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Andrés Grases Interviews U.S. Transhumanist Party Chairman Gennady Stolyarov II on Transhumanism and the Transition to the Next Technological Era

Andrés Grases Interviews U.S. Transhumanist Party Chairman Gennady Stolyarov II on Transhumanism and the Transition to the Next Technological Era

Gennady Stolyarov II
Andrés Grases


Andrés Grases, the publisher of the Transhuman Plus website (http://transhumanplus.com/) interviews U.S. Transhumanist Party Chairman Gennady Stolyarov II at RAAD Fest 2018 in San Diego, CA, on September 23, 2018. During the course of this conversation, both the contemporary state of transhumanist politics and future directions are covered – along with the challenges to reforming the educational system, the need to create open access to academic works, the manner in which the transition toward the next era of technologies will occur, the meaning of transhumanism and its applications in the proximate future – including promising advances that we can expect to see during the next several years.

Watch the video here.

Become a member of the U.S. Transhumanist Party for free, no matter where you reside. Apply online here in less than a minute.

Review of Frank Pasquale’s “A Rule of Persons, Not Machines: The Limits of Legal Automation” – Article by Adam Alonzi

Review of Frank Pasquale’s “A Rule of Persons, Not Machines: The Limits of Legal Automation” – Article by Adam Alonzi

Adam Alonzi


From the beginning Frank Pasquale, author of The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information, contends in his new paper “A Rule of Persons, Not Machines: The Limits of Legal Automation” that software, given its brittleness, is not designed to deal with the complexities of taking a case through court and establishing a verdict. As he understands it, an AI cannot deviate far from the rules laid down by its creator. This assumption, which is not even quite right at the present time, only slightly tinges an otherwise erudite, sincere, and balanced coverage of the topic. He does not show much faith in the use of past cases to create datasets for the next generation of paralegals, automated legal services, and, in the more distant future, lawyers and jurists.

Lawrence Zelanik has noted that when taxes were filed entirely on paper, provisions were limited to avoid unreasonably imposing irksome nuances on the average person. Tax-return software has eliminated this “complexity constraint.” He goes on to state that without this the laws, and the software that interprets it, are akin to a “black box” for those who must abide by them. William Gale has said taxes could be easily computed for “non-itemizers.” In other words, the government could use information it already has to present a “bill” to this class of taxpayers, saving time and money for all parties involved. However, simplification does not always align with everyone’s interests. TurboTax’s business, which is built entirely on helping ordinary people navigate the labyrinth is the American federal income tax, noticed a threat to its business model. This prompted it to put together a grassroots campaign to fight such measures. More than just another example of a business protecting its interests, it is an ominous foreshadowing of an escalation scenario that will transpire in many areas if and when legal AI becomes sufficiently advanced.

Pasquale writes: “Technologists cannot assume that computational solutions to one problem will not affect the scope and nature of that problem. Instead, as technology enters fields, problems change, as various parties seek to either entrench or disrupt aspects of the present situation for their own advantage.”

What he is referring to here, in everything but name, is an arms race. The vastly superior computational powers of robot lawyers may make the already perverse incentive to make ever more Byzantine rules ever more attractive to bureaucracies and lawyers. The concern is that the clauses and dependencies hidden within contracts will quickly explode, making them far too detailed even for professionals to make sense of in a reasonable amount of time. Given that this sort of software may become a necessary accoutrement in most or all legal matters means that the demand for it, or for professionals with access to it, will expand greatly at the expense of those who are unwilling or unable to adopt it. This, though Pasquale only hints at it, may lead to greater imbalances in socioeconomic power. On the other hand, he does not consider the possibility of bottom-up open-source (or state-led) efforts to create synthetic public defenders. While this may seem idealistic, it is fairly clear that the open-source model can compete with and, in some areas, outperform proprietary competitors.

It is not unlikely that within subdomains of law that an array of arms races can and will arise between synthetic intelligences. If a lawyer knows its client is guilty, should it squeal? This will change the way jurisprudence works in many countries, but it would seem unwise to program any robot to knowingly lie about whether a crime, particularly a serious one, has been committed – including by omission. If it is fighting against a punishment it deems overly harsh for a given crime, for trespassing to get a closer look at a rabid raccoon or unintentional jaywalking, should it maintain its client’s innocence as a means to an end? A moral consequentialist, seeing no harm was done (or in some instances, could possibly have been done), may persist in pleading innocent. A synthetic lawyer may be more pragmatic than deontological, but it is not entirely correct, and certainly shortsighted, to (mis)characterize AI as only capable of blindly following a set of instructions, like a Fortran program made to compute the nth member of the Fibonacci series.

Human courts are rife with biases: judges give more lenient sentences after taking a lunch break (65% more likely to grant parole – nothing to spit at), attractive defendants are viewed favorably by unwashed juries and trained jurists alike, and the prejudices of all kinds exist against various “out” groups, which can tip the scales in favor of a guilty verdict or to harsher sentences. Why then would someone have an aversion to the introduction of AI into a system that is clearly ruled, in part, by the quirks of human psychology?

DoNotPay is an an app that helps drivers fight parking tickets. It allows drivers with legitimate medical emergencies to gain exemptions. So, as Pasquale says, not only will traffic management be automated, but so will appeals. However, as he cautions, a flesh-and-blood lawyer takes responsibility for bad advice. The DoNotPay not only fails to take responsibility, but “holds its client responsible for when its proprietor is harmed by the interaction.” There is little reason to think machines would do a worse job of adhering to privacy guidelines than human beings unless, as mentioned in the example of a machine ratting on its client, there is some overriding principle that would compel them to divulge the information to protect several people from harm if their diagnosis in some way makes them as a danger in their personal or professional life. Is the client responsible for the mistakes of the robot it has hired? Should the blame not fall upon the firm who has provided the service?

Making a blockchain that could handle the demands of processing purchases and sales, one that takes into account all the relevant variables to make expert judgements on a matter, is no small task. As the infamous disagreement over the meaning of the word “chicken” in Frigaliment v. B.N.S International Sales Group illustrates, the definitions of what anything is can be a bit puzzling. The need to maintain a decent reputation to maintain sales is a strong incentive against knowingly cheating customers, but although cheating tends to be the exception for this reason, it is still necessary to protect against it. As one official on the  Commodity Futures Trading Commission put it, “where a smart contract’s conditions depend upon real-world data (e.g., the price of a commodity future at a given time), agreed-upon outside systems, called oracles, can be developed to monitor and verify prices, performance, or other real-world events.”

Pasquale cites the SEC’s decision to force providers of asset-backed securities to file “downloadable source code in Python.” AmeriCredit responded by saying it  “should not be forced to predict and therefore program every possible slight iteration of all waterfall payments” because its business is “automobile loans, not software development.” AmeriTrade does not seem to be familiar with machine learning. There is a case for making all financial transactions and agreements explicit on an immutable platform like blockchain. There is also a case for making all such code open source, ready to be scrutinized by those with the talents to do so or, in the near future, by those with access to software that can quickly turn it into plain English, Spanish, Mandarin, Bantu, Etruscan, etc.

During the fallout of the 2008 crisis, some homeowners noticed the entities on their foreclosure paperwork did not match the paperwork they received when their mortgages were sold to a trust. According to Dayen (2010) many banks did not fill out the paperwork at all. This seems to be a rather forceful argument in favor of the incorporation of synthetic agents into law practices. Like many futurists Pasquale foresees an increase in “complementary automation.” The cooperation of chess engines with humans can still trounce the best AI out there. This is a commonly cited example of how two (very different) heads are better than one.  Yet going to a lawyer is not like visiting a tailor. People, including fairly delusional ones, know if their clothes fit. Yet they do not know whether they’ve received expert counsel or not – although, the outcome of the case might give them a hint.

Pasquale concludes his paper by asserting that “the rule of law entails a system of social relationships and legitimate governance, not simply the transfer and evaluation of information about behavior.” This is closely related to the doubts expressed at the beginning of the piece about the usefulness of data sets in training legal AI. He then states that those in the legal profession must handle “intractable conflicts of values that repeatedly require thoughtful discretion and negotiation.” This appears to be the legal equivalent of epistemological mysterianism. It stands on still shakier ground than its analogue because it is clear that laws are, or should be, rooted in some set of criteria agreed upon by the members of a given jurisdiction. Shouldn’t the rulings of law makers and the values that inform them be at least partially quantifiable? There are efforts, like EthicsNet, which are trying to prepare datasets and criteria to feed machines in the future (because they will certainly have to be fed by someone!).  There is no doubt that the human touch in law will not be supplanted soon, but the question is whether our intuition should be exalted as guarantee of fairness or a hindrance to moving beyond a legal system bogged down by the baggage of human foibles.

Adam Alonzi is a writer, biotechnologist, documentary maker, futurist, inventor, programmer, and author of the novels A Plank in Reason and Praying for Death: A Zombie Apocalypse. He is an analyst for the Millennium Project, the Head Media Director for BioViva Sciences, and Editor-in-Chief of Radical Science News. Listen to his podcasts here. Read his blog here.

Open Badges and Proficiency-Based Education: A Path to a New Age of Enlightenment – Article by G. Stolyarov II

Open Badges and Proficiency-Based Education: A Path to a New Age of Enlightenment – Article by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
March 9, 2013
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A major and tremendously promising opportunity has emerged to achieve a new Age of Enlightenment through technology and to enable large numbers of people to desire, seek out, and enjoy learning. Open Badges are an initiative spearheaded by Mozilla but made available to virtually any organization in an open-source, non-restrictive manner. Open Badges can make learning appealing to many by rewarding concrete and discrete achievements – whether it be mastering a skill, performing a specific task, participating in an event, meeting a certain set of standards, or possessing a valuable combination of “soft skills” that might otherwise go unrecognized.  But even beyond this, Open Badges allow for the portability of skill recognition in a manner that far outperforms the compartmentalization present in many of today’s formal institutions of schooling, accreditation, and employment. Individuals would no longer need to “prove themselves” anew every time they interact with a new institution.

Open Badges are still in their infancy, but you can begin participating in this exciting movement and earning your badges today. Based on the economic understanding of network effects, the more people actively use Open Badges, the more opportunities will become available through the system. An introduction to open badges (along with the opportunity to try out the system and earn several badges) can be found at OpenBadges.org. For a more detailed discussion, Dave Walter’s paper “Open Badges: Portable rewards for learner achievements” is recommended. (This paper, too, will enable you to earn a badge.)

Various organizations already issue badges. To immerse yourself in the earning of Open Badges, you will be able to find several introductory badges on the Badge Bingo page from Codery. For badges that can demonstrate some basic skills, the Mozilla Webmaker series enables earners to validate their basic HTML coding knowledge. For individuals and organizations seeking to issue their own badges, sites such as Credly offer an easy way to create and grant these awards.

Mozilla Backpack can currently be used to host and share the badges, though other compatible systems also exist or are in development. Mozilla Backpack gives you the option to accept, reject, and classify badges into various “collections”. For instance, you can see a collection of all the Open Badges I have earned so far here, and a more skill-specific subset – all of my Mozilla Webmaker Badges – here. In a future world where badges will exist for a wide variety of competencies, one could imagine linking a prospective employer, business partner, educator, or online discussion partner to a page that documents one’s skills and knowledge relevant to the exchange being contemplated. Unlike a resume, whose value is unfortunately diminished by those dishonest enough to present falsehoods about their past, Open Badges are more robust, because they include metadata linking back to the issuer and containing a brief description of the criteria for earning the badge. Moreover, Mozilla Backpack offers you complete control over which badges you allow to be publicly visible, so you remain in control over what you emphasize and how.

Open Badges make possible a development I had anticipated and hoped to partake in for years: proficiency-based education. I have only known about Open Badges for less than a week at the time of writing this article. Serendipitously, I learned of their existence while reading “Ubiquity U: The Rise of Disruptive Learning” by Mark Frazier, and I was so intrigued that I embarked that same day on intensive research regarding Open Badges and the current status of their implementation. In the next several days, I strove to discover as many issuers of Open Badges as I could and to earn as many badges as I could feasibly obtain within a short timeframe.

However, my earlier writings have looked forward to the availability of this type of innovation. As a futurist, I take pride in having been able to accurately describe the future in this respect.

In February 2013, in “The Modularization of Activity” (here, here, and here), I wrote that “Education could be greatly improved by decoupling it from classrooms, stiff metal chair-desks, dormitories, bullies, enforced conformity, and one-size-fits-all instruction aimed at the lowest common denominator. The Internet has already begun to break down the ‘traditional’ model of schooling, a dysfunctional morass that our culture inherited from the theological universities of the Middle Ages, with some tweaks made during the mid-nineteenth century in order to train obedient soldiers and factory workers for the then-emerging nation-states. The complete breakdown of the classroom model cannot come too soon. Even more urgent is the breakdown of the paradigm of overpriced hard-copy textbooks, which thrive on rent-seeking arrangements with formal educational institutions. Traditional schooling should be replaced by a flexible model of certifications that could be attained through a variety of means: online study, apprenticeship, tutoring, and completion of projects with real-world impact. A further major breakthrough might be the replacement of protracted degree programs with more targeted ‘competency’ training in particular skills – which could be combined in any way a person deems fit. Instead of attaining a degree in mathematics, a person could instead choose to earn any combination of competencies in various techniques of integration, differential equations, abstract algebra, combinatorics, topology, or a number of other sub-fields. These competencies – perhaps hundreds of them in mathematics alone – could be mixed with any number of competencies from other broadly defined fields. A single person could become a certified expert in integration by parts, Baroque composition, the economic law of comparative advantage, and the history of France during the Napoleonic Wars, among several hundreds of relatively compact other areas of focus. Reputable online databases could keep track of individuals’ competencies and render them available for viewing by anyone with whom the individual shares them – from employers to casual acquaintances. This would be a much more realistic way of signaling one’s genuine skills and knowledge. Today, a four-year degree in X does not tell prospective employers, business partners, or other associates much, except perhaps that a person is sufficiently competent at reading, writing, and following directions as to not be expelled from a college or university.”

Even earlier, in 2008, I offered, as a starting point for discussion, an outline of my idea of proficiency-based education to PRAXIS, the Hillsdale College student society for political economy and economics. Below is my (very slightly expanded) outline. It pleases me greatly that the infrastructure to support my idea now exists, and I hope to contribute to its widespread implementation in the coming years.

Proficiency-Based Education: A Spontaneous-Order Approach to Learning

Outline by Gennady Stolyarov II from September 2008

The Status Quo

– Shortcomings of classroom-based education – “one size fits all”

– Shortcomings of course-based education – difficulty accommodating individual skills, interests, and learning pace. Grades lead to stigma of failure instead of iterative learning.

– Information problem of communicating one’s qualifications

– Negative cultural effects of segregating people by age and by generation – i.e., the “teen culture” generation gap

– Factory-based education system versus meaningful individualized education

Proficiency-Based Education

– Proficiencies replace courses.

– Proficiency levels replace grades.

– Proficiencies are easily visible and communicable to employers.

– Proficiencies are transferable by those who have them, up to their level of proficiency.

Emergence of Proficiency-Based Education

Can be done privately by individuals or firms

– Can be done in person or on the Internet

– Can be done within and outside the university system

– Can be done for pay or for free

– People with proficiencies can pass the proficiencies on to their children/relatives/friends

– Incentives exist to restrict transfer of proficiencies to qualified persons.

– Networks of providers of Proficiency-Based Education can form. It will not be a centrally planned or directed system.

Advantages of Proficiency-Based Education

– Faster learning

– More individually tailored learning

– Ease of displaying one’s exact set of skills

– More hiring will be based on merit, since merit will be easier to see and verify.

– Indoctrination in politically or socially favored but objectively absurd notions will be much more difficult.

– The “teen culture” will disappear. Young people will be better integrated into adult society and will assume meaningful rights and responsibilities sooner.

– Proficiency-Based Education takes full advantage of all existing technologies, leading to a more technologically literate population with greater ability to control and improve the world.

– Greater integration of theory and practice and market selection of ideas that tend to bring about useful practical results

***

Open Badges provide the mechanism to coordinate the many thousands of competency-based or proficiency-based certifications and other achievements that I envision. While the processes leading to the demonstration of competency or accomplishment can be undertaken in any way that is convenient – online or in person – it is essential to have a universally usable digital system documenting and affirming the achievement. The system should be compatible with most websites and organizations and should not be locked down by “proprietary” protections. Proficiency-based education can only work if the educational platform is not inextricably attached to any particular provider of certifications, or else the very use of the proficiency system will remain compartmentalized and inapplicable to vast areas of human endeavor.

The free, open-source, and user-driven design of Open Badges provides exactly these desirable characteristics. At the same time, while Open Badges are free to create and issue, individual badges can be designed and offered by organizations that offer paid instruction – so that even traditional classes could be revolutionized by the introduction of competency-based elements, perhaps as a replacement for grades or, in the interim, as a mechanism for earning a grade. With the latter method, to get an “A” in a course or on a project, one would not need to pass a timed exam where every wrong answer constitutes a permanent reduction of one’s grade. Rather, one would need to earn certain kinds of badges demonstrating the completion of course objectives.

The motivational aspect of Open Badges stems from the immense engagement that is possible as a result of visible, incremental progress. This same motivating tendency explains the tremendous popularity of computer games. (Indeed, one initiative, 3D Game Lab, is developing an explicit educational computer game that will allow integration with coursework and Open Badges.) By enabling the earning of granular achievements (similar to “achievement” in a computer game), Open Badges keep learners focused on honing their skill sets and pursuing concrete objectives. At the same time, Open Badges facilitate creative approaches to learning and recognize the diversity of optimal individualized learning paths by leaving the choice of activities and their sequence entirely up to individual badge earners.

If billions of humans could become “addicted” to learning in the same way that some are said to be “addicted” to computer games, our civilization would experience a rapid transformation in a mere few years. Technological progress, institutional innovation, and the general level of human decency and morality would soar to unprecedented levels, at an ever-accelerating pace. Age-old menaces to our civilization, arising from pervasive human failings and institutional flaws, could finally be eradicated through vastly enhanced knowledge and a voluntary, enticing channeling of many people’s desires and enjoyments into highly productive paths that produce “positive externalities” (to use the jargon of economists). Open Badges, proficiency-based education, and the addition of game-based learning elements (up to and including full-fledged games, like the Mars Curiosity Activity from Starlite Digital Badges – just a hint of what is to come) can enable humankind to make decisive strides in its efforts to build up our civilization and beat back the forces of death, decay, and ruin.