Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

Matt's Thoughts In Between - Issue #17

The ethics of military AI

Google announced that it will cease providing AI services to the US military. Gizmodo has a well researched article on the topic. Apparently, thousands of Google employees signed a petition to protest the work, which led directly to its stepping back. 

There are several interesting things here. First, it demonstrates that talent, as the truly scarce resource in tech, plays a governance function even in companies little constrained by shareholder controls. Second, it's striking that the US military needs this at all. One of the things that makes AI fascinating as a geopolitical issue is that it's one of the first militarily important technologies where the private sector's capabilities are far ahead of the government's.

Finally, though it's certainly a good thing to have people worrying about AI ethics, that this is an issue shows the transformation of political culture in Silicon Valley. As this brilliant video shows, Silicon Valley's "secret history" is as the skunkworks to the defence establishment. Though Google may be willing to cede this ground, a number of commentators have pointed out that Google not doing this doesn't mean it won't be done - and there are several competitors willing and able to step in, including some with (perhaps) lower ethical standards.

Philosophy - foundation of the modern economy?

A couple of weeks ago, super-blogger Tyler Cowen asked whether there has been any progress in philosophy, given that we're still trying to answer the same questions Plato had. (Cowen's answers, in the same post, are typically interesting and eccentric, listing everything from behavioural economics to the state of Singapore as examples of philosophical progress Cowen specialises in the provocative and opaque, you might say... Straussian, he would say)

Some philosophers have offered their own answers, but the most interesting comes from Arjun Narayan, who has written a brilliant essay on the links between philosophy, computational complexity and real world impact. It's not an easy read - you could lose a day just following the Wikipedia links - but it's fascinating and worth persisting with. 

In short, Narayan argues that the future of humanity will be determined to a very great extent by an apparently philosophical question: what kind of computational universe do we live in? As Narayan shows, this question is equivalent to asking, "is cryptography possible?" - which given that it underpins almost everything that happens on the internet - is rather a big deal:   

1960: number theory is useless 2000: half our economy would collapse if you could factor numbers quickly enough

Let's hope the philosophers keep at it!

Where are the new religions?

My friend Arnaud asks why more people don't try to start new religions. There are some interesting answers on the thread. My own is that in the secular West the stigma is high relative to starting companies (just look what happens when people try to monetise...) and even contrarian-minded founders respond to social incentives.

One answer, though, is that a large number of organisations and movements, consciously or otherwise, do provide religion-like benefits to non-believers. I was reminded of this recent, provocative piece by the (black, liberal) linguist John McWhorter on the quasi-religious role that "wokeness" plays in the lives of some white liberals.

That said, maybe the answer is simply that existing religions are doing just fine. Conor Sen recently noted that demographic change means that Christianity is become more important in the US Democratic Party. And there's the fascinating finding that the religious view least likely to be passed from one generation to the next is atheism. St Paul would be impressed.

Quick links

  1. How to impregnate a rhino. Does what it says on the tin, but surprisingly fascinating.
  2. Sympathy for the Dark Side. In Star Wars, why does evil always triumph? (Twitter thread)
  3. Global catastrophic risks (AI edition). Open Philanthropy is looking for people to give humanity better odds.
  4. The rise and rise of audio. Michael Lewis, arguably the greatest living non-fiction storyteller, has moved to Audible from Vanity Fair
  5. Beauty in strange places. The Tashkent (Uzbekistan) Metro is stunning, it turns out

Your feedback

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Until next week,