Tech superpower? Moi?

China seems to be realizing that not all publicity is good publicity, at least when it comes to technological advances:

China is fooling only itself if it thinks it will soon overtake the United States as a world leader in science and technology, according to the boss of a state-owned publication dedicated to the subject.

With the world’s two largest economies embroiled in an escalating trade dispute, the comments made by Liu Yadong, editor-in-chief of Science and Technology Daily, which comes under the supervision of the Ministry of Science and Technology, were unexpected.

“The large gap in science and technology between China and developed countries in the West, including the US, should be common knowledge, and not a problem.” Liu said.

“But it became problematic when the people who hype [China’s achievements] … fooled the leadership, the public and even themselves.”

On the one hand, it’s definitely true that China has sometimes oversold its achievements:

One example of the “hype” to which Liu was referring is an article by Xinhua that was widely circulated last autumn hailing China’s “four new great inventions”, namely high-speed rail, electronic payments, bike sharing and online shopping – even though none of them actually originated in the country.

See also here.

On the other hand, I don’t find it altogether persuasive that China is lagging far behind the US. In fact, China has already surpassed the US in at least one crucial area, as David Goldman noted more than a year ago:

For the first time, China has demonstrated that it is far ahead of the United States in a critical new technology, namely quantum communications. A Chinese satellite succeeded in transmitting so-called entangled photons to earth stations. […]

China has the world’s fast supercomputers built entirely out of Chinese components. It has the world’s largest radio telescope. It has thousands of surface-to-ship missiles that can hail down on American aircraft carriers from the stratosphere, and it has ultra-quiet diesel electric submarines that can lurk on battery power for weeks. It has satellite killer missiles. China might spend barely over $1,000 to equip foot soldiers, about 1/100th of what America spends, but it has invested massively in high-tech defense.

Does the US have the overall edge in science/tech? Yes. Could that change sooner than most people think? I believe so.

Deng Xiaoping was fond of saying that the country should hide its strength and bide its time. It appears China is starting to worry that its much-vaunted progress is attracting the wrong kind of attention from the US, and is toggling back to “hide” mode.

Stepping back from the brink?

The economic dispute between the US and China is heating up:

Chinese officials are warning that they are prepared not only for trade war, but for financial, diplomatic and limited military confrontation with the United States, in response to American demands for fundamental changes in Chinese economic policy.

The dispute between the world’s two largest economies has moved beyond narrow issues of trade or specific areas of prospective conflict: Washington now views China’s technologically-focused economic strategy as a challenge to America’s world position, and China views Washington’s demands on China as the equivalent of a “new Opium War,” as a senior Chinese official told Asia Times last week.

Helped along by the US Senate’s torpedoing of a carefully crafted agreement with telecom giant ZTE:

A critical turning point was the Commerce Department’s ban on sales of American chips to power ZTE’s mobile handsets, sourced mainly from the American semiconductor giant Qualcomm. ZTE had violated sanctions on sales of high technology to Iran and North Korea. China’s President Xi Jinping intervened personally with President Trump to rescind the decision. Trump’s Commerce Department negotiated an unprecedented $1.9 billion fine as well as direct American controls over ZTE management, only to have the US Senate vote to reinstate the crippling ban on chip purchases. Trump’s Republican opponents united with Senate Democrats to embarrass the US President. The Chinese official commented, “That is Trump’s problem, not our problem.”

Thanks guys!

The US needs to address any Chinese trade abuses. But no amount of punitive trade actions will save the US economy from corkscrewing into irrelevance, if America does not launch its own “technologically-focused economic strategy,” rather than trying to somehow shut down China’s.

Goldman has some suggestions:

First, do what the Eisenhower administration did in 1957 – shift federal resources toward science and technology and starve the universities of all other forms of aid, including student loans.

Second, restore federal R&D spending to the levels of the Reagan years (when we spent 1.3% of GDP on basic R&D vs. about 0.7% now).

Third, begin Manhattan Project-style programs under the aegis of the Defense Department to force breakthroughs in critical technologies: quantum computing, semiconductor manufacturing, drone technology, artificial intelligence, missile defense (including space-based systems), and anti-submarine warfare to start.

Fourth, as I noted above. organize a brain drain out of China: Identify and recruit their most inventive and creative tech people.

Fifth, get together with the Japanese and organize an alternative to China’s One Belt, One Road program. The fulcrum of this program is the 600 million people of Southeast Asia, most of whom would welcome an alternative to Chinese dominance.

But they can’t innovate…

Nano lab Suzhou China

Vacuum Interconnected Nano-X Research Facility in Suzhou, China (Source: News Agency of Nigeria)

The complacent, self-satisfied conventional wisdom that China is incapable of matching, let alone surpassing, the West on innovation takes another body blow:

Most European firms operating in China think that their local counterparts are on the same level or even better in innovation for the first time, according to a survey co-collected by the European Union’s commerce chamber in China.

Some 61 percent of the respondents from 532 firms answered that Chinese companies are equally competitive in creating goods and services or even superior, which is double the number from a year ago, according to the survey done by the EUCCC and German consultancy firm Roland Berger. This marks the 12th year that the study has been executed.

Ouch.

Alone in the galaxy

The universe is an even bigger waste of space than we had imagined. Some scholars at Oxford reconsider the famous Drake Equation — an attempt at estimating the number of intelligent civilizations in our galaxy — and find that the number of civilizations in the Milky Way is likely no more than one (emphasis mine):

When we take account of realistic uncertainty, replacing point estimates by probability distributions that reflect current scientific understanding, we find no reason to be highly confident that the galaxy (or observable universe) contains other civilizations, and thus no longer find our observations in conflict with our prior probabilities. We found qualitatively similar results through two different methods: using the authors’ assessments of current scientific knowledge bearing on key parameters, and using the divergent estimates of these parameters in the astrobiology literature as a proxy for current scientific uncertainty.

When we update this prior in light of the Fermi observation, we find a substantial probability that we are alone in our galaxy, and perhaps even in our observable universe (53%–99.6% and 39%–85% respectively). ’Where are they?’ — probably extremely far away, and quite possibly beyond the cosmological horizon and forever unreachable.

Thus, the study suggests that we shouldn’t be terribly surprised if we fail to detect any signs of intelligent life in the universe. In a sense, this is reassuring. If the Drake Equation amply explains the cosmic silence, then we can worry a bit less about the hypothesis of a universal Exterminator that wipes out all life forms that get too smart for their own good.

On the other hand, the strong possibility that we are literally alone in the observable universe makes it all the more necessary for humanity to start pushing out into other neighborhoods. So says Musk:

Elon Musk

@elonmusk
· 25 Jun
This is why we must preserve the light of consciousness by becoming a spacefaring civilization & extending life to other planets https://twitter.com/worldandscience/status/1011081640158945280 …

Elon Musk

@elonmusk
It is unknown whether we are the only civilization currently alive in the observable universe, but any chance that we are is added impetus for extending life beyond Earth
10:15 AM – Jun 25, 2018

The USG will likely be too preoccupied with its own problems over the rest of the century to even think about interplanetary colonization. Can the private sector handle it? Or will the US pass the torch of space exploration to its global competitors?

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.