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How Humans Can Keep Superintelligent Robots From Murdering Us All

| Sat May 2, 2015 6:30 AM EDT
Ultron, an artificially intelligent robot

While Kevin Drum is focused on getting better, we've invited some of the remarkable writers and thinkers who have traded links and ideas with him from Blogosphere 1.0 to this day to contribute posts and keep the conversation going. Today, we're honored to present a post from Bill Gardner, a health services researcher in Ottawa, Ontario, and a blogger at The Incidental Economist.

This weekend, you, I, and about 100 million other people will see Avengers: Age of Ultron. The story is that Tony Stark builds Ultron, an artificially intelligent robot, to protect Earth. But Ultron decides that the best way to fulfill his mission is to exterminate humanity. Violence ensues.

Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom argues that sometime in the future a machine will achieve "general intelligence," that is, the ability to solve problems in virtually all domains of interest—including artificial intelligence.

You will likely dismiss the premise of the story. But in a book I highly recommend, Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom argues that sometime in the future a machine will achieve "general intelligence," that is, the ability to solve problems in virtually all domains of interest. Because one such domain is research in artificial intelligence, the machine would be able to rapidly improve itself.

The abilities of such a machine would quickly transcend our abilities. The difference, Bostrom believes, would not be like that between Einstein and a cognitively disabled person. The difference would be like that between Einstein and a beetle. When this happens, machines can and likely would displace humans as the dominant life form. Humans may be trapped in a dystopia, if they survive at all.

Competent people—Elon Musk, Bill Gates—take this risk seriously. Stephen Hawking and physics Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek worry that we are not thinking hard enough about the future of artificial intelligence.

So, facing possible futures of incalculable benefits and risks, the experts are surely doing everything possible to ensure the best outcome, right? Wrong. If a superior alien civilization sent us a text message saying, "We'll arrive in a few decades," would we just reply, "OK, call us when you get here—we'll leave the lights on"? Probably not—but this is more or less what is happening with AI…little serious research is devoted to these issues…All of us…should ask ourselves what can we do now to improve the chances of reaping the benefits and avoiding the risks.

There are also competent people who dismiss these concerns. University of California-Berkeley philosopher John Searle argues that intelligence requires qualities that computers lack, including consciousness and motivation. This doesn't mean that we are safe from artificially intelligent machines. Perhaps in the future killer drones will hunt all humans, not just Al Qaeda. But Searle claims that if this happens, it won't be because the drones reflected on their goals and decided that they needed to kill us. It will be because human beings have programmed drones to kill us.

Searle has made this argument for years, but has never offered a reason why it will always be impossible to engineer machines with autonomy and general intelligence. If it's not impossible, we need to look for possible paths of human evolution in which we safely benefit from the enormous potential of artificial intelligence.

What can we do? I'm a wild optimist. In my lifetime I have seen an extraordinary expansion of human capabilities for creation and community. Perhaps there is a future in which individual and collective human intelligence can grow rapidly enough that we keep our place as free beings. Perhaps humans can acquire cognitive superpowers.

But the greatest challenge of the future will not be the engineering of this commonwealth, but rather its governance. So we have to think big, think long-term, and live in hope. We need to cooperate as a species and steer our technological development so that we do not create machines that displace us. At the same time, we need to protect ourselves from the expanding surveillance of our current governments (such as China's Great Firewall or the NSA). I doubt we can achieve this enhanced community unless we also find a way to make sure the superpowers of enhanced cognition are available to everyone. Maybe the only alternative to dystopia will be utopia.

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If Black People Lived As Long As White People, Election Results Would Be Very Different

| Fri May 1, 2015 6:15 PM EDT
Protesters near Boston Police headquarters on April 29.

With the mortality rate for black Americans about 18 percent higher than it is for white Americans, premature black deaths have affected the results of US elections, according to a new study from researchers at the University of Michigan and the University of Oxford.

The study, published in Social Science & Medicine and highlighted on Friday by the UK-based New Scientist, shows how the outcomes of elections between 1970 and 2004—including the presidential race between John Kerry and George W. Bush—might have been affected if there hadn't been such a disparity in the death rate. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 8.5 million black people died during that 35-year period. But if the mortality rates had been comparable, an additional 2.7 million black people would have been alive, and of those, an estimated 1 million would have cast votes in the 2004 election. Bush likely still would have won that race. But some state-level races might have turned out differently: The results would have been reversed in an estimated seven US Senate elections and 11 gubernatorial elections during the 35-year period, the researchers found, assuming that the hypothetical additional voters had cast their ballots in line with actual black voters, who tend to overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates.

And that's before even getting to incarceration. Additional elections potentially would have turned out differently if voting-age black Americans who were previously convicted of felonies had been able to cast a ballot. As New Scientist explains:

Accounting for people disenfranchised by felony convictions would have likely reversed three other senate seats. In at least one state, Missouri, accounting for just excess deaths or felony disenfranchisement would not have been sufficient to reverse the senate election – but both sources of lost votes taken together would have.

While everyone's attention right now is on racial injustice in the context of policing, one of the study's authors, Arline Geronimus, noted that most premature black deaths were linked to chronic health conditions that afflict black people more than white people. "If you're losing a voting population, you're losing the support for the policies that would help that population," she told New Scientist. "As long as there's this huge inequality in health and mortality, there's a diminished voice to speak out against the problem."

Obama Administration Gives Rail Companies Three Years to Fix Their Most Explosive Oil Cars

| Fri May 1, 2015 3:53 PM EDT
Oil trains backed up in a rail yard in North Dakota.

Trains hauling crude oil have continued to explode across the United States and Canada this year as oil production booms in North Dakota and Alberta. Nearly two dozen oil trains have derailed in the past two years, many causing fiery explosions and oil spills. Lawmakers, environmentalists, and communities in the path of these trains have ramped up pressure on the Obama administration to toughen what they see as lax safety regulations at the heart of the problem.

Finally, some new regulations. This morning, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx stood next to Lisa Raitt, Canada's transportation minister, to announce coordinated rules across both countries aimed at making the industry safer by catching up to surging crude-by-oil shipments, which increased 4,000 percent from 2008 to 2014.

According to the new rules, older tank cars will have to be replaced or retrofitted with new "protective shells" and insulation to prevent puncture (and potential explosion) after derailment. New tank car construction will have to comply with these standards, too.

Oil trains will also be required to install enhanced "electronically controlled pneumatic" [ECP] braking, which allows for more control over the train when required to stop suddenly, and they will be limited to to speeds of 50 mph, and 40 mph in urban areas. Many recent train derailments and explosions have occurred at speeds far below those, however.

And lastly, train companies will now be required to minimize the chances of explosions and oil spills happening near towns and environmentally sensitive areas by assessing route options and rail conditions more closely. Once the routes are made, companies will need to tell local and state officials along the train's pathway.

Transportation Secretary Foxx described the rules as, "a significant improvement over the current regulations and requirements and will make transporting flammable liquids safer."

But the new rules have already drawn criticism from regulation proponents and industry players alike. The American Railroad Association believes the new braking technology is unnecessary. "The DOT has no substantial evidence to support a safety justification for mandating ECP brakes, which will not prevent accidents," said Edward R. Hamberger, AAR president and CEO said in a statement. "This is an imprudent decision made without supporting data or analysis."

But Senator Maria Cantwell, D-WA, who introduced legislation in March to toughen crude-by rail standards, said they didn't go far enough. "The new DOT rule is just like saying let the oil trains roll," she said. "It does nothing to address explosive volatility, very little to reduce the threat of rail car punctures, and is too slow on the removal of the most dangerous cars."

Indeed, rail companies will have several years to bring their fleets up to scratch. The now-infamous DOT-111 oil tankers, involved in nearly half of oil train explosions since 2013, must be fixed within three years. And the so-called "unjacketed" CPC-1232 cars, which are newer but don't have protective shells (and have also been involved in explosions) will still be in network for up to five years.

That amount of time is too long too wait given the potential dangers, said Anthony Swift, a deputy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "We can only hope the federal government revisits the broader issue of crude oil unit trains before it's too late."

Friday Cat Blogging - May 1 2015

| Fri May 1, 2015 3:35 PM EDT

With Kevin concentrating on his cancer treatment, we've rounded up some big writers to keep things rolling on the blog by contributing posts in his honor. But let's be honest: nothing's bigger on the internet than cats. So in addition to appearances from Hopper and Hilbert, we're taking this chance to introduce you to some other cats behind the people at Mother Jones.

Today, that's Olga, who lives in Oakland with Lynnea Wool, our senior staff accountant. Among many other things, Lynnea is responsible for (full disclosure) making sure I get my paycheck. So I'd better blog carefully.

Olga was the runt of a litter of Himalayan Persians when Lynnea adopted her one fine day seven years ago. Since then, they've had many happy moments. She just loves to have her armpits scratched:

For a special treat, her cat-mom will put a small piece of cheese—the stinkier the better—straight on her tongue.

This longhair needs regular trims, and I was very impressed to hear about Lynnea's method. While Olga's sleeping on her side, Lynnea will cut one half. Olga wakes up looking something like Two-Face, and roams around like that until Lynnea happens to catch her sleeping on her other side. Wish we had a picture of that! But you'll have to agree this one's a pretty good consolation prize:

Bonus Friday Cat Blogging - 1 May 2014

| Fri May 1, 2015 12:00 PM EDT

For humans, May Day is a time to celebrate worker solidarity. For Hilbert, it's time to show how jealous he is that Hopper fits under the desk and he doesn't. As you can guess, however, he got bored quickly and headed over to the sofa for a snooze. Hopper, ever victorious, slithered out with no resistance and licked her paws in triumph.

Breaking: Freddie Gray's Death Is Ruled a Homicide. All 6 Officers Will Face Criminal Charges.

| Fri May 1, 2015 11:46 AM EDT

All six Baltimore police officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old who died in police custody last month, sparking tense protests, will face criminal charges. The announcement was made by Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby during a press conference Friday morning. The various charges include manslaughter, murder, and assault:

Mosby told reporters that Gray's death has been ruled a homicide and that the knife found on Gray during a search was "not a switchblade," as Baltimore police previously alleged, and its possession was therefore "lawful under Maryland law."

Officer Caesar Goodson Jr., who was driving the police van that Gray was transported in after his arrest, was charged with second-degree murder, along with manslaughter, assault, and misconduct charges. If found guilty, he could face up to 63 years in prison, according to the Baltimore Sun.

"To the people of Baltimore and the demonstrators across America, I heard your call for 'no justice, no peace,'" Mosby said on Friday. "To the youth of this city, I will seek justice on your behalf." Watch the announcement below:

This post has been updated.

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The GOP Is Trying to Give the 25 Richest Americans a $334 Billion Tax Break

| Fri May 1, 2015 9:00 AM EDT

In mid April, the Republican-controlled House voted to repeal the estate tax, which, despite the GOP's "death tax" messaging, affects only the superrich: Of the nearly 2.6 million Americans who died in 2013, just 4,687 had estates flush enough to trigger the tax. That's because the bar to qualify for the estate tax is quite generous: The first $5.43 million of an individual's wealth is exempt from the tax, and that amount goes up to $10.86 million for married couples. After that point, the tax rate is 40 percent.

The Center for Effective Government (CEG) calculated how much the 25 richest Americans would save if this repeal on the estate tax were to become law. The final tab: $334 billion.

Center for Effective Government

That's a lot of cash! CEG calculated that $334 billion in taxes would be enough to:

  1. Cut the nation's student debt by one-third: The total could be distributed by giving $25,000 in debt relief to each of the 13 million Americans trying to pay off student loans.
  2. Repair or replace every single deficient school AND bridge in America: Give kids more resources for a better education, and get the country's structurally deficient bridges up to snuff.
  3. Give every new US baby a chunk of change: $1,000 at birth, and then $500 a year until their 18th birthday, making a $10,000 nest egg to put toward education, a home, or other opportunities.
  4. Repair all leaking wastewater systems, sewage plumbing, and dams: Thus improving the health of lakes, rivers, and oceans nationwide.

Of course, it's unlikely the tax will actually get repealed. Even if the bill makes it past the Senate, President Obama has promised to veto it. But as the election season heats up with economic inequality at its forefront, the repercussions of the bill are likely to be more political than financial. As Robert J. Samuelson writes at the Washington Post, the GOP has "handed Democrats a priceless campaign gift: a made-for-TV (and Internet) video depicting Republicans as lackeys of the rich."

Here's How the Massive New Bird Flu Outbreak Could Affect You

| Fri May 1, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

The US poultry and egg industries are enduring their largest-ever outbreak of a deadly (known as pathogenic) version of avian flu. Earlier this month, the disease careened through Minnesota's industrial-scale turkey farms, affecting at least 3.6 million birds, and is now punishing Iowa's massive egg-producing facilities, claiming 9.8 million—and counting—hens. Here's what you need to know about the outbreak.

Where did this avian flu come from? So far, no one is sure exactly sure how the flu—which has shown no ability to infect humans—is spreading. The strain now circulating is in the US is "highly similar" to a novel variety that first appeared in South Korea in January 2014, before spreading to China and Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, according to a paper by a team led by US Geological Survey wildlife virologist Hon Ip.

How did it spread? The most likely carrier is wild birds, but it's unclear how they deliver the virus into large production facilities, where birds are kept indoors under rigorous biosecurity protocols. On Thursday, the mystery deepened when birds in an Iowa hatchery containing 19,000 chickens tested positive for the virus. "This is thought to be first time the avian influenza virus has affected a broiler breeding farm in this outbreak," Reuters reported. "Such breeding farms are traditionally known for having extremely tight biosecurity systems." John Clifford, the US Department of Agriculture's chief veterinary officer, recently speculated that the virus could be invading poultry confinements through wind carrying infected particles left by wild birds, taken onto the factory-farm floor by vents.

Can humans catch it? So far, no. But public health officials have been warning for decades that massive livestock confinements make an ideal breeding ground for new virus strains. In its authoritative 2009 report on industrial-scale meat production, the Pew Commission warned that the "continual cycling of viruses and other animal pathogens in large herds or flocks increases opportunities for the generation of novel flu viruses through mutation or recombinant events that could result in more efficient human-to-human transmissions." It added: "agricultural workers serve as a bridging population between their communities and the animals in large confinement facilities."

Is this bird flu affecting the poultry industry's revenue? Yup. The specter of flu is already pinching Big Chicken's bottom line. China and South Korea—which imported a combined $428.5 million in US poultry last year—have imposed bans on US chicken, drawing the ire of USDA chief Tom Vilsack, Reuters reports.

What's the worst-case scenario? If the virus spread to the Southeast, Big Poultry will be in big trouble.  Here's a map showing where chicken production is concentrated (from Food and Water Watch). Already, the strain has turned up in wild birds as far south as Kentucky.

Map: Food and Water Watch

 

What are we doing to stop the flu from spreading further? All the flu-stricken birds not killed outright by the virus are euthanized—but beyond that, the strategy seems to be: ramp up biosecurity efforts at poultry facilities and cross your fingers. Flu viruses don't thrive in the heat, so "when warm weather comes in consistently across the country I think we will stop seeing new cases," USDA chief veterinarian Clifford recently said on a press call. But USDA officials recently told Reuters it's "highly probable" that the virus will regain force when temperatures cool in the fall—and potentially be carried by wild birds to the southeast.  

White People Could Learn a Thing or Two About Talking About Race From the Orioles' Manager

| Thu Apr. 30, 2015 6:14 PM EDT

On Wednesday, after the Baltimore Orioles trounced the Chicago White Sox in front of over 48,000 empty seats at Camden Yards, Orioles’ manager Buck Showalter offered a blunt assessment of the ongoing protests happening just beyond the stadium gates.

When a Baltimore resident asked what advice Showalter would give to young black residents in the community, the manager explains [emphasis added]:

You hear people try to weigh in on things that they really don't know anything about. ... I've never been black, OK? So I don't know, I can't put myself there. I've never faced the challenges that they face, so I understand the emotion, but I can't. ... It's a pet peeve of mine when somebody says, 'Well, I know what they're feeling. Why don't they do this? Why doesn't somebody do that?' You have never been black, OK, so just slow down a little bit.

I try not to get involved in something that I don't know about, but I do know that it's something that's very passionate, something that I am, with my upbringing, that it bothers me, and it bothers everybody else. We've made quite a statement as a city, some good and some bad. Now, let's get on with taking the statements we've made and create a positive. We talk to players, and I want to be a rallying force for our city. It doesn't mean necessarily playing good baseball. It just means [doing] everything we can do. There are some things I don't want to be normal [in Baltimore again]. You know what I mean? I don't. I want us to learn from some stuff that's gone on on both sides of it. I could talk about it for hours, but that's how I feel about it.

Fans watched from outside the stadium gates after demonstrations in response to the death of Freddie Gray forced the team to play the first game behind closed doors in Major League Baseball history. At Wednesday's press conference, outfielder Adam Jones, who related to the struggles of Baltimore's youth as a kid growing up in San Diego, called on the city to heal after the unrest.

Jones goes on to say:

The last 72 hours have been tumultuous to say the least. We've seen good, we've seen bad, we've seen ugly...It's a city that's hurting, a city that needs its heads of the city to stand up, step up and help the ones that are hurting. It's not an easy time right now for anybody. It doesn't matter what race you are. It's a tough time for the city of Baltimore. My prayers have been out for all the families, all the kids out there.

They're hurting. The big message is: Stay strong, Baltimore. Stay safe. Continue to be the great city that I've come to know and love over the eight years I've been here. Continue to be who you are. I know there's been a lot of damage in the city. There's also been a lot of good protesting, there's been a lot of people standing up for the rights that they have in the Constitution, in the Bill of Rights, and I'm just trying to make sure everybody's on the same page.

[...]

It's not easy. This whole process is not easy. We need this game to be played, but we need this city to be healed first. That's important to me, that the city is healed. Because this is an ongoing issue. I just hope that the community of Baltimore stays strong, the children of Baltimore stay strong and gets some guidance and heed the message of the city leaders.

Like team exec John Angelos, Showalter, Jones and the rest of the Orioles organization get it.

Sen. Bernie Sanders Is Running for President. Here's a Sampling of His Greatest Hits

| Thu Apr. 30, 2015 5:50 PM EDT
Sanders hopes to put some progressive ideas on the agenda for 2016.

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) officially announced today that's he's running for president. The self-described socialist faces long odds in the Democratic primary, but chances are good that he'll at least force a discussion on issues dear to liberals. Here are some highlights of the best of Mother Jones coverage of Sanders:

The Progressive Coalition obviously never went national in the way Sanders had envisioned. But in 1991, a year after he was elected to Congress, he founded something more enduring: the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Since then, Sanders' view of third parties has evolved: "No matter what I do," he told Mother Jones last month, "I will not play the role of a spoiler who ends up helping to elect a right-wing Republican."