Tag Archives: Identity

Clear thinking needed in the war on quackery

Predictions about the likely judgements of posterity are always grounded on the assumption that there will be a posterity, peopled with sufficient numbers of wise people as can articulate a judgement that amounts to more than simply the idle contemplations of rainbows. So on this basis, let’s assume that there is a president to follow Trump and that this wise sufficiency has so far recovered its wits as to understand the difference between a narcissistic vulgarian and the evolved political culture that enabled his ascendancy to the position, albeit temporarily, of most powerful person on the planet.

As more than just an aside on the proper definition of power, this still potent posterity will acknowledge that the greatest prince is not he who sits at the centre of the widest error. Any sustainable definition of power cannot dwell too long in reflecting on history’s sad parade of grubby psychopaths and sweaty conmen who have humbled nations with their appetites and capacity to wreak havoc, while blighting the hopes of the very multitudes that have been beguiled into supporting them.

Real power lies in the patient dedication to building good that will last, and still more in the gift of nurturing cultures that will enable that good to flourish and endure.

On that definition, Trump’s verdict before posterity would be worse than unfavourable if determined solely on what has been achieved in the first six weeks of his presidency: “worse” simply because he has grasped at every opportunity to posture as a dissembling bully and pantomime villain, rendering risible any articulation of a cultural phenomenon – society, economics, style, reasoning – to which the term “Trumpian” might be applied as a descriptor. In fact, the man’s preternatural promotion of style over substance would render the essence of any Trumpian belief system as being far more concerned with the manipulation of perception that with the discernment of reality.

At the very heart of the Trumpian con is his promise of rendering great again something that was already functioning credibly, before setting out firmly on a course of systemic degradation and desperate brinksmanship, orchestrated with bullying blusters, rants, and whines. The man seen simply as a man, as distinct from a wider belief system and enabling culture, is essentially a clown confected by that culture as a joke upon itself: in short, the deification of Everyman as Loser.

The real pantomime will be the spectacle in monitoring those who are currently colluding with that flimflammer who will surely in time feel inspired to distance themselves before posterity renders its verdict so plainly that everyone will get the point. And those of us who adhere to notions of humanity’s continuing enhancement can bolster our cognitive and political systems against the recurrence of demagogic quackery.

Open letter to PM May: Think to the future

Are you certain that you have a coherent vision for the direction of our country, and a steady hand on the tiller as we plough forward? Anyone watching the news over the past year has experienced growing dismay as key problems spin rapidly beyond the control not only of the beleaguered citizenry but also of the stewards of society whose remit for addressing society’s problems has evolved over centuries.

As a result of two triumphs of populist will over reasoned circumspection, two of the world’s most significant politicians – each one possessing a uniquely problematic mandate from their electorates – met recently in Washington DC to discuss a platform for cooperation in the future in general and, in particular, to establish the foundation for a trade deal.

One distinct difference between these politicians is that one is favoured by her upbringing within a culture that has learned, and is still learning, the enduring merits of exercising soft power over hard. The other politician is an unashamed practitioner of the coarse brutalities and darker arts of hard power.

In the course of this meeting a State Visit invitation was extended that was neither demanded of the circumstances nor consistent with long-established precedent. What has been broadly identified as a collusive and appeasing act had not even the fig leaf of pathetic and transient glistering gain. Within a week of the invitation being extended, almost two million signatures were secured here on a petition decrying that invitation, and prompted this reply from your government’s website:

“HM Government believes the President of the United States should be extended the full courtesy of a State Visit . . . HM Government recognises the strong views expressed by the many signatories of this petition, but does not support this petition . . . This invitation reflects the importance of the relationship between the United States of America and the United Kingdom.”

The “strong views” being expressed are more than emetic eruptions of dismay. They arise from millennia of reflections on the constitution of effective relationships, and what defines the “importance” of sustaining them. They reflect the lessons absorbed by people still living of more recent collisions of collusion and principle. Within a mere lifetime past we have witnessed the price to be paid for nurturing the nursery steps of autocratic egomaniacs simply because we think we can do business with them.

In a world in which “the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity”, have you reflected on the well of inspiration to be derived from a thousand years of British history? Has enough not transpired that we can sense posterity’s judgments on rulers who sacrifice hard-won ideals and long-term prosperity for unseemly grasping after the petty inducements of what glitters today?

At a time when you are on a determined course to re-define the concept of national self-possession, you might reevaluate the prospects for Britain in selling the national soul not through adherence to a grander plan or higher ideal, but to headlong slavering after association with a regime as dystopian, cognitively chaotic and mendacious as Donald Trump’s.

Intelligence does not grow in a petri dish

As there are neither agreed rules nor a generally accepted definition of intelligence, nor is there a consensus on what consequences of human or machine behaviour betokens intelligence that is either natural or artificial, it will be difficult to measure the surpassing of any point of singularity when machine intelligence matches and exceeds our own.

It may well prove to be the case that, when we think we have got there, we will have supreme exemplars on both sides of the bio/non-biological intelligence divide asking us if it any longer matters. And as our species approaches the moment of truth that may never obviously arrive, there will be a growing chorus of voices worrying if a bigger question than the definition of intelligence is the definition of the good human, when so much of what we might see as intelligence in its natural state is perverted in the course of action by the festering agency of the seven deadly sins, animated by fear and enabled by ignorance.

Given the wide range of environments within which intelligence can reveal itself, and the vast spectrum of actions and behaviours that emerge within those environments, it may be the very definition of the fool’s errand to attempt an anywhere anytime definition of intelligence itself. We can learn only so much by laboratory-based comparisons of brains and computers, for example, balancing physiological correlations in the one with mechanistic causations in the other.

Glimmerings of clarity emerge only when one intelligent agent is pitched against another in a task-oriented setting, the victory of either one being equated with some sense of intelligence superiority when all that has happened is that an explicit task orientation is better addressed when the parameters of the task can be articulated.

What appears to distinguish human intelligence in the evolutionary sense is the capability to adapt not only in the face of threats and existential fear, but in anticipation of imagined projections of all manner of dangers and terrors. We hone our intelligence in facing down multiple threats; we achieve wisdom by facing down the fear that comes with being human.

Fear is not innate to the machine but it is to us, as Franklin D Roosevelt understood. However machines progress to any singularity, humanity’s best bet lies in understanding how the conquering of fear will enhance our intelligence and our adaptive capabilities to evolve through the singularity, and beyond.

After the election: recovering from cancer and “the other stuff”

Following a newspaper feature by conservative commentator George Will, speculating that Donald Trump might serve in history as the American Republican Party’s “chemotherapy”, an oncologist writing in the online magazine Salon reminded his readers that people with experience of the various treatments available for cancer will recognise that chemotherapy is almost invariably a pretty tough gig.

The idea certainly provides for a thought-provoking metaphor, however, not least as chemo seldom does much good for the cancer’s host, while along the way it ravages the body and soul of the patient every bit as much, and sometimes more so, than it tackles the cancer itself. But perhaps the point of the metaphor is to erect the credible claim that the aftermath of the election, given something like an even modestly clear win for Clinton, will enable the GOP to survive and carry on with the bromide that it was Trump’s noxious temperament that lost it for them: but the policies themselves were sound.

This would be a false premise. Not only are the GOP’s policies, broadly considered, not sound, but they have consolidated their appeal over several decades among a now noticeably declining voter demographic largely comprising of angry and less well-educated white males. But it is not in fact the policies (on either side) that have defined the leit motif of this election as much as the degenerate, juvenile, and poisonous atmosphere that has evolved around any articulation or community discussion of those policies.

Messages have been subverted by the increasing puerility of the mediums, or media, and people have quite simply and very largely been repelled by the whole stinking and thoroughly demeaning process.

In looking beyond the result of the election to its aftermath – potential armed unrest, possible litigation from losing candidates, lingering and truly cancerous rancour eating into the body politic of Washington culture for many years to come – it is useful to stick with the chemotherapy metaphor in examining several key themes that might have attracted the media’s attention over the course of a horribly protracted campaign, but did not. For the fact remains that whatever causes a cancer exists independently of any therapy; the cancer can metastasise; and while the quality of life can become increasingly uncertain as life carries on, the patient is still obliged to “get on with other stuff” as the cancer and/or the treatment progresses.

If today’s news is telling us that “one fifth of cancer patients (in the UK) face workplace discrimination”, what will tomorrow’s news tell us about the future prospects of the American body politic given the enervating drain upon its vitality by two years of a news cycle dominated by one deeply flawed, if not downright tumorous, human being? What is the “other stuff” that the world will have to be getting on with while it deals with the aftermath of the 2016 American election: addressing not only the tumour but the conditions that caused it and the likelihood of any metastasis?

The University of Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) has a page on its website devoted to what it sees as the major risks to humanity, defined as such by their threat to the future of the human species and categorised in four broad groupings. Only one of these categories might with some generosity be seen as having been addressed over the course of the election campaign.

It would still be something of a stretch of the imagination to articulate how Donald Trump established any policy position on “Systemic risks and fragile networks”, which CSER defines as the tensions emerging between growing populations, pressures on resources and supply chains, and the technologies that are arising to address the challenges of a global eco-system increasingly defined by its interconnectedness. Trump would point out the systemic shortcomings of American trade negotiators historically unburdened by his vision and experience. As the candidate who actually possesses knowledge and experience of the nuances in balancing risk and reward in this area, Hillary Clinton at least had her views constantly at the ready whenever the media tired of asking her about her emails.

Heading the CSER list of existential risks and often cited by scientists, futurists and politicians as the greatest risk now afflicting the planet is what CSER terms “Extreme risk and the global environment” – known colloquially as climate change. Whatever the consensus among people who actually know what they are talking about, a significant proportion of the broader American public is disinclined to recognise that this problem even exists. The tools of evidence and critical thinking being largely Greek to this wider population, the American media clearly felt the whole subject to be too recondite to be engaging with the science-deniers in a language they couldn’t understand. Trump certainly couldn’t, and the media largely gave him a pass on this.

Most remarkably, the other two categories of risk on the CSER website were virtual no-go areas for both presidential campaigns and the media whose task it might have been to interrogate them if only they had the slightest inkling of the exponential pace of change that will define humanity’s progress in the coming years of the 45th president’s term of office. At some stretch, consideration of the “Risks from biology: natural and engineered” might be seen to feature in the work of Planned Parenthood and its vital work in the areas of female public health and human reproduction. But here Trump was in thrall to the fruitcake wing of the Republican party and, as this was one of the few areas in which candidate and party were in lockstep agreement, he was happy to blunder into embarrassing policy positions that were consistently and constantly undermined by Clinton’s expertise, her experience, her commitment to the cause and, finally, to simple and understandable gender solidarity.

Given the gap between the candidates on issues of female biology – not to mention the publicity given to Trump’s history of obsession with female sexuality stopping well short of the time that reproduction becomes an issue – this was possibly the area of policy discussion that has left the progressive media nonplussed that this election could ever have been run so close. In any case, the wider issues of existential risk and benefits relating to genetics, synthetic biology, global pandemics, and antibiotic resistance scarcely got a look-in over the course of the election’s somewhat onanistic “news cycle”.

Most tellingly, Artificial Intelligence hasn’t featured very much at all in this election. This is especially alarming given the final summary sentence on the CSER website section that addresses this particular area of risk: “With the level of power, autonomy, and generality of AI expected to increase in coming years and decades, forward planning and research to avoid unexpected catastrophic consequences is essential.” The silence has been deafening.

For all the speculation about what so-called Super Artificial Intelligence may mean some decades hence at the point of the “Singularity” — the thought-experimented point where machine/computer intelligence matches and then exponentially speeds past the capabilities of human intelligence — the real story now, in 2016, is almost as startling as it is inspiring.

In this year when “human” intelligence is grappling feverishly with a presidential choice between one candidate who has been careless with her email and another who is a self-professed sex pest and the most dangerous sort of conman (simultaneously large on attitude but bereft of a clue), this year alone has seen considerable advances in the capabilities of Artificial Intelligence, both for worse and for better.

The downsides include the possible misuse of private and commercial data, the increasing potential for fraud, and the threat of AI-directed/autonomous weapons systems. The upsides include faster and more efficient medical research, advances in virtual and augmented reality, safer cities through self-driving vehicles and infinitely more detailed intelligence-gathering on the workings of biology, chemistry, physics, and cosmology. In short, the wider universe is opening before our wondering eyes.

What is worrying amidst this quickening pace of AI technology is that the sort of circumspection we see articulated in media articles like this recent piece in TechCrunch is, first of all, not being reflected in wider public discussions incited by the American election. Second, there is no evidence that more frequent calls for ethical reflection on the challenges of AI might see progress in the ethical sphere keeping pace with developments in the AI science. This prompts at least three pretty obvious questions.

On the longer time horizon, as we contemplate a possible Singularity, what do we imagine that an emerging and self-conscious SuperAI might make of its human progenitor? If we have filled the intervening decades with steadfast ignoring of our existential threats, ever complacent about the real and enduring achievements of human imagination, and yet determined to elect our future leaders according to the bottom-feeding precedents suppurating forth from this week’s debasement of democracy, could any intelligence – human or “artificial” – be surprised if the post-Singularity machine should decide that man and monkey might share a cage?

In the medium-term, we might galvanise an appropriate response to the above paragraph by imagining what progress we might make over the next four years, given what has happened just over the course of 2016. Will the wise heads of 2020 be looking at that year’s American election in prospect and wondering how much more deliberation will be inspired by the questions so woefully ignored this year?

Specifically, will humanity have come to grips with the technological and ethical issues associated with the increasing pace of AI development, and craft their appreciation of that year’s slate of candidates on the basis of more intelligent policy positions on support for technology, for education in the sciences and in the absolute necessity for our species to evolve beyond its biases and primal fears in the application of critical thinking and greater circumspection as we prise open a deeper understanding of our relationship with the cosmos we look set to join?

Which brings us to the short-term question: if we are to attain the promontories of wisdom implicit in addressing those challenges of the medium term, what do we have to start doing next week, next month, and throughout 2017? If we are to overcome the toxic and cancerous experiences of 2016, what are the fundamentals among “the other stuff” that we will need to address? What must we do to ensure that 2020 finds us clear-sighted and focused on the distant Singularity as a point of possibly quantum enhancement of human potential, rather than a humiliating relegation to the monkey cage?

By no means a comprehensive wish-list, or even sufficient in themselves for guaranteeing the progress of our species to that quantum gate, these twin areas of focus are proposed as at least being necessary areas for reflection given the impact of their collective absence over these last unnecessarily anxious and ghastly 18 months.

First, keep it real: celebrate intelligence. We must not surrender to the pornography of simulation. Cyberspace has echoed with the cries of commentators decrying the ascendance of reality television over the dynamics of real life. The CBS CEO who admitted that the Trump campaign may not be good for America, but is “damn good for CBS” might prompt a useful debate on what the media are for. And he would not say it if people were not watching him, so another debate is necessary on how to encourage people to keep up with scientific progress as much as they keep up with the Kardashians. We need more public respect for science and for the primacy of evidence; and less indulgence of bias and political determinations driven by faith.

And as a sub-text to the promotion of intelligence, the organisers of presidential campaigns might reflect upon their role as custodians of the democratic process when they consider how best, and for how long, the 2020 campaign might proceed. Is an adversarial and protracted bear-baiting marathon an optimal way of revealing the candidates’ strengths and educating the public, or is it okay that it’s deemed to be damn good for the boss of CBS?

Finally, the American Republican Party is in need of a re-boot. To finish where we set out with a thought for what might be good for what ails it if trumped up chemotherapy should fail: are they clear on their voter demographic’s direction of travel for the next four years, given what’s going on in the world? This same question applies to any government that would profit from enduring xenophobia or from exploiting atavistic bias and resolute ignorance. There is only so much to be gained by gerrymandering and pandering to inchoate fears, and no credit at all in impugning any authority to which the cynical seeks election.

And there is absolutely no glory in taking countries back, or “making them great again”. Humanity reaches out, it moves forward, and looks up.

Ha ha bloody ha, AI is getting into scary

A feature on Motherboard (and available from quite a few sites on this particularly frightening day in the calendar) informs readers that “MIT is teaching AI to Scare Us”. Well that’s just great. Anyone insufficiently nervous anyway about the potential perils of AI itself, or not already rendered catatonic in anxiety over the conniptions of the American election, can go onto the specially confected Nightmare Machine website and consult a specially prepared timeline that advances from the Celtic stirrings of Hallowe’en two millennia ago to this very year in which AI-boosted “hell itself breathes out contagion to the world.”

The highlight – or murky darkfest – feature of the site is the interactive gallery of faces and places, concocted and continually refined by algorithms seeking to define the essence of scary. So much of what we sense about horror is rather like our sense of what it is that makes humour funny: it is less induced from core principles but is rather deduced from whatever succeeds in eliciting the scream of terror or laughter. It cannot be a surprise, therefore, that the Nightmare Machine mission is proving perfect for machine learning to get its artificial fangs into. Website visitors rank the images for scariness and, the theory goes, the images get scarier.

Another school of thought, reflected in articles like this piece in Salon on the creepy clown phenomenon, sees the fright not so much in what others find frightening as in what serves as a projection of our own internal terrors. The clowns and gargoyles that stalk the political landscape are to a large extent projections of ourselves: of our own deepest fears for the more empathetic among us, or as simple avenging avatars for the morally bereft or culturally dispossessed.

When AI moves beyond its current picture recognition capabilities into deeper areas of understanding our own inner fears and darkest thoughts, the ultimate fright will no longer lie in some collection of pixels. It will seep from the knowing look you get from your android doppelganger — to all intents and purposes you to the very life — as your watching friend asks, “Which you is actually you?” Your friend doesn’t know, but you know, and of course it knows . . . and it knows that you know that it knows . . .

How does consciousness evaluate itself?

If “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”, perhaps the attempt to reflect conclusively on consciousness is like the old picture of Baron Munchausen trying to pull himself out of a swamp by his own pigtail. Despite the usual carpings in the commentary whenever any serious thinking is done online (gosh, if only the author had consulted with me first . . .) an article in Aeon Magazine by cognitive robotics professor Murray Shanahan of London’s Imperial College makes some important distinctions between human consciousness and what he terms “conscious exotica”. The key question he poses is summed up in the sub-headline: “From algorithms to aliens, could humans ever understand minds that are radically unlike our own?”

It’s a great question, even without wondering how much more difficult such an understanding must be when it eludes most of us even in understanding minds very much like our own. Shanahan sets out from a premising definition of intelligence as what it is that “measures an agent’s general ability to achieve goals in a wide range of environments”, from which we can infer a definition of consciousness as what it is when the measuring agent is the agent herself.

From there, Shanahan works up a spectrum of consciousness ranging from awareness through self-awareness, to empathy for other people and on to integrated cognition, wondering along the way if the displayed symptoms of consciousness might disguise distinctions in the internal experience of consciousness between biological and non-biological beings. The jury will remain out on the latter until Super AI is upon us, but reflections on the evolution of biological consciousness prompt another thought on the process of evolution itself.

There is nothing absolute about human consciousness. We are where we are now: our ancient ancestors might have gawped uncomprehendingly at the messages in White Rabbits, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and the rest of them, but the doors that were opened by the 60s counterculture were less about means than about ends. Enhanced consciousness was shown to be possible if not downright mind-blowing. We in our time can only gawp in wondrous anticipation of what future consciousness may tell us about all manner of things, including even and possibly especially dances about architecture.

“Teach me half the gladness that thy brain must know, Such harmonious madness From my lips would flow The world should listen then, as I am listening now.” — Shelley”s To a Skylark

Rosetta, Peres and Trump: a study in contrasts

On the day that the Rosetta mission reached a deliberate and lonely climax on a distant comet, and Shimon Peres was buried in Israel, we saw the peaking of two great narrative arcs that define so much of the glory of what it means to be human. The first represents another great triumph of science with a research journey further into space than our species has ever ventured while observing in such detail as it flew. The legacy is a mountain of data for scientists to assimilate for decades to come following the last pulse of intelligence from the expired satellite itself.

The second is up there with the Mandela story: Shimon Peres, international statesman and Israeli icon, a man of peace who can bring the planet’s greatest and best to attend his funeral. But like Mandela before him, Peres shines especially as a man whose odyssey took him through violence to an understanding that there is more security and happiness in peace than there is in war. Tough getting there, tough staying there, but worth the effort – and inspiring to everyone who believes that as monkeys became human, so humans may one day become something better yet.

Rosetta and Peres, science and statesmanship, collaborate on this day to remind humanity of the benefits of evolutionary progress.

Agnotologist Donald Trump stands apart from both. He too has become an icon: not of progress and hope but of the wages of ignorance, the triumphs of fear and bias, the submission of means to ends and the subversion of truth to the primacy of the pre-ordained outcome. While he himself represents no triumph of evolution, he at least is prompting reflections on how the human mind works (or doesn’t), particularly in its possible impact on other minds.

Another Donald once bemused the world with his musings on “known knowns” – the things we know that we know. He distinguished them from things we know we don’t know, and the unknown things that remain unknown to us. In ignoring the fourth permutation – the unknown knowns — The Donald that was Rumsfeld ignored the very patron saint of ignorance.

So many things were known to Shimon Peres, and are known to contemporary science that will forever be unknown to Donald Trump. His universe of ignorance remains as bleak and alien and dead as the distant comet with which humanity has at least established a first connection.

Algorithms cannot really know you if you don’t

Count the number of times you notice stories about how the various engines of AI – the algorithms, the machine learning software burrowing ever deeper into the foibles of human behaviour – are getting “to know you better than you know yourself.” What started as variations on “You liked pepperoni pizza, here’s some more” evolved quickly into “People into pizza also love our chocolate ice cream” and on to special deals for discerning consumers of jazz, discounted National Trust membership, and deals on car insurance.

Emboldened as the human animal always is by early success, it was bound to be a small leap for the algo authors to progress beyond bemusing purchasing correlations to more immodest claims. Hence the boast of the data scientist cited in the online journal Real Life, claiming that the consumer is now being captured “as a location in taste space”.

Advocates for algorithms will smile with the rest of us at the anecdote about how the writer’s single imprudent purchase of a graphic novel inspired Amazon into morphing from the whimsy of a one-night stand into the sweating nightmarish stalker from hell; of course, they will claim that algorithms will only get better in inferring desires from behaviours, however seemingly complex.

The writer makes a very good case for doubting this, however, going into some detail on how the various dark promptings of his delight in Soviet cinema of the 1970s are unlikely to excite an algorithmic odyssey to the comedic treatments of pathological sadness in the original Bob Newhart Show.

And yet: the witty sadsack being as likely to emerge in Manhattan as in Moscow, it is not inconceivable that algorithms might evolve to a point of sifting through the frilly flotsams and whimsical whatevers of daily life in multiple dimensions of time and space, to home in on the essentially miserable git who is Everyman. But this is to assume some consistency of purpose to miserable gitness (indeed any manifestations of human behaviour), reckoning that there is no git so miserable that he ceases to know his own mind. And here, Aeon Magazine weighs in to good effect.

There are so many layerings of self and sub-self that implicit bias runs amok even when we run our self-perceptions through the interpretive filters of constantly morphing wishful thinking. So know yourself? It may be that only The Shadow Knows.

Not being a number does not make you a free man

Having listened last week to futurist Yuval Noah Harari talking at London’s Royal Society of Arts about his new book, Homo Deus, I am wondering how a conversation might go between Harari and The Prisoner. Next year will be the 50th anniversary since the iconic television series first broadcast what has become one of the catchcries of science fiction: “I am not a number: I am a free man!” Five decades on, the Guardian review of Harari’s book is sub-titled “How data will destroy human freedom”.

A fundamental difference between Harari’s hugely successful Sapiens and his new book is that the former involves reflections on how humanity has made it this far, whereas the new title is a speculation on the future. The former is rooted in memory; the latter involves conjectures that shift on the sands of uncertain definitions, as the above-linked Guardian review of Harari’s latest book reveals. “Now just hold on there” moments abound, as for example:

Evolutionary science teaches us that, in one sense, we are nothing but data-processing machines: we too are algorithms. By manipulating the data we can exercise mastery over our fate.”

Without having the peculiarities of that “one sense” explained, it is hard to absorb the meaning of words like “nothing”, “manipulating” and “mastery”. Words matter, of course, and there are perils attendant upon concluding too much about human identity through the links that are implicit in lazily assumed definitions.

What happens to the god-fearing woman when she discovers there is no God? Is the workingman bereft when there is no longer any work? If people refuse to accept the imprisonment of numbers assigned to them by other people, are they thus necessarily free? How much is freedom determined not by actions, but by thoughts? And critically: if our thinking is clearer and more careful, can we be more free?

In the Q&A that concluded the RSA event, Harari missed an opportunity when he was asked about the future prospects of education. What will we teach children in the data-driven future of Super Artificial Intelligence? Interestingly, neither maths nor sciences got a mention, and it seemed we might just have to see when the future arrives. But it must be true that a far higher standard in teaching reasoning and critical skills will be essential unless humanity would contemplate an eternal bedlam of making daisy chains and listening to Donovan.

Choose: your country back or the future now

It has been a summer of unworthy frenzies, with the forces of conservatism and pessimism crying to have their country back or made great again. On the other side, characterised by the throwbacks as themselves the champions of “Project Fear”, were those who deny that mankind is on a doomed course. More positively, more thoughtfully: they remain adherents to a belief in the powers of education, clear thinking and focused choices. Of moving forward, and not back to our future.

One of the more frequently referenced books in recent weeks has been Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future, by Cato Institute senior fellow Johan Norberg. Favourably cited by Simon Jenkins in The Guardian, and by an editorial in The Economist, Norberg’s book sets out the case for how much, and how rapidly, the world is improving – at least from the perspective of its human masters; how much the case for atavistic pessimism is fed by ignorance and greed (much of it encouraged by a complicit media); and most inspiringly, how the brightness of our future is defined by the potential in our accumulating intelligence. The Economist piece concludes:

“This book is a blast of good sense. The main reason why things tend to get better is that knowledge is cumulative and easily shared. As Mr Norberg puts it, “The most important resource is the human brain…which is pleasantly reproducible.”

By timely coincidence, intelligence both human and artificial has weighed in over the past week with positive expectations on our future. An article in MIT Technology Review is entitled “AI Wants to Be Your Bro, Not Your Foe” – possibly unsettling for those who might see either alternative as equally unsavoury, but its heart is in the right place. It reports on a Stanford University study on the social and economic implications of artificial intelligence, and the currently launching Center for Human-Compatible Intelligence at UC Berkeley. Both initiatives are cognisant of the dangers of enhanced intelligence, but inspired by the vast potential in applying it properly.

For a shot of pure-grade optimism to finish, five inspiring applications of exponential technologies that lit up the recently concluded Singularity University’s Global Summit included one called “udexter”. Artificial intelligence is being deployed to address the challenges of unemployment arising from . . . the advances of artificial intelligence. It promises to counterbalance the decline in “meaningless jobs” by unleashing the world’s creativity.