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Posts Tagged ‘China

“Surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action”*…

 

Facial recognition

China’s facial recognition technology identifies visitors in a display at the Digital China Exhibition in Fuzhou, Fujian province, earlier this year

 

Collective wisdom is that China is becoming a kind of all-efficient Technocratic Leviathan thanks to the combination of machine learning and authoritarianism. Authoritarianism has always been plagued with problems of gathering and collating information and of being sufficiently responsive to its citizens’ needs to remain stable. Now, the story goes, a combination of massive data gathering and machine learning will solve the basic authoritarian dilemma. When every transaction that a citizen engages in is recorded by tiny automatons riding on the devices they carry in their hip pockets, when cameras on every corner collect data on who is going where, who is talking to whom, and uses facial recognition technology to distinguish ethnicity and identify enemies of the state, a new and far more powerful form of authoritarianism will emerge. Authoritarianism then, can emerge as a more efficient competitor that can beat democracy at its home game (some fear this; some welcome it).

The theory behind this is one of strength reinforcing strength – the strengths of ubiquitous data gathering and analysis reinforcing the strengths of authoritarian repression to create an unstoppable juggernaut of nearly perfectly efficient oppression. Yet there is another story to be told – of weakness reinforcing weakness. Authoritarian states were always particularly prone to the deficiencies identified in James Scott’s Seeing Like a State – the desire to make citizens and their doings legible to the state, by standardizing and categorizing them, and reorganizing collective life in simplified ways, for example by remaking cities so that they were not organic structures that emerged from the doings of their citizens, but instead grand chessboards with ordered squares and boulevards, reducing all complexities to a square of planed wood. The grand state bureaucracies that were built to carry out these operations were responsible for multitudes of horrors, but also for the crumbling of the Stalinist state into a Brezhnevian desuetude, where everyone pretended to be carrying on as normal because everyone else was carrying on too. The deficiencies of state action, and its need to reduce the world into something simpler that it could comprehend and act upon created a kind of feedback loop, in which imperfections of vision and action repeatedly reinforced each other.

So what might a similar analysis say about the marriage of authoritarianism and machine learning? Something like the following, I think. There are two notable problems with machine learning. One – that while it can do many extraordinary things, it is not nearly as universally effective as the mythology suggests. The other is that it can serve as a magnifier for already existing biases in the data. The patterns that it identifies may be the product of the problematic data that goes in, which is (to the extent that it is accurate) often the product of biased social processes. When this data is then used to make decisions that may plausibly reinforce those processes (by singling e.g. particular groups that are regarded as problematic out for particular police attention, leading them to be more liable to be arrested and so on), the bias may feed upon itself.

This is a substantial problem in democratic societies, but it is a problem where there are at least some counteracting tendencies. The great advantage of democracy is its openness to contrary opinions and divergent perspectives. This opens up democracy to a specific set of destabilizing attacks but it also means that there are countervailing tendencies to self-reinforcing biases. When there are groups that are victimized by such biases, they may mobilize against it (although they will find it harder to mobilize against algorithms than overt discrimination). When there are obvious inefficiencies or social, political or economic problems that result from biases, then there will be ways for people to point out these inefficiencies or problems.

These correction tendencies will be weaker in authoritarian societies; in extreme versions of authoritarianism, they may barely even exist…

In short, there is a very plausible set of mechanisms under which machine learning and related techniques may turn out to be a disaster for authoritarianism, reinforcing its weaknesses rather than its strengths, by increasing its tendency to bad decision making, and reducing further the possibility of negative feedback that could help correct against errors. This disaster would unfold in two ways. The first will involve enormous human costs: self-reinforcing bias will likely increase discrimination against out-groups, of the sort that we are seeing against the Uighur today. The second will involve more ordinary self-ramifying errors, that may lead to widespread planning disasters, which will differ from those described in Scott’s account of High Modernism in that they are not as immediately visible, but that may also be more pernicious, and more damaging to the political health and viability of the regime for just that reason.

So in short, this conjecture would suggest that  the conjunction of AI and authoritarianism (has someone coined the term ‘aithoritarianism’ yet? I’d really prefer not to take the blame), will have more or less the opposite effects of what people expect. It will not be Singapore writ large, and perhaps more brutal. Instead, it will be both more radically monstrous and more radically unstable…

Henry Farrell (@henryfarrell) makes that case that the “automation of authoritarianism” may backfire on China (and on the regimes to which it is exporting it’s surveillance technology): “Seeing Like a Finite State Machine.”

See also: “China Government Spreads Uyghur Analytics Across China.”

* Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison

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As we ponder privacy, we might recall that it was on this date in 1769 that the first patent was issued (in London, to John Bevan) for Venetian blinds.  Invented centuries before in Persia, then brought back to Venice through trade, they became popular in Europe, then the U.S. as both a manager of outside light and as an early privacy technology.

venetian blinds source

 

Written by LW

December 11, 2019 at 1:01 am

“He who controls the money supply of a nation controls the nation”*…

 

yuan1

 

In all economies, neither the amount of deposits nor the money supply hinge on national or household savings. When households and companies save, they do not alter the money supply. Banks also create deposits/money out of thin air when they buy securities from non-banks. As banks in China buy more than 80 per cent of government bonds, fiscal stimulus also leads to substantial money creation. In short, when banks engage in too much credit origination — as they have done in China — they generate a money bubble.

Over the past 10 years, Chinese banks have been on a credit and money creation binge. They have created Rmb144tn ($21tn) of new money since 2009, more than twice the amount of money supply created in the US, the eurozone and Japan combined over the same period. In total, China’s money supply stands at Rmb192tn, equivalent to $28tn. It equals the size of broad money supply in the US and the eurozone put together, yet China’s nominal GDP is only two-thirds that of the US. In a market-based economy constraints are in place, such as the scrutiny of bank shareholders and regulators, which prevent this sort of excess. In a socialist system, such constraints do not exist. Apparently, the Chinese banking system still operates in the latter.

[Emphasis added]

[image above: source]

* James A, Garfield

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As we practice parsimony, we might recall that it was on this date in 1972 that the longest running game show on American television, The Price is Right, hosted by Bob Barker, premiered on CBS.  Originally called The New Price Is Right to distinguish it from the earlier/original version (1956–65) hosted by Bill Cullen, it proved so popular in its own right that, in June 1973, the producers decided to drop the word “New” from its title.  In 2007, Drew Carey took over from barker as host.  Now in its 47th season, The Price Is Right has aired over 8,000 episodes since its debut and is one of the longest-running network series of any sort in United States television history.

BARKER source

 

“The international situation is desperate, as usual”*…

 

world_trade_bonds

 

Two experts agree that the days of increasingly easy and speedy global flows of goods, money, people, and ideas are over; the future that Tom Friedman evoked in The World is Flat is, at best, delayed.  But they have very different ideas of what this may mean…

First, Jean Pisani-Ferry: after a sharp precis of the forces that that have led us to what he calls a “spiky” world, he suggests…

US President Donald Trump’s ruthless use of the centrality of his country’s financial system and the dollar to force economic partners to abide by his unilateral sanctions on Iran has forced the world to recognize the political price of asymmetric economic interdependence. In response, China (and perhaps Europe) will fight to establish their own networks and secure control of their nodes. Again, multilateralism could be the victim of this battle.

A new world is emerging, in which it will be much harder to separate economics from geopolitics. It’s not the world according to Myrdal, Frank, and Perroux, and it’s not Friedman’s flat world, either. It’s the world according to Game of Thrones.

Read his piece in full at “Farewell, Flat World.”

Then consider the argument of Michael O’Sullivan, who agrees with Pisani-Ferry as to the diagnosis, but has a very different prognosis:

Globalization, at least in the form that people have come to enjoy it, is defunct. From here, the passage away from globalization can take two new forms. One dangerous scenario is that we witness the outright end of globalization in much the same manner as the first period of globalization collapsed in 1913. This scenario is a favorite of commentators because it allows them to write about bloody end-of-the-world calamities. This is, thankfully, a low-probability outcome, and with apologies to the many armchair admirals in the commentariat who, for instance, talk willfully of a conflict in the South China Sea, I suggest that a full-scale sea battle between China and the United States is unlikely.

Instead, the evolution of a new world order—a fully multipolar world composed of three (perhaps four, depending on how India develops) large regions that are distinct in the workings of their economies, laws, cultures, and security networks—is manifestly underway. My sense is that until 2018, multipolarity was a more theoretical concept—more something to write about than to witness. This is changing quickly: trade tensions, advances in technologies (such as quantum computing), and the regulation of technology are just some of the fissures around which the world is splitting into distinct regions. Multipolarity is gaining traction and will have two broad axes. First, the poles in the multipolar world have to be large in terms of economic, financial, and geopolitical power. Second, the essence of multipolarity is not simply that the poles are large and powerful but also that they develop distinct, culturally consistent ways of doing things. Multipolarity, where regions do things distinctly and differently, is also very different from multilateralism, where they do them together…

Read an interview with O’Sullivan and more of the excerpt from his new book, The Levelling: What’s Next After Globalization quoted above at “Globalisation is dead and we need to invent a new world order.”

For more on the history of nativism and protectionism, especially in the U.S., concluding, as Pisani-Ferry and O’Sullivan do, that they’re with for awhile, see David Kotok‘s “Borders.”

* Tom Robbins , Even Cowgirls Get the Blues

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As we renew our passports, we might recall that it was on this date in 1405 that Ming Dynasty admiral Zheng He set sail on the first of his seven exploratory “treasure voyages” to Southeast Asia, South Asia, Western Asia, and East Africa, exacting tribute and encouraging trade.

After his death, at the end of his seventh expedition, Ming naval efforts declined dramatically (the government’s attention having been diverted by a threat from the Mongols in their northwest).  1950s historians like Joseph Needham popularized the idea that after Zheng He’s voyages, China turned away from the seas (as reflected in to the Haijin edict) and was isolated from European technological advancements.  But modern historians point out that Chinese maritime commerce didn’t totally stop after Zheng He, that Chinese ships continued to participate in Southeast Asian commerce until the 19th century, and that active Chinese trading with India and East Africa continued long after the time of Zheng.

In any case, it’s clear that Zheng He belongs atop any list of maritime adventurers– the vanguard of globalization.

440px-Zhen_he

Statue from a modern monument to Zheng He

source

 

“Sometimes it’s better to light a flamethrower than curse the darkness”*…

 

Forget pepper spray…

A flame-thrower that can hurl a stream of fire half a metre long is being marketed in China to help women fend off unwanted advances.

The device is being billed on shopping websites as a must-have “anti-pervert weapon” that can be discreetly carried in a ladies’ handbag.

Some are shaped like a cigarette lighter and emit small flames, while others hurl fire for 50cm with temperatures of up to 1,800 degrees Celsius (3,300 Fahrenheit).

The flame-throwers sell from about £10 to over £30 on e-commerce sites, and one vendor boasted to local media how they can “scald or even disfigure an attacker.”…

Of course, in the U.S. an increasing number of women are apparently going directly to Smith and Wesson. More on the conflagratory choice at: “‘Anti-pervert’ flame-throwers for sale in China.”

See also the Hello Kitty Taser.

* Terry Pratchett,  Men at Arms: The Play

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As we wonder what that smoke coming from our purses could mean, we might recall that it was on this date in 1889 that the Great Fire of Spokane destroyed the city’s downtown.  The fire broke out at 6:00p, and the volunteer fire department responded promptly. But a malfunction at a pump station meant that there was no water pressure in the city, and thus, none for the firefighters to use.  After trying to starve the fire by razing buildings with dynamite, the firemen caught a break–  the winds died down, and the fire burned out of its own accord.  While all of Spokane’s center city was destroyed, only one person was killed.

The fire in its earliest stage, before it spread

source

 

 

Written by LW

August 4, 2017 at 1:01 am

“The first problem of living is to minimize friction with the crowds that surround you on all sides”*…

 

China, the country with the largest population in the world, has just found another 14 million people, equal to about one percent of its population of 1.37 billion

Note that 14 million people is a group larger than the populations of 124 of the world’s 197 countries– then read the full story at: “China keeps finding millions of people who never officially existed.)

* Isaac Asimov

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As we emphasize enrollment, we might tip the plumed birthday bonnet to Rene Descartes, the French philosopher and mathematician who thought and therefore was.  He was born on this date in 1596.

Many contemporaries (perhaps most notably, Pascal) rejected his famous conclusion, the dualist separation of mind and body; more (Voltaire, et al.), since.  But Descartes’ emphasis on method and analysis, his disciplined integration of philosophy and physical science, his insistence on the importance of consciousness in epistemology, and perhaps most fundamentally, his the questioning of tradition and authority had a transformative– and lasting– effect on Western thought, and has earned him the “title” of Father of Modern Philosophy.

“In order to improve the mind, we ought less to learn than to contemplate.”
– Rene Descartes

Frans Hals’ portrait of Descartes, c. 1649

source

Written by LW

March 31, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Man is the only animal that likes Tabasco sauce”*…

 

For years culinary detectives have been on the chili pepper’s trail, trying to figure out how a New World import became so firmly rooted in Sichuan, a landlocked province on the southwestern frontier of China. “It’s an extraordinary puzzle,” says Paul Rozin, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist, who has studied the cultural evolution and psychological impact of foods, including the chili pepper…

How the chili pepper got to China (and lots of other stops around the world): “Why Revolutionaries Love Spicy Food.

* “Philosophers have often looked for the defining feature of humans–language, rationality, culture and so on. I’d stick with this: Man is the only animal that likes Tabasco sauce” – Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, quoted in The New York Times

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As we remind ourselves that water doesn’t help, we might recall that it was on this date in 1858 that John L. Mason of New York was issued U.S. patent No. 22,186 for a Glass Jar,  “Improvement in Screw-Neck Bottles”– forever after known as “Mason jars.”  That same year he also invented the first screw top salt shaker.

 source

 

Written by LW

November 30, 2016 at 1:01 am

“Cloning is great. If God made the original, then making copies should be fine.”*…

 

Alternately:

Every new step in the direction of simplification – toward monoculture, say, ore genetically identical plants – leads to unimaginable new complexities…”
― Michael Pollan

In any case,

Animal cloning has been around for nearly 20 years, but has mostly been done for the sake of research. Now, a new commercial venture in Tianjin, China, plans to clone 100,000 beef cattle a year for meat production beginning in the first half of 2016.

The enterprise, made up of several academic and commercial organizations with financial support from the Chinese government, has the ultimate goal of ramping up production to a million cow embryos a year…

Read on at “China Planning Huge Facility to Clone Cows, Dogs & Racehorses.”

* Douglas Coupland

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As we ruminate on reproduction, we might send biological birthday greetings to Erasmus Darwin; he was born on this date in 1731.  Erasmus was an accomplished doctor (he declined an offer to be personal physician to Charles III), but is better remembered as a key thinker in the “Midlands Enlightenment”– a founder of the Lunar Society of Birmingham and author of (among other works) Zoonomia, or, The Laws of Organic Life, which contained one of the first formal theories of evolution… one that foreshadowed the theories of Erasmus’ reader– and grandson– Charles… all of which may soon seem quaint.

 source

Written by LW

December 12, 2015 at 1:01 am

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