Tuesday, 27 December 2016

On "Arrival"

Summary: beautifully shot, thought-provoking nonsense that's worth watching. High marks for imagination, but can't we have a science fiction movie that is imaginative, thought-provoking and stays logical for the entire duration?

Some spoiler-laden complaints follow...

The arrow of time is not a Sapir-Whorf phenomenon.

No-one builds high technology without acquiring the same basic mathematics we have.

There aren't indestructible substances that we can't figure out anything about.

Presented with a technology that controls gravity, you'd have scientists and their equipment jam-packed around it monitoring and experimenting 24-7 for years.

We don't need to worry about how to communicate with alien visitors. They'd learn our languages with ease and talk to us if and only if they want to.

I hope in real life the USA would put together a decent-sized science team instead of relying on a couple of quirky individuals.

Why would Louise tell Ian about their daughter's future if she knew he'd leave?

What happens if Louise tries to prevent what she forsees? Maybe this is connected to the previous question.

It was a nice change to have a leading couple in which the man was the superfluous accessory/love interest.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

October rr Talk Online

I should have put this up earlier, but my rr talk at Google in October is online. It's similar to previous rr talks I've given, but towards the end I talk more about future directions for debugging.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Disemploy The Middle/Upper Class

Machines will increasingly disrupt human employment. I wrote about this a few years ago, and I stand by what I wrote; it's hard to see a future where most humans are still employable.

The most obvious humane solution would be to tax the machine-owners heavily and redistribute the money as some kind of guaranteed income. This would require major attitude changes across the political spectrum. A post-work future has other issues too, like how to replace work as a source of self-worth. We need to have serious discussions and plans, but we don't. One reason is that the burden will fall initially on mostly lower-income people, because their jobs have tended to be easier to automate; I and my middle/upper-class peers feel safe continuing to reap the benefits of the automated society for a while yet.

Slowing down economically-motivated technological progress is hard, but directing investments to accelerate it in selected areas is not hard. So I say socially-conscious technologists and investors should focus on disrupting the employment of the middle and upper classes. When lawyers, accountants and middle managers are losing their jobs en masse along with poorer people, we are much more likely to see equitable solutions.

Some Comments On "Sapiens"

Over the weekend I read Sapiens, by Yuval Harari. It's a good read even if you've already read a lot of pop-science/history, telling a history of the human race with emphasis on "revolutions" --- "cognitive", "agricultural", "industrial", etc. Unfortunately, the more he ventures into areas where I have detailed knowledge --- in particular, Christianity and computing --- the more it becomes apparent that he's sloppy.

He clearly has no sympathy for Christianity, and monotheism in general, which is fine, but he doesn't seem to try to treat them fairly. For example he carefully describes the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre as being solely about Catholics and Protestants disputing over doctrines of salvation; he surely knows that other issues, including struggles over temporal power, were deeply involved. Elsewhere, on economics, he says religions hold "money is the root of all evil", but he or his editors should have known this is a popular misquotation of 1 Timothy 6:10: "For the love of money [φιλαργυρία, philargyria, "avarice"] is the root of all evil". His interpretation of Matthew 19:16-30, the parable of the rich young ruler, is likewise off. There's a throw-away line (I don't have the text here) where he suggests Christianity grew mainly or solely through conquest and bloodshed, which it did at times but did not do, for example, in its critical first few centuries, nor in its recent explosive growth in Africa and Asia.

That sort of thing is normal among Harari's pop-science peers so I hardly fault him for it. He betters them by also showering skepticism on post-Enlightenment intellectual projects. He points out that the idea of "all people are created equal" is absurd once you rip away its theistic underpinnings. He states clearly that societies cannot function without shared myths, or at least "belief in belief" (e.g., belief in the value of money). In the conclusion of his book, he takes atheism to its bitter end and acknowledges its great problem: "what then shall we do?" I can't give him full marks, because throughout the book he backslides and shows irrational dedication to principles such as "individual suffering matters" without acknowledging that this is just his shared myth — but overall, well done.

He talks a bit about the computing revolution and the future of history, but there he misses the mark. He talks about computer viruses evolving via mutation and natural selection, which hasn't happened and isn't going to happen for various reasons, but he says very little about AI, or about how the Internet is reshaping society, which are much more important.

Generally when an author is sloppy in areas you know about, you should be cautious about everything else they say. I have to hope he's better than that, but it's still a good read regardless.