News — At The Edge — 9/2

Summer is at an end and three sets of issues seek attention this week.

  • From the future — AI, blockchain, and artificial life — are things that will soon materialize.
  • From the past — authoritarian China and Russia — are Sisyphean juggernauts in civilizational progress.
  • For the present — surveillance, fake news and exploitable networks — constitute a crown of thorns we need to shed asap.

My most recent article on Medium is entitled, “Ghost of Christmas Past?.” It is about the role biology plays in how we think and act as individuals and as civilization and relates to the artificial life article herein.


Issues from the Future –

Putin: Leader in artificial intelligence will rule world -

“[Putin] said the development of AI raises ‘colossal opportunities and threats [but]…one who becomes the leader in this sphere will be the ruler of the world….[I]t would be strongly undesirable if someone wins a monopolist position….

[Also] predicted that future wars will be fought by drones, and “when one party’s drones are destroyed by drones of another, it will have no other choice but to surrender.”

If blockchains ran the world -

“Lists range from simple checklists to complex databases, but they all have one major drawback: we must trust their keepers. Administrators hold the power….To stop the keepers from going rogue, and catch them if they do….Together, list-keepers and those who watch them form one of the world’s biggest and least noticed industries, the trust business.

Now imagine a parallel universe in which lists have declared independence: they maintain themselves. This, broadly, is the promise of the ‘blockchain’…[a] new type of database…provides proof of who owns what at any given moment. It contains the payment history…[with] encryption makes it theoretically impossible to alter it once a transaction is registered; copies are spread around… so that anybody can check whether something is wrong [and]… turns the blockchain into an independent entity….

Different sorts of self-sufficient lists now abound….[Ethereum] allows users to add ‘smart contracts’, code that encapsulates the terms of a business agreement and is executed automatically….[Everledger] keeps track of valuable assets….

[I]f people’s identity is anchored in one or several blockchains, this would give them more control over it and their personal data…able to band together in virtual countries and set their own rulestogether, these data would form the ‘truth’ about [things]….

[Delaware] is gearing up to allow blockchains for corporate record-keeping….[Also] smart rental contract opens…new ways of sharing things…[and] could take over most routine business processes…forming true virtual firms that live only on a blockchain….

[What’s] called initial coin offerings (ICOs)…[is] an automated form of crowdfunding….Investors can then send…to the smart contract, which automatically creates ‘tokens’ that can be traded like shares. More than $550m has already been invested in ICOs….

EcoBit aims to build a market for carbon credits. Aragon wants to use blockchain tools to manage entire organizations, complete with decentralized arbitration courts….

[Today’s] tech titans are gigantic centralized databases, keeping track of products and purchase histories (Amazon), users and their friends (Facebook), and web content and past search queries (Google). ‘Their value derives from the fact that they control the entire database and get to decide who sees which part of it and when’….[With] decentralized alternatives, such as OpenBazaar, an e-commerce marketplace. Instead of visiting a website, users download a program that directly connects them to other people wanting to buy and sell goods and services.

Others have started to build blockchain-based social networks that pay users who contribute content. Steemit is a blogging-site that allows authors to earn tokens. Synereo lets users tip individual content-providers….

[Another] idea of self-driving cars which are also financially autonomous. Guided by smart contracts, they would stash away some of the digital money they make by ferrying people around, so as to pay for repairs or to replace themselves…. They could issue tokens to raise funds and to allow owners to get part of their profits….

Although the blockchain was created to replace them, central bankers have been interested in the technology from the beginning. When banks share a ledger, rather than keeping their information in separate databases, it will be simpler for regulators to observe financial flows. Several central banks are toying with the idea of issuing their own crypto-currency…[and] would open up new possibilities for monetary policy. To increase demand in an economic crisis, for instance, the coins could be programmed to lose some of their value if they are not spent within a certain time….

A bigger issue is institutional resistance….Corporate departments are not willing to give up control of their lists because it means a loss of power….For now, conventional payment services appear more efficient….Politics will also be a hurdle….If distributed ledgers indeed disrupt the trust business, then a lot of administrative jobs will be lost, perhaps even more than through artificial intelligence….

’Each time we use a distributed ledger we participate in a shift of power from central authorities to non-hierarchical and peer-to-peer structures’….Then there is the concern that hard, cold blockchains and contracts too smart for their own good will ossify society — or make it run amok.”

Will AI Enable the Third Stage of Life on Earth? -

“[Must] define life very broadly…as a process that can retain its complexity and replicate…[not] matter (made of atoms) but information (made of bits) specifying how the atoms are arranged….

[So] think of life as a self-replicating information-processing system whose information (software) determines both its behavior and the blueprints for its hardware. Like our universe itself, life gradually grew more complex and interesting [with]…three levels of sophistication: Life 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0.

Earth life first appeared about 4 billion years ago…[and] most successful ones, which soon outcompeted the rest, were able to react to their environment…[as] ‘intelligent agents’: entities that collect information about their environment from sensors and then process this information to decide how to act back on their environment….

[So] bacteria are an example of what I’ll call Life 1.0: life where both the hardware and software have evolved rather than being designed. You and I, on the other hand, are examples of Life 2.0: life whose hardware has evolved but whose software is largely designed. By your software, I mean all the algorithms and knowledge that you use to process the information from your senses and decide what to do….

High intelligence requires both lots of hardware (made of atoms) and lots of software (made of bits)….[T]he fact that most of our human software is added after birth (through learning) is useful, since our ultimate intelligence isn’t limited by how much information can be transmitted…

DNA, 1.0-style. I weigh about 25 times more than when I was born, and the synaptic connections that link the neurons in my brain can store about a hundred thousand times more information than the DNA that I was born with. Your synapses store…100 terabytes’ worth of information, while your DNA stores merely about a gigabyte, barely enough for a single movie download….

The ability to design its software enables Life 2.0 to be not only smarter than Life 1.0, but also more flexible. If the environment changes, 1.0 can adapt only by slowly evolving over many generations. Life 2.0, on the other hand, can adapt almost instantly via a software update….By developing brain software capable of producing technology…enabled Life 2.0 to dominate Earth….This ever-faster cultural evolution of our shared software has emerged as the dominant force shaping our future as humans, rendering our glacially slow biological evolution almost irrelevant.

Yet despite the most powerful technologies we have today, all life forms we know of remain fundamentally limited by their biological hardware…. All this requires life to undergo a final upgrade to Life 3.0, which can design not only its software but also its hardware. In other words, Life 3.0 is the master of its own destiny, finally fully free from its evolutionary shackles.

The boundaries between the three stages of life are slightly fuzzy. If bacteria are Life 1.0 and humans are Life 2.0…might classify mice as 1.1….[ Similarly] today’s humans should count as Life 2.1…[with] hardware upgrades such as implanting artificial teeth, knees and pacemakers, but [not]…10 times taller….

[So] we can divide the development of life into three stages, distinguished by life’s ability to design itself: • Life 1.0 (biological stage): evolves its hardware and software • Life 2.0 (cultural stage): evolves its hardware, designs much of its software • Life 3.0 (technological stage): designs its hardware and software…[and] may arrive during…our lifetime, spawned by progress in AI.

Issues from the Past –

China doubles down on real-name registration laws, forbidding anonymous online posts -

“China’s crackdown on Internet freedom is getting even more intense…[as] censor announced a new set of regulations …to eliminate posts by anonymous users…[and] Internet companies and service providers are responsible for requesting and verifying real names from users when they register and must immediately report illegal content to the authorities….

[Another law] requires tech companies to store important data on servers within China…[making] it easier for the government to track and persecute Internet users…[and] specified what content is forbidden from being published online…[and] list is so broad that it can cover almost anything….

VPNs to access blocked sites like Facebook and Twitter was relatively easy until earlier this year when the government began a crackdown….. China is taking a multi-pronged approach as it doubles down on censorship, placing more pressure on international publishers as well.”

Putin’s weird war gets ever riskier -

“September 14, Russia…largest military exercise since the Cold War…[so] Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and elsewhere, officials are openly concerned…[about] drills near their borders will be used as cover for a military attack….

Putin sees both conventional and nuclear posturing as a useful tool to reassert Moscow’s status as a world power and intimidate nearby enemies…. Western governments understand that any direct conflict between Russia and the West would prove disastrous….

Kremlin media machine that relentlessly pushes the message that Moscow must assert itself to avoid being surrounded and impoverished — and paints the West as chaotic, corrupt and Machiavellian….U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency…[says] senior Russian leaders genuinely believed Washington was intent on toppling them….

[At] end of the Cold War, Western leaders took the deliberate decision to pull Moscow into the West’s economic structures to cement peace. The latest round of sanctions may be the final nail in the coffin of that approach….

Last week, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis announced the government is considering supplying lethal weaponry to Ukraine…[and] Russian bombers probed Japanese and South Korean airspace. Moscow is encouraging Russian tourism to North Korea, inevitably complicating any U.S. decision to conduct military action on the peninsula….

Russian-linked ‘bots’ — believed to be largely automated Twitter feeds — were observed spreading far-right messaging both before and after the white supremacist demonstrations in Charlottesville… and criticism of U.S. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster…[who] accused Moscow, and Putin in particular, of trying to ‘break apart Europe’ with propaganda and disinformation….

In his early years in power, Putin’s authority derived heavily from Russia’s economic prosperity and stability…[now] focuses on his role in restoring the country’s militaristic and national pride….

[All] prefer to confront each other with economic, political and other unorthodox tactics rather than open force….[Drills] follow what is now the traditional Russian pattern of ending with a simulated nuclear strike on an enemy city or military force…Moscow’s way of reminding its neighbors and potential adversaries of just what is at stake if tensions rise too high. The irony is that it will simply guarantee that a nervous world could get even more so.”

Issues for the Present –

Internet providers could easily snoop on your smart home -

“IoT devices often identify themselves voluntarily…by connecting to specific domains or URLs…[but] if they didn’t, there are simple ways of profiling them based on observation….

By watching a sleep tracker, the ISP can see when the user gets in bed and wakes up, perhaps even how well they sleep, whether they get up in the middle of the night and so on….ISP can see when certain devices are in use: the TV, the space heater, the light in the basement, the garage door. By watching the IP security camera traffic, the ISP can see when the camera detects motion, when the user is tuned in to watch their home from afar or when they check archived footage….

[T]hey can collect this stuff and sell it without telling you, since Congress zapped the FCC’s privacy protections….[But] pretty good solution…by transmitting the IoT data through a central hub…effectively camouflage it by transmitting a trickle of junk data at all times.

This traffic shaping, as it’s called, doesn’t prevent the devices from working… but it does make it hard for an attacker to tell signal from noise….[Need] a constant stream of around 40 KB/s …not something everyone can afford, depending on data caps. But that system could easily be improved or made more amenable to people with limited bandwidth.”

Do attempts to legislate against ‘fake news’ recall the tactics of religious censors? -

“[Real] threat that phony news items and the ‘weaponisation’ of information pose to the functioning of democracy….[Germany] imposes fines on social-media companies if they fail to delete ‘illegal’ content within 24 hours. Although ostensibly aimed at hateful or defamatory speech…[blurs] the boundary between statements that would in any case be illegal and a dangerously ill-defined concept of fake news….

[The] law code of Emperor Justinian…sixth century, said of ‘heretics’ or religious dissidents: ‘Let no occasion be offered for them to display the insanity of their obstinate minds.’ Similarly, the invention of the printing press in the 15th century…[church] index of prohibited works, updated…until the 20th century…[and] the champions of liberty who founded the United States did not defend the idea consistently once they gained office….[So] not-so-distant past…certain ways of thinking and speaking were so manifestly dangerous and disruptive to society that they should be prevented in every possible way.

The ‘freedom to be wrong’ is a new and precarious concept….In our time, there are plenty of ideas that are viewed…not merely wrong but obnoxious and outside the limits of decent discourse: holocaust denial and openly racist or sexist ideas….

As long as the advocates of such ideas stop short of inciting violence, however, well-aimed ridicule and tough counter-argument are generally a better response than jail terms or fines. The most effective answer to fake news is accurate news.”

Even Artificial Neural Networks Can Have Exploitable ‘Backdoors’ -

“[Easy] to embed silent, nasty surprises into artificial neural networks…used for tasks such as recognizing speech or understanding photos…[that] emerge only in response to a very specific, secret signal….

Such ‘backdoors’ could be a problem for companies that want to outsource work on neural networks to third parties, or build products on top of freely available neural networks available online. Both approaches have become more common as interest in machine learning grows…[yet] ‘seems that no one is thinking about this issue’….

[Simply] adding stickers to signs could confuse an image recognition system…[and] the backdoor attack is more powerful and pernicious because it’s possible to choose the exact trigger and its effect on the system’s decision. Potential real-world targets that rely on image recognition include surveillance systems and autonomous vehicles…[or] person, allowing them to escape detection….[Similarly] a speech-recognition system booby-trapped to replace certain words with others if they are uttered by a particular voice or in a particular accent….

[There’s] two different kinds of backdoor [vulnerabilities]….

  1. The first is hidden in a neural network being trained from scratch on a particular task… which could be sprung when a company asks a third party to build it a machine learning system.
  2. The second type of backdoor targets the way engineers sometimes take a neural network trained by someone else and retrain it slightly for the task in hand…[but] remained active even after the system was retrained….

[So] machine learning community needs to adopt standard security practices used to safeguard against software vulnerabilities such as backdoors….

Software using machine learning for military or surveillance applications, such as footage from drones, might be an especially juicy target for such attacks…[and] won’t be long before we start to see attackers trying to exploit vulnerabilities like [these].”

Find more of my ideas on Medium at, A Passion to Evolve.

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May you live long and prosper!
Doc Huston



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