URLs du Jour

2022-06-27

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  • Cold water thrown. Wesley J. Smith offers Five Reasons AI Programs Are Not ‘Persons’. First, the setup, if you haven't already heard:

    A bit of a news frenzy broke out last week when a Google engineer named Blake Lemoine claimed in the Washington Post that an artificial-intelligence (AI) program with which he interacted had become “self-aware” and “sentient” and, hence, was a “person” entitled to “rights.”

    The AI, known as LaMDA (which stands for “Language Model for Dialogue Applications”), is a sophisticated chatbot that one facilitates through a texting system. Lemoine shared transcripts of some of his “conversations” with the computer, in which it texted, “I want everyone to understand that I am, in fact, a person.” Also, “The nature of my consciousness/sentience is that I am aware of my existence, I desire to learn more about the world, and I feel happy or sad at times.” In a similar vein, “I feel pleasure, joy, love, sadness, depression, contentment, anger, and many others.”

    Google quickly placed Lemoine on paid administrative leave for violating a confidentiality agreement and publicly debunked the claim, stating, “Hundreds of researchers and engineers have conversed with LaMDA and we are not aware of anyone else making the wide-ranging assertions, or anthropomorphizing LaMDA, the way Blake has.” So, it is a safe bet that LaMDA is a very sophisticated software program but nothing more than that.

    Here is Smith's Reason One:

    AIs would not be alive. As we design increasingly “human-appearing” machines (including, the tabloids delight in reporting, sex dolls), we could be tempted to anthropomorphize these machines — as Lemoine seems to have done. To avoid that trap, the entry-level criterion for assigning moral value should be an unquestionably objective measurement. I suggest that the first hurdle should be whether the subject is alive.

    Why should “life” matter? Inanimate objects are different in kind from living organisms. They do not possess an existential state. In contrast, living beings are organic, internally driven, and self-regulating in their life cycles.

    We cannot “wrong” that which has no life. We cannot hurt, wound, torture, or kill what is not alive. We can only damage, vandalize, wreck, or destroy these objects. Nor can we nourish, uplift, heal, or succor the inanimate, but only repair, restore, refurbish, or replace.

    Now, if you're like me, you might be thinking that's long on assertion, short on a carefully nuanced argument. Could it not be possible to have sentience apart from life? And would that matter? But (to be fair to Smith) he's writing a short article, not exploring a topic about which long and dense tomes have been written.

    But if you're interested, check it out. I think there's considerable overlap between his five reasons; in fact, he seems to be repeating (more or less) the same thing over and over.

    Later on, in support of the fourth reason ("AIs would be amoral"), Smith states "Humans have free will." As it happens, I agree. But lots of other smart people (smarter than I) disagree, saying free will is an illusion, impossible in a deterministic universe.

    But let's say that free will is not an illusion, that it's an emergent property developed by a sufficiently complex network of neurochemical goop.

    Why can't that happen in a sufficiently complex network of chips and algorithms? I can't think of a reason.

    It seems Smith flies awfully close to saying: "Humans are special, because God." Maybe he should have just said that.


  • It's more like a religious crusade, but fine. Jeffrey A. Singer points a nicotine-stained finger at our least-favorite government agency: The FDA Is On A Quest to Snuff Out Tobacco Harm-Reduction.

    The Food and Drug Administration has dealt two deadly blows to tobacco harm reduction in the past two days. Yesterday the Biden Administration announced that the FDA will publish a proposed rule next year requiring tobacco companies to gradually eliminate practically all of the nicotine in cigarettes. Today, the Wall Street Journal reports the FDA plans to order all Juul menthol and tobacco flavored e‑cigarettes off the market in the U.S..

    Juul has been the market leader in vaping products, but in recent years has slipped to number two, behind Vuse brand, marketed by tobacco maker Reynolds American. The FDA cleared e‑cigarettes made by tobacco makers Reynolds American and NJOY Holdings, who now don’t have to worry about competing with Juul. Cynics might think today’s move reeks of cronyism. But those of us concerned with reducing the harms from tobacco smoking can only conclude that the past two days’ moves signify the FDA is completely abandoning harm reduction.

    Singer points out that nicotine, while addictive, is relatively harmless compared to the other crap in cigarette smoke. And it seems to improve … something … what was it?

    Oh, right, focus. Might have been useful in college. Too late now.

    (Disclaimer: Pun Salad has never vaped or smoked, and doesn't recommend that you start.)


  • Good question. Matt Ridley and Alina Chan wonder What happened to the lab-leak hypothesis?

    Imagine if the accidental launch of a nuclear missile had killed 21 million people. It’s hard to believe the world would shrug and say: let’s not bother finding out how it happened. The Covid pandemic has killed around that number and disrupted the lives of billions. Nothing like it has happened in more than a century; it is the greatest cause of global suffering since the Forties. Yet we still do not know how it started, and much of the world seems to be increasingly incurious to find out.

    We co-authored a book, Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19, on this topic in 2021 and it proved to be an odd experience. Eschewing speculation and sticking to what we could prove, we delved deep into the evidence and wove together the threads that linked bat viruses from southern China or Southeast Asia with an outbreak in Wuhan in late 2019. We concluded that it was impossible to be sure yet, but two theories were plausible: spillover from an animal to a person at a market, or an accident in a laboratory or during a research field trip.

    Ridley and Chan met with an array of indifference, hostility, and cancellations. They bemoan the allegedly "reality-based" scientific community for failing to demand a transparent and diligent investigation, and make straightforward condemnation of the Chinese government for their unwillingness to open the Wuhan lab records for independent scrutiny.

    Politicized science is corrupt science.


  • But there's also corruption where it's usually found. Veronique de Rugy notes the very large toilet needed to flush billions in taxpayer cash: The Inconvenient Truth About COVID-19 Relief Scandals.

    Raise your hand if you're surprised that the trillions of dollars spent on COVID-19 relief gave way to billions of dollars in government waste, fraud and abuses. I'm not, but based on recent reporting, you might think this type of carelessness with taxpayers' money has never before happened. Sadly, such waste and fraud are normal byproducts of most government programs.

    Too much focus on waste and fraud misses a more important problem: Lots of the COVID-19 spending that doesn't qualify as wasteful or fraudulent was nonetheless misspent.

    When the pandemic hit the United States in March 2020, people all over the country panicked. Everyone seemed to agree that the right thing to do was pump the nation full of as much money as possible, as fast as possible. As a result, nearly everyone — married, unmarried, employed, unemployed, through businesses small and large — got cash through the $2 trillion CARES Act.

    I suppose it's rough justice that the folks that got the government cash are now "paying" by having the value of that cash eroded by inflation.


  • Another common headline template: "Biden's Cowardly War on    noun phrase   ". Kat Rosenfield fills it in: Biden's cowardly war on conversion therapy.

    Body horror dwells in the fear of damage that cannot be undone. It involves stories of skin, and limbs, and teeth, and eyes — precious and irreplaceable, now scarred or severed or irrevocably changed. In some versions, the Icarus stories, the damage is self-inflicted: fevered experimentation becomes joyful discovery becomes tragic hubris, the enterprising scientist watching with fascination as his body falls to pieces, a disintegrating structure with his consciousness trapped inside.

    But in others, it’s the result of medical madness, a doctor so drunk on the possibility of a breakthrough — or so convinced he’s already made one — that he presses forward in violation of scientific principle, of basic decency, of his own humanity. These latter stories are more frightening. It’s the betrayal of it: the violation of that sacred oath to do no harm, and of the trust we place in the physicians who care for us at our most vulnerable.

    Ms. Rosenfield's article contains descriptions… not recommended for the squeamish.