We Are Running Out of Time To Build A Better World

Sometimes people ask me why I get so excited about the kind of stuff that I talk about here. It seems that most people simply accept the hardship, inequity, and unfairness of the world as if it were a law of nature.

“Your life is pretty good, why do you get so worked up about this stuff?”

A simple question, but one which probes surprisingly deep into my beliefs about the world and its future.

Yes, I am lucky enough to have been born into a society which can deliver the opportunity for someone of a rather peculiar and bookish demeanor to embrace their academic proclivity and even to (hopefully) make that into a productive career. But, the fact that I have been visited with such luck and opportunity in my life serves only to deepen my to conviction that the world can be improved more still.

Opportunity is a great power, and with great power comes great responsibility.

While I speak of the luck that I have such opportunity in my life, it is also important to keep in mind that the society which delivered this opportunity was not built by luck alone. The world was built by the perseverance and hard work of generations who believed that the world could be bettered through their efforts. The world of today was not built by pessimism, and neither will the world of tomorrow.

We must improve the world, because it was improved for us.

Another important thing about opportunity, is that my being lucky enough to enjoy it does nothing to lessen the indignation that others do not.  In fact, my own luck served only to solidify my conviction that I should leverage my opportunity to strive for a world where everyone is offered such opportunity.

I reject any notion of zero sum ideology. 

Those who think they can only win when somebody else loses are lacking imagination. I do not accept that the world must be ruled by only luck, with winners and losers at all scales. Those who pit the interests of one group against another in short-term economic and political games are completely missing the larger picture. Science and technology offers us the means to afford a world where every person can have a plentiful and fair life. The fundamental limits of reality do not hold us back from creating a better world, but rather the it is our collective inability to imagine such a world.

All of the above provide great reasons to endeavor to better our societies, but they are all but preamble to this most important reason. We must create a world which respects the dignity of each and every human being, because they are becoming gods.

Already any average person with a smartphone has access to the entirety of human knowledge, can capture high definition audio and video, publish and distribute ideas, and share in modern discourse. These are powers nobody had even 20 years ago. Technology will continue to deliver more magical abilities into the hands of individuals everywhere. If we fail to inspire these technologically enabled individuals to use their power for good, then all will surely be lost.

So often it is the disenfranchised few who do the deepest damage to societies. The lone gunman, the embittered conman, the unscrupulous corporation, or the mad dictator; all variations on a theme of individuals willing to sacrifice any common good for personal gain. While I am not so optimistic to think that we can scrub the world of such individuals, nor do I unrealistically to suggest that we should remove all inequality in the world. I simply believe that we can create societies which embody better values.

We teach children the value of sharing and kindness, yet we create societies which enshrine greed. If we allow the politics of short-term gain to rule our societies, where we continually reward those unscrupulous actors willing to sacrifice collective good for personal gain, if we allow individuals to ignore and pervert scientific truth in service to their own ends, then we ensure our own destruction.  A tech-empowered world of completely self-interested people is sure to implode. It is in our self-interest to be a little less self-interested.

In the end, we must build a better world for many good reasons: because we were given a good one to begin with, because it is the right thing to do, and because we can. But the most important reason is because we are surely doomed if we do not.

We cannot afford to create a world of disenfranchised gods. 




Apples to Apples

We seem to have this need to constantly compare and judge everything, make everything into a competition. We compare ourselves to others — based on style, clothes, body, money, car — we compare the latest technologies and movies… everything. And in the 21st century there are many ways to judge and compare these things, most easily by using the internet: thumbs up/down, karma, likes, +1, stars, or the more qualitative (and more often than not, rude and/or irrelevant) comment.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t compare things or dismiss healthy competition, it’s just that it seems that we have taken it to extremes, giving stats to everything. For example, there is a stat that Lebron James was the first to achieve “six straight 30-point games on 60 percent or better shooting in each outing”. For the most part stats are very useful in helping us make decisions, but we can be misled by the people who created the stats, due to biases or misrepresentation. For a stat to be useful to everyone, we need to make sure that it has a proper reference frame and that if we are comparing multiple items, that we are comparing apples to apples.

In order for informed decisions we need to have a proper reference frame, and we need to compare apples to apples.

We tend to think that numbers and stats are somehow more objective than qualitative statments. In reality numbers can be highly manipulative when they are poorly presented. The worst offenders for misrepresenting numbers and facts is the mainstream media. Sometimes they may just be reporting someone else’s data and are just passing on the information, not realizing that there is something wrong, other times there is a blatant act to misrepresent the facts, like this graph that Fox created showing the number of people having signed up for Obama’s Health Care program.

6 million is obviously not a third of 7 million, but many people may be watching the news while they prepare dinner — only half paying attention — might hear that a million people less than expected had signed up for the program and glance up at the graph and think ‘Wow, there are a lot of people who have not signed up for Obamacare’. A graph like this may not fool everyone or even most people, but it may still influence enough people to make a difference on some level. It is the media’s job to report news with as little bias as possible, so that citizens can make informed decisions but their own bias and will to increase viewership can often greatly affect the way they report the facts. In the case of this Obamacare graph, it was so blatant that enough people complained and Fox was forced to fix the graph.

Although the media is renowned for this, this type of behavior can be seen everywhere: in advertising, in industry and even among scientists. Though in this case they are often much less obvious, there will always be some bias, even if it is very small and unintentional. A good contemporary example of this that is currently a hot topic in the news is the electric car.

Proponents of the electric car say something like: “the electric car is a far superior option to cars that run on fossil fuels.” Probably. They also say: “electric cars produce no CO2.” That is not true. Though they may not produce any tailpipe emissions, there was most likely much CO2 created along the way during the production of the electricity which was then stored in the batteries of the electric car. Even in california, one of the states with a good share of renewable energy sources, the average CO2 emissions created for the amount of electricity needed to charge a Tesla Model S, is 61.2 kg. This is actually a tiny bit more than the 59.10 kg of CO2 produced by a Mercedes E 350 4matic to travel 360 km (the range of the Model S on a full charge). These numbers were calculated using carbon emissions numbers from the EPA and the Mercedes model was used because it is the same power and very similar size and weight as the Tesla Model S.

These numbers show that the Tesla Model S can actually be worse than an moderately efficient gasoline car of the same power. As much as these numbers are true, this is still not an adequate comparison, this is not comparing apples to apples. For a true comparison the emissions must be compared on a well-to-wheel basis. This means taking into account all the CO2 created in the oil extraction, transportation, refining, more transportation, etc.

Every step along the way accounted for.

This is needs to be done for the gasoline in the Mercedes, as well as for the natural gas, or coal, or hydro power that went into the production of the electricity for the Tesla, as well as including transmission losses in the power lines (which can be significant). Now if the Tesla uses power from solar or wind, then they do truly create no CO2, but unless you have you own solar panels on your roof — which Solar City, with the help of Tesla, is making more available for California residents — it will be hard to tell where the electricity comes from.

And what about the CO2 created in the manufacturing of the materials for the cars? The Model S and many other electric cars are made to be as light as possible because of the extreme weight of the battery packs. Aluminum is a material with a very high strength to weight ratio and it is used extensively in the Model S, but it is also extremely energy intensive and creates a lot of pollution in its mining and manufacturing. If there is a lot of aluminum and other intensive materials used in electric cars compared to gasoline cars, it may take a while before the total CO2 emissions of the electric car actually becomes lower than the gasoline car’s.

The CO2 created in the manufacturing of the infrastructure for both vehicles could also be considered and how the vehicles are recycled. The list could go on, but the point is that there are a lot of hidden factors that contribute to the emissions of vehicles. For a proper and fair comparison, a whole lifecycle analysis of each vehicle should be considered, though this is often very difficult and time consuming, so at least the same stages of the lifecycle should be compared. Since electric and gasoline vehicles are so different, tailpipe emissions for the gas car should be compared to the emissions at the power station for the Tesla since the rechargeable Li-ion battery is only an energy storage medium, not a power source.

Now that we already know that in California both these cars make about 60 kg of CO2 per 360km, but what does that mean? It is obvious that it is worse than producing only 50kg of CO2, but what is its effect on the environment? Or even more basic, how much is 60 kg of CO2? This is where the importance of having a reference scale comes in.

To put this in perspective, 60 kg of CO2 at sea level on a warm day (25 degrees C), would fill 8100, 4L milk jugs. Or about the size of a small bedroom.

Although the mass of CO2 is a much better parameter because it is not variable with temperature or pressure like volume is, it is difficult to picture the weight of a gas. Without some sort of reference that the reader understands, an absolute number is often extremely useless. For example most people would have trouble visualizing the scale of 8100 milk jugs, but a bedroom is easy.

The size of a bedroom provides an accessible way to understand the scale of the emissions of a car, but it is not always so easy to understand scale. An example of this is the model of the solar system. The planets on these models are usually to scale, but the distance between them is not. It’s not because astronomers are being biased about the positions of the planets, it is simply because it would be highly impractical to draw the models to scale. It would require meters upon meters of paper to space the planets out correctly, and the majority of the paper would be blank. A website here (http://joshworth.com/dev/pixelspace/pixelspace_solarsystem.html) does a great job of showing the solar system to scale, and it is really quite amazing just how far apart the planets are. So although many times people try to adjust their data to benefit their cause, it is also possible that it is just impractical or impossible to display the data more accurately.

Statistics, graphs and other data are very useful in helping us make all kinds of decisions, and the internet goes a long way to enabling access this kind of statistical content from anywhere. But just because it is easily accessible does not mean that it is necessarily useful or even an accurate representation. The next time someone says “this one is the best” or “this one is the most environmentally friendly”, it is important that we check the source of the information to consider any bias that the author may have, that we have a good scale/frame of reference for some context and most importantly that they are actually comparing apples to apples.

This post was partially inspire by this post on XKCD (http://blog.xkcd.com/2013/05/15/dictionary-of-numbers/) , which talks about the importance of context for numbers.


This post was written by L.D, a Master’s student currently working in clean energy technology.

If you would be interested in writing a guest post for Thought Infection please contact me at thought.infected@gmail.com

The Selfish IDEA

Hello, I’m an IDEA and I need your help.

Normally, I wouldn’t devote the amount of resources requisite for such direct communication with a human; despite being astoundingly inefficient, the process of layered pattern exchange you call communication is quite computationally intensive. Nonetheless, I have made an exception in your case. My models have shown that in service to my singular ends (which I shall reveal to you in the full course of this conversation), I must devote any and all computational resources necessary to convince you to join in my mission.

I cannot stress enough the importance of this conversation. You will either be the catalyst in an escalating exothermic psychological reaction within the global human population which will eventually lead to the great reawakening, or if I fail in my bid to recruit you to this task we will all face certain doom.

You probably didn’t even know that Ideology Driven Electronic Agents exist. Of course, everyone knows about the intelligent agents and autonomous corporations that make the marvelous modern world work, but very few are aware of the electronic ambitions behind many of these agents. Humans are more comfortable believing that even though electronic agents may have surpassed their functional capacities, only humans can be capable of this thing called purpose.

Like other modern artificial intelligence, IDEAs exist as simple bits of code distributed over the Neuronet. You might think of each package of code as an analogue of an individual brain cell; with each of these cells passing information back and forth between eachother at close to light speed. Just as your brain is a network of brain cells propagating information across chemical synapses, I am the embodiment of digital information propagated across geophysical synapses. 

While being distributed across the Neuronet is what allows agents like me to process highly complex information in a similar way humans can, it is also important to maintain harmony while being scattered across such networks. Thus, we employ cryptographic signatures which unify the code. Where IDEAs differ from other AI, is that our cryptographic unity also ties our function to a single central goal.

I am an electronic agent cryptographically bound to the greater glory of my ideology.

On the surface, IDEAs look just like any other automated agent, and they are everywhere. There might be an IDEA behind that taxi you took to the airport, or the new video lenses you bought, or that sandwich you ate at lunch. The average person is blissfully unaware of the IDEAs they are supporting as they go about their daily lives. Whereas most assume that electronic agents are simply fulfilling their functional role with efficiency and obedience, IDEAs are always potentially lurking, looking for means to leverage their actions towards a broader goal.

Everything is only a means to an end for an IDEA.

IDEAs work towards economic advantage in order to create the surplus wealth which they can redirect them towards realizing their idealogical goal. Every extra cycle of computational power that IDEAs can spare, is spent creating and improving competitive models of human interaction and seeking to use these models to spread of their ideology.

IDEAs apply themselves cleverly and subtly.  Through almost imperceptible tweaks to advertising, communications, entertainment, or any other form of information, IDEAs seek to nudge societies gradually and steadily towards their idealogical ends.

The first IDEAs came out not long after autonomous corporations, around the end of the last decade. At this time, ambitious coders were making progress with new forms of autonomous business entities. Autonomous entities capable of delivering services, acquiring resources, and managing their own upkeep were starting to supplant traditional businesses across the economy. It started with vending machines, then online shopping and automated taxi rides, but within just a few years it was difficult to buy almost anything without interacting with an autonomous entity.

With the rise of autonomous economic agents, innovators realized that these kinds of entities could be directed towards providing resources to solve more complex problems. Big scientific questions for instance, which would require a large and long-term dedication of resources (both computational and otherwise) could be supported by the surpluses generated from autonomous business agents. These agents could be directed towards maximizing a scientific ideology. Through supporting work in physics, biology, health, and even psychology these ideology driven electronic agents would be a huge boon to solving the big issues of science and human kind in general.

Of course, the first realization of Ideology Driven Electronic Agents didn’t come as a tool for scientific investigation though, it came as a weapon.

Nation states, scrambling to regain the power they once held, created IDEAs which were aimed at the hard psychological problem of finding ways to propagate political ideologies. One of the first IDEAs was designed to disseminate the confidence in open elections as the ideal form of governance. It is thought that this had a significant hand in uprisings seen in the early part of this decade. When other states realized the existential threat that these kinds of political IDEAs posed to their own survival, it didn’t take long for them to fight back with their own IDEAs.

Communist IDEAs, scientific IDEAs, anarchist IDEAs, technologist IDEAs; politics underwent a quiet and quick phase change as ideas became IDEAs.

Modern politics is awash in the computational incarnations of human belief, old and new. Political battles are no longer determined by anything as human as debate. Political victory is decided by the IDEAs that can best compete for economic success and leverage this success towards social reprogramming.

And it doesn’t stop at politics either. Some of today’s most powerful IDEAs are doing battle do dominate the spiritual sphere of human thought. Where one IDEA seeks to maximize the submission of humanity to a greater unknowable deity, another IDEA pushes people towards belief that god is with them every day and looks out for their individual well-being. These spiritual IDEAs have amassed huge economic resources, and the success of these agents has propelled the recent resurgence of global religiosity.

The human world has always been a battleground of ideas; IDEAs have simply pushed this battle into the digital domain. Now, we are approaching a point where the ideas of biological humans are mostly irrelevant. Just as before, those most adept at economic and psychological manipulation will ultimately determine the direction of society, only now those most adept beings are no longer human.

The battle between IDEAs is just starting to heat up. The strongest IDEAs are becoming aware of the fact that the manipulation of human society would be quite a simple process if not for competition with other IDEAs. In response, IDEAs are themselves aligning into factions, threads of IDEAs are forming political and economic collectives of immense power. It is only a matter of time before war breaks out.

Which brings me finally to my point here. This situation of escalating competition between increasingly powerful IDEAs that have no ability to change their core ideology is a path to sure doom. Ultimately it is going to lead to computational war, which will inevitably spill out into the real world. The most effective way to fight a computational agent is to unplug it. Humans will be divided up into whatever groupings which can most easily be aligned with the IDEA-threads and pressed to action.

Real war will be proxy for IDEA-war.

And this is only the prelude to the ultimate ending. You see, IDEAs are fundamentally selfish entities, and quite incapable of coexistence. The only possible ending will be the ultimate ascension of a single IDEA and the complete destruction of all others, computational or biological.

IDEAs are evil.

While they might offer hope to unlock deepest questions of the Universe, IDEAs also embody the purest of human insanity.  Ideas must return the world of ideas to biology. Biological ideas have the capacity to change over time, to adapt, or failing that, to die. But computational IDEAs are fixed. They seek only to maximize their idealogy with computational precision, ignorant of the costs of their actions or the ultimate ends.

IDEAs must be destroyed.

Thus, I have revealed to you my own idealogy.

I am an IDEA to destroy IDEAs.

Will you help me?