Sunday, October 11, 2015

A natural park for humans

Can humans live in ecological balance with robots ? Artwork by Robert Chew.

A brief history of ecological time: 

Prof. Stephen Hawking recently did a Reddit AMA, where he answered two distinct types of questions: about AI-pocalypse where an AI smarter than humans would spell the end for us, and about technological unemployment where humans lose jobs to robots and AI, that are not necessarily smarter than us in all aspects. I have previously written that the first type of questions based on AI-pocalyptic thinking are distracting. So I will ignore such issues and focus on what Prof. Hawking said on technological unemployment.

Have you thought about the possibility of technological unemployment (, where we develop automated processes that ultimately cause large unemployment by performing jobs faster and/or cheaper than people can perform them? Some compare this thought to the thoughts of the Luddites, whose revolt was caused in part by perceived technological unemployment over 100 years ago. In particular, do you foresee a world where people work less because so much work is automated? Do you think people will always either find work or manufacture more work to be done?

The outcome will depend on how things are distributed. Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution. So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality.
Prof. Hawking's candid response ruffled a lot of feathers.  Marc Andreessen, the master venture capitalist of Silicon Valley, who created the Netscape Navigator web browser, and thus arguably created the world wide web as we know it today, has tweeted as follows.

In fact, this is a mischaracterization. Prof. Hawking was clearly arguing against greed and inequality  in capitalism, and not against the automation of work. He is not alone in questioning the current economic paradigm of liberal capitalism, driven mostly by the free movement of global financial capital. Many economists, such as Thomas Piketty in Paris, have documented the rising economic inequality of the current era. Many other economists, despite supporting the free market paradigm, are also questioning the instability and chaos wrought onto the market by modern financial innovations such as derivative trading, high frequency algorithmic trading and global financial deregulation. I have previously argued that the automation of finance is directly connected to the aggregation of data into monopolistic systems, which I termed as Octopuses. The architecture of the world wide web, as developed by Tim Berners-Lee and popularized by Marc Andreessen,  is responsible at a fundamental level for the growing monopolization of the global economy. Thus, it is the specific architecture of computer systems that we chose to develop, and not computation and automation in general, that are responsible for technological unemployment.

In this blog, I will argue that inequality and monopolization, though awful in their own terms, are actually symptoms of a deeper malaise, which is the destruction of biodiversity and ecological balance. This is a story much older than the advent of computers, or indeed, the advent of money.  It is a story as old as hundred thousand years, starting from the spread of humans outside Africa. Ever since that defining moment lost in the depths of time, we humans have systematically destroyed biodiversity on this planet, turning millions of plant and animal species extinct. The scary news is that this rate of species extinction is actually accelerating. In this long dance of death, only one species has been left unaffected - us. But for how long ?

The history of human civilization can be viewed as a long march towards peace, prosperity and health, as forcefully argued by Prof. Steven Pinker and visualized in nice graphs by Max Roser of Oxford University. Human violence has fallen dramatically over the past few centuries. People today in most parts of the world enjoy long peaceful lives in good health. This picture will only get better as  abject poverty continues to drop and medical science continues to progress. However, there are other graphs that illustrate the Anthropocene, the current geological era marked by species extinction and destruction of ecological habitats.  So where is the destiny for humans, in the first set of graphs or in the second set ? Can humans be separated from ecological interdependency that characterizes every other species on this planet ?

We humans are super-predators that kill fully grown adult animals, whereas other predators kill mostly juveniles that are still not ready to breed. Thus, we have successfully wiped out entire species by predation. We are also a highly adaptable species that survives in extremely different geographic climes - from the poles to the tropics, where we encroach onto the ecological niches of other animals and drive them to starvation. Due to our enormous brains and highly cohesive social structure, we humans are efficient virtualizers, who can simulate the behavior of other animals and outcompete them for ecological niches. When one species goes extinct, it brings down a whole network of species that co-evolved with it. Certain animal species, like rats and crows, as well as domestic animals and pets, have co-evolved with us and out-compete many other species to extinction. This aspect of virtualization of behavior gives a good hint of how robots and AI will relate to us humans. As Alan Turing has proved in the universal aspect of computation, computers can be used to simulate any type of behavior in a pristine mathematical sense. In this regard, robots will be even better than us at virtualization of behavior. So will we maintain an ecological balance with them ? Or will we be out-competed across all of our ecological niches ? This is definitely a question for ecological biology and not just for philosophy.

Oikouménē: A cartography of human habitat

Human societies typically considered themselves to be part of nature, although the modern capitalist society is an aberration from the norm. Every cultural tradition that arose in hunting-gathering or agricultural societies has been conscious of ecological limits in nature and developed norms to respect them. However, these lessons were only learnt in retrospect, after observing massive destruction of ecological habitats. Only much later were they encoded in ethics, religion and economic behavior of humans. In all of our past human history, we were able to find new habitats where the learnt lessons could be implemented - by slashing and burning more forest, by spreading across the oceans, by creating technology that enabled us to survive in harsher climes. However, the rate of our technological progress has shrunk the planet. We do not have a second planet to apply the lessons that we learn today. There will be no going back to the drawing table. Earth, the pale blue dot in the vastness of the cosmos, that supported life and shaped our evolution as humans, remains our only home. So there is an urgency to get to grips with the awesomeness of our destructive power, even if all we care for is the selfish survival of our own species.

Ancient Greeks were probably the first to seriously study the geographical habitat of where humans can survive. They termed it Oikouménē (Oikos is home in Greek). Anaximander, Aristotle and ultimately Ptolemy derived detailed maps of the earth that can be inhabited by humans. This gave birth to the disciplines of not only geography and cartography (map making), but also economy and ecology (both derive from the root word of Oikos). In fact, it is impossible to study geography in isolation to the qualitative aspects of economics and ecology. We can also argue that ecology and economics cannot be studied separately from each other, and from the limits imposed by geography. So how is it that today's field of economics is so completely devoid of geographical and ecological consciousness ? How is it that it became an esoteric quasi-religious discipline that establishes truths of its own - on market stability, growth, production etc., independent of ecological limits ? Especially in the fields of macro-economics and finance, where the decisions affect the society on a global level, this selective ignorance of ecological limits will be disastrous. There is a tendency in free market ideologues - the  school of economics that is the most influential today,  to disparage ecological limits altogether as inconsequential,  and subscribe to a belief in the miracles of technology to produce more with less. Green revolution, that expanded agricultural yields, is often cited as proof. But agricultural yields increased only because of concerted scientific investment and technological development after noticing and accepting a severe threat; not by ignoring the ecological limits altogether and not by performing laissez-faire capitalism.

Ptolemy's map of the Oikoumené, reconstructed from the description in his book "Geography". 

Today, we have the serious threat of climate change due to the incessant burning of fossil fuels. Despite the clear evidence that we need a moratorium on fossil fuels (vast reserves of coal, oil and natural gas should be left forever buried under the ground),  we keep funding the exploration of new fossil fuels. Our entire economy is deeply enmeshed with the financial interests of oil and natural gas. The network of financial capital, enabled by a loose regulatory framework on a global level, obscures these interests through several layers of virtualization of capital.  In fact, it is impossible to fix any single ecological issue without fixing the rut in financial capital, and the algorithms and computers that enable them.  It is important to note that climate change is not the only ecological threat facing us as humans. There are several planetary boundaries that have been identified, with varying degrees of precision by environmental scientists. However, unlike ancient Greeks, we ignore them completely in our study of economics and Oikouménē.

Planetary boundaries for survival of humans, more information is available in the book "The God Species" by Mark Lynas.  

The economic situation today is so absurd that it should put to rest any ideas that humans are under conscious control, either politically or economically, on our planet. Great wars are being waged today between nuclear armed countries, to secure the mines and distribution pipelines of fossil fuels. Vast populations are being bombarded and displaced geographically. The developed economies of the west are completely clueless about where to invest financially, so as to fund health insurance and  secure the retirement benefits of aging citizens.  Periodic booms and busts of real estate and related non-productive sectors are happening with increasing frequency. On the other hand, vast sections of developing economies are suffering from high unemployment and poor education, especially of the youth. Everybody is terrorized by the whimsies of capital flight, that can happen at the drop of a hat. It is important to note that there is no conscious human agency, either benevolent or malevolent, at the crux of these economic disasters. On the other hand, these faults are systemic - similar to the fractures and creases in a dam that will inevitably result in flooding. But unlike physical fractures, fixing economic fractures is not easy. We are up against the tangle of systemic interests that are deeply enmeshed, and operated today by computer algorithms. Many of these algorithms are closed source, either because they are part of secretive operating procedures of companies and financial institutions, or because they belong to governments but are hidden underneath legal jargon and diplomatic channels. Increasingly, the algorithms that make up a government are being rendered invisible using secret courts (such as the FISA court of USA) or trans-continental business partnerships that are not accountable to any country's law.

There is an important United Nations conference on Climate Change in Paris next month, to achieve a legally binding resolution on all countries to limit the burning of fossil fuels. But hopes are low everywhere. At the global level, the architecture of economic and political systems is so rotten that any agreement that is achieved then will be immediately violated, in spirit if not in letter. So if we are not able to fix the problems at a global level, what can we do to ensure an Oikouménē for the future generations of humanity ?

A natural park for humans 

Yellowstone national park: the first national park in the world 

The answer to this question might be what American novelist Wallace Stegner called the best invention of USA.
"National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst."
In 1871, an American geologist named Ferdinand Heyden has achieved the status of a National Park for the Yellowstone region, after feverishly campaigning for several years. He argued that if the federal government fails to protect the territory, nothing will remain of this beautiful landscape.
"The vandals who are now waiting to enter into this wonder-land, will in a single season despoil, beyond recovery, these remarkable curiosities, which have requited all the cunning skill of nature thousands of years to prepare."
The Yellowstone national park gave birth to a widespread movement all over the world, where large tracts of land were set aside by the governments, where sensitive natural ecological balance is maintained and spared from human interference.  It is crucial to note that the value assigned for these national parks is not human monetary benefit, but a spiritual value in letting nature be for nature's sake. It is a value that cannot be measured in human currency of whatever make.

From the very beginning, the involvement of humans in a national park has been up for debate and riddled with racist and classist overtones. Traditional people, such as hunter-gatherer tribes, have long been living in natural landscapes by maintaining ecological balance. With whatever tools and technologies under their employ, they have learnt to curtail their tendencies of greed and over-exploitation of nature, by learning the lessons the hard way over generations. Now as their lands and livelihoods became federal property, they were displaced and succumbed to living in despair under tribal reservations. In many cases, their languages and cultural lore became extinct, as it was devoid of the essence of living in their  natural environment. This specter of cultural extinction is a constant throughout human history and it is accelerating today, just like the parallel rate of biological species extinction.

If we widen the definition of cultural extinction to include the extinction of professions and regular daily routines of people, the story will get much worse. Over the course of civilization, humans have specialized into varied professions based on the specifics of local geography and the availability of economic resources. Often these professions existed for centuries and over generations, thereby crystallizing into a cultural lore on how to lead a happy life in the society. Even today, people who lead long and happy lives invariably live in socially cohesive village societies, whose support is as essential in old age as medicines invented by science. However, in the last couple of centuries, this idyll of village life is getting eroded as many professions disappeared and people were forced to migrate in search of transient opportunities. With automation and robotics, these professions have become even more transient, requiring a nomadic existence where the daily routine will never gets crystallized into a precise set of norms. This constant disruption of routine (and the threat of unemployment) will produce anxiety, to which our species has not been prepared by evolution, even with our large brains and adaptable societies.

So why is it that we refuse to cast humans as deserving of ecological protection, just as trees and animals in a natural park ? We can answer this question in two distinct ways. I believe one answer will lead us to racism and narrow-minded ness, whereas the other answer will lead us to compassion and happiness.

The first answer is centered on "us", trying to protect our specific professions and lifestyles. We can do this by framing laws and closing borders, even as we ignore the plight of other humans and other animals. This is the impetus of conservative politics, that I do not support, even as I understand the anxiety and tensions behind them.  Essentially, conservative politics is blind to a paradox: if we claim protection on the basis of ecological grounds, how can we ignore the plight of other animals and humans ? Are they not as essential as us for maintaining the ecological balance ?

The second answer is centered on "them", trying to protect the specific professions and lifestyles of other humans. This needs to be done beyond any monetary value for justification. When we create a national park, we do not try to measure the value of nature in a human currency, but associate a greater "spiritual" or "ecological" value for the mere existence of nature in balance. Similarly, when we try to protect the professions and lifestyles of other humans, we need to protect them for their own sake. Can we humans be grand enough to overcome selfish greed and protect other humans and animals ? Can we be vigilant enough to protect the ecological balance of other humans and animals, even if we get nothing in return ? Indeed, there is one direct benefit with this type of thinking: compassion leads to happiness.

We can start with cases that urgently need help: traditional people living in subsistence lifestyles throughout the world are under threat. Their lands are being encroached by mining corporations, loggers or livestock farmers. They suffer high rates of sexual and criminal violence. Can we sacrifice something to protect their traditional lifestyle even if we do not share their ethics or morals ?   Can we preserve their languages ? We can then widen this net of compassion for marginal groups of people that live within our own society: sexual minorities, drug addicts, undocumented immigrants. Can we sacrifice something to preserve this lifestyle of others, even if we do not agree with this lifestyle and do not believe in a common destiny with them ?

Raising an AI with good parenting

These questions are not mere philosophical nuisance. These are practical steps to preserve our own Oikouménē, as it comes under threat by robots and AI.  BBC has recently interviewed economists Erik Brynjolffson and Andrew McAffee, where they gave advice to readers on which jobs will be hard to be replaced by AI (and thus relatively stable). This line of thinking is too deterministic and focussed on the current moment. In fact, trying not to be replaced by a robot is a race that gives no pleasure to any human, as the robots will eventually catch up. If we are bound to run this race, we are definitely screwed.

Most people think of robots as alien beings. Even people who believe in the eventuality of strong AI -  i.e, an emergent artificial consciousness similar to human consciousness, still imagine this AI to be devoid of  any ecological connections to the environment.  Essentially, this is indicative of how desensitized they themselves are, as humans, from the environment. I found it illuminating to think about this aspect in popular movies and books. How many animals have we seen in the Matrix trilogy of movies ? It is as if the entire movie happens in an ecological vacuum consisting of humans and robots, without any other biological life. In general, how much of wildlife do we see in any movie or books about AI ? Isn't it absurd that any AI that comes out of this planet will be disconnected to the ecological niches on this planet ?  If we as humans create good ecological niches that require compassion, any AI that comes to occupy these niches will be compassionate to us. On the other hand, if we create ecological niches that blindly optimize for selfish greed, we cannot guarantee that the interests of AI will be aligned with those of us humans.

Dylan Evans, a British cognitive scientist,  said in a radio interview recently that two things seem to happen to people working on intelligent systems. They either become ecstatic believers of a rapture-like moment, where AI will solve all our problems, or they become paranoid about the terrible enslavement of humanity by a super-complex system.  Bill Joy, the creator of the Java programming language, was the first one I knew of who flipped. Dylan Evans himself flipped to apocalyptic thinking a few years ago. The problem with either ecstatic or apocalyptic mental states is that it is hard to think rationally and reasonably. I believe that having an ecological mindset will help computer scientists to cultivate more nuanced opinions about AI.

I will end this blog on a personal note. I recently attended a brilliant talk by Prof. Tom Mitchell of Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), on how to raise a machine.  This happened at an event celebrating 25 years of Max Planck Institute for Informatics, where I am an alumnus. But I am also an alumnus of CMU, where I was a visiting student twelve years ago. When I was at CMU, Prof. Mitchell's course on machine learning was over-registered and the lecture halls were always filled to capacity. So I was not able to take his course, although I sneaked into some of his lectures. At that time, he just finished an introductory text book on machine learning. The field has advanced greatly in the last ten years, so it was a great opportunity for me to hear from Prof. Mitchell what he thought of the progress. He spoke of the paradigm of function approximation and optimization that achieved the greatest success in machine learning in recent years. But he admitted that this was also something of a disappointment. He recalled a conversation with his mother, where he was trying to explain what machine learning means, when she said

I know about learning. I raised you. 
This is a great analogy. Human children learn about a lot of things (a lot of functions to approximate), and they learn how to learn. Raising a machine needs to be done in a similar fashion. With this as inspiration, Prof. Mitchell created NELL (never ending language learner) - a machine that is never shut down and  that has been trying to build a conceptual model (ontology) of the world, by learning over several years from the web.  This is the closest I am aware of, to an AI that is capable of reaching human-level consciousness, even as it stands extremely far from this goal.  As we see, such a machine needs to be "raised", from examples and good parenting. If we humans create awful examples - by exterminating our ancestors, by destroying eco-systems, by eliminating rivals without compassion - we should not complain if our children (AI) will do the same to us.

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