Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Families and politics - curtailed conversations

Chen and Rohla find that Thanksgiving dinners in which the hosts and guests lived in oppositely voting precincts were up to 50 minutes shorter than same-party-precinct dinner. It seems likely that avoiding talking about contentious subjects lead guests to simply talk less.
Research on growing American political polarization and antipathy primarily studies public institutions and political processes, ignoring private effects, including strained family ties. Using anonymized smartphone-location data and precinct-level voting, we show that Thanksgiving dinners attended by residents from opposing-party precincts were 30 to 50 minutes shorter than same-party dinners. This decline from a mean of 257 minutes survives extensive spatial and demographic controls. Reductions in the duration of Thanksgiving dinner in 2016 tripled for travelers from media markets with heavy political advertising—an effect not observed in 2015—implying a relationship to election-related behavior. Effects appear asymmetric: Although fewer Democratic-precinct residents traveled in 2016 than in 2015, Republican-precinct residents shortened their Thanksgiving dinners by more minutes in response to political differences. Nationwide, 34 million hours of cross-partisan Thanksgiving dinner discourse were lost in 2016 owing to partisan effects.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Tipping points in changing social conventions.

How can we explain the rapid rise of the Nazis in 1930s Germany or the rapid acceptance of gay marriage in the United States? Centola et al. approach this question by doing both modeling and experiments illustrating how a motivated minority can change a social convention. They a system of coordination in which a minority group of actors attempt to disrupt an established equilibrium behavior. In both our theoretical framework and the empirical setting, we adopt the canonical approach of using coordination on a naming convention as a general model for conventional behavior. Our experimental approach is designed to test a broad range of theoretical predictions derived from the existing literature on critical mass dynamics in social conventions.
Here is the Science Magazine summary followed by the abstract:
Once a population has converged on a consensus, how can a group with a minority viewpoint overturn it? Theoretical models have emphasized tipping points, whereby a sufficiently large minority can change the societal norm. Centola et al. devised a system to study this in controlled experiments. Groups of people who had achieved a consensus about the name of a person shown in a picture were individually exposed to a confederate who promoted a different name. The only incentive was to coordinate. When the number of confederates was roughly 25% of the group, the opinion of the majority could be tipped to that of the minority.
Theoretical models of critical mass have shown how minority groups can initiate social change dynamics in the emergence of new social conventions. Here, we study an artificial system of social conventions in which human subjects interact to establish a new coordination equilibrium. The findings provide direct empirical demonstration of the existence of a tipping point in the dynamics of changing social conventions. When minority groups reached the critical mass—that is, the critical group size for initiating social change—they were consistently able to overturn the established behavior. The size of the required critical mass is expected to vary based on theoretically identifiable features of a social setting. Our results show that the theoretically predicted dynamics of critical mass do in fact emerge as expected within an empirical system of social coordination.

Monday, June 18, 2018

The misunderstood sixth mass extinction

Paul Ehrlich, 50 years after the publication of "The Population Bomb," together with Gerardo Ceballos, has written a concise rebuttal of scientists (and the politicians who listen to them) who suggest that the current anthropogenic mass extinction will not have dire consequences:
Scientific misunderstanding about the nature and consequences of the sixth mass extinction has led to confusion among policy-makers and the public. Scientists agree that there have been five mass extinctions in the past 600 million years (1). Although scientists also agree that Earth is now suffering the sixth mass extinction, they disagree about its consequences. Mass extinctions are defined as the loss of the majority of species in a relatively short geological time, caused by a catastrophic natural event (2). Some scientists argue that there is no reason for concern about the sixth mass extinction because extinction is normal, simply an inevitable consequence of the process of evolution (3, 4). This misunderstanding ignores some critical issues. First, the rate of species extinction is now as much as 100 times that of the “normal rate” throughout geological time (5, 6). Second, like the past mass extinctions, the current episode is not an inevitable consequence of the process of evolution. Rather, it is the result of a rare event changing the environment so quickly that many organisms cannot evolve in response to it.
In theory, evolution on Earth could proceed as long as conditions permitted with no mass extinction events. That has been the case for vast stretches of geological time between occasional encounters with unusual environmental circumstances. Extinctions did occur, but not suddenly and nearly universally, as is happening now (7, 8). The rate and extent of current extinctions is similar to those of past mass extinctions, not the intervals between them (9, 10). If past mass extinctions are any guide to the rate at which usual evolutionary diversification processes could restore a reasonable level of biodiversity and ecosystem services, the wait is likely to be millions, or even tens of millions of years (8, 9).
At the time of the past mass extinctions, there was no industrialized human population of almost 8 billion people utterly dependent on the ecosystem services biodiversity helps provide, such as pollination, pest control, and climate amelioration (7, 8, 11). Scientists who deny that the current mass extinction has dire consequences, and policy-makers who listen to them, fail to appreciate the penalties human civilization will suffer for continuing on society's business-as-usual course (2–5). Moreover, beyond the consequences to humans, exterminating most of the only known living things with which we share the universe is clearly wrong (5–8, 12). The future of life on Earth, and human well-being, depends on the actions that we take to reduce the extinction of populations and species in the next two decades (8). It is irresponsible and unethical not to act despite the overwhelming scientific evidence indicating the severity of the current mass extinction event.
References (see Google Scholar for all)
1. W. J. Ripple et al., Bioscience 67, 197 (2017). 2. A. Hallam, P. B. Wignall, Mass Extinctions and Their Aftermath (Oxford University Press, UK. 1997). 3. S. Brand, “Rethinking extinction” (2015); 4. C. D. Thomas, Inheritors of the Earth (Hachette, UK, 2017). 5. S. L. Pimm et al., Science, 344, 1246752 (2014). 6. G. Ceballos et al., Sci. Adv. 1, e1400253 (2015). 7. R. Dirzo et al., Science 345, 401 (2014). 8. G. Ceballos et al., The Annihilation of Nature: Human Extinction of Birds and Mammals (JHU Press, 2015). 9. D. Jablonski, Evol. Biol. 44, 451 (2017). 10.A. D. Barnosky et al., Nature 471, 51 (2011). 11.C. A. Hallmann, PLOS One 12, e0185809 (2017).C 12.P. R. Ehrlich, A. H. Ehrlich, Proc. R. Soc. B 280, 20122845 (2013).

Friday, June 15, 2018

Comparing human prefrontal cortex to that of other primates

From Donahue et al.:

A longstanding controversy in neuroscience pertains to differences in human prefrontal cortex (PFC) compared with other primate species; specifically, is human PFC disproportionately large? Distinctively human behavioral capacities related to higher cognition and affect presumably arose from evolutionary modifications since humans and great apes diverged from a common ancestor about 6–8 Mya. Accurate determination of regional differences in the amount of cortical gray and subcortical white matter content in humans, great apes, and Old World monkeys can further our understanding of the link between structure and function of the human brain. Using tissue volume analyses, we show a disproportionately large amount of gray and white matter corresponding to PFC in humans compared with nonhuman primates.
Humans have the largest cerebral cortex among primates. The question of whether association cortex, particularly prefrontal cortex (PFC), is disproportionately larger in humans compared with nonhuman primates is controversial: Some studies report that human PFC is relatively larger, whereas others report a more uniform PFC scaling. We address this controversy using MRI-derived cortical surfaces of many individual humans, chimpanzees, and macaques. We present two parcellation-based PFC delineations based on cytoarchitecture and function and show that a previously used morphological surrogate (cortex anterior to the genu of the corpus callosum) substantially underestimates PFC extent, especially in humans. We find that the proportion of cortical gray matter occupied by PFC in humans is up to 1.9-fold greater than in macaques and 1.2-fold greater than in chimpanzees. The disparity is even more prominent for the proportion of subcortical white matter underlying the PFC, which is 2.4-fold greater in humans than in macaques and 1.7-fold greater than in chimpanzees.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Evolutionary cognition - bees demonstrate an understanding of zero

Howard et al. demonstrate an astounding evolutionary convergence by showing that insects have developed the concept of zero, a capability once thought to be a unique major intellectual advance in humans. The last common ancestor of humans and the honeybees used in the experiments lived more than 600 million years ago. Their abstract:
Some vertebrates demonstrate complex numerosity concepts—including addition, sequential ordering of numbers, or even the concept of zero—but whether an insect can develop an understanding for such concepts remains unknown. We trained individual honey bees to the numerical concepts of “greater than” or “less than” using stimuli containing one to six elemental features. Bees could subsequently extrapolate the concept of less than to order zero numerosity at the lower end of the numerical continuum. Bees demonstrated an understanding that parallels animals such as the African grey parrot, nonhuman primates, and even preschool children.
...and a description of their experiment from a review by Nieder:
...the authors lured free-flying honey bees from maintained hives to their testing apparatus (see the figure) and marked the insects with color for identification. They rewarded the bees for discriminating displays on a screen that showed different numbers (numerosities) of items. The researchers controlled for systematic changes in the appearance of the numerosity displays that occur when the number of items is changed. They thus ensured that the bees were discriminating between different numbers, rather than responding to low-level visual cues.
First, the researchers trained the bees to rank two numerosity displays at a time. Over the course of training, they changed the numbers presented to encourage rule learning. Bees from one group were rewarded with a sugar solution whenever they flew to the display showing more items, thereby following a greater-than rule. The other group of bees was trained on the less-than rule and rewarded for landing at the display that presented fewer items. The bees learned to master this task with displays consisting of one to four items; they were able to do so not only for familiar numerosity displays but also for new displays.
Next, the researchers occasionally inserted displays containing no item. Would the bees understand that empty displays could be ranked with countable numerosities? Indeed, the bees obeying the less-than rule spontaneously landed on displays showing no item, that is, an empty set (see the figure). In doing so, bees understood that the empty set was numerically smaller than sets of one, two, or more items. Further experiments confirmed that this behavior was related to quantity estimation and not a product of the learning history.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Jaron Lanier on why you should delete your social media accounts.

I have read through Jared Lanier's "Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now." His critiques are important and compelling, and I want to pass on just a few clips of text that give you gist of his arguments:

We’re being tracked and measured constantly, and receiving engineered feedback all the time. We’re being hypnotized little by little by technicians we can’t see, for purposes we don’t know. We’re all lab animals now...Now everyone who is on social media is getting individualized, continuously adjusted stimuli, without a break, so long as they use their smartphones. What might once have been called advertising must now be understood as continuous behavior modification on a titanic scale...This book argues in ten ways that what has become suddenly normal— pervasive surveillance and constant, subtle manipulation— is unethical, cruel, dangerous, and inhumane. Dangerous? Oh, yes, because who knows who’s going to use that power, and for what?
The core process that allows social media to make money and that also does the damage to society is behavior modification. Behavior modification entails methodical techniques that change behavioral patterns in animals and people. It can be used to treat addictions, but it can also be used to create them...Using symbols instead of real rewards has become an essential trick in the behavior modification toolbox. For instance, a smartphone game like Candy Crush uses shiny images of candy instead of real candy to become addictive...somewhat random or unpredictable feedback can be more engaging than perfect feedback.
The prime directive to be engaging reinforces itself, and no one even notices that negative emotions are being amplified more than positive ones. Engagement is not meant to serve any particular purpose other than its own enhancement, and yet the result is an unnatural global amplification of the “easy” emotions, which happen to be the negative ones.
Social media is biased, not to the Left or the Right, but downward. The relative ease of using negative emotions for the purposes of addiction and manipulation makes it relatively easier to achieve undignified results. An unfortunate combination of biology and math favors degradation of the human world. Information warfare units sway elections, hate groups recruit, and nihilists get amazing bang for the buck when they try to bring society down.
One of the main reasons to delete your social media accounts is that there isn’t a real choice to move to different social media accounts. Quitting entirely is the only option for change. If you don’t quit, you are not creating the space in which Silicon Valley can act to improve itself...the problem isn’t behavior modification in itself. The problem is relentless, robotic, ultimately meaningless behavior modification in the service of unseen manipulators and uncaring algorithms.
I speak as a computer scientist, not as a social scientist or psychologist. From that perspective, I can see that time is running out. The world is changing rapidly under our command, so doing nothing is not an option. We don’t have as much in the way of rigorous science as would be ideal for understanding our situation, but we have enough results to describe the problem we must solve, just not a lot of time in which to solve it. Seems like a good moment to coin an acronym so I don’t have to repeat, over and over, the same account of the pieces that make up the problem. How about “Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent”? BUMMER.
The corp perspective
One problem with the BUMMER model is that it’s like oil for a petrostate. A BUMMER-dependent company can diversify its activities— its cost centers— all it wants, but it can never diversify its profit centers, because it always has to prioritize free services in order to grab more data to run the manipulation services. Consumers are addicted, but so are the BUMMER empires.
BUMMER makes tech companies brittle and weirdly stagnant. Of the big five tech companies, only two depend on the BUMMER model. Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft all indulge in a little BUMMER, but they all do just fine without depending on BUMMER. The non-BUMMER big tech companies have successfully diversified. There are plenty of reasons you might want to criticize and change those three companies, but the amount of BUMMER they foster is not an existential threat to civilization.
The two tech giants that are hooked on BUMMER, Google and Facebook, are way hooked. They make the preponderance of their profits from BUMMER despite massive investments in trying to start up other types of businesses. No matter the scale, a company based on a single trick is vulnerable. Sooner or later some disruption will come along, and then a BUMMER company, no matter how large, will quickly collapse.
So why is it again, that BUMMER is such a great long-term strategy for tech companies? It isn’t. It trades the short term against the long term, just like a petrostate...Instead of trying to shut down BUMMER companies, we should ask them to innovate their business models, for their own good.
The user perspective
It might sound undesirable to someday have to pay for things that are currently free, but remember, you’d also be able to make money from those things. And paying for stuff sometimes really does make the world better for everyone. Techies who advocated a free/ open future used to argue that paying for movies or TV was a terrible thing, and that the culture of the future would be made of volunteerism, with the digital distribution funded by advertising, of course. This was practically a religious belief in Silicon Valley when the big BUMMER companies were founded. It was sacrilege to challenge it.
But then companies like Netflix and HBO convinced people to pay a monthly fee, and the result is what is often called “peak TV.” Why couldn’t there also be an era of paid “peak social media” and “peak search”? ...Watch the end credits on a movie on Netflix or HBO. It’s good discipline for lengthening your attention span! Look at all those names scrolling by. All those people who aren’t stars made their rent by working to bring you that show.
BUMMER only supports stars. If you are one of those rare, rare people who are making a decent living off BUMMER as an influencer, 4 for instance, you have to understand that you are in a tiny club and you are vulnerable. Please make backup plans! I hate raining on dreams, but if you think you are about to make a living as an influencer or similar, the statistics are voraciously against you, no matter how deserving you are and no matter how many get-rich-quick stories you’ve been fed. The problem isn’t that there are only a few stars; that’s always true, by definition. The problem is that BUMMER economics allow for almost no remunerative roles for near-stars. In a genuine, deep economy, there are many roles. You might not become a pro football player, but you might get into management, sports media, or a world of other related professions. But there are vanishingly few economic roles adjacent to a star influencer. Have a backup plan.
When social media companies are paid directly by users instead of by hidden third parties, then they will serve those users. It’s so simple. Someone will be able to pay to see poisonous propaganda, but they won’t be able to pay to have that poison directed at someone else. The incentive for poisoning the world will be undone...I won’t have an account on Facebook, Google, or Twitter until I can pay for it— and I unambiguously own and set the price for using my data, and it’s easy and normal to earn money if my data is valuable. I might have to wait a while, but it’ll be worth it. 
It’s almost impossible to write about the deepest spiritual or philosophical topics, because people are on such hair triggers about them, but it would be a cop-out to avoid declaring a statement of beliefs regarding the basic questions that BUMMER is trying to dominate… I am conscious. I have faith that you are also conscious. We each experience. It’s a marvel… Acknowledging that experience exists might make us kinder, since we understand people to be more than machines. We might be a little more likely to think before hurting someone if we believe there’s a whole other center of experience cloaked in that person, a whole universe, a soul.
The BUMMER business is interwoven with a new religion that grants empathy to computer programs— calling them AI programs— as a way to avoid noticing that it is degrading the dignity, stature, and rights of real humans … The BUMMER experience is that you’re just one lowly cell in the great superorganism of the BUMMER platform. We talk to our BUMMER-connected gadgets kind of as if they’re people, and the “conversation” works better if we talk in a way that makes us kind of like machines. When you live as if there’s nothing special, no mystical spark inside you, you gradually start to believe it.
The issues that are tearing the United States apart are all about whether people are special, about where the soul might be found, if it is there at all. Is abortion acceptable? Will people become obsolete, so that everyone but a few elite techies will have to be supported by a charitable basic income scheme? Should we treat all humans as being equally worthy, or are some humans more deserving of self-determination because they are good at nerdy tasks? These questions might all look different at first, but on closer inspection they are all versions of the same question: What is a person? Whatever a person might be, if you want to be one, delete your accounts.
(above clips taken from Lanier, Jaron. Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition. )

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

What makes a man attractive?

In many species female mate preference is influenced by signs indicating the health and robustness of the potential male partner. Rehm points to work by Versluys et al. examining the effects of male arm to body and intra-limb ratio on the preferences of heterosexual US women by showing them computer-generated male images that vary average body proportions from 9000 US military men by making arms and legs slightly longer or shorter. Previous research had shown that women prefer men with legs that are about half their height (legs that are too short have been linked to type 2 diabetes). How long the model’s arms were relative to his height didn’t seem to matter; and women cared only a little about how the elbow or knee divided a limb. But as seen in previous work, women noticed if the legs made up more or less than half his height—and they didn’t like it.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Socioeconomic status moderates age-related differences in brain organization throughout adulthood.

Work by Chan et al. (open source article) suggests that higher socioeconomic status (SES) may be a protective factor against age-related brain decline.

An individual’s socioeconomic status (SES) is a central feature of their environmental surroundings and has been shown to relate to the development and maturation of their brain in childhood. Here, we demonstrate that an individual’s present (adult) SES relates to their brain function and anatomy across a broad range of middle-age adulthood. In middle-aged adults (35–64 years), lower SES individuals exhibit less organized functional brain networks and reduced cortical thickness compared with higher SES individuals. These relationships cannot be fully explained by differences in health, demographics, or cognition. Additionally, childhood SES does not explain the relation between SES and brain network organization. These observations provide support for a powerful relationship between the environment and the brain that is evident in adult middle age.
An individual’s environmental surroundings interact with the development and maturation of their brain. An important aspect of an individual’s environment is his or her socioeconomic status (SES), which estimates access to material resources and social prestige. Previous characterizations of the relation between SES and the brain have primarily focused on earlier or later epochs of the lifespan (i.e., childhood, older age). We broaden this work to examine the relationship between SES and the brain across a wide range of human adulthood (20–89 years), including individuals from the less studied middle-age range. SES, defined by education attainment and occupational socioeconomic characteristics, moderates previously reported age-related differences in the brain’s functional network organization and whole-brain cortical structure. Across middle age (35–64 years), lower SES is associated with reduced resting-state system segregation (a measure of effective functional network organization). A similar but less robust relationship exists between SES and age with respect to brain anatomy: Lower SES is associated with reduced cortical gray matter thickness in middle age. Conversely, younger and older adulthood do not exhibit consistent SES-related difference in the brain measures. The SES–brain relationships persist after controlling for measures of physical and mental health, cognitive ability, and participant demographics. Critically, an individual’s childhood SES cannot account for the relationship between their current SES and functional network organization. These findings provide evidence that SES relates to the brain’s functional network organization and anatomy across adult middle age, and that higher SES may be a protective factor against age-related brain decline.

Figure - (click to enlarge) Lower SES adults exhibit reduced segregation of their resting-state functional brain networks and lower mean cortical thickness in middle-age adulthood. For each age group, brain system segregation (A) and mean cortical thickness (B) are plotted for higher and lower SES (stratified using a median split across the entire participant sample; error bars depict standard error of the mean). Higher SES is associated with greater brain system segregation and mean cortical thickness in middle-age groups (ME, 35–49 y; ML, 50–64 y). Primary statistical models were completed using general linear modeling, where SES was modeled continuously.

Friday, June 08, 2018

Move into your virtual body avatar with just your hands and feet

Steph Yin points to work by Kitazaki's group at Toyohashi University of Technology in Japan, who try... figure out the minimal amount of body we need to feel a sense of self, especially in digital environments where more and more people may find themselves for work or play...they show that animating virtual hands and feet alone is enough to make people feel their sense of body drift toward an invisible avatar...Using an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset and a motion sensor, Dr. Kitazaki’s team performed a series of experiments in which volunteers watched disembodied hands and feet move two meters in front of them in a virtual room. In one experiment, when the hands and feet mirrored the participants’ own movements, people reported feeling as if the space between the appendages were their own bodies.
The article abstract:
Body ownership can be modulated through illusory visual-tactile integration or visual-motor synchronicity/contingency. Recently, it has been reported that illusory ownership of an invisible body can be induced by illusory visual-tactile integration from a first-person view. We aimed to test whether a similar illusory ownership of the invisible body could be induced by the active method of visual-motor synchronicity and if the illusory invisible body could be experienced in front of and facing away from the observer. Participants observed left and right white gloves and socks in front of them, at a distance of 2 m, in a virtual room through a head-mounted display. The white gloves and socks were synchronized with the observers’ actions. In the experiments, we tested the effect of synchronization, and compared this to a whole-body avatar, measuring self-localization drift. We observed that visual hands and feet were sufficient to induce illusory body ownership, and this effect was as strong as using a whole-body avatar.

 Here is their video "Your body is transparentized in a virtual environment."

Thursday, June 07, 2018

Social contagion of ethnic hostility.

From Bauer et al.:

We provide experimental evidence on peer effects and show that behavior that harms members of a different ethnic group is twice as contagious as behavior that harms coethnics. The findings may help to explain why ethnic hostilities can spread quickly (even in societies with few visible signs of interethnic hatred) and why many countries have adopted hate crime laws, and illustrate the need to study not only the existence of discrimination, but also the stability of attitudes and behaviors toward outgroup members.
Interethnic conflicts often escalate rapidly. Why does the behavior of masses easily change from cooperation to aggression? This paper provides an experimental test of whether ethnic hostility is contagious. Using incentivized tasks, we measured willingness to sacrifice one’s own resources to harm others among adolescents from a region with a history of animosities toward the Roma people, the largest ethnic minority in Europe. To identify the influence of peers, subjects made choices after observing either destructive or peaceful behavior of peers in the same task. We found that susceptibility to follow destructive behavior more than doubled when harm was targeted against Roma rather than against coethnics. When peers were peaceful, subjects did not discriminate. We observed very similar patterns in a norms-elicitation experiment: destructive behavior toward Roma was not generally rated as more socially appropriate than when directed at coethnics, but the ratings were more sensitive to social contexts. The findings may illuminate why ethnic hostilities can spread quickly, even in societies with few visible signs of interethnic hatred.

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Placebo treatment facilitates social trust.

Nasal sprays containing oxytocin have been shown to facilitate pro-social behaviors. Xan et al. have now shown that this effect can be obtained using nasal sprays containing only saline, if subjects are told the spray contains oxytocin and are educated on its expected pro-social effects:
Placebo effect refers to beneficial changes induced by the use of inert treatment, such as placebo-induced relief of physical pain and attenuation of negative affect. To date, we know little about whether placebo treatment could facilitate social functioning, a crucial aspect for well-being of a social species. In the present study, we develop and validate a paradigm to induce placebo effects on social trust and approach behavior (social placebo effect), and show robust evidence that placebo treatment promotes trust in others and increases preference for a closer interpersonal distance. We further examine placebo effects in real-life social interaction and show that placebo treatment makes single, but not pair-bonded, males keep closer to an attractive first-met female and perceive less social anxiety in the female. Finally, we show evidence that the effects of placebo treatment on social trust and approach behavior can be as strong as the effect of intranasal administration of oxytocin, a neuropeptide known for its function in facilitating social cognition and behavior. The finding of the social placebo effect extends our understanding of placebo effects on improvement of physical, mental, and social well-being and suggests clinical potentials in the treatment of social dysfunction.

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

The End of Humanism - Homo Deus

I want to pass on a useful precis of two books by Yuval Harari prepared by my colleague Terry Allard for a meeting of the Chaos and Complexity Seminar at the University of Wisconsin, Madison (where I am an emeritus professor and still maintain an office during my summer months away from Austin TX in Madison WI.) Here is his summary of Harari's "A Brief History of Humankind" and "Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow."
In these 2 volumes, historian Yuval Harari, reviews the successive transformations of humanity and human civilizations from small bands of hunter-gatherers, through the agrarian and industrial revolutions to today’s scientific revolution while reflecting on what it means to be human. Our collective belief in abstract stories like money, corporations, nations and religions enables human cooperation on a large scale and differentiates us from all other animals. Today’s discussion will focus on a possible transition from the humanist values of individual freedoms and “free will” to a disturbing dystopian future where individualism is devalued and people are managed by artificially intelligent systems. This transition is enabled by reductions in Famine, plague and war that have historically motivated human behavior. Further advances in biotechnology, psychology and computer science could produce a superhuman elite having the resources and opportunity to benefit directly from technological enhancements while leaving the majority of humankind behind.
Allard's suggested discussion questions:
1. Does technology, social stratification and empire enhance the human experience? Are we happier than hunter-gatherers?
2. What is humanism?
3. Are people really just the sum of their biological algorithms?
4. When will we trust artificial intelligence? Is AI the inevitable next evolutionary step?
5. What do we (humans) really want the future to be? What are our transcendent values?
Harari quotes from an interview in The Guardian (19March2017):

Humanity’s biggest myth? “gaining more power over the world, over the environment, we will be able to make ourselves happier and more satisfied with life. Looking again from a perspective of thousands of years, we have gained enormous power over the world and it doesn’t seem to make people significantly more satisfied than in the stone age.”
On Morality: “we are very close to really having divine powers of creation and destruction. The future of the entire ecological system and the future of the whole of life is really now in our hands. And what to do with it is an ethical question and also a scientific question.”
On Inequality: “With the new revolution in artificial intelligence and biotechnology, there is a danger that again all the power and benefits will be monopolised by a very small elite, and most people will end up worse off than before.”
On timing: “I think that Homo sapiens as we know them will probably disappear within a century or so, not destroyed by killer robots or things like that, but changed and upgraded with biotechnology and artificial intelligence into something else, into something different.”

Monday, June 04, 2018

More on the sociopathy of social media

I want to pass on to MindBlog readers some material from Michael Kaplan, who recently pointed me to his YouTube channel OneHandClap, and in particular his video "How Facebook Makes You Depressed." It notes a December 2016 Facebook article published on their official blog, "Hard Questions: Is Spending Time on Social Media Bad for Us?," and summarizes an assortment of recent research that links social media use to depression.  It also explores how social media sites like Facebook make use of addictive neurochemical mechanisms.

If you really want the details on how we are being screwed by the social media, particularly Google and Facebook,  read Jaron Lanier's "Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now."  I downloaded the Kindle version several days ago, and am finding it incredibly sobering reading, given that the platform for  is provided by Google (Blogger),  posts like this one are automatically sent on from Blogger to my Facebook and Twitter feeds, my piano performances are on Google's YouTube, my email, my calendar, etc., etc......  A few clips from Lanier:
We’re being tracked and measured constantly, and receiving engineered feedback all the time. We’re being hypnotized little by little by technicians we can’t see, for purposes we don’t know. We’re all lab animals now.
Now everyone who is on social media is getting individualized, continuously adjusted stimuli, without a break, so long as they use their smartphones. What might once have been called advertising must now be understood as continuous behavior modification on a titanic scale.
This book argues in ten ways that what has become suddenly normal— pervasive surveillance and constant, subtle manipulation— is unethical, cruel, dangerous, and inhumane. Dangerous? Oh, yes, because who knows who’s going to use that power, and for what?
The core process that allows social media to make money and that also does the damage to society is behavior modification. Behavior modification entails methodical techniques that change behavioral patterns in animals and people. It can be used to treat addictions, but it can also be used to create them.
(Lanier, Jaron. Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. Henry Holt and Co. Kindle Edition.)
Finally, check out "Hands off my data! 15 default privacy settings you should change right now"

Friday, June 01, 2018

How much should A.I. frighten us?

Continuing the artificial intelligence topic of yesterday's post, I want to pass on the concluding paragraphs of a fascinating New Yorker article by Tad Friend. Friend suggest that thinking about artificial intelligence can help clarify what makes us human 0 for better and for worse. He points to several recent books writing about the presumed inevitability of our developing an artificial general intelligence (A.G.I.) that far exceeds our current human capabilities. His final paragraphs:
The real risk of an A.G.I.... may stem not from malice, or emergent self-consciousness, but simply from autonomy. Intelligence entails control, and an A.G.I. will be the apex cogitator. From this perspective, an A.G.I., however well intentioned, would likely behave in a way as destructive to us as any Bond villain. “Before the prospect of an intelligence explosion, we humans are like small children playing with a bomb,” Bostrom writes in his 2014 book, “Superintelligence,” a closely reasoned, cumulatively terrifying examination of all the ways in which we’re unprepared to make our masters. A recursive, self-improving A.G.I. won’t be smart like Einstein but “smart in the sense that an average human being is smart compared with a beetle or a worm.” How the machines take dominion is just a detail: Bostrom suggests that “at a pre-set time, nanofactories producing nerve gas or target-seeking mosquito-like robots might then burgeon forth simultaneously from every square meter of the globe.” That sounds screenplay-ready—but, ever the killjoy, he notes, “In particular, the AI does not adopt a plan so stupid that even we present-day humans can foresee how it would inevitably fail. This criterion rules out many science fiction scenarios that end in human triumph.”
If we can’t control an A.G.I., can we at least load it with beneficent values and insure that it retains them once it begins to modify itself? Max Tegmark observes that a woke A.G.I. may well find the goal of protecting us “as banal or misguided as we find compulsive reproduction.” He lays out twelve potential “AI Aftermath Scenarios,” including “Libertarian Utopia,” “Zookeeper,” “1984,” and “Self-Destruction.” Even the nominally preferable outcomes seem worse than the status quo. In “Benevolent Dictator,” the A.G.I. “uses quite a subtle and complex definition of human flourishing, and has turned Earth into a highly enriched zoo environment that’s really fun for humans to live in. As a result, most people find their lives highly fulfilling and meaningful.” And more or less indistinguishable from highly immersive video games or a simulation.
Trying to stay optimistic, by his lights—bear in mind that Tegmark is a physicist—he points out that an A.G.I. could explore and comprehend the universe at a level we can’t even imagine. He therefore encourages us to view ourselves as mere packets of information that A.I.s could beam to other galaxies as a colonizing force. “This could be done either rather low-tech by simply transmitting the two gigabytes of information needed to specify a person’s DNA and then incubating a baby to be raised by the AI, or the AI could nanoassemble quarks and electrons into full-grown people who would have all the memories scanned from their originals back on Earth.” Easy peasy. He notes that this colonization scenario should make us highly suspicious of any blueprints an alien species beams at us. It’s less clear why we ought to fear alien blueprints from another galaxy, yet embrace the ones we’re about to bequeath to our descendants (if any).
A.G.I. may be a recurrent evolutionary cul-de-sac that explains Fermi’s paradox: while conditions for intelligent life likely exist on billions of planets in our galaxy alone, we don’t see any. Tegmark concludes that “it appears that we humans are a historical accident, and aren’t the optimal solution to any well-defined physics problem. This suggests that a superintelligent AI with a rigorously defined goal will be able to improve its goal attainment by eliminating us.” Therefore, “to program a friendly AI, we need to capture the meaning of life.” Uh-huh.
In the meantime, we need a Plan B. Bostrom’s starts with an effort to slow the race to create an A.G.I. in order to allow more time for precautionary trouble-shooting. Astoundingly, however, he advises that, once the A.G.I. arrives, we give it the utmost possible deference. Not only should we listen to the machine; we should ask it to figure out what we want. The misalignment-of-goals problem would seem to make that extremely risky, but Bostrom believes that trying to negotiate the terms of our surrender is better than the alternative, which is relying on ourselves, “foolish, ignorant, and narrow-minded that we are.” Tegmark also concludes that we should inch toward an A.G.I. It’s the only way to extend meaning in the universe that gave life to us: “Without technology, our human extinction is imminent in the cosmic context of tens of billions of years, rendering the entire drama of life in our Universe merely a brief and transient flash of beauty.” We are the analog prelude to the digital main event.
So the plan, after we create our own god, would be to bow to it and hope it doesn’t require a blood sacrifice. An autonomous-car engineer named Anthony Levandowski has set out to start a religion in Silicon Valley, called Way of the Future, that proposes to do just that. After “The Transition,” the church’s believers will venerate “a Godhead based on Artificial Intelligence.” Worship of the intelligence that will control us, Levandowski told a Wired reporter, is the only path to salvation; we should use such wits as we have to choose the manner of our submission. “Do you want to be a pet or livestock?” he asked. I’m thinking, I’m thinking . . . ♦

Thursday, May 31, 2018

A.I. needs to learn like a human child.

Matthew Hutson summarizes efforts to nudge machine learning researchers away from the assumption that "computers trained on mountains of data can learn just about anything—including common sense—with few, if any, programmed rules." Some clips from his article:
In February, MIT launched Intelligence Quest, a research initiative now raising hundreds of millions of dollars to understand human intelligence in engineering terms. Such efforts, researchers hope, will result in AIs that sit somewhere between pure machine learning and pure instinct. They will boot up following some embedded rules, but will also learn as they go.
Part of the quest will be to discover what babies know and when—lessons that can then be applied to machines. That will take time, says Oren Etzioni, CEO of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI2) in Seattle, Washington. AI2 recently announced a $125 million effort to develop and test common sense in AI. "We would love to build on the representational structure innate in the human brain," Etzioni says, "but we don't understand how the brain processes language, reasoning, and knowledge."
Harvard University psychologist Elizabeth Spelke has argued that we have at least four "core knowledge" systems giving us a head start on understanding objects, actions, numbers, and space. We are intuitive physicists, for example, quick to understand objects and their interactions...Gary Marcus has composed a minimum list of 10 human instincts that he believes should be baked into AIs, including notions of causality, cost-benefit analysis, and types versus instances (dog versus my dog).
The debate over where to situate an AI on a spectrum between pure learning and pure instinct will continue. But that issue overlooks a more practical concern: how to design and code such a blended machine. How to combine machine learning—and its billions of neural network parameters—with rules and logic isn't clear. Neither is how to identify the most important instincts and encode them flexibly. But that hasn't stopped some researchers and companies from trying.
...researchers are working to inject their AIs with the same intuitive physics that babies seem to be born with. Computer scientists at DeepMind in London have developed what they call interaction networks. They incorporate an assumption about the physical world: that discrete objects exist and have distinctive interactions. Just as infants quickly parse the world into interacting entities, those systems readily learn objects' properties and relationships. Their results suggest that interaction networks can predict the behavior of falling strings and balls bouncing in a box far more accurately than a generic neural network.
Vicarious, a robotics software company in San Francisco, California, is taking the idea further with what it calls schema networks. Those systems, too, assume the existence of objects and interactions, but they also try to infer the causality that connects them. By learning over time, the company's software can plan backward from desired outcomes, as people do. (I want my nose to stop itching; scratching it will probably help.) The researchers compared their method with a state-of-the-art neural network on the Atari game Breakout, in which the player slides a paddle to deflect a ball and knock out bricks. Because the schema network could learn about causal relationships—such as the fact that the ball knocks out bricks on contact no matter its velocity—it didn't need extra training when the game was altered. You could move the target bricks or make the player juggle three balls, and the schema network still aced the game. The other network flailed.
Besides our innate abilities, humans also benefit from something most AIs don't have: a body. To help software reason about the world, Vicarious is "embodying" it so it can explore virtual environments, just as a baby might learn something about gravity by toppling a set of blocks. In February, Vicarious presented a system that looked for bounded regions in 2D scenes by essentially having a tiny virtual character traverse the terrain. As it explored, the system learned the concept of containment, which helps it make sense of new scenes faster than a standard image-recognition convnet that passively surveyed each scene in full. Concepts—knowledge that applies to many situations—are crucial for common sense. "In robotics it's extremely important that the robot be able to reason about new situations," says Dileep George, a co-founder of Vicarious. Later this year, the company will pilot test its software in warehouses and factories, where it will help robots pick up, assemble, and paint objects before packaging and shipping them.
One of the most challenging tasks is to code instincts flexibly, so that AIs can cope with a chaotic world that does not always follow the rules. Autonomous cars, for example, cannot count on other drivers to obey traffic laws. To deal with that unpredictability, Noah Goodman, a psychologist and computer scientist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, helps develop probabilistic programming languages (PPLs). He describes them as combining the rigid structures of computer code with the mathematics of probability, echoing the way people can follow logic but also allow for uncertainty: If the grass is wet it probably rained—but maybe someone turned on a sprinkler. Crucially, a PPL can be combined with deep learning networks to incorporate extensive learning. While working at Uber, Goodman and others invented such a "deep PPL," called Pyro. The ride-share company is exploring uses for Pyro such as dispatching drivers and adaptively planning routes amid road construction and game days. Goodman says PPLs can reason not only about physics and logistics, but also about how people communicate, coping with tricky forms of expression such as hyperbole, irony, and sarcasm.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Intelligent brains have more sparse and efficient nerve connections.

From Genç et al.:
Previous research has demonstrated that individuals with higher intelligence are more likely to have larger gray matter volume in brain areas predominantly located in parieto-frontal regions. These findings were usually interpreted to mean that individuals with more cortical brain volume possess more neurons and thus exhibit more computational capacity during reasoning. In addition, neuroimaging studies have shown that intelligent individuals, despite their larger brains, tend to exhibit lower rates of brain activity during reasoning. However, the microstructural architecture underlying both observations remains unclear. By combining advanced multi-shell diffusion tensor imaging with a culture-fair matrix-reasoning test, we found that higher intelligence in healthy individuals is related to lower values of dendritic density and arborization. These results suggest that the neuronal circuitry associated with higher intelligence is organized in a sparse and efficient manner, fostering more directed information processing and less cortical activity during reasoning.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

The light and dark sides of friendship.

I want to point to two brief reviews by Natalie Angier on friendship. She first points to work of Parkinson et al. showing similarities in the brain activities of friends. The Parkinson et al. abstract:
Human social networks are overwhelmingly homophilous: individuals tend to befriend others who are similar to them in terms of a range of physical attributes (e.g., age, gender). Do similarities among friends reflect deeper similarities in how we perceive, interpret, and respond to the world? To test whether friendship, and more generally, social network proximity, is associated with increased similarity of real-time mental responding, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging to scan subjects’ brains during free viewing of naturalistic movies. Here we show evidence for neural homophily: neural responses when viewing audiovisual movies are exceptionally similar among friends, and that similarity decreases with increasing distance in a real-world social network. These results suggest that we are exceptionally similar to our friends in how we perceive and respond to the world around us, which has implications for interpersonal influence and attraction.
Angier also notes work showing that the other side of homophily, or friendship, can be the urge to "otherize" those who differ from you and your friends.
...the study from the University of Michigan had subjects stand outside on a cold winter day and read a brief story about a hiker who was described as either a “left-wing, pro-gay-rights Democrat” or a “right-wing, anti-gay-rights Republican.” When asked whether the hypothetical hiker might feel chilly as well, participants were far more likely to say yes if the protagonist’s political affiliation agreed with their own. But a political adversary — does that person even have skin, let alone a working set of thermal sensors?
The abstract of that study:
What people feel shapes their perceptions of others. In the studies reported here, we examined the assimilative influence of visceral states on social judgment. Replicating prior research, we found that participants who were outside during winter overestimated the extent to which other people were bothered by cold (Study 1), and participants who ate salty snacks without water thought other people were overly bothered by thirst (Study 2). However, in both studies, this effect evaporated when participants believed that the other people under consideration held political views opposing their own. Participants who judged these dissimilar others were unaffected by their own strong visceral-drive states, a finding that highlights the power of dissimilarity in social judgment. Dissimilarity may thus represent a boundary condition for embodied cognition and inhibit an empathic understanding of shared out-group pain. Our findings reveal the need for a better understanding of how people’s internal experiences influence their perceptions of the feelings and experiences of those who may hold values different from their own.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Good things about a party drug (Ketamine).

Ketamine, used extensively as an anesthetic during the Vietnam war and also as a party drug, has a rapidly acting antidepressant effect. A recent clinical trial has shown the antidepressant efficacy of esketamine, the nasal-spray form of the club drug ketamine, suggesting that it might be useful for the rapid treatment of suicidal depression. Conventional antidepressants require 4-6 weeks to be effective. Several labs are studying ketamine's mechanism of action. Yang et al. have found that neuronal burst firing in the lateral habenula, which drives robust depressive-like behaviors, is rapidly blocked by local ketamine infusion. Instead of acting on GABAergic neurons as previously suggested, ketamine blocked glutamatergic neurons in the “anti-reward center” lateral habenula to disinhibit downstream dopaminergic and serotonergic neurons. Widman et al. report that ketamine enhances excitability of pyramidal cells indirectly by reducing synaptic GABAergic inhibition, thus causing disinhibition. They show that only those antagonists with antidepressant efficacy in humans disinhibit pyramidal cells at a clinically relevant concentration, supporting the concept that disinhibition is likely involved in the antidepressant effect of these antagonists.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Why we itch more with aging.

Lewis and Grandl offer context and note the significance of work by by Feng et al.:
It is well known that aging is accompanied by the death of specific cell types that function as sensors of outside signals and that this cell death leads to deficits in our ability to detect these signals. For example, age-associated loss of sensory hair cells and/or spiral ganglia neurons in the inner ear leads to progressive hearing loss, particularly of high frequencies. Similarly, death of photoreceptors in the retina of the eye is a key aspect of the pathogenesis of age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of vision impairment in individuals older than 60 years of age. Feng et al. now identify an unusual link between age-related loss of a sensory cell type and aberrant sensory processing: During aging, the loss of specialized skin cells called Merkel cells results in alloknesis, the pathological sensation of itch in response to innocuous mechanical stimuli... 
The finding that Merkel cells normally protect against mechanical itch is notable because it is initially counterintuitive. Whereas in other sensory modalities (for example, vision and hearing), a reduction in sensory cell number as a result of cell death leads to a detrimental reduction in sensation, here, death of Merkel cells leads to an increase in unwanted sensation; that is, an otherwise nonaversive stimulus is perceived as potentially harmful.
The Feng et al. abstract:
The somatosensory system relays many signals ranging from light touch to pain and itch. Touch is critical to spatial awareness and communication. However, in disease states, innocuous mechanical stimuli can provoke pathologic sensations such as mechanical itch (alloknesis). The molecular and cellular mechanisms that govern this conversion remain unknown. We found that in mice, alloknesis in aging and dry skin is associated with a loss of Merkel cells, the touch receptors in the skin. Targeted genetic deletion of Merkel cells and associated mechanosensitive Piezo2 channels in the skin was sufficient to produce alloknesis. Chemogenetic activation of Merkel cells protected against alloknesis in dry skin. This study reveals a previously unknown function of the cutaneous touch receptors and may provide insight into the development of alloknesis.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

The microbiome regulates amygdala-dependent fear recall.

Hoban et al. show interaction between the gut microbes and expression of anxiety and fear regulated by the amygdala. Their technical abstract:
The amygdala is a key brain region that is critically involved in the processing and expression of anxiety and fear-related signals. In parallel, a growing number of preclinical and human studies have implicated the microbiome–gut–brain in regulating anxiety and stress-related responses. However, the role of the microbiome in fear-related behaviours is unclear. To this end we investigated the importance of the host microbiome on amygdala-dependent behavioural readouts using the cued fear conditioning paradigm. We also assessed changes in neuronal transcription and post-transcriptional regulation in the amygdala of naive and stimulated germ-free (GF) mice, using a genome-wide transcriptome profiling approach. Our results reveal that GF mice display reduced freezing during the cued memory retention test. Moreover, we demonstrate that under baseline conditions, GF mice display altered transcriptional profile with a marked increase in immediate-early genes (for example, Fos, Egr2, Fosb, Arc) as well as genes implicated in neural activity, synaptic transmission and nervous system development. We also found a predicted interaction between mRNA and specific microRNAs that are differentially regulated in GF mice. Interestingly, colonized GF mice (ex-GF) were behaviourally comparable to conventionally raised (CON) mice. Together, our data demonstrates a unique transcriptional response in GF animals, likely because of already elevated levels of immediate-early gene expression and the potentially underlying neuronal hyperactivity that in turn primes the amygdala for a different transcriptional response. Thus, we demonstrate for what is to our knowledge the first time that the presence of the host microbiome is crucial for the appropriate behavioural response during amygdala-dependent memory retention.