Children Of The Corn

What if the future many fear is already here?   What if our focus on killer robots is  just a dangerous distraction?  A red herring?   What if we are about to be overthrown by a hypnotised Generation Z, using a globally co-ordinated attack instigated via Minecraft?  Let’s face it, adults don’t get Minecraft, so it would be the perfect vector to start a modern version of the opening scene from Children Of The Corn.


We seem to spend a great deal of  attention on the notion of runaway super-intelligent robots.   This is on a scale between “they’ll steal all our jobs” up to full blown Terminator/Matrix style dystopian science fiction.    I’ve been guilty of the same on here to a certain extent, albeit a little tongue in cheek.

Many are not so worried, and cite concepts like the “Frame Problem” (coined by Daniel Dennett) as reasons to be sceptical of the notion of “AGI” (Artificial General Intelligence).  I recently witnessed a compelling example of the “Frame Problem” illustrated in a video.  It featured a 12 year old girl walking with her family on a beach in Thailand on Boxing Day 2004.   She noticed that the sea began foaming and making a strange fizzing sound, and recalled years earlier a geography lesson at school where a favoured, charismatic, and therefore memorable teacher had explained that such phenomena was a typical precursor to a Tsunami.  Recalling that particular memory, applying it to her current sensory experience, using her uneasy “feeling”, her intuition, perfectly timed with an injection of adrenaline, resulted in an act that saved the lives of around 100 people!   She basically evacuated the entire beach, and just in time!

It’s hard to imagine a machine, robot or otherwise, embedded and embodied in the environment to such an extent as to be able to join those dots in that human manner and act accordingly with the correct order of priorities and incentives aligned within its programming.    How do we mimic millions of years of largely mysterious human evolution?  Should we even try to?

After-all, even Google’s vaunted Deepmind program “AlphaGo”, that can defeat the very best human at the most complicated of human games, “Go!”, is completely and utterly crap at Chess!   It is still just “Narrow AI”.  Powerful.  Exciting.  But still narrowly focused only on a clear single task.


Moravec’s paradox (articulated by Hans Moravec in the 1980’s) dictates that there is an inversion in the computational power requirements of what takes significant human effort (data analysis, critical thinking, complex decision making, etc.) to that of mundane, nugatory, sub-conscious human tasks (walking, picking things up, tactile interaction with objects and environment, etc).   The later is far harder and more expensive to achieve than the former – which through breakthroughs in Data Analytics and Machine Learning – computers have become far more adept.


That all said, the “ATLAS” robot (below) may have just back-flipped it’s way over Moravec’s paradox?   Scary stuff!

atlas rise

Either way, what we fear from runaway AGI may be a little far off.   Elon Musk, and others may not necessarily agree with me on this, and I am sure I could be convinced otherwise..

Does all the above take our eye’s a little off the ball though?    For instance, I’ve blogged before (twice) on the nefarious byproducts inherent in Social Media with its apparently attendant “Surveillance Capitalism” business model (targeted, human psychology-aware digital advertising) here:

Sugar & Salt

Time *well* spent

What’s happening to us now though?   Should we fear runaway sentient Robots or should we fear runaway consumerisation Algorithms?   It’s probably healthy to show respect for both, but which of the two are the most likely to cause our species immediate harm?    As our children gaze into the iPad, what damage can Social Media addiction and the machine learning “click bait” do to their psychology?  Indeed, what impact has it had on our society?  Our institutions?  Our politics?   Our Governments?   How will it change us? And what can we do about it?


For instance, a friend of mine recently explained to me that he was unable to visit an older relative (which required an overnight stay) with his teenagers for the simple reason that there was no WiFi there!   They, quite literally, refused to do without it for any sustained period.    This sounds like an addiction to me, and I can imagine it to be pretty common-place with teenagers.   Or so I have been warned anyway.


I have 2 younger children, with iPad’s, and for now have successfully managed to ration their use and prevent my children from using Social Media (apart from benign videos on YouTube).   This means that, for now until they are older, they’re not exposed to the worst aspects.   But they are only 9 and 7 and they don’t have the password!   I worry for the teenager years now more than ever before.

Devices will provide constant distraction, unless you turn off notifications and focus on self discipline.  I have (for the most part), and have noted a significant improvement, but can we expect our children to protect themselves in similar ways?   We must surely help them for the sake of their own mental well-being?

My hope is for a two-pronged attack through an increase in awareness both on the user side, and a teleological tweak from the developer side.   We’re in live Game Theory territory, but we also live at a time were we can alter the program to perhaps achieve similar objectives, but by much less harmful means.  After all, I am not making the case that evil internet companies are plotting our destruction though advertising, far from it, just that the human impact of their methods have not been completely thought through.  Cock-up theory trumps conspiracy theory most of the time.    But we do have the opportunity to both educate, and reconfigure these tools before they run amok with their methods and modes of distraction.

For example, the attached link describes a click-bait system the self generates its own news, automatically analysing its success to refine and improve it’s use of language for the next cycle, and so on, and so on:

Auto-Generating Click-bait With Recurrent Neural Networks

I am heartened to see that these subjects have been given more real media attention recently, and I hope that this attention will result in initiatives that address this slide into this growing digital trance.   As well as, of course, educate the guardians of the immediate future (i.e. Minecraft illiterate parents) on how to support the next generation in order to protect their freedom and autonomy, and to get them to look up from the device once in a while!       Here is a BBC article from this morning for instance:

Teenagers and Social Media addiction

Not many people read this blog, but hopefully those that do will look into this a little further and do what you can to protect those nearest..

Happy New Year by the way!!




Sugar & Salt

As a species humans have evolved a heightened appetite for sugar and salt. Primates found more energy from ripened (sugar rich) fruit for instance, whereas salt is an essential compound for basic body function.   In the primordial era, these resources were also very scarce.  This is why we gravitate to, and enjoy more, the food the contains significant doses of either or both of these substances.  Up until very recently in our relative history, evolution has selected for this craving feature as a survival advantage.

Social Media on the other hand has evolved into a commercial model underpinned by the burgeoning phenomenon of Surveillance Capitalism.   Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning power the harvesting of information of our personalities, through an increasing array of data points.   Buying patterns are reasonably obvious, but our political inclinations, our level of religiosity, our relationships, what we like, what makes us angry, our age, location, health status, and physical appearance, are picked up and then churned through increasingly complex and sophisticated algorithms in order to profile us with exponentially increasing levels of accuracy.

The Machine knows that the overweight, and the self-loathing are far more likely to buy the cosmetics..

Through these tools advertisers now target us with growing precision.   Their marketing machine is now far more affective, allowing the Social Media platforms to command a premium for access to their services.   There is nothing necessarily nefarious going on here (as long as you’re ideologically at ease with capitalism), but the incentives are aligned in such a way as to treat us punters like grazing cattle to be lured into the trough of their platforms.

Ex Google and Facebook designer/architect Tristan Harris describes a system of Social Media platforms trading in the “Attention Real-estate”.  This is not the amount of visitors per se, but the combined time that visitors spend engaged in a site that is what is most keenly valued.  Looking, commenting, liking, getting angry, and crucially sharing and propagating…is what is sold to the advertisers.   This is what the advertisers pay most for.

But how can Social Media platforms lure us in for more?  Back to Sugar and Salt…

To illustrate, lets take Facebook for example:

Alongside the usual soft psychological tricks in respect to notification mission creep (e.g. Birthday reminders – come in a say happy birthday!, share some memories from last year, reminders of an event near you!), Facebook has its own sprinkling of sugar and salt to keep your nose snuffling in its pasture.

The Sugar = Lad Bible, Daily Mash, The Poke and their ilk, spreading cheerful humour and delight.   Those funny YouTube videos of forklift mishaps, the cute and heartwarming pet rescue stories, and lets not forget those life affirming, inspirational quotes set on a sunny beach background.   All these things raise a smile, and we like, laugh, and even share if we feel particularly taken with the content.   Let’s brighten up my friends day in the process of browsing!   Why not?   

The Salt = Outrage Porn!   A new term, but that is essentially the Salt.  Share if you agree!  Political and religious outrage, terrorism or tales of human rights abuses, very often from sites that feature a flag of some description as its profile picture.   You’re amazed at just how right-wing some of your friends are.  You think “what, exactly, is going on here!?”.

Outrage, disgust, and indignation are extremely powerful human emotions.   We are triggered into action by these emotions more often than we are by all the other positive emotions.   In Facebook parlance action = sharing.   You share that which you find most offensive or disagreeable, or you feel compelled to correct some stranger, whom you’ve never even met, who has got something “wrong” on the internet!   

When you engage you become part of the story, part of some little unfolding drama.   Your circle of friends may even “Like” (or even “Love”) your comment, proclaimation, or shared article of rage.    This interaction then becomes a self-reinforcing, and then a propagating, feedback loop.  It validates you as a voice and contributor to the drama, and gives you, in the process, those warm, glowy, happy feelings.  It massages your ego.

Have you noticed that there is a lot of the Sugar and the Salt, but not much in between??   I mean where’s that nourishing protein here? That’s because the potency is in the Sugar and Salt.  That’s what makes you interact.  That’s what makes you stay longer.   That is what increases that array of data points.  That’s what feeds the AI.  And, that’s what profiles us into nice little bundles ready for the advertisers!

As always, our only form of defence is through knowledge and promoting awareness.   Understand what is going on, so that we can engage these highly useful platforms upon our own terms again.   Work hard to self-police and resist those knee-jerk reflexes triggered by those powerful human emotions.   Perhaps disengage, spend less time, and have a break from them in general.    That at least, is my plan.

Now, like a massive hypocrite, I will widely share this blog on several Social Media platforms!

Time *well* spent

I’m in the midst on an experiment.   I encourage you all to join in.   The experiment is designed to highlight just how distracted I was by my mobile phone, and highlight how effective app designers were at diverting my attention.

Tristan Harris is an ex software designer at Google and Facebook.  I won’t opine here about his work on the philosophy of  App Design and our overall well-being in engaging with technology, because you can access it better via his excellent TEDTalk here:

Tristan Harris – TED Talk

Or, if you have more time (and I advise this), spend a car journey listening to this podcast:

What technology is doing to us.. Sam Harris interviews Tristan Harris

What I want to recommend you do here is to follow a few basic steps to stop your mobile phone distracting you.  In doing so you can get back control, be more focused on what matters, and be much more productive.

Apparently (according to Tristan) a phone notification, designed to lure you into an App (e.g. Facebook) will distract you for an average of 23 minutes!     Here are the crucial steps designed to vastly improve your time, and prevent this from happening:

  1. Go into settings, then notifications, and turn off all notifications relating to machine updates.  Keep on those relating to people.   E.g. turn off Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn (all social media), App updates, News updates etc, but keep on Texts, WhatsApp, Email, Calendar etc.   Remember you can go into these things and check when you have time and your focus on something else will not be harmed.
  2. Move all Social Media and non-essential Apps from your Home Screen.   Put them in folders in the 2nd screen, and reserve your home screen for Tools only (Camera, Maps, Calculator etc).
  3. To enter an App pull down and use the search facility.  This means you are making a conscious choice and won’t be distracted by an adjacent App.  For iOS users, turn off Siri Search suggestions as well.
  4. Periodically shuffle around the order of your Apps and App folders.   That way muscle memory won’t sub-consciously take you into certain, commonly used Apps, you’ll have to reacquaint yourself with their location.  Again a crucial step to enforce your conscious agency.
  5. Notification vibrations and noises induce stress.  To minimise the pre-identification uncertainty associated with these pings and buzzes customise these signals to differentiate from home and work for example.   Give certain regular contacts their own unique signals.

It’s working for me already, yet what has disturbed me (as someone that hopes to possess the zen of a budding philosopher) is just how bad I must have been before!   Those silly (but hilarious) accidents on YouTube, those sodding likes and re-tweets on Twitter, and those irresistible “someone has tagged you” messages on Facebook.   Who knows how much time I have wasted down these attention sapping rabbit holes!?

These steps won’t affect your general conscious and premeditated use of these Apps and Sites.  They won’t stop you missing out on anything, as you can go in when you like on your own terms (I must admit I was worried that I’d miss the latest newsflash, but lets face it, if WW3 breaks out someone in the office is bound to tell me!).    These steps will mean that your sub-consciousness won’t be cunningly manipulated by psychologically advanced tricks and traps designed to grab the maximum “attention real-estate” for site owners in order to make money from a queue of eager to exploit advertisers.

Give it a try, I am pretty confident you won’t regret it.

phone time


In moral philosophy, specifically in respect to virtue ethics, you’ll find Plato’s Republic and its classic thought experiment, “The Ring of Gyges”.

As Socrates debates the nature of moral virtue with Glaucon, the myth of the ring is brought to bear in defence of Claucon’s argument that we do what’s moral only to protect ourselves from any social and legal consequences.   If these were taken away from us, then pretty soon we would begin to break the societal moral standards for the sake of our own interests.

Gyges was a shepherd in the service of the ruler of Lydia. After an earthquake, a cave was revealed in a mountainside where he was feeding his flock. Entering the cave, he discovered that it was in fact a tomb with a bronze horse containing a corpse, larger than that of a man, who wore a golden ring, which he took for himself. He discovered that the ring gave him the power to become invisible by adjusting it. He then arranged to be chosen as one of the messengers who reported to the king as to the status of the flocks. Arriving at the palace, he used his new power of invisibility to seduce the queen, and with her help he murdered the king, and became king of Lydia himself.


Although Socrates (or Plato using Socrates as cipher for his own thoughts) famously offers a less depressing alternative view, in that there is more at play in satisfying the higher and more benevolent pleasures versus the base pleasures of our desires, and indeed through his tripartite theory of the soul, man has rationality and spirit, as well as desire through which he acts upon, it nevertheless brought into my mind one thing.  One phenomenon.


To a certain extent you can become Gyges on Twitter.  It removes your identity, and offers anonymity.   A twist of the ring and you can become invisible.

Does this (partial at least) invisibility encourage less ethical behaviour?    The concept of internet “Trolls” certainly points in that direction.    As a result of social media we have this addition to our lexicon.

I’m reminds me of an amusing story that appeared on Jeremy Vine’s BBC Radio 2 talk show about 3 or 4 years ago:

A Twitter “Troll” started sending 140 character episodes of abuse at a boxer who had recently lost a fight.   At first mocking his defeat, the abuse went on to become nasty, even going so far as to threaten the boxer’s family.  The harassed and insulted boxer became very angry and anxious no doubt, and retweeted all this abuse to his own connections, pleading for them to help him identify the perpetrator of these abusive tweets.     His connections obliged, as the boxer happened, by chance, to know someone who knew the perpetrators handle.   He identified him, and the boxer then used the internet to work out where the troll actually lived!

In his act of revenge, the boxer tweeted the troll street view pictures of where he (the boxer) was located as he gradually descended upon the troll’s physical location.    The troll’s prior bravado instantly evaporated!   He apologised.  He begged.  He pleaded. He apologised again.  He asked for forgiveness.  He cried.


What happened next was pretty amazing.   When the boxer met the troll on his doorstep in person, following the initial exchange, things became civil.    The boxer accepted the apology, forgave the troll, and went so far as to quite like the guy.   For the trolls part he explained that he somehow lost a sense of what he was doing, became bored, and for some reason not even considered the harm he was causing.   He believed he’d acted completely out of character, not even really recognising his own actions.


Both characters in this story retold it on the Radio, and took questions on the exchange and subsequent encounter with reality from listeners.

Another thought experiment related to moral dilemmas, that the Ring of Gyges reminded me of,  is commonly referred to as the “Trolley Problem”, and it goes like this:

There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options: (1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track. (2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. Which is the most ethical choice?


Most people when asked this question elect option 2, killing the 1 person as opposed to the 5 tied up on the track.

However, when the same problem is posed a different way:

As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by putting something very heavy in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you – your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?

A far fewer number would elect to proceed here from the same set as those who would have chosen option 2 above.

But why, when the results are the same?

Because you are removed from the machinery.   You are making the physical contact yourself.  It is more visceral.   Your agency is more direct, and therefore you naturally feel a far greater degree of responsibility.

Assume then that the internet is the machinery.   Technology offers layers and layers of anonymity removing you as the operator from the results of your actions.

Technology allows you to bomb strategic locations in faraway lands from the comfort of a desk in the same conditions under which you’d play a computer game.    Only unseen by you, its a real Reaper drone, real missiles, real villagers, and real limbs.


Technology allows you to generate and perpetuate fake news and conspiracy theories, empowering many with a degree of influence they would otherwise never have in the real world.


Technology allows you to throw insults and threats at strangers, groups, or communities without any real threat of punishment or social stigma.


Of course most people act responsibly and ethically, and many that don’t are suffering from psychological issues that cause them to act in these less than ethical ways.

Back to Plato, these people are responding immediately to their desires and the rational component is not acting properly as the controlling mechanism.


I think in many respects Twitter is the digital equivalent to the Ring of Gyges.   I’m not sure we can seduce the queen, kill the king, and take his throne…. But it’s certainly possible to achieve unethical results without suffering the social or legal consequences of the analog world.

Maybe we should always visualise the whites of that boxers eyes before committing those thoughts to that keyboard.     Assume that whatever you commit to the ether can be said aloud and within striking distance of the recipient.   Assume that when twisting the ring of Gyges, that a vengeful karma demon may see you.

After all, trust in an invisibility ring didn’t work out too well for Isildur!


The Post-Truth Era vs the Self-Organising System

2016 is a year we will all remember for 3 specific reasons:

  1. Brexit
  2. Trump wins the US Presidency
  3. Celebrities expiring on mass  (For me, Lemmy’s demise at the end of 2015 heralded in this trend by reminding everyone that mortality is indeed something not to be avoided….If it can happen to Lemmy….).


Full disclosure, I was a vocal “Remainer” (hopefully no longer considered a “Remoaner”), and vehemently anti-Trump on every conceivable level.    His (expressed) views on climate change and foreign policy, for instance, remain deeply troubling.

I’m not minded to delve into the politics, but rather discuss what’s happening in respect to the global psyche, or at least that of the western world as witnessed in the major democracies.

The first observation as the blog title suggests is that the truth has lost its currency.   I don’t say that to disparage those who would disagree with me, its just a fact that in both the Trump and Brexit campaigns key areas of promotion where clearly and demonstrably fabricated and proven categorically false within the respective campaigns to anyone within a few yards of a television.

…but to no (or little) affect as far as voters were concerned.

We (I) expected these exposures to have a catastrophic impact on each of these campaigns. I, and so many others, were wrong.

Michael Gove’s quip that the public are “sick of experts”, was deeply disturbing.

Hyperbole for the sake of illustration, granted, but in the 1970’s Pol Pot executed those in the Cambodian population who wore glasses (a sign of intelligence apparently), and in 1930’s Germany Hitler’s brown shirts coined the term “Egg Heads” to mock how easily the learned skulls of intellectuals would crack under a boot or butt of a rifle!    Anti-intellectualism is a dangerous path, even if we do live in more enlightened times.

An open question, but how much has a regressive left movement or neoliberalism paved the way for this to happen?

A place where honest open debate has been replaced by identity politics, trigger warnings, safe spaces, heightened political correctness, excessive labeling, and ad homein attacks polarizing the left and right into a horseshoe whereby the extreme ends of both ideologies stare each other in the eyes while the middle, moderate, and nuanced stay fearfully silent.

What we have seen looks like a YouTube comments section, where people just swear at and insult each other.   A place where discourse goes to die.

Add to that you’ve got intellectual fatigue, apathy, disillusionment, and the response to classic, tried and tested, fear mongering.

So what now?

Normalisation?  A wake up call?  We cannot leave our prized democracies in cruise control any longer (2016 is us hitting a curb!), we all need to step up and contribute to the debate.  We all need to become more involved in our own futures.   We cannot let identity politics take over reason and stifle debate.  Free speech IS the right to offend, and expect to be offended, we need that elbow room in these future debates.

I heard a great analogy of the US Presidency by Sam Harris this morning.   He likened the Trump situation to American’s (all of them) as passengers on a plane (a big one!).  The pilot has just collapsed and Trump (who has no experience of flying) has taken the controls.   Every passenger is with him, supporting him, and needs him to succeed and land that plane safely.   They hope, that those in the control tower can guide him in.  Unfortunately Pence, Palin and the like are in the airport waiting to assist as well!   It’s a good analogy, and it’s certainly how I would be feeling now if I were an American.


I have 2 encouraging thoughts (optimistic hopes!) for the future.  My silver lining.

  1. I feel most the weapons that matter now and in the future NEED experts, and the elite of those experts to innovate advantages over any potential adversaries.   We’re beyond guns now, so globally at least, we’ve no need to fear the wannabe cowboys or thugs. As long as we can keep those orange stubby fingers away from those nukes that is!
  2. We live in an interconnected global economy.   Checks and balances are in place and now more than ever our democracies and economies resemble a Self-Organising System.    If you shake a box of cornflakes the conditions are in place for it to order itself into the same pattern each time.  And as with the laws of physics; checks, balances, and compensatory mechanisms are in place, and good people WILL step up to the plate and muscle in here.

This analogy suffers all the weaknesses of the argument for design (in respect to God as the creator), as gloriously exposed by philosopher David Hume – We’ve not see this happen yet, therefore pointing to repeatable occurrences within nature is a flawed way of projecting cause to affect in this unique and unprecedented circumstance.   I am therefore arguing from a place of experience, however our current circumstances are now outside of all prior experience.


David Hume

Perhaps this type of Self-Organising System resembles the Hegelian dialectic process of thesis, antithesis (i.e. now), and eventually synthesis?   Are we simply witnessing the reactionary stage of a self healing process?


George Hegel

But this is all we have and we have got to hope for a brighter future.   We have no choice but to accept these circumstances and carry on….  But more importantly, take interest in, and get involved in politics.