Thursday, August 16, 2018

Sugar, Stevia, or Saccharin…Pick Your AI Poison


I was delighted to see Monsanto suffer the fate of Big Tobacco this past week when a jury awarded a terminal cancer patient a $289 million damage award for their cover-up of the carcinogenic risk of RoundUp®.  Predictably, Monsanto’s lawyers immediately responded with their intention to pursue an appeal choosing to defend financial interests over morality.  And, if history offers any instruction, in this round, they’ll prevail.  While glyphosate is probably harmful to human health given its lethality in plants, the genetically modified seed products that we consume in our food chain that include Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) infection to suppress susceptibility to RoundUp® is likely far more dangerous in the long-term than the weed killer. 

In a report my company M·CAM produced in 2005 (13 years ago), we discussed the insidious chain of industrial accommodation that encouraged Monsanto’s impunity.  (For a full copy of the report, make your request in the comments field below.)  Bear in mind that DuPont and Monsanto were both racing to control industrial agriculture decades earlier and were able to alter U.S. patent law to do so. 

“On June 16, 1980, the United States Supreme Court determined that artificially engineered living organisms are a patentable invention.  In Diamond v. Chakrabarty[1], Ananda Chakrabarty sought to patent under U.S.C. 35 §101 a genetically engineered bacterium capable of breaking down crude oil, a property which is not possessed by any naturally occurring bacteria.[2]  U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) Commissioner Diamond had upheld the patent examiner’s refusal to grant a patent to Chakrabarty, asserting that living organisms were outside the scope of patentable subject matter under §101.  In a 5-to-4 decision, the Court ruled that because of the broad nature of the language of §101 to provide for the issuance of a patent to a person who invents or discovers “any” new and useful “manufacture” or “composition of matter,” it would uphold the Court of Customs and Patent Appeals’ earlier conclusion that the fact that micro-organisms are alive is without legal significance for the purposes of the patent law.”

In other words, what was once illegal – the patenting of life – was narrowly approved by the Supreme Court in a 5 to 4 decision in 1980.  And ever since, economic interests have explicitly trumped life when money is on the line.

This would be a great time to put down your Diet Pepsi, Diet Coke, or other artificially flavored beverage as one day, you might be disappointed to know that just because it tasted like it was sweet, it actually was anything but…

Which leads me, in my normal circuitous route, to the object of today’s post on Artificial Intelligence.  That’s right, this is a post about AI!

Intelligence is one of the many gifts the Greeks and Romans bestowed on humanity.  Like other ephemeral concepts, the capacity for adaptive sensory integration and associated purposeful, considered action has been a scholarly fascination for a few millennia.  Growing up in the 1970s in Southern California – within the erudite infection zone of Stanford University and its century-long obsession with psychometrics popularized by American psychologist Lewis Terman (1910) – I recall the elementary school obsession with measuring “intelligence” and my resulting entry into the “Gifted” program.  Between the Stanford-Binet and the Wechsler tests, measured intelligence was inextricably linked to the industrial production mandate on education in the 19th and 20th centuries as well as the US and Nazi Progressivism eugenics movements.  That’s right, we cared about intelligence measurement to pick social winners (and their capacity to procreate) and social losers (and the forced sterilization of over 64,000 people in the US and millions across the globe).  To win was to be most capable of “desired” social contribution and to lose was to fail to conform.

To measure “intelligence”, white men of U.S. and European academic credentialing devised copious variations on what constituted intelligence and how best to quantify an individual’s capacity to express the same.  These included: ability to reason and problem solve; breadth and application of acquired knowledge; ability to manipulate numerical symbols; reading and writing aptitude; short-term recall; long-term information retrieval; visual pattern recognition and manipulation; auditory processing; cognitive processing speed with distractions; and, decision reaction time. 

Out of all human capabilities, a hierarchy of “what matters” was ordained and then devices to measure aptitude towards these values served to rank humanity.  Not surprisingly, this century-long eugenics indoctrination diminished our collective capacity to innovate into ever narrower fields of irrelevance.  In the 19th century, we used analog systems of wind, sun, combustion, symbiotic species, gravity, and hydraulics to animate our living and industry.  But with the monopolistic electrification of the turn of the 19th century, we became monoenergetically  electrically dependent.  When we speak of “solar”, “wind” or “alternative” energy, we now mean using those devices to feed a monoenergetic grid.  When we think of nourishment, we think of industrial caloric production.  Forget flavor.  Forget freshness.  Forget fiddling in the kitchen with variety!  Monsanto’s billions are derived from an “intelligence” that decided that monoculture agrarian behavior was preferred over unconsidered alternatives because intelligence meant the solution was in chemistry and efficiency (two mandatory elements of measured intelligence).

I’ve experienced many forms of intelligence that evade detection by the eugenics engineers of the past and present.  When I taught Euan to sail this past week on the Indian Ocean, I relayed the reading of wind patterns on the water, airfoil dynamics of setting the sails and reading of the tell-tales that I received from my Great Uncle John Parsons that now afford me and him the ability to sail to all points of the compass in the open sea.  I’ll never forget the countless patients with whom my former wife Colleen worked where the differential diagnosis said that nothing was wrong but she sensed imminent peril and was always detecting what machines weren’t.  I’ll never forget my son Zachary’s ability to interact and perceive signals from animals allowing him to interact with everything from fluffy puppies to the most venomous snakes without concern.  I live each day with my wife Kim’s innate capacity to detect human motivations and behaviors and orient them for beneficial purpose.  I marvel at Lorraine’s capacity to engage implicit signals from people and systems and detect anomalies and remedies thereto.  I marvel at Elizabeth Lindsey’s wisdom heritage inquiries which demonstrate current examples of ethnographic diversity manifesting pluralities of awareness beyond electrical and digital dependencies that transcend capabilities of both[3].  I decipher systemic codes from photosynthesis to particle swarm dynamic signaling in birds, fish, and cellular membranes and apply them to market dynamics on a daily basis.

When I encounter advocates for and detractors from artificial intelligence, I find myself first puzzling over whether any awareness of “intelligence” exists to form the context for the virtualization thereof.  The mechanical automation of what human automatons do is not AI, it’s merely substitution.   If a task can be automated, it probably never required “intelligence”.  It probably required habituation to reflex.  And habituated reflexes are – are you ready for this? – non-cognitive functions.  Whether we’re prepared to admit it or not, the monoapplicance dependence on the electrical (or quantum) computer is not a hallmark of progress.  When we place ever greater reliance on ever narrower bandwidths of energy or information, we place ourselves closer to extinction!  This is NOT an intelligent proposition.  Ten years from now, is there any chance that we’ll leave a social artifact that could survive an electromagnetic impulse erasure?  Highly unlikely.  Will our children be able to rifle through photo albums to see their first visit to the San Diego Zoo?  Doubtful.  And if the power goes out in any metropolitan area, what’s the actual survival likelihood for most of the population?  You guessed it.  Pretty grim. 

This past week, the Australian government made their Orwellian announcement that they propose to require technology companies to either engineer or accommodate the introduction of spyware and malware into computer and communication devices sold in Australia.  Failure to comply with turning over digital information, passwords, etc., will result in fines and prison time.   Tragically, they’re merely making overt what AT&T and Bell Labs did after Kennedy’s Cuban Missile Crisis with the National Telecommunications Act in the U.S.  And like the U.S. citizens who preferred the convenience of the telephone to caring about abridged civil liberties, the Australian population will shake its head for a moment knowing that this sounds wrong but then rush back to see who the Bachelor picks to be his soon-to-be-divorced dream date.  Are we, as intelligence researchers report, getting more intelligent as James R. Flynn postulated in his 1984 study?  Or is the aperture of our “intelligent” capacity aligning more closely to the eugenic conformity for which the intelligence movement was principally animated?  Think about it.  We know less about our food, our energy, and our obscured dependencies than at any other epoch yet we claim greater innovations and greater achievements based on our increasingly artificial intelligence. 

When we decide that manipulating a few symbols for a desired effect constitutes intelligence, innovation and progress – like Monsanto’s generational quest to toxify the “green revolution” – we often achieve stated outcomes.  No one can suggest that Monsanto’s RoundUp® hasn’t radically increased crop production in isolated observation.  But when we delimit our awareness – selectively killing the “undesirable” in favor of the monoculture – we ALWAYS create consequences.  And while my social impulse suggested the modifier “unintended” in the previous sentence, I’m not so sure that the intent isn’t to harm.  A school groundskeeper is going to die.  Glyphosate may very well be a contributing cause.  But so too might be the corn syrup, soy protein, and cotton, to which he was exposed – all of which lined the pockets of Monsanto.  Until we do ALL-IN-CONSEQUENCE analysis, we’re not intelligent.  And the evidence would suggest that making our current state of affairs “artificial” is simply ludicrous. 


[1] Diamond v. Chakrabarty, 447 U.S. 303 (1980)
[2] 35 U.S.C. 101:  Inventions patentable

Image from Wikimedia Commons user TheBernFiles. - Own work, Public Domain