Crikey

On the plus side, it’s very, very far away:

Astronomers have found the fastest-growing black hole ever seen in the universe, and they’re calling this one a monster with an appetite. It’s growing so fast it can devour a mass the size of the sun every two days.

Researchers at Australian National University first discovered this supermassive black hole, also known as a quasar, when data from a telescope called the SkyMapper flagged it as an object of potential interest. Then they used data from the European Space Agency’s Gaia satellite to determine how far away it was. They found that it took more than 12 billion years for the light from this massive black hole to reach Earth. It’s the brightest quasar that can be seen in visual or ultraviolet light.

The laws of physics are not amused:

Right now, this massive black hole is the size of at least 20 billion suns. Going back in time about 1.2 billion years after the Big Bang using the speed limit formula, Wolf said this black hole must have started out as the size of 5,000 suns. Average black holes are about the size of 50 suns. So scientists are puzzled at how this massive black hole got so … massive.

Japan approves one-day flu treatment

Impressive (news from February):

As the worst flu season in a decade rages on, a potentially groundbreaking new drug that can kill the flu virus in just one day has won regulatory approval—in Japan.

Japanese officials granted an accelerated approval to the treatment, Xofluza from pharmaceutical maker Shionogi, last week. It could soon prove to be a significant competitor to Swiss drug giant Roche’s Tamiflu, one of the most common antivirals used to treat the flu. But it could also take until at least 2019 for Xofluza to reach the U.S. market.

Xofluza sets itself apart from Tamiflu in several key ways, according to Shionogi. For one, it requires far fewer doses—just a single pill, in fact, compared with the five-day, two-doses-per-day regimen required by Tamiflu. That could be significant given that infections tend to linger if you don’t follow through on the entire prescribed course of a medicine.

And then there’s the timeline. Xofluza was able to kill off the flu virus within 24 hours (compared with the nearly three days it takes Tamiflu to pull off the same feat) in trials.

Will this get regulatory approval overseas?

An awful waste of space

The silence of the cosmos continue to be, well, deafening:

After searching 100,000 galaxies for signs of highly advanced extraterrestrial life, a team of scientists using observations from NASA’s WISE orbiting observatory has found no evidence of advanced civilizations in them. […]

Roger Griffith, a postbaccalaureate researcher at Penn State and the lead author of the paper, scoured almost the entire catalog of the WISE satellite’s detections—nearly 100 million entries—for objects consistent with galaxies emitting too much mid-infrared radiation. He then individually examined and categorized around 100,000 of the most promising galaxy images. Wright reports, “We found about 50 galaxies that have unusually high levels of mid-infrared radiation. Our follow-up studies of those galaxies may reveal if the origin of their radiation results from natural astronomical processes, or if it could indicate the presence of a highly advanced civilization.”

In any case, Wright said, the team’s non-detection of any obvious alien-filled galaxies is an interesting and new scientific result. “Our results mean that, out of the 100,000 galaxies that WISE could see in sufficient detail, none of them is widely populated by an alien civilization using most of the starlight in its galaxy for its own purposes. That’s interesting because these galaxies are billions of years old, which should have been plenty of time for them to have been filled with alien civilizations, if they exist. Either they don’t exist, or they don’t yet use enough energy for us to recognize them,” Wright said.

“This research is a significant expansion of earlier work in this area,” said Brendan Mullan, director of the Buhl Planetarium at the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh and a member of the G-HAT team. “The only previous study of civilizations in other galaxies looked at only 100 or so galaxies, and wasn’t looking for the heat they emit. This is new ground.”

Why should you care? Because these non-findings strengthen the case for the Great Filter — the hypothesis that some sort of cosmic barrier is preventing the rise of advanced, technological civilizations, a barrier that some believe could take the form of an Exterminator that eats intelligent life for breakfast.

The Great Filter is coming for you. Repent!

Beyond the Panopticon: Faceborg update

Facebook 1984 INGSOC

I have always found Facebook to be unpleasant and creepy. Now an increasing number of people are coming to the conclusion that it’s positively dangerous. Here’s a powerful tweetstorm by Google AI researcher François Chollet:

The problem with Facebook is not *just* the loss of your privacy and the fact that it can be used as a totalitarian panopticon. The more worrying issue, in my opinion, is its use of digital information consumption as a psychological control vector. Time for a thread

The world is being shaped in large part by two long-time trends: first, our lives are increasingly dematerialized, consisting of consuming and generating information online, both at work and at home. Second, AI is getting ever smarter.

These two trends overlap at the level of the algorithms that shape our digital content consumption. Opaque social media algorithms get to decide, to an ever-increasing extent, which articles we read, who we keep in touch with, whose opinions we read, whose feedback we get

Integrated over many years of exposure, the algorithmic curation of the information we consume gives the systems in charge considerable power over our lives, over who we become. By moving our lives to the digital realm, we become vulnerable to that which rules it — AI algorithms

If Facebook gets to decide, over the span of many years, which news you will see (real or fake), whose political status updates you’ll see, and who will see yours, then Facebook is in effect in control of your political beliefs and your worldview

This is not quite news, as Facebook has been known to run since at least 2013 a series of experiments in which they were able to successfully control the moods and decisions of unwitting users by tuning their newsfeeds’ contents, as well as prediction user’s future decision

In short, Facebook can simultaneously measure everything about us, and control the information we consume. When you have access to both perception and action, you’re looking at an AI problem. You can start establishing an optimization loop for human behavior. A RL loop.

A loop in which you observe the current state of your targets and keep tuning what information you feed them, until you start observing the opinions and behaviors you wanted to see

A good chunk of the field of AI research (especially the bits that Facebook has been investing in) is about developing algorithms to solve such optimization problems as efficiently as possible, to close the loop and achieve full control of the phenomenon at hand. In this case, us

This is made all the easier by the fact that the human mind is highly vulnerable to simple patterns of social manipulation. While thinking about these issues, I have compiled a short list of psychological attack patterns that would be devastatingly effective

Some of them have been used for a long time in advertising (e.g. positive/negative social reinforcement), but in a very weak, un-targeted form. From an information security perspective, you would call these “vulnerabilities”: known exploits that can be used to take over a system.

In the case of the human mind, these vulnerabilities never get patched, they are just the way we work. They’re in our DNA. They’re our psychology. On a personal level, we have no practical way to defend ourselves against them.

The human mind is a static, vulnerable system that will come increasingly under attack from ever-smarter AI algorithms that will simultaneously have a complete view of everything we do and believe, and complete control of the information we consume.

Importantly, mass population control — in particular political control — arising from placing AI algorithms in charge of our information diet does not necessarily require very advanced AI. You don’t need self-aware, superintelligent AI for this to be a dire threat.

So, if mass population control is already possible today — in theory — why hasn’t the world ended yet? In short, I think it’s because we’re really bad at AI. But that may be about to change. You see, our technical capabilities are the bottleneck here.

Until 2015, all ad targeting algorithms across the industry were running on mere logistic regression. In fact, that’s still true to a large extent today — only the biggest players have switched to more advanced models.

It is the reason why so many of the ads you see online seem desperately irrelevant. They aren’t that sophisticated. Likewise, the social media bots used by hostile state actors to sway public opinion have little to no AI in them. They’re all extremely primitive. For now.

AI has been making fast progress in recent years, and that progress is only beginning to get deployed in targeting algorithms and social media bots. Deep learning has only started to make its way into newsfeeds and ad networks around 2016. Facebook has invested massively in it

Who knows what will be next. It is quite striking that Facebook has been investing enormous amounts in AI research and development, with the explicit goal of becoming a leader in the field. What does that tell you? What do you use AI/RL for when your product is a newsfeed?

We’re looking at a powerful entity that builds fine-grained psychological profiles of over two billion humans, that runs large-scale behavior manipulation experiments, and that aims at developing the best AI technology the world has ever seen. Personally, it really scares me

If you work in AI, please don’t help them. Don’t play their game. Don’t participate in their research ecosystem. Please show some conscience

Now might be an opportune time to talk about government regulation of the social media platforms. And maybe even a temporary shutdown, until we can figure out what is going on and how to mitigate the risk of social catastrophe from this new and poorly understand technology.

Direct-democracy-as-a-service

Luigi Di Maio and Davide Casaleggio

Luigi Di Maio and Davide Casaleggio

A brief explanation of Italy’s Five Star Movement, which won the biggest share of the vote in this month’s general election:

Davide Casaleggio is one of the top leaders of the Five Star Movement. He is president of the Rousseau Association, which created the movement’s digital platform. […]

Our experience is proof of how the Internet has made the established parties, and the previous organizational model of democratic politics more generally, obsolete and uneconomic. The Five Star Movement garnered around 11 million votes in the recent election. Each vote cost us about 9 cents — a cost covered by micro-donations from about 19,000 citizens who donated a total of about $1 million, supporting all the costs of our election campaign. For the traditional parties, according to the political group More Europe, a single vote cost nearly one hundred times more, about $8.50 per vote.

The platform that enabled the success of the Five Star Movement is called Rousseau, named after the 18th century philosopher who argued politics should reflect the general will of the people. And that is exactly what our platform does: it allows citizens to be part of politics. Direct democracy, made possible by the Internet, has given a new centrality to citizens and will ultimately lead to the deconstruction of the current political and social organizations. Representative democracy — politics by proxy — is gradually losing meaning.

The platform also allows registered users to choose parliamentary candidates through online voting and to propose, discuss and vote on legislative initiatives which, if approved, are submitted to parliament. This is direct democracy on the intraparty level, it’s very cutting-edge and frankly very cool. I suggest keeping an eye on Italian politics as I think they are simply ahead of the curve on this, and much of the West will soon catch up.

No travel for you

North by Northwest smoking on trainIn the latest evolution of China’s social credit system, people who have committed offenses like smoking on trains or defaulting on fines will now be effectively banned from traveling:

China said it will begin applying its so-called social credit system to flights and trains and stop people who have committed misdeeds from taking such transport for up to a year.

People who would be put on the restricted lists included those found to have committed acts like spreading false information about terrorism and causing trouble on flights, as well as those who used expired tickets or smoked on trains, according to two statements issued on the National Development and Reform Commission’s website on Friday. […]

However, there are signs that the use of social credit scoring on domestic transport could have started years ago. In early 2017, the country’s Supreme People’s Court said during a press conference that 6.15 million Chinese citizens had been banned from taking flights for social misdeeds.

That’s an extraordinary number of people. A case could be made that people who, for example, open the emergency exit of a moving plane should be put on some kind of no-fly list, but only a small fraction of 6.15 million citizens can possibly be guilty of those types of offenses.

Social credit system

I used to think that between the two great dystopian novelists, Huxley was more prophetic than Orwell. Not so sure anymore:

First envisioned in the mid-1990s, China’s social-credit system would assign a ranking to each of the country’s almost 1.4 billion people. Unlike a Western rating based on financial creditworthiness, China’s social-credit backers want their system to be all-encompassing, to evaluate not just financial matters but anything that might speak to a person’s trustworthiness. In modern China, “trust-keeping is insufficiently rewarded, the costs of breaking trust tend to be low,” a 2014 Chinese government document describing the government’s plans notes.

The social-credit system aims to change that – raising the penalties for poor conduct and the rewards for deferential behaviour.

It is the most ambitious attempt by any government in modern history to fuse technology with behavioural control, placing China at the forefront of a new kind of authoritarianism, one that can mine a person’s digital existence – shopping habits, friends, criminal records, political views – and judge them according to the state’s standard of reliability.

One early encounter with the system is described by a Chinese journalist who found himself on a government blacklist after he (inadvertently) defaulted on a court fine:

What it meant for Mr. Liu is that when he tried to buy a plane ticket, the booking system refused his purchase, saying he was “not qualified.” Other restrictions soon became apparent: He has been barred from buying property, taking out a loan or travelling on the country’s top-tier trains.

“There was no file, no police warrant, no official advance notification. They just cut me off from the things I was once entitled to,” he said. “What’s really scary is there’s nothing you can do about it. You can report to no one. You are stuck in the middle of nowhere.”

More details on that here.

Another example of the nascent system at work:

It is hard to imagine a more perfect system of social control. This is not so much ruling with an iron fist as ruling with a joystick. The largest society in the world is being turned into a video-game simulation.

The social credit system seems perfectly adapted for a Confucian, group-oriented society, which also happens to lead the world in mobile payments and video surveillance. Of course, China is not the only country on the road to socially networked repression.

One possibility that occurs to me is that the government could use this apparatus to tackle China’s demographic crisis by pressuring people to have more babies. This piece in Wired talks about how Alibaba’s Sesame Credit (a potential precursor to the nationwide system) factors people’s shopping habits into an assessment of their character, an example being that “Someone who frequently buys diapers would be considered as probably a parent, who on balance is more likely to have a sense of responsibility.”

What if “a sense of responsibility” was defined to include having two or more children, and the nationwide social credit system linked your “score” to how many children you have and the age at which you have them? I could easily see this being rolled out if more traditional pro-natalist policies fail to boost China’s birthrate to an acceptable level. (Note that China ended its one-child policy in early 2016, allowing all married couples to have two children.) In fact, I would be surprised if it hasn’t already been considered.

This all reminds me of the “credit poles” from Gary Shteyngart’s 2011 dystopian novel Super Sad True Love Story. As he explains:

A credit pole is a way for the government to know what your creditworthiness is, because the big problem in the society is that nobody has enough credit. Credit poles are found on sidewalks in major metropolitan areas, and as you walk by they tell you what your credit rating is.

And:

The apparat is worn around the neck as a pendant, and it has what’s called RateMe Plus technology. Let’s say you walk into a bar; it says, “OK, you’re the third-ugliest man in here, but you have the fifth-best credit rating,” things like that. Everyone is constantly ranked and constantly assessing everyone else’s ranking, which is similar to the society we already live in.

Life imitating Shteyngart…

A real-world vector

The Pentagon has officially confirmed the existence of a quasi-secret program to investigate UFOs, called the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, which started in 2007 and is reportedly still ongoing (although its annual $22 million of “black money” funding was cut off in 2012).

The program, which was supported by senators Harry Reid, Ted Stevens and Daniel Inouye, collected audio and video recordings of reported UFO sightings, including this 2004 footage of an encounter with a mysterious glowing, rotating object moving at high speeds:

Another NY Times report on the same day provides more details about that encounter, which was recorded by the US Navy off the coast of San Diego:

“Well, we’ve got a real-world vector for you,” the radio operator said, according to Commander Fravor. For two weeks, the operator said, the Princeton [a Navy cruiser] had been tracking mysterious aircraft. The objects appeared suddenly at 80,000 feet, and then hurtled toward the sea, eventually stopping at 20,000 feet and hovering. Then they either dropped out of radar range or shot straight back up. […]

Then, Commander Fravor looked down to the sea. It was calm that day, but the waves were breaking over something that was just below the surface. Whatever it was, it was big enough to cause the sea to churn.

Hovering 50 feet above the churn was an aircraft of some kind — whitish — that was around 40 feet long and oval in shape. The craft was jumping around erratically, staying over the wave disturbance but not moving in any specific direction, Commander Fravor said. The disturbance looked like frothy waves and foam, as if the water were boiling.

As Popular Mechanics points out:

There are several interesting details about the sighting here. For one, there were clearly two unidentified objects. The first was a large underwater object that was “much larger than a submarine.” For reference, the U.S. Virginia-class nuclear attack submarines are 377 feet long. The object also had some passing resemblance to a “downed airliner.” This was technically a USO, or unidentified swimming object. Although much rarer than UFOs, such craft have been sighted over the years.

We know a little more about the UFO itself. It is described as “wingless, white, and shaped like an oblong pill. It was 24-30 (40 in the NYT article) feet long and had no visible markings or glass. The USS Princeton was able to faintly track the “capsule” via its SPY-1B radar system, but the fighters were not able to get a radar lock on the object. The “capsule” was not only more maneuverable than the Hornets but also much faster —for it to have reached the CAP point ahead of the Navy fighters it would have had to have flown in excess of 2,400 miles an hour. According to FighterSweep.com, which published a detailed chronicle of the event in 2015, the object did not emit hot jet exhaust typical of ordinary aircraft.

One more noteworthy detail from the Times:

A 2009 Pentagon briefing summary of the program prepared by its director at the time asserted that “what was considered science fiction is now science fact,” and that the United States was incapable of defending itself against some of the technologies discovered.

I can’t be the only person who would like to know more about that. And I can think of a plausible rationale for the Pentagon to disclose more information: the existence of super-advanced alien technologies against which we have no defense is a pretty good argument for a massive increase in military R&D…