Sunday, March 31, 2013

Paging Paul Proteus

Obama must face the rise of the Robots (Financial Times):
Things cannot continue as they are. Yet change is speeding up. Manufacturing employment is shrinking around the world. Among other countries, China is moving even faster towards industrial robotics, an area in which German and Japanese manufacturers dominate. Last year Foxconn, the Shenzhen-based assembler for Apple, Nokia and others, said it was buying 1m robots in the next three years to substitute for workers performing repetitive manual tasks. At the other end of the spectrum, a restaurant in Harbin, northern China, last year became the first to be entirely waited on by robots. Last month, China opened the world’s first museum of 3D printing.

The potential is huge. But in the developed world, the distribution of the benefits is unsustainable. The bulk of US jobs growth since mid-2009 has been in low-skilled areas, such as food preparation and domestic aides. In the second place is jobs growth in high-end services. Middle income jobs have cratered. According to the National Employment Law Project, low wage jobs (that pay between $7.69 and $13.83 an hour) formed 22 per cent of job losses in the recession but 58 per cent of recovery jobs since then – a mirror image of the picture for middle income jobs ($13.84 to $21.18).

Unsurprisingly, people are reverting to borrowing to stay in the game. Last week, Hero Wallet, a financial advisory firm, showed that one in four US workers were dipping into their retirement funds to meet current spending needs – in spite of the penalties that accrue. This usually involves taking out loans against their retirement accounts. The median income is almost 9 per cent lower today than when Mr Obama took office. It is unclear what he can do to prevent it from falling further, even if the US returns to a higher rate of economic growth.

The effects of technology are only just beginning to be felt in education and healthcare – the two most labour-intensive areas of the US economy that both suffer from productivity stagnation. Online education is beginning to spread. It is also meeting resistance. “The reactionaries in the faculties will eventually be grandfathered out,” says Tyler Cowen, co-founder of the Marginal Revolution University, which has pioneered free online learning in economics and other subjects. “We’ll still need Harvard as a dating service,” he jokes. “But the mid-level private universities do not know what is about to hit them.”

Even in healthcare, which reliably added jobs when every other sector was shedding them, technology is starting to look labour-saving. Last week, the Food and Drug Administration issued a patent to RP-Vita, the first “human interacting autonomous robot” for hospitals. Forget downloading diagnostic apps. At some point we will be boring Watson with our symptoms. For many of us there will be big gains. The most innovative teachers will be able to outsource lessons to the internet and focus on each child’s specific problems. The best doctors will be freed from basic diagnostics to do the same.

But the spread of the robots will leave a large and growing chunk of the US labour force in the lurch. In their excellent primer, Race Against The Machine , Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee point out that in the contest between changing technology and education, the former is winning. Too few Americans are prepared. Some, such as Mr Cowen, fear many never will be. He believes the federal government should pay a basic guaranteed income to all Americans – a despairing view that accepts there will be permanent losers.

Mr Obama is more optimistic. In his first term, he set a target that the US should graduate every American by 2020. Even if that were possible, it may not be a panacea. Incomes for those with only a college degree have also stagnated since 2000 (and fallen for men). Yet a healthy economy cannot for long be upheld by a minority of its workforce.

At some point, policy makers will be forced to grapple with what is intuitively obvious – that sustained growth is inconsistent with declining middle class incomes. In their book, Brynjolfsson and McAfee cite a meeting between Henry Ford and Walter Reuther, the union leader. Pointing at his new robots, Mr Ford says, “How will you get union dues from them?” Mr Reuther replied: “How will you get them to buy your cars?”
The Siren Song of the Robot (Peak Prosperity):
During the past 30 years, Americans have been treated to a flood of cheap goods and outright deflation in most foreign manufactured items. Did this make us wealthier? Because that is the standard position of many economists.

The developed world has learned over the past decade that a steady supply of cheaper, foreign-made goods does not guarantee prosperity. What impact will (perhaps only moderately) cheaper goods have if coupled with reduced employment as human labor is displaced by machines? If we are unable to find a higher use for the displaced human labor, we are actually worse off.
Raging (Again) Against the Robots (New York Times). Stuart Staniford comments: "Catherine Rampell is sceptical about the ability of robots/algorithms to displace people long-term.  However, I didn't think the piece was very insightful and in particular doesn't take on the strongest arguments for why this time is different."

Will Robots Create Economic Utopia? (Bloomberg Businessweek):
Boosting the pay rewards to work at the same time is critical. One possible approach to this is expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), the U.S.’s major antipoverty program. Families that include children and earn an annual income less than about $36,900 to $50,300 (depending on marital status and number of dependent children) are eligible for the federal EITC. University of Arizona sociologist Lane Kenworthy has proposed pushing the EITC higher up into the middle class. Instead of phasing out at a certain income level, it would simply become a flat benefit indexed to average compensation. “It’s insurance against the risk of wages falling so far behind,” says Kenworthy. “It’s a concept of social insurance with work at its core.”

For the past 300 years or so, the way the economy has distributed wealth is through jobs, with pay supplemented by union pressure, child labor laws, pensions, and other share-the-wealth strategies. The traditional method has been breaking down over the past few decades. Inequality has soared, and the Great American Job Machine has sputtered. We now have an opportunity to reverse the trend by expropriating the robots, computers, and algorithms. The challenge of our high-tech economy is how to take a hefty slice of wealth from the machines and offer ordinary people the reality of jobs with decent wages and compensation. That would be progress.
One graph that says much about America, and our future: the growth in jobs vs. food stamp use (Fabius Maximus)

Health Care Aside, Fewer Jobs Than in 2000 (New York Times) Kinda contradicts her own article about how automation is nothing to worry about, above.

A World Without Work (Ross Douthat, New York Times)
IMAGINE, as 19th-century utopians often did, a society rich enough that fewer and fewer people need to work — a society where leisure becomes universally accessible, where part-time jobs replace the regimented workweek, and where living standards keep rising even though more people have left the work force altogether.

If such a utopia were possible, one might expect that it would be achieved first among the upper classes, and then gradually spread down the social ladder. First the wealthy would work shorter hours, then the middle class, and finally even high school dropouts would be able to sleep late and take four-day weekends and choose their own adventures — “to hunt in the morning,” as Karl Marx once prophesied, “fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner ...”

Yet the decline of work isn’t actually some wild Marxist scenario. It’s a basic reality of 21st-century American life, one that predates the financial crash and promises to continue apace even as normal economic growth returns. This decline isn’t unemployment in the usual sense, where people look for work and can’t find it. It’s a kind of post-employment, in which people drop out of the work force and find ways to live, more or less permanently, without a steady job. So instead of spreading from the top down, leisure time — wanted or unwanted — is expanding from the bottom up. Long hours are increasingly the province of the rich.

Of course, nobody is hailing this trend as the sign of civilizational progress. Instead, the decline in blue-collar work is often portrayed in near-apocalyptic terms — on the left as the economy’s failure to supply good-paying jobs, and on the right as a depressing sign that government dependency is killing the American work ethic.

But it’s worth linking today’s trends to the older dream of a post-work utopia, because there are ways in which the decline in work-force participation is actually being made possible by material progress.
That progress can be hard to appreciate at the moment, but America’s immense wealth is still our era’s most important economic fact. “When a nation is as rich as ours,” Scott Winship points out in an essay for Breakthrough Journal, “it can realize larger absolute gains than it did in the past ... even if it has lower growth rates.” Our economy may look stagnant compared to the acceleration after World War II, but even disappointing growth rates are likely to leave the America of 2050 much richer than today.
How The Internet Is Making Us Poor (Business Insider)
Everyone knows the story of how robots replaced humans on the factory floor. But in the broader sweep of automation versus labor, a trend with far greater significance for the middle class—in rich countries, at any rate—has been relatively overlooked: the replacement of knowledge workers with software.

One reason for the neglect is that this trend is at most thirty years old, and has become apparent in economic data only in perhaps the past ten years. The first all-in-one commercial microprocessor went on sale in 1971, and like all inventions, it took decades for it to become an ecosystem of technologies pervasive and powerful enough to have a measurable impact on the way we work.

Sixty percent of the jobs in the US are information-processing jobs, notes Erik Brynjolfsson, co-author of a recent book about this disruption, Race Against the Machine. It’s safe to assume that almost all of these jobs are aided by machines that perform routine tasks. These machines make some workers more productive. They make others less essential.
Andrew McAfee: Are Droids Taking Our Jobs? (TED Talk). Please pay special attention to his talk after the 7:00 mark. McAfee asks rhetorically "what have been the most important developments in human history?" McAfee throws out a number of possible answers - religions, empires, plagues, the opening up of the New World, intellectual achievements like advanced mathematics, and the flourishing of the arts and sciences during the Renaissance. He charts these developments on a timeline, and then overlays the global population and the human development index. His extraordinary conclusion: none of these things have mattered very much! He then says, "there has been one story, one development in human that bent the curve; bent it just about ninety degrees, and it is a technology story." He cites the technologies of the industrial revolution as the game-changer and quotes Ian Morris that they made " a mockery of all that had come before."

His statement and his chart prove something else, though. Take a close look at his chart (at 8:55). What really bent that curve 90 degrees? Fossil fuels, that's what! And McAfee totally misses the boat here. I went to look for a copy of that graph, because it seems like the best one picture proof of the power of fossil fuels ever assembled. I could not find it, but I did find Andrew McAfee's blog.He makes a lot of the same arguments that I make here.

UPDATE: a screen capture of the slide:

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The God That Failed

There's an article on The Atlantic today explaining that the so-called "viral" Web memes are anything but. It turns out that marketing companies are now constantly trolling the Web looking for user-created content that is unique or memorable, and then promoting it via their media empires and enhancing it with professionally-crafted videos to create "viral" marketing campaigns via social media. They use the Harlem Shake as an example. And I see Henri, the cat who famously mused about the existential ennui of feline life, is now doing commericals for Friskies cat food.

This coopting is hardly new; any number of writers have pointed out how alternative, "outsider" cultural movements are consistenlty coopted by the mainstream. The Rolling Stones, scandalous in their time, are now avuncular geezers who gyrate at the Super Bowl and whose music sells everything from cars to diapers. More recently, the "grunge" movement was co-opted by MTV and others and turned into a cultural phonomenon and money-maker, much to the consternation of it's original garage-band creators who constanly fretted about "selling out" and "fakery" in neurotic episodes worthy of Holden Caufield. Just about every artistic and cultural movement under capitalism has tried to deal with this in its own way, often by making no bones of the fact they're in it for the money.

It reminds me of one of the central themes of Adam Curtis' documentary, The Century of the Self, about how the 1960's and 70's hippie rebellion against the mass conformity and Pavlovian conditioning that had so characterized the post World War 2 era (crafted by public relations mavens like Edward Bernays), was coopted by Madison Avenue and politicians. The business and political elites at first saw these youth movements as a threat to their orderly, well-managed societies, but soon changed their tactics. Where previously you bought products to keep up with the Joneses or to fit in with all the other people on your block, now you bought them to express your invidualism and define your unique identity.

And the ultimate co-opting was using these same techniques to sell the Reagan/Thatcher revolution. It's often forgetten that these political movements originally portrayed them as ousiders, with their central motivation being the liberation of the oppressed individual from the yoke of society. The Reagan/Thatcher revolution proposed to dismantle the burdensome rules, regulations and taxes that supposedly sapped the individual's initiative, drive, and ambition, and release all the pent-up energy and dynamism that had previously been stifled and subordnated to the gray conformist collective symbolized by government and unions, all while dressing their message up in a relentlessly upbeat, aspirational, self-improvement rhetoric. To a lot people in the late 1970's, suffering under a stagnant economy, inflation, and "malaise," that seemed to be just the ticket to get back the good old days of the previous several decades. And such attidudes were carried into the business world as well with the rise of Silicon Valley and its alternative, "disruptive" culture. Hence, the former hippie pulling the lever for Reagan in the voting booth in 1980 is not nearly as suprising as it seems at first glance. If you have not seen it (and I suspect many of my readers already have), you should take a look.

Of course, once this philosophy was liberated from Pandora's Box, certain "superempowered" individuals were "liberated" to quickly dominate the economic and political scene, leading to the era of extreme inequality and loss of collective purpose we are now living under. In many ways, the militant, self-satisfied libertarianism that characterizes politics today got it's start in the 1970's rebellious "go your own way" attitudes. As the very idea of good governance became discounted and disparaged, government itself became predictably more dysfunctional, causing more and more people to become cynical and suspicious of government and it's motives, and the cycle fed on itself. Government first became estranged from the people, then taken over by special interests, to the point that many people now say it is irreformable and should just be taken out back and shot (in many instances, quite literally!) Eventually, people simply forgot that honest, competent government had once existed in America, and embraced militant libertarianism with its calls to "drown government in a bathtub." The idea that "government is always the problem, never the solution," an incorrect paraphrase of what Reagan actually said, has thus became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In one of his blog posts, Curtis describes how some of the Russian "opposition" parties were actually elaborate creations of the Kremlin itself, designed to absorb and co-opt, and ultimately channel the energies of the disaffected into something that posed no real threat to the political order. I can think of no better description of the current American political dichotomy than that. Both opposing political parties are created and run by the same centralized power structure, thus any opposition to the current political order is channeled into the opposition party where it can be safely directed and dissipated like the ground for an electrical circuit. See, for example, this article: The Progressive Movement is a PR Front For Rich Democrats.

Again the analogies to Madison Avenue are instructive. Companies today sell products based on peoples' perceived lifestyles - whether it's pickup trucks or hemp handbags. In the era of "branding," advertising and political campaigns are all based around individualism and identity. Are you highly educated? Is your world view informed by science? Do you care about the environment? Favor equal rights and gay marriage? Then vote for the Democrats, with their hip, intelligent, urbane, biracial spokesman at the head. Do you attend church services regularly? Believe in "traditional values?" Live in a suburb and own guns? Don't like paying taxes or government bureaucracy? Then vote for Republicans and their skeet-shootin', fur-trappin' beer-swillin' wealthy white businessman leaders. In the aftermath of their most recent loss, Republicans are obsessed with changing how they sell themselves to the American public, while keeping their underlying policies, backers, political motives and governing philosophy completely unchanged. More Hispanic faces out front, keeping crazy white evangelicals in the background, and playing down the more aggressive bigotry seems to be the prevailing wisdom at the present time. And in 2008, the Obama campaign won an award from Advertising Age magazine as the campaign of the year.

Just as a single company owns hundreds of "brands" marketed to different segments of society (odds are the "natural" or "organic" products you buy are owned by the same corporation as the mainstream ones), each party is a "brand" owned by the same small cabal, with only minor cosmetic distinctions that ultimately don't really amount to much. Channel your political energies into the Democrats or the Tea Party, it makes no real difference. It can be argued that the reason the Occupy Movement was perceived as such a threat, and the reason the reaction was so extreme, was because it was outside of this paradigm, and thus could not be predictably controlled or co-opted. Of course, that did not stop the Democratic political and media establishment from belatedly trying. And some widely held attitudes, like getting tough on bankers and decriminalizing drugs, have no outlet whatsoever. This is by design.

But the reason I tell you all this is because the "this time it's different" attitudes are once again being trotted out in regards to technology, much like Lucy trotted out the football and asked Charlie Brown to kick it. I can still remember the dewy-eyed paeans in the late nineties about how the Internet would irrevocably change the world forever. Yet the websites most people go to today are ones owned by media conglomerates like and Even the supposedly "independent" Web entities like Slate, The Huffington Post or Business Insider are big media entities, and are bought and sold and traded among big money players like professional athletes. "Democratic" platforms like Facebook and YouTube are billion-dollar corporations who track your every move and sell to you incessantly. They dictate the rules you must follow, and will not hesitate to take any action they feel necessary at any time to preserve their profits. Bloggers like me are currently just a sideshow, and even I am using a platform provided by Google. Like the Web memes, we just can't see the man behind the curtain, so we think he isn't there. We think we're rebelling against the system by pulling levers and pushing buttons provided by the system itself for that very purpose. It's more an emotional release than anything else, and we're fooled into thinking that it makes a difference, but it doesn't.  The veil is ever more sophisticated, but make no mistake, it is there. The giant pools of money, and the people who control those pools, are still calling all the shots, and probably always will.

So when I hear these countless breathless pronouncements about how "disruptive" technologies like 3D printing will "change everything" and revolutionize the way we work , you can see why my eye roll is even more extreme than Cookie Monster's. About how it's going to be a renaissance when we print out everything we need at home and tell Wal-Mart to go screw itself because we don't need its cheap Chinese crap. The same pronouncements were made about desktop publishing, but last time I looked we still have books and magazines. Every printer I ever bought I quickly threw away because it would jamb after printing just one sheet. Plus the ink cartridges, without which the printer was useless, were outrageously expensive. As one comment I read somewhere put it, I'll believe in the potential of 3D printing when I can get a 2D printer that works. As soon as the 3D patterns catch on, some corporation will throw up a passworded gateway around them. And the material your 3D printer needs to work? Expect to pay some corporation extortionate prices for it.

Similarly, when I hear people like Kevin Kelly, or similar figures, proclaim things like how our new personal robot assistants will create plentiful new jobs or a brave new world of leisure for all, I scratch my head. Techno-optimism has a poor track record, but somehow it never dies. Substitute your favorite new technology from the pages of Wired or Popular Mechanics - artificial intelligence or thorium reactors or self-driving cars, or cold fusion or genetic engineering or algae that oozes gasoline, or hamburgers grown in a petri dish, and someone, somewhere is ready to evangelize about how it's going to fix all our problems and lead us to the promised land. The idea that any one of these is going to free us from corporate dominance, or remove us from being under the thumb of the same musical chairs gang of elite narcissists is laughable. Chances are, if we ever do invent artificial intelligence, the first thing we're going to use it for is to come up with better ways to sell people things they don't need.

One of the consistent themes of this blog has been to document the many ways in which technology was thought to be a saviour, but it was just as often the god that failed. Many posts here document how Utopian fantasies about technology are nothing new. Automobiles, electricity, artificial lighting, plastics, airplanes, nuclear energy, artificial fertilizers, antibiotics, cell phones; even plate glass and the flush toilet were all candidates at one point or another. All too often these things not only failed to change things in the way their boosters expected, but in every case had unintended consequences, from pollution to obesity to unemployment to urban sprawl and ghettos. The latest connection of honeybee colony collapse disorder to the widespread use of pesticides, and earthquakes to hydraulic fracturing, are just two of countless examples. Things have remained remarkably continuous even throughout the rise of all these previous "discontinuous" technologies.

Here's the thing - techno-optimism just another way of channelling our energies into ways that don't really matter and are no threat to the fundamental workings of the system. As long we have this idea that some new technology is a "game changer," we will be blind to the fact that even as new technology arrives, the game never changes. Like the Web memes and viral marketing, techno-optimism is just another tool used by the elites to manipulate bright, intelligent people who know that things are messed up to wait for some kind of technological messiah to liberate them that's always certain to arrive at some future date. But bright, intelligent people should know better. To paraphrase Reagan once again, and to hew a bit closer to his original statement, in this present crisis, technology is not the solution to our problems, technology is the problem. The only way we're going to fix what's wrong with the system is well, by actually fixing what's wrong the system.

P.S. Curtis' latest entry seems to be worth a read.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Artificial Intelligence

Some artificial intelligence links. First up, this post by Kevin Drum seems to agree with the Singularitarians that AI is possible, it’s a game changer, and it will solve all our problems. He doesn’t seem to offer any evidence for this conclusion, though: “If AI is ubiquitous by 2040 or so, nearly every long-term problem we face right now—medical inflation, declining employment, Social Security financing, returns to education, global warming, etc. etc.—either goes away or is radically transformed in ways we can't even imagine.” Huh?

Stuart Staniford seems to agree that AI is possible, but not by 2040, and does not think it’s a miracle cure for our biggest problems. He concludes: “It follows pretty immediately that most of our environmental problems, for example, won't be going anywhere as a result of AI.” He concludes:
On the other hand, we are going to have to go through some massive wrenching cultural adjustments in our ideas of work and dependency and how we derive meaning from our lives.  Jamais Cascio recently coined the term the Burning Man Future, which I like.  In particular, it captures the idea that the entire culture is going to increasingly have to become like what is currently a hippy artist fringe.  Either that, or we need to decide that there are some things we really don't want to invent and stop working on this stuff.
Burning Man Future, I love it! Finally we have a shorthand term for what we need. And Ran has a couple of links arguing that corporations are a form of artificial intelligence. But the singularity may have happened longer ago than that – you could say that the  same could is true for civilization itself – new emergent properties occur because of large agglomerations of smaller units. One neuron in your brain isn’t much use, but billions are. The same with people. It could be said that all of this stuff we’ve created and are living in, from stone tools to cell phones are a creation not of people but of this artificial intelligence called “civilization.” Anyway – here is a quote:
It is pretty clear to anyone who’s paying attention that 1. a marketplace regime of firms dedicated to maximizing profit has—broadly speaking—added a lot of value to the world 2. there are a lot of important cases where corporate profit maximization causes harm to humans 3. corporations are—broadly speaking—really good at ensuring that their needs are met.

I don’t think that it’s all that far fetched to suggest that maybe they’re getting better and better at ensuring their needs are met. Pretty much the only thing that the left and right in America can agree on is that moneyed influence has corrupted American politics and yet neither side seems able to do much of anything about it.

What if the private pursuit of profit was—for a long time—proximate to improving the lot of humans but not identical to it? What if capitalism has gone feral, and started making moves that are obviously insane, but also inevitable?

And this post from Charlie Stross:
We are now living in a global state that has been structured for the benefit of non-human entities with non-human goals. They have enormous media reach, which they use to distract attention from threats to their own survival. They also have an enormous ability to support litigation against public participation, except in the very limited circumstances where such action is forbidden. Individual atomized humans are thus either co-opted by these entities (you can live very nicely as a CEO or a politician, as long as you don't bite the feeding hand) or steamrollered if they try to resist.
In short, we are living in the aftermath of an alien invasion.

Civilization itself seems to be much the same way – overall human happiness and well-being is sacrificed to the needs of top-down pyramidal civilization. And individual resistance is quickly stamped out. It's interesting to note that even in this advanced stage of collapse, corporate profits are at an all-time high. We're all just grist for the mill, or food shovelled into the maw of the beast.

And this article on Aeon magazine by Ross Anderson is too awesome to summarize well, but concerns cutting-edge philosophers pondering either human extinction or spreading out among the stars, and not much in between. These philosophers are thinking in cosmic time scales of billions of years, long enough for an asteroid to hit the earth or the sun to go supernova. Nuclear winter, bioweapons, it’s all there. And as for Peak Oil: 'There is a concern that civilisations might need a certain amount of easily accessible energy to ramp up,’ Bostrom told me. ‘By racing through Earth’s hydrocarbons, we might be depleting our planet’s civilization startup-kit. But, even if it took us 100,000 years to bounce back, that would be a brief pause on cosmic time scales.’”  But AI figures in their hypothesis:
An artificial intelligence wouldn’t need to better the brain by much to be risky. After all, small leaps in intelligence sometimes have extraordinary effects. Stuart Armstrong, a research fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute, once illustrated this phenomenon to me with a pithy take on recent primate evolution. ‘The difference in intelligence between humans and chimpanzees is tiny,’ he said. ‘But in that difference lies the contrast between 7 billion inhabitants and a permanent place on the endangered species list. That tells us it’s possible for a relatively small intelligence advantage to quickly compound and become decisive.’

To understand why an AI might be dangerous, you have to avoid anthropomorphising it. When you ask yourself what it might do in a particular situation, you can’t answer by proxy. You can't picture a super-smart version of yourself floating above the situation. Human cognition is only one species of intelligence, one with built-in impulses like empathy that colour the way we see the world, and limit what we are willing to do to accomplish our goals. But these biochemical impulses aren’t essential components of intelligence. They’re incidental software applications, installed by aeons of evolution and culture. Bostrom told me that it’s best to think of an AI as a primordial force of nature, like a star system or a hurricane — something strong, but indifferent. If its goal is to win at chess, an AI is going to model chess moves, make predictions about their success, and select its actions accordingly. It’s going to be ruthless in achieving its goal, but within a limited domain: the chessboard. But if your AI is choosing its actions in a larger domain, like the physical world, you need to be very specific about the goals you give it.

‘The basic problem is that the strong realisation of most motivations is incompatible with human existence,’ Dewey told me. ‘An AI might want to do certain things with matter in order to achieve a goal, things like building giant computers, or other large-scale engineering projects. Those things might involve intermediary steps, like tearing apart the Earth to make huge solar panels. A superintelligence might not take our interests into consideration in those situations, just like we don’t take root systems or ant colonies into account when we go to construct a building.’

It is tempting to think that programming empathy into an AI would be easy, but designing a friendly machine is more difficult than it looks. You could give it a benevolent goal — something cuddly and utilitarian, like maximising human happiness. But an AI might think that human happiness is a biochemical phenomenon. It might think that flooding your bloodstream with non-lethal doses of heroin is the best way to maximise your happiness. It might also predict that shortsighted humans will fail to see the wisdom of its interventions. It might plan out a sequence of cunning chess moves to insulate itself from resistance. Maybe it would surround itself with impenetrable defences, or maybe it would confine humans — in prisons of undreamt of efficiency.
Omens (Aeon Magazine)

Indeed, if the civilization/corporate hypothesis is correct, then this “AI” is already tearing the world apart and hurling towards extinction even as we speak.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Nurses and Engineers

I once quipped that the only jobs available in the future will be nurses, engineers and accountants. Of course, more generally, I meant that the only viable careers left will be in money management, high/tech engineering/science (including IT) and healthcare.

Well, how am I doing?

Children are Naturally Curious

For some reason, this video made me think of this: Children should be allowed to get bored, expert says (BBC)
The senior researcher at the University of East Anglia's School of Education and Lifelong Learning interviewed a number of authors, artists and scientists in her exploration of the effects of boredom. She quizzed author Meera Syal and artist Grayson Perry about how boredom had aided their creativity as children. Syal said boredom made her write, while Perry said it was a "creative state".

She heard Syal's memories of the small mining village, with few distractions, where she grew up. Dr Belton said: "Lack of things to do spurred her to talk to people she would not otherwise have engaged with and to try activities she would not, under other circumstances, have experienced, such as talking to elderly neighbours and learning to bake cakes. "Boredom is often associated with solitude and Syal spent hours of her early life staring out of the window across fields and woods, watching the changing weather and seasons.But importantly boredom made her write. She kept a diary from a young age, filling it with observations, short stories, poems, and diatribe. And she attributes these early beginnings to becoming a writer late in life."
Of course, that assumes we want creativity rather than conformity in our children. There are definitely quite a few people who don't want that. FWIW, I'm an only child and spent much of my childhood alone and bored and observing the world around me. I have no idea whether I sounded like the above when I was seven, however. Most people I know only talk like that when they're high.

And while we're on the subject of only children, I was fascinated to read this:
…Fehr also noticed a difference between children who’s grown up as siblings and those who were only children.  Contrary to the presumption that only children are more selfish than children raised in larger families, Fehr found the onlies to be the more cooperative and selfless.  They were completely untroubled by handing over toys to another child, whereas the siblings flatly refused.  Fehr came to the conclusion that the onlies didn’t know to be competitive because they’d never had to compete…They weren’t afraid of sharing toys, because they didn’t understand if you gave Barbie to another child, she might come back missing her leg or head.
*Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing* (Marginal Revolution)

That might explain why I have so little inherent desire to compete with other people or climb the greasy pole of corporate success. I guess I'll never be Top Dog. And I'm glad it puts to rest the "only children are selfish" myth. I wonder what effect smaller families will have on Asia. Are only children more likely to be socialists?

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Cycles of Inequality

There is a great article on Aeon Magazine - Return of the Oppressed - by Peter Turchin, the author of Secular Cycles. Even a casual observer of history is bound to notice cyclical periods of growth and decline repeating themselves throughout time and in different cultures. Turchin's work is an attempt to document and explain them. Here, he focuses on the role that inequality has played throughout history.
Today, the top one per cent of incomes in the United States accounts for one fifth of US earnings. The top one per cent of fortunes holds two-fifths of the total wealth. Just one rich family, the six heirs of the brothers Sam and James Walton, founders of Walmart, are worth more than the bottom 40 per cent of the American population combined ($115 billion in 2012).

After thousands of scholarly and popular articles on the topic, one might think we would have a pretty good idea why the richest people in the US are pulling away from the rest. But it seems we don't. As the Congressional Budget Office concluded in 2011: 'the precise reasons for the rapid growth in income at the top are not well understood'. Some commentators point to economic factors, some to politics, and others again to culture. Yet obviously enough, all these factors must interact in complex ways. What is slightly less obvious is how a very long historical perspective can help us to see the whole mechanism.
Economists can't figure it out because they see the economy as equally-placed rational cogs cooperating in an idealized clockwork market economy heading towards "equilibrium" through price discovery, or some such nonsense. Rather than the abstract alchemy of money relations, however, Turchin actually looks at history to document these repeated cycles and their underlying causes. As he writes, "Over periods of two to three centuries, we found repeated back-and-forth swings in demographic, economic, social, and political structures. And the cycles of inequality were an integral part of the overall motion."

Turchin's ideas echo Marx's historical theories of class struggle stripped of their Hegelian baggage, and with a cyclical focus rather than a directional one. Turchin's concepts are simple and elegant: Rising populations lead to an oversupply of labor and plummeting living conditions for the poor. As the poor get poorer, the rich get richer : "As the slice of the economic pie going to employees diminishes, the share going to employers goes up. Periods of rapid growth for top fortunes are commonly associated with stagnating incomes for the majority."

Paradoxically, falling wages for workers causes an increased number of wealthy elites: " labour allows many enterprising, hard-working or simply lucky members of the poorer classes to climb into the ranks of the wealthy...On the face of it, this is a wonderful testament to merit-based upward mobility. But there are side effects. Don't forget that most people are stuck with stagnant or falling real wages. Upward mobility for a few hollows out the middle class and causes the social pyramid to become top-heavy. Too many elites relative to the general population (a condition I call 'elite overproduction') leads to ever-stiffer rivalry in the upper echelons."

As the number of elites increases, competition among them becomes ever more fierce, featuring lavish displays of wealth as the rich intermarry and become an entirely separate class from the wider society with whom they have less and less in common: "So far I have been talking about the elites as if they are all the same. But they aren't: the differences within the wealthiest one per cent are almost as stark as the difference between the top one per cent and the remaining 99. The millionaires want to reach the level of decamillionaires, who strive to match the centimillionaires, who are trying to keep up with billionaires. The result is very intense status rivalry, expressed through conspicuous consumption."

As the rich get ever richer they buy political power, and change the rules of the economic game in their favor. Political elites become increasingly out-of-touch and unresponsive to the needs of the wider populace, even in times of crisis. Government becomes an oligarchy, with acquisition of more wealth more important than the common welfare. Wealth leads to more political power, which leads to more wealth: "In the US, there is famously a close connection between wealth and power... The US political system is much more attuned to the wishes of the rich than to the aspirations of the poor."

As competition becomes normalized and class divisions more pronounced, a dog-eat-dog, "every man for himself" ethic becomes the order of the day. Any sense of common purpose is lost as everyone tries to grab their piece of the pie by whatever means necessary:  "Norms of competition and extreme individualism become prevalent and norms of co-operation and collective action recede....The glorification of competition and individual success in itself becomes a driver of economic inequality."

Eventually, extreme inequality and political dysfunction comes to a point where it undermines social trust and faith in institutions and begins to tear apart the fabric of society. Realizing this, the ruling oligarchy slowly introduces limited reforms to placate an increasingly restless and indigent populace: "Unequal societies generally turn a corner once they have passed through a long spell of political instability. Governing elites tire of incessant violence and disorder. They realise that they need to suppress their internal rivalries, and switch to a more co-operative way of governing, if they are to have any hope of preserving the social order... Put simply, it is fear of revolution that restores equality. And my analysis of US history in a forthcoming book suggests that this is precisely what happened in the US around 1920."

Turchin uses this idea to explain the "great compression" in the period following the Great Depression. American elites were genuinely afraid of a domestic Communist revolution: "These were the years of extreme insecurity... The US, in short, was in a revolutionary situation, and many among the political and business elites realised it. They began to push through a remarkable series of reforms." Once Communism went away as a viable alternative however, they no longer had anything to fear and went back to the greed and rapaciousness of the Gilded Age by waging a relentless assault against the New Deal, and putting American workers in competition with workers across the globe: " the late 1970s, a new generation of political and business leaders had come to power. To them the revolutionary situation of 1919-21 was just history. In this they were similar to the French aristocrats on the eve of the French Revolution, who did not see that their actions could bring down the Ancien RĂ©gime - the last great social breakdown, the Fronde, being so far in the past."

Turchin concludes that inequality appears set to worsen in the near future, and with it, social instability:
Our society, like all previous complex societies, is on a rollercoaster. Impersonal social forces bring us to the top; then comes the inevitable plunge. But the descent is not inevitable. Ours is the first society that can perceive how those forces operate, even if dimly. This means that we can avoid the worst - perhaps by switching to a less harrowing track, perhaps by redesigning the rollercoaster altogether.

Three years ago I published a short article in the science journal Nature. I pointed out that several leading indicators of political instability look set to peak around 2020. In other words, we are rapidly approaching a historical cusp, at which the US will be particularly vulnerable to violent upheaval. This prediction is not a 'prophecy'. I don't believe that disaster is pre-ordained, no matter what we do. On the contrary, if we understand the causes, we have a chance to prevent it from happening. But the first thing we will have to do is reverse the trend of ever-growing inequality.
Turchin's essay is chock full of numerous illustrative examples from history, especially from Ancient Rome, the Black Death, the first Industrial Revolution, and America's Gilded Age. Definitely required reading. These repeating cycles are why modern American history seems to be tracking so closely to that of Ancient Rome, as so many have noted. For an excellent overview of just how closely, see Cullen Murphy's excellent book, Are We Rome?

There are a couple of things to add. Sometimes elites refuse to reform the system, and the system simply collapses or breaks apart as in the case of the Roman Empire. The system undergoes rapid decentralization and simplification. This leads to a great reset, but this period is characterized by chaos, breakdown, vice, lawlessness, and in many instances, death. The so-called "Dark Ages" is a classic example. See, for example, Bryan Ward Perkins The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization. Dmitry Orlov's new book on the five stages of collapse looks to cover this as well. Only after survivors pick up the pieces do things start to improve.

Also, these cycles are intimately tied to the natural world. Overexploitation of the environment is a major cause, along with a population explosion which Turchin deals with in the context of falling wages and steadily decreasing quality of life for the masses. Throughout history, periods of warm weather and plentiful rainfall are associated with periods of expansion, and periods of cooler, dryer weather are associated with dissolution and collapse, e.g.: Fall of Rome Recorded in the Trees (Science Magazine).
When empires rise and fall and plagues sweep over the land, people have traditionally cursed the stars. But perhaps they should blame the weather. A new analysis of European tree-ring samples suggests that mild summers may have been the key to the rise of the Roman Empire—and that prolonged droughts, cold snaps, and other climate changes might have played a part in historical upheavals, from the barbarian invasions that brought about Rome's collapse to the Black Death that wiped out much of medieval Europe.
This is true of every ancient empire, from the Mesopotamians, to the Indus Valley, to the Bronze Age collapse, to the Roman Empire to the Han Dynasty to the Khmer empire to the Classic Mayans, to the Anasazi and the Hohokam; the list is endless. It seems hardly a year goes by without archaeologists pointing the finger at climate change, chronic drought and crop failure as a cause of collapse for some ancient culture using things like tree rings and ice core samples to analyze historical climate patterns.

The erosion and depletion of healthy topsoil is also a factor in imperial decline as David Montgomery explains in Dirt The Erosion of Civilizations. Disease epidemics also play a role such as malaria and the plague in Roman times, the Black Death in medieval Europe, and smallpox and other zoonotic diseases in the Western hemisphere.

There are some unique conditions in our era, though. The extreme distribution and misallocation of wealth has been masked by the energy abundance provided by fossil fuels. This has also allowed us to overexploit the natural world to an extent never seen before. This has led many to believe we have escaped these cycles and are on a permanent upward trajectory in living standards for all. History does not look too kindly on this. Also, a sophisticated mass media capable of manipulating the public's thoughts and ideas has not existed before (except perhaps in the guise of religion). This can best be seen in the United States where support for an overtly anti-worker party of plutocrats comes mainly from the uneducated lower classes. And the all-seeing mass surveillance state that has been created by digital technology is also a new development.

Turchin's ideas also dovetail with the ideas put forward in Why Nations Fail - and explains what's missing from their story. Acemoglu and Robinson correlate successful countries with inclusive elites and institutions - ones that allow social mobility, cooperative behavior and democratic governance to create conditions where the common good is pursued and all citizens are better off. Failed nations, by contrast, have extractive elites who rig the game in their favor and prey on the people below them in the hierarchy in a zero-sum game where the elites' lavish lifestyles are made possible by the suffering of the citizens they supposedly serve.

But inclusive elites don't just happen - they are forced into existence by increasing prosperity for the majority who demand new rights and a renegotiation of the social compact. And extractive elites come to the fore in periods of downward mobility, depleted resources, maximum territorial expansion, and overpopulation. if you put these analyses together, you get a situation where societies become a victim of their own past success as inclusive elites and institutions become increasingly extractive over time, immiserating the general population. Inclusive institutions and social progress are associated with periods of plentiful resources and low population density. Plentiful resources could be the result of increased crop yields due to more rainfall, more land availability, better agricultural techniques, territorial expansion, or, in our own time, cheap and abundant fossil fuels. Low populations could be the result of a mass dieoff like the plague, emigration, or birth control.

This leads to my argument, often repeated, that "innovation" is misunderstood by economists. It is not a creator of abundance, it is the result of abundance. Thus it cannot occur in a vacuum, and will be increasingly stifled as resources fail, rather than create new resources to save us. Innovation is intimately tied to the underlying health of society. When that breaks down, so too does innovation.

There's one element of Turchin's essay, though, that deserves special attention. Very frequently we hear how we need to increase our population to "grow our economy." Many prominent economists and commentators, including those supposedly on the "left" such as Adam Davidson and Matt Yglesias, continually beat the drum to let in more immigrants, or even eliminate any immigration restrictions whatsoever. They claim unrestricted mass immigration will grow our economy, and therefore make everyone better off. History, however, tells a different story:.
This connection between the oversupply of labour and plummeting living standards for the poor is one of the more robust generalisations in history. Consider the case of medieval England. The population of England doubled between 1150 and 1300. There was little possibility of overseas emigration, so the 'surplus' peasants flocked to the cities, causing the population of London to balloon from 20,000 to 80,000. Too many hungry mouths and too many idle hands resulted in a fourfold increase in food prices and a halving of real wages. Then, when a series of horrible epidemics, starting with the Black Death of 1348, carried away more than half of the population, the same dynamic ran in reverse. The catastrophe, paradoxically, introduced a Golden Age for common people. Real wages tripled and living standards went up, both quantitatively and qualitatively. Common people relied less on bread, gorging themselves instead on meat, fish, and dairy products.

Much the same pattern can be seen during the secular cycle of the Roman Principate. The population of the Roman Empire grew rapidly during the first two centuries up to 165AD. Then came a series of deadly epidemics, known as the Antonine Plague. In Roman Egypt, for which we have contemporary data thanks to preserved papyri, real wages first fell (when the population increased) and then regained ground (when the population collapsed). We also know that many grain fields were converted to orchards and vineyards following the plagues. The implication is that the standard of life for common people improved - they ate less bread, more fruit, and drank wine. The gap between common people and the elites shrank.

Naturally, the conditions affecting the labour supply were different in the second half of the 20th century in the US. An important new element was globalisation, which allows corporations to move jobs to poorer countries (with that 'giant sucking sound', as Ross Perot put it during his 1992 presidential campaign). But none of this alters the fact that an oversupply of labour tends to depress wages for the poorer section of the population. And just as in Roman Egypt, the poor in the US today eat more energy-dense foods - bread, pasta, and potatoes - while the wealthy eat more fruit and drink wine.

Falling wages isn't the only reason why labour oversupply leads to inequality. As the slice of the economic pie going to employees diminishes, the share going to employers goes up. Periods of rapid growth for top fortunes are commonly associated with stagnating incomes for the majority. Equally, when worker incomes grew in the Great Compression, top fortunes actually declined in real terms. The tug of war between the top and typical incomes doesn't have to be a zero-sum game, but in practice it often is. And so in 13th-century England, as the overall population doubles, we find landowners charging peasants higher rents and paying less in wages: the immiseration of the general populace translates into a Golden Age for the aristocrats.
But once the United States seemed destined to spiral into chaos and revolution:
In 1921 and 1924, Congress passed legislation that effectively shut down immigration into the US. Although much of the motivation behind these laws was to exclude 'dangerous aliens' such as Italian anarchists and Eastern European socialists, the broader effect was to reduce the labour surplus. Worker wages grew rapidly.
In America, mass immigration has always been used to break the back of workers when labor became scarce and wages looked set to rise. During the induatial revolution in America, whenever there was a labor shortage and wages looked set to rise, the floodgates were opened to immigration to stop that trend, In the nineteenth century, that consisted of impoverished  immigrants from central Europe (such as my own ancestors), many of whom were fleeing the great potato failure (the introduction of which having caused a population explosion). In the late late twentieth century it was immigrants from Latin America, especially Northern Mexico, many fleeing the collapse of rural Mexico's economy thanks to NAFTA.

The same thing each time, the ruling class imports workers to keep wages from rising. In the 1970s, women entered the workforce en masse under the idea of "liberation." It must be the first social movement actually encouraged by the business class, as it led to falling wages as the supply of labor increased. The part-time low wage jobs that were once the purview of housewives seeking a little pocket money become the mainstay of the economy. And each time the result was the same - depressed wages and a hollowed-out middle class followed by economic crash, as workers could no longer spend enough to keep the economy afloat. Here's the proof in a chart:

So ponder that the next time you see some op-ed piece claiming we need to increase immigration or start having more babies. Notice who is paying the salaries of who is making those arguments, and whether they are part of the falling working class or rising wealth class.

UPDATE: 'Inequality, Evolution, & Complexity' (Economist's view)
Inequality, Evolution, & Complexity: Why has mainstream neoclassical economics traditionally had little to say about the causes and effects of inequality? This is the question raised in an interesting new paper by Brendan Markey-Towler and John Foster.

They suggest that the blindness is inherent in the very structure of the discipline. If you think of representative agents maximizing utility in a competitive environment, inequality has nowhere to come from unless you impose it ad hoc, say in the form of "skilled" and "unskilled" workers.

But there's an alternative, they say. If we think of the economy as a complex (pdf) adaptive system - as writers such as Eric Beinhocker, Cars Hommes and Brian Arthur suggest - then inequality becomes a central feature. This is partly because such evolutionary processes inherently generate winners and losers, and partly because they ditch representative agents and so introduce lumpy granularity. ...

This ... new paper by Pablo Torija ... shows how, since the 1980s, western politicians have stopped maximizing the well-being of the median voter, and have instead served the richest few per cent. If the economy is an adaptive ecosystem, it is one in which a few predators are winning at the expense of the prey.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

It Can, But Will It?

Earlier this week, I posted the following exchange from a podcast:
James Hughes (guest): "We have what we call out our techno-progressive critique, or our techno-progressive perspective, which is that we can radically improve the human condition through life extension and many other of the technologies that we talk about, but that they have to be proven safe, there have to be accountable democratic governments, there have to be universal health programs that make these technologies accessible to all and not just to an elite, you know, so that there are ways to say, yes, it’s possible to have the bright, shiny future that we want, but there are lots of things that we have to do to ensure that we get that instead of the dystopian outcome."

KMO (host): "When talking about these issues, people raise very legitimate, I think, concerns about the sort of perverse incentives that our current brand of corporate capitalism introduces into the use of technology and the way that people will adapt themselves to the workings of the system rather than the system being designed to maximize human benefit and human satisfaction and fulfillment and cultivation."
The guest speaking above is a self-described technophile and former Buddhist monk, and in his work he argues that there is a good chance that future technology can bring about a happier, more enlightened society, if only we make the right decisions, and he believes that we will.

I intend to argue the opposite from that view. I wish to question the accepted wisdom that technology, specifically recent developments in technology, has made our lives better and will continue to do so in perpetuity. And, following from that argument, I wish to directly confront and question the arguments that future technological advancements will lead to a better society, and in fact may turn things into a nightmare.

Before I do that, I will stipulate to one thing. Future technological developments can be extremely beneficial to us, as the quote above attests. But the question is: will they? I think that answer is far from assured. And, what is the potential that future developments will actually have the opposite effect, that is, they may actually make our lives worse? What if those "perverse incentives" put into place by our current political and economic systems will turn technology into a curse rather than a boon? Shouldn't we consider that possibility, and take it seriously, instead of assuming that things will all work out somehow? Because, when you read the above quote, you realize he is describing a completely different world that the one we currently live in.

Technology is indeed marching forward, but is there even the slightest inkling that were moving towards the type of society described in the quote above, with universal health care, responsible, law-abiding governments and relative equality? Or can we be said to be heading in exactly the opposite direction. And if that is the case, do these technologies not present a clear and present danger if they appear in a society undergoing rapid political and economic disintegration, dysfunctional institutions and declining social trust? I realize that it may an uphill battle to convince people of this in a culture where progress is taken as a given and novelty as a universal good, but I'll give it a go anyway. I guess I'm a sucker for lost causes.

1. No Exit.

Have you ever received an email from a colleague with the words "sent my my iPhone" with a time stamp of some outrageous hour? I have. Have you ever been out with someone socially and they're obsessively checking their hand-held digital gizmo for updates from work? I'm willing to bet that many people reading this can relate.

Because in this day and age, if you are a professional, chances are you're never off the clock. Chances are, you are expected to reply to any query at any hour any day of the week. In other words, you are never not working. And you cannot escape even during vacation time, because the digital reach is everywhere, even at the top of Everest. I've heard this referred to as the "laptop on the beach syndrome." I've also heard it referred to as the digital tether.

This feeling of never being able to get away, of never having time to oneself, of needing to constantly check in around the clock and provide instantaneous answers with no turnaround time or be branded as a laggard or nonperformer is making people crazy and stressed out. Make no mistake, it's taking a toll on our health. Robert Sapolsky, in "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers," describes how we are not evolved to deal with the type of low-grade pervasive stress with no immediate outlet which is the result of these working conditions. Could this be the source of the raft of pharmaceuticals from antidepressants to sleeping pills to anticoagulants to erectile dysfunction medications that Americans now have to scarf down daily just to function like their ancestors in the "bad old days" before any of this stuff was around?

Yes, those same wonderful communications technologies that make it possible to talk to grandma in Albuquerque are the ones that have eliminated any non-work private space. Is it worth it? Well, that's ultimately a judgment call, but I for one long for the days when the work day ended at 5:00 PM and didn't resume until the next morning. I think a lot of people were a lot less wound up then. Communications technologies have certainly added a lot of enjoyment to people's lives, but for some reason, this downside, and it's negative consequences, is hardly ever acknowledged despite its pervasiveness.

Imagine going to dinner with someone not checking their cell phone or obsessively stealing glances at a small lit screen during conversation. When Don Draper went home after a day of work, it's not likely he would have to field phone called from his iPhone and check email on his laptop at home the way a modern executive would. No, the only way to reach him would be rotary phone, and that would not be likely except in an emergency. If he went to Acapulco for a vacation, he would truly be on vacation, with an expensive long-distance international telephone call to the hotel and a message to page him as the only way to reach him. Work was work, home was home, and vacations were vacations. And despite this "primitive" level of communications technology, you could still call grandma in Albuquerque on weekends.

2. Every Breath You Take, Every Move You Make

The digital tracking of employees' every waking hour is not a hypothetical scenario; it is a reality. The British supermarket chain Tesco is now attaching digital tracking to monitor all of their employees' movements. A company called Sociometric Solutions has created tracking devices to monitor employees for companies like Bank of America, Steelcase, Cubist Pharmaceuticals Inc., and potentially General Motors (happily descibed as an attempt to improve teamwork). Google tracks its employees every minute of the day in and out of work as obsessively as it tracks our online behavior. Houston area schools are requiring students to wear electronic ID badges originally used to track cattle.

Is this just testing the waters? How much longer before this becomes pervasive? Email, cell phones and automated checkout lanes were once isolated curiosities too, and then they caught on. If there is enough money and will behind it, what was once exceptional becomes normalized. How are you going to feel then? Is that making our lives better?

The reality is, our economy is divided into owners and workers, and every bit of work you do gives profits to the owners, so they want to get as much profit out of you as they can. That is the way our economy functions, like it or not. What's next, microchip implants like some of the more paranoid fringes are imagining? Forget the digital tether, this is a digital ball and chain.

In all of the above scenarios, it can be objected that people can just set a rule to not take their laptop on vacation, or not take calls at home, or refuse to wear a digital tracking badge. But, of course, in America employers can fire employees anytime for any reason, or no reason at all. In an environment like the one we live in where jobs are scarce and people are terrified of losing them (see #4 below), who is going to risk that? And if they do, won't they just be replaced by someone who is willing to jump though all the hoops? What are the chances of your successfully resisting? I would say not good, unless there is some kind of mass movement to reject there technologies, something that there is no sign of currently on the horizon.

Do we want to give employers the ability to control our every waking hour? Because that's what's going to happen to new technology under the current regime. Is that going to make our lives better? How do you feel about that? So okay, maybe employees are repressed at work. But in those few hours outside of work, when we can steal them, don't we live in the freest society in the history of the world?

3. It's A Bird, It's A Plane, No It's...ZAP!

At first I was willing to pencil this idea of all-pervasive drones under the category of space colonies and jet packs as just another instance of futurism run amok. But now I'm not so sure.

The military currently conducts drone strikes in Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan, and has extensive bases and support networks for strikes in East Africa and Niger. There are currently debates about the use of government and private drones on United States territory, and whether the United States has the right to carry out extrajudicial killings at the discretion of the President and Department of Defense. In the words of one reporter, there is a "...growing perception—with elites if not the majority of the public—that Obama is running a secretive and legally dubious killing machine." BoingBoing (not a technophobic site by any stretch) put it this way: "US may use drones to kill US citizens on US soil but only bad people so don't worry."

Every day brings a new report of some kind of futuristic drone - drones that hover, drones that run, drones that camouflage themselves, drones that heal themselves, drones powered by solar energy, drones that kill. How comfortable are you that these will not be used domestically or turned on the American people? What happens when nanotechnology makes drones smaller than a mite? What happens if drones that small can be used to kill? Or, how about this: Weaponizing the Pentagon's Cyborg Insects
Today, many people fear U.S. government surveillance of email and cell phone communications. With this program, the Pentagon aims to exponentially increase the paranoia. Imagine a world in which any insect fluttering past your window may be a remote-controlled spy, packed with surveillance equipment. Even more frightening is the prospect that such creatures could be weaponized, and the possibility, according to one scientist intimately familiar with the project, that these cyborg insects might be armed with "bio weapons."
And drones are starting to be used by domestic law enforcement agencies as well. According to Wired, "It turns out that there is very little in American privacy law that would prohibit drone surveillance within our borders." California is already planning to deploy surveillance drones domestically.

The suggestion that we just build our own drones in a never-ending game of tit-for-tat escalating drone warfare seems like a recipe for disaster. If we go down that route, we will be in an arms race with the government, with nowhere to hide. Not to mention, resources that could be devoted to things like solar energy, public transportation, environmental remediation and poverty mitigation will instead by squandered on a useless and futile arms race between the government and an ever-more paranoid and surveilled population. It's a recipe for a never-ending civil war. That does not seem like a good place to me. How exactly is this technology helping anyone?

And that's not the only piece of new technology the military is salivating over. The military is moving full steam ahead in using cybernetics, biotechnology and pharmaceuticals to build "cyborg soldiers" like something right out of the craziest science fiction writers' imagination. From Wired magazine in 2010:
Eyes that are alert and steady. Skin that's sensitive to the touch. Arms that bend and grasp. To an unknowing observer, troops in the next-generation military might look much like today's. But those eyes are veiled by self-assembling contact lenses that transmit text messages and take blood pressure readings.

That skin is made up of nanowires laid onto flexible rubber. And the arm underneath? A prosthetic -- controlled by brain implant. The Pentagon wants troops to be faster, stronger and more resilient. And with help from robotics, nanotechnology and neuroscience, the military's cyborg army -- from human troops to rat-bot recruits -- is getting prepped for battle.
Exoskeletons, Robo Rats and Synthetic Skin: The Pentagon’s Cyborg Army (Wired)

How comfortable do you feel that these drones and super-soldiers are not going to be used against you? What if I told you that the government already spies on environmental activists, and that documenting conditions in a feedlot is considered an act of terrorism? And let's not forget the fate of the Occupy movement and similar movements in Quebec, Portugal, Spain, Greece and Syria - protest is being criminalized everywhere as we speak. As Slavoj Zizek has pointed out, China's state-controlled authoritarian model of capitalism seems to be the most likely template for the future.

4. Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto
Over the past two years, IBM’s researchers have shrunk Watson from the size of a master bedroom to a pizza-box-sized server that can fit in any data center...IBM is also working to program Watson so that it can pass the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination.
“Software is eating the world.” —Marc Andreessen
I've written at length before on automation, so I won't rehash it here. To summarize, a perfect storm of artificial intelligence, computational speed, networking, the Internet, scanners, barcodes, sensors, voice recognition, smarter algorithms, portable digital devices and falling prices is leading to a rapid automation of nearly every occupational area imaginable, with no major occupational areas unaffected and no new fields coming online to replace them.

Cognitive tasks where humans can not be replaced still exist, but there are not nearly enough jobs in these areas to sustain the population, and thanks to digital assistants, people in these fields can work more efficiently than ever before. Even growing fields like biotechnology require only small teams of people who require years of expensive education that are out of the reach of most people, even those with the intelligence to do the work. And the people who do make it into these shrinking job slots frequently see those who don't or can't as either dumb or lazy, and blame them for their own plight.

Advocates of a do-nothing approach insist that just as Lancashire weavers and agricultural laborers eventually found other work, so too will automation generate entire new fields for displaced workers, and to assert otherwise is the Luddite fallacy, end of conversation. Nobody, however, seems to cogently be able to articulate exactly what those fields will be, and whether they will create enough jobs to absorb the displaced population. Already the deindustrialization of America over the past several decades has led to the death of unions and the rise of temporary, part-time, poorly compensated work replacing the family supporting jobs of yore, leading to social breakdown and leaving entire areas of the country looking like post-apocalyptic war zones.

Now, automation should be a good thing - increased efficiency can lead to higher living standards, less drudgery and more leisure time. We truly can automate the work that people really don't want to do. But if increasing automation leads to mass unemployment, destitution and misery for the unemployed, can it be said to deliver its benefits at all? And what are the signs that society will make the necessary changes to adjust to this post-employment reality?

Well, the early results are not good. Already one of America's two political parties has completely embraced what some have called "the theory of the moocher class," In a secretly recorded speech, presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who thought he was speaking off the record, asserted that nearly half of Americans "take no responsibility for their lives" and merely want to sponge off of people like himself and the wealthy millionaires who paid $50,000 apiece (more than the U.S. median income) to hear him speak. This man was nearly president (winning, ironically 47 percent of the popular vote). Does that sound like it's accepting the new reality?

At a local level, Tea Party politicians funded by wealthy plutocrats are waging an all-out war on the social safety net. For example in Wisconsin, governor Scott Walker, a Tea Party favorite, has made it harder to get unemployment insurance:
A sweeping overhaul of the state's rules being sought by Gov. Scott Walker would rewrite hundreds of regulations, eliminating dozens of them outright and doing everything from tightening the standards for receiving jobless benefits to changing rules to curb acid rain.
Gov. Scott Walker's rules overhaul would make it harder to obtain unemployment benefits (JSonline)

And see this: For Faster Growth, Soak the Poor? (Economist's View):
For 'Faster Growth,' Soak the Poor?, by By Josh Barro: This weekend, the Wall Street Journal assembled a redoubtable list of conservative heavies in economics (George Schulz! Gary Becker! John Taylor!) to produce a completely insane account of what is wrong with America's economy and how to fix it. The upshot of the piece is that the U.S. economy is in the tank because the government gives too much money to poor people, and so it should stop. ...
So why respond to the poverty-trap problem by calling for big cuts to benefits? The answer, of course, is that every economic ill must be shoehorned into an argument for lower taxes and less government spending. If a proposed solution to an economic problem doesn't involve taking benefits away from poor people, then it's not a solution at all -- at least by the logic that prevails on the Wall Street Journal editorial page.
And the leader of the so-called liberal party, President Obama, has repeatedly signalled his willingness to make "tough choices" regarding America's already threadbare social safety net, before even negotiating with those who want to eliminate it outright. For "tough changes," read: cuts; even with corporate profits at all-time highs and employees' share of profits at historical lows. Do we seriously think the push to automation will wait to fall in line with the way we've structured society around a weekly salary or destitution?

5. Nixon's Head In a Jar

Let's turn to a favorite of the Singularitarian crowd, life extension. Imagine a world where Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Larry Ellison and Donald Trump live forever and never age or die. Imagine The Donald bellowing "you're fired" two hundred years from now. Imagine a Jamie Dimon or a Lloyd Blankfein being worth a hundred trillion dollars because they have enjoyed the fruits of collecting compound interest for centuries. Sound crazy?

It seems like a logical conclusion. After all, these are the people who will be first in line to receive such treatments if and when they become available, as they will obviously be very expensive at first.

A world of seven billion immortal persons is a bit more problematic, however. But if these life extension techniques are given only to those "worthy" enough - like wealthy entrepreneurs, celebrities, and "job creators" for instance, then the problem goes away. No more worry about inheritance taxes, these wealthy will just hang onto their wealth themselves...forever. Oh, you think they're going to make that available to everyone, do you? How cute. After all, everyone today has private yachts and Gulfstream jets, don't they? Wait, what's that, they don't? Oh, hold on a minute...

But what about the new pharmaceutical wonders? Surely those are beneficial. Well, dump drugs into a hypercompetitive environment, where everyone is trying to get ahead of everyone else and into the shrinking circle of elite jobs, and what do you have? People drugging themselves silly to compete, that's what.

It's already a reality. Adderall, a prescription stimulant that increases one's ability to stay focused on a task and awake on minimal sleep, is nicknamed "Ivy League crack" as young students drug themselves to compete. The rampant use of performance enhancing drugs in sports as early as high school is common knowledge and need not be elaborated here. Military pilots on long missions are routinely drugged with anti-sleep stimulants. 

And if you don't want to drug yourself and suffer the inevitable, and often severe, side effects? Well, you can forget about that sports scholarship or plum job at that exclusive law firm. I guess it's a service job for you, or no job at all (see #4). There will always be those who are willing to do whatever it takes. It's already being normalized by the media.

I find the idea that the rich will share genetic enhancements with the rest of us laughable. Will that really be the case in our hypercompetitive society where the rich are always looking for an edge and even the one percent struggle to claw their piece of the pie from the 0.1 percent? Think of it this way: do you think a weightlifter who has taken steroids to win a competition is going to go around distributing steroids to all his competitors before the competition to level the playing field? Kinda defeats the point, doesn't it?

What it really means is that the wealthy, who are already able to purchase just about every advantage for themselves and their children, will now be able to purchase superior intelligence, longevity, better health, superior physical strength and stamina, resistance to disease, enhanced sight and hearing, and other genetic benefits. Won't this lead to even more social stratification as people buy what advantages they can pay for? Heck, look at America's two-tier education system. Now extrapolate that to genetic engineering. Will cyborg implants and genetic enhancements eventually allow the one percent to see themselves as an entirely different species from the rest of us mere mortals? And how do humans typically treat other species, hmmm?

It seems like this would only enhance the already bottomless narcissism, megalomania and lack of empathy of the wealthy elites at the top of society. Recall Mitt Romney's statement, above. Consider that the cutting edge innovations in healthcare even now are only available to the rich. Two-tiered health care is becoming ever more pronounced, not less. Life expectancy for the poorest Americans is actually declining. Even healthy, nutritious food is increasingly only available to the affluent, with the poor turning to cheap processed grains, sugary snacks, frozen food, fast food, and BPA-laden canned vegetables in ghettoized "food deserts."

6. The Digital Panopticon
Nielsen, the biggest marketing research firm worldwide, has its eye on data from "virtually all" credit/debit-card purchases and bank statements, and they're looking for ways to use it. "Basically, anything you buy, we now see," disclosed Senior VP Nada Bradbury. Nielsen wants to use this data in combination with its current tracking practices to pinpoint consumers' purchase activities even more exactly.

Nielsen's access to store receipts and household spending, together with its monitoring practices of the TV and Internet activity of "Nielsen families," led to the nickname "Big Brother" in a blog post by AMP, a digital marketing agency.
Nielsen Now Tracks 'Basically Anything You Buy' (Business Insider)
In shaping its targeted advertising strategy, it is no longer relying solely on what Facebook users reveal about themselves. Instead, it is tapping into outside sources of data to learn even more about them — and to sell ads that are more finely targeted to them. Facebook says that this way, marketers will be able to reach the right audience for the right products, and consumers will see advertisements that are, as the company calls it, “relevant” to them. In late February, Facebook announced partnerships with four companies that collect lucrative behavioral data, from store loyalty card transactions and customer e-mail lists to divorce and Web browsing records.
What You Didn’t Post, Facebook May Still Know (New York Times)

Technologies of control and dominance always seem to be developed to their apogee, while simultaneously technologies of scientific exploration human benefit all too often seem to languish, their promise unfulfilled. In the quest for revenue, the Internet has turned into an all-consuming surveillance state managed by a few giant corporations (Apple, Facebook, Google). Every click is stored. Every preference is catalogued. Every email is scanned. Every transaction is analyzed. Every keystroke is monitored. Every ad is targeted. Your so-called "private" personal hard drive has become a playground for other people's cookies, bots and spyware. And thanks to Big Data, its lasts forever. This article lays it out succinctly:
The Internet is a surveillance state. Whether we admit it to ourselves or not, and whether we like it or not, we're being tracked all the time. Google tracks us, both on its pages and on other pages it has access to. Facebook does the same; it even tracks non-Facebook users. Apple tracks us on our iPhones and iPads. One reporter used a tool called Collusion to track who was tracking him; 105 companies tracked his Internet use during one 36-hour period...Everything we do now involves computers, and computers produce data as a natural by-product. Everything is now being saved and correlated, and many big-data companies make money by building up intimate profiles of our lives from a variety of sources.

Facebook, for example, correlates your online behavior with your purchasing habits offline. And there's more. There's location data from your cell phone, there's a record of your movements from closed-circuit TVs. This is ubiquitous surveillance: All of us being watched, all the time, and that data being stored forever. This is what a surveillance state looks like, and it's efficient beyond the wildest dreams of George Orwell.
The Internet is a surveillance state (CNN) See also Bruce Schneier's Web site

Are you comfortable with these companies tracking your every move? Do you believe this will all just be used for nothing more than letting you buy better products? What if you have no money to buy products (see #4 above)? Sure, there are ways around it for the tech-savvy, which is always going to be a minority. Plus, people aren't going to take the time to get up to speed and learn all the intricate ins-and-outs of disabling whatchamacalit and going through this-or-that proxy. They're already overworked as it is (see #1 above).

And it's not just the virtual world where you every move is tracked. Cameras with facial recognition scans on every streetcorner. A device that tracks your every move in your pocket. Checking in at various locations. Orwell? No, right now, today, with nothing new even needing to be invented.

Every country is falling over itself to buy the latest digital technologies created by private companies to spy on their citizens. And with droney the drone at your beck and call, you can eliminate pesky individuals at the push of a button without ever leaving your office (see #2 above) Imagine digital tracking and drones currently available in developed economies in the hands of a Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, or Saddam Hussein. What does that scenario look like?

How sure are we that they won't fall into the hands of those kind of sociopaths? Well, if you have any understanding of history and human nature, you probably shouldn't bet on it.


There are those who say that we just have to use all this new technology wisely. But look how we're using the technology we've already got! Are we using it wisely?

Look at antibiotics. Eighty percent are given to livestock, not people, to make profits for cruel, unnatural, inhuman CAFOs and leading to drug resistant strains. Cars have led to economic Balkanization, ghettos, traffic congestion, road fatalities and wasteful suburban sprawl. The Internet, for all it's benefits, has led to a golden age of outsourcing to low-wage countries, cybercrime, and threats of a "digital Pearl Harbor" as everything is now dependant upon it. Computer algorithms cause financial instability by trading millions of stocks per second to make fortunes for Wall Street. Beijing's air is poisonous, and the climate is screwed up. TV has created the hedonistic, infanitilized consumer culture, and TV news has morphed into propaganda outlets. New diseases are invented just to sell prescription drugs. Processed food is making us obese. Movies and video games encourage us live our lives by proxy. Is the next wave of technology going to be used more wisely? What makes you think so?

There's talk of technology being the great leveller, but how has that worked out for the past thirty years? Heck, it seems every technological advance since the invention of agriculture has led to more stratification and more control by elites. It seems as though technology has become advanced enough that, if we continue the way we have been by just dumping invention after invention into society with no larger considerations whatsoever, consequences be damned, and let the chips fall where they may; we are committing species suicide. As author Fred Guterl put it:
In the near future, many potential triggers could lead to a cataclysm. The 20th century gave us nuclear bombs and weaponized smallpox. The 21st will surely deliver a greater variety of bioweapons. The prospect of a natural killer like the influenza virus adapting to a globalized world of 7 billion people is worrisome. The machines we have built our civilization upon—computers, software, networks—contain the seeds of destruction for the simple fact that we have come to depend on them, and they are vulnerable to manipulation. We are always figuring out new ways of bringing apocalypse on our heads. Even climate, which we tend to think of as a slowly unfolding crisis, could conceivably bite us sooner than we think. Some researchers think that weather patterns such as the ones that bring monsoons to India and sustain glaciers in Antarctica could behave like dynamical systems, prone to sudden, unpredictable, and dangerous changes.
Could Humans Go Extinct? (Slate)

Look, I don't know the future, no one does. All I'm saying is that it's far from certain that the new technologies everyone is so excited about will enhance human well being. Unfortunately, based upon my reading of recent history, I actually find it doubtful. It seems that those of us who aren't unemployed, destitute and homeless will be further in debt, eating genetically-modified crap food while working twenty-four hours a day, drugged to focus and stay awake by immortal, hereditary super-elites who will justify their position based on their genetically-engineered superiority. Our every move on and offline will be tracked and stored permanently, and everything we see and hear will be controlled by a few digital corporations (Amazon, Apple, Google, News Corp.). And if anyone does manage to think for themselves and raise questions about this arrangement, they will be easily ferreted out by ubiquitous surveillance and surreptitiously terminated by drones.

Paranoid? Perhaps. But if we get it out there, maybe we have a chance at avoiding it. But right now, I gotta say, it doesn't look too good. In addition to all these technological wonders, the twentieth century has given us genocides, gulags, witch hunts, two world wars, economic crashes, overflowing prisons, mass manipulation of the media, rampant unemployment, low social mobility, and historic levels of inequality. Call me a skeptic, but I have hard time accepting the claims that cybernetic implants, nanobots, artificial intelligence, life extension, immersive worlds, 3d printing, self-driving cars, thorium reactors and the like are really going to make the average joe's life a whole lot better, much less usher in a utopia. Sometimes I long for the days of rotary phones, black and white TVs, movie theaters, newspapers, vinyl records and the like. I guess I'm a Luddite.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to watch some cat videos.

UPDATE: Zeitgeist? Serendipity? As I was writing this last night, here was one of the stories posted on BoingBoing: We have a choice about the world that technology will give us. A useful counterpoint. And someone in the comments linked to this: We lost the war. Welcome to the world of tomorrow. If anything, an even darker take than mine.