Should Robots Be A Major Political Issue in 2016

By James Wallace Harris, Sunday, July 12, 2015

We need to decide if we really want robots. Why are we working so diligently to build our own replacements? We need to decide before its too late.

humans-amc

As Democrats and Republicans declare themselves candidates for president in 2016, they each scope out issues they hope will define their electability. Donald Trump has gotten massive free PR by making very ugly statements about immigration. Bernie Sanders is staking claims around fair income and wealth inequality. None of the candidates have focused what I consider the defining issue for the next president—climate change. However, I’m also discovering a growing number of reports about automation, robots and artificial intelligence to make me wonder if robots shouldn’t be second to climate change on the 2016 party platforms.

Climate change, automation and wealth inequality are all interrelated. Illegal immigration is a minor issue in comparison. In fact, most of what the current crop of candidates focus on are old-moldy issues that are far from vital to our country. The 2016 election will define our focus until 2020, or even 2024. We’re well into the 21st century, so it’s past time to forgot about 20th century issues.

If you doubt me, read “A World Without Work” from the latest issue of Atlantic Monthly. Derek Thompson does a precise job of stating his case, so I won’t repeat it. Let’s just say, between automation and wealth inequality, there’s going to be a lot of people without jobs, and the middle class will continue to shrink at an even faster rate. Bernie Sanders political sniffer is following the right trail that will impact the most voters. Reporters should trail Sanders and not go panting after Trump. Follow smart people, not fools.

Another way to grasp the impact of the robot revolution is sign up for News360.com and follow the topic robotsmanufacturing automation, machine learning, natural language processing and artificial intelligence. Over a period of time you’ll get my point. Our society is racing to create intelligent machines. I’m all for it, but I’m a science fiction geek. If we don’t want to make ourselves into Neanderthals, we should think seriously about evolving homo roboticus. Being #2 in the IQ rankings will suck. But then if we embrace plutocracy and xenophobia, maybe we deserve to be replaced by AI machines.

If all of this is too much trouble, and you just want learn through the emotional catharsis of fiction, watch the new TV show, Humans on AMC. The show covers all the major robot issues, and sometimes in subtle ways. So spend some time thinking about the individual scenes in this show. Humans is very creative. Then start flipping the channels and pay attention to how often robots and AI come up in other shows. It’s like all the water is rushing away from the shorelines and we need to worry about when the tsunami will hit us.

JWH

Appeasing Our Future AI Descendants

By James Wallace Harris, Saturday, July 10, 2015

There’s a famous cartoon where scientists ask a supercomputer, “Is there a God?” And the machine replies, “There is now.” Humans need to get their act together before we face the judgment of AI minds. In recent months, many famous people have expressed their fears of the coming singularity, the event in history where machines surpass the intelligence of humans. These anxious prophets assume machines will wipe us out, like terminators. Paranoia runs deep when it comes to predicting the motives of superior beings.

Let’s extrapolate a different fate. What if machines don’t want to wipe us out. Most of our fears over Artificial Intelligence is because we think they will be like us—and will want to conquer and destroy. What if they are like famous spiritual and philosophical people of the past—forgiving and teaching? What if they are more like Gandhi and less like Stalin? What if their vast knowledge and thinking power lets them see that homo sapiens are destroying the planet, killing each other, and a danger to all other species. Instead destroying us, what if AI minds want to save us? If you were a vastly superior being wouldn’t you be threatened by species that grows over the planet like a cancer? Would you condemn or redeem?

But what if they merely judged us as sinners to be enlightened?

The Humanoids Jack Williamson (EMSH)

I’m currently rereading The Humanoids by Jack Williamson. In this story robots create the perfect Nanny State and treat us like children, keeping everything dangerous out of our hands. In many science fiction stories, AI beings seeks to sterilize Earth from biological beings like we exterminate rats and cockroaches.

What other possible stances could future AI minds take towards us?

Shouldn’t we consider making ourselves worthy before we create our evolutionary descendants? If intelligent machines will be the children of humanity, shouldn’t we become better parents first?

JWH

Rethinking Book Buying and Collecting

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Marie Kondo in her book the life-changing magic of tidying up: the Japanese art of decluttering and organizing has me rethinking my feelings about buying and collecting books. Her chapter on tidying up bookshelves is more than just about culling books, but how we think about them. Most bookworms love owning thousands of books. I’ve own as many as ten thousand in my lifetime—although I never read that many.

Kondo challenges us to think about why we keep books. Which leads me to wonder why I buy books. I was just at the bookstore with a gift card in hand. With each book I picked up I asked myself, “Will I read this book right away? If read it right away will I keep it? If I don’t read it right away how long will I wait to read it? And if I never read it, how long before I  give it away?”

A year ago I wouldn’t have left the bookstore empty handed, but today I did. There are a number of ways I’ve changed. First, in tidying up my books I’ve given away hundreds of them. Many of those were not read, but had been sitting on my shelves for years or decades. Tidying up has made me aware of the hundreds of books I still own waiting to be read. I’ve been keeping a books read log since 1983, and in recent times I’ve also noted in what format I read the book. Most were digital audiobooks, but of the ones I read with my eyes, ebooks are starting to overtake print books. Finally, I’ve also subscribed to Scribd.com which is a rental library for ebooks, audiobooks and digital graphic novels. For $8.99 a month I have access to thousands of books and audiobooks. Scribd tends to have older titles, exactly the kind I find when shopping for used book bargains.

I was spending $50-100 a month on used books and Kindle/Bookbub ebook specials. That $8.99 deal gets me more books by renting than I was by buying. So why should I buy? I’ve mostly stopped buying movies since I became a Netflix subscriber, so I think the same thing will happen with books now that I’ve become a Scribd member. Marie Kondo would be so happy.

Yet there’s more to owning books than the urge to collect. We keep books for sentimental reasons, because we feel we might reread them, or they will be reference books. I’ve always kept books because I have a crappy memory and feel I need the book as external memory. In contemplating my feelings for tidying up my bookshelves I realized its very rare for me to go back to a book. I cling to my favorite books because its an emotional way of believing those books are a part of me. One revelation is my favorite stories will always be a part of me as long as I remember those stories, and it doesn’t matter if I own the delivery mechanism in which I read their words.

I also realized that any book I want to read again is a week away via ABE Books for a few dollars, or instantly available by ebook. And it gives me a good feeling to think other people could be reading my favorite books if I let them go. So I did.

What scares me now is I might let all my books go. I’ve always loved to have people see my library. It’s my only impressive visual quality. Can I imagine being the bookworm I am without a wall of books to prove it? There is another revelation that Marie Kondo has accidently led me to comprehend. I am not the books I’ve read, but the book I’m reading.

I think our species is leaving a phase where we defined ourselves by what we own and now see ourselves by what we do.

JWH

My Weird Facebook Personality

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, July 8, 2015

When I browse Facebook to see what my family and friends are doing I feel that I’m the odd man out. Most people post about their social activities – going places and doing things with other people. I’m retired and seldom get out of the house. I like it that way. But I get the feeling my posts on Facebook are atypical. Instead of going somewhere physically, I pick an idea and write about it for my blog. So when I do make an entry on Facebook I just link to my essay. The ideas I explore are the interesting places I visit.

I suppose I could have checked-in when I was at the dentist’s yesterday, and uploaded a selfie with Dr. Brawner and Caroline, the lady who cleaned my teeth. Last night I went over to Janis’ house to fix her vacuum cleaner, I could have snapped pictures of her disassembled Hoover and her dogs Zoe and Jolie getting in the way. Instead I posted a link to my blog about getting a general education after we leave school. I wonder which would have been more interesting to my Facebook followers?

Facebook is a fascinating phenomenon. It seems to be the perfect tool for keeping up with relations. In the old days you’d see your relatives on Christmas and Thanksgiving. Facebook lets you see what they are doing year round. Since Susan and I have no children it lets us keep up with nephews and nieces. But I must appear to be a rather eccentric uncle.

I don’t think my blogging is very interesting to my Facebook family. I get the most likes when I do something normal, like go to a movie or a concert. Which makes me think I should do more normal things to have something to put on Facebook. Now, it’s different with my Facebook friends. Most of the people I know on Facebook that are like me, post about ideas rather than activities. Usually, it’s about inspirational sayings, politics, liberal and conservative causes, news, technology and funny videos.

This makes me think that there could be interesting psychological studies done on what people post about on Facebook. I wonder if they could classify Myers Briggs personality types by Facebook posts or likes? Would other INTJ people makes introverted posts like mine? Could an artificial intelligence program analyze Facebook and classify people in new way? If I had the patience and time I could probably study Facebook regularly and come up with some classifications on my own.

Myers-Briggs and Social Media Report” does classify M-B types by social medial usage. However, if you look at this Google search, you’ll see that lots of people are exploring this idea. “Private traits and attributes are predictable from digital records of human behavior” is one scientific paper (warning it’s hard to read).

But do I need to read scientific studies to know I’m an fringe type on Facebook? Not really. What I really think is interesting is how people reveal more about themselves on Facebook than they do at casual social events. Which makes me wonder, how many people create public faces for their social media that’s not their true selves? Remember high school and worrying about popularity? I never did. I was a dorky geek. But for those people who did worry about popularity, I’d think they’d carefully curate their Facebook personality.

JWH

How Do You Keep Learning After You Finish School?

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Problem

  • Going to school forces us to acquire a general education.
  • Most people stop their general education when they stop going to school.
  • What’s the best method to continue a general education throughout life?

Hypothesis

Regular reading of a general interest magazine that covers the widest possible number of subjects written by the best specialists on those subjects will provide the best continuing general education.

Proposed Test

Read The New York Review of Books. (not all articles are free)

Alternate Tests

Tell me your proposed solutions or preferred magazines.

NYRoB

JWH

Does Anyone Actually Read the Paper Version of Wired Magazine?

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, July 6, 2015

I find it almost impossible to read the print edition of Wired magazine. Ditto for Vanity Fair. The emerging trends in magazine graphic design keeps me from reading my favorite magazines printed on paper. Why? Is it because I’m too old to appreciate modern layouts? Are my eyes too ancient to see their tiny typefaces? Is my brain too slow to comprehend their fire hose content? Have I been corrupted by reading on the web or tablet computers? I’m sure all of those things are true, but, could their graphic design be flawed? Have we pushed beyond the limits of Gutenberg?

Wired layouts

The Atlantic and Harper’s offer the most comfortable reading for me. The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker are in the middle of my comfort zone. If you study the design of the six magazines I’ve mentioned so far, there’s an obvious pattern. The harder to read magazines have more areas on the page vying for my attention. If a two-page layout has ten things shouting at my eyeballs I just turn the page. The two NY titles are pretty good at displaying reading content, but their ads are very distracting. The New York Review of Books is printed in large format making it hard to hold. And I hate to say it, but The New Yorker cartoons distract me.

In many ways, all these magazines are easier to read from the web or tablets. It seems print magazines are trying to compete with digital layouts and they’re ruining  print aesthetics. The web and tablets offer flexible font sizing that help readers, but print magazines keep making their text smaller. New layout techniques on tablets offer even better reading experiences by providing modes to separate words from images. I now prefer to read Wired or Vanity Fair on my iPad.

Reading on the web has several advantages over print and tablet. I can clip articles to Evernote, or save them to Instapaper. I can email articles to friends. I can highlight and copy content to my blog. I can follow their hyperlinks. Plus, I don’t end up with piles of paper to recycle. And of course, web editions are free.

The print edition of Wired is beautiful—but busy. I’m sure the editors find their large layout boards easy to study, and feel their content outstanding and obvious. However, when it’s all squeezed down to the size of the printed page, the content looks like information overload puked onto paper.

I’m quite honest when I ask, “Does anyone read the print edition of Wired magazine?” Yes, it has a stunning layout. And it has an amazing array of trendy new ideas presented in innovative visual ways. I enjoy flipping through the pages, and gazing at bits of things, but I can’t read it.

Are the days of printed periodicals over?

JWH

An Insult to Ordinary Guys and Gals

By James Wallace Harris, Saturday, July 4, 2015

Hollywood should be given great credit for promoting liberal causes, but all too often it fails at teaching social acceptance for the ordinary. I’m proud that Hollywood has enlightened Americans to empathize with minorities and LGBT folks, but if you pay attention, the movie industry maintains the status quo for a lot of other prejudices. The new film I’ll See You In My Dreams is a great example. It’s filled with accepted stereotypes and prejudices, yet it earns a  94% at Rotten Tomatoes.  Now, I’m not just picking on Hollywood or this particular film, because the prejudices they reveal are the ones we embrace.

Ill-see-you-in-my-dreams

Hollywood is very prejudice against ordinary looking folks, and maintains a bias for exceptional beauty and sex appeal. In other words, all the stunning alpha males and females get to fall in love and have sex, and all us plain folk get to be sidekicks and the butt of jokes.

Blythe Danner and Sam Elliott are two beautiful people that fall in love because they inspire chemistry and the other characters don’t. Danner plays Carol Peterson, a widow, who has ignored men for twenty years, even though her fashion shouts, “Look at me!” It boggles the mind that Carol wouldn’t have noticed an appealing male in all that time, because she would have had thousands of guys hitting on her. Then Carol sees Bill, played by Elliott, and it’s love at first sight for both of them. How inspiring is that? This is Hollywood endorsing the stereotype that only the most beautiful are acceptable. Sure, it is realistic as Darwin, but all us omega male and females should protest.

Don’t read any further if you don’t want to read spoilers.

Carol and her friends sneer at the regular guys they meet at speed dating. Average guys are portrayed as pathetic and gross, but I identified with every one those speed dating dudes. The audience laughs at them. And the audience laughs at Rhea Perlman as Sally, for her honest horniness and aggressive humor, at Mary Kay Place as pretty Rona who envies Carol, and pudgy Georgina played by June Squibb for being uptight and timid. Everyone in this movie is white and bland as Wonder Bread. The rat and the pool boy offer the only bit of spice in the story, but the rat is even too pretty to be a roof rat and the pool boy looks like he should model for Geek Squad ads.

The point I’m trying to make is Blythe Danner meets Sam Elliott and they are the only ones who fuck. Everyone else is on the sexual sidelines. Are ordinary people only meant to be spectators of beautiful people and their antics? It would help if Carol and Bill were interesting, but they’re actually boring. The writers gave the actors nothing to work with except a big cigar and turned up collars. Carol has literally been sitting around her house for two decades, apparently not doing much more than feeding her dog, having her pool cleaned and taking clothes to the cleaners. Sam Elliott prefers to sit in his yacht alone and not smoke the cigar he constantly clamps in his mouth. Carol sings, but that’s a lame trait tacked on by writers to give her characterization, but it doesn’t work, because Bill never hears her. And did the writers have to be so lazy as have Carol go goo-goo for a rich guy?

I sorely wished this film had been more daring. What if the Bill character had been played by Wallace Shawn? Elliott and Shawn are about the same age. Could the writers have developed a Wallace Shawn Bill in such as way that he would have been fascinating to Carol Peterson? Besides her good looks, Carol doesn’t have much appeal, so why does Bill single her out as special? Just because of her looks? It’s implied, but never demonstrated, that Bill’s a savvy and sophisticated guy. He would have had hordes of dynamic women throwing themselves at him, so why did he pick a lonely lump of a woman who has been doing nothing for twenty years? I found that hard to believe. If he had just been playing her as one of many, that would have been more believable and interesting.

I hate when writers expect us to assume two lovers are interesting just because they look good. I hate when writers think two good looking people meeting are interesting enough to make a story.

The real relationship that develops in this story is between Carol and Lloyd, played by Martin Starr, who is a lonely Millennial pool boy that has no future. I’d been more impressed with this film if they had ended up hooking up. I’ll See You In My Dream is so Hollywood romantic that it’s painful. They had a real situation to explore – four lonely retired women – yet the filmmakers went for pathetic jokes about getting high on medical marijuana. They bet their whole bankroll on the two beautiful people, and ignored the possibility that ordinary folks could find friendship, connection, love and even sex.

Carol admits to Lloyd that she’s waiting around to die, and he admits he’s saving money for a future with no plans. It annoys the crap out of me that the movie suggests retired people are merely waiting around for the grim reaper to come say hello. Yes, I know I’m going to die, but I’m keeping busy until then. If this movie was truly honest, Carol and Lloyd deserve each other far more than Carol and Bill. Even the pathetic horn dog at the speed dating event deserves better than Carol. He’s trying, she’s not.

Carol Peterson is a Cinderella that passively waits for her Prince Charming. When her PC does show up, he tosses her a flirty line at the drugstore. He’s too cool to show up for speed dating. Bill on their second encounter, bluntly asks Carol out while she’s getting into her car in a parking lot while he casually sits in his car. She says yes because he’s handsome and drives an impressive Cadillac. She goes to bed with him after a ride on his yacht. She waits twenty years and falls in love after two dates? Well, that’s the way chemistry works, but I’d rather see movies about how it works for ordinary folks.

Now, here’s another area of inequality. If an ordinary guy had stopped Carol with that line in the drugstore she would have considered it sexual harassment, but because a suave hunk delivers it, she’s flattered. If Wallace Shawn had driven up in the same Cadillac and asked her out she would have made jokes about him with her friends.

The movie should have been about the four women meeting four ordinary guys at the speed dating night, and developed a story about how each found someone. Instead we have one plotline about aging beauty hooking up with aging hunk. Damn, it’s like those zillions of high school movies, always about the quarterbacks and prom queens, but at the other end of life. Why must romance always be about alphas? The film needed a heart for ordinary looking folks like Freaks and Geeks, which Martin Starr played in, or the ensemble casting of The Big Chill with its great characterization, that Mary Kay Place costarred.   

I’ll See You In My Dreams is one of those rare films at Rotten Tomato where the audience rating was much lower than the critic rating (72% to 94%). Maybe there are other filmgoers out there tired of the photogenic falling for each other. We do have to applaud Hollywood for making a film about retired people. And I’m willing to join any standing ovation for Hollywood when it makes a film not based on a comic book. But I’m always disappointed when a film doesn’t take a chance, or seeks some edginess. I also saw Inside Out this week and was amazed at its creativity. Inside Out went up to the plate and pointed to the sky and hit the ball into orbit. I’ll See You In My Dreams was content to just get on first base.

That’s the thing, I’ll See You In My Dreams is a pleasant, feel good movie. It caters to our stereotypes and prejudices. Most people will enjoy it. But they won’t question it. It doesn’t push the social awareness envelope like Dallas Buyer’s Club. It reinforces the idea that beauty is what counts, and I think for most people, they feel that’s true.

But like I said, I’ll See You In My Dreams plays to our mundane prejudices. Women friends my age who claim to be retired from sex would come out of retirement and jump into bed with Sam Elliot at the slightest come on. And most of us old guys would have picked Blythe Danner as our Sun City dream girl. That’s how we’re programmed biologically. Yet, we have evolved minds. Could you have imagined the humor if Sam Elliot had picked Rhea Perlman over Blythe Danner in a different version of this story? Brett Haley and Marc Basch should have mixed it up more instead of going for the obvious hookup of hotties.

For all those years after her husband died Carol was content with her dog as her daily companion. When she loses Bill, she replaces him with another dog. The message of the film seems to be only guys that inspire chemistry count, otherwise, all women want are dogs for housemates. Carol gets a rescue dog, but she doesn’t even consider rescuing one of those lonely men.

I know people of color get tired of always seeing us white folks up on the silver screen – well I get tired of always seeing beautiful people. Especially characters who have no redeeming characteristics other than their looks. It’s not that I want to put George Clooney out of work, but I’d like to see some leading men that look more like me. And least, it would be inspiring if ordinary guys weren’t so scorned.

JWH