For the past four years, I have been unable to post with any regularity. I have dozens of unfinished posts sitting in my drafts folder. I would start with a thought but then get stuck, which had previously been somewhat unusual for me. Now on this first hopeful day I have had for the past four trying years, I am hoping I will be able to post more regularly again.
Prior to what I will now call the Dark Years, I viewed all of history through an economic lens. I bought into the standard twentieth century leftist academic notion that wars, conflicts, social movements, and cultural changes all have economic underpinnings. But I now realize that this is incorrect or at least incomplete. Economics surely plays a role in history but what really motivates people are stories and stories are what led us to the Dark Years and perhaps to get us out.
Trump became president because he had a story. The insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol had a story. It was a bat shit crazy lunatic story but it was still a story. However, the tragic thing about the Trump story (or rather my story of the Trump story) is that it is an unintentional algorithmically generated story. Trump is the first (and probably not last) purely machine learning president (although he may not consciously know that). Everything he did was based on the feedback he got from his Twitter Tweets and Fox News. His objective function was attention and he would do anything to get more attention. Of the many lessons we will take from the Dark Years, one should be how machine learning and artificial intelligence can go so very wrong. Trump’s candidacy and presidency was based on a simple stochastic greedy algorithm for attention. He would Tweet randomly and follow up on the Tweets that got the most attention. However, the problem with a greedy algorithm (and yes that is a technical term that just happens to coincidentally be apropos) is that once you follow a path it is hard to make a correction. I actually believe that if some of Trump’s earliest Tweets from say 2009-2014 had gone another way, he could have been a different president. Unfortunately, one of his early Tweet themes that garnered a lot of attention was on the Obama birther conspiracy. This lit up both racist Twitter and a counter reaction from liberal Twitter, which led him further to the right and ultimately to the presidency. His innate prejudices biased him towards a darker path and he did go completely unhinged after he lost the election but he is unprincipled and immature enough to change course if he had enough incentive to do so.
Unlike standard machine learning for categorizing images or translating languages, the Trump machine learning algorithm changes the data. Every Tweet alters the audience and the reinforcing feedback between Trump’s Tweets and its reaction can manufacture discontent out of nothing. A person could just happen to follow Trump because they like The Apprentice reality show Trump starred in and be having a bad day because they missed the bus or didn’t get a promotion. Then they see a Trump Tweet, follow the link in it and suddenly they find a conspiracy theory that “explains” why they feel disenchanted. They retweet and this repeats. Trump sees what goes viral and Tweets more on the same topic. This positive feedback loop just generated something out of random noise. The conspiracy theorizing then starts it’s own reinforcing feedback loop and before you know it we have a crazed mob bashing down the Capitol doors with impunity.
Ironically Trump, who craved and idolized power, failed to understand the power he actually had and if he had a better algorithm (or just any strategy at all), he would have been reelected in a landslide. Even before he was elected, Trump had already won over the far right and he could have started moving in any direction he wished. He could have moderated on many issues. Even maintaining his absolute ignorance of how govening actually works, he could have had his wall by having it be part of actual infrastructure and immigration bills. He could have directly addressed the COVID-19 pandemic. He would not have lost much of his base and would have easily gained an extra 10 million votes. Maybe, just maybe if liberal Twitter simply ignored the early incendiary Tweets and only responded to the more productive ones, they could have moved him a bit too. Positive reinforcement is how they train animals after all.
Now that Trump has shown how machine learning can win a presidency, it is only a matter of time before someone harnesses it again and more effectively. I just hope that person is not another narcissistic sociopath.
5 thoughts on “The machine learning president”
I like your take here. All this time I was worried about AGI paperclip maximizers but human attention maximizers are the more immediate threat at current technology levels.
You might also like this short story (related): https://slatestarcodex.com/2018/10/30/sort-by-controversial/
It seems possible that the machine learning began before trump and twitter–
ie just assume everything is a machine or robot (its robots, not turtles, all the way down–
quarks are just small robots, manufactured somewhere, and trump and twitter are part of the supply chain–one ‘finished product’.
While i am under the influence of Marx, Adam Smith, Hayek and others i also felt Max weber was on point—
‘protestant ethic and the spirit of captialism’.
Its not just economic determinism.
and Marx actually wasn’t a beilever in that—thats ‘vulgar Marxism’–
what you get from marx’s canon if you delete his first and famous article ‘on alienation’. .
One can get the same thing if you look at Adam smith—keep the wealth of nations , division of labor and invisible hand, and delete ‘the moral sentiments’.
Vulgar Darwinism is similar–eg take someone’s blood sample, check the DNA and then put them where they belong and are most happy and productive. .
The current crop of sort of young US socialists/marxist/anti-capitalists
(eg jacobin mag) ,
—–many at elite universities in rigorous fields such as history ,
who write on pressing topics such as the 6000th biography of Abe Lincoln)
have the vulgar view. “KISS principle’.
‘Unite and Subscribe!!!
Organize your workplace while we add an addtion to our gentrified house and buy 2 more!!!’
(eg if you keep sending them money to get their magazine to read inspiring and useful articles about union and slave rebellions in 1850 they guarantee they will deliver you socilaism, ,
and for the celebration it might come with a free drink.) .
There message is ‘All of us members of the working class need to get organized and get a 15$/minimum wage at Walmart or tenure at Princeton’ (for the ones with the proper zip code and iq. )
Deep learning and ethical AI can use the DNA, iq and zip code , in combination with the socialist-Jacobin books eg ‘Biden—yesterday’s man’ –to get this—socialism is included in the book price.
(They criticize him for making political deals–maybe this is because he didnt go to the ivy league–had to get a day job in congress or president, rather than as a revolutionary in a history dept teaching ‘justice’ to future wall street hedge fund managers who take history to fill up their requred courses.
Biden’s son did get ivy league degrees and liberated humanity from bondage last i heard and got paid in full.).
If one believes in ‘common cause theory’ (i associate that with R F Streater and H Reichenbach) then even the ‘nonlinear’ ML responses (eg feedback from twitter) are all predetermined–there are many newer versions on arxiv. .
Responses to tweets are predicted by the OT –original tweet (or OS —sin). .
(Where did OT come from? some say big bang.)
there are stochastic versions. (i’m agnostic or stochastic so dont choose a side or flip flop)
chris moore of SFI (maybe U Mich) has a complexity explorer recent podcast on ‘ethical algorithms or justice’.
and multiobjective optimization. (a movement for ‘direct runofff voting is one variant).
not much new in it if anything–buts its a ‘review’. while interesting its mostly about how to profile criminals’—or anyone suspected of being one and stopped by police. they may have vetted national guared and police using similar things—see if there are ‘insurrectionists’ in the military.
(apparently not mnay–i was even worried about that.
things seem bad enough to not want to have a civil war..)
i sort of think with some good AI one could get rid of elections altogether.
except i dont think AI or quantum comptures are up to it now
.if and when they are available it will be too late for many–they wont be affordable to those who need them.
and the ones they get will be fillled with advertizements.
Great post! I am just hoping that one individual is not smart enough to both (1) replicate Trump’s skill with social media and manipulation while simultaneously (2) improving upon Trump’s deficiencies in terms of policy actuation.
I shudder while I write this, but would a good system of government be to have 12 year cycles of an Obama for 8 years to do rational local optimizations and then a Trump for 4 years to get out of local minima?