When Tom Brokaw’s denounced the dumbing-down of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, he was unintentionally talking about one of the underlying reasons for the FBI’s inability to see the threat of the Tsarnaev brothers, even when it was pointed out to them. ”The dinner has been a tradition since 1920 for journalists who cover the White House and the President … in 1975 … Saturday Night Live stars Chevy Chase and Jim Belushi made appearances. However, Brokaw said that standards of the red-carpet fete have now fallen so low that his ‘daughter’s junior prom has more dignity‘.”
“The breaking point for me was Lindsay Lohan,” Brokaw told POLITICO during a recent interview in his office in the NBC News Rockefeller Plaza headquarters in New York. “She became a big star at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Give me a break.”
A break was what the FBI gave Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
Despite an abundance of suggestive information, the FBI seemed singularly unable to see Tsarnaev as a threat. Part of the reason, according to the Washington Examiner, was that blindness was engineered into the system. The agents were trained not to see it.
It is quite possible, though, the FBI agents who interviewed Tsarnaev on both occasions failed to understand what they saw and heard because that’s what they were trained to do. As The Washington Examiner’s Mark Flatten reported last year, FBI training manuals were systematically purged in 2011 of all references to Islam that were judged offensive by a specially created five-member panel. Three of the panel members were Muslim advocates from outside the FBI, which still refuses to make public their identities. Nearly 900 pages were removed from the manuals as a result of that review. Several congressmen were allowed to review the removed materials in 2012, on condition that they not disclose what they read to their staffs, the media, or the general public.
The process which has dumbed down the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and blinded the FBI is essentially the same: that of removing information from the system in order to make it predictable, manageable, and nonthreatening. To make it consistent with the internal ideology of the human institution. Institutions do not always seek to find the truth. More often than not they seek to find the approved solution.
But to really learn you have to be prepared to listen to what you don’t want to hear. The future only contains new information if it tells you something you don’t know. But bureaucracies want to make all new knowledge predictable, consistent with the existing narrative. And homogenization destroys information.
The measure of how much information a message can contain is represented by the amount of uncertainty that can be resolved by a new measurement — each character it contains. This is called information entropy. Here’s an example that illustrates the point.
consider the example of a coin toss. When the coin is fair, that is, when the probability of heads is the same as the probability of tails, then the entropy of the coin toss is as high as it could be. This is because there is no way to predict the outcome of the coin toss ahead of time – the best we can do is predict that the coin will come up heads, and our prediction will be correct with probability 1/2. Such a coin toss has one bit of entropy since there are two possible outcomes that occur with equal probability, and learning the actual outcome contains one bit of information. Contrarily, a coin toss with a coin that has two heads and no tails has zero entropy since the coin will always come up heads, and the outcome can be predicted perfectly.
The amount of uncertainty to be resolved is the metric of knowledge. There’s no point to tossing a two-headed coin repeatedly. All subsequent measurements will be exactly the same as the first. The amount of information a message can carry is proportional to the richness of the alphabet in which it is written and the freedom to assume a value which represents the content. When we limit the alphabet or limit the allowable values, we limit the information.
The problem with both the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and the FBI Islamic investigation procedures is that the conclusions were foreordained. It’s just like a two-headed coin. Both institutions are constructed to reach predictable outcomes. No wonder Brokaw said he would be better off watching it on C-Span. And no wonder the FBI could do anything but find the Tsarnaevs’ Islamic connections suspicious. They knew they were going to look away even before they looked.
What creates sameness is ideology. Ideology by definition reduces the range of responses to situations and limits the ways in which we can decode and encode messages to politically correct outcomes. It creates a box you can’t escape. Thus it’s Lindsay Lohan or nothing.
And the effects of “boxing” people are interesting to consider in the light of a new paper by Harvard physicist and computer scientist Dr. Alex Wissner-Gross. He conjectures that intelligence arises from the exercise of freedom, “that intelligent behavior in general spontaneously emerges from an agent’s effort to ensure its freedom of action in the future. According to this theory, intelligent systems move towards those configurations which maximize their ability to respond and adapt to future changes.”
His idea comes from a paper from Raphael Bousso of Cornell who argues that the probability of intelligent life emerging in a universe is proportional to the amount of entropy — information — it contains. Intelligence is more likely to emerge in a universe of choices. It is less likely to emerge where the alphabets and the options are severely limited. A universe of freedom is one where intelligence comes into being. A restricted society, like North Korea where everyone claps in unison, is a dumb universe.
Thus we arrive at theoretical explanation for why the White House Correspondents’ Dinner gets stupider each year. It’s the Washington, D.C., version of Pyongyang, “a court of Versailles” in Brokaw’s memorable phrase.
Wissner-Gross called this relationship between freedom and intelligence the “Causal Entropic Force — a drive for the system to make as many futures accessible as possible”. The richest future is the one which hasn’t been written yet; it the one we are creating — if we are allowed to create it — right now. The poorest future is the one in which the Life of Julia must be lived, marked out by almost mechanical signposts, characterized by a drab sameness, political correctness, organized ignorance and total denial of the possibility that any narrative may exist except the official one.
As noted, Wissner-Gross’s work has serious implications for AI. And in fact, he says it turns conventional notions of a world-dominating artificial intelligence on its head.
“It has long been implicitly speculated that at some point in the future we will develop an ultrapowerful computer and that it will pass some critical threshold of intelligence, and then after passing that threshold it will suddenly turn megalomaniacal and try to take over the world,” he said.
He argues the true process is the reverse: only if you try to maximize your freedom can you manifest the attributes of intelligence. He and his MIT collaborator have written software based on those principles and it displays some of the characteristics of intelligence.