Monday, June 29, 2009

Optional Law

Imagine there was a law that required everyone to pay a $100 tax each year. However, there is no way to find out who paid their tax and who didn't. All the government knows is the total amount of money that comes in and therefore the percent of people paying the tax. Is avoiding this tax ethically justifiable?

I don't mean to suggest that actions are only unethical if you get caught; I don't believe that is the case. When 10 people commit similar crimes and only 9 get caught, that doesn't make it right for the guy who got away. Rather I'm asking whether it's ethical to break a completely unenforceable law. I'm not sure, and perhaps it depends on how heinous the forbidden action is. But our perceptions of right and wrong change over time.

As a concrete example, consider the anti-sodomy laws that many American states had before they were struck down as unconstitutional. These laws restricted the sexual conduct of consenting adults and were virtually impossible to enforce. In the centuries since these laws were first passed, the majority public opinion no longer regards oral and anal sex as immoral.

The general argument against unenforceable laws is that they only punish people honest enough to follow them. In the tax example, both honest and dishonest people would get the benefit of however the nation spent the tax money, but only the honest people paid for it. This is not fair, though even unfairness does not necessarily make ignoring the law ethical. The argument also gets murkier when the law is more than 0% unenforceable, and when the prohibited action has a negative impact on society as a whole. Murder is wrong even if it could never be enforced, for example.

A more recent example is the set of laws against unauthorized music downloads. Music companies don't want people using the things they produce without paying for them, but modern technology has made it very easy for people to do this anyway. The basic structure of the problem looks like this:
  • Party A (the music company) owns the rights to some information.
  • They allow party B (the purchaser) to use this information, but not to distribute it.
  • However, they cannot prevent party B from giving it to party C (the downloader).
At first, music companies tried to stop downloaders, but it's really too difficult to figure out who they are. So the latest tactic has been going after purchasers who distribute the music online. Even that has been very difficult, often requiring subpoenas to ISPs, and these tactics have not substantially increased music company profits or decreased illegal downloading.

The question is whether it's ethical to download music you haven't purchased. There is not much benefit to society from unauthorized downloading, but there is also not much cost. It's true that record companies lose some money from people who would otherwise have paid, but not every downloader was a potential customer. Plus the increased exposure from free downloads has in some cases turned into more paying customers, though I suspect the net effect is still a loss most of the time.

At any rate though, the real problem is that music companies are distributors who can no longer control their product distribution. No amount of legislation can make this business model profitable again; they need to find a new way to add value to customers before customers will give them money again. I'm undecided about whether illegal downloads are ethical. That said, music companies need to suck up the fact that it will happen anyway and stop trying to fix unsolvable problems.

Of course, it's easy for consumers to tell that to music companies, but harder to take that advice yourself. Here's the grand irony: The same people who support legalization of free online music are generally opposed to unauthorized government surveillance. When it's someone else taking their own words without permission, they strangely don't see freedom of information in the same light.

But the government's wiretapping program has clear parallels with music downloads:
  • Party A (music companies or a citizen on a phone) is the owner of information.
  • Party B (music purchasers or the telephone company) was given this information with the understanding it would not be given to people that A did not authorize.
  • Party C (music downloaders or the government) was given the information by party B anyway.
Similarly, it's not clear what the costs and benefits to society are. The government might be making the country more secure, or maybe the information doesn't help. No one wants to have their privacy invaded, so clearly there is a cost, but I'm not convinced the cost is freedom. Using the information as a way to ferret out "unpatriotic citizens" isn't that practical given the volumes of data that need to be analyzed by hand. Government agencies only have so much money to spend, and the biggest threats to national security are not unpatriotic ideas-- they are crazy people with bombs.

The biggest societal danger is of high level politicians trying to access information from specific domestic adversaries and using it for personal gain, but you don't need a massive government program to cull information on just a few thousand civilians. While this danger is real, I suspect it existed well before the Bush administration set up this widespread surveillance program.

So just as I haven't made up my mind about music downloads, I also can't decide on warrantless surveillance of citizens. They seem similar enough that they should both be moral or both be immoral. It's possible to argue for one and not the other, but that's a difficult argument to make; I'm not sure what that argument would be.

But there's one thing I am certain of:

Like the music companies, we should worry about solvable problems, not unsolvable ones.

No amount of legal pressure will have any impact on warrantless wiretapping. If you really care that the government might find out that you're meeting friends for drinks, then don't tell people that over the phone. Certainly you should stop posting it on Twitter. Or alternatively, learn to care just a little less about privacy. In the grand scheme of things, none of us are really that important, so you might as well be happy instead.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Learning to Learn

As a child I didn't care for most kids my age, generally finding adults to be more interesting. As a teenager I realized that not all adults were interesting either. Some adults always had new stories and ideas to share and liked listening as well. Others adults were set in their ways, only repeating the same concepts over and over. In retrospect, I was measuring their open-mindedness. On average it seemed like older adults were more likely to be close-minded, but that wasn't always the case. I knew interesting people in their 50s and boring people in their 20s.

I eventually concluded that the capacity for learning was what made people interesting to me. Adults stopped being interesting when they stopped learning. Most high school kids hadn't learned how to learn. And many adults stopped learning after they left college. This also explained why I got along best with college students and professors, even as a 13 year old. College is the environment that most demands an open mind. As a teenager, I resolved that I would never stop learning, lest I become that same kind of close-minded adult.

Lately I've been reevaluating my for learning. I've been at my current job for close to a year, doing research into helping computers understand natural language. The median degree among my coworkers is a Masters of Science, and there are a number of PhDs working for the company as well. Having an advanced degree generally means you understand your subject matter well, but it has no correlation with your ability to teach the subject to others. Some PhDs are great teachers and some aren't.

In this work situation, there's a lot of opportunities for teaching and learning, and generally it's more challenging than learning in school. Even in college I typically understood things without much effort. I got excellent grades in hard courses while putting in half the study time or less of others. But at work, learning new concepts often takes much more effort than I'm used to. There are a few possible explanations:
  • It's me: My capacity for learning has decreased
  • It's them: Some people aren't very good instructors
  • It's the subject: Research is harder to understand
I spent a lot of time thinking about this and I think the issue is the subject. Learning in school is very different from a work environment. In school, the information is well understood and presented in pre-digested manner. The instructors are paid professionals. Schools are supposed to be ideal learning environments, and while I have issues with the modern schooling system, it generally meets the objective of disseminating information.

Contrast this with learning in research environment. Innovation skill matter more than communication for researchers. And because the very topic is being researched, even the person explaining can have a weaker grasp on the overall concepts being explained. So learning in this situation can involve more than just figuring out what someone is saying. You must also determine what they tried to say and sometimes even what they should have said.

I'm convinced that I need to better learn how to learn. School is good for spoon-feeding information to masses of children, but it won't teach you the art of learning. A good university gives you the opportunity but it's still no guarantee. Learning is more than just obtaining information. It requires synthesizing new concepts from data and extracting data from concepts. A good curriculum draws clear lines between concepts and data, but most people do not. And that's why learning is difficult.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Bring The Future To Pass

I last wrote about the evolution of civilization and wrapped up by concluding that almost all world-changing inventions involve making it easier to move materials and information. The past century in particular has brought astounding technological marvels, far more impressive than the last several thousand years combined. It seems reasonable to conclude that this next century will put the past to shame, as will the one after that.

But what kinds of things can we expect of future civilization? Predictions of future technology are remarkably hit-and-miss. In the 1950s, people were predicting flying cars by the year 2000. But people in the early 1900s also predicted things like email and television. I think the lesson is that it much easier to move information than matter.

So at the risk of being wrong, let me make my own technology predictions for the future:

Abundant Electricity:

There isn't enough oil to provide for more than a few more decades of consumption at current technology levels. And while our coal and uranium supplies can last for a few centuries, they won't last for a few millenia. But since the use of electricity, every major invention has depended on it. The earth can support life for millions of years, but without a more efficient means of generating electricity, humanity won't be able to survive in its current state for long. Better use of nuclear and solar power will help this. But long term, hopefully humanity will develop some kind of new technology like cold fusion, if its even possible.

Artificial Intelligence:

I believe true AI, one that can pass a full turing test, is the ultimate goal of civilization. An artificial intelligence is essentially a thought generation machines. This is an incredible boon for any area of scientific research, as it enables the easy recruitment of able-minded researchers. Estimates on when this can occur range from decades to centuries, but most scientists believe it is possible. I'm in agreement that this is both technically possible and extremely difficult. There is also the distinct possibility that even after the first AI is created, it takes centuries before more than a handful can be created. The energy requirements for this kind of technology could be unimaginably large in today's terms. But if and when it happens, civilization will change forever. Hopefully for the best.

Matter Synthesis:

A large portion of new discoveries depends on very rare or hard to obtain materials. For example, most superconductive materials require extremely strange composites. Or consider the extraction of aluminum. It requires a crystal that can only be found in large quantities at a specific mine in Greenland. The mine is now empty, but a synthetic version of the crystal is an acceptable substitute. And these days, scientists can even turn lead into gold-- they just don't do it because the energy cost is higher than the value of the gold. A low energy method of creating arbitrary elements and basic crystalline structures will go a long way towards ensuring the technologies we develop can be deployed for lower production costs.

Space Elevator:

The earth can sustain life for millions of years, but eventually this planet will become inhospitable. If humans cannot learn to survive in space or on other planets, we will eventually go extinct. And while a few of the richer nations have space exploration programs, we are nowhere near having a real colony in space, much less the moon, mars, or another solar system. The issue is that the cost of even getting things off of Earth is very high. Each pound of cargo costs on the order of $10,000. There is research into cheaper means of propulsion, but the best hope seems to be a space elevator. Conceptually, a space elevator is a structure connected to earth that is high enough that the top is in geosynchronous orbit with the planet. Then goods could simply by hoisted up for a fraction of the current cost. Think of it as the world's largest dumbwaiter. There are some clear technical challenges to a construction like this, but it would mark the beginning of the industrialization of space.

Disposable Electronics:

For decades, people have talked about how extremely portable computing devices could change our lives. Many people have suggested the logical conclusion is the human/computer hybrid known as a cyborg. In other words, humans will be embedded with microprocessors. I actually think this concept is a bit farfetched. This is primarily because the mere suggestion of this technology offends the moral sensibilities of many people, so it has major political obstacles. But there's clear utility to having processing power everywhere, as shown by the popularity of Apple's iPhone. It's more likely that electronic devices will instead get so cheap and thin that they will be everywhere-- built into the side of a can of soda or on the cover of a book, for example. And all of it will have wireless network connections. This sidesteps the discussion of embedding technology in human flesh while meeting the objective of ubiqutious computer interfaces.

All that said, I'm sure there's another dozen things I haven't even considered. This is such a great time to be alive! Celebrate the extreme unlikelihood of having life at such a wonderful time in history and cherish it. When you think about it, each person's life is much better than they give it credit for, simply because it is life.