Why A.I. Might Run the World Better Than Humans Do

Will A.I. take us over, and one day look back on this time period as the dawn of their civilization? Richard Dawkins posits an interesting idea, or at the very least a premise to a good science-fiction novel.

Richard Dawkins: When we come to artificial intelligence and the possibility of their becoming conscious we reach a profound philosophical difficulty. I am a philosophical naturalist. I am committed to the view that there’s nothing in our brains that violates the laws of physics, there’s nothing that could not in principle be reproduced in technology. It hasn’t been done yet, we’re probably quite a long way away from it, but I see no reason why in the future we shouldn’t reach the point where a human made robot is capable of consciousness and of feeling pain. We can feel pain, why shouldn’t they? 

And this is profoundly disturbing because it kind of goes against the grain to think that a machine made of metal and silicon chips could feel pain, but I don’t see why they would not. And so this moral consideration of how to treat artificially intelligent robots will arise in the future, and it’s a problem which philosophers and moral philosophers are already talking about.

Once again, I’m committed to the view that this is possible. I’m committed to the view that anything that a human brain can do can be replicated in silicon. 

And so I’m sympathetic to the misgivings that have been expressed by highly respected figures like Elon Musk and Steven Hawking that we ought to be worried that on the precautionary principle we should worry about a takeover perhaps even by robots by our own creation, especially if they reproduce themselves and potentially even evolve by reproduction and don’t need us anymore. 

This is a science-fiction speculation at the moment, but I think philosophically I’m committed to the view that it is possible, and like any major advance we need to apply the precautionary principle and ask ourselves what the consequences might be. 

It could be said that the sum of not human happiness but the sum of sentient-being happiness might be improved, they might make a better job do a better job of running the world than we are, certainly that we are at present, and so perhaps it might not be a bad thing if we went extinct. 

And our civilization, the memory of Shakespeare and Beethoven and Michelangelo persisted in silicon rather than in brains and our form of life. And one could foresee a future time when silicon beings look back on a dawn age when the earth was peopled by soft squishy watery organic beings and who knows that might be better, but we’re really in the science fiction territory now.

Richard Dawkins has made a career out of hypothesizing and articulating ideas that move the world forward, insomuch as many of those ideas could be called "ahead of their time." Having said that, he tells us here that we might be living in the dawn of not just artificial intelligence but of a silicon civilization that will look back on this time period as the dawn of their kind. They could one day, Dawkins suggests, study us the same way that we studied other beings that once ruled the earth. Sound crazy? Open your mind and think about it. Dawkins isn't that far off from a potential actuality on this planet. Richard Dawkins' new book is Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist.

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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