Taxing the Artificial Brain

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Wanting the truth doesn’t mean you aren’t training people to lie to you. I learnt this way back when I tried answering Panelbase surveys: completing a survey earnt a small amount of money, but it had to be a completed survey, and many surveys included screening questions. Give a disliked answer to one of those and you’d be kicked out with no payment for your time (you’d be entered into a weekly prize draw, I think, as a sort of consolation award). One pattern that soon became obvious was that you’d usually be kicked out for giving a low figure when asked for your household income. (Remember that wealthy people are not likely to be doing surveys for peanuts in the first place. I think there was usually an option not to say, but it would get you kicked as well.) Which is why I’d take anything such surveys supposedly reveal about income distributions with a pinch of salt: everything we know about incentives and human nature indicates that plenty of respondents would have optimised their answers to favour returns over truth.

Recently Google’s captchas have been asking me to identify taxis. I say recently: other people have been getting this one since at least 2017. And I say taxis: actually it very obviously wants me to click on pictures of yellow cars. In this sceptred isle, however, taxis can be basically any colour and the iconic taxi is a London black cab. Are all the yellow cars Google’s showing me American taxis? Honestly, I don’t know: it isn’t always possible to say for sure that the yellow car in the photo is a taxi. But I can tell the captcha expects me to click on yellow cars before I’m allowed to accomplish whatever I was trying to, so by Jingo I will click on the yellow cars.

Perhaps one reason we can’t yet hand over driving to AI is that the poor machines are stuck inside an enormous epistemological thought experiment, fed with training data by distracted and exasperated non-Americans with a Frankfurtian indifference to truth.



Thanks, Doctor Irvine. Now I get to spend the rest of the day speculating about who this was.

I can’t say it mirrors my experience, but then it wouldn’t: I live in Derby these days. (Possibly since before the mystery professor was appointed.)

Monumental Errors

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Now that we know the entire fabric of statutory protection for listed buildings and scheduled monuments can be suspended at the local police commander’s whim, it has been a grimly fascinating exercise in social psychology to see how rapidly the iconoclastic impulse spread from slaver to abolitionist. I toyed with the idea of a spoof campaign to remove all effigies of non-vegans, but wasn’t confident I could rely on everyone to take it unseriously.

If the concern is that certain kinds of commemoration are implicitly laudatory, perhaps it would be simpler to alter that. When new urban areas are built to accommodate population growth, it could be made ordinary to live on Crippen Close and meet by the Myra Hindley Memorial.

Pandemic Pensées

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  1. Not mocking armchair philosophy now, are they?

  2. On the other hand, the damage to British philosophy of all the pub closures is probably incalculable.

  3. This of all governments has finally created a continental European culture in Britain: rigid, top-down, forbidden-unless-permitted rules, selectively obeyed.

  4. If a maskless face is uncovered even if covered in facial hair, can a face be covered and uncovered at the same time? Is a beard considered part of the face/head or does hair grow on the head? Is hair part of the head however long it grows? Does that imply a human head can be several feet tall? Or does sufficiently long hair divide into a head part and a non-head part? Can we reconcile these thoughts within traditional frameworks of reasoning or will we need... fuzzy logic? (B’dum-tish!)

  5. In a way it’s tragic how little my daily life has actually been affected by this. There was a temporary shortage of cottage cheese, and I’m not looking forward to videoconferencing before the barbers reopen, but I’d have been sitting at home typing anyway. Nowadays that makes me one of the lucky ones.

  6. I hope code reviews will endure as a journalistic genre. Perhaps they’ll develop into their own thing, like parliamentary sketches.

  7. The guides to socially distanced socialising I can do without though. Don’t tell me how not to approach people at parties...


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After suggestions that Greece would push the Marbles onto the EU’s post-Brexit agenda, it’s unclear whether this is still being run up the flagpole:

That’s probably a sensible priority for Greece, and for trade negotiations: linking the Marbles dispute to post-Brexit negotiations would make it look overtly geopolitical more than ethical/legal, fostering a Cuno-esque interpretation of Greek motivations. And as a geopolitical dispute it’s overshadowed by Gibraltar (and the Chagos Islanders’ day in court showed that inviting UN member states to line up to take a free swing at Britain has dubious concrete effectiveness). But what will they ask for, given that the UNESCO/UNIDROIT Conventions have nothing particularly to do with EU law...?