Book Review: In Our Own Image

In Our Own Image is a book about the prospects of creating artificial intelligence as well as the cultural, economic, historical, philosophical, and political concerns about it by Greek author and scientist George Zarkadakis. The book considers the problem of AI from the perspectives of human evolution, cybernetics, neuroscience, programming, and computing power.

Zarkadakis begins by briefly speaking of his early years and doctoral research, then spends the rest of the introduction outlining what he will discuss in the rest of the book. The book proper is divided into three parts, each with five or six chapters. The first part covers the evolution of the human brain from the primate brain, especially the most recent 40,000 years. The role of language in accelerating human progress is discussed, as well as the effects of totemic thinking, story-telling, philosophical dualism, and theory of mind. The use of metaphor and narrative to understand the world is examined, along with the inaccuracies inherent in them. The invention, uses, and limitations of the Turing test are explored, as are Asimov’s laws of robotics and the role of AI in fictional stories throughout history.

The second part is about the nature of the mind. The differences in approach between dualism versus monism, rationalism versus empiricism, and materialism versus Platonism are discussed. The thought experiment of the philosophical zombie and the possibility of digital immortality are explained. On the matter of why there appears to be no other intelligent life in the cosmos, Zarkadakis shares an interesting hypothesis: science is an unnatural idea at odds with our cognitive architecture, and an intelligent alien species would be unlikely to widely adopt it. This means that the universe is likely full of Platos, as well as Ancient Greeces, Romes, Indias, Chinas, and Mayas, but is perhaps devoid of Aristotles and societies advanced beyond that of humanity in the early eighteenth century. Daniel Dennett’s explanation of consciousness is overviewed, as well as the contributions of a great number of scientists to the field of cognitive psychology. Finally, the field of cybernetics and its offshoots are examined, showing that the hard problem of consciousness is actually solved with ease. The brain-in-a-vat paradigm of consciousness is shown to be insufficient by applying cybernetic theory.

Everything up to this point lays the foundation for understanding the last part of the book. The third part details the history of computers and programming, from ancient theorists to more recent mathematicians, and from punched cards to modern electronics. The limitations of symbolic logic and the implications thereof against AI in conventional computers are explored, and possible solutions in the form of new electronic components and computer architectures are explained. Charles Babbage’s inventions are discussed, as well as the lost potential of their lack of adoption in their own time. The role of computational technology during World War II is considered, along with the results of government spending on computer research at the time. The development of supercomputers, including IBM’s Deep Blue and Watson, is outlined. The ‘Internet of things’ is compared and contrasted with true AI, and the possible societal impact of large-scale automation of jobs is considered. The possibility of evolving rather than creating AI is examined, as are the possible dispositions of an AI; friendly, malevolent, or apathetic. Interestingly, Zarkadakis shows that there is good reason to believe that a strong AI may exhibit autism spectrum disorders. A short epilogue that begins with a summary and then considers possible economic, political, and social implications of strong AI completes the book.

The book is well-researched and impeccably sourced, at least in its core subject matter. That being said, the book struggles to find an audience, as it can be a bit too technical for the average layperson, but does not venture deeply enough into the subjects it covers to interest a professional in AI-related fields. In other words, it is lukewarm where being either cold or hot is best. Zarkadakis also commits some ultracrepidarianism, particularly in the fields of economics and politics. He seems to believe that AI will overcome the limitations described by Hayek’s knowledge problem and Mises’s economic calculation problem, but unless AI can get inside of our heads and know us better than we know ourselves, this is impossible. In politics, he briefly mentions the possibilities of AI leading to anarchism or to neoreactionary-style absolute monarchies with computerized philosopher-kings, but does not give these possibilities the amount of consideration that they warrant. Finally, the book contains more typographical errors and grammatical abnormalities than a competent editor should fail to correct, though we may grant Zarkadakis some leeway because English is not his first language.

Overall, In Our Own Image is worth reading for those who already have some knowledge of the subject matter but would like to fill gaps in their understanding, but there is room for improvement and expansion.

Rating: 4/5

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Book Review: The Age of Jihad

The Age of Jihad is a book about political unrest in the Middle East by Irish journalist Patrick Cockburn. The book is a compilation of his notes and articles over a 20-year period (1996-2016) while traveling throughout the Middle East. Cockburn did direct reporting where possible, and relied upon first-hand accounts when venturing into certain places was too dangerous.

Cockburn begins with his reporting from Afghanistan in late 2001 as the United States began its intervention to remove the Taliban from power. Next, he shares his experiences of Iraq under sanctions from 1996, 1998, and 2001, followed by his experiences there during the American occupation from 2003 to 2010. This is followed by his next forays into Afghanistan from 2009 to 2012.

The next part of the book focuses on the Arab Spring and the events that followed, with particular emphasis on countries in which the rulers were not quickly deposed. Cockburn begins with the Libyan Civil War of 2011 that removed Muammar Gaddafi from power, along with the difficulties that followed. Sectarian violence in Yemen from 2009 to 2015 and the failed uprising in Bahrain in 2011 each get a chapter.

The last part of the book covers recent developments in Syria and Iraq. First, the Arab Spring in Syria and its development into the Syrian Civil War from 2011 to 2014 is discussed in two chapters. Another two chapters are devoted to the contemporaneous destabilization of Iraq. This culminates in the rise of ISIS and the establishment of the Caliphate, in and near which the final four chapters take place.

The book gives important insight into just how terrible daily life is for people in war-torn lands, including the near-absence of basic utilities, shortages of essential items, rampant unemployment, and fear of mistreatment both from rebel groups and one’s own government. The book is filled with anecdotes of behavior which have not been seen since the Renaissance in the West, and knowledge of this behavior helps to explain animosity toward migrants from that region. The reader may be familiar with some of the events described, but almost anyone would find new information somewhere in the book.

One comes away from the book with a sense that both Western and regional powers had to be trying to perform so poorly. Western powers sought to punish Saddam Hussein without regard for the Iraqi people who bore the brunt of sanctions. They ignored cultural attitudes and sectarian divisions while turning a blind eye to mass corruption that greatly weakened the nation-building projects in Afghanistan and Iraq. They removed dictators who were stabilizing forces, thus creating power vacuums which were filled by al-Qa’ida and its affiliates. It is difficult to be so maliciously incompetent without intending to do so.

Overall, Cockburn does an excellent job of conveying the reality on the ground in most of the conflicts in the War on Terrorism and the Arab Spring. The only real improvement would be to add sections on recent events in Egypt and Tunisia, which only get passing mentions as sources for jihadists in other places. The Age of Jihad belongs on the bookshelf of any serious student of recent history, the Middle East, revolutions, war, and/or the effects of foreign intervention.

Rating: 5/5

In Defense of Russian Hacking

One of the most prominent news stories both during and after the 2016 presidential campaign is the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and phishing of then-Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s email system, along with the public release of thousands of emails, many of which included damaging revelations about the Democratic Party and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

The US government publicly announced on October 7, 2016 that it was “confident” Russia orchestrated the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and other political organizations of the Democratic Party. On December 29, 2016, the FBI and DHS released a report which details evidence that Russia was behind the attacks. President-elect Donald Trump rejects this assessment, pointing to the intelligence community’s numerous failures over recent years as cause to view their conclusions with suspicion. Of course, the establishment media have used this as an opportunity to attack Trump, and Trump’s opponents have used this to try to delegitimize his electoral victory.

Many of the most important facts of the case are dubious and/or classified, so the general public may not have the full details for many years to come. Even though there is no evidence that the actual voting process was hacked, let us assume for the sake of argument that the Russian government was responsible for the most extreme charge made by anyone: that of altering the outcome of the election to hand Trump the Presidency. I will attempt to show that if they did this, they were justified in doing it.

Preventing Nuclear War

Those who believe that the state is a necessary institution almost unanimously take the position that a government’s primary purpose is to defend its subjects from external threats. In the world today, there is no greater potential threat to Russian citizens than a war with the United States. Of the two major presidential candidates, Clinton was the most bellicose toward Russia, and her interventionist position on the Syrian Civil War had great potential to bring American and Russian forces into direct conflict with each other. Once two global powers are at war, developments can quickly spiral out of hand. Given the great advantage that the United States enjoys in conventional military firepower, the Russians could very well escalate to the use of nuclear weapons. Thus, Clinton was more likely to cause World War III and the end of life as we know it than Trump. Therefore, in the estimation of a competent Russian policymaker, it was in the best interest of Russian citizens (and everyone else, for that matter) for Russia to interfere in the US presidential election to help Trump win.

Ancient Liberty

From ancient times, there has been a sense that at least some of the citizenry should have a voice in determining the nature of governing structures which affect them. If we take this premise to its logical conclusion, one should not only have some means to alter the state in one’s own jurisdiction, but every state which has a measurable effect on one’s life. Being the most powerful and dangerous state apparatus in human history, the United States government affects everyone in the world through its foreign policy. Non-citizens of the United States are legally prohibited from voting in US elections under pain of fines, imprisonment, inadmissibility, and/or deportation. Non-citizens are also legally prohibited from funding political campaigns, parties, or communications. But a foreign national does have the means to alter a US election result by hacking political party servers, emails of campaign staff, and/or voting machines. Though a state does not legitimately act as the agent of its citizens in theory, this is the current way of the world. For the state to monopolize the service of representing an individual’s interests on the global stage is a travesty, but to monopolize this service and then fail to provide it is even worse. So again, if the state is to defend its subjects against external threats and act as their agent in foreign affairs, then a government may interfere with another government’s democratic process to attempt to ensure favorable results for its people.

The Moral Low Ground

The establishment media is attempting to sell outrage over Russian interference in American democracy, but is conveniently omitting the fact that espionage is a nearly universal aspect of statecraft, and cyber-warfare is an essential aspect of this for all states which are capable of it. Even allies spy on each other in the hopes of avoiding being blindsided by a sudden shift in foreign policy. The idea that the Russian government is aggressing against Americans absent any cyber-attacks by the US government against Russia is too naïve to take seriously. Furthermore, as the US has a dark and bloody history of dealing with unfavorable election trends by means of carrying out political assassinations, aiding coups d’état, and militarily invading other countries, American political leaders have no room to talk about another state interfering non-violently in a foreign country’s political processes.


Regardless of the actual facts of the case, the Russian government would have been justified in trying to prevent a war between two nuclear states, as well as in acting on behalf of its citizens rather than failing to do so. Such a sharp line of argumentation has gone completely unexplored by the establishment media, and one may speculate that this is due to a combination of their role as propagandists for the US government, a lack of insightful boldness, and the implications of such reasoning for the status quo global political arrangement.

The Dark Side Of Decentralization

Decentralization is viewed by many libertarians as the best path to freedom, and there are none to speak of who would discount it entirely, even if they think it to be a secondary tactic to some other method. Thus far, decentralization has taken many forms. Bitcoin can grant its users freedom from taxation, currency debasement, and capital controls. Peer-to-peer file-sharing has limited the abilities of government to enforce intellectual property laws. 3D printers have the potential to render both gun control laws and patents irrelevant. Onion routing has freed many people from censorship and allowed for marketplaces that circumvent drug bans. These results are positive and growing with each passing day, despite the occasional minor setback.

All of these tools (and more) have been used to great effect to promote liberty by circumventing state power, but decentralization itself is fundamentally amoral. It is a tactic that can be used by the forces of darkness as well. The most prominent example as of this writing is Islamic terrorism.

There was a time when major terrorist attacks, like those of 9/11, were the biggest fear of people in the West. This was the height of centralized terrorism, when 19 agents of al-Qaida hijacked four airplanes and killed nearly 3,000 civilians in a well-planned, well-funded, highly coordinated operation. Here, the state displayed its strong suit: it can effectively destroy centralized enemies. If there is a physical target that can be bombed or a living person that can be exterminated, states are usually able to carry out those acts. (Of course, they frequently go overboard with their bombings and killings, which gives more people cause to become terrorists, but statists rarely care about this, as prolonged war is prolonged health of the state.) The regimes of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein quickly fell after the US military invaded their respective lands. But in their wake came decentralized enemies in the form of anti-occupation insurgents and new terrorist cells. These have proven difficult, if not impossible, to defeat. After all, governments, with their bureaucratic red tape and intrinsic inefficiencies, must be correct every time. Islamic jihadists, with their ability to remotely recruit and train new terrorists anywhere in the world, need only be correct once. They can even strike from beyond the grave, as videos made by the late Anwar al-Awlaki are still bringing new people into the ranks of Islamic terrorism.

So, what to do about the dark side of decentralization? It, like the darkness of centralization, is best fought with the light side of decentralization. We already have some examples of how this might work. After the Boston Marathon bombing, the city of Boston was put under martial law. But agents of the state did not find Dzhokhar Tsarnaev; a private citizen found Tsarnaev hiding in his boat. After the Charlie Hebdo shooting, 10,000 soldiers filled the streets of Paris. But they did not find the shooters; a man hiding under a sink in the building they occupied informed the authorities of their location. In both cases, locating terror suspects was better performed by private individuals than by government agents. The next step is to decentralize the means of dealing with the threat posed by terrorists by using competing private security forces against terrorists. This would increase effectiveness because private security forces would compete with each other to provide the best service at the lowest cost and could be fired for incompetence and/or overreach. And because aggression increases the cost of providing security, the sort of foreign policy misadventures that magnify the number of Islamic terrorists would be drastically curtailed, if not eliminated outright, if government militaries were replaced with private security forces.

Of course, central governments will not stop oppressing their populations unless and until they must, which will only happen with a combination of advancing technology and a willingness to use it in self-defense. In such oppression, centralization and the dark side of decentralization are allies, together for the long haul. For the state to win the war on terrorism would be against its rational self-interest, as the terrorists give the state an excuse to operate, grow, and oppress private individuals in the name of national security. For the state to lose the war on terrorism would also be against its rational self-interest, as failing at the one job it is supposedly solely capable of performing would quickly lead to its overthrow. The terrorists, for their part, need the state to motivate new recruits who would not be brought in by religious fundamentalism alone, as the military interventions that anger people in their home countries would be difficult, if not impossible, with competing private security forces in place of government militaries. In this sense, the state and Islamic terrorism are symbiotic enemies that must defeated together by the third side of libertarian decentralization.

How To Stop Government Bitcoin Sales

On June 27, the US Marshals Service conducted the auction of 29,656.51306529 Bitcoins. They have been in the possession of the federal government since they were stolen through civil asset forfeiture from Ross Ulbricht upon his arrest in October 2013 on charges of narcotics trafficking conspiracy, computer hacking conspiracy, and money laundering conspiracy for allegedly running the anonymous Internet marketplace Silk Road.

From a philosophical libertarian perspective, this is a travesty. Agents of the state seized Ulbricht’s Bitcoins and sold them under civil asset forfeiture laws, which allow agents of the state to take any person’s property and sell it at auction by accusing that person of a crime and confiscating the property as evidence. It matters not whether the person is later exonerated of all charges; neither the property nor its value may be recovered. If a group of private citizens were to act in the same manner, it would be possible to bring federal charges against them of robbery, receipt of stolen monies, transportation of stolen monies, and conspiracy to commit the aforementioned crimes. These crimes carry a maximum combined sentence of 52.5 years in prison and a fine of $750,000. But because the agents of the US Marshals Service are agents of the state, and the state has a monopoly on the enactment and enforcement of laws, they will face no punishment for this conduct.

Of course, the best way to combat injustice is through direct action. While it is too late to stop the theft and auction of Ulbricht’s Bitcoins, cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin provide several mechanisms for preventing other such events from happening in the future. Let us examine some of them.

1. Use strong encryption methods when engaging in state-disapproved activities. Ulbricht failed to do this, even revealing his real name on an Internet forum using an unencrypted connection, which allowed agents of the state to link him to Silk Road and make an arrest. It is possible to encrypt a wallet so strongly that even the most powerful computers cannot crack it by the laws of thermodynamics. One can also use the Tor network and mixing pools to make it more difficult for agents of the state to spy on one’s activities.

2. Use cold storage outside of one’s computer. Ulbricht kept the Bitcoins being auctioned, as well as another 144,342 Bitcoins linked to Silk Road, on his personal computer. If he had stored them in a cloud-based wallet service, a cryptocurrency exchange, an encrypted USB drive, a silver ring, or some other medium, they would have been much more difficult to seize and auction.

3. Give access to one’s Bitcoin wallet to a confidant. This is somewhat risky, as the confidant could betray the Bitcoin user and steal the Bitcoins out of a wallet. But if Ulbricht had done this, then the operating funds of Silk Road along with Ulbricht’s personal Bitcoins could have been kept out of state hands and given to another person who could continue running the operation without losing assets.

4. Use assassination markets to discourage agents of the state. An assassination market is a prediction market in which people can anonymously place bounties on people and receive payment for correctly guessing the date of unnatural death of an individual in advance. Several of these already exist. Such a market could be used to increase the hazard level of being a politician who passes legislation against non-aggressive behavior (such as that of Ulbricht in operating Silk Road), or of being an enforcement agent for such legislation, to the point that few would want to take the risk of doing such things.

5. Implement a method of tarnishing stolen Bitcoins. Such a method is not currently part of any cryptocurrency, but a framework for such a method has been created. The idea is to add a function, either to the Bitcoin protocol or as an external supplement, that informs users that a particular amount of cryptocurrency is stolen money or otherwise ill-gotten. This would disincentivize dealing with people who steal cryptocurrencies or use them in the commission of aggressive acts, as well as dealing with people who deal with such people.

6. Convince enough Bitcoin miners to use a majority of the hash rate to stop transfer of seized Bitcoins. This method goes one step further than tarnishing Bitcoins; it effectively freezes them. The blockchain is a public ledger that is a fundamental part of Bitcoin. The process of mining includes maintaining and updating the blockchain. If miners who control a majority of the hashing rate do not wish to see a particular transaction performed, they have the power to stop it by denying it any confirmations. While this is normally a bad thing in the form of a 51% attack on the network, it could be used to prevent governments from selling seized cryptocurrency.

It is thus clear that Bitcoin users have many tools at their disposal to thwart agents of the state who would do to others what has been done to Ross Ulbricht. It is now up to each member of the Bitcoin community to use them as one sees fit.

The Santa Claus Lie And The Harm It Does To Children

Every year on Christmas Eve, children across America eagerly await a visit from Santa Claus. Children are typically led to believe that he is a nice man who visits the homes of good children to bring them presents. While many parents may believe that this is a harmless “white lie”, there is a case to be made that the myth of Santa Claus is actually very harmful to children. Let us examine the facts.

First, we begin with the true origin of Santa Claus and the custom of leaving presents under a tree. His original form was nothing like his common appearance today. The custom of presents placed under a tree began with mother/child cult of Semiramis and Nimrod in ancient Babylon. The mythology says that Nimrod married his mother, setting her up as the “queen of heaven” and himself up as the “divine son of heaven.” The two of them had a son named Tammuz. Upon Nimrod’s death, Semiramis claimed to see an evergreen tree spring up to full size overnight, symbolizing the “new life of Nimrod.” She then taught Tammuz to go into forests and make offerings to his father on the day that is December 25 in the Gregorian calendar (the origin of the date of Christmas), who was now worshiped as the sun god Ba’al, the false god mentioned numerous times in the Old Testament of the Bible. This Babylonian myth is the true origin of the custom of leaving presents under a tree. The custom was well-known to the author of the book of Jeremiah in the Old Testament, which includes the following:

“Do not learn the way of the Gentiles; do not be dismayed at the signs of heaven, for the Gentiles are dismayed at them. For the customs of the peoples are futile; for one cuts a tree from the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the ax. They decorate it with silver and gold; they fasten it with nails and hammers so that it will not topple. They are upright, like a palm tree, and they cannot speak; they must be carried, because they cannot go by themselves. Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, nor can they do any good.” ~Jeremiah 10:2-5 (NKJV)

The book of Jeremiah is believed to have been written in the late 7th century and early 6th century BCE, which was well before the time of Jesus, disproving any assertions that the customs surrounding Christmas were an invention of Christians. According to William L. Langer’s Encyclopedia of World History, Nimrod was also known as “Santa” throughout Asia Minor. Another name for Nimrod, used in Greece, was “Nikolaos.” The name Nikolaos (Nicolas) is a combination of the Greek words nikos and laos, which together mean “victory over the laity” or “conqueror of common people.” So “Santa Claus” or “Saint Nicholas” is really a manifestation of the ancient cults of Babylon.

Now that we know the truth about the Santa Claus myth, let us examine what a parent is doing when telling a child that Santa Claus is real. Parents who participate in the Santa Claus lie are destroying their own credibility. The children will someday realize that their parents have lied to them, and while this particular lie may not do a great deal of damage in and of itself, the fact is that the children cannot trust their parents after that point. This can lead to trust issues that persist even into adult life, as well as damage a fundamental and irreplaceable relationship in a young person’s life.

Another danger is that the Santa Claus myth teaches children to believe in entities whose existence and efficacy are not supported by credible evidence. A scientific analysis of what Santa Claus and his flying reindeer would have to do to fulfill the conditions set for him shows that he would have to endure G-forces more than 1,000 times beyond what is lethal. The idea of gifts coming seemingly out of nowhere, deus ex machina style, to those who deserve them, requires a supernatural violation of physics as well as economics. If a child can be taught to believe in Santa Claus in the absence of credible evidence, then it will be easier for them to fall prey to religious cults or confidence schemes later on.

But perhaps the most damaging aspect of the Santa Claus myth relates to the similarities between Santa Claus and the institution of the state. Remember the song that goes, “He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake?” The idea of a benevolent gift-giver who regularly violates one’s right to privacy is a close approximation of government under the ideals of collectivism, and sets up children to be accepting of a state apparatus that frequently violates their natural rights. A young child is not yet able to grasp the ideas of the state, taxation, bribery, etc., but he or she can understand the idea of rewards for obedience. Thus the myth of Santa Claus makes the subjects of the state easier to control, and helps to fulfill the definition of the name “Saint Nicolas.”

All things considered, the story of Santa Claus is a setup for destroying trust in the family, trust in reason and science, and the desire for freedom and liberty in the mind of a child. For this reason, we can fairly say that telling the Santa Claus lie to children is a form of mental abuse. If you want children to value honesty and have a healthy, independent mind, tell them the truth about Santa Claus.