Daniel Dennett: “Will AI Achieve Consciousness? Wrong Question”

Daniel C. Dennett in Wired:

From “What Can We Do?” by Daniel C. Dennett. Adapted from Possible Minds: Twenty-Five Ways of Looking at AI, edited by John Brockman.

WHEN NORBERT WIENER, the father of cybernetics, wrote his book The Human Use of Human Beings in 1950, vacuum tubes were still the primary electronic building blocks, and there were only a few actual computers in operation.

BUT HE IMAGINED the future we now contend with in impressive detail and with few clear mistakes. More than any other early philosopher of artificial intelligence, he recognized that AI would not just imitate—and replace—human beings in many intelligent activities but would change human beings in the process. “We are but whirlpools in a river of ever-flowing water,” he wrote. “We are not stuff that abides, but patterns that perpetuate themselves.”

When attractive opportunities abound, for instance, we are apt to be willing to pay a little and accept some small, even trivial cost of doing business for access to new powers. And pretty soon we become so dependent on our new tools that we lose the ability to thrive without them. Options become obligatory.

More here.

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An astronomical data challenge

Manuel Gnida in Symmetry:

The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope—scheduled to come online in the early 2020s—will use a 3.2-gigapixel camera to photograph a giant swath of the heavens. It’ll keep it up for 10 years, every night with a clear sky, creating the world’s largest astronomical stop-motion movie.

The results will give scientists both an unprecedented big-picture look at the motions of billions of celestial objects over time, and an ongoing stream of millions of real-time updates each night about changes in the sky.

Accomplishing both of these tasks will require dealing with a lot of data, more than 20 terabytes each day for a decade. Collecting and storing the enormous volume of raw data, turning it into processed data that scientists can use, distributing it among institutions all over the globe, and doing all of this reliably and fast requires elaborate data management and technology.

More here.

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Sovereignty, Delusion, And The Economics Of Brexit

Mona Ali in The Political Quarterly:

Reclaiming national sovereignty has been a mantra of Brexiteers. Yet one of the many ironies of Brexit is that Britain actually enjoys a special status within the EU. In fact, the many exemptions and concessions secured by the UK – from constraints on sovereignty imposed by EU membership – brings to mind Carl Schmitt’s dictim: ‘sovereign is he who decides the exception’.

Most Brexit calculations, which weigh the costs of exiting the EU against the benefits of EU membership in monetary terms, ignore these intangible and often immeasurable aspects of Britain’s geo-strategic power.

On more than one occasion, Britain has embroiled the EU in drawn-out renegotiations of the very terms upon which it had agreed to join the supranational federation. In 2016, for instance, David Cameron signed Britain out of the first clause of the Treaty on European Union, where other member countries promise to strive towards a ‘ever closer union’.

This was not a one-off instance. In 1975, just two years after its accession to the European Economic Community, the UK opted out of the European Monetary Union.

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Darwin’s Sacred Song

Christopher Douglas at the Marginalia Review of Books:

Darwin is recognized as a great scientist, but he was also a profound, and sometimes poetic, writer. His style of striking images, suggestive metaphors, and apt concision becomes apparent in Gregory Brown’s Missa Charles Darwin, which sets Darwin’s words to sacred music. Brown’s “Missa” (Latin for mass) adapts the genre of sacred music and liturgy to give expression to some of Darwin’s most important ideas – which are also the most theologically disturbing ones. The result is a strangely beautiful piece of music, made even more intriguing by Brown’s compositional practice of using a transcribed sequence of DNA from Darwin’s famous finches to set the musical score for the opening movement. The mass is being performed in Victoria and Vancouver on January 15th and 16th by the New York Polyphony, a vocal quartet, and may have other dates in 2019.

more here.

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Hating Jonathan Franzen

Kevin Power at the Dublin Review of Books:

But in fact what is remarkable about the opprobrium heaped on Franzen by the online literati is that it seems to have very little to do with his actual work. The author of the Medium essay I quoted above clearly has not read Franzen’s fiction (or if she has she has failed to understand it). But she knows how she feels about the man. And this is typical. Successive waves of online Franzen-hatred have generally taken the form of ad hominem responses to essays, or to remarks made in interviews, or to his occasional appearances on television. That Franzen’s opinions – expressed in forms, very much including the essay, that he has not mastered and that tend to serve him poorly – so often go against the contemporary grain (for instance his distrust of social media) or situate him squarely in a trainspotterish cul de sac of hobbyism (all that birdwatching) mean that he is, from the point of view of the virtue-signalling culture warriors of Twitter, a soft target. Here, once again, Franzen may have to take some of the blame. It’s difficult to think of another contemporary novelist who is served so poorly by out-of-context quotation, or by his own inability to craft acceptable soundbites.

more here.

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The Life of Eric Hobsbawm

John Gray at Literary Review:

Although he admired Marxist historical materialism and applied a version of it to his study of the past in his work, the roots of Hobsbawm’s attachment to communism were emotional rather than theoretical. As Richard Evans writes, ‘The ecstatic feeling of being part of a great mass movement whose members were closely bound together by their common ideals engendered a lifelong, viscerally emotional sense of belonging.’ Early in his life, Evans tells us, Hobsbawm experienced a similar emotion in the boy scouts. His need to belong may have reflected his insecure family life (he became an orphan at the age of fourteen when his mother died of tuberculosis). He remained a member of the British Communist Party until shortly before its dissolution in 1991. But British communism was more like a marginal sect than a mass movement, and he seems to have felt a certain distance from its activists, never becoming one himself.

A powerfully influential figure, Hobsbawm needs a thorough biography. Evans’s, which uses a good deal of hitherto unpublished material, will be definitive. Whether the book had to be so long is another matter.

more here.

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Wednesday Poem

“Memorize ‘Dover Beach’ for Monday”

As for rioting, the old Roman way of dealing for that is
always the right one: flog the rank and file and  fling the
ringleaders from Tarpeian Rock.
                                     —Matthew Arnold,
…………………………..…“The Duty to Suppress”

Suppress this, I gestured
and slammed the classroom door, not just
on a bespectacled teacher desperate for tenure,
but on the entire nineteenth century’s craven
imperialism. After all I was a high-school sophomore,
so there was no way I was going
,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,, to think
about a fop with porkchop whiskers
who, intending to be conciliatory,
crossed out crucify the slaves
and, instead, flog the rank and file.
Flog you!
I shouted at Algernon Charles Swinburne
and Alfred Lord Tennyson.
…………………….I didn’t wish to learn
how Matthew Arnold stayed up all night
grading exams by the bedside
of his tubercular son. The author of Culture and Anarchy
romping with piglets
……………………in his garden?
Teaching his daughter figure eights
on the pond? The day before he died
leaping a fence
for the pure pleasure of being able to do so.
I wanted my enemies
to have the decency to be consistent:
……………………pricks or prigs. Not to have
been fitted for leg irons as a child.
If I gave in and felt sorry for all the poets
who didn’t know when to shut up,
let me worry about the entire nineteenth century
and even the poor teachers who made us read
that panic disguised as elegy,
……………………I’d not make it
to my next class, much less survive one more
day on this planet, its confused alarms,
it ignorant armies, its darkling plain.

by Christopher Bursk
from The First Inhabitants of Arcadia
University of Arkansas Press, 2006

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Giovanni’s Room shows the fearful side of dauntless James Baldwin

Sam Jordison in The Guardian:

Today James Baldwin is most frequently encountered as a “trailblazer of the civil rights movement”; a magnificent prophet who declared that “ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have”. His contemporary relevance is so obvious it hardly needs to be stated – although it’s always good to be reminded. To watch him in the recent documentary I Am Not Your Negro is exhilarating, showing just what an unstoppable moral and intellectual force he was. It’s not just that it’s hard to disagree with him; it’s impossible to argue with him. Representatives of the old order charge towards his machine-gun rhetoric like sword-waving cavalrymen and they are mown down.

He was politely devastating when Professor Paul Weiss tried to tell him on the Dick Cavett TV chatshow that he shouldn’t be so concerned about “colour”, when his life has been threatened, and his friends have been killed, precisely because of colour. Meanwhile, the footage of Baldwin shredding the rightwing commentator William F Buckley at the Cambridge Union is one of the most impressive rhetorical performances of the modern age. “It is a terrible thing for an entire people to surrender to the notion that one ninth of its population is beneath them,” he said toward the end of his speech. “Until the moment comes when we, the Americans, are able to accept the fact that my ancestors are both black and white, that on that continent we are trying to forge a new identity, that we need each other, that I am not a ward of America, I am not an object of missionary charity, I am one of the people who built the country – until this moment comes there is scarcely any hope for the American dream.” At his conclusion, the room erupted in a standing ovation. Baldwin’s words were forged in injustice and tragedy, making his delivery all the more remarkable. It feels impossible to imagine anyone who could ever take him on.

More here.

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Confronting the Relics of the Old South

Lisa Oliver in Boston Review:

Relics have the power to galvanize and unify people for diverse ideological ends. A broad category of objects, relics can be anything from the body parts of holy figures to objects intimately associated with their lives. They have long been central to many religions, prized for their ability to transmit the aura and sanctity of those to whom they belonged. Relics of Saint Teresa of Avila were so valued, for example, that when her body was exhumed for canonization in 1622, clerics smuggled away her fingers and toes, sometimes in their mouths. But there are secular relics as well, from clippings of Marie Antoinette’s hair to the preserved corpse of Vladimir Lenin. Through sheer proximity to these relics, the faithful feel the full solemnity of the deceased’s presence and their greater impact on history.

I was reminded of the power of secular relics during a recent visit to Montgomery, Alabama, where the newly-opened National Memorial for Peace and Justice uses unlikely relics to force a reckoning with our history of racial violence, and where, in opposition, the First White House of the Confederacy exploits relics to whitewash that same history.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice was constructed to honor over 4,400 African Americans lynched between 1877 and 1950. It sits just over a mile from the First White House of the Confederacy, formerly the home of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, who owned over a hundred slaves at the outbreak of the Civil War. The proximity of these two sites reflects more broadly on Montgomery as a city of contested historical memory. Likewise, the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King, Jr., served as pastor from 1954 to 1960, is just a stone’s throw from a monument to the inauguration of Davis as president of the Confederacy; and the headquarters of the Equal Justice Initiative—a criminal justice reform nonprofit that runs the lynching memorial—is located in a former slave warehouse.

But a paired viewing of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the First White House of the Confederacy illuminates particularly well the chasm in how relics continue to be used to narrate—or silence—the interconnected histories of slavery, the Civil War, and the ideology of white supremacy.

More here. (Note: Throughout February, we will publish at least one post dedicated to Black History Month)

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February 19, 2019

Leibniz And The Texts Of Deep History

Justin E. H. Smith in Extinct:

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz never finished the principal task assigned to him by his boss, Georg Ludwig, Elector of Hanover. When the latter became King of England in 1704 –the beginning of the ‘Hanoverian usurpation’ that still enjoys some sort of power in the United Kingdom and some of its former possessions–, Leibniz, the delinquent court genealogist, was not invited to join him, as he had hoped. Instead he was made to stay behind, in the expectation that he would finally complete his long overdue history of the medieval origins of Georg Ludwig’s own Guelf family, and of their distant union with the Italian Este dynasty: a forgotten alliance that, once reestablished, might yield up validation for new territorial claims.

Leibniz’s principal excuse for taking so long was, he felt, that in order to write a history properly one must begin at the beginning. And he understood this in the most rigorous sense possible: not the beginning of the Guelfs, nor even of humanity, but that of the continents, oceans, and mountains, and the several curiosities discovered within them. Any true history, Leibniz thought, is big history. And thus by the early 1690s, after several years of largely unsuccessful mine-engineering projects in the Harz Mountains, the philosopher set about writing what would come to be called the Protogaea, a text that may rightly be seen as the first instalment in the planned history of his employer’s ancestors.

More here.

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Sean Carroll’s Mindscape Podcast: Paul Bloom on Empathy, Rationality, Morality, and Cruelty

Sean Carroll in Preposterous Universe:

Within every person’s mind there is on ongoing battle between reason and emotion. It’s not always a battle, of course; very often the two can work together. But at other times, our emotions push us toward actions that our reason would counsel against. Paul Bloom is a well-known psychologist and author who wrote the provocatively-titled book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, and is currently writing a book about the nature of cruelty. While I sympathize with parts of his anti-empathy stance, I try to stick up for the importance of empathy in the right circumstances. We have a great discussion about the relationship between reason and emotion.

More here.

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For a Black Mathematician, What It’s Like to Be the ‘Only One’

Amy Harmon in the New York Times:

It was not an overt incident of racism that prompted Edray Goins, an African-American mathematician in the prime of his career, to abandon his tenured position on the faculty of a major research university last year.

The hostilities he perceived were subtle, the signs of disrespect unspoken.

There was the time he was brushed aside by the leaders of his field when he approached with a math question at a conference. There were the reports from students in his department at Purdue University that a white professor had warned them not to work with him.

One of only perhaps a dozen black mathematicians among nearly 2,000 tenured faculty members in the nation’s top 50 math departments, Dr. Goins frequently asked himself whether he was right to factor race into the challenges he faced.

More here.

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Remembering Dan Fante

Douglas Mallon at 3:AM Magazine:

I met Dan Fante at one of the darkest times in my life. I didn’t know who he was, what he’d done, or who his father was either. I’d never read Ask The Dust — the seminal American novel I now hold to be one of the two most beautiful novels ever written. (All Quiet On The Western Front being the other). It’s just so amazing as I sit here in a Starbucks in Santa Monica all these years later — just killing time — waiting for the noon 26th & Broadway meeting to start — how masterfully this “thing” some of us call God orchestrates the countless subtle miracles that continually escort me on my journey across the plains of this existence.

You can tell based on that last sentence that I didn’t major in English at Columbia — though I did score some weed near the campus a time or two throughout my wayward youth.

more here.

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The Power of Andrea Dworkin’s Rage

Johanna Fateman at the NYRB:

In her work, rage is authority; her imperious voice and dirty mouth make for a feminist literature empty of caveats and equivocation. And reading her now, beyond the anti-porn intransigence she’s both reviled and revered for, one feels a prescient apocalyptic urgency, one perfectly calibrated, it seems, to the high stakes of our time. In the #MeToo era, women’s unsparing public testimony—in granular detail and dizzying quantity—is at the heart of a mainstream cultural reckoning with sexual violence and harassment. Such frank accounts were not at the forefront, though, or even in the picture, of early second-wave feminism. Dworkin’s emergence as a militant figure of the women’s movement in New York was part of a turn: she was one of the first writers to use her own experiences of rape and battery in a revolutionary analysis of male supremacy. This is not to say that Dworkin’s books are all autobiographical, but in all of her work—from her frequently cited polemics to her desolate, little-known works of autofiction—she boldly identifies herself with victims, unafraid to brand herself with an image of female abjection and sexual shame in the name of justice. 

more here.

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How Chinese Novelists are Reimagining Science Fiction

Will Dunn at The New Statesman:

One afternoon in June 1999, more than three million Chinese schoolchildren took their seats for the Gaokao, the country’s national college entrance exam. Essay subjects in previous years had been patriotic – “the most touching scene from the Great Leap Forward” (1958) – or prosaic –“trying new things” (1994) – but the final essay question of the millennium was a vision of the future: “what if memories could be transplanted?”

Chen Quifan, who is published in the West as Stanley Chen, says this was the moment that modern Chinese science fiction was born. “Earlier that year,” he explains to me in the offices of his London publisher, “there was a feature on the same topic in the biggest science fiction magazine in China, Science Fiction World. It was a coincidence, but a lot of parents then thought, OK – reading science fiction can help my children go to a good college.”

more here.

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Tuesday Poem

Slow Dance

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Saving the Bats, One Cave at a Time

Jim Robbins in The New York Times:

ELY, Nev. — A crew of five wildlife biologists wearing overalls, helmets and headlamps walked up the flanks of a juniper-studded mountain and climbed through stout steel bars to enter an abandoned mine that serves as a bat hibernaculum.

The swinging white light of the headlamps probed cracks and crevices in the walls of the long dark and narrow tunnel, as the team walked half a mile into the earth. When they spied a bat, they gently plucked the mouse-sized, chestnut brown mammal — Townsend’s long eared and Western small footed are the two most abundant species here — off the walls and deposited them in white cloth bags. A lone big brown bat was also gathered. At one point a bat, disturbed by the scientific ruckus, fluttered by, the headlamps illuminating its membranous, négligée-thin wings. During the survey in November, the bats were in their pre-hibernation phase, clinging to the gray rock wall with tiny grappling hook-like feet, gently breathing. They are in full hibernation mode now. “They are biologically interesting,” said Catherine G. Haase, a postdoctoral researcher from Montana State University, as she affectionately handled a docile bat. “And they are really cute.”

Cute, interesting and facing a deeply uncertain future. This foray is part of a continentwide effort, from Canada to Oklahoma, to plumb mines and caves in hopes of figuring out how a virulent and rapidly spreading invasive fungal bat disease called white-nose syndrome, which is bearing down on the West, will behave when it hits the native populations here. “White-nose syndrome represents one of the most consequential wildlife diseases of modern times,” wrote the authors of one recent paper published in mSphere, a journal of the American Society for Microbiology. Since 2006, “the disease has killed millions of bats and threatens several formerly abundant species with extirpation or extinction.” White-nose syndrome, caused by the fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructans (Pd), is named for the fuzzy spots that appear on bats’ noses and wings.

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The Missing Malcolm X

Garrett Felber in Boston Review:

More than fifty years after his death, Malcolm X remains a polarizing and misunderstood figure. Not unlike the leader he is too often contrasted with—Martin Luther King, Jr.—he has been a symbol to mobilize around, a foil to abjure, or a commodity to sell, rather than a thinker to engage. As political philosopher Brandon Terry reminded us in these pageson the fiftieth anniversary of King’s death this year, “There are costs to canonization.” The primary vehicle of canonization in Malcolm’s case has been The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which has been translated into thirty languages and has been widely read—by students and activists alike—across the United States and abroad.

…There have long been rumors of three missing chapters among scholars; some think Haley cut them from the book following Malcolm’s assassination because their politics diverged or the book had transformed during his tumultuous last year. Whatever the reasoning, “The Negro” is a fragment of the book Malcolm intended to publish—a book that would be virtually unrecognizable to readers of his autobiography today. We will never fully know that book, of course, but “The Negro” chapter forces us, finally, to engage with it.

…In “The Negro,” he called Democrats and Republicans “labels that mean nothing” to black people. Elsewhere he noted how in the United Nations, there are those who vote yes, those who vote no, and those who abstain. And those who abstain often “have just as much weight.” A sign of political maturity, he believed, was to first register black people, then organize them, and vote only when a candidate represented their interests.

This analysis culminated in one of Malcolm’s most famous addresses, “The Ballot or the Bullet.” Delivered in April 1964 shortly after breaking with the Nation of Islam and forming his independent organization Muslim Mosque, Inc., Malcolm told a Cleveland audience, “A ballot is like a bullet. You don’t throw your ballots until you see a target, and if that target is not within your reach, keep your ballot in your pocket.” Many historians have seen the speech as Malcolm’s first ideological break from the Nation of Islam, an index of his developing political thought. “The Negro,” by contrast, shows this thought as an extension of the Nation of Islam’s political development rather than a departure. Even the title of his speech may have been borrowed from the pages of Muhammad Speaks; in 1962, a front-page story about the struggle in Fayette County, Tennessee, to register black voters was subtitled: “Fayette Fought For Freedom With Bullets and Ballots.”

More here.  (Note: Throughout February, we will publish at least one post dedicated to Black History Month)

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