Wednesday, August 29, 2018

On consciousness, robots and free will

This post is a bit of a change to most of my recent posts but it is on a subject that greatly interests me - consciousness. The questions of what is consciousness and whether a machine could become conscious have occupied the musings of scientists, philosophers and theologians for centuries. One scientist who has given these questions some consideration is the great physicist Roger Penrose, who postulates that consciousness derives from quantum processes in the brain. He came up with the theory after hearing an interview with the artificial intelligence (AI) pioneer Marvin Minsky, who believed consciousness doesn't exist in and of itself but is a 'suitcase' term for a whole range of different mental processes such as reflection, decision-making and memory.

Penrose's theory is interesting because if there are two things that we are unable to adequately explain in science it is quantum mechanics and consciousness. The idea that the two are linked is interesting, to say the least. Quantum physics demands an observer. It is the act of observing that causes the probabilistic nature of particles at smallest scale to collapse into the physical certainty of the larger world we observe. Physicists debate whether the observer needs to be conscious but from a philosophical perspective it seems nonsensical to talk about observation without a conscious observer.

Many AI experts believe consciousness is derived from complex computing processes through a process called recursion. If you think of a conventional personal computer, there are about four layers between what you see on screen and the underlying computer circuit - a layer of firmware (which, as the name suggests, is a blending of hardware and software), a binary operating system ('BIOS'), the functional operating system such as Windows or MacOS, and the end-user application such as a web browser running on top of all of that. Recursion is the ability of a programme to invoke itself. All computers have some degree of recursion whereby the software monitors what is going on and corrects for errors, etc. If instead of four layers you had fifty or one hundred, with many of those layers observing and monitoring what is going in other layers, you can imagine how the higher layers of processing could become so abstracted from the underlying computation that it would at least have the appearance of consciousness. The almost infinite processing power of quantum computers could produce an almost infinite number of layers and perhaps there is a point where consciousness bootstraps out of this.

Religious people have a metaphysical view of consciousness. They believe it exists separately from the observable electrical and chemical processes in the brain and that it may survive the death of the body - in other words, they believe we have a soul. We can observe the physical activity of the brain with functional MRI scanners and we understand quite well which parts of the brain account for various mental processes, but we can't see consciousness and really have no idea what it is. So a religious explanation of consciousness is plausible if not entirely unassailable, but the problem with the realm of religious explanations for phenomena that can't be explained by science is that it is an ever-diminishing domain.

How would we know whether consciousness exists in a machine or not? Are other animals conscious? Certainly my dog appears to be, but is its consciousness of a kind with human consciousness? We tend to differentiate higher-level conscious as self-awareness, but other animals are probably self-aware, if that is the test. It is easy to envisage robots that are convincing human companions like the operating system in the film Her, although the Siri on my iPhone has a long way to go. If a robot has all the attributes of consciousness and claimed to be conscious, how could we deny it? Certainly many scientists, such as Ray Kurzweil, who is head of engineering at Google, believe it is only a matter of time.

Most people find the idea of machine consciousness to be very scary. I find the prospect exciting, although I acknowledge there are risks in the quest to make machines autonomous of human control. Isaac Asimov addressed the risks by inventing the 'Three Laws of Robotics':
  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
I admire Asimov but I think he got this wrong because it is unreasonable to expect a set of laws to cope with every situation an a robot may face. Many of the decisions we face aren't a choice between right and wrong but of the lesser of harms. We are already seeing this with self-driving cars - should the car avoid a collision with another vehicle when it may mean a greater risk for pedestrians? Under Asimov's rules could you order a medical robot to perform an operation that involved significant risk of death to the patient?

I believe that in order to be safe, intelligent robots will need to be able to make moral choices. In other words, they must have free will, which is, in my view, the essence of consciousness. It is at this point that I part ways philosophically with many atheists, who are materialists and determinists - in other words, they believe our actions are dictated solely by the external, physical world and that free will is an illusion. I also part ways with the theologians in that I don't believe God is necessary for free will. However, I do believe that free will is a necessary part of consciousness irrespective of whether it is physically derived or divine. If we don't have free will, why are we conscious? It would seem superfluous, to say the least.

I think that machines are likely to reach a point where they are indistinguishable from humans in terms of consciousness. Whether they are truly conscious or not won't really matter any more than it matters whether your pet is truly conscious. Human beings will have sophisticated relationships with robots and the boundaries between what is human and what is machine will become blurred. Perhaps this will be a threat to our humanity, or even to human existence, but I see it more as evolution. I will expand on this in a future post.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

In which I answer Jordan Peterson's question

I have been following Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist who has achieved considerable recognition for his blend of philosophy and self-help advice, for a couple of years. I like his message of individual responsibility and his rejection of identity politics and the post-modernist doctrine that has infected so many of our institutions. I don't agree with everything he has to say - for example I think his almost exclusive reliance on religious texts to exemplify his philosophy neglects the equally great and relevant sources of the Western Enlightenment (such as the Ancient Greek philosophers*) - but he makes us think as few modern intellectuals do and for that I am grateful.

Peterson points out that political views can be defined in psychological terms. Conservatives tend to be higher in trait conscientious, whereas progressives are higher in trait openness. He says societies need both - conservatives keep the barbarians from the gates, progressives break down the entrenched hierarchies to ensure everyone has an opportunity to thrive. If conservatives dominate too much, society becomes stagnant; too much progressivism and we end up with chaos.

Peterson has posed an important question to commentators on the political left, which I will attempt to address in this post: at what point do we judge that the left-wing has gone too far? In other words, what defines the "extreme left"? There is a widespread consensus about the point at which the right-wing is considered extreme - Peterson defines this as "claims of racial difference that support the notion of superiority". The evidence that the right went too far with this belief is the death and catastrophe caused by the rise of Nazism in Germany, Fascism in Italy and imperialism in Japan. But the evidence of the excesses of the left is just as profound - the destruction and misery wrought by the Marxist regimes in the Soviet bloc, Maoist China and Pol Pot's Cambodia produced an even greater number of human deaths.

However, it is not mere adherence to hard line Marxism that defines the extreme left. The Bolivarian Socialism practiced in Venezuela today is closer, at least philosophically, to Western democratic socialism than Stalinism and yet it has produced misery on a scale that is presently matched only by North Korea or Syria. Besides, it is acceptable - cool even - to publicly proclaim oneself as a Communist as a young woman did recently on Piers Morgan's television show. Imagine the reaction if she had said, "I'm a Nazi, you idiot!"

Peterson chastises the left for its reliance on identity politics with its ever-increasing list of victim groups, ever-expanding definition of oppression, and scapegoating of a very specific group (white, middle-aged males) as the perpetrators of all that is wrong with the world. He rightly points out that if the left wants to play the identity politics game by claiming their preferred groups always lose, why wouldn't the right play the game with their preferred group to win? Which is, of course, exactly what the Nazis did and white supremacists are still doing today.

When he ventures an answer to his own question, Peterson says it is equality of outcome, or equity, that defines leftist extremism. This isn't a bad answer but in my view it is unsatisfactory. Almost everyone in Liechtenstein is a millionaire - is that a bad thing? We must consider the means as well as the ends in defining what is good and bad.

The essence of Peterson's philosophy is that we should conduct ourselves in life as if we are the noble person we aspire to be. In other words, to act as if the means are the end. The corollary of this is that you can't achieve a noble goal via an ignoble path, at least not without corrupting the goal for which you are striving. Most people on the political left have a noble aim - the greatest good for the greatest number of people. The moderate leftists believe that we shouldn't sacrifice the dignity of the individual to achieve the collective good, and they demonstrate this by fighting for individual rights (such as freedom of expression) just as vehemently as they fight for their desired group outcomes. The not-so-moderates are willing to sacrifice the individual to achieve their desired ends.

I believe it is not equity or identity that is the root of the evil but the use of force. The left (and the right) goes too far when it is prepared to put the individual to the sword in the interests of the collective. Peterson understood this when he stood up to the enforced use of gender-neutral pronouns. It was precisely the use of force to compel speech that he rightly objected to. Doing nothing was not an option - the state was going to censure him, fine him and (ultimately) arrest him if he didn't do what they wanted.

My politics is defined by my adherence to the non-aggression principle (NAP), which states that humans beings should not initiate force in their dealings with other human beings. Moderate leftists like the idea of the NAP - it aligns with their "live and let live" principles - but it poses a dilemma for them. How can you marshall the resources of society to achieve collective outcomes without the use of force? That is where free markets come in. We have proved in the modern era that individuals acting in their own interests, without the use of force, can produce unprecedented collective benefits. Yes, I concede that capitalism is not perfect, but it is the only political-economic system that at least allows for the absence of force.

Not-so-moderate leftists don't see any conflict between the means and the ends. They regard the use of force as a feature, not a bug, of Marxist philosophy. And they are right to do so - Marx made no bones about the need for violent revolution to achieve his utopia. I doubt that he was serious about the withering of the dictatorship that was meant to happen after the revolution - I think he just said that so as not to frighten the European intelligentsia that was the main target market for his political philosophy.

So the answer to Peterson's question is that the point at which the left goes too far is the point at which it is prepared to initiate violence against the individual in pursuit of the interests of the collective. Unfortunately this means leftist philosophy is a Catch-22 - you can't reach collective heaven without creating hell, and hell isn't a place that you can just close down when you think you're done with it. The extreme right, of course, has no such qualms - they are only interested in getting their own kind into heaven and are happy for the rest of the world to burn.

I was hoping to avoid religion in this article but that was probably a vain hope when discussing Jordan Peterson, so I might as well continue with it in my conclusion. Many leftists are Christians and there are strong historical links between socialism and modern Christian (particularly Protestant) churches. But Jesus was first and foremost a pacifist and he believed in a separation between the state and the spiritual ("Render unto Caesar..."). Of course, there came a point when the Christian church and the state were joined at the hip and both justified the use of violence in the name of God, and this was when Christianity became tyrannical. Fortunately the Western world has largely left that behind and these days we abhor the use of violence to achieve religious ends. I hope in the future we will have the same attitude towards the achievement of political ends.

* Interestingly, since I wrote this post, Quillette has published an article elaborating on the same criticism:

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Sooner or later, Atlas shrugs

When the new government manoeuvred its way into power in New Zealand last year I was prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt. The coalition agreements signed by the parties didn't look too extreme - they were promising to spend a lot more money but they weren't proposing to raise income taxes in this term. Their regional development policies, anti-immigration stance and ambivalence on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement actually looked a lot like Donald Trump's populist platform (although there is little in the latter that I support). The problem is that what was said in the coalition parties' manifestos and agreements was only part of the picture, as is now being revealed.

This government believes it can govern by fiat - the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, demonstrated this when she announced her ban on oil and gas exploration without even taking it to cabinet. Other policies that her government has announced include new petrol taxes, the introduction of a Zero Carbon Act (which, based on the government's own numbers, is estimated to reduce our GDP by between 10% and 22% by 2050), increased welfare payments across the board, and raising the minimum wage to one of the highest in the Western world. The government is also reviewing tax, through its Tax Working Group, and all indications are that it is likely to introduce a capital gains tax.

New Zealand used to be known for its light-handed commercial regulation but even under the previous National Party-led government, businesses faced a raft of new, expensive and intrusive regulations such as a new and far more onerous health and safety act, an emissions trading scheme, and further controls on development in the growth-killing Resource Management Act. While the previous government lowered company taxes early in its term, most Western countries have reduced theirs further with the result that New Zealand is now one of the most highly-taxed countries for business. All of this precipitous policy-making has understandably caused a crisis of business confidence and the new government's response has been to chastise business leaders for their lack of enthusiasm. Their bewilderment at the sudden loss of business confidence shows they are a bunch of dogma-driven, wilfully-ignorant, arrogant fools.

Sooner or later, as Ayn Rand said, Atlas shrugs. Most people are happy to go along with being taxed and regulated, accepting the view that some government intervention in the economy is the cost of a democratic society, but there is a tipping point at which the productive members of society refuse to continue to be the milch cows for the unproductive. This tipping point is recognised in economics by the Laffer Curve - the empirical observation that continuing to increase tax rates ultimately results in lower revenues. Of course socialist governments often solve the problem by bringing out the guns - as we have seen in Venezuela - but history proves that free men and women are far more productive than slaves and that liberal, capitalist societies outperform repressive ones on every measure. Wise governments recognise this and backoff on the socialist policies - as the government of Sweden has done in recent years.

I have written before about how New Zealand's so-called 'rock star economy' wasn't worthy of the name even before the current jitters. It will be interesting to see whether this coalition government backs off on some of its ill-considered, dogmatic policies. If it doesn't, I think New Zealand will continue to slide into economic ignominy.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Debate on Brash speech ban avoids critical issue

I am going to write some more in this post about the banning of Don Brash from speaking at Massey University, not because I don't think enough words have been cast into the ether on the subject already, but because I believe most of those who have commented on the affair have missed a crucial point. On the surface, the matter has been about free speech and it has been a credit to our country that the overwhelming consensus has been that Brash shouldn't have been banned from speaking.

There is another aspect to this matter that, in my opinion, is almost more important than the general issue of free speech. The reason Vice-Chancellor Jan Thomas gave for banning Brash was that "Mr Brash's leadership of Hobson's Pledge and views he and its supporters espoused in relation to Māori wards on councils was clearly of concern to many staff, particularly Māori staff." She went on to say, "In my opinion, the views expressed by members of Hobson's Pledge come dangerously close to hate speech. They are certainly not conducive with the university's strategy of recognising the values of a Tiriti o Waitangi-led organisation."

Hobson's Pledge is an organisation whose vision is listed on its website as "New Zealand is a society in which all citizens have the same rights, irrespective of when we or our ancestors arrived." That seems innocuous enough, but the truly contentious part of its mission is its opposition to the constitutional and legal privilege that has been accorded to Māori tribal organisations under the interpretation of the Treaty of Waitangi adopted by the courts, Parliament and almost all public institutions over the last few decades. The issue about Māori wards for council elections was a subject in one of my recent blog posts. We have had Maori seats in our national parliament for 150 years but the idea of having exclusive Maori city councillors is a significant extension of this.

Both of these issues are significant and are at least legitimate questions for public debate, and Brash's views on them are shared by a large number of New Zealanders (and, in the case of the Māori wards, an overwhelming majority of those who have voted on the issue).

Jan Thomas said that Brash’s views were not conducive to the university’s strategy of being a "Treaty-led organisation”. What exactly that means is open to interpretation, but we can assume she means the university is committed to the post-modernist view of the Treaty that seeks to turn New Zealand's constitutional structure into a bicultural 'partnership' between Maori tribes and the Crown. This anti-democratic, racist arrangement would see governance of New Zealand shared between Maori tribal leaders and an unrepresentative government, a situation in which non-Maori New Zealanders would become second-class citizens in their own country.

Thomas’s actions in banning Brash is part of a broader movement to ensure that any view contrary to this post-modernist interpretation of the Treaty of Waitangi is wiped out. The Massey vice-chancellor has made it clear that the university has a doctrinal position and it won’t countenance any dissent from that doctrine. That is the sort of thing that was typical of universities in Maoist China during the Cultural Revolution and that ought to have no place in a New Zealand university or NZ society as whole.

I think it is clear that the Treaty gives no superior political rights to any tribal leaders today and claims that it established some sort of on-going partnership between tribal political entities and the government of today are entirely spurious. Irrespective of whether I am right or wrong, I am entitled to express this view on an issue that is so vital to New Zealand's future. If this country has become a place where we cannot even debate such matters, then we are no longer a democracy. I am encouraged that so many New Zealanders have come out in support of free speech, but almost no one has addressed the elephant in the room - that we should be free to debate the place of the Treaty of Waitangi in our modern society.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Brash ban is a tipping point

Don Brash is an avuncular, elderly politician who was once leader of the National Party, New Zealand's longest-governing political party. He narrowly missed out on becoming prime minister when he was defeated by Helen Clark's Labour Party in 2005. There were many who thought he was robbed of election victory because Helen Clark illegally used taxpayers' funds to publish a 'pledge card' that was distributed to every household in the country. The Electoral Commission, which oversees the conduct of elections in New Zealand, referred the matter to the police, who declined to prosecute. Had Labour been tried and convicted of electoral fraud, there almost certainly would have been another election with a different result.

This is the man who has been banned from speaking at Massey University in Palmerston North after he was invited by the Massey University Young Politics club to talk about his experiences as Leader of the Opposition. The university's vice-chancellor, Jan Thomas, cancelled the event because of Brash's "leadership of Hobson’s Pledge and views he and its supporters espoused in relation to Māori wards on councils" (as well as some very dubious "security concerns").

Hobson's Pledge is an organisation whose vision is listed on its website as "New Zealand is a society in which all citizens have the same rights, irrespective of when we or our ancestors arrived." That seems innocuous enough, but the truly contentious part of its raison d'être is its opposition to the constitutional and legal privilege that has been accorded to Māori tribal organisations under the post-modernist interpretation of the Treaty of Waitangi. The issue about Māori wards for council elections was a subject in one of my recent blog posts here. Both of these issues are significant and legitimate questions for public debate and Brash's views on them are shared by a large number of New Zealanders (and, in the case of the Māori wards, an overwhelming majority of those who have voted on the issue).

I believe this fairly minor matter of a university cancelling a speaker may turn out to be a tipping point in New Zealand politics, for several reasons. Firstly, the issue of banning speakers for their controversial views is already a hot topic after the cancellation by the Auckland Council of an event by Canadian speakers Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern. Secondly, I believe there is a sense of disenfranchisement amongst many New Zealanders that is similar to that amongst Britons before Brexit and Americans before Trump's election. I think we are ripe in New Zealand for a trigger issue to ignite this disenfranchised group in the same way that Trump ignited the support of those Hillary Clinton called "deplorables". Thirdly, I think the Treaty of Waitangi has become that sleeper issue for many New Zealanders who are far from content with the increasing demands from Māori tribal elites and the escalating concessions from successive governments eager to appease those demands. New Zealanders have bitten their tongues on the Treaty issue for fear of being called racist but have been biding their time, waiting for an opportunity to make their views known. 

New Zealanders are a impassive bunch most of the time and it takes a lot to rouse us to anger. But we have a keen sense of justice and I think the idea of a former Leader of the Opposition being denied the right to speak on a public university campus will strike most New Zealanders as unjust. The idea that it is unacceptable to voice any opposition to the establishment position on important issues is exactly what will turn many people against the establishment position. I may be wrong, but I suspect Jan Thomas and Massey University will come to regret their decision, and the New Zealand political establishment may end up with a shock of Brexit proportions.

As I said on Twitter earlier, if you think that Don Brash is extreme, wait until you see the alternative.

Monday, August 6, 2018

On gender equity

I have always been respectful of women's ability to compete with men in non-traditional occupational roles, and I have been supportive of the aspirations of the women I know to succeed in whatever field to which they choose to apply their talents.

If I have any gender prejudices when it comes to work, it is in favour of women, particularly when it comes to young people. If I had to choose to assign a task to a young man or a young woman, all things being equal, I would choose the latter. In my experience, the young man would come back and tell me the reasons why he was unable to complete the task, whereas the young woman would tell you how she overcame various obstacles to complete it. This is a generalisation, of course, and the situation with young men changes once they reach their late twenties, whereupon they tend to step up and start shouldering responsibility, and thereafter often outperform their female peers. It also doesn't apply to physically demanding jobs, where the much greater average body strength of men invariably enables them to outperform women.

People often do not realise how great are the differences in physical strength between the sexes. Women have only about 60% of men's strength for the same body weight (e.g. see this study) and given men in Western countries also average about 15 - 20% greater bodyweight than women, the average man has nearly twice the strength of an average woman.

The differences between men and women are not just physical. Psychologists will tell you there are significant differences between men and women in the main personality traits. Men are higher on average in emotional stability, dominance, rule-consciousness and vigilance traits, whereas women are higher in sensitivity, warmth, and apprehension traits (e.g. see this study). Men are more interested in things and women are more interested in people (e.g. see this study). There is no significant difference in average intelligence between the sexes but the distribution curve for IQ is flatter for men than for women (e.g. see this study). This means there are more men than women of significantly lower intelligence and more men at the high end of the distribution.

These factors are enough to account for the marked differences in representation of men and women in different occupations. The physical differences explain why most firefighters, building labourers, dockers and forestry workers are men. It is also the main reason why throughout history men have been the soldiers, when the very survival of a society depended on its ability to field its strongest army. The psychological differences explain much of the preferences for men to take jobs that involve building things - such as engineering - and women for jobs that involve dealing with people - such as nursing and teaching. The relative flatness of men's intelligence distribution may also explain why men tend to do more manual labour jobs and why there are more men in fields requiring very high IQ such as theoretical mathematics.

So does this mean we should just accept the differences in representation of men and women in different occupations? Well, perhaps we should reverse the question and ask why is the difference in representation a problem? And what is the solution anyway? Do policies that are designed to ensure more equal representation of the sexes in traditionally unequal occupations work? It turns out the answer to the last question is no. In what has been dubbed the 'gender equality paradox', the most egalitarian countries often have some of the worst representation of women in non-traditional fields such as STEM, and compare poorly to less egalitarian countries such as Islamic nations.

In New Zealand, the government has just announced that the public service has two and a half years to "end pay discrimination against women'. The Minister of Women's Affairs, Julie-Anne Genter suggested the key to this was "making flexi working hours the norm", which suggests she understands that the problem isn't discrimination at all but rather the fact that women work different (i.e. less) working hours than men. This is the reality - men earn more because they work more hours and longer continuous service than women. And the main reason for that is that women take time off to have children. In fact, young, single women already out-earn men in most Western countries (see articles here, here and here).

What so-called pay equity advocates actually want is for women to be paid more than men for the same work, because that is the only way women are going to earn the same as men for working less hours or less continuous service. They expect female workers to be paid, say, 20% more per hour than the men doing the same jobs alongside them. Do they really think men are going to stand for that?

I'll leave you with a video on history according to sociology professors, which is sort of relevant to this post.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Life After Trump

It is only 18 months into his term but the forty-fifth President of the United States has had such a impact on politics that already people are discussing what the post-Trump world will look like. It now seems likely that Donald Trump will stand for a second term in 2020 and he will be re-elected unless the Democratic Party finds itself a better candidate than the awful Hillary Clinton and a better campaign strategy than insulting half the electorate with terms like 'deplorable'. It is possible that Trump will be impeached before he gets the chance to stand again but that seems unlikely given the trivialities the Muller inquiry has come up with to date and the fact that both houses of Congress are in Republican hands.

The post-Trump world will have a different international order. The United States is becoming more isolationist under Trump with his anti-immigration stance, scuttling of trade agreements and criticism of NATO. On the other hand, he looks like he is succeeding in his efforts to bring North Korea in from the cold and his rapprochement with Putin probably lessens the likelihood of conflict with Russia. I think Trump is actually less of a warmonger than most recent presidents and that he is unlikely to start any new conflicts, so it may well be a more peaceful world than has existed since 9/11.

Trump's most positive legacy may be his rejection of the international climate change racket and his removal of renewable energy subsidies and bans on fossil fuel exploration. These are already having a positive effect on the US economy. Add in his tax cuts and broader deregulation and you start to see why the US economy is experiencing GDP growth exceeding 4% for the first time since 2014. On the other hand, Trump's protectionist trade policies will constrain both imports and exports and the negative impacts of these may send the whole world into recession, particularly if (as many analysts expect) there is another global stock market crash.

The biggest effect of the Trump years may be on politics itself. We have seen a massive polarisation and radicalisation of politics, particularly in the United States, and so entrenched are the left and right that, as a libertarian and individualist, I feel like a civilian caught between the cannon fire of two armies bent on mutual destruction. The most noticeable effect in the last few years is the resurgence of identity politics, with both sides pushing their particular grievances groups' victimhood. Not since the early 20th Century has your race, religion or some other collective characteristic been such a determinant of your worth in so many people's eyes. Trump hasn't been the sole cause of this collectivist groupthink but his derogatory labelling of Mexicans and people from Islamic majority countries has legitimised what ought to have no part in mainstream Western politics.

I remain an optimist about the future of Western society, notwithstanding the polarisation for which Trump is at least partly to blame. America has seen far worse political tensions in comparatively recent times and for all the doom and gloom, our lives continue to get better every year. I think Trump is an aberration, not a trend, and life after him will be just fine.