Transcendence

Transcendence” is the title of a movie about Artificial Intelligence (AI).  I was interested in this movie because I recently wrote a long short story that I entitled “The Brain Collector” based on the concept that the human brain is significantly more capable computationally and in terms of energy efficiency than any super-computer that has been devised by man.  So why not use the human brain as a computer?  I submitted my story to a sci-fi magazine and I’m waiting for their decision.

The movie is based on the concept that at a certain point in time in the future computer AI and the human brain will coalesce, a point that has been labelled “the singularity” by the futurist Ray Kurzweil.  The time after that occurs according to this movie will be “the transcendence.”  The plot of the movie is that a very clever computer scientist, who has managed to make breakthroughs in monitoring the activity of monkey brains using computer technology is shot by anti-technology extremists, and while he is dying he has himself attached to the computer and “uploads” his own brain activity into the computer. Together with the internet this makes him omnipotent and he starts to replan the future of mankind according to his own decisions about its needs.  

This film could be labelled science fiction, except that it veers very strongly into science fantasy.   There were several aspects about this movie that disturbed me.  1. The plot takes a decidedly anti-technology turn, namely that the anti-technology extremists are shown to be right, namely once this man’s brain is absorbed into the computer he becomes dictatorial and begins to control everyone and everything; 2. When his brain activity combines with the internet he is seen to be unstoppable and the only way to stop the all-powerful computer-brain is to turn off the internet; 3. By setting up his own energy source and carrying out experiments with plants and humans he is able to make ultra-strong followers who cannot be killed; 4. He develops through the use of nano-technology mini-bots that can reproduce themselves and “take-over” the world; 5. The idea that the US Govt. would not know about this huge development in the desert (how could they build it without being detected) and that in response the US Govt. would send two trucks and one artillery gun is ludicrous. 

This is all very silly.  First, the internet is merely a source of information that anyone can access (for good or ill).  It’s like saying get rid of libraries because there is evil in some books. Second, nano-technology is merely a means of making very small things, it cannot solve all the world’s problems.  Thus, the idea that some nanotechnology mini-bots would somehow come out of the ground and rebuild photovoltaic cells and plants and humans is pure fantasy, and has nothing to do with the central question of whether or not a human brain can be combined with AI.  

But, by definition AI is not natural intelligence.  In fact the test devised to tell when AI has been achieved is the Turing Test, when a man could not tell whether or not he is communicating with a machine or another man.  Therefore, a human brain has natural intelligence not AI and so does not need AI to function effectively.  The idea that AI will somehow augment and improve the natural functions of the brain is pure fantasy.  AI merely attempts to achieve the level of intelligence exhibited by the human brain. Nevertheless, the movie “Transcendence” is a good start in exploring some of these issues, if only they had stuck with science fiction and did not extend into stupid science fantasy.

Advertisements

The Turkish Vote

The Turkish people have voted in effect to make President Erdogan their Muslim dictator.  They have voted “Yes” to make Turkey great again.  This is what Kemal Ataturk feared when he established the modern Turkish Republic after WWI and made it a secular democracy.  He deliberately separated State and religion and when asked about this he said “religion is a private matter.”  He stood for a smaller, secular Turkey and he was the one who abolished the Caliphate that had ruled the Turkish Empire. Erdogan and his avid followers are those who, while proclaiming support for Ataturk’s vision of Turkey, have in fact destroyed it.

Yet, in terms of Islam, Erdogan is a moderate.  He fights against the Islamic State.  But, part of the reason he does is that he would prefer to see the Islamic State in Turkey. He would like to return to the days of the Turkish Empire, when Turkey was a great power. Yet, Turkey was then, and to some extent still remains, “the sick man of Europe.”  On TV from Lebanon I saw a young Arab Muslim woman (uncovered by any hijab or scarf) proclaim enthusiastically that the Arab peoples support this vote of the Turksih people and pray for Turkey to become a strong power again in opposition to the Western imperialists, the USA, Britain and Israel.   One might be forgiven for thinking that after 800 years of Turkish domination the Arabs might have learned something.  But, no they are praying for Turkey to lead the Sunni Muslim world again against the Western powers.

This desire to be great again is a world-wide phenomenon, encompassing Trump in the USA, Putin in Russia, the British with their Brexit from the EU, Marie Le Pen in France, and the rulers of modern China.   It is a good thing that Trump and Pres Xi Jinping of China had a good meeting in Florida, since these two countries are likely to be the leaders of a bipolar world again.  This is all a reaction to the kind of policies formulated and implemented by the small minds of the liberal elite, exemplified by former Pres. Obama.  His policies of “when in doubt do nothing,” have left the vacuums that others have tried to fill.  Thus, we have IS and Syria and Ukraine and North Korea.  Hopefully, Pres. Trump has responded to these dangers and started a US comeback to fill those vacuums and restore some kind of stability to the world.   But, there are more challenges ahead, not least of which will be a resurgent Turkey.

 

Trump has turned a corner

When Donald Trump was running for election as President he made two provisional foreign policy statements, 1. Russia under Pres. Putin might be someone he could deal with, and 2. China was an enemy that was manipulating its currency to the detriment of the US and he accepted a call from the President of Taiwan that was considered to have significance.

Now that is all behind us.  First the issue with Russia: anyone who thought that there was somehow a relationship between Putin and Trump and that Trump was somehow beholden to Putin must re-evaluate their prejudices.  Not only did Trump really upset Putin by bombing one of Assad’s airfields, but he has also reaffirmed his support for NATO.  And notwithstanding Russia’s lame excuses over the chemical weapons, the US gave Russia a hard time at the UN and elsewhere in terms of being responsible for Assad’s use of chemical weapons, that Russia was supposed to have stopped.  Also, the US gave Russia advanced warning of the attack on the airfield, but they did not tell their Syrian allies.  This certainly reduces Russia/Putin’s value as an ally in the region.  What can Putin do next?

Now, with regard to China, Trump has met with President Xi Jinping of China and it seems they hit it off.  China, above all, wants stability and hence they are loath to take action in relation to North Korea.  But, Trump cannot stand by and see N. Korea develop intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) with nuclear warheads.  They are reponding  to this development and not only are US allies at risk but so is the US itself.  It may be that China will not take direct action to help the US in this bind, but at the very least they should use their influence on N. Korea’s mad leader that the US will  intervene if he does nto stop his deliberate intimidation.

Although some critics say that Trump is “shooting from the hip,” on the contrary, it seems he has taken sage advice from his military advisors, such as Gens. Mattis and McMaster, in taking action in Syria, dropping the MOAB in Afghanistan and sending a large military convoy to N. Korea. The hit on Syria was criticized because it was targeted and caused limited damage and little loss of life, but that was certainly deliberate.  The hit on Afghanistan was criticized because such a huge bomb was used, but the military said that was the best tactical option.  Finally in N.Korea, at least a President is taking some positive action, rather than leaving it to passive diplomacy, that hasn’t worked in Syria, N. Korea, Iran or Ukraine.  The message is that the US is back and that Trump has turned a corner.

 

 

1917

My friend Barry Shaw, who has made a name for himself as an anti-BDS campaigner and author, has written a book entitled simply “1917: From Palestine to the Land of Israel.” He launched this book at the AACI Netanya, and described the story of that crucial year in the Holy Land, focussing on the characters that played a pivotal role in the historic events exactly 100 years ago.  Modestly I contributed to the realization of this book by helping him with the computer formatting and I designed the cover of the book.   

The people involved in what he describes as “the extraordinary early struggles of Jewish and Christian heroes to establish the State of Israel” represent a great cast of characters: Aaron Aaronsohn, a world-renowned agronomist, who established a research station on the coast at Givat Olga and also headed a spy ring known as the Nili that gave valuable information about the Turks to the British; Gen. Sir Edmund Allenby, C-in-C of British Forces in the Middle East, who apparently  followed Aaronsohn’s advice to attack Beersheba instead of Gaza again; Richard Meinertzhagen, a British intelligence Officer and a spy, who apparently managed to trick the Turks into thinking the next attack would come at Gaza instead of Beersheba;  Jabotinsky and Trumpeldor, the Zionist leaders who persuaded the British to form the first Jewish armed force in 3,000 years; Then there are of course, Chaim Weizmann, the leader of the Zionists and Arthur Balfour the British FM who formulated the famous eponymous Declaration.  And the heroine, Sarah Aaronsohn, Aaron’s sister, who ran the spy ring in his absence and when captured by the Turks and tortured, managed to commit suicide with a hidden gun.  What a great and true story!

I happened recently to see again the movie “Lawrence of Arabia” on TV.  Also a great story.  And Lawrence and Meinertzhagen played roles in the story of Israel’s birth since Lawrence was the representative of the Arabs and Meinertzhagen of the Zionists at the Versailles Conference after WWI.  But, frankly the battle of Beersheba was a much more important and pivotal battle than that at Aqaba, yet it is hardly known about.  It is known to the Australians and New Zealanders whose Light Horse Infantry crossed the desert (using Aaronsohn’s maps) to attack and capture Beersheba from the Turks (this last mounted charge is reenacted every October by a cadre of Australians).  Being outflanked, the Turks withdrew up the coast and that allowed Allenby to capture Jerusalem in 1917, the first British victory of WWI. 

Although the movie “Lawrence of Arabia” is justifiably famous, there is a movie about the Battle of Beersheba entitled “The Lighthorsemen,” a 1987 Australian production that is essentially unknown.  When one compares the story of Lawrence to that of the Aaronsohns and Meinertzhagen, one wonders why one story was made famous and the other not.  Wouldn’t it be great if a truly talented director like Steven Spielberg took this story and made an epic movie out of it.  The characters, the spying, the struggles, the battles, it’s a great story waiting for an equally great script writer and director.  If anyone reading this knows Steven Spielberg, please tell him!

The Copts

The Copts are a minority Christian denomination in Egypt, 8-10% of the population. They are Egyptian, in fact they are very authentically Egyptian, tracing their descent prior to the Muslim invasion and conquest of Egypt.  It is therefore a cruel irony that the Muslim extremists and many ordinary Muslims seek to oust them completely from what they consider to be part of the Muslim Empire, in which there should be no infidels (Christians, Jews, Hindus, or any non-Muslim).  Although the Copts speak Arabic, they use a variant of the original Egyptian language, Coptic, in their religious services and liturgy. In that respect they are more authentically Egyptian than the Arabs, something that irks the Islamists. 

Last week there were two serious terrorist attacks against the Copts, their Church in Tanta north of Cairo was bombed, killing 36 and injuring 100, and the same day their Cathedral in Alexandria was bombed by a suicide bomber.  Although their Pope Tawadros was present at the time, he was not injured.  In that attack 4 were killed and 20 injured.  Added to the attack on the Cathedral in Cairo last December, this represents a sustained campaign by IS to kill and intimidate Coptic Christians and to get them to leave Egypt.  

Many Copts will take the “hint” and leave, which will add to the flow of refugees from Muslim countries, although these are perhaps the largest population of Christians left in the Middle East.  Christians in Syria and Iraq have been decimated during the current wars, and Christians in the Palestinian areas have been forced to leave.  Bethlehem which was 80% Christian 25 years ago is now only 20% Christian, and there are very few Christians left in Gaza after the bombing of their Churches.  It is surprising that the Christian West does essentially nothing to protect these Christians, as the French used to do in Lebanon.  

The plight of the Copts results largely from the inability of Pres. Al-Sisi to manage to control Egypt.  The Islamists are constantly carrying out terrorist attacks and he seems unable to use the Army and the police to maintain control.  This is largely to be blamed on Pres. Obama who refused to give Al- Sisi support when he needed it against the Muslim Brotherhood, that might have nipped the insurgency in the bud before it became uncontrollable.

Assad kills his own people

It is customary to write incredulously about Assad that “he kills his own people,” meaning Syrians. That is surprising to westerners, but to someone familiar with the Middle East it is expected. Why, because they are not “his people,” they are Sunnis, while Assad is an Alawite.  The Alawite are an ethnic-religious minority (about 12%) in Syria, who are considered heretics by the mainstream Sunni Muslims, who constitute the majority of Syrians. The Alawites are considered akin to the Shia as far as the Sunni are concerned. Their center is the north-west of Syria around Latakia.  In the Middle East adherence to clan and tribe takes precedence over national affiliation.  
When Syria was founded the Sunni were of course in control and the Alawites were excluded from most roles, except the armed forces.  Big mistake, they grew powerful within the Army and then the Head of the Air Force Gen. Hafez Assad staged a coup and took over from the Sunni.  From outside it may have seemed like the take-over by a progressive Ba’ath Party which was both secular and nationalist, but from within it was seen to be the take-over of Syria by the Alawites.  Since then they have fought the Sunni at every turn to retain their dictatorial control.  In a Muslim Brotherhood uprising in 1982, Hafez Assad bombarded the town of Hama and killed ca. 30,000 Syrians.  No matter, they were Sunnis.  The Alawites know that if the Sunni ever take over power from them there will be a blood-bath and it will be Alawite blood that flows.  So in order to prevent that they are prepared to kill “their own people,” all Syrians who are Sunnis, even with chemical weapons, and this includes both IS and the democratic opposition. As far as the Alawites are concerned they are all “terrorists.”
 
This phenomenon exists throughout the Middle East.  The nation states that exist are really the invention of the western powers, Britain and France, after WWI.  Iraq should really be three states, Shia, in the south, Sunni in the center and west and Kurdish in the north.  Likewise Syria is a quilt of Alawite, Sunni, Kurd and other minorities.  Maybe the whole Middle East would be better served by redefining states according to their ethnic/religious make-up than pretending that such states as Syria and Iraq can actually cohere and become similar to the western tradition.  After all most European States are based on linguistic/ethnic tribes, such as Germany, Hungary, Czechs, etc.  It took one hundred years for the Balkans and Russia to rearrange themselves into a patchwork of ethnic states.  The evolution of the Middle East is still very much in flux.
 

Should Israel Fear a Peace Conference?

The problem with the current situation is that Pres. Trump is no doubt a friend of Israel, but he may be more interested in making a peace deal than in protecting Israel’s basic interests.  If he is organizing a Peace Conference where all the Arab countries will be represented, as indicated in his recent meeting with King Abdullah of Jordan, then Israel’s worst fears may be realized, a total majority of Arab states, supported by a “neutral” US that wants a deal at any price.  

One thing that characterizes the Arabs is that they don’t compromise, the very word is not in their vocabulary.  They state their historic claims and Israel must accept or else no deal.  And if Israel gives in on one point, they don’t respond with a compromise, they demand more.  This is hard ball negotiating tactics, that neither the Israelis nor the US are able to respond to.  Historically Israel has always avoided such a peace conference because it would be ganged up on by all the Arabs, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and Iraq (presumably Syria would be excluded), but how can Israel refuse Trump’s invitation, they can’t.

But, why is the Peace conference now more of a possible proposition than before? Because the Arab States are in a terrible mess.  Four previous States, Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen, are all engaged in civil wars and are essentially failed States (also include Muslim Somalia in that category).   They are facing serious threats from both IS, that is now on the run, and from Iran, that is increasingly bold and active.   They desperately need US support in this situation, and maybe even Israeli support against Iran if it comes to that.  That is why they are prepared to deal and as King Abdullah said they are ready to offer Israel recognition and peace.

But, what must Israel do to satisfy their Saudi/Arab Peace plan: 1. Accept the pre-June, 1967 ceasefire lines as its borders; 2. Accept back the bulk of the so-called Palestinian refugees; 3. Pay compensation for the suffering caused by previous wars; 4 Divide Jerusalem; 5. Accept a Palestinian State, and so on.  All these points are unacceptable to Israel.  1. The borders must include the parts of the West Bank that are now heavily populated by Israelis, including the cities of Ariel, Etzion and Ma’ale Adumim.  2. The actual surviving refugees are really down to less that 50,000 (not 1.5 million as the Palestinians claim).  3. The losses for the expulsions of Jews from Egypt, Libya, Iraq and Syria are far greater in amount than the losses due to the transfer of the Palestinians by their own volition. 4. Israel’s policy on its capital Jerusalem is clear, it will not be divided. 5. A Palestinian State might be acceptable to Israel, but on two conditions, it must be demilitarized and it must include Gaza, but without Hamas being in control.  How these issues can be compromised is difficult to foresee.

By King Abdullah of Jordan as spokesman for the Arabs emphasizing at the White House press conference that the Arabs regard the Israel-Palestinian conflict as the “core” conflict in the Middle East, he is trying to put pressure on Israel by the implication that to solve this conflict will ease all other conflicts. This is sheer nonsense.  Resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict will do nothing whatsoever to resolve the conflict with IS, the Syrian civil war, the powerful and underlying Shia-Sunni clash and many local clashes, such as in Yemen and Libya.  If Trump falls for this old canard he is less of a realist than I think he is.  But, nevertheless, the attraction of resolving “the problem of the century” may make Trump do things he might not otherwise do, such as twist Israel’s arm to accept a less than palatable outcome for Israel.  In that respect he may be no different than his predecessors.