Joho the BlogMay 2018 - Joho the Blog

May 16, 2018

[liveblog] Aubrey de Grey

I’m at the CUBE Tech conference in Berlin. (I’m going to give a first keynote on the book I’m finishing.) Aubrey de Grey begins his keynote begins by changing the question from “Who wants to get old?” to “Who wants Alzheimers?” because we’ve been brainwashed into thinking that aging is somehow good for us: we get wiser, get to retire, etc. Now we are developing treatments for aging. Ambiguity about aging is now “hugely damaging” because it hinders the support of research. E.g., his SENS Research Foundation is going too slowly because of funding restraints.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

“The defeat of aging via medicine is foreseseeable now.” He says he has to be credible because people have been saying this forever and have been wrong.

“Why is aging still a problem?” One hundred years ago, a third of babies would die before they were one year old. We fixed this in the industrialized world through simple advances, e.g., hygiene, mosquito, antibiotics. So why are diseases of old age so much harder to control? People think it’s because so many things go wrong with us late in life, interacting with one another and creating incredible complexity. But that’s not the main answer.

“Aging is easy to define: it is a side effect of being alive.” “It’s a fact of the operation of the human body generates damage.” It accumulates. The body tolerates a certain amount. When you pass that amount, you get pathologies of old age. Our approach has been to develop geriatric medicine to counteract those pathologies. That’s where most of the research goes.

aubrey de gray metabolism diagram

“Metabolism: The ultimate undocumented spaghetti code”

But that won’t work because the damage continues. Geriatric medicine bangs away at the pathologies, but will necessarily become less effective over time. “We make this mistake because of a misclassification we make.”

If you ask people to make categories of disease, they’ll come up with communicable, congenital, and chronic. Then most people add a fourth way of being sick: aging itself. It includes fraility, sarcopenia (loss of muscle), immunosenesence (aging of the immune system)…But that’s silly. Aging in a living organism is the same as aging in a machine. “Aging is the accumulation of damage that occurs as a side-effect of the body’s normal operation.”It is the accumulation of damage to the body that occurs as an intrinsic side-effect of the body’s normal operation. That means the categories are right, except aging covers column 3 and 4. Column 3 — specific diseases such as alzheimer’s and cancer — is also part aging. This means that aging isn’t a blessing in surprise, and that we can’t say that column 3 are high-priorities of medicine but those in 4 are not.

A hundred years ago a few people started to think about this and realized that if we tried to interfere with the process of aging earlier one, we’d do better. This became the field of gerontology. Some species age much more slowly than others. Maybe we can figure out the basis for that variation. But the metabolism is really really complicated. “This is the ultimate nightmare of uncommented spaghetti code.” We know so little about how the body works.

“There is another approach. And it’s completely bleeding obvious”: Periodically repair the damage. We don’t need to slow down the rate at which metabolism causes damage. We need to engineer a system we don’t understand. But “we don’t need to understand how metabolism causes damag”we don’t need to understand how metabolism causes damage. Nor do we need to know what to do when the damage is too great, because we’re not going to let it get to that state. We do this with, say, antique cars. Preventitive maintenance works. “The only question is, can we do it for a much more complicated machine like the human body?

“We’re sidestepping our ignorance of metabolism and pathology. But we have to cope with the fact that damage is complicated” All of the types of damage, from cell loss toe extracellular matrix stiffening — there are 7 categories — can be repaired through a single approach: genetic repair. E.g., loss of cells can be repaired by replacing them using stem cells. Unfortunately, most of the funding is going only to this first category. SENS was created to enable research on the other seven. Aubrey talks about SENS’ work on protecting cells from the bad effects of cholesterol.

He points to another group (unnamed) that has reinvented this approach and is getting a lot of notice.

He says longevity is not what people think it is. These therapies will let people stay alive longer, but they will also stay youthful longer. “”Longevity is a side effect of health.” ”“Longevity is a side effect of health.”

Will this be only for the rich? Overpopulation? Boredom? Pensions collapse? We’re taking care of overpopulation by cleaning up its effects, he says. He says there are solutions to these problems. But there are choices we have to make. No one wants to get Alzheimers. We can’t have it both ways. Either we want to keep people healthy or not.

He says SENS has been successful enough that they’ve been able to spin out some of the research into commercial operations. But we need to cary on in the non-profit research world as well. Project 21 aims at human rejuvenation clinical trials.

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Banks everywhere

I just took a 45 minute walk through Berlin and did not pass a single bank. I know this because I was looking for an ATM.

In Brookline, you can’t walk a block without passing two banks. When a local establishment goes out of business, the chances are about 90 percent that a bank is going to go in. The town is now 83 percent banks.[1]

pie chart of businesses

Lovely.

[1] All figures are approximate.

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May 10, 2018

When Edison chose not to invent speech-to-text tech

In 1911, the former mayor of Kingston, Jamaica, wrote a letter [pdf] to Thomas Alva Edison declaring that “The days of sitting down and writing one’s thoughts are now over” … at least if Edison were to agree to take his invention of the voice recorder just one step further and invent a device that transcribes voice recordings into speech. It was, alas, an idea too audacious for its time.

Here’s the text of Philip Cohen Stern’s letter:

Dear Sir :-

Your world wide reputation has induced me to trouble you with the following :-

As by talking in the in the Gramaphone [sic] we can have our own voices recorded why can this not in some way act upon a typewriter and reproduce the speech in typewriting

Under the present condition we dictate our matter to a shorthand writer who then has to typewrite it. What a labour saving device it would be if we could talk direct to the typewriter itself! The convenience of it would be enormous. It frequently occurs that a man’s best thoughts occur to him after his business hours and afetr [sic] his stenographer and typist have left and if he had such an instrument he would be independent of their presence.

The days of sitting down and writing out one’s thoughts are now over. It is not alone that there is always the danger in the process of striking out and repairing as we go along, but I am afraid most business-men have lost the art by the constant use of stenographer and their thoughts won’t run into their fingers. I remember the time very well when I could not think without a pen in my hand, now the reverse is the case and if I walk about and dictate the result is not only quicker in time but better in matter; and it occurred to me that such an instrument as I have described is possible and that if it be possible there is no man on earth but you who could do it

If my idea is worthless I hope you will pardon me for trespassing on your time and not denounce me too much for my stupidity. If it is not, I think it is a machine that would be of general utility not only in the commercial world but also for Public Speakers etc.

I am unfortunately not an engineer only a lawyer. If you care about wasting a few lines on me, drop a line to Philip Stern, Barrister-at-Law at above address, marking “Personal” or “Private” on the letter.

Yours very truly,
[signed] Philip Stern.

At the top, Edison has written:

The problem you speak of would be enormously difficult I cannot at present time imagine how it could be done.

The scan of the letter lives at Rutger’s Thomas A. Edison Papers Digital Edition site: “Letter from Philip Cohen Stern to Thomas Alva Edison, June 5th, 1911,” Edison Papers Digital Edition, accessed May 6, 2018, http://edison.rutgers.edu/digital/items/show/57054. Thanks to Rutgers for mounting the collection and making it public. And a special thanks to Lewis Brett Smiler, the extremely helpful person who noted Stern’s letter to my sister-in-law, Meredith Sue Willis, as a result of a talk she gave recently on The Novelist in the Digital Age.

By the way, here’s Philip Stern’s obituary.

5 Comments »

May 8, 2018

Net Neutrality red alert

The Senate is voting on Net Neutrality.

Last chance before we throw the Republicans out of office.

1 Comment »

May 6, 2018

[liveblog][ai] Primavera De Filippi: An autonomous flower that merges AI and Blockchain

Primavera De Filippi is an expert in blockchain-based tech. She is giving a ThursdAI talk on Plantoid, an event held by Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society and the MIT Media Lab. Her talk is officially on operational autonomy vs. decisional autonomy, but it’s really about how weird things become when you build a computerized flower that merges AI and the blockchain. For me, a central question of her talk was: Can we have autonomous robots that have legal rights and can own and spend assets, without having to resort to conferring personhood on them the way we have with corporations?

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Autonomy and liability

She begins by pointing to the 3 industrial revolutions so far: Steam led to mechanized production ; Electricity led to mass production; Electronics led to automated production. The fourth — AI — is automating knowledge production.

People are increasingly moving into the digital world, and digital systems are moving back into the physical worlds, creating cyber-physical systems. E.g., the Internet of Things senses, communicates, and acts. The Internet of Smart Things learns from the data the things collect, makes inferences, and then acts. The Internet of Autonomous Things creates new legal challenges. Various actors can be held liable: manufacturer, software developer, user, and a third party. “When do we apply legal personhood to non-humans?”

With autonomous things, the user and third parties become less liable as the software developer takes on more of the liability: There can be a bug. Someone can hack into it. The rules that make inferences are inaccurate. Or a bad moral choice has led the car into an accident.

The sw developer might have created bug-free sw but its interaction with other devices might lead to unpredictability; multiple systems operating according to different rules might be incompatible; it can be hard to identify the chain of causality. So, who will be liable? The manufacturers and owners are likely to have only limited liability.

So, maybe we’ll need generalized insurance: mandatory insurance that potentially harmful devices need to subscribe to.

Or, perhaps we will provide some form of legal personhood to machines so the manufacturers can be sued for their failings. Suing a robot would be like suing a corporation. The devices would be able to own property and assets. The EU is thinking about creating this type of agenthood for AI systems. This is obviously controversial. At least a corporation has people associated with it, while the device is just a device, Primavera points out.

So, when do we apply legal personhood to non-humans? In addition to people and corporations, some countries have assigned personhood to chimpanzees (Argentina, France) and to natural resources (NZ: Whanganui river). We do this so these entities will have rights and cannot be simply exploited.

If we give legal personhood to AI-based systems, can AI have property rights over their assets and IP? If they are legally liable, they can be held responsible for their actions, and can be sued for compensation? “Maybe they should have contractual rights so they can enter into contracts. Can they be rewarded for their work? Taxed?”Maybe they should have contractual rights so they can enter into contracts. Can they be rewarded for their work? Taxed? [All of these are going to turn out to be real questions. … Wait for it …]

Limitations: “Most of the AI-based systems deployed today are more akin to slaves than corporations.” They’re not autonomous the way people are. They are owned, controlled and maintained by people or corporations. They act as agents for their operators. They have no technical means to own or transfer assets. (Primavera recommends watching the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Measure of the Man” that asks, among other things, whether Data (the android) can be dismantled and whether he can resign.)

Decisional autonomy is the capacity to make a decision on your own, but it doesn’t necessarily bring what we think of as real autonomy. E.g., an AV can decide its route. For real autonomy we need operational autonomy: no one is maintaining the thing’s operation at a technical level. To take a non-random example, a blockchain runs autonomously because there is no single operator controlling. E.g., smart contracts come with a guarantee of execution. Once a contract is registered with a blockchain, no operator can stop it. This is operational autonomy.

Blockchain meets AI. Object: Autonomy

We are getting first example of autonomous devices using blockchain. The most famous is the Samsung washing machine that can detect when the soap is empty, and makes a smart contract to order more. Autonomous cars could work with the same model; they could not be owned by anyone and collect money when someone uses them. These could be initially purchased by someone and then buy themselves off: “They’d have to be emancipated,” she says. Perhaps they and other robots can use the capital they accumulate to hire people to work for them. [Pretty interesting model for an Uber.]

She introduces Plantoid, a blockchain-based life form. “Plantoid is autonomous, self-sufficient, and can reproduce.”It’s autonomous, self-sufficient, and can reproduce. Real flowers use bees to reproduce. Plantoids use humans to collect capital for their reproduction. Their bodies are mechanical. Their spirit is an Ethereum smart contract. It collects cryptocurrency. When you feed it currency it says thank you; the Plantoid Primavera has brought, nods its flower. When it gets enough funds to reproduce itself, it triggers a smart contract that activates a call for bids to create the next version of the Plantoid. In the “mating phase” it looks for a human to create the new version. People vote with micro-donations. Then it identifies a winner and hires that human to create the new one.

There are many Plantoids in the world. Each has its own “DNA”. New artists can add to it. E.g., each artist has to decide on its governance, such as whether it will donate some funds to charity. The aim is to make it more attractive to be contributed to. The most fit get the most money and reproduces themselves. BurningMan this summer is going to feature this.

Every time one reproduces, a small cut is given to the pattern that generated it, and some to the new designer. This flips copyright on its head: the artist has an incentive to make her design more visible and accessible and attractive.

So, why provide legal personhood to autonomous devices? We want them to be able to own their own assets, to assume contractual rights, and legal capacity so they can sue and be sued, and limit their liability. “ Blockchain lets us do that without having to declare the robot to be a legal person.” Blockchain lets us do that without having to declare the robot to be a legal person.

The plant effectively owns the cryptofunds. The law cannot affect this. Smart contracts are enforced by code

Who are the parties to the contract? The original author and new artist? The master agreement? Who can sue who in case of a breach? We don’t know how to answer these questions yet.

Can a plantoid sure for breach of contract? Not if the legal system doesn’t recognize them as legal persons. So who is liable if the plant hurts someone? Can we provide a mechanism for this without conferring personhood? “How do you enforce the law against autonomous agents that cannot be stopped and whose property cannot be seized?”

Q&A

Could you do this with live plants? People would bioengineer them…

A: Yes. Plantoid has already been forked this way. There’s an idea for a forest offering trees to be cut down, with the compensation going to the forest which might eventually buy more land to expand itself.

My interest in this grew out of my interest in decentralized organizations. This enables a project to be an entity that assumes liability for its actions, and to reproduce itself.

Q: [me] Do you own this plantoid?

A: Hmm. I own the physical instantiation but not the code or the smart contract. If this one broke, I could make a new one that connects to the same smart contract. If someone gets hurt because it falls on the, I’m probably liable. If the smart contract is funding terrorism, I’m not the owner of that contract. The physical object is doing nothing but reacting to donations.

Q: But the aim of its reactions is to attract more money…

A: It will be up to the judge.

Q: What are the most likely senarios for the development of these weird objects?

A: A blockchain can provide the interface for humans interacting with each other without needing a legal entity, such as Uber, to centralize control. But you need people to decide to do this. The question is how these entities change the structure of the organization.

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