All posts by Sean Korb

The work of 10

I’ve gone from curious and impressed to enraged on the turn of just a few words. I’m watching a Super Computing plenary session that I posted earlier. An enthusiastic researcher at Intel was talking breathlessly about all the incredible advances in simulation and automation and taking on so much mental drudgery…

“that will free up so much human time to pursue higher endeavors”.

I think it’s clear that this is *not*ever*going*to*happen unless we completely rethink what is the value of work, what is the value of labor. What is the value of being human?

It the most immediate level, automation just gives most of us time to simply take on more tasks. Perform the work of 10 with greater accuracy and lower cost. Sure it is stressful and painful, but your healthcare will offset the damage done to your body and mind.

When scaling it out just a *little* we can see that 9 people are now out of work. Even with skills, who is going to pay them to do the task of 1? They will ask them to do the tasks of 10, of course.

We have a limited number of things even with *artificial* wants and needs like iPhones and 52 inch screens and massage chairs. Basic needs like housing and food are out of reach for the people that didn’t or couldn’t take on the job of 10. There are only so many soda machines to refill and hallways to mop.

And then with only a few people doing all the work and nobody to *buy* iPhones and TVs and cans of soda… everything contracts. There are no more markets or the markets that are left are supporting a shrinking population of automaton tenders.

Where *is* this leisure time that we’re all going to have? Where *is* the higher endeavor that we are setting our now freed mind to?

Where is it?


Probably a good time to take stock. I had my yearly evaluation today at work and I did not do as well this year as last year. But I can do better next year with an expanded team so I can excel in my talents.

But what are those talents? What do I want to be when I grow up? I’m a big fish in a small pond for being a sysadmin, and yet there are scientists all around me, some with advanced CS degrees so there is really no end of adventure. I don’t want to be promoted up or even moved into other positions. I’m in the right place doing the right things and my position is probably just going to expand so I get to… grow in place. I’ve gone from 4 computers to 400 to 4000 in just over a decade so the future is bright indeed.

But are those my dreams? If I was at SAS I could move across a little but it would mostly be the same. I like what I do and I am best at what I do so I’m just going to do it. I have interesting hobbies and interests. I am never bored, though I am frequently stressed.

I still see research into AI and robotics as my ultimate dream. But the risks and costs keep me from pursuing them. Mr. Rogers saw being a Broadway Musical writer as his ultimate dream, and though he did not pursue that, he was more successful than he could have imagined. But I would *love* to throw my curious and inventive self into simulation of thought and motive action. We’re probably at least 80 years from having enough computing power to be really interesting but it would be fun to have a go at it. There are really only a few places to do that sort of thing and I love Raleigh too much to leave it. I’m getting older and I need to build a retirement nest over the next couple of decades and grad school is super expensive especially where cutting edge AI research is done.

Settling and wondering what might have been may be a satisfactory path. Basking in ennui is kind of my thing too

Dreaming of IT/IS

I had a dream this morning that I had an urgent need to visit Duke OIT for an operational issue. In the dreams, the hallowed halls really did look hallowed with high ceilings and wood grain somehow completely unlike an old Tobacco warehouse or concrete building. I arrived with my team to a below-floor lobby and the directory did not include “Server Room” or any label associated with computing offices, though I knew I was in the right place. I finally asked someone and I was pointed down the hall which looked a little more drab institutional and was informed that a business-recovery class/test was in progress.

I looked down from the gallery to see students walking ankle deep in clean water, and below them was a 40 foot Monopoly game board with silver game pieces representing servers, services, network and physical and abstract objects. They were recovering items in the right order, but the backup tapes were already soaked. The backup server itself was not under water so that was retrieved next.

I awoke to rain beating softly on my roof, with the realization that I had left my truck windows open overnight.

The battery in my Civic was dead.

Flying Cars

There is an utterly charming scene in The 5th Element where Dallas is vended Ramen outside his 93rd story efficiency by a flying boat.  Everyone had flying cars in NYC but in the future that will never happen.  Well, if it did happen it would by necessity be by autonomous robots programmed to not run into each other.  Humans are not up to the task.  We have 6,000,000 accidents every year in the US and that number would not double given the third dimension of movement.  It would be a geometric multiplier to 36,000,000,000,000.  The freedom would not be worth the risk.

It doesn’t matter.  People will stop driving for the most part except to see other people which I hope will become a popular pastime. But I do wonder.  Most of the time we drive to get to work or to run errands.  We will never run errands anymore since if you can afford goods and services they will come to you.  Instead of going out to get eggs, a pod will show up (probably at the street) with eggs, not because you ordered them but because the AI has harvested your data in real time and has crossed a threshold where it predicts you will need eggs.  You don’t even have to wait for your refrigerator to order them for you.  This is kind of awesome but it will be routine.

Because we won’t have grocery stores or big box stores or manufacturing or manually manufactured fast food or sustainable food, very few will have jobs.  Just a few robot minders and some very wealthy individuals that are confused about why their wealth is dwindling with nobody left to prop it up.

The robots have made us very productive but they also usher in dwindling employment and almost no employment for people without higher education and marketable minds.  I didn’t say intelligent or creative… these are potentials for everyone.  Marketable is something that has emerged forcefully in our culture and it is not going away.

Until we tame it.  We need to look at the value of being human, the value of labor and the value of dignity and the value of survival.  We refuse the conversation since we imagine this utopia where robots give us leisure time and an entertaining survivable chaos of ramen delivered to our tiny     apartment romantically eking out a living driving a flying taxi chanting “just work hard and you can make a go of it”.

It’s not going to happen unless we make it happen.

Letter to John Searle

My chances of meeting a philosophy professor casually have been dashed forever with the demise of Sadlacks, but 20 (ugh) years ago I took a Philosophy of Mind course at NCSU. I didn’t do too well I thought and squeaked out a B. I wasn’t a Philosophy major so I would casually use rhetorical arguments instead of rigorous proof in my essays. Someone that caught me particularly was John Searle and I knew intuitively that I had to tear down his arguments. But that was not what was required from the class. It’s interesting to see that Searle backed off from his Chinese Experiment a bit and I had always wanted to talk to him about it because I thought at scale, if there were billions of Chinese rooms fulfilling different algorithms on external data, they might be running a consciousness program… and then how do you prove that organism was or was not conscious?

I always thought of him as an unpleasant person but after watching him on video last year I found him to be an absolute charmer. A very pleasant and engaging personality. There are still some points that I just don’t know how I could agree with him on but in general he seemed most delightful indeed. I recently took a trip to California and my friend suggested I attempt to contact him… but aside from my chickening out entirely the logistics of my stay were centred around my not putting a lot of effort into my entertainment.

So a blog post will do for now 🙂

The Mercenary Class

Money has always been involved in Politics, but now that there is so *much* money being spent on politicians and administrators it is clear that something must be done.  Citizens United is simply illegal.  Corporations are not people because they do not represent them in any functional way.  They only represent the corporate interest.  The people are quite separate for what they want, save for the desire of employment.

And computers are to blame for this.  Directly.  If we didn’t have mass communications (computers) and tracking abilities (computers) with measurable results to meet or exceed milestones without conscience or moral (computers) then people in charge would be able to take a step back and make a moral and ethical decision.  But when faced with a verifiable and accurate balance sheet, what choice do they have?  Their investors will (rightly) sue the errant firm.

And this is why we can pay our corporate experts enormous bonuses when they leave the private sector for the public sector.  They are paid to do their job: represent the interests of the firm.  Mercenaries.  And elected officials can track contributions by interested donors.  And the maximum contribution is an implicit call for access.  Mercenaries.  And appointees chosen by contribution or by lobbied interest is soaking with money.  Mercenaries.

They are all mercenaries and they are paid to do a job.  Very nice of them to give us occasional opportunities to vote (and for some, pay) for their favorite mercenary.

I saw Nancy Peloci on The Daily Show a while back and it was surreal watching her squirm under Jon Stewart’s interrogations.  After all, he was supposed to be lobbing softballs, but she was prepared.  The contortions she would go through to paint the Republicans as corporate whores while Democrats were clean as the driven snow was at times bizarre and all the time irritating.

Republicans have the refreshing attitude that if firms are contributing that is good for them, good for their party and good for America.  In fact, taxation should be abolished and firms should provide those services as the market provides.   I don’t agree, but at least they don’t lie or gloss over it.


Is A.I. consciousness useful?

One of the scenarios for and AI achieving the illusion of consciousness is with a high speed multilayered neural network.  These are often laid out as row after row of neurons (really only 4, 5 or 6 rows since the computing complexity becomes extremely daunting) and “trained” on some input.  For instance, linking each dendrite to a pixel on the screen and reward or punish recognition of five pointed stars.  With increasing complexity, it is possible to build an entire artificial nervous system this way.

Now consciousness isn’t something we can well train for.  How do you train for something that we have but the faintest glimmering of what it is?  Does an AI even require consciousness to have intelligence?

Say we train the simple network to recognize the 5 pointed star.  If we dissect the network; maybe we can decipher it a bit to see a visualization of what it is able to recognize.  Do we have an understanding of what it means for the network to “visualize” it?  Is that what it is doing?  What is the program?  What is the algorithm for that?  How can we understand the semantics of the trained dendrites?   All we’ve done is encoded the data so that we “see” what the network has calculated as a recognized pattern.

Now what about something as complex as consciousness?  As syntax and semantics? As fear or love?  If the AI had all of those, could we decode it?  Could we understand it?

What is the point of building a conscious being if we still do not understand what it means to be conscious?  What can we learn?  Could we build one smart enough to tell us what it means and answer our fundamental questions that drive humanity to discover and search?

I think we will in fact learn quite a bit though sceptics will continue to  scoff since it is a mere machine.  Finding out how someone else thinks is delightful and educational.  A completely alien mind would offer new avenues for inquiry.  But it would, like everything else we discover, only lead to more questions.

Computer Lab

My second computer job was working for The United Way as their Computer Instructor for disadvantaged children.  The program I was helping with gathered children at The Learning Center after school and the employees and volunteers helped children with their homework.  If they were successful they could do arts and crafts or the computer room where I would administer educational software. If they were particularly good and completed the assigned lessons I would let them play computer games.  We had a fairly new set of 3 Commodore 64 machines some with floppies and one with a tape drive input and cartridges.

The children had to go through a screening process to determine need and any potential behaviour problems.   This job was one of three part time jobs I had at just above minimum wage and I understood poverty pretty well.  But even though we were well matched in income we were not matched in class.  I had many advantages they didn’t, not the least of which was being the right sex and color.  I had lots of encouragement.  All my family, all my friends, all the people in my church and people I met in the grocery or buying gas;  all the authorities, teachers and coworkers thought if I wanted to do better I would and didn’t write me off.

The people I was helping were on the wrong side of town, sequestered in low rent housing and relegated to only a few activities that they had time to participate in and even less money to work with.  Any disruption to their lives like a medical problem, a layoff or the betrayal of a loved one would send them sinking even lower.   It is *very* hard to crawl out of that and be successful and many don’t make it.  Many are not encouraged and even the institution I was working for might exclude them if they didn’t have the resources to be sure their children and their own commitments could make it through the screening process.

Not everyone is an entrepreneur.  Janitorial duty is not romanticized in books and theatre.  Nanny work is often just written about in passing to show the wealth of an employer or as a foil in an illicit affair.  Basic clerical duty is very difficult but there are few heroes.  Being a chef is finally getting some respect but I was always told to go to college to avoid working in fast food.  Now if I got laid off I’d be asked why I feel like I’m too good to work fast food.

There area  lot of people in poverty.  Many of them children.  Helping them is not trapping them in a cycle of poverty.  It’s simply helping them.  If the government does it that doesn’t somehow taint it and delivers an effective method to allow everyone to contribute including the very wealthy.  If we’re going to break the cycle of poverty, we have to break through the barriers that separate us by class.

Work from home

Now that we always have a business class computing device on our person, work is expected even during natural disasters or sickness.  You can’t simple call in “sick” or call in “earthquake”.  If you have battery power left you have to qualify it as “too sick to actually work” rather than too sick to come spread disease at the office.

We can never escape work.  We keep up with work regularly just to be sure everything is going well in our absence.  When working for a global company, we can check in and though not rewarded we “check in” to be sure questions are answered and all stays on track.

Well, “not rewarded” may be too strong.  We are not punished by a deluge of email if we maintain regular communication.