Monday, June 19, 2017

On Secession Part II: Henry and Violence

In part I of this series, my desire to figure out why Sheriff David Clarke and the Oath Keepers believe the things they believe was hampered by the fact that there is an enormous amount of history to account for. Thus, we began a historical accounting of American ideologies and cultures (as per David Fincher’s Albion’s Seed). Left hanging were the questions of whether or not the South was morally or legally justified in secession, and whether states or individuals should have rights that supersede the federal government.

Why do we have a Second Amendment? It's not to shoot deer. It's to shoot at the government when it becomes tyrannical!
Senator Rand Paul

David Clarke saluting the crowd at the RNC, without his trademark sheriff’s hat.

Now that we’ve covered some of the history, who the heck is this guy?

Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of him before, I hadn’t either. He’s been Sheriff of Milwaukee County in Wisconsin since 2002 and started his career in the Milwaukee Police Department in 1978. He’s got a wife, a horse named Rodger, and is a registered Democrat.

But he’s also been a speaker at the Republican National Convention and at CPAC, a guest on Alex Jones’ radio show, as well as frequently appearing on various Fox News programs, so we’re going to need to dig a little deeper.

Understanding David Clarke means understanding his ties to the Oath Keepers. On June 13th, 2016, he received a “Leadership Award” from the New York Oath Keepers, and gave a 35-minute speech. He is not a formal member of their “militia” but, for context, here is the Oath Keepers list of “Orders We Will Not Obey”:

1. We will NOT obey orders to disarm the American people.

2. We will NOT obey orders to conduct warrantless searches of the American people.

3. We will NOT obey orders to detain American citizens as “unlawful enemy combatants” or to subject them to military tribunal.

4. We will NOT obey orders to impose martial law or a “state of emergency” on a state.

5. We will NOT obey orders to invade and subjugate any state that asserts its sovereignty.

6. We will NOT obey any order to blockade American cities, thus turning them into giant concentration camps.

7. We will NOT obey any order to force American citizens into any form of detention camps under any pretext.

8. We will NOT obey orders to assist or support the use of any foreign troops on U.S. soil against the American people to “keep the peace” or to “maintain control."

9. We will NOT obey any orders to confiscate the property of the American people, including food and other essential supplies.

10. We will NOT obey any orders which infringe on the right of the people to free speech, to peaceably assemble, and to petition their government for a redress of grievances.

With a list like this, you might think that this was an organization dedicated to ensuring lawful behavior among America’s civil servants, albeit one with a maniacal obsession with gun rights. In this, unfortunately, you would be wrong. There’s significant ideological (and membership) overlap between the Oath Keepers, the Sovereign Citizen Movement, and the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA), of which Sheriff Clarke is a member. Here is a quote from the CSPOA’s “Statement of Positions”:
America needs to make a strong turn around to get back on the freedom track laid for us by our Founders.  We believe it can’t be done from the top down, due to many factors, not the least of which is corruption and entrenched bureaucracies in high places.  We must, and we can, accomplish this turn- around starting locally at the county level, and lower.  The office of county sheriff is the last hope of making this happen, and we are witnessing great deeds of protection, service, and interposition across America by courageous sheriffs who only want to serve the people who elected them.
It’s a lot to unpack. I’m going to attempt to read through the lines, by referring back to the values of the 4 main American cultural traditions (Puritan, Quaker, Cavalier, and Borderer) and their different views on liberty that we established in part I.

To refresh, they are (in order):
  • Reciprocal Liberty: The right of each person to demand all liberties they would extend to others (aka the Golden Rule).
  • Natural Liberty: Liberties are innate, and it is the right of people to (violently) defend them.
No, it’s not “Whoever has the Gold makes the Rules”.
But what is that “freedom track”? I'm not sure, but I think I have an example that comes close to what the CSPOA means: The doctrine espoused by Patrick Henry, as he argued the Parson’s Cause.
An 1834 painting, depicting the 1763 case. It’s not very good.
The exact words used were not recorded, but the case itself, and the arguments used, became notorious. Our most accurate rendition comes from a letter penned by one of his courtroom opponents, describing the events to another Parson. I have (heavily) edited it, mainly for brevity:
That a King, by annulling or disallowing [this law], degenerates into a Tyrant, and forfeits all right to his subjects' obedience… The only use of an Established Church and Clergy in society, is to enforce obedience to civil sanctions, and [other] duties of imperfect obligation; that, when a Clergy ceases to answer these ends, the community have no further need of their ministry…the Clergy of Virginia… [should therefore] be considered as enemies of the community; and …punished with signal severity. [The Jury must] rivet their chains of bondage… [and] dispute the validity of [any] laws, [not] authenticated by the… authority of a legal representative of a Council, and of a kind and benevolent and patriot Governor.
The details of the case are less important than the fact of Henry’s (successful) argument: an act of government that opposes the stated will of the people renders that government tyrannical and superfluous.

Later, as the colonies moved toward revolution, Henry went on to denounce strong government in any form, and vowed to fight against it (“Give me Liberty, or Give me Death!”). That the liberty he demanded was “natural liberty” is obvious, but interestingly, this appears to be the main type of liberty that the Oath Keeper groups are concerned with. The “courageous sheriffs who only want to serve the people who elected them” are dead ringers for the “kind and benevolent and patriot Governor” insisted upon by Henry.

And this is where I run out of cleanly packaged information and start asking questions. Questions like: Is the concept of Natural Liberty consistent and actionable? Is it justified? And most importantly, can it be reasonably implemented in the 21st century?

(Note: I know I’m avoiding the Confederacy’s argument, but I think the Natural Liberty argument is both stronger and more relevant. I’m trying to answer a more general form of the question, but I’ll come back to them later — they’re not off the hook yet.)

As someone who strongly backs the Quaker concept, I’m struggling to make sense of the Borderers. Namely, I’m trying to make sense of the end game. This question can be more narrowly posed to the groups from earlier, but what does society look like if you get everything you want? I mean, I understand the Quaker end game, a quasi-socialist utopia where everyone is nice, kind, and respectful to one another, but I do not understand where Borderers are trying to go. My biggest question is: where does it end?

I’m going to try for a thought experiment. Let’s say we have this group of people, they don’t like their current government. Could be that it’s infringing on their natural liberties, or it could be that they don’t have control, whatever. They gather themselves together (with guns) and demand the ability to form their own government, the way they want. There’s a bit of violence, but they win and now there’s two governments, one in the north and one in the south.
Pop culture references are very popular.
Ok, great. But now some of the people who rebelled (the Karstarks and the Boltons??) don’t like the new government they made, and want to make their own government. And so on and so forth. I’m struggling to come up with a coherent system of Natural Liberty that allows you to demand liberty on pain of violence, that doesn’t immediately threaten to unmake any systems you’d try to put in place. If violence is political power, and assuming everyone has nearly equal abilities in that regard, doesn’t it just eventually end with every man for himself? Or with a bunch of warring clans jostling for territory or vengeance for some perceived slight? (ref: the history of family feuds in America)

I know the idea of a man who doesn’t answer to any law but his own, a sheriff trying to do good as he sees it — it’s appealing. We’ve seen characters like this in countless films and stories. But, and I fully admit this is the most boring answer possible, it just doesn’t seem practical. I mean, yes. I like rights, I like freedom. But two things seem readily apparent: 1. Some amount of government is needed to prevent tribal barbarism. And 2. Part of that government’s responsibility is to maintain a monopoly on violence.

This is a point where I imagine I will lose some of my readers. Gun control is a contentious issue, and I will make no attempt to adequately cover it. But to sidestep the issue of “self-defense”, my question is: to what degree are individuals empowered to take the law into their own hands? Again, any explanation I could give would be insufficient, but it seems to me that society is maximally stable if individuals are not able to self-adjudicate. I say this because any two random people will likely disagree on issues, but if they are enforcing their opinions with violence, they cannot mutually exist in the same society.

For an unnecessarily provocative example, say you believe in the right to defend yourself (and others) from people who would cause them harm. This is a common belief, so it shouldn’t be too hard. But say you also believe that fetuses are people from the moment of conception. In this case, killing abortion doctors (to stop abortions) would be justified. And, in the implied corollary, the doctors (and anyone nearby) would have the right to kill you too (in justified self-defense). A single intense disagreement could snowball into an actual war, or at least a violent feud.

Now, I won’t eliminate the possibility that I’m being incredibly dense, but I just don’t see a way to reconcile “having a stable society of laws” with “the right to self-determine what those laws are”. It seems that the “cost” of existing in society includes a necessary abdication of choice.

And if society is good, this is a good thing. Certainly, the Puritans/Quakers would happily cede their choices if they could trust their society to be just and good. Indeed, as with the modern-day Democrats, making sure the government as good, wise, just, and strong becomes a moral imperative, since leaving people to their own devices means inevitable strife and anarchy. A more glowing recommendation of the status quo can scarcely be imagined.

Obviously, the world is not so optimized a place, and insisting on abstention from self-defense is the most untenable argument I’ve backed in a long time. Clearly, in the balance between order and chaos, it’s difficult to not cede territory to chaos. This is a contradiction that (I assume) David Clarke would declare solved.

This stock image is very literal.
Re-reading the CSPOA’s statement in this light, they seem to be upholding the value of natural liberty, and declaring the smallest discrete amount of tolerable government: a county sheriff. Convenient then, that it’s an organization of sheriffs. It’s difficult to see this as any more than an intent on government via individual fiat. No doubt that the courage and nobility of the county sheriffs will make disagreements impossible; each sheriff keeping to the constitution, ruling over their flocks with a wise and gentle hand. You’ll have to excuse my skepticism, especially considering Clarke’s malfeasance, which will be one of the primary subjects of next week’s post. We’ll just put a pin in that for now, because we’re out of time for today.

In answering our questions, I think we’ve made a bit of progress. We’ve identified a bit of what and why Clarke and the rest of the Oath Keepers believe what they believe, and explored whether individuals should have rights that supersede the federal government. But we’ve still got a way to go before making our definitive case for or against secession, and in determining the optimal rights of states. Also, left hanging is the unstated question of what all this means to us now. Until next time.

Monday, June 12, 2017

On Secession Part I: Settling and Confederacy

The recent removal of confederate monuments in New Orleans had me in the mood to write yet another emotionally affected hit piece — But it turns out that American history is complicated. Who knew, right? I originally started with research into the Oath Keepers and Sheriff David Clarke, but we’re not going to get to him yet. Consider this part I of a new series.

The Civil War, if you think about it, why? People don’t ask the question, but why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?
Donald Trump 

For me, one of the more interesting aspects of history is that ideologies rarely die. Ideas and cultures can be traced back centuries, and once-settled vendettas can return with a vengeance decades (or centuries) later. And, since everything is connected to everything else, context is everything.

I say this, because these are ideals with old, old roots. To tell the story properly, we have to go back to David Fischer’s Albion’s Seed and the founding of America, and we have to answer a question that I thought well settled: “Was the South morally or legally justified in their secessionist movement?” Additionally, we must answer the modern-day question of whether or not states (or individuals) should have rights that supersede those of the federal government, and if so, what are those rights?

Let’s get one thing out of the way: America was never unified. Instead, each region formed based on different distinct waves of English immigration/colonization. Over the 946 pages of his book, Fischer identifies the 4 groups who have had the largest influence on America.

1.     The Puritans, who settled from East Anglia in the 1620s. Their culture, in addition to being highly religious and puritanical, also dedicated to education and civic service. Their Calvinist philosophy was highly influential in shaping the Northeast.

2.     The Cavaliers, refugee nobles from the south of England, fled to Virginia in the 1640s following the English Civil War. Being nobles, they did not like to work, and brought thousands of indentured servants with them, eventually moving to imported African slaves. Their plantation model and their peculiar ideals shaped the south (more on this in a bit).

3.   The Quakers, a religious group believing in pacifism, tolerance, equal rights, and ethical capitalism, settled in the area now called Pennsylvania (named after William Penn) in the late 1670s. The Quaker influence on America was broad; there’s a reason the Continental Congress was in Philadelphia.

4.     The Borderers, a large group from Northern England, who were... fiercely independent, straight-talking, and prone to violence. They settled in Appalachia and formed the base of America’s western expansion. Borderer tradition was what made the “wild west” wild.

Though America is more mixed these days, group influence can still be plainly observed, as in the following map:
Obama in green, Clinton in red
This alignment between Borderer regions and Clinton victories is unlikely to be a coincidence.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The point is, the United States were born divided. 13 independent colonies, imperfectly coming together. It was not a harmonious union and many of the compromises (such as the famous “3/5ths Compromise”) were designed to give the agrarian slave-holding states greater political influence and representation. And, as is the nature of compromise, both sides were left unhappy. Benjamin Franklin summed up the mood well: “I confess that There are several parts of this Constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them. ... I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution”.

Obviously, this didn’t last. Abraham Lincoln’s election triggered a wave of secession, as he was elected without the votes of a single southern state. Worried that the northern states might vote to eliminate chattel slavery, and enraged at the northern states’ unwillingness to sufficiently enforce the Fugitive Slave Act — a position simultaneously pro and anti-state rights — the southern states left the Union.

The Civil War, I’m assuming, is history everyone is familiar with. Lincoln refused to recognize the Confederate government, or the legality of their secession, and when Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter the war began in earnest. Note: the concept of the “War of Northern Aggression” rests on historical revisionism (read: lies). The Southern states were explicitly clear that their reason for seceding was about slavery. Regardless, the war was very bloody, and very personal. Both the North and the South instituted a draft, and the drafts could be avoided with money in the North, and sufficient slave ownership in the South. Thus, the war was fought between poor whites on both sides, each fighting for the interests of their respective elites.

The war ended only when Union forces did enough damage that war was impossible, though it did continue afterwards in small pockets (the main bulk of the Southern army surrendered with Robert E. Lee at Appomattox). Eventually, the slaves were freed, the states readmitted to the union, and then the South won.

That’s a deliberately provocative statement, but the history holds up. The South may have surrendered, but only out of necessity. The period of Reconstruction was essentially an occupation, preventing the southern states from expressing their right to enslave and oppress black people. And, like any occupied country, they enjoyed many lively insurgencies which rebelled violently against the occupying force, fighting to restore the traditional government wherever possible (this was the first incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan). Not so coincidentally, this was also the beginning of the southern states inordinate focus on — and hatred toward — taxation. This will be an important detail later.
This is clearly just a bunch of patriots and good old boys. Nothing to see here.

So how did the South win? 

Short answer: The rebellion used political violence, terrorism, and murder until the Northerners gave up and left the South to its own devices. Which meant rigging elections, lynching, and the reinstatement of slavery via sharecropping, imprisonment, and other means.

 Long answer: The short answer plus the fact that the radical Republicans/Abolitionists wanted to set up an equal-ish society in the south. This meant giving the newly freed slaves land, education, and other things, expensive things that were necessary to keep the ex-slaves self-sufficient and not subservient. 

This approach ran into problems immediately, as the more conservative Republicans balked at the expense (and of course, being nice to ex-slaves by giving them economic and political power made the South madder than a cat in a bathtub). Enforcing this required enormous manpower and occupying troops, some of whom were killed by the people in the above photo. Eventually, the rich elites in the North realized that it didn’t really matter who picked the cotton or how, as long as it got picked and delivered on time. So, with the Compromise of 1877, a Republican landed in the white house on the condition that Reconstruction was finished, and leaving the South free to govern themselves as they liked.

Thus, the South won against the North, and their systems of legal enslavement persisted until the civil rights era, after which everyone was free and no one was ever unjustly enslaved, imprisoned, or disenfranchised again. The cost of peacefully restoring the Union was, apparently, to let the rebels enslave and oppress the blacks.

And for a while, things were relatively ok, at least by comparison. The country governed itself, political violence was common but did not result in open warfare, other new immigrant groups arrived and were subsequently oppressed, and America was at peace with itself. But the peace, now as in the past, remains fragile and conditional.

This has modern-day implications, but first, let’s go back to our 4 groups from earlier and see what they’ve been up to for the last few hundred years. Obviously, at this point these 4 are not the only immigrant groups, but Fischer makes a strong case for their continuing influence in shaping America’s culture and history. Our other immigration groups (such as the New York Dutch, the French Louisianans, Caribbean Blacks, and so on) have largely assimilated into nearby dominant cultures. So, what happened to all of them? Well, they’re us. This is somewhat speculative, but the influences can be tracked.

The Puritans believed in a mixed government that was democratic but protected aristocracy. Their focus on education gave them influence within the rapidly growing American elite, and American universities remain heavily influenced by Puritan ideals. Throughout history, they have favored active government and social equality. Their notion of liberty is collective: the right to make laws to order society, protecting people from basic want. Politically, they have been Whigs, Federalists, classic Republicans, and modern-day Democrats.

The Quakers have faded into the background culture; these days, the number of actual practicing Quakers is low. Their egalitarian spirit put them on the forefront of civil rights advocacy numerous times in American history, most notably as Abolitionists (many of the underground railroad operators were Quaker), and in the fight for women’s suffrage (Susan B. Anthony was a Quaker). Their notion of liberty was reciprocal, whereby each person is entitled to self-determination and freedom of conscience.

Today, the Quaker and Puritan traditions seem to form the base of the “blue” tribe in American politics, and their states they settled in are still significantly “bluer” than the rest of the country.

The Cavaliers favored a strong, traditionalist, and deeply conservative society — with minimal government oversight. Few laws, but strict adherence to social norms. As befitting their noble tradition, they organized their society with what Fischer terms as “hegemonic liberty”: the freedom to rule and not be ruled in turn. This took its historical shape most keenly during the slaveholding era, during which the South was ruled via slavocracy. In this society, a strict hierarchy was maintained, with liberty for each according to his station. The right of the few to achieve enormous freedom is preserved at the expense of liberty for many. For the owners, unlimited liberty, for the poor some, for the indentured servants less, and for the slaves none at all. The existence of slaves was, ironically, a stabilizing effect on southern society, as even the most oppressed whites had someone to look down on.

These days, hegemonic liberty has been toned down, and made much less obvious. Cavalier ideas survive in the modern libertarian movement, and the arguments are clearly seen once you start looking for them. When a man who makes more money in an hour than his workers do in a month complains that his freedom is being impacted by burdensome governmental regulations, he is arguing for the freedom to rule — to be able to act without being ruled by the will of others. Politically, this tends to find a home in the leaders of the modern-day Republican party, though of course there are plutocrats on both sides of the aisle.
A 1930s propaganda piece

Last, but certainly not least are the Borderers. The settlers of the hills of Appalachia have been maligned for hundreds of years. Hillbilly, redneck, white trash — even today Borderers are seen as acceptable targets for ridicule. But despite this, Borderer culture has had an outsized influence on America. If one was to sum up the Borderer ethos in a single word, that word would be “independent”. Their conception of freedom was based on “natural liberty”: freedom to do as you wish, without the constraints of law or custom. Autonomy from institutions and personal sovereignty are prioritized above all else. In practice, this often meant that Borderer culture was structured around retaliation and retribution over slights, with longstanding feuds only broken by outside interference or by individuals charismatic enough to unite the warring clans.

The Borderer desire for personal autonomy forced America’s westward expansion, as their search for space and isolation kept them and their descendants on the frontier, for as long as there has been a frontier. Enormous swaths of America were settled by Borderers, particularly in the southwest. Our map from earlier shows the downward migration of Borderers from western Pennsylvania and Ohio, south through Kentucky and Tennessee, and west through Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The “country-western” accent is a strong indicator, mirroring the accent of the original settlers (as well as their similarity to the 1700s cultural norms of poor education, gun culture, violence, xenophobia, high premarital pregnancy rate, militarism, and patriotism).
John Wayne: Borderer Hero
Borderers tend to be relatively apolitical; their interests are self-interests, not policy. As such, they have formed the bulk of every populist movement in American history — Including Andrew Jackson, most folk heroes, Theodore Roosevelt, William Jennings Bryan, the labor movement, and the Tea Party (culminating in the election of our current president). That the modern-day republican party was brought low by a man who appealed to Borderers but was indifferent to the party’s libertine/libertarian agenda should not have been a surprise to the “Never-Trumpers”. For the remnants of the Cavaliers to control the country, the cooperation of the Borderers is a must. And they do, witness the anger from the Trump supporters as the machinery of government and “deep state” defies their wishes at every turn. For a shorthanded approximation, however, we can label the “red” tribe of modern American politics to be composed of Cavaliers and Borderers.

(Obviously, this is an extraordinarily biased perspective; I can’t not pretend to have moral and political biases. There are certainly other interpretations, and other ways to delineate the various groups. But I hope that I’ve accurately described the facts, as well as beliefs of each group. If not, hopefully someone will let me know, so I can fix it. There’s more than enough for everyone to disagree with, even with the same facts.)

As for the question of whether the South was morally or legally justified in their secessionist movement, and whether states (or individuals) should have rights that supersede the federal government, the modern-day implications over the failure of reconstruction, and a look at modern rebel “patriots”, will have to wait for another time.

Continued in Part II.

Monday, June 5, 2017

On Resignation

I’m kind of harping on this A.I. thing, but I read an article that helped put my Neuralink post (On the Connections Between Brains and Computers) in perspective — and not in a good way. The self-selected summary is as follows:
  1. Artificial Intelligence cannot be stopped.
  2. Initiatives (cl)aiming to "stop AI" will either fail to slow or actively hasten it.
  3. Attempting to subtly influence the development of AI is a waste of time.
  4. Other people have already figured out 1, 2, & 3 and [have] chosen not to tell anyone.
Obviously, not everyone in the field is as concerned with destructive A.I. scenarios, but this isn’t the place to split hairs; a wise man cautioned us to “avoid world-ending assumptions”. While the reasoning flies a bit closer to Pascal’s wager, then I’d prefer, it’s still good advice. Many of the optimistic assumptions and predictions about A.I. are the kind of assumption that if it’s wrong (or wrong in the right sort of way), that’s it. Near-instant extinction for planet earth.
Or at least death to Sarah Connor

It’s an embarrassing lapse, but I did not think much about how the very people who already know all the stuff I’m learning would behave. I wasn’t thinking enough steps ahead. Seen in this context, Neuralink isn’t an exciting new tech venture so much as a desperate hope to mitigate an unavoidable disaster.
I don’t really have anywhere fancy I’m going with this, but controlling A.I. is extremely difficult. They are, in many ways, faster, smarter, and more resourceful than we are, and the disparity will only grow with time. Even the simple A.I. we have now are more than capable of surprising their creators with unforeseen loopholes and undesirable outcomes (like the Tetris-playing A.I. that paused the game in order to not lose). Adding to this complication is the fact that neural networks learn in ways that are difficult to track. They’re complicated. Not as complicated as brains, but they're still black boxes — not even the people operating Alpha-Go know exactly how it decides on the strategies it uses. 

This is fine for Go, but less fine when A.I. is running everything in society. Much like editing, it is nearly impossible to find every mistake. Humans are imperfect; there is a crack in everything. We’re still quite a ways off from an Artificial General Intelligence, but humans are error-prone. Eventually, someone will slip up, and if it’s bad enough, that’s it (again). We've already outsourced prison sentencing to A.I. and the fact that these systems are likely to make better predictions than the people doesn't mean there aren't unaccountable errors. While the first errors are likely going to be more benign (potentially unjust prison sentencing), the later ones will be far worse.

But circling back to number 4, this isn’t conjecture. For instance, Elon Musk has stated publicly that the existential threat from A.I. is one of the main motivators for SpaceX. Likewise, Neuralink is an awful, awkward, messy fix to the problem of A.I., but it’s at least theoretically sound. In this case, capitulation, resignation, and surrender look like spending a billion dollars to computerize our brains before the computers don’t need us anymore.

Postscript: I don’t want this to be interpreted as a ringing endorsement of Mr. Musk, he is certainly a man with many faults (as is readily evidenced by SpaceX’s labor lawsuits). Certainly, some of Silicon Valley’s more reprehensible practices are hard to justify, though I imagine it’s easier to sleep at night if you imagine yourself as working tirelessly to save humanity (Another checkmark in his favor is his recent resignation from Trump’s advisory council, since Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris accord made it clear that there’s no point trying to steer that ship).

Edit: Added a few more links. Also of note: optimism towards the future of AI seems to be limited to non-experts.

Monday, May 29, 2017

On the Connections Between Brains and Computers

Before we begin, a quick note: Tim Urban (of Wait But Why and TED Talk fame) wrote an excellent article about Brain-Computer interfaces and Elon Musk’s latest company: Neuralink. And I would happily send all my readers there, but with an important caveat: the article is 36,000 words and 81 pages long — not including any of the many labeled pictures and diagrams, nor the many attached videos, links, and parentheticals. Clearly, this is a man who is trying his best to demoralize content creators.

I am sympathetic to the fact that most people have extremely limited free time, so I have tried to condense Urban’s article down to the most necessary pieces. If any point lacks context, citations, or supporting information, please trust that it is a transcription error on my part, and not a reflection of the material.

Now, onto the lede:

Direct connections between human brains and artificially intelligent computers are coming. And I hope the transhumanists are right, because the alternatives are worse.

To better understand what this means, consider the human brain.
Not actual size (probably)

We are brains. From the “you” that’s looking out of your eyes, to your kids and your friends, each of them are all basically just big gross pudding-y masses of nerve and fat cells. And, with a few limited exceptions, we don’t understand how it works. 

That isn’t to say that we don’t have an understanding the physical workings of the brain, we (the neuroscientists, not me) have at least a rudimentary grasp on neurons, glial cells, and all the other assorted little pieces of the pudding. And they understand the big picture a little bit, the various lobes and superstructures that are responsible for different kinds of cognition.

Just kidding, this is literally as good as it gets. Not joking.
Unfortunately for the poor neuroscientists, the human brain is fiendishly complicated. And when it comes to translating that knowledge into how the brain actually works — what turns the firing of a neuron into a memory, a thought, or any of the many operations the brain constantly carries out, forget it. We know almost nothing. Not because we haven’t tried, but because it’s a very, very difficult problem.
But when has not knowing how something works ever stopped people from tinkering around? While our current technologies have all the subtlety of breaking an egg with a hammer, even our extremely primitive attempts at establishing direct connections with neurons have had extraordinary results. (see: Cochlear implants, “mind-controlled” prosthetics, etc.)
Another satisfied customer
But making babies happy and deaf people fiercely unhappy is not the only application of brain-computer interfaces. Several studies have established that direct communication from brain to brain is possible. At risk of understatement, this has broad implications.

I want to re-emphasize that point before moving on, as I agree that the whole idea sounds like science fiction. And although it may be ripped from the pages of pulp novels, I assure you, it is quite real. Moreover, it’s possible despite our having next to no understanding of the processes involved, using technologies only slightly more advanced than sticking a wire in there and hoping for the best. Welcome to the far-flung future of the 21st century. 

Now, I can't speak for everyone, but I personally find it very overwhelming trying to imagine how society may change by having the ability to receive other people's thoughts, ideas, images, and experiences directly into our brains. Makes my previous fretting over Virtual Reality seem positively quaint, by comparison.

But, as with many futuristic things, megalomaniacal cyber-man Elon Musk is not sitting on his hands: He's currently hard at work, dragging us kicking and screaming into the future through the terrifying grace of his own example. Which is.. good, I think? His stated values seem to align more or less with my own, though hearing tales of his miraculous works are more likely to fill me with dread than excitement. I’ll have to try and untangle that knot in a future post, because we have far bigger concerns: Artificial Intelligence.

Now I’ve written about A.I. before but, frankly, it’s just difficult to grasp the extent that A.I. is disrupting society already, much less what’s going to happen in the next few years. The end of work, and the end of human endeavor as we know it are not off the table, for if there is a hard limit to the tasks that can be successfully outsourced to artificial minds, we have not yet seen any evidence for it.

But even a moderately intelligent A.I. could have transformative effects when connected directly to our brains. Urban and Musk imagine a SIRI-esque A.I. capable of responding directly to thoughts — and communicating directly with our nervous systems. 

The easy example: if you wondered for a second what the capital of Madagascar is, the A.I. could deliver it instantly — eliminating the tedious steps of opening your phone, typing it in, and scrolling the search results until you find the answer (it’s Antananarivo). You could simply “know” any knowable fact.

Musk argues that our brains are already adapting to having easy access to the “digital tertiary layer” of address books, Wikipedia, and Facebook. To Musk, we’re already cyborgs, Neuralink is just a means to increase the bandwidth.

Of course, right now they’re mostly trying to build better limbs for paraplegics but, you know, baby steps. And, as horrifying as the idea of fully wired brains might be (intrusive thoughts are the pop-up ads of the future), it does seem like a clever way to ensure that some of the worst A.I. outcomes (Skynet, Paperclip maximizers, etc.) don’t come to pass. By literally making the A.I. part of us, we can be the dangerous super-intelligence we’d like to see in the world.

This is right in line with the traditional transhumanist goals of using technology to directly improve humanity, a position that always struck me as too utopian for comfort. The promises sound like the classics: eternal life, enhanced experiences, happiness, etc. My natural pessimism manifests as deep skepticism that people can be meaningfully improved, with a corresponding concern that the improvements will hold.

To put it another way, our bodies are very complicated, and there is (yet) no evidence to suggest that people can stay emotionally or psychologically healthy in artificial bodies for multiple hundreds of years of lifespan extension. Human beings go irrevocably insane and suffer terribly in solitary confinement, but our only way to uncover complimentary situations is to experience them first-hand. Perhaps life in artificial bodies would cause similar degradations, or exciting new ones. I have no faith in the blind idiot god to design human beings that can remain mentally healthy over millennia. 
The Blind Idiot God: Not especially photogenic
There are other arguments against transhumanism, but they’re more abstract and philosophical (i.e. can we lose the essence of humanity), and as such are more difficult to address. But personally, I have now been convinced of its necessity. Despite any justified misgivings, the existential threat that A.I. poses to humanity justifies extraordinary (and unpleasant) measures. Hooking ourselves up to any A.I. at least gives us a chance of keeping it on a short leash, greatly improving our chances of ensuring that our created intelligences respect human wishes and desires. 

And the danger is real. To belabor an overused metaphor, we’re apes on the verge of creating fire. It’s an extremely dangerous tool with infinite applications. The difference between cooking your food and burning down a forest is a stiff wind, or a poorly made campfire. Likewise, the worst-case A.I. scenarios are unimaginably bad, like “I hope there’s no other sentient life in the galaxy because they’ll be dead too” kind of bad. This is not even an exaggeration; if our A.I. became far enough gone to turn the planet into computer chips, there’s little reason why it would stop there.
Grey goo: the forest fire of the future!
Unfortunately, not inventing A.I. does not appear to be on the list of possible outcomes, so practical strategies are needed. While putting the A.I. in our heads trades one set of terrifying unknown problems for another set of terrifying unknown problems, in this case, it seems like the better of our options. If there’s going to be a fire, we should at least keep a close eye on it.