Thursday, August 06, 2015

Doomsday preppers, Boston style. (My kind of worry warts)

I haven’t watched it in a while – it may not even be on any longer – but there used to be a show on National Geographic called Doomsday Preppers. My husband, who had an extraordinarily good track record when it came to identifying junky television shows that I would get immediately hooked on, stumbled on this one, and we became avid watchers.

The folks profiled were survivalists who did things like build their own hand-cranked bullet making machines so they’d be ready if a volcano erupted in Missouri. Most preppers lived in the middle of nowhere, or in a suburb close by to the middle of nowhere, but occasionally there were urban preppers. There was one young woman who lived in view of the Utah State House, and she was, as I recall, stocking up on toilet paper, lentils, and guns for the day when martial law was declared in Utah and they came to take her guns away. Another was a guy who lived in Manhattan, who had an excellent plan to get his family out of the city and into their safe house on Long Island in case of disaster. Unfortunately, the plan involved driving. I’m not sure how this fellow thought he was going to gather up the wife and kids, grab the survival packs, and head for Montauk before everyone else in the city figured something was up and hopped in their cars, but I’m guessing if Godzilla or the body snatchers invaded Manhattan, the only way to get out would be to walk from roof to roof of cars (including Yellow Cabs and Ubers) as they were gridlocked. (Worst case scenario: Godzilla attacks on Friday afternoon in the summer.)

Jim and I were doomsday preppers of another sort. If something so cataclysmic happened that only serious preppers were going to survive, then we wanted to figure out how to be at ground zero for the cataclysm.

Anyway, we watched the show for a while, and then we let it go, sidetracked, I suspect, by our own personal doomsday challenges with Jim’s cancer, about which all the lentils, water supplies, and bullet-making machines in the world weren’t going make any survival difference whatsoever.


These days, the only doomsday I’m prepping for is the day the boys arrive with their sledge hammers to demolish my kitchen and bathrooms. Which is not to say that I don’t spend a few minutes here and there worry-warting about what’s to come, existentially speaking.

Some of this is purely selfish: will the rising ocean levels turn the flat of Beacon Hill, where I live, back to the seas from whence it came before I sell my condo, making me look like a chump for waiting. Not to mention rendering my upcoming reno project valueless.

But some of my worrying is general-purpose worrying about calving glaciers, and rising temps, and worsening storms, and militarized police forces, and gun nuts in general, and fundamentalists of all stripes, and how average folks are going to make a living when technologists figure out how to get technology to do whatever is us average folks do now.

Since misery – or dire existential musings – loves company, I was delighted to find that our area has plenty of thinkers who are actually trying to parse through all the Big Questions.

Nicolas Miailhe can’t stop thinking about the robot that’s going to take your job. And it’s not just robots that concern him, it’s also the contractor working for the latest Uber-like disruptor that plans to take over your industry. He’s also contemplating what will happen to our genetic sequences when we hand them over to doctors who promise personalized medicine, and how that data could fuel a new age of eugenics if it lands in the wrong hands. But he, of course, realizes that all of this worry will be for naught if climate change makes Earth unlivable.

Miailhe isn’t some crazy on the fringe of society. He is a student at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and he belongs to just one of the serious groups around Boston that are devoting their brainpower to preparing for the technological crises of the future. (Source: Boston Globe/betaboston).

Miailhe’s group, which he cofounded last fall, is named the Future Society. They’re aim is to get Harvard to address more of the techn-crises questions in their research and classrooms. Fight fiercely, Nicolas Mialihe! (Mialihe, by the way, is no tin-foil-hat wearer. Here’s his Linked In resume.)

Then there’s the Future of Life Institute “
which is channeling its energy to the risks posed by artificial intelligence.”

Richard Mallah, an FLI core member and an artificial intelligence, or AI, researcher, says we should expect to see computers with the intelligence of a “well-rounded” human within this century.

Mallah is no slouch, either. Fortunately for us, he’s got his non-slouchiness focused on the issues of the day:

If intelligent machines don’t understand human priorities and ethics, they could make decisions that are disastrous for society. Misguided computers could harm us even without driving our cars or operating our weapons — though they’ll be doing those things, too.

FLI isn’t a bunch of nerds sitting around fretting on days when it’s too hot or cold to go out for Ultimate Frisbee. They have some serious money – most from Elon Musk, who cares deeply about this stuff.

…the FLI awarded about $7 million this month to groups researching AI safety…The winners’ research topics will include building AI systems that can learn about human values, explain their decisions to us, and police themselves.

Then there’s the Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future, which is at BU. Their focus is on environmental issues, like land use, and on the future of cities.

Pardee Director Anthony Janetos, who “doesn’t let doomsday threats bother him” has this to say:

“It doesn’t mean we’re going to fail. It doesn’t mean that there’s no point in trying,” he says. “I have more important things to do than sit around worrying.”

I’m taking my cue from Janetos. No more sitting around worrying. Instead, I’m going to clean out the cabinets in my office. Anyone need any floppy disks?

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