A note on the social role of companies #SIF12

There is a curious view of companies that state that companies should do only one thing: maximize shareholder value. This view is sometimes thought of as a hardline, capitalist view and it views companies as value-neutral, value-agnostic. And there is a subtext of this being the “pure” nature of the corporation, all else a dilution of the essence of what it is to be a company.

But consider the following case. Assume that persons A, B and C get together to start a company, the purpose of which is to usher in artificial intelligence into the world, and that they believe that AI as a general purpose technology will be the savior of our sadly tribal, biologically rooted existence (note that I am not saying I share their analysis). They produce consumer AI and with that they make a lot of money that they funnel back into the company and they start setting up foundations for AIs that will enable their software to evolve and grow forever. They offer shares on an open market, but split the share so that they retain the vote (many companies in SIlicon Valley do this) — share holders know this, and are aware of the company’s objectives.

In one sense this company is optimizing the value of the share holders, but those values are non-monetary. In another this company seems like a strange hybrid thing in the eyes of the reductio-capitalists who want to see only monetary value optimized.

So, how does this work? One observation would be that historically companies have always been enmeshed in society. If we, with Ferdinand Tonnies, analyze the old forms of social organization like the Gemeinshaft of the old village, any commercial enterprise was a part of the social institutional framework in the village. It is first with the growth of the city that monetary values start acquiring more weight. Maybe companies have always been social, always have been geared towards optimizing a basket of values that go beyond the monetary?

The Stockholm Internet Forum made me think about these things a lot. I do believe that the last couple of years have seen citizens expect to be treated by their governments as consumers, but as Alistair Campbell said in a talk I recently heard this evolution has been mirrored by one in which consumers increasingly want to be treated as citizens of the corporations they interact with. We have understood the first, but not the second of these trends.

In essence then: what if the notion of corporate social responsibility is nothing but a pleonasm? An unnecessary statement of the obvious: that companies are value-laden parts of society that need to acts as such and express values too? That means that the leadership of a company should be able to defend the values expressed by the company as a whole, not only separate CSR programmes, and it seems to me that would be an interesting development.

All in all I believe that corporations would benefit from being treated as integral parts of society, not merely profit mechanisms. The really difficult thing to sort is where companies do better for society by producing profit than by doing what a vocal set of people believe is right. In many – but not all – cases the focus on profit will be the same as the best thing for society, and that is what causes the confusion, I believe.

This thought needs to be developed more.

Thiel on the confusion of capitalism and competition, difficult and valuable

Peter Thiel is turning out to be a very, very original thinker. In today’s New York Times David Brooks mentions a lecture he gave at Stanford on starting up a company. Thiel’s main point is subtle and incredibly interesting: he says that people are confused when they think capitalism is about competition. In fact, with perfect competition there is no profit and you are forced to reinvest all the money you make to stay in place. Capitalism is about doing something in a large market where there is very little competition, and thus making huge profits. And then he adds that this is a consequence of many people confusing what is hard with what is valuable. There is so much sheer insight in these lecture notes that Blake Masters have put up that there is no excuse not to read them. Favorite quotes below:

The usual narrative is that capitalism and perfect competition are synonyms. No one is a monopoly. Firms compete and profits are competed away. But that’s a curious narrative. A better one frames capitalism and perfect competition as opposites; capitalism is about the accumulation of capital, whereas the world of perfect competition is one in which you can’t make any money.

On value and difficulty as a proxy for value

Intense competition makes things hard because you just beat heads with other people. The intensity of competition becomes a proxy for value. But value is a different question entirely. And to the extent it’s not there, you’re competing just for the sake of competition. Henry Kissinger’s anti-academic line aptly describes the conflation of difficulty and value: in academia at least, the battles are so fierce because the stakes are so small.

That seems true, but it also seems odd. If the stakes are so small, why don’t people stop fighting so hard and do something else instead? We can only speculate. Maybe those people just don’t know how to tell what’s valuable. Maybe all they can understand is the difficulty proxy. Maybe they’ve bought into the romanticization of competition. But it’s important to ask at what point it makes sense to get away from competition and shift your life trajectory towards monopoly.

On why life is not war

The perfect illustration of competition writ large is war. Everyone just kills everyone. There are always rationalizations for war. Often it’s been romanticized, though perhaps not so much anymore. But it makes sense: if life really is war, you should spend all your time either getting ready for it or doing it. That’s the Harvard mindset.

But what if life isn’t just war? Perhaps there’s more to it than that. Maybe you should sometimes run away. Maybe you should sheath the sword and figure out something else to do. Maybe “life is war” is just a strange lie we’re told, and competition isn’t actually as good as we assume it is.

On AI:

Artificial Intelligence is probably an underrated field. People are burned out on it, largely because it has been overrated and overstated for many decades. Few people think AI is or will soon be real at this point. But progress is increasingly relentless. AI performance in chess is increasing. Computers will probably beat humans in Go in 4 or 5 years. AI is probably a good place to look on the tech frontier. The challenge is that no one knows how far it will go.

The fascinating thing with Thiel’s argument is that it contains a tip on how to live your life as well on how to start your business. And maybe the trick is not viewing your life as very different from an investment in a startup. And realizing that life is not war, difficulty is not a good proxy for value and competition is opposed to capitalism.

FuturICT – is this the approach to research we want in the EU?

The European Union has a research policy agenda that varies wildly. In one project, FuturICT, it has set out to examine the following, according to their website:

The ultimate goal of the FuturICT flagship project is to understand and manage complex, global, socially interactive systems, with a focus on sustainability and resilience. Revealing the hidden laws and processes underlying societies probably constitutes the most pressing scientific grand challenge of our century and is equally important for the development of novel robust, trustworthy and adaptive information and communication technologies (ICT), based on socially inspired paradigms.

Oooookay. That is pretty ambitious. Now, here is a question for you. Is this the kind of research we want? I must confess to being very much of two minds here. On one side I do like the broad approach and much of what the project has been doing is interesting. A recent paper outlines in-depth some challenges for complexity sciences that I found interesting. Again, though, the scoping is a bit, hm, exorbitant:

FuturICT foundations are social science, complex systems science, and ICT. The main concerns and challenges in the science of complex systems in the context of FuturICT are laid out in this paper with special emphasis on the Complex Systems route to Social Sciences. This include complex systems having: many heterogeneous interacting parts; multiple scales; complicated transition laws; unexpected or unpredicted emergence; sensitive dependence on initial conditions; path-dependent dynamics; networked hierarchical connectivities; interaction of autonomous agents; self-organisation; non-equilibrium dynamics; combinatorial explosion; adaptivity to changing environments; co-evolving subsystems; ill-defined boundaries; and multilevel dynamics. In this context, science is seen as the process of abstracting the dynamics of systems from data. This presents many challenges including: data gathering by large-scale experiment, participatory sensing and social computation, managing huge distributed dynamic and heterogeneous databases; moving from data to dynamical models, going beyond correlations to cause-effect relationships, understanding the relationship between simple and comprehensive models with appropriate choices of variables, ensemble modeling and data assimilation, modeling systems of systems of systems with many levels between micro and macro; and formulating new approaches to prediction, forecasting, and risk, especially in systems that can reflect on and change their behaviour in response to predictions, and systems whose apparently predictable behaviour is disrupted by apparently unpredictable rare or extreme events. These challenges are part of the FuturICT agenda.

Oh, just that? Where is your ambition, project members? Joking aside, it is exhilarating to see someone aim for the stars like this. But will it succeed? One problem I have is that I do not know what it would look like for the project to succeed. Accomplishing the singularity (finally!) or producing a god-like AI? Or just cataloguing a series of really interesting problems?

So I hesitate. On one side: good for EU that it dares address these challenges head on! On the other side: what exactly are you doing? Then I remember the millions that the EU plowed down into Electronic Copyright Management Systems like Imprimatur. Maybe we are better off with a project that states the following:

The FuturICT flagship proposal intends to unify hundreds of the best scientists in Europe in a 10 year 1 billion EUR program to explore social life on earth and everything it relates to. The FuturICT flagship proposal will produce historic breakthroughs and provide powerful new ways to manage challenges that make the modern world so difficult to predict, including the financial crisis.

Oh, good. What is all the fuss on the stock markets about, then? So, what do you think. Flip or flop? My jury was caught in a combinatorial participatory sensing explosion.

Beekeeping and the turn away from technology

At lunch, during the conference in Stockholm last week, I sat down with a conference attendee I have met a couple of times previously. She works on human rights issues and is deeply involved with the Internet, but she had arrived at the end of the road. She was taking courses in beekeeping, because she wanted to turn away from technology and do something “real” as she put it.

Her issues with new technology were many, but foremost was the way our technology destroys time. Not time as a physical phenomenon, but experienced time. Our ability to concentrate on something for a long time. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as technology-induced attention deficit syndrome and it consists in that twitching spirit that checks email and status updates and tweets every second. Her thesis was that no greatness will ever come of that. No originality will come from those locked in the moments, views, and random thoughts of others.

We had our lunch, silently, there is something about an argument like this that kind of makes you feel stupid if you laugh and chatter too much, and then we spoke about Nietzsche and Bruchstuck-menschen for a bit. She agreed that she thinks that technology is turning us into fragmented beings, that it shatters our ability to authenticity. Much like Nietzsche.

The problem with technology, she seemed to say, is that it eats all of our time. but in very small portions, leaving us with but crumbs of time for reflection, insight and deep thought. It is easy to agree, but let’s push back for a moment. What is it in technology that forces us to use it obsessively? What is that forces us to check our email ever few seconds?

Perhaps our mind changes with the new technologies we use. Some studies argue that the changes in the brain that follow on what is loosely referred to internet addiction syndrome are akin to those caused by cocaine or alcohol dependencies. Nicholas Carr et al argue that the Internet is making us shallow.

But is this change necessary? There is, paradoxically, a strong element of technological determinism in the new techno-pessimism. It seems to state that we can offer no resistance, and that technology will force us to shatter into shallow fragments of what we were. That thought of inevitable technological degeneration has been with us since Plato, who had Socrates say that writing would lead to people losing respect for wisdom, forgetting the epic poems and generally think much poorer thoughts. Yet, we conquered the pen and it seems as if it was not a bad idea to let writing into our culture. Why could we not also conquer the new technologies?

There are tools for those that are interested. Here are my two favorite distraction reflecting technologies, or technologies that safe-guard our ability to think long thoughts.

  • Freedom. This little piece of software shuts down the Internet for a period of time you choose. The only way to get back only is to reboot the computer. This minimizes the distractions and allows you to work in a concentrated manner. Combine with…
  • WriteRoom. A word processor that has a fullscreen mode that hides all other software and all other things on the screen. Just text and you.

It does not have to be harder than that. I actually think that beekeeping and the turn away from technology is a response to something else than a deeply felt dissatisfaction with the way technology forces us to distraction, it is a response to the phenomenon that Weber called Entzauberung, the continual loss of magic in our world. It is not so much that the Internet distracts us, it is that it is hard to create meaning in this new medium, and if there is something we crave as human beings it is exactly that: meaning.

And if you turn to beekeeping, away from technology, you have created meaning. But, again paradoxically, that meaning is dependent on technology. You have turned away from technology and that becomes your meaning producing choice. You have not turned to beekeeping. It is only with the information society as background that beekeeping has an attraction.

The real challenge is to create meaning that depends on something more profound than a frustration with technology and its effects. To accept technology, but not allow it dominion over you.

Thoughts on the conference today, the Stockholm principles and an industry standard for shoes

Back at the hotel, tired. The conference was thought-provoking and very interesting. I hope my panel was interesting. Sifting through the twitter feeds I find many smart comments, re-tweets and a heartening number of people referring to me as alternative “Google geek” and “Google guy”. I have become a standing figure in a drama, like a figure in Noh or Commedia dell’Arte, I guess. I will refrain from guessing who I am. But fair enough.

So, in my panel I ended up trying to make the argument for government transparency reporting. This time I tried to set it up in three different stages.

Firstly, we need to get the numbers right. We know from the ONI, and the transparency report that we seem to be moving towards a Moore’s law of internet control – requests for user data doubling every 18 months. We also know that over time the number of users under some kind of Internet control has exploded to 900+ million. Why can these numbers grow so quickly? One reason is that there is no transparent reporting from our governments around how they exercise the power they have to control the Internet. So we need to engage on that.

Secondly, we need to start small and escalate. List the restrictions on communication and content, the rules that they flow from, how does rules can change. Set up a quarterly reporting schedule. Figure out the thing as you go along. No-one will ever complain that you are trying instead of remaining silent on this subject. That will give us numbers, statistics, facts, data that we can use to build a common frame of reference for our discussions. That will be great.

Thirdly, use the common frame of reference. Set it out in agreements, international reviews, trade and everywhere else you can imagine. There are many indices out there that are already used by governments for IP-protection and labor laws and sustainable environment factors. If the Internet is indeed, as I think foreign minister Bildt put it, “the next frontier for freedom” we should double down on this and get it done.

What did I miss, then, from the conference? One thing that struck me as odd was the absence of a discussion around information quality. We face attacks that are as much about flooding the Internet with information as well as attacks that are about restricting the Internet. These different problems seem to require somewhat different approaches. I think it would make sense to discuss internet freedom and information quality at some stage, but I did not see too much of that. I.e. tools of freedom can easily be turned to tools for propaganda. And that is a hard problem. Just imagine trying to build a propagande detection algorithm. What would it look for, how would you determine that a piece of text is propagande et cetera.

The other thing that struck me was that we need to remember that the Internet is awesome, even as we really try to solve these problems. It is imperative that we do not give up and just see the problems. Today we were in problem spotting mode, and that is fine, but we also need to have discussions about order of magnitude solutions and models for the future.

Finally, on a lighter note, I discovered to my great surprise that FB policy director Richard Allan and I both wear Dr Martens. The new industry standard for shoes, we decided. Here is proof:

Who would have thought? Ok, time to sleep now. Probably mangled some of the thoughts here, but wanted to put them on paper for future reference.

Update: Panel session webpage! Curators FTW!

The Fear of Facebook and the Ellulian illusion

The Atlantic has an article in its latest issue about the new loneliness that we suffer from even though we are more densely connected through social networks than ever before. It goes on to explore the notion that Facebook is a part of the problem:

The question of the future is this: Is Facebook part of the separating or part of the congregating; is it a huddling-together for warmth or a shuffling-away in pain?

It is hard to read the article and not feel that it is another one in the long array of neo-luddite texts that want to make a point out of finding fault with new technologies. If there is indeed a new loneliness (and the question of how to measure that is open to discussion, the references to literature and research in the article are ambiguous) then that is hardly something that can be ascribed to social networks. Loneliness is a quality in the very fabric of society, it has to do with civil society, institutions, norms, values — and these are reflected in a lot of different phenomena. Perhaps social networks is one reflection, but I don’t think so.

The Atlantic asking if Google makes us Stoopid or Facebook makes us lonely is just reiterating a formula for the contrarian article that is starting to feel worn. It would be much more interesting to see a raving review of new technologies than the same technology scepticism reiterated again and again. I wonder who will be brave enough to publish the article “Twitter makes us think deeper” or “LinkedIn increased good job matches by X%” – articles that are contrarian contrarian, examining why our reflexes have become luddite, or Ellulian.

Jacques Ellul defined the new skepticism of technology well as he summed it up:

[W]hat is at issue here is evaluating the danger of what might happen to our humanity in the present half-century, and distinguishing between what we want to keep and what we are ready to lose, between what we can welcome as legitimate human development and what we should reject with our last ounce of strength as dehumanization. I cannot think that choices of this kind are unimportant.

This notion, that technology always is a Faustian bargain, that we need to give something up, still hunts us. We could call it the Ellulian Illusion: the conviction that technology must take something from us as it gives us something.  It may well be a promethean gift instead. But of course, the gods were rather harsh on Prometheus. But that was because they thought he had given men the power to be like gods…

Happiness, Physics and Death

Will knowledge about what our world is like help us craft a philosophy to deal better with our lives? It is not a trivial question. Knowing what the world is like could be both a blessing and a curse. There are those who think that the universe, such as it is, must have meaning for it to be possible for us to sustain meaning — this is in part the sense in which everything is allowed if God is dead in Dostoyevsky — but a perhaps more interesting position is to build meaning of sorts from established meaninglessness. Lawrence M Krauss recently wrote an article for the LA Times arguing exactly this, exploring what modern physics knows about the universe. His final words are interesting:

Imagining living in a universe without purpose may prepare us to better face reality head on. I cannot see that this is such a bad thing. Living in a strange and remarkable universe that is the way it is, independent of our desires and hopes, is far more satisfying for me than living in a fairy-tale universe invented to justify our existence.

There is truth to this. This is an almost Spinozan contemplation of the universe from the point of eternity, and it is in a sense liberating. If the universe is unlikely, without purpose, indeed, absurd, our choices seem less heavy. If we are the stuff of stars eating popcorn and having beer, if we are the unique and unlikely consequences of colliding particles and the children of collapsed wave forms, well, then maybe it is ok to be a bit late for work occasionally, or to just mess up.

Several studies have shown that people who contemplate death for a few minutes each day are happier. I think the same holds for those that look into the night sky and see the stars for what they are: our relatives, improbable and fantastic and uncaring. In fact, I would bet that if we could compare three groups: those that think about death, those that stare into the dark night sky and those that do neither, the second would be the happiest. That is an experiment I would like to try sometime.

Camus was right. We have to imagine that Sisyphus is happy – and so we could be too in a Sisyphean universe that cares little about our hopes and wants. In fact, there is something distinctly liberating about that isn’t there?

Turing tests II: Wittgenstein and Voigt-Kampff

Could a machine think? — Could it be in pain? — Well is the human body to be called such a machine? It surely comes as close as possible to being such a machine.

But a machine surely cannot think! — Is that an empirical statement? No. We only say of a human being and what is like one that it thinks. We also say it of dolls and no doubt of spirits too. Look at the word “to think” as a tool.

Ludwig Wittgenstein Philosophical Investigations 359-360

Wittgenstein’s note comes to mind as I continue thinking about Turing tests. I think this quote has been read as saying that there can be no test for intelligence or thinking, but it is really not at all saying that. It merely says that we use the concept of things that are like us. And the interesting part about that is that there are so many qualities that could be used to assess that. At what point will we simply give up and call something human?

Enter the Voigt-Kampff machine, the monster Turing test in the movie Bladerunner. In that test Decker, the bounty hunter, has to use extreme equipment to detect the tell-tale lack of empathic response that reveals someone as a replicant. There is a legitimate ethical question here about how much we are allowed to test an entity to determine that it is not human. And how arbitrary those tests can be. The Turing test easily degenerates to a Shibboleth. Here Decker uses the Voigt-Kampff to determine if Rachael is a artificial or real mind:

Oh, and on the note on alternative Turing tests, I now add civilization-scale tests (is this an intelligent civilization) and the meta-Turing test: is this person able to detect that they are in a Turing test situation. More to come. Bear with me…

Mathematicians up in arms and they invite you to join!

I just finished an excellent little paper by Henry Cohn and Douglas N Arnold. It is called “Mathematicians take a stand” and encourages all mathematicians to join a boycott against publisher Elsevier. The boycott — over at Cost of Knowledge — has its root in the growing prices of academic journals and how they slow down the dissemination of research and hamper the human project of building our knowledge together. Today more than 8000 researchers – not only mathematicians –  has agreed to boycott the publisher if they do not allow for other easier ways for researchers to distribute their work and help build the future of knowledge.

The authors note in their paper:

While the mathematical literature itself is a treasure, the current system of scholarly publishing is badly broken. Elsevier is the largest and, in our view, the most egregious example of what is wrong. We hope many readers will agree with us that by choosing to withdraw our cooperation from Elsevier, we are sending a valuable message to them and to the scholarly publishing industry more broadly. Please consider joining the movement at http://thecostofknowledge.com.

What is our vision for the future? The mathematical community needs a period of experimentation and healthy competition, in which a variety of publishing models can flourish and develop. Possibilities include various approaches to open access publishing, refereed journals tightly integrated with the arXiv or similar servers, increased reliance on non-pro t publishers, hybrid models in which community-owned journals subcontract their operations to commercial publishers, commercially-owned journals with reasonable prices and policies, etc. It is too early to predict the mix of models that will emerge as the most successful. However, any publisher that wants to be part of this mix must convince the community that they oversee peer review with integrity, that they aid dissemination rather than hinder it, and that they work to make high-quality mathematical literature widely available at a reasonable price.

Let’s work together to foster good practices and build better models. The future of mathematics publishing is in our hands.

And with the future of publishing the future of the subject also hangs in the balance. The way knowledge is disseminated, and, that it at a very minimum is not actively hindered to reach people everywhere is essential to the future of the Information Society.

I just signed up. Will you?

Alternative Turing Tests I: The Double Test and the Network Test

Lately the notion of testing systems for intelligence has occupied some of my free time. One thing that interests me is alternative designs for the well-known Turing test. There are quite a few variants already out there, but I wanted to add two more.

The first is the double Turing test, where the computer is tasked with determining if the interlocutor on the other side is human and the human is tasked with detecting a computer:

The salient question becomes if the algorithms are different. We know they will be, since we have seen reverse Turing tests and captchas, but who will detect the other first? This version, a Turing game, seems more fair.

The other variant that I think is interesting is a Network Turing Test. Here the task is for one network to determine of another network if it contains more humans than computer actors:

The network that gets closest wins. The reason for tweaking the test this way is that we rarely if ever should think about intelligence as a non-networked concept. Variants on this test would be to detect at least one human/computer or eliminating the possibility that any one node in the network is either.

In principle, though, this raises the more important question of what it means to test for intelligence, or equivalence here. The Wittgensteinian answer seems to be that we misunderstand the word intelligence or its grammar if we think we can test for the existence of it. Maybe the concept of the Turing test is an inverse indication of something…