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Technological Agorism Part III: AI & the Agora

There are two types of artificial intelligence: the rules-based, & the neural network-based approach. To illustrate the differences, I'll borrow an example from AI blogger Janelle Shane's book, You Look Like A Thing & I Love You, & pretend we're training an AI to recognize dogs.



Using a rules-based approach, we’d create parameters which the AI would then use to determine whether or not the thing it’s looking at, is in fact a dog. Our rules would include things like “must have four legs” & “must have tail,” etc. When all of our conditions have been satisfied, the AI will recognize a dog.

With a neural network-based approach, we show the AI images of dogs & it learns to recognize patterns. The more pictures of dogs we show it, the more accurate the AI becomes. Nowadays, this is usually the preferred approach & will be the subject of this article.

The interesting thing about the neural-network approach to AI - as we’ve already noted, is its reliance …

The Feather Thief

If you follow my snapchat you may remember me posting about The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson. The book tells the story of a 22-year old American college student, Edwin Rist, who developed a talent for the lost art of tying exotic fishing flies at a young age. The most prized and appreciated fishing flies call for the feathers of rare, exotic birds. Unfortunately for the small community of fly-tyers, the import of exotic feathers has been banned by the illiterates infesting Congress since the signing of the CITES Treaty (Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species) in 1975.

Prior to this, as Johnson details, trade in exotic plumage was driven by the fashion trends of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th century. The inclusion of feathers in women’s attire was a status symbol, and the more exotic the bird, the higher status it indicated. Marie Antoinette, a fashion icon of the late 18th century, famously bore a diamond encrusted egret. Soon, it was all the rage and women everywhere adopted the style.

An entire Bird of Paradise mounted on a woman's hat (c.1900)

As the demand for exotic feathers increased, public opinion started to turn. In the late 19th century, people began to feel a sense of sympathy for the birds and a sense of responsibility for the dwindling numbers of whole species. The Lacey Act of 1900 prohibited interstate commerce of certain birds & 3 years later Teddy Roosevelt was setting aside large swaths of land in Florida to protect the egret. Congress took additional measures in the years to come, including the Underwood Tariff and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, all culminating in the CITES signing.

All of this legislation had a predictable result. By banning the trade of exotic feathers, Congress was, in effect, putting a cap on supply. Since demand for feathers remained high and supply was suppressed, the price for these exotic animals skyrocketed.

Rist, who was an avid flute player, attended the Royal Academy of Music in London. Soon, he learned that the nearby British Museum of Natural History at Tring, was home to the world’s largest collection of well-preserved exotic birds. Incentivized by seductive market pressures brought to bear by the economically illiterate cockroaches in Washington, Rist began planning to rob the museum of its collection of exotic bird species.


The author speaks of the monetary loss to the state’s museum and the setback to the scientific community. The first argument can be disregarded outright, as the fictional entity masquerading as “the state” never had the right to exist in the first place, let alone, own property. The second argument holds that birds collected in previous centuries can be tested using new scientific methods to shed light on evolution. Fair enough, however, the state ought to have expected such an outcome when they decided to ban hunting and importation of exotic birds while simultaneously monopolizing the existing supply for themselves. As if their purposes were somehow more nobler than the fisherman.

Had private ownership of these species not been impeded, it’s likely farmers, induced by high prices, would have began breeding these birds, driving their numbers way up. The demand for quail & pheasant hunting ensures those animals won't be new entries on the endangered species list anytime soon, so why not apply the same logic to cotingas & Indian crows? It would also enrich a new generation of farmers & their families, just as quail and pheasant hunting has. The same concept was successful in rebuilding the elephant and rhino populations in Africa.

One night, Edwin climbed a fence and threw a rock through the Tring’s window. Soon, he was inside the building, stuffing Birds of Paradise, Blue Chatterers, Resplendent Quetzals, & Indian Crows into a suitcase. 

The Resplendent Quetzal, is listed as "Near-Threatened" because politicians can't 
understand concepts as simple as the tragedy of the commons. 

I won’t spoil the ending, in case you’d like to read the book. It’s well written and informative, and though it’s non-fiction, it sometimes takes on the feel of a thriller. For my part, I just wanted to point out how all of it - the flirtation that some species of birds have had with extinction & Rist’s heist, with all of it's consequences - is completely the state’s fault.

Note: If you're interested in learning more about free market environmentalism, check out this lecture by Walter Block.


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