Why not? Robots dancing in Madrid's robot museum. Photo: Gerard Julien/AFP/Getty Images
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Nuclear armaments? Global warming? All hail our robot overlords!

I, for one, accept our new robot politicians.

hanks to Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute and the Global Challenges Foundation, we now know the 12 ways in which humanity is most likely to go up in smoke. Their proposals for mitigating the threats (the usual suspects: asteroids, pandemics, and so on) make for interesting reading. The team makes ten recommendations, such as improving early-warning systems, increasing focus on the more extreme scenarios and looking at the possibility of establishing a global risk organisation. But it may have missed a trick.

One threat on the list is artificial intelligence (AI): robot minds capable of rising up and killing us all. Yet the discussion makes clear that politicians are also a big threat. Perhaps we could engineer AI to rise up and implement sensible decisions that will save, rather than threaten, humankind.

The AI threat is a popular notion. Stephen Hawking has pronounced on a few occasions that we should fear AI and be extremely careful about the kind of intelligence we create. The robots, he says, may well turn against us. It is a measure of Hawking’s cultural cachet that he can get away with this kind of speculation. There is very little evidence – perhaps none, outside science fiction – to support his claim.

AI isn’t very good at anything yet, let alone taking over the world. A brief conversation with Siri, the iPhone’s “knowledge navigator”, will allay all fears of a robot uprising.
And although the capabilities of Google’s self-driving cars are impressive, let’s remember how good we are at driving. Every day, human beings make millions of journeys that rely on complex decision-making algorithms operating at lightning speed in the brain.

Not only are our brains agile enough to do this, but they have ensured that the computers and AI that we invent are placed in control of cars only within an extremely tight regulatory framework. So we’re not stupid, after all.

Yet our minds are also naive and easily panicked. That is why we can be persuaded, with very little evidence, that a silicon-based creation of our making could become an existential threat.

This hair-trigger facility for suspicion and peril-spotting is part of our evolutionary heritage. It is the mental equipment that enabled us to survive in environments full of predators. But it is also what makes lasting international agreements so hard to reach, creating threats that are far more dangerous than AI.

We can focus on Ukraine, to take a topical example, but zoom out and we’ll see that the overall threat from politicians is huge. That’s why the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has adjusted its “Doomsday Clock”, a measure of the imminence of our demise as a species. In January, the time on it was moved forward: we are now at “three minutes to midnight”. The Bulletin warns that, with the governments of the US and Russia racing to modernise their nuclear arsenals, “International leaders are failing to perform their most important duty – ensuring and preserving the health and vitality of human civilisation.”

And it’s not just nuclear Armageddon. There are slow deaths on the horizon, too. Rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere were identified as a possible threat to humanity decades ago, yet little of consequence has been done about this.

It doesn’t seem to be within our capabilities to find a lasting solution to these kinds of problems. Perhaps we should encourage AI researchers to forget self-driving cars and focus on self-driving nations: a political intelligence that can steer us through dangerous times. When you consider the situation we have now, would robot overlords really be so scary? 

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Still hanging

ILONA WELLMANN/MILLENNIUM IMAGES, UK
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How the internet has democratised pornography

With people now free to circumvent the big studios, different bodies, tastes and even pubic hair styles are being represented online.

Our opinions and tastes are influenced by the media we consume: that much is obvious. But although it’s easy to have that conversation if the medium we are discussing is “safe for work”, pornography carries so much stigma that we only engage with it on simple terms. Porn is either “good” or “bad”: a magical tool for ­empowerment or a destructive influence on society. Many “pro-porn” campaigners shy away from nuanced critique, fearing it could lead to censorship. “Anti-porn” campaigners, convinced that porn is harmful by definition, need look no further than the mainstream tube sites – essentially, aggregators of clips from elsewhere – to gather examples that will back them up.

When we talk about the influence of porn, the emphasis is usually on a particular type of video – hardcore sex scenes featuring mostly slim, pubic-hairless women and faceless men: porn made for men about women. This kind of porn is credited with everything from the pornification of pop music to changing what we actually do in bed. Last year the UK government released a policy note that suggested porn was responsible for a rise in the number of young people trying anal sex. Although the original researcher, Cicely Marston, pointed out that there was no clear link between the two, the note prompted a broad debate about the impact of porn. But in doing so, we have already lost – by accepting a definition of “porn” shaped less by our desires than by the dominant players in the industry.

On the day you read this, one single site, PornHub, will get somewhere between four and five million visits from within the UK. Millions more will visit YouPorn, Tube8, Redtube or similar sites. It’s clear that they’re influential. Perhaps less clear is that they are not unbiased aggregators: they don’t just reflect our tastes, they shape what we think and how we live. We can see this even in simple editorial decisions such as categorisation: PornHub offers 14 categories by default, including anal, threesome and milf (“mum I’d like to f***”), and then “For Women” as a separate category. So standard is it for mainstream sites to assume their audience is straight and male that “point of view” porn has become synonymous with “top-down view of a man getting a blow job”. Tropes that have entered everyday life – such as shaved pubic hair – abound here.

Alongside categories and tags, tube sites also decide what you see at the top of their results and on the home page. Hence the videos you see at the top tend towards escalation to get clicks: biggest gang bang ever. Dirtiest slut. Horniest milf. To find porn that doesn’t fit this mould you must go out of your way to search for it. Few people do, of course, so the clickbait gets promoted more frequently, and this in turn shapes what we click on next time. Is it any wonder we’ve ended up with such a narrow definition of porn? In reality, the front page of PornHub reflects our desires about as accurately as the Daily Mail “sidebar of shame” reflects Kim Kardashian.

Perhaps what we need is more competition? All the sites I have mentioned are owned by the same company – MindGeek. Besides porn tube sites, MindGeek has a stake in other adult websites and production companies: Brazzers, Digital Playground, Twistys, PornMD and many more. Even tube sites not owned by MindGeek, such as Xhamster, usually follow the same model: lots of free content, plus algorithms that chase page views aggressively, so tending towards hardcore clickbait.

Because porn is increasingly defined by these sites, steps taken to tackle its spread often end up doing the opposite of what was intended. For instance, the British government’s Digital Economy Bill aims to reduce the influence of porn on young people by forcing porn sites to age-verify users, but will in fact hand more power to large companies. The big players have the resources to implement age verification easily, and even to use legislation as a way to expand further into the market. MindGeek is already developing age-verification software that can be licensed to other websites; so it’s likely that, when the bill’s rules come in, small porn producers will either go out of business or be compelled to license software from the big players.

There are glimmers of hope for the ethical porn consumer. Tube sites may dominate search results, but the internet has also helped revolutionise porn production. Aspiring producers and performers no longer need a contract with a studio – all that’s required is a camera and a platform to distribute their work. That platform might be their own website, a dedicated cam site, or even something as simple as Snapchat.

This democratisation of porn has had positive effects. There’s more diversity of body shape, sexual taste and even pubic hair style on a cam site than on the home page of PornHub. Pleasure takes a more central role, too: one of the most popular “games” on the webcam site Chaturbate is for performers to hook up sex toys to the website, with users paying to try to give them an orgasm. Crucially, without a studio, performers can set their own boundaries.

Kelly Pierce, a performer who now works mostly on cam, told me that one of the main benefits of working independently is a sense of security. “As long as you put time in you know you are going to make money doing it,” she said. “You don’t spend your time searching for shoots, but actually working towards monetary gain.” She also has more freedom in her work: “You have nobody to answer to but yourself, and obviously your fans. Sometimes politics comes into play when you work for others than yourself.”

Cam sites are also big business, and the next logical step in the trickle-down of power is for performers to have their own distribution platforms. Unfortunately, no matter how well-meaning your indie porn project, the “Adult” label makes it most likely you’ll fail. Mainstream payment providers won’t work with adult businesses, and specialist providers take a huge cut of revenue. Major ad networks avoid porn, so the only advertising option is to sign up to an “adult” network, which is probably owned by a large porn company and will fill your site with bouncing-boob gifs and hot milfs “in your area”: exactly the kind of thing you’re trying to fight against. Those who are trying to take on the might of Big Porn need not just to change what we watch, but challenge what we think porn is, too.

The internet has given the porn industry a huge boost – cheaper production and distribution, the potential for more variety, and an influence that it would be ridiculous to ignore. But in our failure properly to analyse the industry, we are accepting a definition of porn that has been handed to us by the dominant players in the market.

Girl on the Net writes one of the UK’s most popular sex blogs: girlonthenet.com

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times