Harari doing some bleak abyss gazing — No.49

Harari twofer, lots and lots of tech topics this week, including an important copyright vote in Europe which I couldn’t really bring myself to write about more but it’s in there, you should read up. Also a longer than usual Miscellany section, including a couple that might be classified elsewhere but there you go, if you usually skim that section, pay more attention this time around ?.

Yuval Noah Harari on Why Technology Favors Tyranny

Trigger warning: Bleak af abyss gazing.

This article is an adaptation from Yuval Noah Harari’s book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century and it as full of insights as it is depression inducing. I tend to put very little credence in killer AI scenarios but this much more plausible version is way more worrying. I do find it strange though that he mentions AlphaZero “learning by itself” and puts emphasis on the importance of massive amounts of data. It’s still unclear to me how much data AIs in a few generations will actually need and it’s a bit disappointing that he mentions nothing along those lines.

Below are some choice quotes and below that some of the main takeaways which are also kind of spoilers, I encourage you to read the whole thing first.

Four hours. For centuries, chess was considered one of the crowning glories of human intelligence. AlphaZero went from utter ignorance to creative mastery in four hours, without the help of any human guide.

By 2050, a useless class might emerge, the result not only of a shortage of jobs or a lack of relevant education but also of insufficient mental stamina to continue learning new skills. […]

We should instead fear AI because it will probably always obey its human masters, and never rebel. AI is a tool and a weapon unlike any other that human beings have developed; it will almost certainly allow the already powerful to consolidate their power further. […]

The main handicap of authoritarian regimes in the 20th century—the desire to concentrate all information and power in one place—may become their decisive advantage in the 21st century. […]

For starters, we need to place a much higher priority on understanding how the human mind works—particularly how our own wisdom and compassion can be cultivated. […]

So we had better call upon our scientists, our philosophers, our lawyers, and even our poets to turn their attention to this big question: How do you regulate the ownership of data?

  • People vital to the economy but lacking power vs still somewhat vital people fearing their loss of power.
  • The advantage of connectivity and updatability for software vs people.
  • AIs who never disobey their human masters and never rebel (might be worse than killer AIs).
  • The West Bank is already a primitive preview of a total surveillance regime.
  • Cambridge Analytica sentiment analysis to the power of ten for behaviour control.
  • Dictatorships’ information control might be a competitive advantage.
  • We are already training ourselves to hand over control to machines.
  • We must put higher priority on understanding our minds; as much as we are investing in AI.

We must slow innovation in internet-connected things

Bruce Schneier on his new book, on his use of the term “Internet+,” on the fact that we are ever closer to a world where everything is a computer, that we just don’t make our computers all that secure, and we need governments to step in to force companies into building more secure products.

[T]he internet now affects the world in a direct physical manner, and that changes everything. It’s no longer about risks to data, but about risks to life and property. And the title really points out that there’s physical danger here, and that things are different than they were just five years ago. […]

Computers aren’t yet widely embedded in our bodies, but they’re deeply embedded in our lives. […]

We’re past the point where we need to discuss regulation versus no-regulation for connected things; we have to discuss smart regulation versus stupid regulation.


We need a Digital Commonwealth to counter surveillance capitalism

Another piece on making our data a commons instead of letting big tech centralize and take possession of it. Interesting for the three step process suggestions. However, a “commons” shouldn’t mean data is centralized in one public service, and the author says the UK should “regulate those activities and companies as public utilities.” Not sure how that would work when none of the companies he talks about are based in the UK? The last step however touches on Morozov’s piece I featured a few weeks ago, i.e. cities might be key to this kind of rethinking.

The challenge is therefore more one of politics, not necessarily technical feasibility; we need a politics capable of shaping the use of technologies and embedding values of openness and equity in the outcomes they generate. […]

Politics should be messy, vibrant and contested, not smoothly algorithmic. But this requires developing strategies to reimagine how data is generated and used, including providing local digital infrastructures and access to data to enable communities, businesses, and civil society to create the tools and services that best serve their needs.

Techno-nationalism could determine the 21st Century

Where, in this case, nationalism “simply” means favouring national industries. A quick rundown of some of the more agressive national tech policies around the world. (Consider everything in there relative to the Harari article above.)

“For the likes of China and Saudi Arabia, projecting national strength is bound up with expensive, and often pretty safe, bets on the industries of the future. This is techno-nationalism. Though we are living with its consequences already, its impact will grow exponentially. […]

By allying their financial power and nationalist ambitions with the most consequential technologies currently being developed anywhere in the world, they are making a bet for 21st century dominance to which Western democracies currently have virtually no meaningful response.

Today, Europe Lost The Internet. Now, We Fight Back.

Cory Doctorow on the dumb, dumb, dumb vote which took place last week.

[I]n a vote that split almost every major EU party, Members of the European Parliament adopted every terrible proposal in the new Copyright Directive and rejected every good one, setting the stage for mass, automated surveillance and arbitrary censorship of the internet: text messages like tweets and Facebook updates; photos; videos; audio; software code — any and all media that can be copyrighted.


Climate change to revolutionize politics in cities across the world.

Based on the story of Day Zero in Cape Town (including perhaps too many details of local politics) and then in São Paulo’s situation, the article offers a good overview of how water crises will play out in various cities. As I mentioned before; the less fortunate get hit first and hardest. Climate catastrophe, or even just serious reductions in resources, will create conflicts and further inequality.

“During that time, a local government pushed a water-conservation agenda more ambitious than just about anything the world had seen. Cape Town faced political fallout and experienced widespread protests. Divisions between the haves and the have-nots in one of the most unequal cities on Earth became the center of discourse. The racial wounds of a post-apartheid country opened once more. […]

As they stand now, the Level 6B restrictions created by the city of Cape Town in January 2018 are supposed to limit residents to 50 liters per day, slash agricultural use by 60 percent below last year’s usage, aggressively push water-management devices and fines, and encourage the use of new fittings and other devices to minimize water waste. […]

Between things like drinking, tooth brushing, showers, toilet-flushing, doing the laundry, and hitting your work outfit with a little steam, Americans use somewhere around 90 gallons, or 340 liters, of water every 24 hours. That’s more than 700 pounds of water per day, and that’s not even counting what goes into the food you eat or the thirsty maws of the industries and services that sustain you.

Shenzhen: The First Quieter Megacity, Thanks to Electric Vehicles

Although the article is actually more about the electric vehicle maker BYD, still worth a read for that and for Shenzhen’s transition. Also notice the surveillance tidbit highlighted below.

The new Shenzhen has a mix of electric buses, electric bikes and scooters, electric taxis, and even electric dump trucks. Although the city arrived late to urban noise, the shift to EVs that China has been pushing more than any other country has put Shenzhen at the leading edge of something unprecedented: the quieter city. […]

The city’s traffic police bureau is working with telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies Co. to use big data, facial recognition, and video sensors to manage congestion and accidents. Shanghai-based startup KeyGo Technologies uses an “acoustic camera” system to zero in on honking cars, so police can analyze whether the noise pollution deserves a fine.


The Educational Tyranny of the Neurotypicals

Another interesting line of thought this week by Joichi Ito. He draws attention to some of many different ways our brains work, how most education does not recognize that diversity, tries to mold it for a certain kind of work, and how we can not only better serve (and respect) everyone but also at the same time better prepare them for the future of work.

Accepting and respecting neurodiversity is the key to surviving the transformation driven by the internet and AI, which is shattering the Newtonian predictability of the past and replacing it with a Heisenbergian world of complexity and uncertainty. […]

Unfortunately, most schools struggle to integrate atypical learners, even though it’s increasingly clear that interest-driven learning, project-based learning, and undirected learning seem better suited for the greater diversity of neural types we now know exist. […]

In a world where real robots are taking over many of those tasks, perhaps we need to embrace neurodiversity and encourage collaborative learning through passion, play, and projects, in other words, to start teaching kids to learn in ways that machines can’t.

Why Science Fiction Is the Most Important Genre

Yuval Noah Harari interviewed at Wired on the importance of scifi to make some topics part of the discourse and to make people think. Includes some interesting examples of stories he’d like to see.

“If you want to raise public awareness of such issues, a good science fiction movie could be worth not one, but a hundred articles in Science or Nature, or even a hundred articles in the New York Times.”

To Restore Civil Society, Start With the Library

There is a great disconnect between the reality of library use and the opinions of many policy makers. Libraries are needed and constitute one of the few social infrastructures we still support.

Libraries stand for and exemplify something that needs defending: the public institutions that — even in an age of atomization, polarization and inequality — serve as the bedrock of civil society.

  • Hacking the Education Narrative with Dungeons & Dragons. “[H]er social and emotional growth ‘happened almost instantly, and her reading improved almost overnight. Her teachers came to me shortly after, exulting that she was asking and answering questions and had become a leader in all of her classes.’”
  • Bonsai: the Endless Ritual. Chiako Yamamoto, the first and only female bonsai sensei. (Via Hiut Denim who spin some mean jeans and newsletters.)