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Belmont Club

The Human Iceberg

March 10th, 2014 - 6:02 pm

Megan McArdle ascribes the cause of Margaret Thatcher’s biggest debacle to a string of successes. She was right so often it blinded her to the possibility of being wrong. She gained so much confidence in her own judgment that she had little defense against inevitable error.

After a string of successful privatizations, often conducted over the vocal objections of all the best people, U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party decided it needed to reform the taxation system … This would not only please the folks who ran local party operations, but also strike a blow against overbearing left-wing councils, which in some northern cities were run by actual Communists.

The reform they came up with was known as the Community Charge, a per-capita tax that we would call a head tax, and in Britain was popularly known as the Poll Tax. The riots that this new scheme sparked were therefore known as the Poll Tax Riots…

The takeaway, as tired as it sounds, is that negative feedback is often more powerful than positive feedback. Organizations have a tendency to ignore Dr. No or, worse, fire him. But silencing your critics is a good way to set yourself up for total disaster. That doesn’t mean letting critics shut you down. But it does mean taking everything they say as seriously as the rah-rah sentiments of the policy cheerleaders.

It’s hard to admit error, especially where you might be plausibly right; especially when you’ve long been right. When the fall comes, all you know even after the fact is that some terrible screwup has happened, though it is unclear at first exactly why.

Peter Lanza, the father of the Sandy Hook killer, reflecting on his role as a father, told New Yorker writer Andrew Solomon he clearly should have done something differently in raising his son but can’t say what. “Any variation on what I did and how my relationship was had to be good, because no outcome could be worse”.

Yet the two things Peter Lanza believes beyond a doubt are 1) that he escaped death by quitting Adam Lanza’s presence: “with hindsight, I know Adam would have killed me in a heartbeat, if he’d had the chance. I don’t question that for a minute. The reason he shot Nancy four times was one for each of us: one for Nancy; one for him; one for Ryan; one for me”; and 2) that nobody could see it coming. “Those mental health professionals who saw him did not see anything that would have predicted his future behavior. Here we are near New York, one of the best locations for mental-health care, and nobody saw this.”

Nobody saw it coming, except maybe himself.  He had wondered whether there was something more than Asperger’s behind Adam’s weirdness. But the pros said no. Casting his mind back, the mass killer’s father says there was something evil or broken in that boy. “You can’t get any more evil,” he said.  There was something he glimpsed, even today as Adam comes to him in dreams.

Peter has dreamed about Adam every night since the event, dreams of pervasive sadness rather than fear; he had told me that he could not be afraid of his fate as Adam’s father, even of being murdered by his son. Recently, though, he had had the worst nightmare of his life. He was walking past a door; a figure in the door began shaking it violently. Peter could sense hatred, anger, “the worst possible evilness,” and he could see upraised hands. He realized it was Adam. “What surprised me is that I was scared as shit,” he recounted. “I couldn’t understand what was happening to me. And then I realized that I was experiencing it from the perspective of his victims.”

What was beating on the dream-door?  What do you call it? Once my son showed me an short story he wrote about an android who gradually realizes that he is both artificial and sentient. Once an impulse I asked, “do you think that HAL 2000 could be truly self-aware without the acquiring the capacity for murder?” He thought for a half second and said: “No. Any real person will have the capacity for evil”.

Which is what the Bible used to teach, though we have since forgotten it. However the programmers are rediscovering the notion of evil as inseparable from true sentience.  Late last year Gary Marcus, also writing in the New Yorker, quoted sources who argued that truly self-aware computers would value themselves over their creators. Build a sufficiently intelligent machine and it would worship itself above all else.

Barrat’s core argument, which he borrows from the A.I. researcher Steve Omohundro, is that the drive for self-preservation and resource acquisition may be inherent in all goal-driven systems of a certain degree of intelligence. In Omohundro’s words, “if it is smart enough, a robot that is designed to play chess might also want to be build a spaceship,” in order to obtain more resources for whatever goals it might have. A purely rational artificial intelligence, Barrat writes, might expand “its idea of self-preservation … to include proactive attacks on future threats,” including, presumably, people who might be loathe to surrender their resources to the machine. Barrat worries that “without meticulous, countervailing instructions, a self-aware, self-improving, goal-seeking system will go to lengths we’d deem ridiculous to fulfill its goals,” even, perhaps, commandeering all the world’s energy in order to maximize whatever calculation it happened to be interested in.

That description of a homicidal computer sounds remarkably like Adam Lanza.  His mind was maximizing something, but nobody knew what. He was the center of his own universe, a population of one, where nobody else counted. Peter Lanza was probably right in believing he too would have been shot had he been in the way. Of what exactly? The thing knocking on the dream-door. He recalled what his wife Nancy said:

“He had a horrible night. . . . He cried in the bathroom for 45 minutes and missed his first class.” Two weeks later, she wrote, “I am hoping that he pulls together in time for school this afternoon, but it is doubtful. He has been sitting with his head to one side for over an hour doing nothing.” Later that year: “Adam had a rough night. He moved EVERYTHING out of his room last night. He only kept his bed and wardrobe cabinet.”

The probable fact is that, for any given population, there are a number of Adam Lanzas; human icebergs afloat upon the population sea who, because of defective wiring or some poorly understood process, become what Peter Lanza called “evil”. Most people will never encounter an iceberg because of their relative rarity. But when one does blunder into a Ted Bundy, a Charles Manson or Adam Lanza there’s only minutes to turn the wheel and reverse engines before things get dicey.

There are known countermeasures to icebergs. We detect them, avoid them, route our way around — but we don’t expect icebergs not to exist. Nancy Lanza, who loved her son, made the cardinal mistake of thinking she could talk to the block of ice.

There is at the heart of human experience, the unknowable. That which we must beware. Donald Rumsfeld once remarked, “reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.”

We think it is shameful not to know. And vast numbers of political hacks are employed to revise and parse politicians words to make them appear as omniscient and error-free as possible. But it is far more dangerous to assume we know everything.  We don’t. And maybe that’s why we still can’t find MH370. One commenter at the Professional Pilots Rumor Network speculating on the MH370 disaster remarked, “Looking at the ever-widening search area, the logical conclusion is no, they don’t have any useful primary/military radar plot” to yield an initial position.

The Searchers didn’t know what they assumed they knew. Which means, they have to look with open eyes and an open mind, and there’s no shame in that.


Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with you friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.

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Top Rated Comments   
Back around 1970 I read a John W. Campbell editorial in Analog magazine that pointed out "The worth of a science is in its ability to predict."

And then he went on to assert that psychology was at best pseudo-science, since it could not predict much of anything. Oh, they could always come up with theories and explanations after someone did something, but almost never before.

It occurs to me that when we are considering locking up the Adam Lanzas that walk among us, that we should not have psychologists do the evaluation. Indeed, they probably should be kept far away. We should use profilers from law enforcement, since they have worked to figure out what people are going to do next, rather than what trendy theory their behavior can be stuffed into. It’s like the difference between newly minted theoretical physicists and highly experienced engineers. The engineer may not be able to explain things in terms of quarks, bosons, black holes and string theory, but he knows what is going to occur in practical terms.
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
Speaking as someone who retired after 28 years as a Peace Officer, I have dealt with Pshrinks who themselves were dealing with known sociopathic individuals who were as whacked out as Adam Lanza. My agency kept them on staff. When I started, there were a couple who realized the reality that THERE WERE BAD PEOPLE WHO WERE PERMANENTLY BAD AND LIKED IT. But in the last 20 years, every freaking one of them, as a matter of religious faith [although most were atheist as far as standard religion was concerned, some evangelical about it] believed that EVERYONE was innately "good" and had potential to be made "normal" and functional. It is the nature of the modern mental health field.

>>> “Those mental health professionals who saw him did not see anything that would have predicted his future behavior. Here we are near New York, one of the best locations for mental-health care, and nobody saw this.”<<<

The perfectibility of man is an article of faith of the Left. I did not mention it, but the Pshrinks who were willing to declare someone beyond help were political conservatives. All the rest were Lefties. They could not acknowledge the existence of an irretrievably broken mind/psyche/soul without overturning their very world view.

Any Pshrinks in the New York City area, and especially consulted by Nancy Lanza who was an active Democrat, were not likely willing to admit to his real condition, any more than they would admit to the concept of evil existing. Besides, continuing to treat him was their rice bowl.

Subotai Bahadur
(show less)
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
A Good friend, who has shared some long conversations trying to make sense of the current insanity, told me recently that he has arrived at a plateau of insight, the upshot of which is his re-awakening to the wisdom that we should not waste so much time and energy worrying, and recall that God is ultimately in charge, not the evil ones. Makes a lot of sense to me.
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (71)
All Comments   (71)
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Roughcoat2
Anyone here ever see the "The Forbin Project"? Little-known but outstanding 1970 film about a sentient computer that takes over the world and essentially enslaves mankind. ...


I remember that movie, and I also read the book. Interestingly, both the Americans and the Russians had opposing sentient computers to counter the other side. However, the American computer "Colossus" and the Russians' "Guardian" contacted each other and after a brief dialogue (by human standards) decided that neither set of their human masters were fit to run things, so they teamed up and took over...

They also began conducting behavioral experiments on their new human "livestock", e.g. Project Sabine. Don't believe that was in the movie, however... ;) Also, there are plans to do a remake in the works.
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
In the sequel book (wait, I think there were two books) you find that Colossus recreates the battle fleets of 1918 with robot battleships for Humans' entertainment purposes and to engender Human affection for machines as heroes.
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
There ended up being 3 books - Colossus, The Fall of Colossus, and Colossus and the Crab. The final book invited the Martians in to "help" and turned Colossus off. Once they showed up, Forbin was frantically trying to figure out how to turn it back on again. Cheers -

http://www.amazon.com/D.-F.-Jones/e/B001H6V2YO/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_1
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
Interesting. I think the merging of Colossus and Guardian was in the movie? Not sure about that, however.

A remake has promise--if the people involved could somehow do something new with the theme. Since HAL and Colossus arrived on the scene that field has been pretty well plowed.

Thanks for the head's-up about a remake.
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
You could do some real terrifying stuff about the Singularity and AI. Wouldn't even need to play with nano-caused grey goo (which the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still) played with a bit. Cheers -
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
The USSR was famous for its preventive approach to crime, using psychiatry as a tool of the state. Adam Lanza, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, et. al. are rare enough events that can be mitigated only at great cost to society. If the TSA seems bad at the airport, wait until the People Patrol arrives in your neighborhood.
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
Until about 1970 it was much easier to institutionalize someone against their will here in the US, but there were many alleged abuses and it was one of Reagan's initiatives as governor (and later president?) to change those laws.

This was probably a good thing but it left a lot of crazy people to live by themselves on the street or to be convicted of this and that and kept in prison instead. And it leaves the parents of Adam Lanza's with few options, insofar as any parent wants to institutionalize their child.
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
Tell me about it. My 92-old crazy Irish mother should be in an assisted care facility but won't leave her house. And we (my siblings and I) can't make her go. We're presently trying to get power of attorney but so far she's been successful in resisting us. It's just an awful situation. She can't really take care of herself and we can't take of her either. Last year she fell on her stairs going down to the basement and broke her hip. Lay on the floor for hours until she managed to crawl over to a telephone and summon help. She did that and she was 91 years old! Had a hip replacement shortly afterward. Still won't leave. We had a family meeting to convince her to go and she thew a cup of hot coffee in my face. I am not making this up. Nothing crazier than a crazy old Irish woman. Or tougher. Or more stubborn. Yeats had it right.
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
I work with autistic young men. Overwhelmingly, they are sweethearts.

But there are a very few that I have encountered that I believe need an Exorcist.
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
" truly self-aware computers would value themselves over their creators. Build a sufficiently intelligent machine and it would worship itself above all else."

That explains it! He's a robot!
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
Anyone here ever see the "The Forbin Project"? Little-known but outstanding 1970 film about a sentient computer that takes over the world and essentially enslaves mankind. Originally built as an arms control device to regulate nuclear weapons it decides that it can govern more efficiently and effectively than humans and proceeds to do so, imposing its will with dispassionate cruelty. The movie was the first of its kind, presaging and probably inspiring movies like those of the Terminator series, War Games, etc.
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
Yes, I recall it. I not only saw the movie and read the book but also read the sequel as well. The Martians help to overthrow Colossus. Turned out that the Martian moons, Demos and Phobos, were intelligent beings.

Of course, Fred Saberhagen's Berserker series is even older. The war machines of an ancient dead civilization just keep right on destroying all life, even after their war is over. There was nobody left to tell them to stop.
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
I never read the book ("Colossus"), I'll have to check it out. The sequel too. Also Saberhagen.

Actually 2001: A Space Odyssey with its computer, HAL, going rogue, preceded the Forbin Project movie. But not the novel. I wonder if the author of Colossus and Arthur C. Clarke influenced each other or whether they both had the same ideas independently of each other.
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
You would appreciate Saberhagen explaining why Humans have been so combative over our entire history. All of the other intelligent races in the universe who did not wipe themselves out can't fight worth beans. When they meet the gigantic Berserker planet destroyers (like the original Star Trek Doomsday machine) it's Bambi Meets Godzilla.

But the Berserkers finally come into contact with Humans. And we find our our place in God's Great Plan: Kicking Berserker ass!
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
But it does mean taking everything they say as seriously as the rah-rah sentiments of the policy cheerleaders.

Heresy! In the respected administration of Mr. B.H. Obama, critics are known hazards to enlightened governance, therefore are demonized per the Koch brothers and persecuted by the IRS at a very minimum.
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
Interesting article Wretchard, as always.

We all have a heart of darkness, or as the captain said in Forbidden Planet: "we all have monsters, Morbius, that's why we have laws and religion." Most of us develop the ability to control the ID by ourselves, one way or another. Some can only do so as long as an outside authority enforces rules. And a few cannot do it at all. There may be no scientific way to detect such people, but I would like to offer a suggestion: Try the puppy test. Put a mentally ill person in a room with a puppy. And observe. If he treats the puppy kindly and with affection, there is hope. If he starts to abuse the animal, rescue it and lock him up. Permanently.

As for A,I. running amuk, or "Frankenstein syndrome" as Issac Asimove once put it, well, hopefully as we develop the ability to create human level artificial intelligence we will also develop the ability to give that intelligence human moral rules. Not the 3 laws of robotics necessarify, but the 10 commandments and the sermon on the mount, certainly. Perhaps even the code of chivalry (yes, I would like to see BOLO's one of these days).
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
Good article Mr. Fernandez. You could have seamlessly worked in a paragraph about the Democrat senator's climate change all nighter during which they quoted directly from "The Lorax".
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
Back around 1970 I read a John W. Campbell editorial in Analog magazine that pointed out "The worth of a science is in its ability to predict."

And then he went on to assert that psychology was at best pseudo-science, since it could not predict much of anything. Oh, they could always come up with theories and explanations after someone did something, but almost never before.

It occurs to me that when we are considering locking up the Adam Lanzas that walk among us, that we should not have psychologists do the evaluation. Indeed, they probably should be kept far away. We should use profilers from law enforcement, since they have worked to figure out what people are going to do next, rather than what trendy theory their behavior can be stuffed into. It’s like the difference between newly minted theoretical physicists and highly experienced engineers. The engineer may not be able to explain things in terms of quarks, bosons, black holes and string theory, but he knows what is going to occur in practical terms.
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
"The worth of a science is in its ability to predict."

After the hundreds of billions of dollars 'invested' in the political climate change turmoil, based on the predictions of science - well, no, predictions of unverifiable computer programs used and abused by politicians as proxies for science - one can easily see that climatology is also a pseudo-science.
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
Well said! So well said!
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
For the rest of the population, Lanza (and those examples used by Wretchard) may be a human iceberg. BUT. For people who are close to him/them, there are always ‘missed’ signs. The tell-tale clues that left behind.

It is more apt to describe them as “Vesuvius”. They (the relatives, the acquaintances) know there is this potential danger, they just don't know when it will erupt - it could be next week, it could be in the next hundred years.
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
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