Artificial intelligence can’t save us from human stupidity

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The Guardian view on the future of AI: great power, great irresponsibility.

Looking over the year that has passed, it is a nice question whether human stupidity or artificial intelligence has done more to shape events. Perhaps it is the convergence of the two that we really need to fear.

Artificial intelligence is a term whose meaning constantly recedes. Computers, it turns out, can do things that only the cleverest humans once could. But at the same time they fail at tasks that even the stupidest humans accomplish without conscious difficulty.

At the moment the term is mostly used to refer to machine learning: the techniques that enable computer networks to discover patterns hidden in gigantic quantities of messy, real-world data. It’s something close to what parts of biological brains can do. Artificial intelligence in this sense is what enables self-driving cars, which have to be able to recognise and act appropriately towards their environment. It is what lies behind the eerie skills of face-recognition programs and what makes it possible for personal assistants such as smart speakers in the home to pick out spoken requests and act on them. And, of course, it is what powers the giant advertising and marketing industries in their relentless attempts to map and exploit our cognitive and emotional vulnerabilities.

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The five universal laws of human stupidity

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In 1976, a professor of economic history at the University of California, Berkeley published an essay outlining the fundamental laws of a force he perceived as humanity’s greatest existential threat: Stupidity.

Stupid people, Carlo M. Cipolla explained, share several identifying traits: they are abundant, they are irrational, and they cause problems for others without apparent benefit to themselves, thereby lowering society’s total well-being. There are no defenses against stupidity, argued the Italian-born professor, who died in 2000. The only way a society can avoid being crushed by the burden of its idiots is if the non-stupid work even harder to offset the losses of their stupid brethren.

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Horrific Amount of Deforestation in the Amazon from 2000-2008

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Only Remnants of the Rainforest Remain

NASA’s Earth Observatory has some amazing satellite photos of the deforestation of the Amazonian rainforest over the past 8 years. At the link, click on the years posted below the picture to see the progression.

The state of Rondônia in western Brazil is one of the most deforested parts of the Amazon. In the past three decades, clearing and degradation of the state’s original 208,000 square kilometers of forest (about 51.4 million acres, an area slightly smaller than the state of Kansas) has been rapid: 4,200 square kilometers cleared by 1978; 30,000 by 1988; and 53,300 by 1998. By 2003, an estimated 67,764 square kilometers of rainforest-an area larger than the state of West Virginia-had been cleared…

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