The Great Rivalry?

Every argument that the US is in danger of losing out to China, that the US needs more weapons to deter China, that the US can’t afford to help arm Ukraine, and many others, should be required to begin with these two graphs.

Data for the first graph is from the International Monetary Fund, for the second from the International Institute for Strategic Studies. The graphs appear in this article.

Cross-posted to Lawyers, Guns & Money

A Visit To Narva

I’ve had this article in a tab for a couple of weeks. It’s a long read, and I wanted to enjoy reading about the history that kept Russia’s trade on its northern edge – Arkhangelsk and the Barents Sea – rather than Narva and the Gulf of Finland. I thought that the history would be interesting, but I also hoped that the article might treat today’s competition between the new port at Sillamäe, twenty kilometers west of Narva, and Russia’s Ust-Luga – more established, but also more icy in the winter.

Alas, that article remains to be written. This article contains a bit of history: The Brits wanted Russian furs, and that trade wound up being through Arkhangelsk rather than Narva. Not much said about what internal Russian or British issues contributed to that outcome.

Most of the article is the author’s portrayal of Narva as a Russian, rather than Estonian city. It is based on her walk around the city and checking out a supermarket. What she finds is typical of border cities. OMG, El Paso is Mexican because you hear Spanish spoken frequently and they have typically Mexican foods in the supermarkets!

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Yesterday we had another AI kerfuffle.

This time it was a report that in a simulation, an AI-powered drone turned on its operator and killed them. I retweeted it because it was another example of obvious stupidity relative to AI. But I didn’t say that, largely because the locus of the stupidity was not clear. It could have been in whatever was done with the simulation, or it could have been in the reporting, or in a chain of half-reports that the writer summarized. The report now has a disclaimer. Scroll way, way down to “AI – is Skynet here already?”

I do not count myself as an expert in AI, although I’m learning about it daily. It is clearly Silicon Valley’s latest claim to relevance, and they are hyping it mightily with the aid of stenographic media who understand less about it than I do.

Those of us who read Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics when we were eight years old or so recognized that something was something wrong with that report. Yes, there are problems with Asimov and with his three laws, but the need for programming a death robot so that it doesn’t attack its controller/ owner/ whatever should be obvious, particularly to the military.

But the military gets stuff wrong, and they can be as susceptible to Silicon Valley hype as the media.

The disclaimer now says that the “simulation” was just talk. But, of course, the debunking won’t get to all the people who saw the original report. And maybe that’s not so bad. If people believe that AI is dangerous, maybe we can do something to get it under control.

Photo: The MAARS is one of three robotic, unmanned vehicles demonstrated to Soldiers from the 519th Military Police Battalion, 1st Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, Aug. 5, 2015. It is equipped with non-lethal and lethal armament. (US Army photo)

Cross-posted to Lawyers, Guns & Money

Stop Me Before I Kill Again

This is bullshit.

Mitigating the risk of extinction from AI should be a global priority alongside other societal-scale risks such as pandemics and nuclear war.

Back in 1975, the biology community, and the larger society, were concerned about the potential for recombinant DNA. Could it be used to generate monsters or new diseases? Would people use it to interfere with human reproduction?

The biologists themselves held a conference at Asilomar, California, to assess the dangers and recommend possible mitigations. They issued a public statement summarizing their findings. Since then, they have developed and applied guidelines as new areas of research opened up.

In contrast, Our Silicon Valley Overlords want us to be worried – very worried – about their research into artificial intelligence. With their usual hype, they have loosed chatbots called AI that are very fancy autocompletes that require immense amounts of “training” on work that other people have produced. And oh yes, they can’t tell you what that training base is because you might be mean about it and point out that a great deal of what is available is sexist, racist, and classist, and those traits just might be “trained” into their wonderful creation.

If there is a hazard, show us the pathways by which it might develop, as the biologists did. Then show us how it might be mitigated. Show some serious moral purpose, in other words.

If the hazard is so great, perhaps a statement would be appropriate that these Very Principled People feel they can no longer work on it and will be leaving the field to plant a garlic farm in the Santa Clara Valley where their offices used to be.

But this is the industry that cobbles something together and leaves it to the customer to figure out how to deal with its problems.

Cross-posted to Lawyers, Guns & Money

Software Safety

If you supervise people moving quantities of soil and debris with big machines, or people doing things with plutonium in glove boxes, questions of safety quickly become important.

Software developers have been much less aware of safety issues. What can go wrong besides lacking an ergonomic chair?

Social media sites and “AI” development are beginning to highlight safety in software. I’d like to throw out a simple principle that the software people might like to think about.

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Bluesky Is For Techies!

Since joining Bluesky, I’ve learned more about developers (coders, programmers, tech bros, whatever they’re calling themselves these days) than I ever imagined.

Let me make clear, up front, what I expect from a Twitter replacement: a forum like Twitter but without the Nazis and other moderation problems. I do not want to moderate a server, nor do I want to have to put up with some of the nonsense that goes on at Mastodon.

The first day I was on Bluesky, three or four weeks ago, it was mostly developer-speak. The next day, a large number of users arrived, and the developer-speak was drowned out in a sea of body parts and shitposting. Everyone was giddy not to have to deal with the mess that Elon Musk has been exacerbating. It was fun, but the sort of thing that ages quickly. The wave of euphoria crested. Now people are trying to figure out what comes next.

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Let The Nukes Die

I have a new article in Foreign Policy. I write about the reasons that Russia and the United States might go back to nuclear explosive testing and suggest that we might let nuclear weapons decay out of existence.

That suggestion has some historical precedent. In 1989, Carson Mark, at that time the director of weapons design at Los Alamos and earlier a designer himself, proposed with others that a way to decrease the nuclear arsenal could be to stop producing tritium. Tritium is a component of nuclear weapons that boosts their yield and whose 12-year half-life requires its regular replacement. The dissolution of the Soviet Union overtook the arms control negotiations to which Mark contributed his suggestion.

Now there are concerns about the plutonium parts in nuclear weapons. Modernization efforts will include plutonium replacement. Other parts of the weapons, like the conventional explosives, age as well.

The US is trying to restart production of plutonium parts with great difficulty, and Russia will be strapped for funds after the Ukraine war ends. It’s not possible to negotiate an arms control agreement with Russia now, but an agreement that lessens the need for modernization may be attractive to a poorer Russia.

Last night’s takedown of six of Russia’s “unstoppable” Kinzhal missiles should also help to change Russian thinking. Cold War concepts of deterrence and nuclear warfighting are obsolete. We all need to rethink them.

Image is the header on the Foreign Policy article. It’s a French atmospheric test from 1971.

Cross-posted to Lawyers, Guns & Money

Ukraine Before The Offensive

Over at Lawyers, Guns & Money, Rob has provided material to read in preparation for the Ukrainian offensive. This is more of a situation report.

The Ukrainian government holds its plans for the offensive very close. They apparently are not sharing them even with the US government. So nobody outside of Ukraine knows what is going to happen, no matter what any rando bluecheck may claim.

Russia has been expending missiles on Kyiv since the “attack” on the Kremlin of a hobbyist-type drone carrying a firecracker’s worth of explosives. Ukrainian air defense has been quite effective, and a Patriot took down a Russian Kinzhal missile, one of Russia’s supposedly super weapons introduced by Putin along with a couple of things that didn’t pan out. It looks like Russia’s supply of missiles is running down, along with other equipment.

The May 9 parade in Moscow is reported to have included one (1) tank, an antique. However, antiques are being mobilized to Ukraine. A number of military experts say that Russia will have to mobilize more men soon, but there aren’t many signs of that.

Public opinion in Russia seems to be softening on support for the war, but it hasn’t turned against Vladimir Putin.

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Growing Pains For Bluesky

After a two-week orgy, Bluesky is settling down to the problems of being a social medium. Not solving those problems yet, but defining a problem is the first step to solving it.

Bluesky looks to me like the most likely successor to Twitter, if they can solve their problems. The others have stagnated, for their various reasons. The network – the people on the app – is the most critical factor, and Bluesky did a good job on that starting off. But there are next steps.

Bluesky’s intention is to be a better Mastodon – distributed over servers/instances, with distributed moderating. What Mastodon has gotten wrong on that is the intimidating signup, which demands that you choose a server before you have any idea of what that is. They have now said that they will make that process easier, but I am not clear whether that has happened yet.

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An Old Argument Returns

Pamela Paul is standing up for MERIT in scientific publishing. Of course, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about, but her friends in the Intellectual Dark Web gave her a convenient press release to work from.

My colleagues who publish in professional journals have mostly responded to Paul, rather than to the paper and press release she is working from. The paper is inappropriate for the one journal she mentions, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, because the PNAS publishes short technical papers, and this is a long polemic.

I’ve thought that scientific journals could benefit from publishing more polemics, but polemics on chemical and other scientific issues. That’s not what this paper is about. It is about practices in journal publishing that the authors disapprove of. They frame their polemic in terms of merit versus identity.

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