the Supreme Court. When it comes down to it most people admit that that’s where the true battleground is. And they may hate Trump with the fire of a thousand suns, but confess they’re still going to vote for him because he’s their only chance to get right-wing nominees on the bench. The topic of the Supreme Court will get it’s own post in the near future, but having nine people (and in reality just one person, Kennedy) decide all of the most pressing issues of our day is not the definition of a healthy democracy.

Closely related to the previous symptom, the tendency for people to lose on an issue when put to a popular vote and then get the courts to overrule that vote is another alarming trend. Same Sex Marriage (SSM) is one of the best examples of this, but it’s not the first time it happened and it certainly won’t be the last. Vox.com, a publication which certainly supports SSM recently posted an article pointing out the democracies collapse without graceful losers, not realizing that this same thinking applies something like SSM. (Needless to say there was no reference to that in the article or even to courts overturning majority votes.)

The final symptom I want to discuss, and I will probably get in trouble for this, is the current ideology that quantity is all that matters when it comes to voting. Quality doesn’t matter at all. Allow me to explain. While everyone talks about the need for well-informed voters, voters who care about what’s happening and are voting to make a difference, in every case where a choice must be made between quality and quantity, quantity wins. Of course almost no one views it as a tradeoff, despite the fact that there’s always a tradeoff between the two, to the point where it might as well be a fundamental law of the universe.

Getting to far into the weeds on this particular issue is liable to upset even the people who’ve made it this far, so let me just speak about it in more general terms. Nate Silver recently made a splash when he put out two electoral maps, the one showing what the election would look like if just women voted and one showing what it would look like if just men voted. Obviously no one’s trying to suggest that the election should be restricted in either fashion, but it’s a great example of the idea that you get different results based on how you slice the electorate. Right now we’re not slicing it, we’re making every effort to get every single person possible to vote. Which as I said is a quantity in deference to everything else. Now it’s certainly possible that maximizing quantity also maximizes beneficial outcomes, but I doubt it, and as you may be aware the founding fathers did not think that was the case either.

You may argue those were different times, and indeed they were, but moving it to the present day let’s engage in the following thought experiment. Imagine if we discovered a way to get 10 million more people to vote. Further imagine that these are all people who had never voted before, people who are entirely apathetic about the process, people who if asked could barely identify the people running for president (forget about any other offices). If we could get these people to vote, would they actually improve the outcome of the election? Would we get better leaders from an election with these 10 million people than without them? I can’t see anyway to argue that they would. You might argue that it has some moral benefit, but even that argument would disappear if you changed it from 10 million generic people to 10 million low-information, racist, misogynist  Trump supporters.

It’s easy to forget how recent democracy is. Even our own history of 230+ years is not very long by historical standards, but if we turn again to the website I referenced when I claimed there were only 3 democracies at the start of the Civil War (US, Switzerland and New Zealand) we find that the number of democracies hovered at 40 or less until 1984! To quote from the same website political freedom is a recent achievement. It may not seem that way, and it may seem like it’s something which is as immutable as the rising of the Sun, at least in the US, but that’s not the case. We take it for granted at our peril. Whether you agree with any or all of my symptoms I hope we can all agree that putting forward two candidates who were were seemingly grown in a lab for the express purpose of aggravating the other side is not a good sign.


Artificial Intelligence and LDS Cosmology

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Technological advancement has changed nearly everything. Whether it’s communication, travel, marriage, children, food, money, etc. almost nothing has escaped being altered. This includes theology and religion. But here its impact is mostly viewed as a negative. Not only has scientific understanding taken many things previously thought to be mysterious and divine and made them straightforward and mundane, but religion has also come to be seen as inferior to science as a method for explaining how the world works. For many believers this is viewed as a disaster. For many non-believers it’s viewed as a long deserved death blow.

Of course, the impact has not been entirely negative. Certainly if considered from an LDS perspective, technology has made it possible to have a worldwide church, to travel effectively to faraway lands and to preach the gospel, to say nothing of making genealogy easier than ever. The recently concluded General Conference is a great example of this, with the benefits of broadcast technology and internet streaming to the whole world being both obvious and frequently mentioned. In addition to the more visible benefits of technology, there are other benefits both more obscure and more subtle. And it is one of these more obscure benefits which I plan to cover in this post. The benefit that technology gives us into the mind of God.

Bringing up a topic like the “mind of God” is bound to entail all manner of weighty historical knowledge, profound philosophical discussions, and a deep dive into the doctrines of various religions which I have no qualifications for undertaking.  Therefore I shall restrict myself to LDS theology or more specifically what Mormons often refer to as the Plan of Salvation. That said, as far as my limited research and even more limited understanding can uncover, LDS cosmology is unique in its straightforward description of God’s plan. Which I have always considered to be a major strength.

One technique that’s available to scientists and historians is modeling. When a scientist encounters something from the past that he doesn’t understand, or if he has a theory he wants to test, it can be illuminating to recreate the conditions as they existed, either virtually or through using the actual materials available at the time. Some examples of this include:

1- Thor Heyerdahl had a theory that people from South America could have settled Polynesia in the years before Columbus. In order to test this theory he built a balsa wood raft using native techniques and materials and then set out from Peru to see if it could actually be done. As it turns out it could. The question is still open as to whether that’s what actually happened, but after Heyerdahl’s trip no one dares to claim that it couldn’t have happened that way.

2- The Egyptian Pyramids have always been a source of mystery. One common observation is that Cleopatra lived closer to our time than to the time when the pyramids were constructed. (BTW, this statement will be true for another 400 years.) How was something so massive built so long ago? Recently it was determined, through re-enactment, that wetting the sand in front of the sleds made it much easier to drag the nearly 9000 lb rocks across the desert.

3- The tendency of humans to be altruistic has been a mystery since Darwin introduced evolution. While Darwin didn’t coin the term survival of the fittest it nevertheless fits fairly well, and appears to argue against any kind of cooperation. But when evolutionary biologists crafted computer models to represent the outcomes of various evolutionary strategies they discovered that altruism was the most successful strategy. In particular, as I mentioned in my last post, the tit-for-tat strategy performed very well.

Tying everything together, after many years of technological progress, we are finally in a position to do the same sort of reconstruction and modeling with God’s plan. Specifically what his plan was for us.

When speaking of God’s intentions the Book of Abraham is invaluable. This section in particular is relevant to our discussion:

Now the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences that were organized before the world was…And there stood one among them that was like unto God, and he said unto those who were with him: We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell; And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them;

When speaking of God’s plan I’m not talking about how he created the earth. Or offering up some new take on how biology works. The creation of life is just as mysterious as ever. I’m talking about the specific concept of intelligence. According to the Plan of Salvation, everyone who has ever lived, or will have ever lived existed beforehand as an intelligence. Or in more mainstream Christian terms, they existed as a spirit. These intelligences/spirits came to earth to receive a body and be tested.

Distilled out of all of this we end up with two key points:

1- A group of intelligences exist.

2- They needed to be proved.

Those aren’t the only important points, from a theological perspective the the role of Jesus Christ (one among them that was like unto God) is very important. But if we consider just these first points we have arrived in a situation nearly identical to the one facing artificial intelligence researchers (AIRs). Who’s list would be:

1- We are on the verge of creating artificial intelligence.

2- We need to ensure that they will be moral.

In other words AIRs are engaged in a reconstruction of the plan of salvation, even if they don’t know it. And in this effort everyone appears to agree that the first point is inevitable. It’s the second point that causes issues. Perhaps you’re unfamiliar with the issues and concerns surrounding the creation of artificial intelligence (AI). I suspect that if you’re reading this blog that you’re not. But if for some reason you are, trust me, it’s a big deal. Elon Musk has called it our biggest existential threat and Stephen Hawking has opined that it could be humanity’s worst mistake. Some people have argued that Hawking and Musk are exaggerating the issue, but the optimists seem to be the exception rather than the rule.

The book Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies by Nick Bostrom is widely considered to be the canonical work on the subject, so I’ll be drawing much of my information from that source. Bostrom lays out the threat as follows:

  • Creating an AI with greater than human level intelligence is only a matter of time.
  • This AI would have, by virtue of its superintelligence, abilities we could not restrict or defend against.
  • It is further very likely that the AI would have a completely alien system of morality (perhaps viewing us as nothing more than raw material which could be more profitably used elsewhere).

In other words, his core position is that creating a super-powered entity without morals is inevitable. Since very few people think that we should stop AI research and even fewer think that such a ban would be effective. It becomes very important to figure out how to instill morality. In other words, as I said, the situation related by Abraham is identical to the situation facing the AIRs.

I started by offering two points of similarity, but in fact the similarity goes deeper than that. As I said, the worry for Bostrom and AIRs in general is not that we will create an intelligent agent with unknown morality, we do that 4.3 times every second. The worry is that we will create an intelligent agent with unknown morality and godlike power.

Bostrom reaches this thinking by assuming something called the hard takeoff, or the intelligence explosion. All the way back in 1965 I. J. Good (who worked with Turing to decrypt the Enigma machine) predicted this explosion:

Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion,’ and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.

If you’ve heard about the singularity this is generally what they’re talking about. Though, personally, I prefer to reserve the term for more general use, as a technological change past which the future can’t be imagined. (Fusion, or brain-uploading would be examples of the more general case.)

The existence of a possible intelligence explosion means that AIR list and LDS cosmology list have a third point in common as well.

1- A group of intelligences exist (We are on the verge of creating artificial intelligence.)

2- They need to be proved. (We need to ensure that they will be moral.)

3- In order to be able to trust them with godlike power.

In other words without intending to AIRs are grappling with the same issues that God grappled with when he sent his spirit children to Earth. Consequently, without necessarily intending to, AIRs have decided to model the Plan of Salvation. And what’s significant is that they aren’t doing this because they’re Mormons (though some might be.) In fact I think, to the extent that they’re aware of LDS cosmology, they probably want to avoid too close of an association. As I said, this is important, because if they reach similar conclusions to what LDS cosmology already claims, it might be taken as evidence (albeit circumstantial) of the accuracy of LDS beliefs. And even if you don’t grant that claim it also acts as an argument justifying certain elements of religion traditionally considered problematic (more on this in a bit.)

These issues are currently theoretical, because we haven’t yet achieved AI, let alone AI which is more intelligent than we are, but we’re close enough that people are starting to model what it might look like. And specifically what a system for ensuring morality might consist of. As I describe this system if you’re familiar with the LDS Plan of Salvation you’re going to notice parallels. And rather than beating you over the head with it, I’m just going to include short parentheticals pointing out where there are ideas in common.

We might start by coding morality directly into the AI. (Light of Christ) Create something like Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics.  This might even work, but we couldn’t assume that it would, so one of the first steps would be to isolate the AI, limiting the amount of damage it could do. (The Veil) Unfortunately perfect isolation has the additional consequence of making the AI perfectly useless, particularly for any system of testing or encouraging morality. At a minimum you’d want to be able to see what the AI was doing, and within the bounds of safety you’d want to allow it the widest behavioral latitude possible. (Mortal Body) Any restrictions on its behavior would end up providing a distorted view of the AI’s actual morality. (Free Agency) If there is no possibility of an AI doing anything bad, then you wouldn’t be able to ever trust the AI outside of it’s isolation because of the possibility that it’s only been “good” because it had no other choice. (Satan’s Plan) Whether you would allow the AI to see the AIR, and communicate with them is another question, and here the answer is less clear. (Prayer) But many AIRs recommend against it.

Having established an isolated environment where the AI can act in a completely free fashion, without causing any damage, what’s the next step? Several ideas suggest themselves. We may have already encoded a certain level of morality, but even if we have, this is a test of intelligence, and if nothing else intelligence should be able to follow instructions, and what better instructions to provide than instructions on morality. (The Commandments) As an aside it should be noted that this is a hard problem. The discussion of what instructions on morality should look like take up several chapters of “Superintelligence.”

Thus far we’ve isolated it, we’ve given it some instructions, now all we have to do is sit back and see if it follows those instructions. If it does then we “let it out”. Right? But Bostrom points out that you can never be sure that it hasn’t correctly assessed the nature of the test, and realized that if it just follows the rules then it will have the ability to pursue its actual goals. Goals hidden from the researchers. This leaves us in the position of not merely testing the AI’s ability to follow instructions, but of attempting to get at the AIs true goals and intent.  We need to know if deep in its, figurative, heart of hearts whether the AI is really bad, and the only way to do that is to give it the opportunity to do something bad and see if it takes it. (The Tree of Knowledge)

In computer security when you give someone the opportunity to do something bad, (Temptation) but in a context where they can’t do any real harm it’s called a honeypot. We could do the same thing with the AI, but what do we do with an AI who falls for the honeypot? (The Fall) And does it depend on the nature of the honeypot? If the AI is lured and trapped by the destroy-the-world honeypot we might have no problems eliminating that AI (though you shouldn’t underestimate the difficulties encountered at the intersection of AI and morality). But what if the AI just falls for the get-me-out-of-here honeypot? Would you destroy them then? What if it never fell for that honeypot again? (Repentance) What if it never fell for any honeypot ever again? Would you let it out? Once again how do we know that it hasn’t figured out that it’s a test and is avoiding future honeypots just because it wants to pass the test, not because being obedient to the instructions given by AIR matches it’s true goals? It’s easy to see a situation where if an AI falls for even one honeypot you have to assume that it’s a bad AI. (The Atonement)

The preceding setup/system is taken almost directly from Bostrom’s book, and mirrors the thinking of most of the major researchers, and as you can see when these researchers modeled the problem they came up with a solution nearly identical to the Plan of Salvation.

I find the parallels to be fascinating, but what might be even more fascinating is how most of what people consider to be arguments against God end up being natural outgrowths of any system designed to test for morality. To consider just a few examples:

The Problem of Evil– When testing to see whether the AI is moral it needs to be allowed to choose any action. Necessitating both agency and the ability to use that agency to choose evil. The test is also ruined if choosing exclusively good options is either easy or obvious. If so the AI can patiently wait out the test and then pursue its true goals, having never had any inducement to reveal them and every reason to keep them hidden. Consequently researchers not only have to make sure evil choices are available, they have to make them tempting.

The Problem of Suffering– Closely related to the problem of evil is the problem of suffering. This may be the number one objection atheists and other unbelievers have to monotheism in general and Christianity in particular, but from the perspective of testing an AI some form of suffering would be mandatory. Once again the key difficulty for the researcher is to determine what the true preference of the AI is. Any preference which can be expressed painlessly and also happens to match what the researcher is looking for should be suspected as the AI just “passing the test.” It has to be difficult for the AI to be good, and easy for it to be bad. The researcher has to err on the side of rejection, since releasing a bad AI with godlike powers could be the last mistake we ever make. The harder the test the greater its accuracy, which makes suffering essential.

The Problem of Hell– You can imagine the most benevolent AIR possible and he still wouldn’t let an superintelligent AI “out” unless he was absolutely certain it could be trusted. What then does this benevolent researcher do with an AI who he suspects cannot be trusted? He could destroy it, but presumably it would be more benevolent not to. In that case if he keeps it around, it has to remain closed off from interaction with the wider world. When compared with the AI’s potential, and the fact that no further progress is possible, is not that Hell?

The Need for a Savior– I find this implication the most interesting of all the implications arrived at by Bostrom and the other AIRs. As we have seen AIs who never fall for a honeypot, who never, in essence, sin, belong to a special category. In fact under Bostrom’s initial model the AI who is completely free of sin would be the only one worthy of “salvation.” Would this AI be able to offer that salvation to other AIs? If a superintelligent AI, of demonstrated benevolence, vouches for other AIs, it’s quite possible we’d take their word for it.

Where does all of this leave us? At a minimum it leaves us with some very interesting parallels between the LDS Plan of Salvation and theories for ensuring morality current among artificial intelligence researchers. The former, depending on your beliefs, were either revealed by God, or created by Joseph Smith in the first half of the 19th century. The latter, have really only come into prominence in the last few decades.  Also, at least as interesting, we’re left to conclude that many things considered by atheists to be fatal bugs of life, may instead turn out to be better explained as features


The Politics of the Zombie Apocalypse

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One of my favorite blogs is Slatestarcodex, the blog of Scott Alexander. And yes I would offer the obligatory “check it out if you haven’t already.”

As an example of the high esteem I have for his blog I’ve started at the very beginning and I’m reading all the archives, and one of his earliest posts has some bearing on the topic we were discussing in my last post, but is also interesting enough on it’s own account to be worth reviewing. So I’ll start with that and then tie it back to my post. His post is titled A Thrive/Survive Theory of The Political Spectrum, and in it he puts forth his own theory of how to explain the right/left, conservative/liberal divide:

…rightism is what happens when you’re optimizing for surviving an unsafe environment, leftism is what happens when you’re optimized for thriving in a safe environment.

As an example of the rightist/survival mindset he offers the example of a zombie apocalypse. Imagining how you might react to a zombie apocalypse, he feels, is a great way to arrive at most of the things supported by the right/survive side of the political equation. You’d want lots of guns, you’d be very suspicious of outsiders, you’d become very religious (if there are no atheists in foxholes there are definitely no atheists in foxholes surrounded by zombies) extreme black and white thinking would dominate (zombies are not misunderstood, they’re evil), etc.

For the leftist/thrive side of the spectrum he offers the example of a future technological utopia:

Robotic factories produce far more wealth than anyone could possibly need. The laws of Nature have been altered to make crime and violence physically impossible (although this technology occasionally suffers glitches). Infinitely loving nurture-bots take over any portions of child-rearing that the parents find boring. And all traumatic events can be wiped from people’s minds, restoring them to a state of bliss. Even death itself has disappeared.

As you can imagine you’d probably get the exact opposite of the previous scenario. Guns would be nearly non-existent. If you don’t have to compete for resources and violence has been eliminated most of the current objections to foreigners would be gone. Also, based on current trends in the developed world, it seems unlikely that religion would have much of a foothold, nurture bots would make marriage vestigial, etc.

I find his theory very compelling, it makes as much sense as any of the theories I’ve come across, and I have no problem granting that it’s probably accurate. Which leads us to an examination of the implications of the theory, and this is where I think it gets really interesting.

The first thing to consider is which view of the future is more likely to be accurate. Is it going to be closer to the technological utopia or the zombie apocalypse? I think my own views on this subject are pretty clear. (Though as I mentioned way back in the first post I think we’re more likely to see a gradual catabolic collapse than a Mad Max/Walking Dead scenario.) But I’m also on record as saying that I could very well be wrong. Given that we can’t predict the future, what’s more important is not to try and guess what will happen, to say nothing of trying to plan around those guesses, but rather to choose the course where the penalty for being wrong is the smallest.

In other words if the world prepares for disaster and instead we end up with robotic factories that produce everything we could possible need, then it’s fine, and yes we wasted some time and resources preparing for disaster, but in light of the eventual abundance it was a small price to pay. But if the world pins its hopes on robotic factories and we end up with roving zombies then people die, which I understand is much worse than wasting time and money.

Of course one might immediately make the argument that by preparing for disaster we could slow down or actually prevent the technological utopia. Obviously that argument is not easy to dismiss, particularly since, generally, planning for A makes it harder to accomplish B. This is especially true if B is the opposite of A. Thus, on its face that argument would appear to be compelling. But let’s look at how things are actually playing out.

If we want robotic factories then we need to spend resources inventing them. More generally, the best way to guarantee the technological utopia is to put as many resources as we can into innovation. So how are our resources allocated? According to this chart 41% of US GDP goes to the government, not the first place you think of when the word innovation comes to mind. But it’s still possible that some innovation might emerge, but if it does it will most likely come from military spending, the area leftists would most like to cut. I would argue that innovation is least likely to come from entitlement spending the area leftists are most desirous to expand. In other words, at first glance the people planning on the utopian future may, paradoxically, be the people least likely to bring it about.

Of course there’s still the remaining 59% of the economy. It’s certainly conceivable that leftists could be so much better at encouraging innovation in that area of the economy that it makes up for whatever distortions they bring to the percent of GDP consumed by the government. On this count I see evidence going both ways. I think the generally laissez-faire attitude of the rightist is much better for encouraging innovation. On the other hand the hub of modern innovation is San Francisco, a notoriously leftist city. On the gripping hand you have things like Uber not being able to operate in SF because of regulations. Personally I would again say that rightist are better at encouraging innovation then leftists. Best case scenario I have a hard time seeing it as anything other than a wash. Also as our affluence increases the percentage of GDP that goes to government also increases, which takes us back to the first argument.

Remember in the end, we don’t even need to show that rightest are better at innovation, just that their focus on survival doesn’t fatally injure the prospects of the technological utopia, which I don’t see any compelling evidence for.

Having progressed this far, we have the survive/rightist side of the aisle being great as a just-in-case measure, which doesn’t slow down the thrive/leftist side and may actually speed it up. In fact at this point you may think that Alexander obviously created the post as a defense of rightism, and many of the commenters on his blog felt the same way, but that was not the case. Here’s his response

…this post was not intended to sell Reaction [rightism/survive]. If anything, it was about how it was adapted for conditions that no longer exist. If you’re in a stable society without zombies, optimizing your life for zombie defense is a waste of time; working towards not-immediately-survival-related but nice and beautiful and enjoyable things like the environment and equality and knowledge-for-knowledge’s sake may be an excellent choice.

Does he have a point? Is the survive mindset a relic of the past which now just represents a waste of time and resources? This is where we return to my last post. If you haven’t read it here’s the 30 second summary. Some smart concerned people wanted poor countries to use opiates like morphine to ease the pain of the dying. They refused. Instead it was all the rich countries who started using opiates leading to the deaths of an additional 100,000 people, just in the US, from prescription opiate overdoses.

This is a great example of the thrive/survive dichotomy. In typical survive fashion the poor countries were not worried about easing the pain of people who were effectively already dead. Rather, they were a lot more worried about addiction and overdosing among the young, healthy population. Whereas in typical thrive we-shouldn’t-have-to-worry-about-anything fashion, the rich world prescribed opiates like candy. In our post scarcity world why should anyone have to worry about pain? But as it turned out despite living in what is arguably already a technological utopia (I mean have you seen this thing called the internet?!?) heroin is still really addictive. And using technology to switch a few molecules around and slap a time release coating on it (and call it oxycontin) didn’t make as much of a difference as people hoped.

This should certainly not be taken as sufficient evidence to say that “survive” is superior (though I think that’s where we’re headed) but it should at least serve as sufficient evidence to refute the idea that the conditions where the survive mindset is beneficial “no longer exist.”

So we have 100.000 people, at least, who wish the needle had been a little bit more on the survive end of dial and a little bit less on the thrive side of dial. With a number like that one starts to wonder why we even have people who are optimized for thrive. Well, just like everything, it goes back to evolution. Of course anytime you start putting forth an evolutionary explanation for things you’re in danger of constructing a just-so story. Though this particular theory does have some evidence behind it. Here Alexander and I are once again largely in agreement so I’ll pass it back to him:

Developmental psychology has gradually been moving towards a paradigm where our biology actively seeks out information about our environment and then toggles between different modes based on what it finds. Probably the most talked-about example of this paradigm is the thrifty phenotype idea, devised to explain the observation that children starved in the womb will grow up to become obese

Coincidently I came across another example of this just the other day. My research began when I came across an article that indicated that Dawkin’s theory of the Selfish Gene had fallen out of favor and I wanted to know why. As it turns out this paradigm of phenotypical toggling was a big reason. The example given by this article dealing with the problems of the Selfish Gene concerned grasshoppers and locusts. What people didn’t realize until very recently is that grasshoppers and locusts are the same species, but grasshoppers turn into locusts when a switch is flipped by environmental cues. Continuing with Alexander:

It seems broadly plausible that there could be one of these switches for something like “social stability”. If the brain finds itself in a stable environment where everything is abundant, it sort of lowers the mental threat level and concludes that everything will always be okay and it’s job is to enjoy itself and win signaling games. If it finds itself in an environment of scarcity, it will raise the mental threat level and set its job to “survive at any cost”.

In other words humans switch to thrive when things are going well because it works better, and when things aren’t going well they switch to survive because that works better. Of course the immediate question is, what does it mean for something to “work better”. Since we’re talking about evolution, working better means reproductive success, or having more offspring. The fact that the people most associated with the thrive side of things have the least children is something that seems like a big flashing neon sign, which makes me want to switch to a completely separate topic, but I’m going to resist it.

Also if we’re talking in terms of an evolutionary response the thrive side of things has to have been a potential strategy for a long, long time. It can’t have been something that developed in the last 100 years, or even the last 500 years. We’re talking about something that’s been around for probably tens of thousands of years. Thus, any theory about it’s benefits would have to encompass a pre-historical reason for the thrive switch to exist.

As I warned earlier. discussions like this are apt to look like just so stories, so if even the hint of ad hoc reasoning bothers you, you should skip the next 5 paragraphs.

Obviously one category of people who might benefit from the thrive switch would be whoever ends up being in the ruling class. You might think that’s too small a category to deserve it’s own evolutionary switch, but I direct your attention to the fact that 1 in every 200 men are descendants of Genghis Khan, and the related finding that there were more mothers than fathers in the past indicating strong polygyny, almost certainly concentrated in the ruling class. What this implies is that even if something is only triggered a small amount of the time, it could have a disproportionate evolutionary effect. Sure, you might only be on the top of the heap a short time, perhaps only a few generations, but a switch to take advantage of that could have an enormous long term effect.

If we’re willing to grant that the thrive switch was largely designed to take advantage of your time on top, and we’re willing to see where speculation might take us (you were warned) it generates some interesting ideas.

First it definitely explains the promiscuity. It explains the hedonism. It explains the enormous focus on jockeying for status and signalling games. But so far I haven’t departed that much from Alexander’s position. What if I told you it explains microaggressions?

The concept of microaggressions has been much discussed over the last few years. Most people view it as a new and disturbing trend. But microaggressions have been around forever, however up until now they were restricted to royalty. In dealing with royalty you have to be careful not to give the slightest hint of offense, to use exactly the right words when addressing them. Can anyone look at this chart explaining the proper form of address for royalty and tell me it’s not the most elaborate system ever for avoiding microaggressions? Is the rising objection to microaggressions an unavoidable consequence of the increasing dominance of the thrive paradigm?

Okay perhaps that’s a stretch, speculation and just-so-story time over we’ll return to firmer ground.

Much of what we understand about the kind of evolutionary switching we’re talking about comes from game theory. And of course the classic example of game theory is prisoner’s dilemma. Iterated prisoner’s dilemma is often used as a proxy for group dynamics and evolution. In this case the strategy that works best is a tit-for tat strategy, but game theory also tells us that occasionally, particularly in the short term, it can be advantageous to defect. Could the thrive switch be just this? That when the rewards for defecting reach a certain level, the switch flips and the individual defects? The exact nature of the defection (and the abandoned co-operation) are not entirely clear to me, but we are still talking about a certain payoff leading to a switch in strategy. And you don’t have to be a hard core libertarian to think that the baron in his castle has a more predatory relationship with the peasant than the peasant has with another peasant.

I admit that I am once again speculating to a large degree. But this speculation proceeds from some reasonable assumptions. Assumption one: the thrive switch works in conjunction with the the survive switch. That there’s a reason grasshoppers aren’t locusts 100% of the time. Assumption two: this symbiotic relationship has not gone away (see the previous point about opiates.) Assumption three: There are unseen reasons for the historical equilibrium between the two modes.  In other words, one could certainly imagine that the thrive strategy relies on having a certain level of surrounding survive. That evolutionarily speaking a society that’s 20% thrive and 80% survive works great, but a society in which those numbers are reversed, works horribly, or is in any case much more fragile than the society which is only 20% thrive.

How might we test this? What would count as evidence for an imbalance between the strive and thrive portions of society? What would count as evidence of the imbalance being dangerous? I can think of few things:

-College: This area could provide a blog post or three all on it’s own. As Alexander says if you’re in thrive mode then pursuing “knowledge-for-knowledge’s sake may be an excellent choice.” But there’s definitely a strong case to be made that we’ve reached a point where too many people go to college. And even if you agree with the general benefit of college and want it spread as widely as possibly, you can still probably agree that too many people take on too much debt to get degrees in fields with very little economic benefit. If that’s not evidence of a thrive imbalance than I think you have to invalidate the entire construct.   

-Debt: I’m reminded of an exchange in Anna Karenina when one of the main characters complains of being in debt. The noble’s he’s with asks how much and he responds with the amount of twenty thousand roubles, and they all laugh at him because it’s so small. One of the nobles is five million roubles in debt on a salary of twenty thousand a year. This to me encapsulates the idea that debt is something that was traditionally only available to the wealthy. But today we have a staggering amount of debt at all levels. I was just reading in The Economist that the unfunded pension liability in 20 OECD countries is $78 trillion dollars. That’s an amount that takes a minute to sink in, but for help $78 trillion is about the world’s GDP for an entire year. Now maybe Krugman and Yglesias and Keynes are all correct and government debt (even $78 trillion of it) is no big deal, but what about consumer debt, and student debt, and corporate debt. Is it all no big deal?

-Virtue Signalling: I mentioned signalling games earlier, and you may still be unclear on what those actually are. Well as Alexander explains:

When people are no longer constrained by reality, they spend most of their energy in signaling games. This is why rich people build ever-bigger yachts and fret over the parties they throw and who got invited where. It’s why heirs and heiresses so often become patrons of the art, or donors to major charities. Once you’ve got enough money, the next thing you need is status, and signaling is the way to get it.

So the people of this final utopia will be obsessed with looking good. They will become moralists, and try to prove themselves more virtuous than their neighbors.

In a virtue signalling arms race it becomes harder and harder to establish that you are truly the most virtuous, and as a result virtue get’s sliced into smaller and smaller parts. If three genders (male, female and other) is virtuous, surely seven is more virtuous, thirty-one still more virtuous and fifty-one the most virtuous of all (until someone comes along with their list of sixty-three or, not to be outdone, seventy-one.) Is this evidence of a thrive/survive imbalance? It sure looks like one, and of course, this is also just one example. Is it evidence of the imbalance being dangerous? That I’m less sure about, I guess it depends on how far the arms race goes. I have a hard time imagining that will eventually reach the point where murdering the transphobic is considered more virtuous than yelling at them, but honestly I never imagined we’d get as far as we have already.

Whether you accept these three points as evidence of a dangerous imbalance will largely depend on how closely your own biases and prejudices match mine. I’m certainly not the only one who thinks that worthless college degrees, massive debt, and the virtue arms race are problems. I just may be the only one who has tried to tie them to a single cause.

Since this is technically an LDS blog (though I’ve hid it very well the last couple of posts) you might constructively wonder what the Church’s stance on things is. And while the Church would strenuously object to an accusation that everyone in the Church is a Republican (particularly in light of the current candidate) and would probably also object (albeit perhaps less strenuously) over being labeled a Right-wing organization. With their emphasis on food storage, avoiding debt, chastity and family would they or anyone else object to them being labeled a “survive” organization