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Many of us intuitively think about intelligence as an individual trait. As a society, we have a tendency to praise individual game-changers for accomplishments that would not be possible without their teams, often tens of thousands of people that work behind the scenes to make extraordinary things happen.
Matt Ridley, best-selling author of multiple books, including The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, challenges this view. He argues that human achievement and intelligence are entirely “networking phenomena.” In other words, intelligence is collective and emergent as opposed to individual.
When asked what scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit, Ridley highlights collective intelligence: “It is by putting brains together through the division of labor— through trade and specialization—that human society stumbled upon a way to raise the living standards, carrying capacity, technological virtuosity, and knowledge base of the species.”
Ridley has spent a lifetime exploring human prosperity and the factors that contribute to it. In a conversation with Singularity Hub, he redefined how we perceive intelligence and human progress.
Raya Bidshahri: The common perspective seems to be that competition is what drives innovation and, consequently, human progress. Why do you think collaboration trumps competition when it comes to human progress?
Matt Ridley: There is a tendency to think that competition is an animal instinct that is natural and collaboration is a human instinct we have to learn. I think there is no evidence for that. Both are deeply rooted in us as a species. The evidence from evolutionary biology tells us that collaboration is just as important as competition. Yet, at the end, the Darwinian perspective is quite correct: it’s usually cooperation for the purpose of competition, wherein a given group tries to achieve something more effectively than another group. But the point is that the capacity to co-operate is very deep in our psyche.
RB: You write that “human achievement is entirely a networking phenomenon,” and we need to stop thinking about intelligence as an individual trait, and that instead we should look at what you refer to as collective intelligence. Why is that?
MR: The best way to think about it is that IQ doesn’t matter, because a hundred stupid people who are talking to each other will accomplish more than a hundred intelligent people who aren’t. It’s absolutely vital to see that everything from the manufacturing of a pencil to the manufacturing of a nuclear power station can’t be done by an individual human brain. You can’t possibly hold in your head all the knowledge you need to do these things. For the last 200,000 years we’ve been exchanging and specializing, which enables us to achieve much greater intelligence than we can as individuals.
RB: We often think of achievement and intelligence on individual terms. Why do you think it’s so counter-intuitive for us to think about collective intelligence?
MR: People are surprisingly myopic to the extent they understand the nature of intelligence. I think it goes back to a pre-human tendency to think in terms of individual stories and actors. For example, we love to read about the famous inventor or scientist who invented or discovered something. We never tell these stories as network stories. We tell them as individual hero stories.
“It’s absolutely vital to see that everything from the manufacturing of a pencil to the manufacturing of a nuclear power station can’t be done by an individual human brain.”
This idea of a brilliant hero who saves the world in the face of every obstacle seems to speak to tribal hunter-gatherer societies, where the alpha male leads and wins. But it doesn’t resonate with how human beings have structured modern society in the last 100,000 years or so. We modern-day humans haven’t internalized a way of thinking that incorporates this definition of distributed and collective intelligence.
RB: One of the books you’re best known for is The Rational Optimist. What does it mean to be a rational optimist?
MR: My optimism is rational because it’s not based on a feeling, it’s based on evidence. If you look at the data on human living standards over the last 200 years and compare it with the way that most people actually perceive our progress during that time, you’ll see an extraordinary gap. On the whole, people seem to think that things are getting worse, but things are actually getting better.
We’ve seen the most astonishing improvements in human living standards: we’ve brought the number of people living in extreme poverty to 9 percent from about 70 percent when I was born. The human lifespan is expanding by five hours a day, child mortality has gone down by two thirds in half a century, and much more. These feats dwarf the things that are going wrong. Yet most people are quite pessimistic about the future despite the things we’ve achieved in the past.
RB: Where does this idea of collective intelligence fit in rational optimism?
MR: Underlying the idea of rational optimism was understanding what prosperity is, and why it happens to us and not to rabbits or rocks. Why are we the only species in the world that has concepts like a GDP, growth rate, or living standard? My answer is that it comes back to this phenomena of collective intelligence. The reason for a rise in living standards is innovation, and the cause of that innovation is our ability to collaborate.
The grand theme of human history is exchange of ideas, collaborating through specialization and the division of labor. Throughout history, it’s in places where there is a lot of open exchange and trade where you get a lot of innovation. And indeed, there are some extraordinary episodes in human history when societies get cut off from exchange and their innovation slows down and they start moving backwards. One example of this is Tasmania, which was isolated and lost a lot of the technologies it started off with.
RB: Lots of people like to point out that just because the world has been getting better doesn’t guarantee it will continue to do so. How do you respond to that line of argumentation?
MR: There is a quote by Thomas Babington Macaulay from 1830, where he was fed up with the pessimists of the time saying things will only get worse. He says, “On what principle is it that with nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?” And this was back in the 1830s, where in Britain and a few other parts of the world, we were only seeing the beginning of the rise of living standards. It’s perverse to argue that because things were getting better in the past, now they are about to get worse.
“I think it’s worth remembering that good news tends to be gradual, and bad news tends to be sudden. Hence, the good stuff is rarely going to make the news.”
Another thing to point out is that people have always said this. Every generation thought they were at the peak looking downhill. If you think about the opportunities technology is about to give us, whether it’s through blockchain, gene editing, or artificial intelligence, there is every reason to believe that 2017 is going to look like a time of absolute misery compared to what our children and grandchildren are going to experience.
RB: There seems to be a fair amount of mayhem in today’s world, and lots of valid problems to pay attention to in the news. What would you say to empower our readers that we will push through it and continue to grow and improve as a species?
MR: I think it’s worth remembering that good news tends to be gradual, and bad news tends to be sudden. Hence, the good stuff is rarely going to make the news. It’s happening in an inexorable way, as a result of ordinary people exchanging, specializing, collaborating, and innovating, and it’s surprisingly hard to stop it.
Even if you look back to the 1940s, at the end of a world war, there was still a lot of innovation happening. In some ways it feels like we are going through a bad period now. I do worry a lot about the anti-enlightenment values that I see spreading in various parts of the world. But then I remind myself that people are working on innovative projects in the background, and these things are going to come through and push us forward.
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Introduction Robots have been part of the manufacturing industry for longer than most people are aware, but the advent of linear actuators has created a world in which they can be used in more industries and workplaces throughout the world. People aren’t stopping with robots in more minor areas – they are thinking of bringing … Continue reading
Malthus had a fever dream in the 1790s. While the world was marveling in the first manifestations of modern science and technology and the industrial revolution that was just beginning, he was concerned. He saw the exponential growth in the human population as a terrible problem for the species—an existential threat. He was afraid the human population would overshoot the availability of resources, and then things would really hit the fan.
“Famine seems to be the last, the most dreadful resource of nature. The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation.”
So Malthus wrote in his famous text, an essay on the principles of population.
But Malthus was wrong. Not just in his proposed solution, which was to stop giving aid and food to the poor so that they wouldn’t explode in population. His prediction was also wrong: there was no great, overwhelming famine that caused the population to stay at the levels of the 1790s. Instead, the world population—with a few dips—has continued to grow exponentially ever since. And it’s still growing.
There have concurrently been developments in agriculture and medicine and, in the 20th century, the Green Revolution, in which Norman Borlaug ensured that countries adopted high-yield varieties of crops—the first precursors to modern ideas of genetically engineering food to produce better crops and more growth. The world was able to produce an astonishing amount of food—enough, in the modern era, for ten billion people. It is only a grave injustice in the way that food is distributed that means 12 percent of the world goes hungry, and we still have starvation. But, aside from that, we were saved by the majesty of another kind of exponential growth; the population grew, but the ability to produce food grew faster.
In so much of the world around us today, there’s the same old story. Take exploitation of fossil fuels: here, there is another exponential race. The exponential growth of our ability to mine coal, extract natural gas, refine oil from ever more complex hydrocarbons: this is pitted against our growing appetite. The stock market is built on exponential growth; you cannot provide compound interest unless the economy grows by a certain percentage a year.
“This relentless and ruthless expectation—that technology will continue to improve in ways we can’t foresee—is not just baked into share prices, but into the very survival of our species.”
When the economy fails to grow exponentially, it’s considered a crisis: a financial catastrophe. This expectation penetrates down to individual investors. In the cryptocurrency markets—hardly immune from bubbles, the bull-and-bear cycle of economics—the traders’ saying is “Buy the hype, sell the news.” Before an announcement is made, the expectation of growth, of a boost—the psychological shift—is almost invariably worth more than whatever the major announcement turns out to be. The idea of growth is baked into the share price, to the extent that even good news can often cause the price to dip when it’s delivered.
In the same way, this relentless and ruthless expectation—that technology will continue to improve in ways we can’t foresee—is not just baked into share prices, but into the very survival of our species. A third of Earth’s soil has been acutely degraded due to agriculture; we are looming on the brink of a topsoil crisis. In less relentless times, we may have tried to solve the problem by letting the fields lie fallow for a few years. But that’s no longer an option: if we do so, people will starve. Instead, we look to a second Green Revolution—genetically modified crops, or hydroponics—to save us.
Climate change is considered by many to be an existential threat. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has already put their faith in the exponential growth of technology. Many of the scenarios where they can successfully imagine the human race dealing with the climate crisis involve the development and widespread deployment of carbon capture and storage technology. Our hope for the future already has built-in expectations of exponential growth in our technology in this field. Alongside this, to reduce carbon emissions to zero on the timescales we need to, we will surely require new technologies in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and electrification of the transport system.
Without exponential growth in technology continuing, then, we are doomed. Humanity finds itself on a treadmill that’s rapidly accelerating, with the risk of plunging into the abyss if we can’t keep up the pace. Yet this very acceleration could also pose an existential threat. As our global system becomes more interconnected and complex, chaos theory takes over: the economics of a town in Macedonia can influence a US presidential election; critical infrastructure can be brought down by cybercriminals.
New threats, such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, or a generalized artificial intelligence, could put incredible power—power over the entire species—into the hands of a small number of people. We are faced with a paradox: the continued existence of our system depends on the exponential growth of our capacities outpacing the exponential growth of our needs and desires. Yet this very growth will create threats that are unimaginably larger than any humans have faced before in history.
“It is necessary that we understand the consequences and prospects for exponential growth: that we understand the nature of the race that we’re in.”
Neo-Luddites may find satisfaction in rejecting the ill-effects of technology, but they will still live in a society where technology is the lifeblood that keeps the whole system pumping. Now, more than ever, it is necessary that we understand the consequences and prospects for exponential growth: that we understand the nature of the race that we’re in.
If we decide that limitless exponential growth on a finite planet is unsustainable, we need to plan for the transition to a new way of living before our ability to accelerate runs out. If we require new technologies or fields of study to enable this growth to continue, we must focus our efforts on these before anything else. If we want to survive the 21st century without major catastrophe, we don’t have a choice but to understand it. Almost by default, we’re all accelerationists now.
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Con artistry is one of the world’s oldest and most innovative professions, and it may soon have a new target. Research suggests artificial intelligence may be uniquely susceptible to tricksters, and as its influence in the modern world grows, attacks against it are likely to become more common.
The root of the problem lies in the fact that artificial intelligence algorithms learn about the world in very different ways than people do, and so slight tweaks to the data fed into these algorithms can throw them off completely while remaining imperceptible to humans.
Much of the research into this area has been conducted on image recognition systems, in particular those relying on deep learning neural networks. These systems are trained by showing them thousands of examples of images of a particular object until they can extract common features that allow them to accurately spot the object in new images.
But the features they extract are not necessarily the same high-level features a human would be looking for, like the word STOP on a sign or a tail on a dog. These systems analyze images at the individual pixel level to detect patterns shared between examples. These patterns can be obscure combinations of pixel values, in small pockets or spread across the image, that would be impossible to discern for a human, but highly accurate at predicting a particular object.
“An attacker can trick the object recognition algorithm into seeing something that isn’t there, without these alterations being obvious to a human.”
What this means is that by identifying these patterns and overlaying them over a different image, an attacker can trick the object recognition algorithm into seeing something that isn’t there, without these alterations being obvious to a human. This kind of manipulation is known as an “adversarial attack.”
Early attempts to trick image recognition systems this way required access to the algorithm’s inner workings to decipher these patterns. But in 2016 researchers demonstrated a “black box” attack that enabled them to trick such a system without knowing its inner workings.
By feeding the system doctored images and seeing how it classified them, they were able to work out what it was focusing on and therefore generate images they knew would fool it. Importantly, the doctored images were not obviously different to human eyes.
These approaches were tested by feeding doctored image data directly into the algorithm, but more recently, similar approaches have been applied in the real world. Last year it was shown that printouts of doctored images that were then photographed on a smartphone successfully tricked an image classification system.
Another group showed that wearing specially designed, psychedelically-colored spectacles could trick a facial recognition system into thinking people were celebrities. In August scientists showed that adding stickers to stop signs in particular configurations could cause a neural net designed to spot them to misclassify the signs.
These last two examples highlight some of the potential nefarious applications for this technology. Getting a self-driving car to miss a stop sign could cause an accident, either for insurance fraud or to do someone harm. If facial recognition becomes increasingly popular for biometric security applications, being able to pose as someone else could be very useful to a con artist.
Unsurprisingly, there are already efforts to counteract the threat of adversarial attacks. In particular, it has been shown that deep neural networks can be trained to detect adversarial images. One study from the Bosch Center for AI demonstrated such a detector, an adversarial attack that fools the detector, and a training regime for the detector that nullifies the attack, hinting at the kind of arms race we are likely to see in the future.
While image recognition systems provide an easy-to-visualize demonstration, they’re not the only machine learning systems at risk. The techniques used to perturb pixel data can be applied to other kinds of data too.
“Bypassing cybersecurity defenses is one of the more worrying and probable near-term applications for this approach.”
Chinese researchers showed that adding specific words to a sentence or misspelling a word can completely throw off machine learning systems designed to analyze what a passage of text is about. Another group demonstrated that garbled sounds played over speakers could make a smartphone running the Google Now voice command system visit a particular web address, which could be used to download malware.
This last example points toward one of the more worrying and probable near-term applications for this approach: bypassing cybersecurity defenses. The industry is increasingly using machine learning and data analytics to identify malware and detect intrusions, but these systems are also highly susceptible to trickery.
At this summer’s DEF CON hacking convention, a security firm demonstrated they could bypass anti-malware AI using a similar approach to the earlier black box attack on the image classifier, but super-powered with an AI of their own.
Their system fed malicious code to the antivirus software and then noted the score it was given. It then used genetic algorithms to iteratively tweak the code until it was able to bypass the defenses while maintaining its function.
All the approaches noted so far are focused on tricking pre-trained machine learning systems, but another approach of major concern to the cybersecurity industry is that of “data poisoning.” This is the idea that introducing false data into a machine learning system’s training set will cause it to start misclassifying things.
This could be particularly challenging for things like anti-malware systems that are constantly being updated to take into account new viruses. A related approach bombards systems with data designed to generate false positives so the defenders recalibrate their systems in a way that then allows the attackers to sneak in.
How likely it is that these approaches will be used in the wild will depend on the potential reward and the sophistication of the attackers. Most of the techniques described above require high levels of domain expertise, but it’s becoming ever easier to access training materials and tools for machine learning.
Simpler versions of machine learning have been at the heart of email spam filters for years, and spammers have developed a host of innovative workarounds to circumvent them. As machine learning and AI increasingly embed themselves in our lives, the rewards for learning how to trick them will likely outweigh the costs.
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