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.

Monday, May 22, 2017

On Russia

I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.                  
Winston Churchill

Rule of law is not consistent with state-sponsored brutality. When the Russian government attacks civilians in Chechnya, killing innocents without discrimination or accountability, neglecting orphans and refugees, it can no longer expect aid from international lending institutions. Moscow needs to operate with civilized self-restraint. 
Republican Party Platform of 2000

Elections are not a viable means of ensuring democratic change in Russia.  
Boris Berezovsky

I’m going to lead with a facile statement that, to me, is obvious and self-evident: Russia is Bad.

More specifically, Putin is bad. But as he is the king of Russia — a modern-day, autocratic czar — it is safe for the moment to ascribe criticisms of him directly to Russia.

As per usual, correctly determining the historical “start” of the discussion can save us a lot of time. From Caesar, the kings of Russia took their title: Czar, reigning for centuries as absolute monarchs.  The rulers changed, the names changed, but in the end, there was always an Emperor. The revolution of 1917 violently deposed Emperor Nicholas II, yet by 1924 there was another emperor: Joseph Stalin.

Stalin, thankfully, did not live forever, and his successors were successively weaker. Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempts to restructure and temper the extremes of Soviet society (glasnost and perestroika) were of decidedly mixed success; the government collapsed. A man who can win a Nobel peace prize is not an emperor iron-handed enough to rule Russia.

The fall of the Soviet Union is as good a place to start as any. When the USSR broke, it splintered into 15 independent republics: Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Estonia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. Most still share close ties with the Russian state.
Khazakstan is, by all accounts, "very nice".
The president of the newly minted Russian Federation, Boris Yeltzin, can charitably be described as "painfully corrupt". Under his administration, Russia’s GDP fell by 50%, quality of life sharply decreased, and oligarchs made billions off newly privatized industries. His own vice president denounced Yeltzin’s policies as “economic genocide” (though this is probably still preferable to regular old Stalin-style genocide). In response to the widespread popular unrest, Yeltzin attempted to disband the parliament, who disagreed vehemently. This was eventually solved by bringing in the army, killing a bunch of people, arresting the leaders of the resistance, and greatly strengthening the office of the president.

Enter Vladimir Putin, stage right. An ex-KGB agent and director of the Federal Security Service (FSB), he became influential very quickly; within a decade of entering politics, Yeltzin appointed him prime minister (August 9, 1999). Now hold onto your butts, because it goes fast from here and reputable sources are hard to come by. Finding sources clear, strong, and uncontestable enough to punch through the fog of misinformation surrounding Putin is difficult, for reasons I will soon make clear (we are seeing a similar effect in America, now that Putin’s “fake news” campaign has succeeded).

In early September 1999, 4 apartment buildings were bombed, killing 293 Russians and injuring more than 1000. This American Life summarizes what followed:

Putin blamed it on Chechen rebels, invaded Chechnya, started the Second Chechen War, which he won. It was a popular war. Catapulted him into the presidency. When he took office, he had 53% of the vote. And even back then, when he took office in 2000, there was a question. Did he bomb those buildings himself to create the pretext for the war and his own rise to power?

Moscow’s official story is odd at best. Chechnya had no apparent motivation, and planning/coordinating such widespread attacks on foreign soil would be almost impossible. The explosives used were military-grade, and access to the one factory that produced it was tightly controlled. But the most suspicious part of the story was their explanation for the “5th” bomb.

In the city of Ryazan, 2 weeks after the first bomb, two men in a suspicious car are observed carrying heavy bags down into the basement of an apartment block. The police are called, a detonator is found, the bags contain the same military-grade explosive used in the previous bombings (to which only the military and the FSB have access), and the men are badge-carrying FSB agents. Their presence and behavior is explained as a “training exercise”, and the whole thing is brushed aside in the face of the popular new war.

There are several other suspicious goings-on that I haven’t mentioned, and various investigations have been attempted by people within the government, journalists, and external human rights investigators. However, their findings have been limited, since the people investigating tend to abruptly turn up dead. This is a troubling pattern that we will come back to.

But none of that matters! The war is popular, and Putin is growing in popularity as the face of the war. Then, suddenly, on New Year’s Eve 1999, in what could disingenuously be described as a “Y2K” panic, Yeltzin resigns, naming Vladimir Putin as acting president. Putin then immediately suspends all corruption investigations into Boris Yeltzin, which is not suspicious in the slightest. Next, he reschedules the election, moving it up by months and giving the opposition party little time to mobilize. Thus, in March 2000, within 8 months of his initial appointment, Putin is elected president of Russia.

Since his election, he has “served” as president from 2000 to 2008, Prime Minister (as appointed by his direct successor) from 2008-2012, and president again from 2012 onwards. The Russian constitution had two 4-year term limits, as per the United States, until they were altered to allow Putin to run again. With the now 6-year term limits, Putin will be in office until his inevitable reelection in 2018. Presumably in 2024, something else will come up; a Czar does not relinquish his power.

During my research, I was struck by the parallels between the 1999 bombings in Russia and the September 11th attacks. Not because I think Bush was responsible (if journalists and the head of the 9/11 commission turned up dead, that would be a better parallel), but because in many ways, it doesn’t matter. Again, as per This American Life:

Whether the government or people around Putin played a role or whether they didn't, the effect is the same. Either you believe what they said about the bombings, that there were terrorists out to kill ordinary Russians, in which case you are frightened and the world is a very scary place; or you believe that your government or someone connected to the government could be bloody-minded enough to kill 300 innocent civilians in their beds, in which case the world is a very scary place and you should be frightened. This is how it works in a police state. You should be frightened. And that's how the government exercises control.

And control is very much the name of the game. But the problem is more subtle and insidious than a big singular bad guy. Putin is very popular in Russia, and the reasons are not easily brushed aside. During Putin’s first term, Russia’s GDP grew 72%, improving every year. Putin was instrumental in transforming the collapsed soviet state into a globe-spanning superpower — and his citizens love him for it. His approval rate remains incredibly high, with some polls suggesting support in excess of 80%. For a gestalt parallel, he’s as popular as Bush was in the weeks following 9/11, and has been for well over a decade. Russia is Putin-crazy, and it shows no signs of slowing down.
Our graph shows something else disturbing, but not surprising: a spike in popularity following the forcible annexation of Crimea. Typically, increased prosperity following a popular war against a weak enemy is the sort of thing that gets people going.

But the “how” is more relevant to our discussion, because there’s a big hidden piece to this puzzle: propaganda. Now I’m fairly confident that the images of propaganda closest to mind are WWII pieces: Rosie the Riveter, and so on. Modern propaganda is seldom so obvious. To this end, let us focus our attention on an ad-man by the name of Vladislav Surkov.
Here he is sitting next to Putin, discussing the situation in Ukraine with Angela Merkel
He’s an interesting guy. When he was officially banned from entering the United States due to his involvement with the Russian takeover of Crimea, he responded: “The only things that interest me in the US are Tupac Shakur, Allen Ginsberg, and Jackson Pollock. I don’t need a visa to access their work.” However, he’s also directly responsible for the government’s crackdown on free speech, intimidation of opposing parties, and quashing of journalists. So, a cool guy, but not a good one.

Under his auspices, Russia has moved toward a system he calls “Sovereign Democracy”, wherein the entire political landscape is carefully “managed”. (Though of course there is still reliance on the old standby: vote fixing). Any explanation of sovereign democracy is going to fall short, but imagine a system where viewpoints of all political parties are carefully planned and accounted for. Such a system may appear competitive, with actual dissent permitted. Yet, in a fascinating Goldstein-ian wrinkle, the ideologies of the party, the opposition, and everyone else are all written ahead of time. The Atlantic writes:

As the former deputy head of the presidential administration, later deputy prime minister and then assistant to the president on foreign affairs, Surkov has directed Russian society like one great reality show. He claps once and a new political party appears. He claps again and creates Nashi, the Russian equivalent of the Hitler Youth, who are trained for street battles with potential pro-democracy supporters and burn books by unpatriotic writers on Red Square. As deputy head of the administration he would meet once a week with the heads of the television channels in his Kremlin office, instructing them on whom to attack and whom to defend, who is allowed on TV and who is banned, how the president is to be presented, and the very language and categories the country thinks and feels in.
One moment Surkov would fund civic forums and human-rights NGOs, the next he would quietly support nationalist movements that accuse the NGOs of being tools of the West. With a flourish he sponsored lavish arts festivals for the most provocative modern artists in Moscow, then supported Orthodox fundamentalists, dressed all in black and carrying crosses, who in turn attacked the modern-art exhibitions. The Kremlin’s idea is to own all forms of political discourse, to not let any independent movements develop outside of its walls.

Unfortunately for us, Russia’s political managing is not contained within its borders. Human psychology is readily exploitable: give a man two choices, he can decide easily. Give him a hundred, and he’ll be choosing at random. Chaos is the tool and the goal. When fact and fiction cannot be distinguished, apathy and confusion are the inevitable results. Some of you may have been reading between the lines so far, but we’ll get back to that in a second.

Going back to Putin’s 80% approval rate, identifying the source of the protests is instructive. The state-run news programs (and at this point they are all state-run) still hold massive sway, but the fiercest opposition comes from intellectuals, students, and anyone with access to media not filtered through Surkov’s machine. It’s no wonder, then, that the first step to control is to destroy trust of any news, especially news you do not directly regulate.

We have been witnessing the development of a similar system in the United States for quite some time: the parallel “right wing” news organizations of Fox, Breitbart, et al. The rallying cry of “fake news” is only new here, in Russia it has been the name of the game for over a decade. While the commentariat is talking about Russian “weaponization” of fake news, the truth is even worse.

They’re all on the same side. Putin’s government is highly conservative and nationalistic, and happily supports groups in any countries whose views align with theirs. We’ve seen accusations of influence and interference in America, Britain, France, Netherlands, and more, but it takes two to tango. There are ready allies in countries all over the world, who are anxious and eager to turn the clock back on international cooperation, human rights, and anything else inconvenient. With the advent of the internet, international borders are no impediment to information sharing, and Russia has responded accordingly. Surkov’s political machine doesn’t stop at Moscow’s edge, it works on any media it can touch. That is to say, on all of them.

Legalities are of no great concern; international law is something to be obeyed only when it serves the national interest. Russia has been waging what Surkov deems a “non-linear war”, and it has been doing so for some time. This is bad.

Democracy is losing, human rights are losing, Liberal ideals, and the concept that people have a right to appoint their own government is losing, and it’s losing on every conceivable axis. Which is exactly what we would expect to see, if only one side was actively waging war. It’s about slow and steady gains, which is exactly what we’re seeing.
That's St. Basil's cathedral, but I get what you're saying TIME magazine.
Now I am (ostensibly) trying not to be alarmist, and it’s not like all the credit can be pushed onto Russia — there are other historical forces at work. But if any place could be said to be the cause, it’s Russia. The cold war has ended in name only, and any alliance with Russia will only go as far as Russia’s self-interest. By deliberate design, the Russian citizenry is cynical, amoral, and unconcerned with higher ideals. The leader of the country with one of the largest nuclear arsenals in the world, makes a deliberate policy of antagonizing the west and destabilizing it on any available axis. And, as in any such conflict, nuclear war is never far from the table.

Basically, if your political views are in alignment with a person who kills journalists and political opponents, while waging aggressive war on neighboring countries, it might be wise to reevaluate them.

Fighting back is an important first step, but even more important is establishing a kind of quarantine, a digital iron curtain. We need a secure system, with verifiable tags and sources. It is na├»ve to assume that information and propaganda have no power; there is a reason China strictly regulates its internet. If the internet is a channel of attack, we may have to do the same. 

(Though China is probably not the best country to imitate if we're trying to retain our ideals)

Obviously, I’m not in favor of a censored internet, but unless we have a strong enough counter-informational campaign (which we do not), the ideals we (should) value most are vulnerable.

I can only hope we aren't too late.

5/29/17 EDIT: Trump's advancement of Russian interests is proceeding apace

At this point, it seems clear that it doesn't actually matter whether Trump colluded with Russia or not. Active collusion simply isn't needed; the policies and interests being advanced are the bigger concern. If there's no collusion, it's because none is necessary.