The first three days of 2018 were unlike any I had ever experienced. I was in Laos visiting the town of Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its rich urban character and remarkably well-preserved architectural and cultural heritage. As I wandered the side streets — with its human-scale temples, humble homes, cool cafes, and seamless integration with the local ecosystem — I was struck by just how good this town made me feel. It was a sense of well-being so unique that it was almost palpable, yet difficult to put into words. What I found so striking wasn’t just its visual appearance, but also its acoustic ecology, its friendly residents, and its simple cuisine. As others who have visited Luang Prabang before me have noted, I learned after I returned home, it’s the kind of singular place that can elicit this sort of response for no other reason than just being there.
The experience reminded me
of what the acclaimed architect and urban theorist Christopher Alexander
described as architecture’s ability to heighten one’s sense of being in the
world. Under ideal circumstances, Alexander contends, the built environment
could help people “feel their own existence as human beings”; a certain kind of
existential experience can arise between building and individual.
Smart urban technology has the potential to transform our cities — but watch out for unintended consequences.
What would cities look like if they were built from scratch, from the internet up? This is the question being asked by Sidewalk Labs, the urban innovation unit of Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc. What’s emerging from this thought experiment is a new approach to city-building, one that sees urban districts as platforms for testing and refining technologies that improve quality of life. Sidewalk Labs’ mission, it claims, is not to create a city of the future, but to create the future of cities. Continue reading →
There is perhaps no scientific innovation more anticipated — or misunderstood — than artificial intelligence (A.I.). A.I. will transform every industry, from medicine to finance, from law to education, and from energy to agriculture. It holds the potential to bring unprecedented benefits to humanity, influencing how we will communicate, travel, learn, work, and live. It will fundamentally change how we see ourselves. It has the potential to help us solve some of our most enduring problems, from climate change to economic inequality.
A.I. isn’t without its risks, however. It seems increasingly likely that as long as we continue to make advances in A.I. we will one day build machines that possess intelligence far superior to our own. The concern is not that this “superintelligent” A.I. will become malevolent or evil, as is so often portrayed in pop culture and the media. Rather, the concern is that we will build machines that are so much more competent than we are that even the slightest divergence between their goals and our own could turn out to be disastrous. Even in the best-case scenario, where our interests and the interests of a superintelligent A.I. are aligned, we will still need to absorb the social and economic consequences. Continue reading →
Re What’s So Scary About Free Speech On Campus? (Nov. 14): I imagine that many of the so-called “social justice warriors” on college campuses would probably identify as left-leaning liberals, as I do on most issues. The irony, however, is that their reflexively irrational (and sometimes violent) opposition against anything they deem to be “offensive” demonstrates some of the most intolerant and illiberal behaviour possible.
Many of their arguments aren’t just intellectually dishonest – they’re corrosive to the very liberal values they think they’re defending.
Their illiberal ideas and behaviour perfectly demonstrate why we desperately need a new centre, one that defends secularism, science and free speech against their common enemies on both the left and the right.
Now, with Tropical Storm Ophelia developing into a hurricane, 2017 has become the first year since 1893 to have 10 Atlantic storms reach hurricane strength. The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season has been one of the most prolific on record — and the season doesn’t even finish until the end of November.
In September two earthquakes rocked Mexico City and surrounding areas in Central Mexico, killing hundreds and injuring thousands more. Dozens of buildings have collapsed, with countless more left uninhabitable due to structural damage and slated for demolition.
With these natural disasters come ecological destruction (or “ecological succession”, if you’re in a more positive frame of mind). It also hastens grief at the individual and societal scale. Life for many people in southeastern U.S., Caribbean islands, Central America and Mexico — including members of my own immediate family who live in Mexico City — has been upended, thrown into uncertainty and chaos for the foreseeable future.
The uncertainty and chaos that has enveloped what seems to be much of the world is not limited to just natural disasters. An anxiety, one that has an acutely contemporary quality to it, has also infected the political and societal landscape: Trump. Brexit. North Korea. Artificial intelligence. Islamic fundamentalism. Climate change. Identity politics. Neo-nazis. (You get the idea.)
Misinformation can now be spread effortlessly through the echo chambers of social media at an unprecedented scale and velocity. However postmodern these assaults on public facts may seem, they are, in fact, nothing new. The “post-truth” narratives and the construction of alternative realities are merely a reflection of a much deeper and more systemic problem, one that did not originate in the twenty-first century.
The problem is one of human cognition. We have a tendency to exhibit numerous biases, fallacies, and illusions — the very lifeblood of post-truth narratives. These behavioral and cognitive errors aren’t flaws in the system; rather, they arise as a result of being built into the very cognitive machinery that allows us to think. So while problematic post-truth narratives may appear to be imposed on us from outside or above, they are actually more of a collective manifestation of our default cognitive setpoint. Continue reading →
“The humanities are far more powerful than most people believe,” writesNew York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof in response to Donald Trump’s plans to cease all funding for the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
I couldn’t agree more with Kristof’s sentiment — and I’m an engineer.
Civilizations may indeed be built up from the resources and materials that constitute the technologies, industries, and cities within it, but I would argue that this infrastructure is really just an outward manifestations of the ideas, beliefs, and values that are embedded within the minds of its people.
Not only do we need the arts and humanities now more than ever, but we will need more of it in the future. The advent of powerful new technologies like artificial superintelligence, for example, will demand that its creators first be able to think clearly about (or even solve) some very old problems in moral philosophy.
As someone who understood this quite well once remarked, “Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution as well.” These words of wisdom were, in fact, voiced by a U.S. president, but it certainly wasn’t the current one. These were the words of Barack Obama.