Category Archives: AI

Institutions Are the AIs Your Mother Warned You About

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If you pick up a book or movie about Artificial Intelligence (AI), there’s a good chance you’ll find a story where robots or AI have subjugated humanity. The Terminator, the robots in The Matrix, and the Borg all strike fear into our hearts because they lack humanity. The cold, calculating logic by which they see the universe makes them alien and incapable of the things that define human experience like compassion or love. The thing is, the AIs your mother warned you about are already here. We call them institutions. 

In Brandon Sanderson’s fantasy novel Oathbringer, Nale, the Herald of Justice, says, “The purpose of the law is so we do not have to choose. So our native sentimentality will not harm us.” In modern times, we say the law is blind, but recent protests over racially-motivated violence committed in the name of the law show that removing human choice from the equation just creates an algorithm for oppression. We’ve given the appearance of impartiality to a process that is biased because of who wrote the laws and when they were written.

For example, computer AIs developed to help with criminal sentencing calculate recidivism probabilities based on historical policing data. The “impartial” AI looks benevolent, but when the data it is fed derives from hundreds of years of racist policing practices, it’s not hard to see why the AI is more likely to suggest a light sentence for a white defendant than a person of color. In January 2020, the increasing reliance of law enforcement on AI-driven facial recognition systems led to the first known wrongful arrest based on the inability of facial recognition systems to distinguish between people who aren’t white men. Modern law enforcement has been investing in tools that entrench racism behind a steel and plastic veneer of impartiality. The subjugation of parts of humanity is already in progress, and it’s grounded in the biases of programmers—who are all too human. One of the most basic thought experiments of AI gone wrong is Nick Bostrom’s proposed paperclip maximizer. Because it only has one goal, it will execute that function without taking other consequences into account. As the AI ramps up its production of paperclips, the planet it’s on is consumed by iron mines and paperclip factories until those who originally programmed the AI are consumed for their raw materials. While this example may seem ridiculous, it’s the logical conclusion to business models that are designed to maximize financial growth.

Corporations are single-minded AIs programmed to make a profit. Since corporations exist in large part to separate legal liability for the corporation’s actions from its members, there are few truly effective checks on a company’s behavior. With these inputs, it should come as no surprise that the corporations of the world have done irreparable harm to our biosphere. The board of directors and shareholders are still human, but as Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

While the AIs in The Matrix at least leave humans the illusion that they are not slaves, the Belters who work in the outposts of the solar system in the The Expanse series by James S. A. Corey are at risk of losing their very air and water if they do not comply with the demands of interplanetary corporations. Even when a discovery is made that would change the very nature of human existence, the Protogen company seeks to profit by starting a war between Earth and its former colony, Mars. The corporation’s pursuit of profit manages to oppress humankind without a single sentient computer. 

We don’t need to look to a dystopian future to find artificial intelligences bent on human domination. They’re already here. The first step to creating a world with AIs we can work with is disarming the dangerous ones. Congress has started the process of fighting corporations with its recent Investigation of Competition in Digital Markets Report coming after years of effort from groups like the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, small businesses, and cooperatives. At the same time, The Movement for Black Lives has been steadily growing to point out the flaws in the current legal system. Overcoming systemic racism and corporate power are the major battles we have against malicious AIs right here and now. We should be developing better ways to make humans part of the AI feedback loop, as Douglas Rushkoff suggests, so that when the computer-based generalized AIs come, we’ll be able to work alongside someone like Data instead of under the gaze of Skynet.

This article originally appeared on the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) blog in March of 2021.

Solarpunk Phones Part 2: Decentralize

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[This is Part 2 of a series about solarpunk phones. Here’s a link to Part 1: Repair and Part 3: Design.]

Humans have an amazing capacity for cognitive dissonance. Even though we may know something is bad for us or has significant negative consequences, we’ll still trudge ahead, even if the benefit to an action is small. As Steven Szpajda from This Week in Law is fond of saying, people will give up large amounts of privacy and security for a very small perceived benefit.

Solarpunk Druid had a recent post to this effect, “It’s the events stupid: Why FB is the hardest media to quit” discussing the titular quandary. As we have with fossil fuels, we’ve become reliant on systems whose existence is at cross-purposes with our own.

For this second part of my exploration of what a solarpunk communication device might look like, I want you to consider your relationship with your carrier and web service providers — Verizon, Facebook, etc.

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Most of us have become comfortable, complacent even, with the idea that the companies that control our communications know everything about our habits. What might be surprising though, is that the information they collect isn’t just available to other multi-national megacorporations, but that private citizens can easily get access to the location of customers of at least AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile in the US.

Solarpunk, as a subgenre of speculative fiction is all about “what-if,” so what if we weren’t beholding to megacorps for our communications? What if we decentralized our cellphone and internet access? With the increasing presence of AI subservient to known bad actors, it’s time we start examining how to wean ourselves off of the corporations that feed our information addictions. While taking a break from technology can be beneficial for our mental well-being, I don’t think it’s practical to completely give it up either.

Solarpunk is also about making the “what-if” into a concrete reality, so what technologies exist to help us break free and decentralize our digital lives?

Mesh Networks

Mesh networking, which we’ve mentioned before, allows various parts of a network to communicate without a single central node, like a cellphone tower, controlling all of the traffic. If everyone in a given geographic area had a smartphone that worked on a mesh network, they wouldn’t need a carrier to contact their friends in that area. This has been touted as a potentially life-saving measure for natural disasters, and is also a powerful tool for people protesting authoritarian regimes. Mesh networks are still in the early stages of development, but they point toward a possibile future of decentralized communication where the users themselves are the network, not some centralized authority that could leave users in the dark either intentionally or because of a cyber attack. Some current implementations include the mesh network going up in Detroit, the Serval Project, GoTenna, and the Althea Mesh.

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Leaving for greener social pastures

Between the shuttering of GeoCities a decade ago and recent major changes to Tumblr and Flikr, denizens of the internet have witnessed great swaths of the web be deleted at the whim of a single entity. At the same time, data breaches like Equifax and direct manipulation of users by Facebook and their partners has made it more clear than ever that you’re the product for these companies.

The Open Source Community has been experimenting with alternative social networks for some time, and with the W3C ActivityPub standard, we’re seeing the emergence of an interconnected, social media Fediverse. What’s really cool about the Fediverse is that people on different platforms can follow each other without having to sign up for a different network. If the current behemoths had started this way, then you could follow your friend on Twitter from your Facebook account without having a Twitter account yourself. Since these platforms are Open Source, anyone can start their own instance, so there are communities built up around common interests (like solarpunk) but you can still hang out online with your friends from a different instance. There are a number of different platforms modeled off existing networks like FB and Twitter, but I’m sure we’ll see new concepts emerge as well. There are even some beta plugins to allow WordPress websites to be federated with ActivityPub, so maybe you’ll see Solarpunk Station in the Fediverse soon!

The Fediverse isn’t the only decentralized social networking solution out there either. Other clients like Scuttlebutt and Steemit have also cropped up in recent years. Scuttlebutt has a large solarpunk contingent already as seen in the partial graph of the network below, while Steemit skews heavily toward the cryptocurrency crowd as it is itself based on the blockchain. Scuttlebutt has some really cool features like being designed around intermittent connections. There’s a lot more information and a fun intro video on their website.

Have you tried any of these new social media sites or built a mesh network? Let us know how it went below!

 

Genetic algorithms for awesome architecture

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Optimized for access to windows and optimized traffic flow

Joel Simon’s “Evolving Floorplans” was a project to run buildings through a genetic algorithm to design spaces that can more effectively carry out their mission. The floor plans that resulted from the algorithm have a pleasing, organic look that will surely set a solarpunk’s heart aflutter.

Several different outlets have covered the project at this point, but one of the most interesting was this tweet comparing these organic, computer-generated designs and the layout of traditional, older cities. It’s possible our forbears weren’t just flailing about when they organically designed the strange serpentine patterns of the ancient cities of the world. Grid-based cities are great for cars and the Post Office, but maybe we should think about applying genetic algorithms to urban planning and design.

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The original floorplan

 

Team Human discusses AI and consciousness (podcast suggestion)

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Are you a solarpunk wondering, “Am I using technology, or is it using me?” If so, Team Human is the podcast for you. Every week, Douglas Rushkoff meets with guests to discuss what it means to be human in the digital age.

If you’re concerned about AI, consciousness, and how artists can relate to technology, the discussion with Kenric McDowell from Google’s Artists and Machine Intelligence group will be right up your alley. If that’s not your thing, check out their archive of other shows.

I really love the way Team Human remains positive about technology while still being critical. Technology can be a great tool, but we need to make sure we’re using it as a tool, and not becoming tools for the technology. One of the things that is a repeating theme is that the internet held so much promise but then was invaded by corporate interests who turned it into an advertising platform. While some people say you should unplug if you are worried about privacy and manipulation through the internet, that isn’t really a reasonable option for most people. Team Human is here to help us navigate the murky waters of humans and machines working together.

Do you listen to Team Human? If so, what episodes would you recommend? For more podcasts I think solarpunks would find interesting, check out the Resources page!

 

 

Solarpunk, taxation, and universal basic income

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Universal Basic Income (UBI) is one of the big ideas I’ve seen floating around the solarpunk community. To learn more, I read some of the more scintillating chapters of Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economyand apparently there haven’t been any studies big enough to see what the true impact of a basic income would be on society. The authors suggested that a good starting place would be a baby step toward UBI where everyone got a small stipend.

The Adam Smith Institute recently published a paper on the market case for UBI and outlined the reasons why people should be supporting a move toward UBI. One of the main reasons is mounting concerns over technological unemployment with the rapid rise of automation and AI-driven production. For instance, truck and taxi operators are expected to be displaced by autonomous vehicles in coming years. Many other jobs will be at risk as well as computer systems get better at taking over tasks once performed by humans.

One proposal that I’ve been following that was mentioned in the book was the Fair Tax (HR 25) which eliminates the Federal Income Tax and replaces it with a Federal Sales tax. Where this gets interesting is that as a function of switching to a Federal Sales Tax, everyone in the country is given a “prebate” to account for income disparity at the lower end. This could be considered a sort of light UBI as everyone in the country will get the same “prebate” regardless of their income.

Another bonus of the Fair Tax is that it is only implemented once on an item. Used items are not taxed meaning that we can incentivize conserving resources while giving us a nationwide test of how to implement a full-scale UBI.

Perhaps the best part is that the Fair Tax eliminates the IRS and the current loophole-ridden Federal Income Tax system. I think we all know that the current system has more than its fair share of problems. Every time a new tax “reform” bill is brought up in Congress, we see how much of a losing game the income tax system is.

The Fair Tax is not perfect, but it seems like a workable solution with widespread existing support in the US Congress. More information is available about the Fair Tax at http://fairtax.org/faq.

Sound off in the comments if you think UBI is the way of the future or if you have any thoughts on the Fair Tax. Thanks for stopping by!


Some of the text for this article is recycled from my Tumblr post on the subject: https://solarpunk-gnome.tumblr.com/post/163921938517/taxation-and-solarpunk-a-few-thoughts

Image is “Taxes” by 401kcalculator.org via a Creative Commons license.