‘Guilty on All Counts!’: “In Historic Victory, Monsanto Ordered To Pay $289 Million In Roundup Cancer Lawsuit” – (Common Dreams)

Just in today, I may have fallen on the wrong side of this issue.

Sometime around 2015, the topic of GMO’s, pesticides and all things big biotech and big organic came onto my radar. This stuff came to be there after I just for the hell of it, decided to look into the background details and nuances of just one anti- GMO article that I had been regularly exposed to over the years due to a subscription to several ecologically oriented news publications. I was somewhat dumbfounded to find that not only was THAT article very misleading (to put it mildly), it was a common practice with these sorts of publications.

And it wasn’t just in the biased media platforms covering the stories (either side, really). Being that monied interests exist on BOTH sides of the aisle, EVERYONE has lobbyists and an interest in muddying the waters. And they are very successful.  When looking into these things, I learned to avoid pretty much ANY media coverage or sources regardless of their credentials. Even before this  Fake News non-sense was ratcheted up by Donald, people will almost always be tempted to write off the messenger. Which left trying to work with the scientific documentation, which was a giant pain in the rear. Likely for anyone, but certainly for a person outside of any involved fields.

Such was the state of information that it became difficult to even for ME to tell if I was truly being a useful arbiter of information, or if I was just a useful idiot of one side. Such was my confusion that I pretty much stopped covering these topics altogether for a good year or 2, before being brought back by the interesting new innovation that is lab-grown meat.

Back when the Monsanto lawsuit first came on my radar, my first thought was frankly, frivolous lawsuit. Having seen part of the documentary called Hot Coffee (and recognizing how embedded the wrongful tort trope is in our culture), I now realize that such a reaction was . . . unsurprising (Hello useful idiot me!). None the less, it seemed like the science (as seemingly confirmed by what I could find) spoke for itself.

Or not?

‘Guilty on All Counts!’: In Historic Victory, Monsanto Ordered to Pay $289 Million in Roundup Cancer Lawsuit

In an historic victory for those who have long sought to see agrochemical giant Monsanto held to account for the powerful company’s toxic and deadly legacy, a court in California on Friday found the corporation liable for damages suffered by a cancer patient who alleged his sickness was directly caused by exposure to the glyphosate-based herbicides, including the widely used weedkiller Roundup.

As Reuters reports:

The case of school groundskeeper Dewayne Johnson was the first lawsuit alleging glyphosate causes cancer to go to trial.

Monsanto, a unit of Bayer AG following a $62.5 billion acquisition by the German conglomerate, faces more than 5,000 similar lawsuits across the United States. 

The jury at San Francisco’s Superior Court of California deliberated for three days before finding that Monsanto had failed to warn Johnson and other consumers of the cancer risks posed by its weed killers.  It awarded $39 million in compensatory and $250 million in punitive damages.

As Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a lawyer representing Johnson in the case, declared on Twitter, the court “awarded 200 million in punitive damages against Monsanto for ‘acting with malice and oppression.'”

I don’t like Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

The man’s stances on vaccination AT BEST, can be argued to be child abuse (forcing a child to potentially contract terrible illnesses that we CAN EASILY TREAT!), or at worst, threaten the whole of humanity. Epidemics and pandemics ARE a thing, and it’s only a matter of time before the big one is upon us. And if a huge cohort that CAN be immunized is irrationally afraid because of some deluded jackass Andrew Wakefield believer . . .

Either way, not a fan. Nor am I a fan of the way the Organic Consumers of America is jumping all over this news. It’s a lobby group, people!

None the less, if there was merit to the lawsuit, credit where credit is due. Keep fighting for the little guy.

I suppose we will see in the coming days and weeks, how this really played out. Whether it was indeed the facts that drove the decision. Or if Big Organic just made a better (to clarify, far more emotionally captivating) argument.

Posted in Big BioTech / GMO's / Other Eco-Alternative Media Criticisms, Opinion | 2 Comments

“Autonomous Vehicles Might Drive Cities to Financial Ruin” – (Wired)

In a recent post exploring the rise of AI and the dramatic effects, it will have on contemporary society as we know it, one of the issues it (I) covered was the soon to arrive issue of unemployment on a MASSIVE scale. Comparisons are made to past transitions, but really, there is no precedent.  Not just on account of the percentages, but also due to our population alone. There are WAY more of us making tracks now than during any past transition. The stakes could not be higher.

I explored some possible solutions to make the transition less drastic, my favorite being universal basic income. Though I explored that in enough depth to be satisfied, Wired has highlighted a new and equally important problem with this transition.  The issue of local budgets becoming EXTREMELY tight on account to autonomous vehicles more than likely operating outside the traditional confines of must city revenue streams (gas taxes, parking tickets, etc).

If we go into these situations unprepared, the conclusion seems altogether terrifying. Cities that were already structurally deficient in many ways in THIS paradigm now fall apart, filled with aimless and angry people, automated out of existence.

Then there is the now past peak of worldwide oil production, a wall we will also begin to increasingly hit in the coming years. Then again, one terrifyingly dystopian issue at a time.

https://www.wired.com/story/autonomous-vehicles-might-drive-cities-to-financial-ruin/

In Ann Arbor, Michigan, last week, 125 mostly white, mostly male, business-card-bearing attendees crowded into a brightly lit ballroom to consider “mobility.” That’s the buzzword for a hazy vision of how tech in all forms—including smartphones, credit cards, and autonomous vehicles— will combine with the remains of traditional public transit to get urbanites where they need to go.

There was a fizz in the air at the Meeting of the Minds session, advertised as a summit to prepare cities for the “autonomous revolution.” In the US, most automotive research happens within an hour of that ballroom, and attendees knew that development of “level 4” autonomous vehicles—designed to operate in limited locations, but without a human driver intervening—is accelerating.

The session raised profound questions for American cities. Namely, how to follow the money to ensure that autonomous vehicles don’t drive cities to financial ruin. The advent of driverless cars will likely mean that municipalities will have to make do with much, much less. Driverless cars, left to their own devices, will be fundamentally predatory: taking a lot, giving little, and shifting burdens to beleaguered local governments. It would be a good idea to slam on the brakes while cities work through their priorities. Otherwise, we risk creating municipalities that are utterly incapable of assisting almost anyone with anything—a series of sprawling relics where American cities used to be.

A series of sprawling relics where American cities used to be.

Like this?

The fact that Detroit blight jumps right to the forefront of the mind when the topic of urban wastelands is broached, is unfortunate. I don’t live anywhere near the city (nor have I ever visited), but even I know that the remeaning residents are often doing anything in their power to improve their environment. The evidence is scattered all over Youtube and social media in general.

I decided to use the example, frankly, because I didn’t like the way the author seemed to gloss over the notion of the deterioration of cities using the term relics. A relic to me is something old and with former purpose, but now obsolete.
Cities (like Detroit) will likely never be obsolete.  They will just continue to suffer the continued effects of entropy, while still being necessary for the survival of their inhabitants.

It may just be a linguistic critique, but it still doesn’t sit well with me.

Moving on, the other reason why Detroit (and really, many similar cities all over the US) come to mind is that it’s not the first time innovation has left locales in the lurch.  Detroit (and the others as well) have other factors at play as well (white flight being one), but a big one lies in the hands of private entities. Automation itself requires fewer positions, and when combined with an interconnected global economy, the results can be tragic.
As much as I am fascinated by technology (and view it as being the new societal stasis from now on), it’s hard not to see it as one of the largest drivers of income inequality.
Workplace innovations are almost as a rule, NOT good for anything but the bottom line. As you need fewer workers (and can employ them in places with inhumanly low wages), it’s almost inevitable that inequality will only balloon.

In the past, one could balance this out somewhat with the service sector, an industry that is a necessity everywhere and can reliably create cash flow from essentially nothing. It has served as somewhat of a crutch for some unemployed people. These jobs are by no means on par with previous positions (something many slanted commentators overlook either ignorantly or deliberately), but none the less, they serve a purpose.

Or, at least they do for the time being.

The first big round of automation and economic shifts hit the manufacturing sector hard, leaving in its wake the many examples of civil and urban decay. Though the new economic realities of free trade were not really an issue for the service industry (generally, the opposite actually), that paradigm may well be starting to shift.
Already, automation is slowly making its presence seen in the world of service. On top of this, online retailers are gradually rendering once absolutely necessary brick and mortar retail stores and complexes obsolete. While I can see some areas of the service sector as being permanent, local retail is not one of them. At least not in the numbers it generates today.

Hot or cold food is a challenge from a logistics perspective (when the lengthy supply chains of your average online retailer are considered). This, coupled with people wanting to eat out every so often, will hold a place for the family restaurant (or possibly even the fast food outlet) in the local landscape for the time being. Stores on the other hand (particularly larger retailers) are a different matter.

There will exist local shops, I have no doubt there. But I doubt that the selection (or prices) would come anywhere close to what consumers can now get in big box retailers, or will then be able to get with big online retailers. This, combined with the increased automation of future service encounters, could make things very challenging for anyone with any hesitation towards technology. I suspect that many such people will move (or be pushed out) of larger cities and towns, far from the machine.

The demise of big-box retail is, on one hand, a good thing. They tended to be notoriously toxic when it came to local economies to begin with, not beyond many types of bullying tactics in order to maintain such perks as tax-free status. Consider the case of the big box retailer that relocates a couple miles over to another country in order to break a union, skip out on a local tax, or whatever action they deemed punitive. Therein the county ends up reaping all the negatives of such an enterprise without having any of the positives.

The world can do with less big boxes sucking up energy and contributing to an EXTREMELY energy inefficient way of life that we can no longer afford for a number of reasons. But having said that, economically, this will only succeed in turning almost the whole of most countries into the loser county to the big boxes relocation. One or 2 cities that are home to the distribution facilities will see some benefit, but that is it. The rest see nothing but the infrastructural wear and tear, and the trash.
And things probably won’t be rosy even for the seemingly lucky host cities of these distribution centers, because of the power these entities now have. Take the case of Seattle.

It would seem that I am now miles from where I started off (autonomous vehicles & city budgets). But it all plays into the very same thing. Just as I suspect that the majority of future retail distribution will be based out of a small number of warehouses and based around a largely autonymous transportation (be it truck, plane or drone), I can also see such a model for autonomous vehicle distribution.
When the time comes when rented autonomous vehicles are reliable enough to allow the majority of people to ditch one of the largest expenses in their lives (a vehicle), it will become increasingly financially feasible to own and maintain large fleets of always ready autonomous vehicles. Like how self-hauling rental services operate almost ubiquitously on the North American continent with one control center, I can see an alike entity operating huge fleets of self-driving vehicles.

Though these vehicles will utilize some local services (mechanics, cleaners, maybe electricity), as the article states, I doubt it will ever come close to covering the costs of maintaining the infrastructure on which they depend on for their operation. Which more than likely means that consumers will be footing the bill, be it through taxes or user fees.

The problem, as speaker Nico Larco, director of the Urbanism Next Center at the University of Oregon, explained, is that many cities balance their budgets using money brought in by cars: gas taxes, vehicle registration fees, traffic tickets, and billions of dollars in parking revenue. But driverless cars don’t need these things: Many will be electric, will never get a ticket, and can circle the block endlessly rather than park. Because these sources account for somewhere between 15 and 50 percent of city transportation revenue in America, as autonomous vehicles become more common, huge deficits are ahead.

Cities know this: They’re beginning to look at fees that could be charged for accessing pickup and dropoff zones, taxes for empty seats, fees for parking fleets of cars, and other creative assessments that might make up the difference.

But many states, urged on by auto manufacturers, won’t let cities take these steps. Several have already acted to block local policies regulating self-driving cars. Michigan, for example, does not allow Detroit, a short drive away from that Ann Arbor ballroom, to make any rules about driverless cars.

A preemptive strike.

Not that such surprises me. Auto companies already are blurring the line that once separated them from tech companies. I say this due to a bit of exposure to the computers that drive today’s vehicles, having helped a self-taught mechanic tinker with the tune of his 2013 Ford F150. The internet is a limitless resource for this sort of thing. I taught him the basics of how to use this tool, and he ran with it.

It’s not surprising that automobile manufacturers are greasing the gears in statehouses all over the country already. I wouldn’t be surprised that other tech entities are also doing the same thing.

This loss of city revenue comes at a harrowing time. Thousands of local public entities are already struggling financially following the Great Recession. Dozens are stuck with enormous debt loads—usually pension overhangs—that force them to devote unsustainable portions of their incoming revenue to servicing debt. Cities serve as the front lines of every pressing social problem the country is battling: homelessness, illiteracy, inadequate health care, you name it. They don’t have any resources to lose.

The rise of autonomous vehicles will put struggling sections of cities at a particular disadvantage. Unemployment may be low as a national matter, but it is far higher in isolated, majority-minority parts of cities. In those sharply-segregated areas, where educational and health outcomes are routinely far worse than in majority white areas, the main barrier to employment is access to transport. Social mobility depends on being able to get from point A to point B at a low cost.

Take Detroit, a city where auto insurance is prohibitively expensive and transit has been cut back, making it hard for many people to get around. “The bus is just not coming,” Mark de la Vergne, Detroit’s Chief of Mobility Innovation, told the gathering last week, adding that most people in the City of Detroit make less than $57,000 a year and can’t afford a car. De la Vergne told the group in the Ann Arbor ballroom about a low-income Detroit resident who wanted a job but couldn’t even get to the interview without assistance in the form of a very expensive Lyft ride.

As explored before, I suspect that the scaled economies of owning and operating massive fleets of self-driving vehicles may help with this problem. But with the shrunken job market and other local problems coming down the pipe, this hardly even seems a benefit worth mentioning.

That story is, in a nutshell, the problem for America. We have systematically underinvested in public transit: less than 1 percent of our GDP goes to transit. Private services are marketed as complements to public ways of getting around, but in reality these services are competitive. Although economic growth is usually accompanied by an uptick in public transit use, ridership is down in San Francisco, where half the residents use Uber or Lyft. Where ridership goes down, already-low levels of investment in public transit will inevitably get even lower.

When driverless cars take the place of Uber or Lyft, cities will be asked to take on the burden of paying for low-income residents to travel, with whatever quarters they can find lying around in city couches. Result: Cities will be even less able to serve all their residents with public spaces and high-quality services. Even rich people won’t like that.

America has been under-funding essential services across the board for decades. The fact that this is likely to REALLY bite the nation in the ass when they are least prepared to deal with it, is just the cherry on top.

Also, I don’t know that Uber and Lyft will necessarily get replaced. I suspect that they may still exist, but just with much fewer employees. Who knows, one (or both) may become one of the autonomous vehicle behemoths I see existing down the road.

As for the comment about rich people . . . get real. Nothing matters outside the confines of the gated communities in which they reside. Even when the results of their actions are seemingly negative to them in the long term.

Money is a powerful blinder.

It will take great power and great leadership to head off this grim future. Here’s an idea, from France: There, the government charges 3 percent on the total gross salaries of all employees of companies with more than 11 employees, and the proceeds fund a local transport authority. (The tax is levied on the employer not the employee, and in return, employees receive subsidized or free travel on public transport.)

This helps the public transportation angle, indeed. But it doesn’t even touch the infrastructure spending shortfall, a far more massive asteroid to most localities.

At the Ann Arbor meeting, Andreas Mai, vice president of market development at Keolis, said that the Bordeaux transit authority charges a flat fee of about $50 per month for unlimited access to all forms of transit (trams, trains, buses, bikes, ferries, park and ride). The hard-boiled US crowd listening to him audibly gasped at that figure. Ridership is way up, the authority has brought many more buses into service, and it is recovering far more of its expenditures than any comparable US entity. Mai said it required a very strong leader to pull together 28 separate transit systems and convince them to hand over their budgets to the local authority. But it happened.

It’s all just money. We have it; we just need to allocate it better. That will mean viewing public transit as a crucial element of well-being in America. And, in the meantime, we need to press Pause on aggressive plans to deploy driverless cars in cities across the United States.

Public transit is just a part of the problem. I suspect a very small part, at that. And likely the easiest to deal with.
You can not have a public transportation system (or at least not a good one) without addressing infrastructure deficits. And this is just the transportation angle. You also have to contend with water & sewage, solid waste removal,  seasonal maintenance and other ongoing expenses.

Indeed, it is a matter of money and funding allocation. However, the majority of the allocation HAS to start in Washington, in the form of taxation on wealth. As bitter of a pill as that is to swallow, the failure of that course of actions may well make us nostalgic of post-2016 turmoil. Pretty much every leader post-Regan added a little more fuel to the powderkeg, but failure to prepare for coming changes adequately may well set the whole damn thing off.

As for pressing pause on the deployment of driverless vehicles in the cities of the world, we already know that such a plan won’t work. The levers of power are being greased as we speak. Thus, the only option is preparation. Exploration. Brainstorming.

There likely is not going to be a paradigm that fits all contexts, and there will be no utopias. But there is bound to be something between the extremes of absolute privatization and dystopia.

Posted in All Things Tech, Artificial Intelligence & Such, Opinion, Social Issues | Leave a comment

“How Tech Companies Conquered America’s Cities” – (The New York Times)

A good followup to yesterdays piece exploring future tech seems to be present tech. How the innovations of today are being deployed against the once formidable structures of local political influence.

Part of my interest in this article comes from it resurrecting an old observation I had 3 or 4 years back but completely forgot about (until now). Following one of our local elections, a columnist for a local publication wrote an article showcasing the declining participation in local elections in the past decade or so. He outlined the participation numbers in decline as noted by the campaigns in 2006, 2010 and then 2014. Though he did not mention it, I realized that those years coincided with the rise of social media as an embedded part of the day to day life of most people.
Media consumption habits were (are) changing, the internet was (is) becoming ever more prominent in this area (compared to traditional mediums, such as television). People were becoming more intertwined with platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and less so with local papers and newscasts. So beaten down are the mediums here that we don’t have a local paper printed our cities boundaries. If not for our local cable operator being a regional co-operative, the city would have no local media presence (short of a local discussion forum). The two corporate-owned radio stations air prerecorded weather during the evening and night (the co-operative owned stations are staffed 24/7).
Imagine hearing “possibility for the development of thundershowers this evening” after a severe storm has wrecked havoc and flooded half the city. I don’t have to. I HAVE heard this.

Moving on, when it comes to smaller markets, I suspect that this is not all that uncommon these days. As we move online, local media is increasingly crippled or forced to play catch-up. Which is not always possible.

Replacing these local pillars, are the international tech platforms. Since money and attention is not garnered from niches, they tend to focus people more on the national and the international levels (as opposed to the local). If local news makes the algorithm, it tends to be for salacious reasons. Think of Rob Ford’s unfortunate rise to infamy (respectfully left out in this write-up), or my cities former mayor’s past gaffes.

I came to realize this problem because I saw it in my own life. As a millennial at the head of the group, I grew up in the internet age and was just exiting high school as social media was getting established. I have always been connected and politically active, never missing a single vote since reaching voting age. Despite this, the regional and local campaigns had a habit of sneaking up on me (“Holy crap, the election is this week!?”).

Call me ignorant, call me a typical millennial. My focus was elsewhere.
I am not a newspaper reader, my television is off around 70% of the time (I could easily live without cable television). My focus is just generally geared towards the national and the international. I have attempted to remedy this from time to time, but as The Stones once sang, old habits die hard (I hate that song).

Having read the slumping local participation numbers for our local election, it occurred to me that I was not the only one in this boat. Electoral participation is notoriously low to begin with, let alone when one is barely better off than flying blind.
At the time, I shared my observations with the author of that article VIA email, along with my plans to explore it in a future letter to the editor (it’s been awhile since I wrote one of those). But over time, I forgot about it and moved onto other things.

That is until the Times brought it back to the forefront of my mind (albeit in a different context).

Let’s begin.

I’m not saying America’s cities are turning into dystopian technocapitalist hellscapes in which corporations operate every essential service and pull every civic string.

But let’s take a tour of recent news from the metropolises.

■ In Seattle, the City Council decided last week to undo its plan to impose a $275-per-employee tax on local businesses, a measure it had approved unanimously last month as a way to address the city’s homelessness and housing-affordability crisis. Why the retreat? Many of the city’s businesses balked at the tax, including Amazon — and no one needed to remind Seattleites that Amazon is very publicly looking for a second city to plant its glass balls. So, the Council caved.

■ The mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, announced that he had tapped the Boring Company, Elon Musk’s second side-hustle, to build a high-speed transportation tunnel from O’Hare International Airport to the city center. Boring said it would fully pay for the tunnel, using no public funds, but it is also very likely to hold a long-term lease to the project, capturing all revenue from the private system.

■ You’ve heard of the app-powered electric scooters that descended like locusts on some American cities last spring. The start-ups that run them made a bold bet: Deploy now; worry about legal niceties later. The bet is paying off. Officials in San Francisco, Austin, Tex., and Santa Monica, Calif., have rushed plans for legalization. Bird, the most ambitious of the scooter start-ups, is now raising money at a $2 billion valuation, just weeks after raising money at a $1 billion valuation.

■ Finally, Domino’s Pizza announced a plan to pave America’s potholes. I wish I were kidding. As part of the program, Domino’s — which has been fashioning itself as a tech company now that it’s battling food-delivery start-ups for mind share — will imprint its logo into the roadway, because apparently Domino’s is the government now, and he who pays the paver gets to choose the toppings. (A Domino’s spokeswoman told that me cities could forgo the logo.)

O.K., so maybe I am saying that America’s cities are turning into dystopian technocapitalist hellscapes.

When I look at all of this, a couple things come to mind.

The first is questioning how much Domino’s contributes to the tax pool, given that they have to make a national advertising campaign out of putting a band-aid on chronic infrastructure issues.  And the second being, this is starting to look VERY similar to the economic landscape that did in Puerto Rico decades before Maria was a tropical storm. Just a new set of players.

How did tech companies become America’s most-powerful local power brokers?

This, along with the bit about techies being averse to politics, are both solved by the very same equation. Or more accurately, commodity.

Money. And lots of it.

Technology is the future, so this industry will increasingly become the new lynchpin of stability as time goes on. With monetary riches and reward comes an inherent need to play politics, because that is how you both carve out an edge for yourself AND keep as much of the take in your hands as is possible.

It’s the classic story of the growth of an industry, and of a handful of corporations cashing in on most of the riches. Same plot, a different cast of characters.

Only national issues matter now

One reason tech companies can command greater say in local issues is that many other local institutions, from small businesses to local newspapers, have lost much of their influence — thanks, in large part, to the internet.

In his new book, “The Increasingly United States,” Daniel Hopkins, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, points out that social networks and digital media created a media ecosystem that is increasingly obsessed with national issues, and a political-finance system that allows donations to flow nationally. As a result, local issues are sidelined.

“When the framers of the Constitution designed the American political system, they assumed that people would care a lot more about local issues that were tangible and concrete than they would care about the distant ways of Washington,“ Mr. Hopkins said. “Contemporary American politics is exactly the opposite — we are focused on the spectacle far away.”

This is the part that stuck out for me when skimming the article earlier today. My conclusions of a few years back, in an article within the New York Times. How’s THAT for being on to something?

In this increasing vaccum of information, many speculate that corruption will become much more common than it has in the past. A hypothesis that I can understand because it stands to reason . . . what is there to lose when no one is watching?

John Oliver touches on it in this clip:

No, the irony isn’t lost on me.

Mr. Hopkins argues that this has turned local politics sclerotic. For instance, in California, where I live, there’s a huge political disagreement between people who favor building more housing and those who argue that development is itself the problem (that is, Yimbys versus Nimbys). Yet among politically connected elites here, I noticed more interest in various faraway congressional special elections than the race we just had for San Francisco mayor.

The “key question for voters is always their national loyalties,” Mr. Hopkins said. There’s much less room for voting based on what’s happening nearby.

Interesting. And somewhat concerning. If this is the case in a big market like San Francisco, what hope does literally ANY OTHER MARKET have?

‘Travis’s Law’

What does this have to do with tech companies? While the fall of local media undermined interest in local issues, tech companies began to notice that their platforms gave them direct access to new levers of local influence. And they began to deploy those levers to withering effect.

Uber wrote the script. Travis Kalanick, the ride-hailing company’s founder and now-ousted chief executive, pushed into dozens of cities without asking permission. In many cities, the pushback was intense — Uber was disrupting local taxi cartels that had spent decades building their own political power base.

But what Uber lacked in political support it made up for in local popularity. Through its app, the company had a direct connection to thousands of riders and drivers who were making a living from its service.

They became the basis for “Travis’s Law”: When regulators tried to shut Uber down, the company could “turn its riders into advocates and use grass-roots political pressure to ensure Uber’s continued existence,” as Bradley Tusk, the political operative whom Mr. Kalanick hired to fight local battles, writes in his coming book, “The Fixer: Saving Startups From Death by Politics.”

The plan worked beautifully. In New York in 2015, Mayor Bill de Blasio floated a proposal to cap Uber’s growth. The mayor had the support of most of the City Council; Uber’s fight looked impossible.

But Mr. Tusk mobilized Uber’s constituency, framing the issue in stark racial terms — if Uber failed, black and Latino drivers would lose an economic opportunity, and riders would be stuck with taxis that had long discriminated against them. Uber won and, by following its example, so would the rest of the industry.

Very interesting and eye-opening. I only had half the picture. It wasn’t just circumstance, it was malice. Malice that no locality on this earth is immune from if even metro New York City can fall victim to these tactics.

I wouldn’t be being honest if I didn’t see the possible silver lining of new technology helping to bast up long-standing taxi monopolies in many markets. The fact that they call them cartels is telling. But having said that, not if the result is going to be just another version of the VERY SAME GAME, just with different players.

I’m starting to see a theme, here.

Is tech power so bad?

You might argue that this is all to the good: Cities are drowning in red tape, local leaders are naturally averse to change, and tech companies are doing exactly what innovative companies should do. Shouldn’t we be celebrating these innovators?

If this is you . . . go to the nearest mirror and give yourself a nice big slap in the face. After such an amount of slaps has elapsed that you feel that your head is completely and totally removed from the confines of your rectal cavity, come back and rejoin the conversation.

But tech power, at the local level, feels increasingly indomitable. With the mere threat of halting growth, Amazon can send shudders through cities across the country. Even Mr. De Blasio, once seen as a critic of tech, now swoons for Amazon; he lit up New York’s landmarks in “Amazon orange” to woo Jeff Bezos to open the company’s second headquarters there.

Or, consider the scooters. Some people love our new e-scooter overlords, and others hate them. But whatever your position, the real problem is that they just appeared out of nowhere one day, suddenly seizing the sidewalks, and many citizens felt they had no real agency in the decision. They were here to stay, whatever nonusers felt about them.

Which was all by design. The scooter companies were just following Travis’s Law. In Santa Monica, Bird’s scooters appeared on city streets in September. Lawmakers balked; in December, the city filed a nine-count criminal complaint against Bird.

Bird responded with a button in its app to flood local lawmakers with emails of support. The city yielded: Bird signed a $300,000 settlement with Santa Monica, a pittance of its funding haul, and lawmakers authorized its operations.

If you love the scooters, you see nothing wrong with this. But there was a time, in America, when the government paid for infrastructure and the public had a say in important local services. With Ubers ruling the roads, Birds ruling the sidewalks, Elon Musk running our subways and Domino’s paving our roads, that age is gone.

Ride-sharing has been proposed (and promptly, opposed) by many in my locality, of which keeps a fairly tight rein on the cities taxi industry (though not as tight as other nearby cities, as there is no cap on the number of registered taxies in service at any one time). Though there is fairly minimal push into this market at the moment, I will have to keep an eye on it.

As do us all.

 

 

Posted in All Things Tech, Culture, Opinion | Leave a comment

Ethics Of Artificial Intelligence – An Exploration

Today’s topic has been on the backburner since April when I came across the top 9 ethical issues in artificial intelligence as explored by The World Economic Forum.

It seem’s that I can’t log into any platform without coming across Ethics or AI these days. That is unsurprising, given the microtargeted nature of our online world (past behavior dictates future content). What did surprise me, however, was having the Twitter account associated with this blog get followed by an Ethics in AI oriented NGO (very likely the source of the blog post that spawned this piece, actually).

In truth, it’s all very . . . questionable. It seems that everyone and their dog is chiming into the Ethics in AI conversation, but I am not even sure that the rest of us have mastered the topic yet. Particularly, heads of tech-based companies with known histories of unethical behavior behind the shiny facade of silicon valley grandeur.

None the less, let’s get on with the questions.

https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/10/top-10-ethical-issues-in-artificial-intelligence/

1. Unemployment. What happens after the end of jobs?

The hierarchy of labour is concerned primarily with automation. As we’ve invented ways to automate jobs, we could create room for people to assume more complex roles, moving from the physical work that dominated the pre-industrial globe to the cognitive labour that characterizes strategic and administrative work in our globalized society.

Look at trucking: it currently employs millions of individuals in the United States alone. What will happen to them if the self-driving trucks promised by Tesla’s Elon Musk become widely available in the next decade? But on the other hand, if we consider the lower risk of accidents, self-driving trucks seem like an ethical choice. The same scenario could happen to office workers, as well as to the majority of the workforce in developed countries.

This is where we come to the question of how we are going to spend our time. Most people still rely on selling their time to have enough income to sustain themselves and their families. We can only hope that this opportunity will enable people to find meaning in non-labour activities, such as caring for their families, engaging with their communities and learning new ways to contribute to human society.

If we succeed with the transition, one day we might look back and think that it was barbaric that human beings were required to sell the majority of their waking time just to be able to live.

That is certainly a rosy way to look at things. If we succeed in the transition, one day we may look at the full-time employment of a human over a lifetime as inhumane. There is just the matter of GETTING there first.  Will society survive?

In exploring the seeming hyperbole of my last sentence, I think we have to define what we mean as a successful transition. If the transition is regulated in the typical almost libertarian manner that many world governing entities (in particular, the United States) tend to follow, then not much will change. Like the last technological revolutions of our time, most gains will stay with the shareholders and the CEOs.
The biggest difference will be that the vast majority of all workers may well find themselves in dire straits. As opposed to just workers in regions once supported primarily by vibrant (yet niche, and inevitably redundant) industries.  Or workers displaced by money-saving decisions (such as outsourcing) made by companies.

One potential method of dealing with this potential time bomb (as some experts are calling it) would be some form of Universal Basic Income. Everyone (below a given income bracket?) would receive some regular given amount of money to do with as they please. Presumably, it would be enough to cover living expenses (or at least make a substantial dent in them, anyway).

Though this concept is fairly new to me, I rather like the idea. Aside from helping to avoid a civil collapse into unrest and possible martial law (or in some cases, fascism), you will have a healthier and more vibrant economy. Sitting on riches (or sheltering them in international tax havens) doesn’t do anything but increasingly undermine an economy. However, distribution to lower brackets does tend to be beneficial to all economies of scale. Food stamps are a good example of this.

To go with the last example (food stamps), economies do see benefits from even basic social safety nets. But when people have more than is required just for the basics (what the boomers called disposable income), they spend more.  They buy all manner of items that help to enrich all economies.

Of course, there is the question of how one is going to pay for this. In that respect, I am a lot like Bernie Sanders in saying “TAX THE RICH!”.

It is more than a slogan, however. It is (or it SHOULD BE!) a consequence to make up for the huge impact that their decisions have on the societies and nations in which they do business. In some senses, one could almost say “the societies and nations in which they plunder”.
Up to now, companies (for the most part) have been able to get away with washing their hands of the many consequences of their existence on local areas.
And not just unemployment either!
Consider things like obesity, or the ever growing problem of plastic waste (and garbage in general). To date, the food industry has faced Zero consequences for either epidemic, despite being the single largest contributors to both issues worldwide.

Universal basic income seems not just the logical solution to a coming asteroid, but also a much-deserved form of corporate reparations. Oh yes . . . I went there.

To conclude, people like Elon Musk and the late Stephan Hawking typically cite fears of AI gone rogue as their main concern for the technology going forward. What is far more concerning to me, are angry mass populations once they find themselves redundant. In a sense, we already have had a bit of a taste of what it looks like when angry (and somewhat ignorant) people find themselves without purpose in the world. Should we do nothing to prepare going forward . . .

There is also much to be said about the pitfalls of the current status quo. Millions of cogs in a giant machine, spending day after day just toiling. Working. Doing something, for some reason.

Well, at least you have a job! That is all we can hope for, right?

Boomers, in particular, love to use this line. Just shut up and do what you are told. Don’t think, just work.

It makes you wonder . . . how many people with various gifts that would be beneficial to society, spend their lives toiling in menial labor, whilst the whole machine inches ever closer it’s seemingly inevitable march off a cliff?

At this crossroad, where the species is soon to face running smack dab into more than one wall, isn’t it just logical to have all hands on deck? After all, it’s not just the economy, or life as we know it . . . it’s life itself.

Which will we choose?

Another milestone for the species? Or the evolutionary cul-de-sac?

2. Inequality. How do we distribute the wealth created by machines?

Our economic system is based on compensation for contribution to the economy, often assessed using an hourly wage. The majority of companies are still dependent on hourly work when it comes to products and services. But by using artificial intelligence, a company can drastically cut down on relying on the human workforce, and this means that revenues will go to fewer people. Consequently, individuals who have ownership in AI-driven companies will make all the money.

We are already seeing a widening wealth gap, where start-up founders take home a large portion of the economic surplus they create. In 2014, roughly the same revenues were generated by the three biggest companies in Detroit and the three biggest companies in Silicon Valley … only in Silicon Valley there were 10 times fewer employees.

If we’re truly imagining a post-work society, how do we structure a fair post-labour economy?

I think I have delved into most of the negatives in enough depth already. But it’s worth exploring the positives a little more.

Right now, the habit seems to be to call this the post work era. I’m not sure that will necessarily be the case. As explored before, without so-called gainful employment taking up so much of peoples time, their energy is available for whatever they want to focus it on. I suspect that this will include new business ventures. Ventures potentially shelved previously because the entrepreneur or customers (if not both) may not have had the time to devote to such an endeavor.

To put it in hopeful economist terms, who’s dreams could become a reality in this new paradigm?

This will of course largely depend on the availability of capital to fund such ventures. Though a big issue in a paradigm of mass unemployment, it is possible that recent innovations like micro-financing and crowdfunding could help clear this hurdle. Either way, the possibility is there for this be become (or more accurately, revert back to) an era of small business.

The future could be bright if one plays the cards right.

3. Humanity. How do machines affect our behaviour and interaction?

Artificially intelligent bots are becoming better and better at modelling human conversation and relationships. In 2015, a bot named Eugene Goostman won the Turing Challenge for the first time. In this challenge, human raters used text input to chat with an unknown entity, then guessed whether they had been chatting with a human or a machine. Eugene Goostman fooled more than half of the human raters into thinking they had been talking to a human being.

This milestone is only the start of an age where we will frequently interact with machines as if they are humans; whether in customer service or sales. While humans are limited in the attention and kindness that they can expend on another person, artificial bots can channel virtually unlimited resources into building relationships.

In a sense, I would personally welcome this. Assuming they are user-friendly, I prefer dealing with machines to humans generally (be it a self-checkout or on the phone with some company). Part of this is due to my introverted nature (leaning towards the extreme end of that spectrum, if I am honest. It’s a bit ironic that my menial labor is in customer service). And part of this reaction is because service-oriented jobs tend to be hell for most but a few brave souls. Having worked my entire career in various segments of the service industry, I’ve learned to hate people. To be fair, my high school experience helped pave the way to this conclusion, but HAVING SAID THAT . . . the general public didn’t do much to correct my misconceptions.
Amusingly, this is a somewhat subdued expression of these feelings. Maturity has tempered me somewhat, even in comparison to some of the earliest posts on this blog.

I understand, however, that personal anecdote is not always a good barometer to go by.

Even outside of my paradigm, I still see this transition as being mostly a good thing. One way I can think of is in helping the socially challenged such as myself practice some social skills in an unjudgemental environment.

It is also possible that it could go the other way. Less interaction could entail more isolation. Having said that, I suspect that these traits are more associated with the individual (not to mention their finances) than they are with macro technological innovations. It makes me curious if those many studies and observations that find many in the post-boomer generations to be socially isolated (in comparison) also take financial restraints into account.

In conclusion, I suspect that the overall impact will likely range somewhere from benign to positive.

Even though not many of us are aware of this, we are already witnesses to how machines can trigger the reward centres in the human brain. Just look at click-bait headlines and video games. These headlines are often optimized with A/B testing, a rudimentary form of algorithmic optimization for content to capture our attention. This and other methods are used to make numerous video and mobile games become addictive. Tech addiction is the new frontier of human dependency.

This is actually a very much overlooked fact of modern existence that needs more attention. Tech addiction. Not only is it a real thing, it is often times being encouraged due to the nature of the industry. Though the human attention span is finite, the options within the software world are infinite. And as such, some developers are not beyond employing less than questionable means to keep people hooked on their platform.

The unfortunate aspect of this is that some of the most desirable users of these apps are also the least equipped to combat their habit influencing nature . . . children. In today’s world, seeing a teen or anyone else addicted to their phone is seen as little more than a joke, but really, there is something to this allegation. Even the heaviest users know it isn’t rational to devote hours of attention to a seemingly benign app used to share photos.

For those that have never considered this before, consider why slot machines in Vegas don’t just stay silent when you win big (or win at all, really). They flash bright lights, they make a ruckus of noise, they sometimes dump shiny coinage all over the place. They get the dopamine pumping and make you feel good.

I likely don’t need to elaborate on the dark side of this psychological trickery in the context of gambling venues. I suspect that we all know (or know of) a person that has fallen into this trap.

But have you ever considered why many of those apps on your device are so pesky? They beep, ping, flash the screen, pop up constantly. If they are not showing personal interactions, then they are showing notifications about what activities friends have recently engaged in on the platform.

Anything to get your attention back on the app.

the other hand, maybe we can think of a different use for software, which has already become effective at directing human attention and triggering certain actions. When used right, this could evolve into an opportunity to nudge society towards more beneficial behavior. However, in the wrong hands it could prove detrimental.

To comment on the last point, it already is proving detrimental. Noting that, I am not even sure that one could say that the software is even in the wrong hands. After all, it was not inherently designed to be nefarious. It was designed to serve a purpose that benefited the agendas of the designers of said software. Even they more than likely overlooked many of the flaws that have since become apparent.

If it’s an indictment of anything, it’s what you get when you allow the market too much control over these things. It’s the emerging tech industries symptoms of a problem that has persisted American companies for decades . . . lack of regulatory control.
To anyone that disputes that seemingly arbitrary point, I encourage them to show me just ONE instance where an industry has put the well-being of the commons over short-term gains.

I am at a bit of a crossroads. On one hand, all of these tactics of psychological manipulation are more than likely here to stay. As noted by my gambling comparison, they long predated social media. So the author may be correct in seeing a possible positive use for such technologies.

None the less, manipulation is manipulation. No matter who is pulling the strings, there exists an air of dishonesty.

4. Artificial stupidity. How can we guard against mistakes?

Intelligence comes from learning, whether you’re human or machine. Systems usually have a training phase in which they “learn” to detect the right patterns and act according to their input. Once a system is fully trained, it can then go into test phase, where it is hit with more examples and we see how it performs.

Obviously, the training phase cannot cover all possible examples that a system may deal with in the real world. These systems can be fooled in ways that humans wouldn’t be. For example, random dot patterns can lead a machine to “see” things that aren’t there. If we rely on AI to bring us into a new world of labour, security and efficiency, we need to ensure that the machine performs as planned, and that people can’t overpower it to use it for their own ends.

5. Racist robots. How do we eliminate AI bias?

Though artificial intelligence is capable of a speed and capacity of processing that’s far beyond that of humans, it cannot always be trusted to be fair and neutral. Google and its parent company Alphabet are one of the leaders when it comes to artificial intelligence, as seen in Google’s Photos service, where AI is used to identify people, objects and scenes. But it can go wrong, such as when a camera missed the mark on racial sensitivity, or when a software used to predict future criminals showed bias against black people.

We shouldn’t forget that AI systems are created by humans, who can be biased and judgemental. Once again, if used right, or if used by those who strive for social progress, artificial intelligence can become a catalyst for positive change.

I decided to group these 2 as one because I have come to see both symptoms as roots from the same branch . . . bad data inputs.

Having done a bit of looking into this stuff, despite the bad AI result’s getting a lot of coverage, one often doesn’t see much attempt to diagnose. For example, that AI handing out harsher (seemingly, racist) sentences to differing nationalities was also drawing from a far larger data set than any jury or judge would (such as the person’s home neighborhood, and other seemingly irrelevant information). It’s less a matter of nefarious machines than it is data contamination.

Of course, this doesn’t make for as splashy of a headline. Or as gripping an article.

Things could take a wrong turn, as far as these machines are concerned. But with clean data, I suspect they may outperform their current human competition in MANY contexts. Bias is somewhat controllable when it comes to inputting data (for example, switching out names for identification numbers when it comes to entering criminals into these systems). However, it is NOT in the context of the human. Nor is it necessarily apparent even to the person themselves, that they may well be acting on their biases. Or possibly even some other seemingly unrelated trigger (“I’m hungry/ gotta pee! Can this just be over with already!?”).

6. Security. How do we keep AI safe from adversaries?

The more powerful a technology becomes, the more can it be used for nefarious reasons as well as good. This applies not only to robots produced to replace human soldiers, or autonomous weapons, but to AI systems that can cause damage if used maliciously. Because these fights won’t be fought on the battleground only, cybersecurity will become even more important. After all, we’re dealing with a system that is faster and more capable than us by orders of magnitude.

The author says a system. I feel that it will be more many systems. We may get to that Star Trek-like future someday, but not in my lifetime.

To start, even our CURRENT public and private data infrastructure systems tend to be woefully unprotected. Judging by the sheer number of companies seemingly caught with their pants down upon finding data breaches, it’s like digital security is an afterthought. When you sign up for everything from a bank account to a retail store loyalty card, you have to hope that digital security is a priority. And even if it is, there are no guarantees!

A good start that can happen TODAY, is drafting legislation on the protection of data under an organizations care. Losing the equivalent to the intimate details of a person’s life (and in some cases, those very details!) has to be more than a “WHOOPSY! We will do better!” type situation. Identity theft can cause a lot of stress and cost a lot of money, so companies that fail to protect consumer data in every way possible (particularly in cases of negligence) should pay dearly for this breach of trust. A fine large enough to not just be a slap on the wrist. Cover the potential expenses of every potential victim, and then some. Make a statement.

What say you, Elizibeth Warren?

When it comes to private companies under control of public infrastructure, the same should apply. When an attack happens, the horse is out of the barn already. Which is why one has to be proactive.
Employ some white hats to test the resiliency of our private and public infrastructure. Issue warnings and set deadlines whilst demanding regular updates on progress made. Then keep at it.
Hit those that miss the deadline without reasonable explanation, with fines. And keep on top of things, issuing warnings (and hopefully less frequently, fines) as issues are found.

As technology progresses both for the public and the private sector, only a staunchly proactive atmosphere such as this can help prevent the hijacking of far more powerful technologies for nefarious purposes.

Being that most of the world is nowhere even close to this . . .

7. Evil genies. How do we protect against unintended consequences?

It’s not just adversaries we have to worry about. What if artificial intelligence itself turned against us? This doesn’t mean by turning “evil” in the way a human might, or the way AI disasters are depicted in Hollywood movies. Rather, we can imagine an advanced AI system as a “genie in a bottle” that can fulfill wishes, but with terrible unforeseen consequences.

In the case of a machine, there is unlikely to be malice at play, only a lack of understanding of the full context in which the wish was made. Imagine an AI system that is asked to eradicate cancer in the world. After a lot of computing, it spits out a formula that does, in fact, bring about the end of cancer – by killing everyone on the planet. The computer would have achieved its goal of “no more cancer” very efficiently, but not in the way humans intended it.

To be fair, the computer doesn’t have to kill all humans on earth, just all the ones with cancer. That would take care of the problem (well, at least temporarily). Call it the most effective health and fitness campaign in the history of the human race.

Move over Joanne & Hal!

Moving on, this is one of the more played up possibilities of this new technological age. Fear of the Machine, of the tables turning. But it’s hard to see this as much more than Hollywood driven fear mongering.

Consider the eradicate cancer request that in this hypothetical, went very wrong. What if instead of becoming the digital adaptation of Adolf Hitler, the machine dug into its massive database of information and spit out a laundry list of both lifestyle changes and possible environmental improvements that would dramatically lessen the instances of cancer. Hell, any big problem known to our species.
Strip away the bias, emotion and other deadweight of the human cognitive ability, and add exponentially more computation power in the process, and who knows what can be accomplished.

For a while now, I’ve been tossing around the idea of UFO’s and extraterrestrial visitors as some form of inter-steller Artificial Intelligence, possibly linked to some past (or present!) life form from who knows where. Who knows . . . AI could be our ticket to depths beyond the observable universe!

8. Singularity. How do we stay in control of a complex intelligent system?

The reason humans are on top of the food chain is not down to sharp teeth or strong muscles. Human dominance is almost entirely due to our ingenuity and intelligence. We can get the better of bigger, faster, stronger animals because we can create and use tools to control them: both physical tools such as cages and weapons, and cognitive tools like training and conditioning.

This poses a serious question about artificial intelligence: will it, one day, have the same advantage over us? We can’t rely on just “pulling the plug” either, because a sufficiently advanced machine may anticipate this move and defend itself. This is what some call the “singularity”: the point in time when human beings are no longer the most intelligent beings on earth.

I can’t help but wonder if that ship has already long since sailed into the sunset. I suppose it lies in how one defines intelligence. For example, there are 3 devices within my reach that leave my brain in the dust (8 in the whole of the apartment). My brain doesn’t hold a candle to a calculator, let alone a modem or a smart TV.
But at the same time, these things are not beings (to borrow from the article). They are just objects with purposes ranging to the simplistic, to the complex. Be it crunching data, or helping move it from my computer to the WordPress server, both machines are far from autonomous.
The closest examples we have at the moment are the autopilot systems of both jetliners and autonomous vehicles, and even these default to human intervention when in doubt.

So I guess we’re not quite there . . . yet?

If I recall, the last time I explored this question, I concluded that we would most likely not ever see this revelation because I have serious doubts in the continued flourishing of the species as a whole. This culmination may not be like life after people (everyone here one day, gone the next), but no matter what, whoever is left is more than likely to have bigger concerns than furthering AI research.
Rather than the matrix, you may have The Colonie. Mad Max. The Book of Elie. The Road.

Pick your poison.

If I am wrong and am proven a dumbass by Elon Musk and everyone else sounding alarm bells, as Chef Ramsay would say . . . Fuck me. We done got ourselves into a pickle now, didn’t we?

Since these machines are influenced by input data, then I guess . . . hopefully, the technology will ignore the whole parasitic nature of the spread of the human species. And hopefully it will overlook the way that humans tend to consume and destroy damn near everything we have ever come into contact with.

God help us all if this singularity decides to side with Gaia.

Then again, what if it flips the script and turns mother to the species, acting as nurturer instead of the destroyer?  We conceived of it with our limited facilities, so it shall now keep us healthy. A good outcome, it would seem.

But wait. There are only enough resources to support X amount of humans, but there is currently Y number alive. If there isn’t a cull of this number (along with a possible lifestyle change), all will perish.
Still a good result?
The great fall is inevitable. In one circumstance, few recognize the truth and mass calamity ensues in the aftermath. In the other, the warning allows at least SOME preparations to be made (and difficult decisions to be decided) in staving off the worst possible scenario.

One can play with the singularity principal all they like. If it is to be, there is not all that much to be said or done. Though, I suspect we won’t have to worry, anyway.

9. Robot rights. How do we define the humane treatment of AI?

While neuroscientists are still working on unlocking the secrets of conscious experience, we understand more about the basic mechanisms of reward and aversion. We share these mechanisms with even simple animals. In a way, we are building similar mechanisms of reward and aversion in systems of artificial intelligence. For example, reinforcement learning is similar to training a dog: improved performance is reinforced with a virtual reward.

*raises eyebrow*

I have heard virtual cookies spoken of many times in my years of contributing to online forums, offered to people of opposing viewpoints as a gesture of goodwill. I never thought there would be a day when such a cookie would exist, however.

Is it like, a bitcoin?

Call me ignorant, but I haven’t the FAINTEST idea how one rewards something that, last I checked, was neither sentient or conscious.

Right now, these systems are fairly superficial, but they are becoming more complex and life-like. Could we consider a system to be suffering when its reward functions give it negative input? What’s more, so-called genetic algorithms work by creating many instances of a system at once, of which only the most successful “survive” and combine to form the next generation of instances. This happens over many generations and is a way of improving a system. The unsuccessful instances are deleted. At what point might we consider genetic algorithms a form of mass murder?

How about, never?

I view this as not being identical to the processes of evolution or obsolescence, but similar enough to render it as being ethically benign. It would be asinine to consider the ethicacy of the process of evolution spanning the ages. And humans regularly throw away and destroy the old and obsolescent technologies that once populated their lives.

Consider the following video’s. Are the actions you see within either video unethical?

To be fair, a great many people do display emotional distress at the sight of this type of thing. But this is less murder than it is . . . progeress. To have shiny new things, we have to sacrafice much of the old things to The Claw.

Once we consider machines as entities that can perceive, feel and act, it’s not a huge leap to ponder their legal status. Should they be treated like animals of comparable intelligence? Will we consider the suffering of “feeling” machines?

Some ethical questions are about mitigating suffering, some about risking negative outcomes. While we consider these risks, we should also keep in mind that, on the whole, this technological progress means better lives for everyone. Artificial intelligence has vast potential, and its responsible implementation is up to us.

Looking at this question in a strictly pragmatic way, then no. We will not take the suffering of the machines into consideration. I draw this conclusion from the way that our species tends to treat lesser animals that are sacrificed for the sake of our stomachs.

Should animals be given respect for the beings that they are? I suppose that it depends on what that entails.
The argument can be made that being humans have the emotional intelligence to understand suffering, then consumption of meat is unethical. Actually, put in this way, one could even say barbaric.
Bloody hell, The militant vegan’s are getting to me.

Either way, since I am not Ingrid Newkirk and less prone to emotional manipulation than the average psychopath, this does not drive me straight to veganism. First, because humans have been omnivores boardering on carnivorous for pretty much the entirety of our existence.

The ancestors of Homo sapiens cooked their food, cooking has been around for approximately a million year (that is around 500 000 years longer than the human species has existed) (Berna et al., 2012; Organ, Nunn, Machanda, & Wrangham, 2011). Traces of humans eating meat is also ancient and seems to have been around for as long as our species existed (Pobiner, 2013). One of our closest relatives the chimpanzee also eats an omnivorus diet with mainly fruits, but occasionally eats animals (McGrew, 1983).

https://veganbiologist.com/2016/01/04/humans-are-not-herbivores/

Though meat does seem to be a necessity in our diet, being that its components can fairly easily be replaced by vegan alternatives,  I wouldn’t use that argument. Which brings us back to ethical implications. Since it would be asinine to label a lion unethical for doing what it must to survive, I also feel no such ethical conundrum.
To be fair, while I am pro-meat, I am not blind. It would a benefit in every way for the species to severely curb it’s met consumption. It’s simply unsustainable in the long term (even without taking inhumane conditions into consideration). If everyone relaxed their meat consumption to even once or twice a week, resource-intensive factory farming would quickly become redundant. Meat eaters can enjoy their choice, whilst animals also get a bit of a lift (in terms of overall treatment).

The argument can still be made that there is no humane way to slaughter meat for food, period. Full stop.

I hate dichotomies. If you are one of the people of this persuasion, I encourage you to go over to National Geographic or Discovery’s channel and watch a lion eat it’s pray. Eat it’s sometimes sick and injured (and therefore, easy to catch) pray.

The phrase “put it out of its misery” exists for a reason.

Having delved into all of that, I still can’t bring myself to view these so-called Intelligent Designs (a proper usage for the term?) as anything beyond abiotic objects. Which raises a new question . . . when do abiotic factors become biotic?
From what I can tell, the divide seems to be between the living and the dead. Recently living things that are part of a food chain are generally considered biotic until fully broken down.

I think one can understand where I am going with this, by now. Does life need to fit into this spectrum? Or could we have just stumbled into a new categorization?

For the time being, i’ll settle into the non-commital conclusion that is “Not sure”. If this ever becomes a reality, I will likely revisit this topic. However, until then, this can go on the shelf along side gods existence, extra terrestrial phenomena ans other supernatural lore.

Posted in All Things Tech, Artificial Intelligence & Such, Opinion | Leave a comment

“Comprehensive Animal Protein Study Compares Environmental Impacts” – (Ecowatch)

Interesting timing on the part of the publication of this article.

During this past weekend, a vegan co-worker of mine made an attempt to essentially sell the lifestyle to me. I don’t recall exactly how this conversation started, but either way, it ended with me grudgingly agreeing to watch a documentary called “What The Health”. Something I was a bit hesitant to do because:

1.) I don’t really trust documentaries anymore. The documentary Micheal Hates America does a good job of illustrating just how easy they can be used as a tool of manipulation.

In this age of podcasts and other such long-form platforms, consider how most of them handle information. Generally, you have an interviewer (or a small panel of interviewers and/or guests) unfamiliar with the often complex material being presented. If the information seems to have some semblance of sense to it, people often accept it at face value. This is amplified by the fact that these hosts often are considered trusted vetters of information, even though it’s not always clear exactly why. Whether it’s someone dabbling outside of their area of expertise, or just someone without any focused education playing the part of the academic gatekeeper, the result is essentially the same.

Online popular culture (which is increasingly bleeding into an offline popular culture, and beyond!) is littered with the end results of this flawed vetting method. Whether it’s Canadian psychologist’s that should never have seen any spotlight, or the reemergence of long-disproven hypotheses with obvious roots in racist starting points, this stuff is quite literally EVERYWHERE.

It’s all bullshit, and it’s bad for you. To quote the wise comedian that seen our future long before we were willing to even entertain it.

To bring it back to documentaries, this genre is (in a sense) just an older form of what is more or less the same methodology of information dissemination that we just explored (the podcast). You sit and watch / listen as a case is made, and you generally accept what you see / hear.  Because, why would they lie to you?

Unfortunately, long gone are the days of me being able to blindly trust almost anything at face value, let alone the known tool of manipulation that is the documentary.

2.) I don’t trust this documentary.

First, because it’s from the same producer as the infamous Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret. And second, because even lightly scratching the surface unearths a world of nonsense, as demonstrated by quite literally the first Google search result one comes up with the query What The Health Criticisms.

Yes, that may seem like a loaded query. But when looking into something like this, you have to employ de-manipulation tactics like that. If not, you will almost certainly be digging through pages and pages of self-published propaganda and blind yes-men testimonials before ever hitting anything critical.
A fact that doesn’t escape me when I hear people talk about having researched a topic in depth, despite often times mysteriously ending up with a very niche and un-nuanced conclusion.

Either way, I may or may not watch the film. The Red Pill wasn’t nearly as biased as I thought it would be (though wise friends still have blunt critiques of it).
Some may thnk that watching it is the honest thing to do (“How can you critique what you haven’t even seen!”). Logic dictates that information within the film that is proven false is just as false without viewing it as it is WITH viewing it.

We will see.

Either way, onto the Ecowatch article. Alike my last encounter with Ecowatch, this piece will be less critical than it will be exploratory.

Let’s begin.

Scientists behind a study published less than two weeks ago said that avoiding meat and dairy is probably the single best consumer choice you can make for the environment.

There is no arguing this, PERIOD. To throw a bone to my militant vegan audience members.

There is much to say about the truth in that statement. Before you even get to the meat protein stage, energy has to go into feeding this food grade livestock in the form of plant matter.
Then comes the matter of cow farts and methane. Livestock agriculture leaves German car makers in the dust in terms of noxious emissions. Fine, cow farts leave most vehicle emissions, PERIOD, in the dust.

It had to be said, though. I still see many aging TDI’s on the road.

Along with the pre-production, production and post-production pollution associated with meat and dairy is the huge energy dedication just in storing it. With little toleration for temperature variation on the higher end of the spectrum, these items must ALWAYS be properly refrigerated.

We have all likely come across the end results of not following this process, at some point or another.  Here’s what happen’s when that person owns a bankrupt grocery store.

Meat,and dairy are extremely energy intensive. You won’t find me disputing that fact.

But if you want to watch your footprint while still eating meat, a study published Monday, which authors say is the most comprehensive comparison of the environmental impact of various animal proteins, has you covered.

The study, published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, compared farmed livestock, farmed fish and wild-caught fish and found that livestock and farmed catfish took the greatest toll on the earth, while farmed mollusks and wild-caught fish caused the least damage.

Livestock isn’t surprising. But the farmed fish observation is.

“From the consumer’s standpoint, choice matters,” lead author and University of Washington (UW) School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences professor Ray Hilborn said in a UW press release published by Phys.org. “If you’re an environmentalist, what you eat makes a difference. We found there are obvious good choices, and really obvious bad choices.”

But Hilborn said the study wasn’t only useful for guiding consumers. It could also help governments in charge of free trade agreements and agricultural or environmental policy.

“I think this is one of the most important things I’ve ever done,” Hilborn said. “Policymakers need to be able to say, ‘There are certain food production types we need to encourage, and others we should discourage.'”

Researchers looked at 148 assessments of the environmental impacts of different animal proteins along all stages of production, comparing each product’s energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, nutrient pollution potential and acid-rain-causing emissions.

The animal proteins that had the least impact on all four criteria were farmed mollusks like oysters, mussels and scallops and wild-caught sardines, mackerel and herring. Wild-caught pollock, hake and cod as well as farmed salmon also had a relatively low impact.

Unsurprisingly, farmed livestock had a high impact, with beef emitting about 20 times more greenhouse gases than farmed mollusks, chicken and salmon or some wild-caught fish.

Excellent. I can all the poultry I want.

However, farmed fish like catfish, shrimp and tilapia required more energy than most livestock because the water they live in has to be constantly circulated using electricity. Farmed catfish had greenhouse gas emissions about equal those of beef.

Fine by me, since I don’t really like any of those (short of tilapia, occasionally).

The mind wonders who would catfish. The stuff is wild in my neck of the woods, but it’s certainly not the first choice of edibles within our watershed. At least not for me.

Farmed mollusks actually had environmental benefits because they absorb the excess nutrients that are often the result of other types of agriculture.

The study also found that a diet that included low-impact farmed and wild-caught fish was actually better for the environment than an all vegetarian and vegan diet.

1.) I am not surprised by this finding.

The Zebra mussel, invader of many waterways thanks too improper disposal of bilge water in some areas and improper cleaning of pleasure craft when traveling from one watershed to another in other areas, is slowly choking off many North American waterways. Including Lake Winnipeg (as though that lake doesn’t have enough problems already).

2.) HA! Take that, militant vegans!

But enough gloating.

The study did not assess the impact of animal protein production on biodiversity, however, which researchers say they would like to tackle next.

As of 2016, nearly 90 percent of fish stocks were either overfished or fished to capacity, so examining the impact of various fishing practices on biodiversity would be especially important for assessing their true ecological cost.

I’ll be watching for that information.

 

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“Tesla’s Giant Australian Battery Saved Consumers $35 Million In Four Months” – (Ecowatch)

Today we will be analyzing another Ecowatch piece. This time, however, the issue is not solely (or mainly) based on the source or the presentation of the information as published. The problem is more in a macro issue surrounding the emergence of this new technology that is often overlooked in its coverage. And not just Ecowatch either, almost all media platforms are prone to fall into this trap. Traditional, mainstream, independent and ideological. By ideological, I am mostly referencing niche oriented outlets such as Ecowatch, but one can also swap that out for political leanings.

It is not all bad news, however. Let’s go through some of the positive, and work towards the criticism.

Since switching on in December, Tesla’s massive battery in South Australia has already drastically lowered prices in the region’s frequency and ancillary services market (FCAS) and has taken a major share of that market, Renew Economy reported.

During Australian Energy Week, McKinsey and Co. partner Godart van Gendt boasted about the stunning efficiency of the 100-megawatt Powerpack system, which is connected to Neoen’s Hornsdale wind farm.

For the purpose of the ignorant (me included), frequency and ancillary services market (FCAS) refers to mechanisms and infrastructure tasked with ensuring constant power grid reliability. To quote Wikipedia:

The term ancillary services is used to refer to a variety of operations beyond generation and transmission that are required to maintain grid stability and security. These services generally include, frequency control, spinning reserves and operating reserves. Traditionally ancillary services have been provided by generators, however, the integration of intermittent generation and the development of smart grid technologies have prompted a shift in the equipment that can be used to provide ancillary services.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancillary_services_(electric_power)

In this case, the Tesla setup replaces traditional natural gas (or other) backup options.

“In the first four months of operations of the Hornsdale Power Reserve, the frequency ancillary services prices went down by 90 percent, so that’s 9-0 per cent,” van Gendt said Thursday, as quoted by Renew Economy.

“And the 100 megawatt battery has achieved over 55 percent of the FCAS revenues in South Australia. So it’s 2 percent of the capacity in South Australia achieving 55 percent of the revenues in South Australia.”

The Australian Energy Market Operator calls upon the FCAS to provide back-up energy whenever generators fail or fall short. This service has typically relied upon costly gas generators and steam turbines, with electricity rates up to $14,000 per megawatt during these outages.

But Tesla’s big battery, which was designed to feed South Australia’s unstable power grid, has changed the game. Whenever it has needed to discharge its power to the grid, costs have hovered as low as $270 per megawatt, as The Guardian noted.

As Renew Economy noted, “various estimates have put the cost savings to consumers from the FCAS market alone at around $35 million, just in the first four months of its operation.”

What’s more, the Powerpack system has responded much quicker to power outages (within milliseconds), with the benefit of no greenhouse gas emissions.

There is no doubt that the North American and European markets would benefit from the mass implementation of such a service. A great way to help gloss over the problems associated with the operational capacity of carbon neutral generation methods like solar and wind. And with wide enough development, one could likely expand beyond just covering shortfalls and go right to helping to feed peak demand. Rather than having to rely on fossil energy to keep up with peak demand hours, one could just release from a reservoir instead.
Indeed, it takes a lot of energy to power the macro North American or European grids. But presumably, this power pack technology will go down in price with mass adoption (as is the case with new innovations). As such, which is cheaper in the long haul?

Feeding 12 gas/coal/nuclear plants indefinitely? Or making a big purchase (likely in stages over time, a gradual transition) but also saving money by not needing to have as many generation plants operating at any one time?

For the sake of interest (at least to me), here are the macro grids of both North America and Europe.

Being those enormously vast power grids are both vulnerable to all manner of human and nature induced disaster and inefficient, this new technology can possibly help in that regard as well. Huge grids are necessary when New York City or Montreal are far from Niagra Falls or James Bay (and other sources of electricity).  But in combination with new alternative energy sources, these power packs should help eliminate the need for these huge grids. If not entirely, then they should reduce overall reliance on them. Helping to keep technological outages hopefully isolated locally or regionally. As opposed to limited to 2 or 3 entire interchanges that happen to be running close to maximum capacity. Something that has happened at least twice in North America and once in Europe (if memory serves).

The only real issue that I see here (at least so far) is the source. At least at the moment, Tesla seems to be the only entity doing the legwork in terms of the research and manufacturing of this technology. Which seems to be working successfully both in central Australia and in Putro Rico. While that is alright at this early juncture (well, maybe not the Putro Rico part, if I am interpreting it correctly. As explored HERE), not so much with the further prevalence of the technology. Complete monopolies are not good for anyone (well, besides their beneficiaries), and this is no different.

This piece may come across as paranoid. But at this early time, long before any of this has become ubiquitous enough to be essential to smooth economic operations of societies worldwide, it’s good to at least attempt to find a new frontier than the previous. Though I come across many articles articulating a mid to long-term where future wherein the technology of renewables crushes old fossil fuel interests, one has to ensure that were not just trading one nemesis for another.

For example, by going all in on just one profit-driven entity just because their leader is held in high regard by many people. Or due to old interests starting to realize the way the winds are blowing, and buying their way into a seat at the table.

http://calgaryherald.com/business/energy/oil-companies-following-silicon-valley-in-backing-green-energy-startups

https://www.ft.com/content/648a25ce-116d-11e8-940e-08320fc2a277

http://money.cnn.com/2017/10/12/investing/shell-oil-buys-electric-car-charging/index.html

Big oil is dabbling in emerging energy markets because this is where the market is headed. Though their current forms may paint a different picture in the mind, the purpose of these companies is (and always has been) to make money. In the past, that revenue has mostly been based around petrochemicals. But we are headed in a different direction in coming decades. There is no better example than China to see this theory of mine, in action.
Only one country is betting on fossil fuels (possibly 2, considering Canada’s asinine desire to unload hard to prepare bitumen on a world that is moving away from petroleum).

In short, though the future is indeed bright, one has to stay vigilant. Where there is money to be made, the old ways of capitalism are bound to make an appearance if no attempt is made to keep them at bay.

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The spectacular power of Big Lens

Having come across this issue VIA a John Oliver clip before, this is certainly worth a read.

James' World 2

Click link below picture

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If you have been wearing glasses for years, like me, it can be surprising to discover that you perceive the world thanks to a few giant companies that you have never heard of. Worrying about the fraying edge of motorway lights at night, or words that slide on the page, and occasionally spending a fortune at the opticians is, for many of us, enough to think about. And spectacles are unusual things. It is hard to think of another object in our society which is both a medical device that you don’t want and a fashion accessory which you do.

Buying them, in my experience anyway, is a fraught, somewhat exciting exercise that starts in a darkened room, where you contemplate the blurred letters and the degeneration of your visual cortex, and ends in a bright, gallery-like space where you enjoy the spry feel…

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