Anecdotage #8: Hijacked Minds

In my ongoing quest to decipher the reasons behind the chaotic world we all inhabit, my mind sometimes clutches at tried and true homilies, some in German, such as this one, actually an old round: “Die Gedanken sind frei, wer kann sie erraten, sie fliegen vorbei wie naechtliche Schatten. Freely translated, it means that ‘ Our thoughts are free, nobody can guess them,’ with the implication that freedom is a function of our free thoughts, and so we are, by definition, free. It’s a lovely thought, isn’t it.

And until quite recently, the old song about our freedom of thought held up. It held up until the people who invented the apps, algorithms, ‘likes’ and cellphones that endlessly distract us, started to bail on their own technology and began sending their children to elite schools where cell phones and even laptops are banned. Like addicts going cold turkey, and some of them, like the inventor of Facebook ‘likes’, Seth Rosenberg, are now musing publicly about LUC, or the law of unintended consequences. In fascinating and surprising article in The Guardian, he and others are described as ‘Drawing a straight line between addiction to social media and political earthquakes like Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump, they contend that digital forces have completely upended the political system and, left unchecked, could even render democracy as we know it obsolete.’

This piece comes hard on the heels of what has been heralded as the most important book about the dangers of AI or Machine Learning,  Life 3.0, Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, by the Swedish physicist Max Tegmark who teaches at MIT. In addition, there is the disturbing evidence that Big Data, courtesy of Cambridge Analytica, a company founded and owned by billionaire Richard Mercer, a secretive backer of Trump himself, was implicated in the startling outcome of the Brexit vote. So, in my own slow and human way, I began to connect all these dots and all of a sudden, I understood everything. Well, almost everything.

Let’s start with our ingrained belief that ‘we are in control’, which includes the thought that my grandfather considered vital: you can always turn the damn thing, whatever it is, off. He was thinking of the radio; and from that to cell phones and the internet is rather a huge jump, but still, there is an off switch on them, too.

The trouble is, we rarely reach for it anymore because we don’t ‘want’ to. And the reason is that the folks in Silicon Valley have studied with eminent psychologists the better to manipulate us into never turning our devices off. To get addicted, just like cocaine addicts. And by all accounts, they have succeeded where the radio people failed. Cell phone addiction is rife; just ask anyone with a teenager in the house. My grandson, who is fifteen, recently announced that he was no longer reading books. What he doesn’t realize is that reading books is an immersive activity demanding deep focus, the kind that his cellphone is distracting him from doing. Many researchers now say that the very presence of a smartphone is so distracting that owners cannot focus on something else. They react to the ring or ping of their phones like Pavlov’s dogs, salivating for the next ‘like’ on Facebook or Instagram or whatever. They are tied to their phones with an umbilical cord that is so strong that some desperate parents have set their Internet connections to quit at a certain hour via a special router. Likely to screams of protest from their teenage offspring.

I think it’s worth noting that according to Tristan Harris, a 33-year-old former Google employee turned vocal critic of the high tech world, we’re fooling ourselves. “All of our minds can be hijacked,” he says. “Our choices are not as free as we think they are.”

Okay, so our thoughts have been hijacked by the smartphone, which turns out to be a lot smarter than us. But what about that Elon Musk warning about the AI revolution needing our urgent attention. He gave none other than Max Tegmark a cool $10 million to pay for studying the ways we can rein in and retain control of self-replicating intelligent machines that ‘learn’ via neural networks that are as complex as our own. In his book, Tegmark tries his best to be even-handed about the startling challenge of keeping control over a herd of super-intelligent machines who want to escape to the freedom of the Internet. What is missing is an historical and philosophical framework that integrates the entire discussion into the humanities. But that would require someone like Aldous Huxley, whose prescient Brave New World was based on our weaknesses and follies, the very things that Silicon Valley is so good at exploiting.

The best part of Life 3.0 is The Tale of the Omega Team, a fantasy about a bunch of super smart techies who hide the creation of a supersmart intelligence inside a high tech firm without anyone suspecting. It describes in startling detail how this intelligence makes money on the internet, starts its own media empire to rival Hollywood and Netflix, and eventually, does ‘escape’ by exploiting human emotional weakness. It’s a great and instructive read, and while labouring through the rest of this gigantic tome full of badly designed illustrations and an entire chapter titled The Next Billion Years (really?), I kept hoping there would be more of the same. There wasn’t. But Tegmark, who knows everyone in the international AI community, and clearly loves his subject ( !!! on every page), is no Renaissance man. To wit, his definition of ‘intelligence’: the ability to accomplish complex goals. Whether they are good or bad is not the issue here, he says, though we should make up our minds as to what a good goal is and make sure the machine gets it. Of course, there are glitches, like the proverbial bad guys who program in ‘bad goals’, or simply the fact that LUC is ever ready to surface. Being prepared is the key to staving off disaster, he says, boyishly ignoring the long sad history of humanity failing at this task. The atomic bomb and the Manhattan project are reminders of how stupid and shortsighted humans can be while being brilliantly creative in technology. It’s a conundrum that at present has no handy dandy Silicon Valley solution.

As an aside, allow me to mention that nowhere does Tegmark discuss imagination, which, according to Einstein, is more important than intelligence. This, and our ability to cooperate, is what has lifted humanity to the pinnacle of life on earth, so it is rather surprising that it is not even mentioned. But that might be because it probably can’t be programmed into an Algorithm for the simple reason that imagination deals with the unknown, the not-yet-created. It’s perhaps the one thing that could save us from our ultra-intelligent machines.

Okay, where were we? Oh yes, smartphones and machine intelligence are both smarter than we are, their so-called creators. That’s one thing we should be aware of. the other thing is that Big Data and its uses are fast overtaking our political processes, just like those clever guys in Silicon Valley predicted. There is very strong evidence that both the election of Trump and the odd outcome of Brexit had ‘help’ from Robert Mercer and his data company, Cambridge Analytica. It’s all in this long but essential read by Carole Cadwalladr:

Mercer, a secretive billionaire who started out as a geeky programmer himself, bought himself a President and is likely suffering from a bad case of buyer’s remorse. Or maybe this is all part of a bigger plan that I have explained in a previous post. Whatever the truth is, we have been warned.


So, neither our thoughts nor our actions are as ‘free’ as we believe them to be, and perhaps, unwittingly, we are going to create a machine that knows everything about you and decides what’s good for you. A machine god to replace the old one we no longer believe in. Or maybe we will simply get a global dictator. We have recently grown an entirely new crop of these bellicose beasts, the most famous being Trump himself. Yes, I know he is not a dictator–yet, but there’s no telling what he will do, given his direct access to Big Data, the NSA global surveillance network, and all that personal info gathered by Facebook et al. As a former colonel of the STASI, the East German spy network, once remarked about the NSA network uncovered by Edward Snowden:

“You know, for us, this would have been a dream come true.”



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