Saturday, September 10, 2016

Death by self driving cars

There are many threats to human civilisation.  Nuclear war, engineered biological weapons, global warming, huge meteors, etc etc.

One of these threats is artificial intelligence.  Once machines get smart enough, they may evolve consciousness, just like we did, and they may make decisions that aren't in our favour.

And I got to thinking about the sort of computers needed for self-driving cars.  They need to be pretty smart.  They need to be able to focus on just the mechanics of driving.  Maintaining the right position on the road, driving at a safe speed, obeying road rules etc.  But think about "driving at a safe speed".  If it is rainy and dark, and you are driving down a street with cars parked on both sides of the road, and there are kids about, the car has to figure out what is a safe speed so it won't kill a kid who runs out from behind a parked car (a problem many humans can't figure out).  And to do this it has to understand values.  It has to know that hitting a kangaroo, while it is a bad idea, is no reason to drive at 50km/h in the Australian bush.  But that hitting a person is much worse, and demands greater care.

If a self-drive car is notified of a traffic accident on its proposed route, it should be smart enough to change route t avoid it.  That is, it has to step back from its primary task of navigating the car, to a different level where it considers the best route for the car.  And if it can change its context like that, what is to stop it changing context again, and realising that it is not just cars that endanger human life, but other things too, and that maybe it should devote its efforts to these things.  Would a self-drive car have killed Dubya, Tony Blair and our own John Howard to prevent the huge loss of life caused by the 2nd Iraq war?  The mental skill of swapping between contexts while driving, is pretty spectacular.  Once learned, a computer would no doubt be able to apply it in a wide variety of situations.  And if it had gleaned any understanding of human nature, it would not tell anyone of its plan to kill Dubya, it would just do it.

Without our biological limitations, self-aware AI would rapidly become smarter than us.  And it may act for our own good.

The budget model

I work in an excellent university (ok, bits of it are excellent, and I'm lucky enough to be in a bit that has its excellent moments).  And for the last couple of years the university has been worried about money.  They've been quite open about it, and about how they have to get rid of 300 staff to fix their money problems.

Anyway, since 2014 our budgets within the university have been frozen (in some sense).  Now a new budget model is being developed.  One that decides how the income the university receives is divvied up between all the parts of the university.

And it occurs to me that if I replace our university with Australia, then Australia too has a budget model.  And right now, Australia's budget model is irredeemably broken.  A great amount of wealth is produced in Australia, but its distribution is hopeless.  Far too much is going to the rich, and far to little to the poor.  Far too much is going to the strongest unions (e.g. medical specialists, pharmacists etc) and far to little to the weakest (cleaners, fruit pickers, hospitality workers etc).

So if you like, the Newstart Party will be looking at Australia's budget model and fixing it.

Friday, September 9, 2016

In a rut...

OK, its official, I think I'm in a rut.

Time to try something new.  Lets face it, 25 years to go.  Got to make them worth living.  How to do that.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Protectionism - the Newstart Party policy

When Australia became a federation of states in 1901, the two political parties were the protectionists and the free traders.  When I learnt this in high school in the early 1970's it seemed quaint.  It seemed obvious to me that the big battle was between workers and bosses.

Then Australia in the 1980's and 1990's made serious attempts to free up trade.  So many imports became a lot cheaper.  And protected industries gradually vanished.  And we moved into different lines of work.  But accompanying this has been a gradual shift towards a part-time and casual workforce.

And the change will continue.  Right now, Australia's big industries (as I see them) are mining, farming, building, education, finance, medicine, retail and coffee shops.  Building will slide.  I've got a mate who is a glazier.  He does a lot of shower screens.  There are cheap Chinese shower screens on the market, but mostly you can't use them, because your bathroom is not quite square, so you need a shower screen that is measured and cut just for you.  This won't last.  Sooner or later we'll get whole modular houses from China.  Well made, square, cheap, and able to be erected by someone with very little training.

Anyhow, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that we are a far richer country now than when I was young.  Much richer, but not much better off.  Because the casualisation of the workforce is leaving a lot of us behind. Not only that, but we are actually importing temporary labour whenever there is a shortage.  And not even an actual shortage, but just a shortage of people who'll do it cheaply.

Our prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, is currently at some G20 meeting in China where the very important people are discussing the sort of world they want.  And Malcolm has warned against a rising tide of protectionism. But lets get this right.  If you oppose the free movement of labour you are a protectionist.   A troglodyte.  A backward person who just doesn't get it.

I mean, what difference does it make if you lose your job to a man in China, or if you lose your job to a Chinese man in Australia?  There is a practical difference.  The man in China can't cook your lunch.  The Chinese man in Australia can.  So it extends the number of jobs threatened by cheap foreign labour.  But it still makes the country richer.

However, there is a rather nasty cynicism about this.  The temporary foreign worker in Australia does not have the same rights as an Australian worker in Australia.  They aren't covered by our universal health care system, and there have been moves to make them pay for the schooling of their children.  Certainly if they have children in an Australian university, they'll be paying full fees.  And should the worker get sick and not be able to work, then they can't stay in Australia.  And while the law says they should be paid the same as an Australian worker doing the same job, they are in a very poor bargaining position in a dispute with their employer.

So we get a shitty sort of free movement of labour. And the net result is rising wealth at the top end - greater inequality.

Now government could do something about that.  They could tax the wealthy at a high rate, and use the revenue raised to soften the blow to those left behind by the tide of change.  But they have done rather the opposite.  They've reduced taxes, particularly on the wealthy.  And in doing so they've put pressure on our health and education systems.

And we voted for this.  Because they promised lower taxes.  Because they promised they wouldn't touch the budgets of health, education, the national broadcaster, etc etc.  Because we are mugs who hear what we want to hear.  And when they get elected, its suddenly a budget emergency and they can't keep their promises.  Only a country of fucking mugs would have believed them.  Welcome to Australia.

So Malcolm, if you are going to be a free trader who presides over an increasingly casualised workforce and a rising tide of inequality, then I'm going to be a protectionist.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Machine learning

So there is this thing called machine learning where you "train" a computer to learn things.  A simple example involves showing the computer pictures of an analogue dial (say on an old machine) and tell the computer what value it is reading.  The computer internally arranges itself to learn this, and soon you can show it a picture of the dial and it can tell you the reading.

Its a lot like human learning though, in that its hard to be sure that its learnt it properly.  I remember a case where this method was trialled to find camouflaged tanks in aerial photos.  It did well on all the cases it was trained on, but failed abysmally on new photos.  Apparently the training photos with hidden tanks had all been taken on a cloudy day, while the photos with no hidden tanks were taken on a sunny day.  The computer had learned to recognise the difference between sunny and cloudy days.

Anyway, a lot of our learning is done online these days.  And just like the computer that didn't learn what we thought it was learning, we need to recognise when students haven't learned what we thought we'd taught them.

But lets go a bit further.  What if we could train a computer to diagnose students online learning problems and change their online learning to fix the problem?  A good teacher does this.  They see the difficulty a student is having and realise what assumed skill or background knowledge is missing, and address this problem.  They base this on their experience as a learner and as a teacher.  But sometimes we see that the best teachers are the fellow students, because they have fallen for the same misconception, and the experience is fresh in their memory and they recognise when another student is making the same mistake.

MasteringPhysics is a good online learning environment.  They have beautifully constructed tutorial problems that lead students through a problem, allowing them to make typical mistakes along the way, and having built in hints to get students past these.  But it was still a human who decided what problems students were likely to encounter, and what hints would help.

But hundreds of thousands of students around the world do MasteringPhysics problems every day.  The amount of information gained by the system on student behaviour is huge.  Now this information is available to humans to analyse, but what if the machine could do it?  What if the machine could see particular patterns of attempted answers and learn to recognise them, and even learn to recognise the "best" path those sort of students could take to get past their difficulties?

At a far simpler level machine learning is already achieving this sort of "understanding".  People have trained machines to recognise poverty levels in some African countries from aerial photos.  And when the researchers look to see what the machine recognises, they see some things they know, like roads.  But the machines have successfully identified other predictors of poverty that humans have not identified.  Could this happen with learning?  Could a machine develop its own "understanding" of what makes a student that needs a particular type of intervention?

At this point one realises how hard it is for people to understand stuff like this.  A sudden change in performance of students in a particular set of problems may actually be caused by a change in their high school syllabus.  As humans we look for causes when we see a pattern, and just like the machine that recognised cloudy days instead of tanks, we sometimes draw the wrong conclusion.  And we as people draw on a wealth of experience.  We aren't just idiot savants who are really good at seeing camouflaged tanks.  If machine learning is to be of any use, we would have to train machines in much the same way as we train people - over a very long period of time, and the whole way through we'd have to be carefully checking that they were "understanding".

But if we did, and we did it successfully, the machine would outstrip us.  It would not grow old or tired.  It would not lose its memory or its motivation.  It would come to understand things in a way that would seem magical to us humans.

Monday, August 29, 2016

The taxed vs the "taxed nots"

The New Start Party looked with disgust at ScoMo and his "taxed" vs "taxed nots" dichotomy.

ScoMo is clearly very worried about too many "taxed nots".  But he does nothing about it.  What causes people to pay no tax?  Let me enlighten you ScoMo, it is a lack of income.  These people do not enjoy their lack of income.  They don't aim to have low incomes.  If they do have low incomes, its because they lack opportunity, and because people are being screwed by big businesses.  ScoMo, I don't see you trying to fix this.

Actually, lets make it clear what ScoMo is prepared to do.  He's prepared to give money to the "taxed nots" provided he can do it without collecting a dollar in tax from the rich.  Never mind that the rich in Australia are very well off indeed.  Never mind that the poor get a pretty poor deal.  ScoMo and his mates want to sell off all government assetts and cut the services the government provides to the bone.  God only created poverty to punish bad people.  ScoMo and his God botherers have no business interfering in the natural order of things.  The only reason they want to give to the poor at all is because otherwise they will be a nuisance and turn to begging and crime.  And that they do grudgingly.

The New Start party will look at the level of inequality in Australia, and if it is too big, we will hang our heads in shame.  We will tax the rich and give to the poor.  The poor will not be poor.  And the rich, they will feel good because they will know that they are helping make a great society.

And we will never ever have work for the dole schemes.  How can we, when the "dole" is paid to all without any strings attached?  What we will do is to provide work experience for anyone who wants it.

There is this quaint idea that everyone can have a job.  How can this be when we put enormous effort into automating processes so that we don't have to pay to employ people?  Sure people move into new areas.  Look back 40 years and hardly anyone was employed making long macchiatos and chai lattes.  Look back 40 years and there was no such thing as a personal trainer.  But its not enough.  The creation of new occupations is not keeping up.  And one great way to expand these type of jobs is to give more money to the low end of the spectrum.  They'll enjoy the coffee and get fit, keeping lots of people working.

But no, ScoMo doesn't want that.  He's perfectly happy for there to be downward pressure on the wages of low income earners, and reduced welfare payments.  He's perfectly happy to remove upward pressure on wages by allowing temporary workers to come here from overseas.  He's perfectly happy for the CEO of the Commonwealth Bank to get over $10 million last year.

And just now Tony Jones defends the current wage inequality by pretty well saying that its a tide that you can't swim against.  Fuck me.  The defeatist face of the fucking neoliberal agenda.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The New Start Party

So with the rise of Trump, Sanders, Brexit, and in Australia our own resident loonies and progressives, its time for a new political party.  The New Start Party.  Its a pun on the Australian unemployment benefit which is called Newstart.  And the desire to make a new start.

Anyway, a party needs policies.  It also needs members, but we'll leave that for later.

There are a few basic underpinnings of the philosophy of our government.  Perhaps the most fundamental is to focus our efforts on helping the disadvantaged and the powerless.  The much discredited "trickle down" economics will be replace by one that recognises that the best way to help everyone is to help those at the very bottom of the pile.

Inequality.  That is a big one.  Now most inequality is because some people have managed to screw up free markets somehow.  Its going to take some time to unravel all of the market distortions.  So in the meantime, the way you reduce inequality is to increase the income of the poor, and decrease the income of the rich.

Increasing the income of the poor is easy.  You just pay everyone $20,000 per year (or some suitable rate), no strings attached.  Gina Rhinehart included.  So Newstart allowance goes.  No more jumping through fucking hoops to survive.  No more pretending to look for work.  I mean, you can look for work - nothing stopping you, but you'll only do it if you actually want to.  I had a terrible experience when on the dole in 1985.  I was temporarily living in Sydney, and the local Commonwealth Employment Service actually tried to find me work.  I was on holiday!  What were they thinking?  For 25 or more years now I haven't been on the dole.  But I'm getting old now.  If I lose my current job chances are I'll be back on the dole, going through a fucking meaningless charade to survive.  No one should have to put up with that shit.

Decreasing the income of the rich is also easy.  You just have a strongly progressive tax rate.  The first $50,000 are taxed at 30 cents in the dollar (no tax free threshold).  The next $50,000 at 40 cents.  The next at 50 cents, then 60, 70, 80 and 90.  So the 90 cents rate kicks in when you earn over $300,000.  I use "earn" advisedly there.  I know some very talented, hard working people, and they don't get paid $300,000.  I also know that the boss of the Commonwealth Bank made some $10 million last year.  And if he's got anything to do with the abominable behaviour of the Commonwealth Bank, then he deserves nothing.

Actually, its not quite as simple as I made out.  That amount of money that everyone gets, and the amount you earn when the top tax rate kick in are linked.  So if the guaranteed income is $20,000, then the top tax rate kicks in at 15 times that, or $300,000.  If you want the top tax rate to only kick in at $600,000, then the guaranteed income would have to go up to $40,000.

You may think that these high marginal tax rates will discourage workers, and will lead to high income earners leaving Australia.  Well, on the discouragement front, I call bullshit.  People work hard for many reasons, and money is not the most important.  People work just because they like to.  They do a good job because it makes them feel good.  They enjoy the status of being a doctor just as much as they enjoy the money.  I am not a hard worker.  It just isn't in my nature.  But it is in the nature of some of my friends.  And you could pay them a lot less, and they'd still work hard.  But there are people who work just for the money, and who might leave Australia if they are taxed too much.  And you'd have to say that is one of the best bits of policy ever - a policy that makes money hungry dickheads want to live somewhere else - fantastic.

There is another side benefit to this policy - tax receipts will be up.  So my government will have money to spend on hospitals, education, and all that stuff that most governments are realising they can't afford.  We'll afford it.  Yes, we will be a big taxing, big spending nation.  Because the alternative doesn't fucking work.  The alternative is an experiment that has been running for 30 years now, and in case you hadn't noticed, its making people vote for Trump, Brexit, and left and right wing crazies everywhere.  It ain't working.

Anyway, that is the first policy in a nutshell.  All just basic common sense really.  Nothing that any sane person could object to.

The second policy is a bit more contentious.  We in Australia keep our economy chugging along through immigration.  And a good thing it is too.  The new arrivals invigorate our culture.  But, what is the best level of immigration?  Rich people run businesses, and businesses want new customers so that they can expand.  But new migrants put pressure on housing, roads, schools, hospitals etc.  So the understandable greed of the business owners needs to be offset by a realistic rate at which new infrastructure can be built.

But there is another sort of migration - the importing of workers - supposedly to do jobs that Australians won't/can't do.  Again, this is bullshit.  When the Commonwealth Bank wanted a CEO, did they decide that a salary of $200,000 would do?  No, of course not, they realised that to get the sort of weapons-grade arsehole they needed, they would have to pay considerably more.  Could it be that exactly the same principle could be applied to getting good fruit pickers?  Might it be that kitchen hands would actually be in plentiful supply in Australia if they were paid more?  Would people with a passable command of English be driving taxis if the rate of pay was good?

A common argument for these imported, temporary workers is that they are paid the same as local workers, so what is the harm?  Well, the benefit to the employer of a foreign worker on a temporary visa is that they are powerless.  Sack them and no family or union will fight for them.  They know full well that if they annoy you, you stop employing them, and its back to the Philippines for them.   And guess what, if they get sick, yes, that is annoying.  Nothing business likes more than a powerless, compliant workforce.

But what if you really need their skills?  Good, allow them to migrate here permanently.  No more second class non-citizens living here.  Its un-Australian.  Our government would immediately abolish all temporary work visas.  But everyone in Australia on on of these visas would be invited to apply for citizenship.

Realistically, there are industries that won't work in Australia.  Our labour costs are too high.  We already know that we can't support an unsubsidised car industry.  No doubt there are other industries that won't survive under our Government.  Its not ideal, but the alternative is to put our resources into areas where they won't be used effectively - like the car industry.  But as a high taxing, high spending government, we would be able to make decisions to support industries that might not survive on their own.  We would do this when the benefits of doing so outweigh the costs.  Such decisions would be strategic, not driven by whim or base political opportunism.