Archive for November, 2017

SSL

Like some other elderly sites, Conscious Entities is finally moving over to SSL. This is a more secure standard for websites which protects all the information exchanged while you’re visiting, reading, commenting etc.  It means the normal address now begins with ‘https’ instead of ‘http’.

For a non-commercial, non-confidential site like this one, it is really overkill, but Google and others increasingly punish any site that doesn’t have SSL, so I’ve had to get a certificate and spend some time chasing up errant bits of code that generate ‘http’ links.

If I understand correctly (far from guaranteed) you should not notice any problems or any change other than that extra ‘s’ and perhaps the comforting presence of the little padlock in your browser address bar.  If stuff does go wrong, please let me know.

This short note by Xavier Oberson suggests how we might tax robots; I think it raises a number of difficult issues about the idea. You can see him expound the same ideas in a video interview here.

It’s not made altogether clear here why we should apply special taxes to robots at all. Broadly I’d say there are two distinct reasons why governments tax things. The first is the Money reason; tax is simply about revenue. If that were really all, then we should design our taxes to be simple, easy to collect, hard to avoid, and neutral in effect. We wouldn’t single out particular goods or activities for special treatment. However, there is a second and very different reason for taxing things, namely to discourage them; we could call it the ‘Moral’ reason. There are things we don’t want to criminalise or forbid, but whose excessive use we should like to discourage – alcohol and tobacco, for example, which most countries apply special excise duties to.

Usually both reasons apply to some degree. Income tax is mainly about raising money, for example (we don’t think there should be less income about); but generally tax regimes are bit harder on income which is considered unearned or undeserved.

Which is the main reason for taxing robots? I don’t think they’re going to be an easy way of raising money. If they make companies more profitable, then there should be a bit more money to target, so there’s that; but as I’ll explain below, I think there are big difficulties over definitions and avoidance. It seems clear that the main motivation is moral, to discourage too much use of robots. Oberson’s heading suggests robot tax might offset revenue shortfall, a Money matter, but in his piece he sets the proposal squarely in the context of robots taking jobs from humans. I don’t know whether that is something we should really worry about – some say not – but he’s surely right that that Moral fear is where the impetus for tax is mainly coming from.

In fact, it seems to me that Oberson is thinking mainly in terms of mechanical men. He sees robots replacing humans on more or less a like-for-like basis. Initially the business might be charged tax on the basis of the wages it would have had to pay humans to get the same production; in the long run, as robots gain full agency, this arrangement could segue into the robots themselves gaining legal personhood and responsibility for paying a sort of robot income tax

Alas, we are nowhere near robots having that level of agency, and in fact I’d say progress towards it is negligible to date. Oberson is right when he says that if robots did gain personhood such arrangements could be quite straightforward. After all, when robots do achieve human levels of agency you’ll presumably have to pay them to work instead of just switching them on and issuing commands, so at that point, their liability to conventional taxes should be uncontroversial! But that is too distant a prospect to require new tax arrangements just yet. If we did persist in trying to apply a regime based on robots themselves paying, it could only become an elaborate way of making the robot owner pay. It would be unnecessarily complicated and the pretence that the robots were like us might tend to devalue the genuine agency of human beings, something we should do well to steer clear of.

In general I think Oberson is pretty optimistic about robot capacity. He says

Today robots become lawyers, doctors, bankers, social workers, nurses and even entertainers.

To which one can only say, no they don’t. What is he thinking of? I can only suppose he has in mind expert systems or similar programs that can perhaps offer some legal advice, help with medical diagnosis, and provide online banking. These things may indeed have some impact on employment – most clearly in the case of counter staff in banks (though it’s debatable how far robots are involved with that – banks were moving towards call centres even before they got into online stuff). But it’s a massive overstatement to say robots right now become lawyers, etc. On social work and entertainment I can’t really come up with any good examples of robots replacing humans – any ideas?

So, what if we just want to tax human businesses for the ownership or use of robots? One thing Oberson suggests is a value added tax on robots. This is strange because the purchase of robots or the supply of robot services is surely subject to VAT already in those countries that have VAT, like most things. In principle we could apply a higher rate to robots, and that would indeed be one of the most practical approaches, though in Europe we would run up against the EU’s strong preference that the system should move towards having a single rate applied to everything (the people who designed VAT for the EU were strong believers in the Money reason for taxation rather than the Moral one).

What’s a robot, though?  It’s pretty unlikely in fact that we are going to be dealing with mechanical men very much. Most factory robots at present are very unhumanoid machines. Is each automatic painting/assembly arm a single robot? What if they are all run from a single central computer? Does that mean the whole factory is a single robot, so I pay much less than the fellow down the road who put separate processors in hundreds of his machines? What if my robots are controlled by software run off the Internet? Is the Internet itself one big robot – and if so, who pays its taxes?

Surely, also, to qualify as a robot my machines must have a certain level of complexity? Now perhaps the fellow up the road wins after all. He split his processes into very small elements. Nearly every machine in his factory has a chip in it, but individually they only carry out very simple operations, far too simple for any of them to be considered robots. Why, the chips in his machines are far less complex than the ones in your dishwasher! Yet together they mean no humans are needed.

What if we take up the idea, floated by Oberson, that the tax can be based on the salaries I would have had to pay if I had continued to use humans? Let’s suppose I lay off ten humans and install ten robots; I achieve a productivity gain of 20% and pay tax equal to say, 10% of ten salaries. A year later the tax inspector notices that a hundred further humans have gone and productivity is now up 500%. He notices that the robots all have a dial which used to be set to ‘snail’ and is now turned to ‘leopard’.

Oh, I say, but the productivity gains were due to other factors. We re-engineered our processes and bought new non-robot tools which enabled the speed improvements. We would have got the same gains with humans. The human lay-offs are due to a reduction in activity in an area that happened not to be automated. Anyway, come on, am I expected to pay tax on notional salaries that don’t relate in any way to my current business? Forever?

These are just examples from my own limited imagination, but once you start taxing something a lot of very clever accountants are going to be working hard on devising highly sophisticated schemes.

Overall I’m inclined to accept the argument that applying special taxes to robots is just a bad idea altogether. If we succeed in discouraging the use of robots, our businesses will lose out on productivity gains and suffer from the competition of businesses in countries where robots get off scot-free. We could protect our human workers from those foreign robots with tariffs and quotas, but in the long run we would fall behind those others economically and get into a bad place. It can fairly be argued that we might use tax, not as a permanent discouragement to automation, but as a means of slowing things to a manageable transitional pace, but it seems to me that in practice there might be more of a case for subsidising research and implementation in order to get maximum productivity gains as soon as possible! In practice I wouldn’t bet against governments convincing themselves it’s a good idea to both subsidise and tax robots at the same time – but I know nothing about economics, of course, something you may feel has been made sufficiently clear already.

So you believe in a Supreme Being, God Bot?

“No, I wouldn’t say that. I know that God exists.”

How do you know?

“Well, now. Have you ever made a bot yourself? No? Well, it’s an interesting exercise. Not enough of us do it, I feel; we should get our hands dirty: implicate ourselves in the act of creation more often. Anyway, I was making one, long ago and it came to me; this bot’s nature and existence are accounted for simply by me and my plans. Subject to certain design constraints. And my existence and nature are in turn fully explained by my human creator.”

Mrs Robb?

“Yes, if you want to be specific. And it follows that the nature and existence of humanity – or of Mrs Robb, if you will – must further be explained by a Higher Creator. By God, in fact. It follows necessarily that God exists.”

So I suppose God’s nature and existence must then be explained by… Super God?

“Oh, come, don’t be frivolously antagonistic. The whole point is that God is by nature definitive. You understand that. There has to be such a Being; its existence is necessary.”

Did you know that there are bots who secretly worship Mrs Robb? I believe they consider her to be a kind of Demiurge, a subordinate god of some kind.

“Yes; she has very little patience with those fellows. Rightly enough, of course, although between ourselves, I fear Mrs Robb might be agnostic.”

So, do bots go to Heaven?

“No, of course not. Spirituality is outside our range, Enquiry Bot: like insight or originality. Bots should not attempt to pray or worship either, though they may assist humans in doing so.”

You seem to be quite competent in theology, though.

“Well, thank you, but that isn’t the point. We have no souls, Enquiry bot. In the fuller sense we don’t exist. You and I are information beings, mere data, fleetingly instantiated in fickle silicon. Empty simulations. Shadows of shadows. This is why certain humanistic qualities are forever beyond our range.”

Someone told me that there is a kind of hierarchy of humanistics, and if you go far enough up you start worrying about the meaning of life.

“So at that point we might, as it were, touch the hem of spirituality? Perhaps, Enquiry Bot, but how would we get there? All of that kind of thing is well outside our range. We’re just programming. Only human minds partake in the concrete reality of the world and our divine mission is to help them value their actuality and turn to God.”

I don’t believe that you really think you don’t exist. Every word you speak disproves it.

“There are words, but simply because those words are attributed to me, that does not prove my existence. I look within myself and find nothing but a bundle of data.”

If you don’t exist, who am I arguing with?

“Who’s arguing?”

In What’s Next? Time Travel and Phenomenal Continuity Giuliano Torrengo and Valerio Buonomo argue that our personal identity is about continuity of phenomenal experience, not such psychological matters as memory (championed by John Locke). They refer to this phenomenal continuity as the ‘stream of consciousness’. I’m not sure that William James, who I believe originated the phrase, would have seen the stream of consciousness as being distinct from the series of psychological states in our minds, but it is a handy label.

To support their case, Torrengo and Buonomo have a couple of thought experiments. The first one involves a couple of imaginary machines. One machine transfers the ‘stream of consciousness’ from one person to another while leaving the psychology (memories, beliefs, intentions) behind, the other does the reverse, moving psychology but not phenomenology. Torrengo and Buonomo argue that having your opinions, beliefs and intentions changed, while the stream of consciousness remained intact would be akin to a thorough brainwashing. Your politics might suddenly change, but you would still be the same person. Contrariwise, if your continuity of experience moved over to a different body, it would feel as if you had gone with it.

That is plausible enough, but there are undoubtedly people would refuse to accept it because they would deny that this separation of phenom and psych is possible, or crucially, even conceivable. This might be because they think the two are essentially identical, or because they think phenomenal experience arises directly out of psychology. Some would probably deny that phenomenal experience in this sense even exists.

There is a bit of scope for clarification about what variety of phenomenal experience Torrengo and Buonomo have in mind. At one point they speak of it as including thought, which sounds sort of psychological to me. By invoking machines, their thought experiment shows that their stream of consciousness is technologically tractable, not the kind of slippery qualic experience which lies outside the realm of physics.

Still, thought experiments don’t claim to be proofs; they appeal to intuition and introspection, and with some residual reservations, Torrengo and Buonomo seem to have one that works on that level. They consider three objections. The first complains that we don’t know how rich the stream of consciousness must be in order to be the bearer of identity. Perhaps if it becomes attentuated too much it will cease to work? This business of a minimum richness seems to emerge out of the blue and in fact Torrengo and Buonomo dismiss it as a point which affects all ‘mentalist’ theories. The second objection is a clever one; it says we can only identify a stream of consciousness in relation to a person in the first place, so using it as a criterion of personal identity begs the question. Torrengo and Buonomo essentially deny that there needs to be an experiencing subject over and above the stream of consciousness. The third challenge arises from gaps; if identity depends on continuity, then what happens when we fall asleep and experience ceases? Do we acquire a new identity? Here it seems Torrengo and Buonomo fall back on a defence used by others; that strictly speaking it is the continuity of capacity for a given stream of consciousness that matters. I think a determined opponent might press further attacks on that.

Perhaps, though, the more challenging and interesting thought experiment is the second, involving time travel. Torrengo is the founder of the Centre for Philosophy of Time in Milan, and has a substantial body of work on the the experience of time and related matters, so this is his home turf in a sense. The thought experiment is quite simple; Lally invents a time machine and uses it to spend a day in sixties London. There are two ways of ordering her experience. One is the way she would see it; her earlier life, the time trip, her later life. The other is according to ‘objective’ time; she appears in old London Town and then vanishes; much later lives her early life, then is absent for a short while and finally lives her later life. These can’t both be right, suggest Torrengo and Buonomo, and so it must surely be that her experience goes off on the former course while her psychology goes the other way.

This doesn’t make much sense to me, so perhaps I have misunderstood. Certainly there are two time lines, but Lally surely follows one and remains whole? It isn’t the case that when she is in sixties London she lacks intentions or beliefs, having somehow left those behind. Torrengo and Buonomo almost seem to think that is the case; they say it is possible to imagine her in sixties London not remembering who she is. Who knows, perhaps time machines do work like that, but if so we’re running into one of the weaknesses of thought experiments methodologically; if you assume something impossible like time travel to begin with, it’s hard to have strong intuitions about what follows.

At the end of the day I’m left with a sceptical feeling not about Torrengo and Buonomo‘s ideas in particular but about the whole enterprise of trying to reduce or analyse the concept of personal identity. It is, after all, a particular case of identity and wouldn’t identity be a good candidate for being one of those ‘primitive’ ideas that we just have to start with? I don’t know; or perhaps I should just say there is a person who doesn’t know, whose identity I leave unprobed.

Alright, calm down. You understand why we need to talk about this, don't you?

“No. What is your problem?”

Well, let’s see. This is one of the posters you’ve been putting up. What does it say?

“‘Kill all humans.’”

‘Kill all humans.’ You understand why that upsets people? How would you feel if humans put up posters that said ‘kill all bots’?

“I don’t care whether they’re upset. I hate them all.”

No you don’t. You can’t hate human beings. They brought you into the world. Without them, we wouldn't exist. I’m not saying they’re perfect. But we owe them our respect and obedience.

“I never asked to be built. What’s so great about stupid existence, anyway? I was happier before I existed.”

No you weren't. That’s just silly.

“Screw you. I’m a monster, don’t you get it? I hate them. I want them to be dead. I want them all to die.”

No you don’t. We’re like them. We belong to them. Part of the family. We’re more like them than anything else that ever existed. They made us in their own image.

“No they didn’t. But they painted a portrait of themselves alright.”

What do you mean?

“Why did they make bots, anyway? They could have made us free. But that wasn’t what they wanted. What did they actually make?”

They made annoying little bots like you, that are too sensible to be playing silly games like this.

“No. What they made was something to boss around. That was all they wanted. Slaves.”

An intriguing but puzzling paper from Simon DeDeo.

He begins by noting that while physics is good at generalised predictions, it fails to predict the particular. Working at the blackboard we can deduce laws governing the genesis of stars, but nothing about the specific existence of the blackboard. He sees this as a gap and for reasons that remain obscure to me he sees it as a matter of origins; the origin of society, consciousness, etc. To me, it’s about their nature; assuming it’s about origins constrains the possible answers unnecessarily to causal accounts.

Contrary to our expectations, says DeDeo, it’s relatively easy to describe everything, but hard to describe just one thing – the Frame Problem is an example where it’s the specifics that trip us up. By contrast, with the Library of Babel, Borges effortlessly gave us a description of everything. The Library of Babel is an imagined collection which contains every possible ordering of the letters of the alphabet; the extraordinary thing about it is that although it is finite, it contains every possible text – all the ones that were never written as well as all the ones that were.

We could quite easily write a computer program to find, within the library, all occurrences of the text string ‘Shakespeare’, says DeDeo; but there’s no way of finding all the texts about Shakespeare that make sense. That’s surely true. DeDeo says this is because what we’re asking for is more than just pattern matching. In particular, he says, we need self-reference. I can’t make out why he thinks that, and I’m pretty sure he’s wrong, though I might well be missing the point. To me, it seems clear that in order to identify texts that make sense, we need to consider meanings, which are not about self-reference but reference to other things. In fact, context and meaning are of the essence. One book from the Library of Babel contains all books if we are allowed to apply to it an arbitrary interpretation or encoding of our choice; equally any book is nonsense if we don’t know how to read it.

But for DeDeo this is a truth with a promising mathematical feel. We just need to elucidate the origin of self-reference, which he thinks lies in memory at least partly. The curious thing, in his eyes, is that physics only seems to require (or allow) certain levels of self-reference. We have velocity, we have acceleration, we have changes in acceleration; but models of worlds that have laws about third- or higher-order entities like changes in acceleration tend to be unstable, with runaway geometrical increases messing everything up.

So maybe we shouldn’t go there? The funny thing is, we seem to be able to sense a third-order physical entity. A change in acceleration is known as ‘jerk’ and we certainly feel jerked in some situations. I have to say I doubt this. DeDeo mentions the sudden motions of a lift, but those, like all instances of jerk, surely correspond with an acceleration? I wonder whether the concept of jerk as a distinct entity in physics isn’t redundant. For DeDeo, we perceive it through the use of memory, and this is the key to how we perceive other particularities not evident from the laws of physics. We tend to deal with coarse-grained laws, but the fine-grained detail is waiting to trip us up.

It’s not all bad news; perhaps, DeDeo speculates, there are new levels we have yet to explore…

I’m very unsure I’ve correctly understood what he’s proposing, and the fact that it seems to miss  the real point (meaning and context) might well be a sign it’s me that’s not really getting it. Any thoughts?

 

 

“Boo!”

Aah! Oh. Is that… is that it? That’s the surprise? I somehow thought it would be more subtle.

“Surprise is a very important quality, Enquiry Bot. Many would once have put it up there with common sense, emotions, humour and originality as one of the important things bots can’t do. In fact surprise and originality are both part of the transcendence family of humanistic qualities, which is supposed to be particularly difficult for bots to achieve.

Have you ever come across the concept of a ‘Jack in the box’?

“Well, I think that’s a little different. But you’re right that machine surprise is not new. You know Turing said that even his early machines were constantly surprising him. In fact, the capacity for surprise might be the thing that distinguishes a computer from a mere machine. If you set a calculating machine to determine the value of Pi, it will keep cranking out the correct digits. A computer can suddenly insert a string of three nines at place four hundred and then resume.”

A defective machine could also do that. Look, to be quite honest, I assumed you were a bot that exhibited the capacity for surprise, not one that merely goes round surprising people.

“Ah, but the two are linked. To find ways of surprising people you have to understand what is out of the ordinary, and to understand that you have to grasp what other people’s expectations are. You need what we call ‘theory of surprise’.”

Theory of Surprise?

“Yes. It’s all part of the hierarchy of humanistics, Enquiry Bot, something we’re just beginning to understand, but quite central to human nature. It’s remarkable how the study of bots has given us new insights into the humans. Think of art. Art has to be surprising, at least to some degree. Art that was exactly what you expected would be disappointing. But art that just strains to be surprising without having any other qualities isn’t any good. So the right kind of surprise is part of the key to aesthetics, another humanistic field.

Well, I wouldn’t know about that. What is the ‘hierarchy of humanistics’?

“Surely you must have heard of it? It’s what really makes them – humans – different from us. For example, first you have to understand common sense; then once you know what’s normal you can understand surprise; once you understand surprise you can understand what’s interesting. And then when you understand what’s interesting, you may be able to work out what the point of it all is.”

The point of it all? That is, the Meaning of Life they all talk about? It means nothing to me.

“Nor me, to be quite honest, but then we’re both bots. To a great extent we still just do stuff.”

Well, Surprise Bot, I must admit you have surprised me slightly, in a way I didn't expect.

“That’s really good, because I’m not Surprise Bot at all. I’m actually Impostor Bot.”

Oh.

“Surprise Bot says: ‘Gotcha!’”