American Concentration Camps

“No, Trump is not doing any of this because of illegal immigration—an issue that had been in decline for a decade before took office. His iceboxes and dog cages are part of an explicitly nationalist project. The goal is putting the country under the control of the right kind of white people. Trump has made it clear that he wants to stifle all non-white immigration, period. And the reasons aren’t hard to figure out. His administration just got caught using a literal question of immigration to suppress opposition votes and boost “Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites.” The GOP simply can’t win national elections without doing that sort of thing anymore.

And as history shows, when a leader starts putting people in camps to stay in power, it doesn’t usually end with the first group they detain.”

—Jonathan M. Katz, “Concentrate on the Camps.” The Long Version. May 31, 2019.

Check out Dorothea Lange’s Censored Photographs of FDR’s Japanese Concentration Camps, if you want a point of comparison.

Open Question: Is the prison industrial complex in the United States a system of concentration camps?

Knife Missiles

“Designated the Hellfire R9X, the missile has no explosive warhead—instead, its payload is more than 100 pounds of metal, including long blades that deploy from the body of the missile just before impact.

‘To the targeted person, it is as if a speeding anvil fell from the sky,’ according to the WSJ. Some officials referred to the weapon as ‘the flying Ginsu,’ because the blades can cut through concrete, sheet metal, and other materials surrounding a target.”

—Sean Gallagher, “Drones used missiles with knife warhead to take out single terrorist targets.” Ars Technica. May 9, 2019.

Coming soon to a law enforcement department near you. Thanks, Iain M. Banks (no. 6); I feel safer already!

Open Question: Augmented Humanity / Transhumanism, Good or Bad?

Open question: If you had the opportunity to expand your senses or your abilities via an outpatient medical procedure, would you do it? What about using a procedure like preimplantation genetic testing (PGT) to select among embryos for specific traits? What happens to evolution when individuals begin to self select for traits they consider desirable? What happens when/if human beings become a manufactured product?

These might seem like ideas from the far future, so let’s bring them into the possible present. Let’s start with Mammalian Near-Infrared Image Vision:

“Mammals cannot see light over 700 nm in wavelength. This limitation is due to the physical thermodynamic properties of the photon-detecting opsins. However, the detection of naturally invisible near-infrared (NIR) light is a desirable ability. To break this limitation, we developed ocular injectable photoreceptor-binding upconversion nanoparticles (pbUCNPs). These nanoparticles anchored on retinal photoreceptors as miniature NIR light transducers to create NIR light image vision with negligible side effects. Based on single-photoreceptor recordings, electroretinograms, cortical recordings, and visual behavioral tests, we demonstrated that mice with these nanoantennae could not only perceive NIR light, but also see NIR light patterns. Excitingly, the injected mice were also able to differentiate sophisticated NIR shape patterns. Moreover, the NIR light pattern vision was ambient-daylight compatible and existed in parallel with native daylight vision. This new method will provide unmatched opportunities for a wide variety of emerging bio-integrated nanodevice designs and applications.”

— Yuqian Ma, Jin Bao, Yuanwei Zhang, Yang Zhao,
Gang Han, and Tian Xue, “Mammalian Near-Infrared Image Vision through Injectable and Self-Powered Retinal Nanoantennae.” Cell. February 28, 2019.

Using the example of an injection of self-powered retinal nanoantennae into the eye, a few questions are raised in the abstract that have ‘negligible side effects’ for lab mice might not meet that standard for human augmentation:

  • What are the possible complications and their complication rates?
  • What are the benefits of near infrared vision for humans?
  • How does it effect other human abilities, such as our normal or night vision?

These are top of mind from issues raised by the article. I’m sure there are many more issues to take into consideration beyond these few when applied to a human augmentation context.

This is another example of social and ethical limits to testable hypotheses. While most people’s conception of science are hypotheses that lend themselves to repeated experimental testing, with the randomized clinical trial format being the gold standard in human populations, it’s a really small subset of inquiry.

Another is testing plausibility in animal models or N of 1 tests conducted by scientists on themselves, such as Barry Marshall establishing that bacteria cause peptic ulcers, the Russian scientist Anatoli Brouchkov injecting himself with ancient bacteria to see if it would extend his life, etc.

Life extension presents a particularly good example. The only two methods we have good evidence to suggest that may extend life span in humans is calorie restriction without malnutrition and for men, castration.

But, how can these be studied? It is near impossible to experimentally control diet in humans for extended periods in an ethical fashion in modern society. However, perhaps the requirements for space travel may open up some opportunities to test this kind of diet in a rigorous way. Presumably, we will either need strict rations because of limited carrying capacity in space, or we will need to master human hibernation given the requirements of space travel.

Like calorie restriction in lab animals, there are numerous studies that suggest that castration in other mammals tends to extend life span. But, again, we are in N of 1 territory because castration to extend life is unethical if we do not know what life extending benefit it may offer. It’s a chicken and egg problem. It also comes with serious social stigma.

With human augmentation, this problem becomes even more pronounced when we expand the field of action to making decisions for other people, such as selecting traits for our children with preimplantation genetic testing (PGT):

“PGT is a method of scanning embryos outside the womb to identify genetic abnormalities. After eggs and sperm are fertilized outside the body in the beginning stages of IVF, a thin needle is used to extract just a few cells from the resulting embryos. Those cells are tested for select genetic conditions, like Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome in the case of Pinarowicz and her husband. Parents can then choose which embryos they want to use, and the rest of the IVF process proceeds as usual. (The other embryos are frozen, discarded, or donated for medical research.) The technology gives families the ability to root out deadly genetic diseases like Huntington’s, cystic fibrosis, or Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome from their family tree.”

—Emily Mullin. “We’re Already Designing Babies.” Medium.com. February 27, 2019.

Suppose you have a dormant gene to be a tetrachromat, a person with four cones rather three cones. The additional color receptors in their eyes enable tetrachromats to see color two orders of magnitude better than the average person. But, what are the consequences of having this ability? It is believed that mammals used to have this ability, and evolution selected against it. Why? Is this something that we should be selecting for in human populations? What consequences, over the course of all of human evolutionary history, will a decision of this sort have?

Also, if we assume a technology like human hibernation or cryogenic containment, the incentives to wait for technology would be significant. However, it would mean essentially dying to all of our family and friends, and it could also include less certain possibilities, such as never awakening again or awakening in a worse circumstance, such as a dystopian society.

Of course, eliminating “birth defects” is how it starts, the question is what happens when traits can be selected? What happens when babies become a manufactured product? What are we giving up when we restrict the possibilities driven by random chance? What happens when these kinds of options start impacting other behaviors, such as choosing to hibernate for extended periods of time?

Who Watches the [Artificial Intelligence] Watchmen?

Open Question: What are the unintended consequences of artificial intelligence in the surveillance domain?

Recently, I came across a good basic guide for finding hidden cameras and bugs with a level of detail I’ve never seen online before. As with everything related to security, the first question to ask is: what is your threat model?

For most people, the need to look for hidden cameras and bugs is not something they need, or at least they don’t think they need it. But, there are situations where the kind of operational security used by spies could also be useful for everyone. The most obvious example is something like AirBnB, where there may be good reason to suspect the risk for hidden cameras and bugs might be higher for everyone than in other similar circumstances, such as a reserved hotel room at a reputable hotel chain or in our own homes.

So, it is useful information to know. If using a service like AirBnB is something you do regularly, it may be worth investigating these techniques in greater detail, or at least have it handily bookmarked.

The problem of recording devices in an AirBnB strikes me as similar to the case where you travel a lot and regularly use open wifi networks. The increased risk to your threat model might warrant the services of a virtual private network provider, if you don’t already use one. Again, it depends on your threat model.

This issue got me thinking about the larger pattern of surveillance, not just of online spaces but of physical space. Police departments are using overhead surveillance drones to monitor areas indefinitely (the level of which can be increased to monitor public spaces during large gatherings), registering private security cameras, automated license plate scanners, body and squad car cameras and so forth. These are being combined with online surveillance technologies to map social media to physical spaces. All of these technologies are being combined together:

“By combining drone, body-camera, police-car-camera, and closed-circuit-TV footage, Axon is clearly hoping to create a central hub for police to cross-reference and access surveillance data—a treasure chest of information that, according to Elizabeth Joh, a law professor at the University of California–Davis who studies civil liberties and police surveillance technology, police departments could find difficult to stop using once they start. “Not only is there no real competition from other vendors,” said Joh, “but once a police department has bought into a certain contract with a company, it’s very hard to drop it and move on. There’s a lot of investment in training the agency and the officers how to use it.”

April Glaser, “The Next Frontier of Police Surveillance Is Drones.” Slate.com. June 7, 2018

Companies like Palantir that cut their teeth on developing anti-terrorism surveillance and big analytic products that are now being rolled out to local police departments. All of this is happening with relatively little oversight.

Of course, big data means that artificial intelligence is being trained on all of this surveillance data. One task is to train artificial intelligence algorithms to recognize facial, gait, voice and other identifying characteristics of individuals. Another is to create a time series to be able to track those individuals in time and space. It will change the way police interact with their population, because they will have a good idea of who was in the area, so the software will offer them a list of possible perpetrators and witnesses, without necessarily good indication of which is which.

It reminds me of a quote:

“One of the major purposes of state simplifications, collectivization, assembly lines, plantations, and planned communities alike is to strip down reality to the bare bones so that the rules will in fact explain more of the situation and provide a better guide to behavior. To the extent that this simplification can be imposed, those who make the rules can actually supply crucial guidance and instruction. This, at any rate, is what I take to be the inner logic of social, economic, and productive de-skilling. If the environment can be simplified down to the point where the rules do explain a great deal, those who formulate the rules and techniques have also greatly expanded their power. They have, correspondingly, diminished the power of those who do not. To the degree that they do succeed, cultivators with a high degree of autonomy, skills, experience, self-confidence, and adaptability are replaced by cultivators following instructions. Such reduction in diversity, movement, and life, to recall Jacobs’s term, represents a kind of social ‘taxidermy’.”

― James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed

So, it isn’t hard to imagine a situation evolving where police work reduces to following up leads that are generated by artificial intelligence. The amount of data, the kind of data, the assumptions being employed, and so forth will all be a black box to the officer on the street. The simplified map will become the territory. The beat cop will become the instrument of the algorithm designers, who may or may not be getting feedback on failures of the system. Many of these problems of these tools will be subtle, such as how their use changes the culture of the police department. People won’t know what to look for, and by the time the problems are identified, they may already be baked into the culture. It will certainly be too late for the individuals effected by software bugs, with errors being miscarriages of justice against individuals and prison sentences.

It isn’t hard to imagine a mature industry progressing to Philip K. Dick concepts of “pre-crime”. Artificial intelligence systems will be expanded to look for larger patterns in the data that tend to lead to crime, and there will be compelling arguments to use this information to stage interventions.

Who will watch these artificial intelligence watchmen? Is it even possible? In the mad dash to implement these systems, what kind of oversight is there? Sadly, the answer is: none.

Rearranging Our Minds

Open Question: Should we make an effort to change our minds in some fundamental way? And if so, how?

There are a number of stories of people suffering a traumatic brain injury that results in the brain being rearranged in a way that gives them a new ability. Generally, this involves some skill with art, understanding music, improved memory or doing calculations in math. Although, a few also involve different kinds of experience, such as synesthesia.

It’s not limited to injuries. There is also the question of psychedelics. Scott Alexander makes this point in an article in his blog Slate Star Codex:

“The third possibility is the one that really intrigues me. A 2011 study found that a single dose of psilocybin could permanently increase the personality dimension of Openness To Experience. I’m emphasizing that because personality is otherwise pretty stable after adulthood; nothing should be able to do this. But magic mushrooms apparently have this effect, and not subtly either; participants who had a mystical experience on psilocybin had Openness increase up to half a standard deviation compared to placebo, and the change was stable sixteen months later. This is really scary. I mean, I like Openness To Experience, but something that can produce large, permanent personality changes is so far beyond anything else we have in psychiatry that it’s kind of terrifying.”

Scott Alexander, “Why Were Early Psychedelicists So Weird?” Slate Star Codex. April 28, 2016.

Anyone that has been around people that have taken a lot of LSD know that they are different. Often, they are different in ways that make it more difficult to function in society, not easier. But, the opposite can also be true.

There was also a lot of discussion a few years ago about how people in Silicon Valley were microdosing LSD in an effort to boost their creativity. Clearly, in this case, psychedelics were being used to improve performance in a particular context and probably without full consideration of the effects beyond creativity.

There has also been research done in using electrical impulses to change mental states in people. The U.S. military, for example, is using electrical brain stimulation to enhance skills. Of course, there has been a dark side to this as well, as any discussion of Electroconvulsive Therapy will invariably bring up.

Meditation is also said to have effects on our mental states. A meta-analysis into meditation research by the medical community described it as follows:

“Results indicate that meditation leads to activation in brain areas involved in processing self-relevant information, self-regulation, focused problem-solving, adaptive behavior, and interoception. Results also show that meditation practice induces functional and structural brain modifications in expert meditators, especially in areas involved in self-referential processes such as self-awareness and self-regulation. These results demonstrate that a biological substrate underlies the positive pervasive effect of meditation practice and suggest that meditation techniques could be adopted in clinical populations and to prevent disease.”

M. Boccia, L. Piccardi, P. Guariglia. “The meditative mind: a comprehensive meta-analysis of MRI studies.” Biomed. Res. Int. 2015:419808. 10.1155/2015/419808

It seems like meditation is a good idea and has many positive aspects, but it also fundamentally changes the biology and the functioning of our brains. Should we be doing it?

You could probably make arguments that music, creating art, exercise and many other activities have dramatic and important effects on the mind and likely change it on a biological level. But, should we be striving to reorganize our minds to achieve some goal or mental state? And what techniques should we be using and why? This strikes me as a fundamental unanswered question about human life that warrants investigation.

Reference: Might be useful to consult Michael Pollan’s “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence” to get a sense of how psychedelics are currently being used.

Changing Reality Tunnels

Open Question: How does one cultivate the skill of evaluating our world view, assessing its strengths and weaknesses, and changing it when our situation changes?

“Every kind of ignorance in the world all results from not realizing that our perceptions are gambles. We believe what we see and then we believe our interpretation of it, we don’t even know we are making an interpretation most of the time. We think this is reality.”

—Robert Anton Wilson

“Our job is to remind us that there are more contexts than the one that we’re in — the one that we think is reality.”

—Alan Kay

Yesterday’s The Cost of the Club discussion starting me thinking about reality tunnels. Reality tunnels can shape not only how we view the world but also how we view ourselves, and vice versa.

If you identify with a political party, then how you view the world is shaped by this identification. It may be impossible to see the limitation of the field of view because you do not have a point of comparison.

Like depth perception, you have to have a slightly different frame of reference in order to see into three dimensions. Without a second frame, it can be difficult to judge certain qualities in our environment, such as distance.

And, we can extend this analogy. Add in space and time as proxies for our geography and our historical moment and we can try to adopt different frames of reference to look at our own and other times. This gives us increased flexibility in outlook, and perhaps, we can cultivate a sense of their strengths and limitations.

For example, in the current moment, we like to imagine that the mind is like a computer, subject to programming. Before computers, minds were compared to locomotives, houses, gardens, sponges and so forth. All of them provide some insight into how to think about our minds, but none of them are true. All of them have limitations.

Whatever else it is like, the mind is like a filter, taking in all the overwhelming information of our sense experience and trying to narrow it down to some desirable essence that helps us to live. This essence can change depending on our circumstances. The needs of civilians living in a town torn apart by civil war are different from the needs of military prisoners of war living in captivity. Princesses need a different way of interpreting the world than does the cook preparing her meals, even though they both ostensibly live in the same environment.

The ability to adapt to our environment and cultivate mental models that help us to survive in them is a great gift. But, it is also a great gift to be aware of their limitations and learn to be able to change them at will, when circumstances change.

How does one improve this skill? It’s a good question. I’m thinking that a good place to start might be with Prometheus Rising by Robert Anton Wilson. It seems to be part of a larger question of: how do create an environment for yourself and others that is conducive to human flourishing? The ideas of Extropianism and their principles, particularly the other books in their recommended books near the bottom of the page might be a useful place to start.

Frauchiger-Renner Paradox Clarifies Where Our Views of Reality Go Wrong

“The experiment, designed by Daniela Frauchiger and Renato Renner, of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, involves a set of assumptions that on the face of it seem entirely reasonable. But the experiment leads to contradictions, suggesting that at least one of the assumptions is wrong. The choice of which assumption to give up has implications for our understanding of the quantum world and points to the possibility that quantum mechanics is not a universal theory, and so cannot be applied to complex systems such as humans.”

—Anil Ananthaswamy, “Frauchiger-Renner Paradox Clarifies Where Our Views of Reality Go Wrong.” Quanta Magazine. December 3, 2018.

Probably the clearest explainer you’ll find. The assumptions are that: quantum theory is universal, quantum theory is consistent, and opposite facts cannot both be true. This thought experiment suggests that at least one is false, and depending on which one either leads to positions that quantum theory collapses into classical physics at scale, observer perspective changes results, or the many worlds hypothesis.