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Letter sent on Oct 9, 2016

Future Imperfect #41: Against Referendums

Welcome to Future Imperfect! I’ve taken a couple weeks off to recharge, but I’m back, and will be writing on a bi-monthly schedule moving forward. This week I’ve been reading about the year of the referendum, chatbots as memorials, and the ethics of autonomous vehicles. Oh, and a complete and utter trainwreck.

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Against Referendums

Referendums seem, on the surface, to be the ultimate manifestation of democratic norms. A question, put directly to voters, is put to an up or down vote. No politicians as middlemen, and (theoretically) no wiggle room for governments to avoid the result. Unfortunately, in reality it doesn’t quite work so well. From Brexit to FARC, 2016 has become a nightmarish year for the referendum.

The latest shock results came on Oct. 2, when Hungary voted on whether to accept quotas for resettling refugees — with the overwhelming majority voting no. On the same day, the world woke up to the shock that Colombian voters had rejected a peace deal to end the country’s bitter 52-year civil war.
Hungary’s plebiscite was over a plan by the EU to force it to resettle just 1,294 refugees. The government called on voters to reject EU quotas for resettling asylum seekers currently held in camps. The results of the referendum was overwhelming — nearly 98% of participants voted against EU refugee resettlement quotas — but invalid, as only 43.9% of the Hungarian electorate voted…
Meanwhile, halfway across the world, Colombia voted on a deal to end a civil war that lasted half a century, killing at least 220,000 people and displacing more than 7 million.
The government was able to broker a peace deal with FARC, the country’s largest left-wing guerrilla group, which settles a range of issues such as political power and drug trafficking. The deal was rejected by the narrowest of margins (less than 0.5%) — leaving a nation, and the rest of the world, in shock (paywall).
Those referendums followed the biggest surprise of all earlier this year, when Britain voted to leave the European Union in late June, ignoring broad economic consensus that such a decision would be disastrous for the country. Though at least it was a clear majority — 52%, or 17 million people, voted to leave the EU.

Why does this matter? The reason that referendums are getting such unusual results may be the result of human nature. We simply do not want to be tied down to a single question, or a single factor when making our decisions. So you’ll see people vote against referendums, not because they are opposed to the question, but because they dislike the government, or because the opposition campaign has tied unrelated issues to the referendum in their rhetoric.

Perhaps it’s time to pause before we put even more critical issues up for a vote? I mean, isn’t this why we elect representatives in the first place?

The ghost in the messaging app

Maybe we should abandon the dream of actual immortality via download into computers, and accept virtual immortality through a personalized messaging bot? I strongly recommend you read the full piece from The Verge—it’s hard to summarize the whole here. I’ll just leave you with the the conclusion:

It has been less than a year since Mazurenko died, and he continues to loom large in the lives of the people who knew him. When they miss him, they send messages to his avatar, and they feel closer to him when they do. “There was a lot I didn’t know about my child,” Roman’s mother told me. “But now that I can read about what he thought about different subjects, I’m getting to know him more. This gives the illusion that he’s here now.”
Her eyes welled with tears, but as our interview ended her voice was strong. “I want to repeat that I’m very grateful that I have this,” she said.
Our conversation reminded me of something Dima Ustinov had said to me this spring, about the way we now transcend our physical forms. “The person is not just a body, a set of arms and legs, and a computer,” he said. “It’s much more than that.” Ustinov compared Mazurenko’s life to a pebble thrown into a stream — the ripples, he said, continue outward in every direction. His friend had simply taken a new form. “We are still in the process of meeting Roman,” Ustinov said. “It’s beautiful.”

The Moral Machine

Check out this interactive from MIT on the moral judgements that autonomous vehicles may have to make in the future. Do you value passengers over pedestrians? Children over adults? Women over men? High-value occupations over retired citizens? Try it out and get your score!

In a recap from Mashable, some trends have emerged:

So far, most of the judgments from users lean toward saving more female than male lives, saving younger people before the elderly, and saving humans over pets. However, when it comes to the question of protecting passengers versus pedestrians, players were split roughly 50/50.

Why does this matter? Any autonomous vehicle will need to be able to make these decisions in an instant—and we’re all invested in the outcome. Better to make this a society-level conversation than one made by a few executives in a back room.

The Void

This week in Terraform, the ever expanding void of our deepest nightmares.

Back at the LaQuinta I run a washcloth under the hot spigot. Placing it on my face I lay down on the bed listening to the television drone on an infomercial. I keep the lights on but it does no good. When my eyes close, when the dream arrives, I see the streams of sulfur and Gulf of Mexico disappear deep into the silent void before me. I look for masses of resistance, outcroppings, formations, but I find none. Cars and buildings vanish in wavering lines. I search for a ridge that could be formed to stop the widening pit. But there is none.
The next morning they’ve moved the command center further away from the hole, beside a black train idling on the line, yellowed by molten sulfur with nowhere to go.
“It’s growin’,” the new manager says to me from our front stoop. He tongues some dip in his lip and spits into a Speedway cup.
“Hundred feet now,” I say, casually measuring from our distance behind the new shades I keep on to hide the oozing pit on my face.
“I’d reckon 120 or so.” He spits into the cup, wiping some brown drool from his thin lips. We walk out onto the pile past pink topped stakes designating every ten feet. A helicopter rings us overhead in a persistent bleat, louder than the plant, which is still functioning, still turning out phosphate. A cascade of sandy soil descends into the gaping hole like a broken hourglass spilled into infinity.
“Think it’ll stop anytime soon?”
He still has hope.

GIF of the Week: Hurricanes are no joke

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