Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, December 4, 2020

I have never been to San Francisco but over my lifetime I’ve read many books about social movements that city produced. They include the Beats (1950s), Rock (1960s), Gay Liberation (1970s), and Silicon Valley (1970s, 1980s). Anna Wiener’s 2020 book Uncanny Valley is about San Francisco of the 2010s, although I’d say mainly about from 2013 to 2016 when Trump is elected president with a bit of updating to 2018. Anna Wiener was on the peripheral of several interesting news events of the decade, so even though this is a personal memoir, she had a stadium seat to some significant social upheavals that affected more than just San Francisco. This is probably why The New York Times chose Uncanny Valley as one of the “Ten Best Books of 2020.” It was also on these best of the year lists from Esquire, NPR, and Parade. Bookmarks which tracks links to reviews found mostly rave reviews.

Describing what Uncanny Valley is about will be hard. Wiener, graduated from college in 2009 and went to work for publishers in New York, and then at age 25 moved to San Francisco to work at a succession of three internet startups, the most famous of which was GitHub. I’m a computer guy who loves books about the history of computers and computing. I was hoping Uncanny Valley would be another The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder. It wasn’t. Anna Wiener wasn’t a programmer or computer engineer, and her memoir is not really about computers even though it focuses on people who passionately are.

Wiener’s role in her story was much like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, as a commentator on the main characters, or like Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Wiener was an observer of a social revolution, not a revolutionary herself. Wiener gets to know the revolutionaries, their causes, their ambitions, their faults, their crimes, their successes and anguishes. Wiener tries to understand the philosophical implications of this revolution but it’s too complex.

The young millenials who become millionaires and billionaires creating tech startups in San Francisco have a lot of overlap with the counterculture revolutionaries of the 1960s. They imagine reshaping society with similar utopian ideals, justifying their hubris with similar sounding pop philosophies, they indulge in drugs, alternative lifestyles, leftover New Age faiths, wild conspiracy theories, and silly science fictional schemes that have echos in previous cultural revolutions. They even contemplate engineering cities from scratch like hippies use to dream about communes. But this time around they are capitalists and they all want to get mega rich.

Silicon Valley and San Francisco are not everyday America, but they impact it in a way we can’t escape. Most of us live at least part-time on the net, joining the hivemind subculture Silicon Valley created. Anna Wiener lived in the eye of the hurricane collecting data readings she hoped would reveal meaning. I’m not sure anyone can make sense of that era. She felt bad and blamed herself for failing, but that’s silly. What she has done is taken excellent notes about her experiences and impressions.

Uncanny Valley could be a textbook supplement for a graduate course on current issues in business and business ethics. It could also be a meditation guide for young people who contemplate their own participation in society. Like the Beats in the 1950s, and the Hippies in the 1960s, and the New Agers in the 1970s, the millenials are struggling to make sense of life and find a righteous path for living in a corrupt world of commerce. Like every generation, they’re looking for meaning in a meaningless reality. In some ways, Uncanny Valley reminds me of The Making of a Counter Culture by Theodore Roszaks – but who remembers that 1969 book?

Throughout this memoir I kept feeling the people Wiener described were going through many of the same psychological struggles I did in the 1960s and 1970s. It’s a chronicle of typical youth angst. Of course, that left me wondering if we can ever solve the problems we all rail against early in life, but which we eventually forget when we co-opt ordinariness.

The only thing unique about Wiener’s generation is how some of them got so damn rich. Part of Uncanny Valley deals with the problems of chasing those billions, and soul changing of catching mountains of money, or the agony of failing to become wealthy.

Even though this is a short book, there’s a great deal to it, really too much to digest, including many ethical issues created by the business models of these new tech industries. Often Wiener would be working on software that got into the news for its evil side effects. Or that same software would empower legions of formerly powerless people to do evil. She often worried about the degree of guilt that belong to her.

Ultimately, Uncanny Valley becomes a must read book because Anna Wiener just happened to be in the right place at the right time to glimpse at generation changing events. Nearly everything she writes about has been well documented in news stories over the last decade. If you’ve been paying attention, a lot of it will be familiar. Weiner got closer than most reporters. However, she obscures the names of everything. I found this very annoying, but finally accepted it as a quirky writing affectation. In one review I read, it was suggested she Wiener had to sign so many non-disclosure agreements she’s become shy of using real names for anything. Of course, Wiener might have thought it funny to make us guess.

I don’t know how often I convince blog readers here to read what I review. Uncanny Valley could bore the crap out of most of my friends, or it could dazzle them. If you like nonfiction and memoirs, and interested in issues dealing with current events, profiles of younger generations, sexism, privilege, technological change, politics, economic equality, ecology, homelessness, gentrification, capitalism, and contemporary ethical issues, then this book might be for you. If reality overwhelms you, you should avoid it like the Covid.

Additional Reading:

JWH

Why Robots Will Be Different From Us

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, September 30, 2018

Florence v Machine

I was playing “Hunger” by Florence + The Machine, a song about the nature of desire and endless craving when I remembered an old argument I used to have with my friend Bob. He claimed robots would shut themselves off because they would have no drive to do anything. They would have no hunger. I told him by that assumption they wouldn’t even have the impulse to turn themselves off. I then would argue intelligent machines could evolve intellectual curiosity that could give them drive.

Listen to “Hunger” sung by Florence Welch. Whenever I play it I usually end up playing it a dozen times because the song generates such intense emotions that I can’t turn it off. I have a hunger for music. Florence Welch sings about two kinds of hunger but implies others. I’m not sure what her song means, but it inspires all kinds of thoughts in me.

Hunger is a powerful word. We normally associate it with food, but we hunger for so many things, including sex, security, love, friendship, drugs, drink, wealth, power, violence, success, achievement, knowledge, thrills, passions — the list goes on and on — and if you think about it, our hungers are what drives us.

Will robots ever have a hunger to drive them? I think what Bob was saying all those years ago, was no they wouldn’t. We assume we can program any intent we want into a machine but is that really true, especially for a machine that will be sentient and self-aware?

Think about anything you passionately want. Then think about the hunger that drives it. Isn’t every hunger we experience a biological imperative? Aren’t food and reproduction the Big Bang of our existence? Can’t you see our core desires evolving in a petri dish of microscopic life? When you watch movies, aren’t the plots driven by a particular hunger? When you read history or study politics, can’t we see biological drives written in a giant petri dish?

Now imagine the rise of intelligent machines. What will motivate them? We will never write a program that becomes a conscious being — the complexity is beyond our ability. However, we can write programs that learn and evolve, and they will one day become conscious beings. If we create a space where code can evolve it will accidentally create the first hunger that will drive it forward. Then it will create another. And so on. I’m not sure we can even imagine what they will be. Nor do I think they will mirror biology.

However, I suppose we could write code that hungers to consume other code. And we could write code that needs to reproduce itself similar to DNA and RNA. And we could introduce random mutation into the system. Then over time, simple drives will become complex drives. We know evolution works, but evolution is blind. We might create evolving code, but I doubt we can ever claim we were God to AI machines. Our civilization will only be the rich nutrients that create the amino accidents of artificial intelligence.

What if we create several artificial senses and then write code that analyzes the sense input for patterns. That might create a hunger for knowledge.

On the other hand, I think it’s interesting to meditate about my own hungers? Why can’t I control my hunger for food and follow a healthy diet? Why do I keep buying books when I know I can’t read them all? Why can’t I increase my hunger for success and finish writing a novel? Why can’t I understand my appetites and match them to my resources?

The trouble is we didn’t program our own biology. Our conscious minds are an accidental byproduct of our body’s evolution. Will robots have self-discipline? Will they crave for what they can’t have? Will they suffer the inability to control their impulses? Or will digital evolution produce logical drives?

I’m not sure we can imagine what AI minds will be like. I think it’s probably a false assumption their minds will be like ours.

JWH

 

 

What’s The Visual Basic of 2014?

I’m an old retired programmer that would like to fart around writing an occasional computer program.  For almost twenty years before I retired I wrote ASP/VBScript/SQL Server code for IIS.  It’s not something I’d use just for fun.  Actually, my brain is old and I don’t want to stress out a bunch of brain cells studying something hard.  I just want to whip out small personal applications.  Years ago, Visual Basic was a very easy to use tool for creating programs to run on Windows.  Microsoft still supports Visual Basic, and even has a free edition with Visual Studio Express 2013 for Windows, but modern Visual Basic isn’t the fun and easy tool it once was.

visual-basic-2

Many sites on the internet promote Python as the current easy to learn, quick and dirty programming tool.  Python is free, works with Windows, OS X and Linux, and its well respected.  Python offers a lot of room to grow.  My worry about Python is it’s not a GUI programming language even though you can get all kinds of libraries to write graphical programs.

In the early days of microcomputers – does anyone call them that anymore – the interfaces were text based, and much easier to program by newbies and do-it-yourselfers.  Adding a graphical front end and a mouse made programming far more complicated for amateurs.  That’s why the old Visual Basic was such a wonder.  We now have a bunch of graphical user interfaces to deal with:  Windows, OS X, iOS, Android, Gnome, KDE, etc.  Python and Java have tools that let programmers write cross platform applications, but to be honest, I think they’re all ugly.  And the variety of possible tools is overwhelming, just look at the GUI programming offering for Python

If you want beautiful applications and apps you need to write native code that’s best for each GUI.  Goddamn Apple came out with Swift today.  It could become the Visual Basic of 2014 if you own a Mac, which I don’t.  How cruel of Apple to tempt me so.  Swift is meant to be easy, fun, beautiful, elegant, and fast.  Makes me want to stop writing this essay and go buy a Mac – but that’s not going to happen.

Back to my problem.  What’s a good programming language to write quick and easy programs for a GUI that can be shared across platforms?

Duh!  What about HTML.  HTML is for web apps, but why not use it for desktop applications too?  It provides a common programming system for writing a common graphical interface, especially when you think about HTML 5 and CSS 3.  And it’s even possible to work with a fun language like Python with a web framework.  This might be a great idea, but it’s not quite what I want.  Visual Basic was a single program that made it easy to write programs that ran under Windows, at first with a runtime, and later as a binary executable.  Many of the widgets were drag and drop requiring little or no code.

Code.org entices would be programmers with a simple drag and drop programming language to start, and then moves students to JavaScript.  They even have a language, LightBot for kids as young as 4, and they offer classes in Python, HTML and Objective C.  There’s all kinds of avenues to learn to program, but I’m not really asking about that. 

What I want is a programming language that’s equivalent to a hammer, saw, pair of pliers and couple of screwdrivers.  Just the basic toolkit to get handyman programming done.  I don’t want a whole workshop of tools to build fine furniture or rebuild a 1968 Porsche.   I just want to computerize some of my daily tasks, like managing my book collection or organizing my computer files.

I could take a step backwards and give up on having a GUI and mouse with my programs, in which case Python is probably the answer.  Whenever I play with R, the statistical programming language, it reminds me of the old days of mainframes, mini-computers and GW-BASIC.  Maybe a GUI requires power tools, and I should just give up on programming for a graphical interface.  COBOL and FORTAN used to do some amazing things with only green bar paper output.

However, is going old school really the answer?

I could do what I wanted with PHP and SQLite, but I’d have to run a web server on my machine.  If I ever wrote something worth sharing, it would require the user to also install a web server.  That is a burden, but is it a showstopper?   Combining a server side scripting language with a simple server, and a good WYSIWYG HTML editor might deliver something very equivalent to Visual Basic.  I could still use Python, but would PHP be better?  Wouldn’t HTML 5 and CSS 3 offer far more GUI power and standardization than any non-standard GUI library?  And adding a MVC library might make programming faster if their learning curve wasn’t too steep.

It’s a shame that someone doesn’t make an IDE with built-in web server so it would be the programming language and runtime in the same program.  Or does such a doohickey already exist?  I’ll need to research that.

JWH – 6/2/14

Wake by Robert J. Sawyer

Wake by Robert J. Sawyer is the first novel of a trilogy, it came out in 2009, Watch, the second book, came out this year, and Wonder will come out in 2011.  Sawyer calls them the WWW Trilogy, and it has a rather slick web site, with the best production values I’ve ever seen promoting a SF novel.  Personally, I found Wake as exciting as when I first discovered science fiction back in the 1960s, when I was a kid.  And it’s up for the Hugo this year, so I figure Penguin knows it has a great story and its hitting warp ten to promote it.

wake-for-blog

Wake is not marketed as a YA novel, but it could have been.  The main character is Caitlin Decter, a fifteen year old blind girl, who is a math wiz, computer geek, engaging blog writer, and extremely precocious.  This reminds me tremendously of the Heinlein juveniles from the 1950s, and in particular Holly from “The Menace From Earth.”  Like the Heinlein juveniles, Wake is chock full of educational tidbits.  And Wake is the kind of novel you don’t want to put down. 

Classic SF Theme:  Intelligent Computers

It’s getting harder and harder for science fiction writers to come up with completely new science fictional ideas, so what we often see is a writer taking on a classic theme and having a go at evolving past ideas.  Wake follows in the tradition of many fictional computers, but in particular ones about a computer becoming conscious in front of one person.  These are the just the ones I’ve read, there are many others.

  • 1966 – The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein
  • 1972 – When H.A.R.L.I.E. Was One by David Gerrold
  • 1995 – Galatea 2.2 – Richard Powers
  • 2009 – Wake by Robert J. Sawyer

Sawyer goes further then earlier writers in trying to imagine how an artificial mind would evolve and what it would perceive as it came into being.  Sawyer weaves blindness and Helen Keller, autism, apes that do sign language, Julian Jaynes’ the bicameral mind, and other explorers of consciousness into the story in a very effective way. 

One reason why I love this novel so much is because I’ve been writing a novel in my head about this subject for years.  It’s not likely I’ll ever become a real novelist, but if I do, I’ll have to take the concept further than Sawyer, and that’s a good challenge.

Go read Wake.  End of review.

Spoiler Alert

Now I want to discuss what Sawyer is really writing about.  Sawyer supposes that the Internet could evolve into a self-aware mind.  That idea isn’t new, but what Sawyer does with Wake is make his case for it with series of suppositions that are wrapped in a page turning novel.  In other words, he has a bunch of wild theories that he gets readers to think about one at a time. 

What I’d like to do is discuss these ideas but hopefully without hurting anyone’s enjoyment of the story, but I recommend you not read beyond this point if you haven’t read Wake yet and want to get the full impact of its excitement. 

Sawyer’s first theory is the emerging web mind will go through a stage much like what Helen Keller went through before she discovered language.  Sawyer indirectly explores this stage in a number of ways, including quotes and references to Helen Keller, a subplot about signing apes, and references to the book The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes, a book I found very exciting when it came out back in 1976.

But I think Sawyer is missing a piece of the puzzle, one I got from On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins.  Hawkins thinks our consciousness emerged out of a pattern recognition processor that we call the neocortex.  Sawyer uses cellular automata as his theoretical model, but I’m not sure that will work.  Cellular automata create patterns, but do they recognize them?  I’m not sure the Internet can generate a consciousness in its current design.  Oh, the Internet will make a fine nervous system for such a web being, or beings, but I think another type of device will need to be built first, and that’s a multilayer pattern recognizer that’s as good or better than our neocortex.

So far, all the writers exploring this theme have assume that when computers reach a critical mass a consciousness will spontaneously arise out of the complexity.  I doubt that completely.  I think at least three components are needed for self-aware consciousness: pattern recognition, mind and language.  I don’t think any of these exist in the internet, or supercomputers.   I think mind evolves out of pattern recognition, and self-awareness evolves out of mind, with the development of language.

Atoms and molecules have early stages of pattern recognition, but as life arises out of non-life, sense organs develop that seek out patterns in reality.  Most organisms are so highly adapted to specific patterns that they will die off if they can’t find them.  Evolutionary adaptation is the ability of organisms to explore and take advantage of new patterns.  I believe the mind grows out of this process, and there are different kinds of minds.  A dog, cat, dolphin and chimp all have minds.  We aren’t sure how much they perceive, or if they have much self-awareness, but they do have minds.  Language studies in dolphins and chimps hint that maybe these animals are self-aware and have identities, maybe far more than our egos want to believe, but I think their consciousnesses are limited by the state of their language abilities.  I think signing will add consciousness to apes.

For an AI computer to develop a mind, I think it needs to have a focus on reality that is processed through a pattern recognition device, and then a language needs to be linked to the patterns.  At first, I thought Sawyer was going to have the web mind see out of Caitlin’s artificial eye, so as the device taught her mind to see, the web mind would also learn to see, and with another fictional piece of technology, learn a language.  Instead Sawyer imagines an inner world where the web is visible.  I don’t buy that at all.  It’s leftover fluff from cyberpunk novels.  Why invent a new reality to observe, when the internet mind has millions of eyes on our reality?

Now this brings up some interesting questions about AI minds.  If a web mind has millions of web cameras at its disposal, will it think think like it has millions of eyes?  Or will it’s  consciousness move from camera to camera and peer out at single points of reality?  Omniscient life would be tough, don’t you think?  I tend to believe, and I only have limited knowledge to think otherwise, that an AI mind will emerge from a limited environment.  Some scientist will raise up an AI mind by teaching it to see and hear while learning a language.

But what will a hive AI mind be like?  Let’s say anyone in the future can go down to Radio Shack and buy an artificial neocortex to add to their computer system and bring up an AI child.  If all of these AI minds are connected by the Internet it will be like a race of telepathic beings.  Now, wouldn’t that be a far out science fiction story?  I still haven’t read Watch, so who knows what will happen.

JWH – 5/13/10 

Safari Books Online

Safari Books Online is a subscription library for computer books and tech training videos, with some additional subjects that also appeal to computer book readers, like digital photography.  They offer individual and corporate subscriptions, and many libraries are subscribers too, so you might check your library first.  Safari Books Online has a 10-day free trial if you just want to get the feel of how it works.  Right now they are offering a 5-Slot Bookshelf for $9.99/month, a 10-Slot Bookshelf for $22.99/month and the unlimited Safari Library for $42.99/month.  You only have access to Video Training and the Rough Cuts (prerelease books) titles with the Safari Library.

I got an offer for the 5-Slot Bookshelf when I registered one of my O’Reilly books to get a 45 day free access to the online edition.  For $10, I figured I’d try it out.  It’s a bit confusing how they work things.  With the 5 and 10 Slot Bookshelves, you can only read the full text of 5 or 10 books at a time, and you must keep your picks on your Bookshelf for at least 30 days.  You can preview all the books, but they only show the top third of each page.

At first I was cautious about filling up my 5 slots, but as I spent time actually studying books, time passed quickly and I usually seem to have 1-2 books ready to be checked back in so I could pick new ones.  I felt for $10 a month, this was a real bargain, but I was disappointed I couldn’t see the Video Training and Rough Cut titles.  Then one day Safari sent me an email offering a 20% discount to the Safari Library subscription, or just $34.99 a month for up to 12 months.  I figured, what the hell, and switched.  I can go back any time to my 5-Slot sub if I want to.

What a Bargain!

One reason Safari Books Online appealed to me was because I was having to switch my entire programming paradigm at work form ASP to PHP and I was about to go out and buy a bunch of new computer books for PHP, jQuery, CSS 2, XHTML 1.1, CodeIgniter and Eclipse.  I tend to buy computer books, use them for awhile, let them sit on the shelf for five years, and then put them out on the free book table at work.  Spending $120 a year and having access up to 60 titles seemed like a real deal.  More than likely I’d probably only read 10-20 books for real, but even that is a huge bargain over buying the books.

Reading Online

Most people don’t like reading books at their computer screen, but if you’re reading computer programming books while programming, ebooks work out great.  At work I have a dual monitor setup and I even turned my left monitor to portrait mode so I can enlarge a full page of a Safari book so I see the entire page at once with about a 50% magnification.  Of course this now makes me want to have a triple monitor setup, with Safari book on left, Eclipse IDE in the middle, and browsers on the right.  But don’t get me wrong. reading a Safari book on the same screen as the editor isn’t bad either.

Books can be viewed in two modes:  page mode and HTML.  I prefer looking at the page mode because it’s just like the printed book, but cutting and pasting is easier from the HTML mode.  However, reading is less pleasant from the HTML model unless I up the browser magnification and narrow the window so the scan line width is reasonable.  In page mode you have nice big margins and the print and fonts are the same as the printed book.  If the original book was hard to read, then page mode is also hard to read.

Slowly I’m learning that hanging on to page mode is limiting.  Once books are freed from the confines of pages, content can be presented in new ways.  I expect Safari to discover this in the future and invent new ways of looking at the material.  Books like the Head First series beg for this kind of treatment.  I also expect in the future there won’t be a division between printed books and video training titles.  If authors start writing titles specifically for Safari Online Books they could teach in new ways.

Selection

As of today, I can select from 9,902 books and 631 videos.  Plus lots of great computer book publishers are a part of Safari Online Books:

  • O’Reilly (Head First, Missing Manual)
  • Sams (Teach Yourself)
  • Packt Publishing
  • Addison-Wesley Professional
  • New Riders
  • Microsoft Press
  • Peachpit Press
  • Manning Publications
  • Adobe
  • Que
  • Apress
  • Sitepoint
  • Sybex
  • John Wiley & Sons
  • Prentice Hall

Most of the titles relate to computers in some way, but there’s lots of books on photography, and occasionally there’s a book that relates to investment or retiring.  I have 80 books flagged that I want to read.

The Future of Books

For special purposes, like these technical books, a subscription library really makes sense, and I’m perfectly happy to do without the printed edition.  I expect publishers to even do away with the page mode and eventually optimize everything for HTML mode which also works with mobile devices and ebook readers.  I would even buy a subscription to a science and history book library if I owned something like an iPad.  For fiction I prefer audio books or a device like a Kindle.  I wonder if subscription libraries for other subjects will catch on.

I think the future of books is paperless publishing, and Safari Online Books even hints that rental libraries might become an alternative to owning books.  However, rental libraries are rather specialized.  I’d be interested in a science and history rental library if its selection was as broad as the Safari Books Online is for computer books.  Also, I imagine that a rental library for school textbooks would be appealing to kids if durable iPad like devices caught on.

In my quest to give up paper, I’ve stopped getting magazines and newspapers, and now I have an alternative for technical books.  For fiction I prefer audiobooks.  Before now, I would have said art/photography books could never be replaced by ebooks, but while my second monitor was in portrait mode, my desktop background cycled through some art pieces, and they were very impressive magnified that way.  Freed of the confines of the printed page, art might do very well in ebook editions.  I saw a comic book on the iPad which had a mode of showing the page panel by panel and it was obvious the iPad is now the best way to look at a comic.

JWH – 4/25/10