Sunday, July 24, 2016

What did Australian soldiers on the Western Front write home about?

A century ago Australian soldiers were in France and Belgium fighting on the Western Front. It is worth remembering that these young men were facing a much more imminent existential threat than most tourists who visit Europe today. They would probably be inclined to brush aside our concerns about the current threat posed by terrorism, and would almost certainly be amused by alarmist reactions to the EU’s ongoing existential crisis.

This post focuses on what two of my relatives wrote about in their post cards. Readers who are looking for a more representative answer to the question might be interested in Miss Lynch’s letters.

In May 1916, Harry Bates (my father’s uncle) wrote a card to his sister-in-law, Jessie, who was the local school teacher at Dobie (a township near Ararat in Victoria, that has since ceased to exist) and the Bates family’s letter writer. Harry, shown in the photo, was 35 years old when he sent the card.

At the front of the card is a picture of the cathedral in Marseille, which looks much the same today, so I haven’t reproduced it here.

Harry’s card to Jessie was mainly about the weather. That is not surprising because Harry was a farmer, and like a lot of other farmers in Australia, had been affected by the Federation Drought (1911-16). Harry mentions that in an earlier letter Jessie had told him that the preceding harvest had been good, which is consistent with the good seasonal conditions in Victoria during 1915.


It is interesting that Harry writes of France: “This place is all the world like home”. As I watch the Tour de France, I can see why he would say that. Much of the countryside does look similar, except for the castles and the villages.

The second card was written by Frank Lowe to his cousin, Ethel Vernon, my grandmother, who lived at Crowlands (a township north-east of Ararat). I am grateful to Tom Grieves for his help in identifying Frank Lowe as the author of the card and helping me to decipher the writing. The card was probably written in the latter part of 1917 (following the battle of Messines in June 1917). Frank mentions that he “got through the Messines stunt alright”. Frank would have been 22 when he wrote the card; Ethel was 17.


Frank begins by writing about the card itself: “They have some very pretty things in this line over here.” The card is embroidered with a pocket at the front.

Much of Frank’s card is about relatives and friends who had also enlisted, including Ethel’s brother, Arthur Vernon and Bill Croft, her brother-in-law.


The card asks Ethel to convey a message to her sister, Margaret and brother-in-law, Ivan Frost: “Tell Mag and Ivan never to let their son go to the war if he ever grows up as it is a very poor sort of a game”.


Sadly, Frank’s message was not heeded. Margaret and Ivan Frost’s two eldest sons, Ted and Henry, died as prisoners of war of the Japanese at Sandakan POW camp in north Borneo in 1945.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Will the Ems flourish?

You should be interested in this question because some of your descendants might become Ems during the next century or so. 

Ems are the human-like robots that will be created by emulation of human brains. The emulation process will involve scanning an individual’s brain to record its particular cell features and connections and then building a computer model that processes signals according to those same features and connections. Ems will think, feel and behave like the humans from whom they are created. They will assume they have consciousness and free will, just as humans do.


That view of Ems is presented by Robin Hanson in his recently published book, The Age of Em.

The Age of Em is not the most difficult book I have ever tried to read, but of all the books I can claim to have actually finished reading, I have possibly had greatest difficulty finishing this one. It wasn’t the technical material in the book that put me off. Robin has explained enough of it well enough for non-technical readers like me to get the gist of the scenario being portrayed. I just became bored reading about the Ems. I persisted only because I feel that more of us (humans) should be taking an interest in the future of human-like entities.

Others also seem to have become bored reading about the Ems. In the Finale of his book Robin indicates that a “who cares” attitude was common among people who read early drafts of the book, and among those who declined to read. It would certainly have been easier for me to adopt that attitude than to finish reading the book.

In writing about the Ems, Robin Hanson has attempted to predict what is likely to happen, rather than to present a vision of what he would like to happen. He suggests that the Ems will mostly live in a few tall, hot, densely packed cities, which will seem harshly functional when viewed in physical reality, but will look spectacular and stunningly beautiful in virtual reality. Humans will live far from the Em cities, mostly enjoying a comfortable life on their Em-economy investments.

A distinguishing characteristic of the Em economy will be the ability of Ems to replicate themselves at relatively low cost. Robin suggests that there will be enough Ems willing to make copies of themselves to greatly lower wages to a level near the full cost of computer hardware needed to run Em brains. Under that Malthusian scenario, wages of most Ems will be so low that they will barely be able to afford to exist, even though they will be working hard half or more of their waking hours.

Most Ems will have office jobs, and work and play in spectacular virtual realities. Many of them will enjoy high status during their working lives because they will have mental capacities many times those of human brains. They will be slowed down after retirement, but will have the opportunity to live for as long as Em civilization persists.

Robin suggests that the Em future, as he portrays it, might look pretty good in terms of utilitarian evaluation criteria. Even with wages close to subsistence levels, Ems would have great opportunities for entertainment via virtual reality, and they would live long lives. If there are many billions or perhaps even trillions of them, as Robin suggests, utilitarian calculus would conclude that the Age of the Ems would see a big increase in total happiness relative to our world today.

That view seems to me to highlight the deficiencies of crude utilitarianism. The quality of life of the typical Em, as portrayed by Robin, strikes me as being lamentable. I predict that most humans faced with the choice of whether to live such a life, or the life of an average human, would choose to live the life of a human. Since Ems would inherit our values, I predict that most of them would also reject the life offered by their hot houses of virtual reality in favour of a more authentic life closer to nature. The choices involved are similar to those posed by Robert Nozick in his famous experience machine thought experiment (discussed previously on this blog in a post that has recently been re-published on Common Sense Ethics).

That brings me to what seems to me to be a major flaw in the scenario that Robin Hanson posits. I think he misjudges human values and preferences when he suggests that large numbers of humans and Ems would be willing to make copies of themselves under circumstances where Em wages were low and falling. As advances in technology have made it easier for humans to exert greater control over their own reproduction they have used that power to ensure their offspring have good prospects to have lives they will value. Ems might view their replication decisions differently, but I don’t see why they would choose to bring into the world large numbers of twins earning subsistence wages.

The other problem I have with Robin’s scenario is that I think he may be too pessimistic about the potential for Ems to increase their productivity by expanding their use of non-Em robots, as an alternative to replicating themselves. As Ems obtain more advanced capital to work with (including non-Em robots) their marginal productivity could be expected to rise, thus tending to raise wage rates.

This book is based on the assumption that brain emulation is likely to happen before artificial machine intelligence develops to the point where machines will achieve broad human level abilities. I don’t have the technical competence to comment on whether that is likely. Some issues relating to the latter possibility were discussed in my review of Nick Bostrom’s book, Superintelligence. The idea that human-like robots may be created through brain emulation at some time during the next century does not fill me with joy, but life might be better for humans (and Ems) if the Ems are created before the intelligent machines, so they can prevent them from running amok.


Despite my reservations about this book, I recommend that readers should buy it in order to give Robin Hanson appropriate encouragement for his efforts in attempting to foresee the future of human-like creatures. An even better reason to buy the book is to try assess for yourself whether Robin’s base-line scenario is plausible.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

How do people living in the modern world get happiness all wrong?

Leah Goldrick provides her answer in this guest post, which is a slightly modified version of an article originally published on her excellent blog, Common Sense Ethics .



We all want to be happy. But could it be that we have our understanding of happiness all wrong? The general definition of happiness is philosophically unsophisticated. It pretty much boils down to the ongoing experience of positive emotions and a lack of negative ones. Life is about more than just moving yourself around, spending money and enjoying your next fix. Is our unphilosophical (and perhaps incomplete) understanding of happiness why so many of us are miserable according to mental health statistics?

Is there a missing moral component at the root of happiness? The ancient Greeks definitely thought so, and it turns out that genomic research conducted by Barbara Frederickson, which has previously been discussed on Freedom and Flourishing, indicates that we may be biologically wired for what they called eudaimonia (from daimon, or true nature). Differing from hedonism (pleasure or self gratification), eudaimonia is often translated as flourishing or living well, with a sense of noble purpose, virtue, and connection to others.

In other words, real happiness is impossible without virtue - or arete in ancient Greek. Arete means excellent character, or reaching your highest human potential. Eudaimonia not only protects our physical and mental health at the cellular level, it may lead to a long term, more profound sense of well being. 

So what do we do if we want to experience eudaimonia? How do we reach our highest potential?

There are 3 concrete steps that you can take to be happy in the ancient Greek sense. First, you must acknowledge that virtue is necessary for happiness. Eudaimonia is about more than just feeling good, it is about becoming the best person that you can be. Second, you must do the inner work that is necessary to truly "know yourself," as Socrates said when he quoted the Delphic Oracle. And finally, you must take action and apply your unique talents and gifts in life for the good of yourself and others.

1. Understand That Virtue Is Necessary For Happiness
What is happiness anyway? The experience of pleasure? The absence of pain? Gaining things that bring you contentment? The enjoyment of life? It seems like there is something missing here. An entire industry of motivational speakers and self-help gurus revolve the concept of well being, but each of them probably interprets happiness differently.

Various Eastern and New Age philosophies offer a different definition of happiness, one that is interesting and perhaps more complete - that happiness is the byproduct of our life's journey, and not a destination to be arrived at or something to be gained. But rather a state of mind or a sense of flow. This definition is closer to eudaimonia, but still morally agnostic.

It was the ancient Greeks who offered the most compelling definition of happiness, one that includes an ethical dimension - eudaimonia. Aristotle was the first philosopher to really flush out the concept of eudaimonia, but Plato's writings, as well as Socrates', contained elements of it. Aristotle felt that happiness in the modern, hedonic sense was a vulgar concept. Not all pleasures lead to well-being. In the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle notes that "Living well and doing good are the same as being happy."

The Stoics went even further than Aristotle and argued that only virtue is necessary for happiness. Aristotle thought that some elements of hedonic happiness, such as having good food, a home, family, leisure, and so on, were necessary for a good life. But a good life was incomplete without also pursuing excellence. We don't live well only by amusing ourselves.

The ancient moral dimensions of happiness through virtue and excellent character were lost sometime in the interceding millennia. But Barbara Frederickson's recent genetic study seems to support Aristotle's position, or maybe the Pythagorean position. While hedonia is somewhat necessary, it is eudaimonia which benefits us the most: 
“We can make ourselves happy through simple pleasures, but those ‘empty calories’ don’t help us broaden our awareness or build our capacity in ways that benefit us physically,” she said. “At the cellular level, our bodies appear to respond better to a different kind of well-being, one based on a sense of connectedness and purpose. Understanding the cascade to gene expression will help inform further work in these areas,”  Frederickson states.
Frederickson's research may also offer some insight into the theory of hedonic adaptation - that people are observed to revert back to prior levels of happiness soon after experiencing something pleasurable. Pleasures may make us happy in the short term, but they are fleeting and unable to provide us with long term health benefits and a sense of well being that comes from working to improve ourselves and becoming the best person that we can be.
2. Know Yourself
The phrase "Know thyself," or GnĊthi sauton in Greek, is typically attributed to Socrates because he often used it. But it has its roots in the legend of the founding of ancient Greece. As the story goes, 7 sages and law givers gathered at Delphi and laid the foundations for Western civilization. They had the phrase inscribed on the entrance to the sacred oracle. "Know thyself," has been the philosopher's clarion call ever since.

Plato believed that the human psyche has 3 parts: logical (or intellectual), spirited (having to do with action and the courage to be good) and appetitive (having to do with desires and emotion). In the just person, all three parts of soul agree that the logical must rule, bringing the other 2 parts - the spirit and the emotions - into a state of good or concordance.

The point here is that if you want to be happy, you can't be internally at war with yourself.  You must bring your intellect, emotions, and actions into harmony with each other. Otherwise, you might experience a situation where you desire something that you know to be wrong intellectually - and the result is often bad decisions and unhappiness. 

The psychologist Carl Jung believed that accepting and Integrating the shadow into your conscious personality is a great way to flush out any internal contradictions withing your psyche. The result of shadow work is the full integration of the self, leading to a better understanding of your true nature, or daimon in Greek.

If you don't know how to begin doing shadow work, my Knowing Yourself Better Questionnaire is a good place to start. I can say that this technique has helped me personally.
  
3. Find Your Life's Purpose
Can you be truly fulfilled without knowing what you are living for? Once you understand yourself at a deep level, you will know where you can best contribute your unique talents in the world. As sense of noble purpose rooted in meaning is the is the final step towards eudaimonia or flourishing. 

​We all have free will to make choices that improve our well-being. This tendency towards growth and flourishing is common to both the Greek philosophical tradition and modern humanistic psychology. The psychologist Carl Rogers states:
...man's tendency to actualize himself, to become potentialities. By this I mean the directional trend which is evident in all organic and human life - the urge to expand, develop, mature - the tendency to express and activate all the capacities of the organism and the self. This tendency may become deeply buried under layer after layer of encrusted psychological defences; it may be hidden behind elaborate facades that deny its existence; it is my belief, however, based on my experience, that it exists in every individual, and awaits only the proper conditions to be released and expressed'.


Make sure that your activities in life have a noble purpose. Each of us has special talents that we can use to make the world a better place. The daimon, or true nature, refers to a your highest potential, ​and when you put your potential into action, happiness is the result. 

A good, happy life, is the result of a virtuous character, self acceptance, and continual striving towards excellence.


You May Also Like:
​4 Life Lessons We Can Learn From The Cynics
The Shadow: How Introspection Can Teach You Everything You Need to Know About Yourself

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Will machine intelligence threaten life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?

This post has nothing to do with the influence of political party machines on current election campaigns.

As some readers will already know, Nick Bostrom’s book, Superintelligence, discusses the challenge presented by the potential for machine brains to surpass human brains in general intelligence. Bostrom does not claim that is imminent, but he suggests it is somewhat likely to happen sometime this century. After AI has surpassed human intelligence, the author fears that an initial superintelligence might soon afterwards obtain a decisive strategic advantage and pose a threat to human life. There have been several good reviews of Superintelligence, including one by Ronald Bailey in Reason.

How could a machine programmed by humans come to threaten human life? Some examples mentioned by Bostrom imply that it would be quite easy for that to occur by accident. For example, a machine that was given the simple objective of maximizing the production of paperclips could seek to acquire an unlimited amount of physical resources and to eliminate potential threats, including humans who are likely to try to prevent it from achieving its goal.

People like Bill Gates and Elon Musk, who could not be viewed as technophobes, argue that the threats posed by superintelligence should be taken seriously. That didn’t stop me asking myself why anyone in their right mind would program a machine to maximize the number of paperclips. Any sensible businessman would ensure that the machine was programmed with a profit-making objective, rather than a production objective. I have to acknowledge, however, that would still leave the problem of ensuring that the superintelligence doesn’t use unethical means to eliminate competitors. 

There is also the problem that some of the people developing AI might be crazy, or antipathetic towards humans. For example, it does not seem beyond the bounds of possibility that a group of extreme Greenies might seek to develop a superintelligence that would pursue the selfless goal of restoring the natural environment to its condition prior to the Anthropocene.

Most of Superintelligence is devoted to a discussion of the difficulty of designing superintelligence so that it would not be a threat to humans. While reading the book I felt that at times I was reading about the problems of designing a god – an enormously powerful entity that would govern our lives. For example, if the AI is given the seemingly innocuous goal of making us all happy it might arrange for us to have electrodes implanted in the pleasure centres of our brains, or perhaps even upload our minds to computers and then administer the digital equivalent of a drug to make us ecstatically happy all the time.

At other times I felt the problems being discussed were more like those which might be involved in establishing the characteristics of a good society. Bostrom seems to favour AI being given a goal such as maximizing our coherent extrapolated volition (CEV). As I understand it the CEV concept implies that if we knew more and thought faster our individual views about the nature of a good society would converge, so that a consensus could be discovered. The author explains that the CEV approach does not require that all ways of life, moral codes, or personal values be blended together into a stew. The CEV dynamic “is only supposed to act when our wishes cohere”.

The CEV concept has some appeal to me because it seems consistent with my own efforts to describe the characteristics of a good society in the most popular post on this blog. However, it does not require superintelligence to identify those characteristics. It would not be difficult to establish through existing survey methods that the vast majority of humans want to live in peace, to have opportunities to live for a happy lives and to have some degree of security to protect against misfortunes. The problem is in ensuring that a superintelligence would interpret such objectives in a manner consistent with individual human flourishing.

The main reservation I have about Superintelligence is that it does not contain much discussion about defence against malevolent AI. As I see it, it is probably worthwhile to undertake collaborative efforts to avoid the accidental development of machine intelligence in ways that might not be benign. But such efforts are not likely to prevent the AI being used unethically by people with nefarious objectives. Our defences against cyber-attack will need to be strengthened to protect against malevolent AI.


We need a Superintelligence dedicated to defending our individual rights. But we should be careful what we wish for! Once upon a time, a few centuries ago, some enlightened people set about establishing forms of government dedicated to protecting life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We ended up with warfare/welfare states.