Original: August 14, 2021
Revised: Nov 3, 2021
A Touch of Politics
(the sole purpose of this page is to inform aibluedot's reader of some political biases
so the reader can moderate the issues on aibluedot when those biases occur 🙏)
Everything is politics.
I moved this foray into politics from the About the Author page on aibluedot to here. The explanation I gave there was that the politics were becoming a distraction from the main issues and that they were more personal, therefore belonging here. If the issues on aibluedot and the technical motivations (which are still there) were clear, then there would be no reason to hear ramblings about political motivations. So I assume that the reader made peace with that "technical versus political" split and is reading this in search of further clarifications.
I am fully aware that politics can be distasteful and one may think I could have avoided it altogether. But this is not the case with AI. One cannot talk about AI without touching on politics. AI will dramatically increase the impact of politics in our lives, as we see it daily with social media algorithms favoring outrage and division, psychographic profiling and segmentation during elections, rising sophistication of cyberattacks on governmental and financial institutions, and job losses due to automation. Most importantly, there is one consistent thread alongside the development of AI, one which concerns me the most. Because of its nature, AI is more aligned with centralized autocratic institutions than with messier and more distributed democratic institutions. Please keep this in mind when you read through aibluedot, especially if living in a democracy is what you continue to wish for. Apart from this democratic versus autocratic proposition, I have no desire to draw you into my circle of opinions, I am not running for political office here. So there we go ... a deep breath now 😉 !
One noticeable thing on the aibluedot website is the cursory mention of the European Community. There is a lot about the development of AI in China, in Canada (where many of the deep learning techniques originated), some thoughts on Russia, India, and Japan, but not much on the impact of AI on the largest economic bloc in the world. Why is that? European by birth and Canadian American by choice, I tend to look at the US, Canada, and the EC as being inseparable, especially with regards to AI concerns and proposed regulations. And by the way, the EC is ahead of the US in data privacy and the ethics of AI. (And by the 2nd by the way, for me Brexit did not happen ... insert the proper emoticon here!) That special relationship went south during the past US Administration but both sides are currently working to restore and even enhance it:
I grew up in communist Romania and my political views were shaped by the Cold War. I have seen the effects it had on people, from both sides of that war. After college graduation (Computer Science), I could not work at a certain institute in Bucharest where I was assigned, because my mother had emigrated to Israel 17 years earlier; funny thing, I have not met her once during that time. Mine wasn't the only "bad" file, 7 out of 10 of us who were assigned to that institute were in the same position, a symptom of communist paranoia.
I then moved to Israel myself and got my first job with a dream company, which happened to be the main supplier of computing equipment to the Israeli army. One year into my job, I had to do the standard army service. And after boot camp, I was supposed to work in the army's computer engineering unit for the rest of my service. But now because my father was a known journalist on the other side of the Cold War, and there was the possibility of him being pressured, it turned out that I could not work in such a sensitive unit. But at least this time it made some sense, not from my viewpoint but from the army's viewpoint.
After that exposure to the Cold War, I moved to Canada, and later to the U.S., adding two more citizenships to my previous two. But those were the times, I get that; and despite all those tribulations, both Romania and Israel are in my heart; I met wonderful people in both countries and formed lasting friendships. Not surprisingly, I get chuckles from the passport control anytime I visit either country. Anyway, it's wonderful to see that my beloved formerly communist Europe is now breathing the same air as its Western counterpart.
Speaking of the US-EU relationship, which was noticeably strengthened during the Cold War, there have been in more recent years two politicians whom I admired in particular and who have contributed significantly to that strengthening. One has left the stage and the other is about to leave it at the end of 2021. One has shown me a face of America at its best. With the other I have a sort of historical affinity: we are the same age, chose science as a career, grew up under communism and are longtime subscribers to classical liberal democratic principles. The two of them so happen to have established one of the most endearing and consequential political relationships.
I grew up staring at a wall in my face; I am determined not to see
any more barriers erected in Europe during the remainder of my lifetime.
Before leaving the international politics and returning to US internal politics, I should say a few words about the conflict in the Middle East and the increasing tension with China. I played bridge at Technion many times with Palestinians, enjoyed pork at Arab restaurants and I do not for one moment believe that peace is impossible. And as a matter of fact, I make the point in one of the articles of the website, utopian or crazy as it may seem, that maybe AI is the conduit to that peace. I also make a complementary point repeatedly, in the context of a new bipolar US-China world. Namely, that the US needs to, AI or not AI, bring peace and stability to the Middle East (without using force!) and keep both the Israelis and their current adversaries into the Western alliance. The world is still in love with the American model, a huge and mostly untapped capital, but not with the American tanks.
Regarding China, while it is true that resisting Chinese trade practices and cavalier treatment of intellectual property is necessary, I believe that a realistic view of China as the most astonishing transformation of a country in the last 40 years and a deep respect for its accomplishments are essential if we are to forge a peaceful future together. How we combine that respect with a completely warranted suspicion of China's geopolitical designs is one of the most challenging questions of our time. This is a huge subject and aibluedot covers it in some depth, especially the article AI in a Bipolar World.
Secondly, as I mention many times, the immigration policies of the previous Administration, as far as the future of AI is concerned, have been most worrisome. These policies have created the impression, justified or not, that the U.S. doors are closing. The timing was particularly bad with respect to AI: there is an extreme worldwide shortage of skilled AI engineers and scientists and we need to offer unambiguous support to all those who want to come here, no matter where they come from.
There are signs that the immigration policies of the new Biden Administration will be addressing this shortage of skills in AI. There are also early indications that this Administration will pay a more sustained attention to core AI matters. The elevation of the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to cabinet-level position is one of those significant indicators. The appointment to that position of Eric Lander, the founding director of the MIT-Harvard Broad Institute and a well respected mathematician and geneticist, also points to the seriousness to come. Equally noteworthy is the appointment of Alondra Nelson, the Harold F. Linder Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study and the president of the Social Science Research Council, as the deputy director of OSTP. Dr. Nelson is an expert sociologist, and as I am trying to make the case repeatedly throughout the aibluedot website, the sociological implications of the rise of AI will hopefully be at the center of any legislative initiatives.
I am a registered Democrat, and I jokingly say that I belong to the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party; i.e., I am a centrist Democrat and I value cooperation on practical issues more than confrontation on ideology. I have voted for Barack Obama twice and I would have voted for him a third time if I could have. I voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and I believe she would have been a very successful president. Although our intelligence services have concluded that Russia has indeed interfered in the 2016 elections against Clinton's interests, the proposition that they coordinated that interference with her opponent, like all other conspiracy theories, left or right, made little sense. I voted for Joe Biden in the 2020 California Democratic primary and also in the 2020 general election. Lastly, although I have voted consistently Democratic, I would have no trouble listening to a moderate Republican.
Although I lived in the US most of my life, certain events still take me by surprise. It is as if the stunned silence on a dirt soccer field in Bucharest on one November day in 1963 when JFK was assassinated would never find its full explanation. And then there is January 6, 2021. This time it cut deeper because I saw it coming with my own eyes. I had been active on Twitter and because of his large following (88 million at that time), the tweets of the former President kept showing up in my feed.
If you understand how these recommender algorithms on social media work, it should come as no surprise; even though I was not a follower of his, the people that I followed or who followed me, were. Eventually, things were heating up to such a degree that I began reading his tweets deliberately, sometimes 20 of them coming in short bursts. There was not one whiff of doubt that he was inciting his followers with all-capitals very short tweets: "WE WON!", "RIGGED ELECTIONS!", and so on. Daily, just minutes apart at times, and obsessively. Twitter was left with no reasonable choice other than to ban him. But what is more puzzling is not those tweets, professionals have diagnosed that obsessive behavior much better than I could. What is puzzling is the paralysis of our governing institutions to correctly assess that behavior and act accordingly, then and now.
Falsehoods do not have long lives. The tables always turn, and they turn towards the truth. The East European communism was a falsehood, and the tables turned. I have the deepest appreciation for the 10 Republican House members who placed country over party and voted for the second impeachment: Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, Liz Cheney of Wyoming, John Katko of New York, Fred Upton of Michigan, Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington, Dan Newhouse of Washington, Peter Meijer of Michigan, Anthony Gonzalez of Ohio, Tom Rice of South Carolina, David Valadao of California. And for the 7 Republican senators who also voted for impeachment: Richard Burr of North Carolina, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mitt Romney of Utah, Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. One day the tables will turn once more and the nation will acknowledge those votes with gratitude. Special words of admiration for Liz Cheney, who may very well end up some day being a President of the US. A staunch conservative with a consistent record in the House, to this liberal, Cheney has shown character and heart; people will forget many things about the current situation, but they will not forget that.
The progressive wind going through the Democratic Party intrigues me. My assumption is that younger Democrats are clear and passionate about their goals, work to chisel rather than shake the foundations of liberal democracy, and will not allow their valuable progressive ideas to be painted as resembling past Marxist versions. Some of these progressive ideas bring in a badly needed fresh perspective and are due for a healthy debate; I consider Bernie Sanders' speeches to be the best political speeches we have heard lately, although my views are at the right of Sanders. I believe that the Democratic party must focus on kitchen table issues, where it has a natural edge, not convoluted academic arguments. I believe that police must be much more funded, especially when it comes to civic education, racial harmony, and community engagement, not de-funded.
During the 2016 election cycle, I was intrigued by the Sanders/Trump intersection of voters, people who despite the ideological gulf between the two, would have voted for either one given the choice, which I chalked down to a desire to listen to unconventional ideas, because the conventional ones had not alleviated the pain their families were feeling. Which pain was mostly due to AI taking jobs away. And which pain will only grow in 2022 and beyond.
At his first press conference on March 25, 2021, President Biden mentioned specifically AI and quantum computing among the items that will be receiving increased funding. He also mentioned that the research part of the budget, which sank from a traditional 2% of the budget to 0.7% during the previous Administration, will be restored to its 2% traditional level. It's not nearly enough, and I hope the Administration is hearing the alarms sounding louder and louder in the AI community about the worldwide competitive landscape. Especially concerning to me, maybe because of my Cold War exposure, is the low level of AI used in the Department of Defense projects, when compared to the one in the private sector. Which low level is mainly due to the generally uncooperative stance struck by both Silicon Valley and the DoD. China's hypersonic missile should help make that point to both sides.
A non-partisan speech as relevant today as it was then