Thursday, June 23, 2011

Peak Humanity: Strangle-Economics and Why Abundance Is A Myth

Before I get started: sci-fi guru Charles Stross, writer of widely acclaimed and loved singularity-centric skiffy such as Accelerando has actually goneant-singularity. And his anti-nerd-rapture diatribe is much in-line with much of my own previously published rants, and others are are turning away from the glittery computational ball of wish-fulfillment.

Ah, my work here is finished.

Ok, not quite.

Oh, and bonus! In another vindication of my "Google is not cute" post, the FTC is gearing up to conduct a serious antitrust investigation against Google!

I was recently in a discussion with a future-optimist (white-hat futurist?), who was not at all concerned about the potential economic upheaval coming down the line resulting from the AI/Robotics revolutions in tandem with our currently FUBARed system. In a nutshell: "As new technologies are created, old jobs go away but new jobs are created, there is always more demand for some new product. The jobs will come somewhere, just as they have in the last 200 years. They won't be like the jobs we have today, just as jobs of today aren't like the jobs of yesterday. Autonomous machines will leave people with lots more money to spend on things like therapists, yoga instructors, musicians and artists, actors and writers, more tourism related services, e-books about the meaning of existence, high-quality bloggers, and especially medical services."

Demand for music has increased exponentially given the cascade of digital media revolutions/upheavals with most people listening to hours and hours of music each day, yet musician and artist wages have gone down or stagnated over the past decade. The fact that practically any song or movie you want can be had in mere seconds or hours via the internet, effectively decoupling demand from market value certainly doesn’t help. Music is already being automated by algorithmic song-generation software in some sectors (pop especially). There is only so much therapy and yoga instruction one can take and that is a drop in the bucket when you consider the number of jobs in low, mid-skill, and managerial jobs that will be jeopardized. Therapy is already turning into a kind of marketing arm for pharma companies to push mental disorder drugs. People are already consuming on average 5-10 hours of media per day, not counting the reading, not sure how much more actors and producers and writers are going to be employed. And the production costs (AKA salaries) along with actor salaries are way way down — look at the massive influx of “white Mexican” cheap British and Australian actors. Medical services are also entering a tidal wave of automation that is only just ramping up — IBM’s Watson was primarily targeted at health care analytics and the mid-level and office work which employs huge swaths of the medical sector. Then we’ve got “efficiencies” (salary loss) in the form of remote care, self-monitoring systems, and if many of the diagnostic functions can be handled by AI, that will take out a sizable chunk of the average doctor visit and nurse check-in work.

The main take away I think is that, while it may be heart-warming and a nice mantra to tell your kids that human potential is unlimited, in reality, there is a range of possible human physical and cognitive abilities which have value in the market, and if even the lower and mid-level human abilities are eclipsed by machines, that will create immense unemployment given our current market system that cannot be easily remedied.

“Jobs will come from somewhere” assumes that there is a “where” sizable enough within the mental and physical capabilities of the human species to replace the obsolesced sector of jobs. The Luddites who were replaced during the Industrial Revolution by the loom (and not without violent and vehement protest) and the Industrial Revolution assembly line workers who were supplanted by robots were both engaged in jobs on the very lowest tier of human capability — that is, simple, repetitive, rote tasks. These are the very easiest of automatable tasks in the design space of machines; they are essentially a four line algorithm: “wash, rinse, repeat”. All the examples you mention have been replacement by machines of small slices of human potential, and so have been absorbable as new “oil wells” of human potential have been tapped into and utilized — rote work replaced by slightly higher service industry and knowledge work skills, but the difference in the coming AI/robotics revolution is that we’re going to run out of “wells” of potential to tap. And even the automation thus far has proven to have massive destabilizing effects on society as a whole. The manufacturing was first outsourced in the US in the Reaganomics era to third world slave-labor and robots, and this again causing massive upheavel in the low and middle class. There was not some wonderful cornucopia of new money to spend as people saved all their cash from the reduced costs of production; all the extra wealth was siphoned up to the Blue Blood Owners of the companies. Their wealth has continued to go exponential as the middle and lower class wages have stagnated or declined, and living standards per-work-hour have drastically fallen. So this notion that the rising tide of innovation and technology raises all boats certainly has not been true for the past four decades at least. And the manufacturing sector, along with our economy’s supposed “replacement” sector – the service industry – are only being more and more automated — self-checkout is spreading like a contagion and most US manufacturing is done by robots, just have a look at a video of an IBM factory. We have been and continue to feel the effects of machine-sourcing, and it is only going to get worse as the machines get better.

While there may be an unending litany of new products to come out (next season’s iPhone, a better electric car, some other as yet uninvented tech), there is not an unending litany of new human physical and mental abilities being pumped out every season. What we’ve got is what we’ve got; the human body and mind are a finite resource and we are rapidly approaching peak humanity. We humans have low-skill rote work abilities (automated), knowledge work abilities — manipulating, analyzing, and applying information (being automated as we speak), creative abilities like writing, musicianship, art (harder to automate, but its happening and those sectors are already in dire straits because of other “technological innovation”). Biological evolution of our brain is happening at a rate magnitudes slower than technological evolution, and it is ultimately only a matter of time before our technology — robots and AI — can do anything that we can do, but better. It doesn’t matter what new “product of the future” comes out: if the machines can do what we can, then it will be *them* being hired for the new jobs, not us primate meatbags. This is the crux of the problem. Automation does not automatically make everyone richer but rather exacerbates income inequality and unemployment as the ultra-wealthy simply rake in more of the pie. And it is not even necessary that machines do 100% of the jobs: even if they do 50% of the jobs, and humans do the very highest-order intellectual-creative science and invention, that would completely break our current system.
As computer automation of the mid-skill and knowledge work begins to really set in, more and more people are going to be squeezed out of the workforce, with limited human-employability pie. The for-profit college loan ponzi-scheme scams are a symptom of this: you need a four year degree to even start competing for jobs that pay anything livable, and yet even with these degrees, almost half of the new college graduates leave school without a job, and are unable to find a good one. Indeed that great wave of “economic growth” we’ve been riding for the past decades has been art dropout brand-pushing AKA marketing — a zero-sum non-wealth-creating tug of war over customers — and the best and brightest going for that MBA to engage in plutocratic wealth-stealing schemes consisting of sandcastles of financial paper shuffling built on clouds of shadow mark-to-model systems. Culminating spectacularly in the recent global financial meltdown, and continued shambling of the zombie financial system which still permeates the world like a cancer of toxic debt. And this monstrosity, coincidentally, was enabled by automation of the stock market via algorithmic and high-freq trading, obsolescing another swath of the formerly human field of “systems analysts” the star children of the 80′s and 90′s.

Now enter Watson 2.0 AIs who start edging out the knowledge workers and parts of the creative class, evicting whole floors of glass-pyramid offices, pulling out that entire trophic crown jewel of the US, the “middle to middle-upper class” and forcing the former white collars to compete with the service jobs – the last bastions of human value, till android developers close the uncanny valley. The already struggling lower class, finding themselves competing with flailing PhDs for culinary and car repair jobs being eclipsed by robomechanics, are thus forced into…. Central America-grade crime or bloody revolution, possibly both. That’s I think why this blog’s owner suggests that we’re not going to make out so well as a species unless we can figure out some better way than our status quo of getting the wealth more fairly distributed and not just rely on the economics establishment’s tagline “the jobs will come from somewhere”.

Now before you leap screaming from the nearest 4+ story window, I should say that it's not all doom-n-gloom: there is yet hope. While I’m certainly not optimistic, I try not to be too pessimistic (though I think it better to err slightly toward caution as a rule of thumb). Ultimately, optimism and pessimism, utopia and dystopia are two sides of an idealist coin, a natural but unfortunately common human duality. Realism should ultimately be aspired to, but in a pinch, be prepared.

I don’t think that some horrible post-apocalyptic scenario is inevitable: quite the contrary, but I don’t think we can afford to just sit back and relax, let our civilizational ship go on autopilot while the techno-cultural icebergs are looming through the mist, and expect things are just going to work themselves out like some Bruckheimer summer blockbuster.

I've been asked (or strawmanned as the case may be) on more than one occasion if it's fair to say that I am a Marxist (ohnoes teh red future-commies!).

I think reality is a far more intractable Gordian Knot than any Enlightenment Era Rosetta Stone-theorist can account for, be it capitalism, communism, or any of the other long procession of tenure-track isms that we’re intellectually shackled by collectively as a society. There are some things which Marx was right about, in the sense that he was a kind of steampunk equivalent of the modern day Silicon Valley technovangelist: he was concerned about a day when machines really did subsume the entire means and labor force of production in response to the machinization of everything. (It is in fact difficult to distinguish much SV rhetoric with readings of Das Kapital) His suggested chain of events that magically solve all our problems, however, seem woefully misguided. For one thing, who the hell is going to “frolick about in the dandelion fields during the day, reading classics and poetry to one another and practicing archery in the afternoon”? This idea that “capitalism would inevitability lead to social revolution where private property in the means of production would be superseded by co-operative ownership and production would be organized for use” is terribly naive.

Many forms of modern techno-utopianism, such as Singularitarianism, transhumanism, and belief in global shared abundance suffers from the same myopic delusions of grandeur and human magnanimity as Marx’s communism. It’s hammered in again and again like an Apostles creed by the Singuvangelists that we’re going to have all our Earthly primate problems solved, Deus Ex: the Omniscient Machine in its ineffable wisdom shall cure all our diseases, bring peace to all our intractable conflicts, bring us into eternal life, elevate us into eternal blissful joy where every potato chip tastes like a thousand orgasms, said 89 Dark Elven virgins, the answer to every question, the meaning of life, the question who’s answer is 42, etc etc.. The same goes for the post-scarcity “Abundance” people who think that if we just have enough productivity capability up our sleeves, if we just “build all the machines” universal wealth and happiness “will come!” where we can work one hour and have enough to buy food shelter and health care for a month.

But guess what? We already have the resources, the wealth, to give every man woman child a 1st world or near 1st world life style. Every bank-puppeted economist will sing to you the undying praises of the modern globalized free market and how thanks to business and technological innovation we’re many times better off than we were half a century ago. However, as any major non-Koch brohers funded study will tell you, as if you didn’t already know, the wealth gaps have been and are only growing into ever more impassible chasms, EVEN as the sum total of pie to go around is getting bigger. As the Barclay’s head honchos buy their fourth tropical island nation as their personal getaway, we’ve got half the planet still starving and grinding their cartilage to dust 14 hours a day for a dollar, and even in the Greatest Country on Earth we’re seeing steady decline or stagnation in living standards. Simply adding better tech to the equation does not equal better or more even distribution of that wealthier future to everyone. On the contrary, if the pattern continues, we should expect a Singularital heaven, a super-intelligence run orbital Villa Straylight on which only the long WASP procession of royalty clones shall remain, literally disconnected from the hell below. Tell the rioting Greeks and Brits losing their prized social safety nets to “austerity measures” that are being used to pay retroactively bankster billionaire bonuses to “trust our democracy, it’ll all work out!”. Tell the Wisconsonites and Michiganers and other states who are rapidly losing their bargaining rights among other things to pay for the toxic debt the 500 Frat brothers have saddled us and our childrens’ children with to “be optimistic!”. Tell the invisible “other half” of the planet that works for less than a dollar a day, “Don’t worry, I’m sure we’ll be frolicking in the dandelions soon!”
I don’t doubt that we as a species and a society have the *potential* to solve the challenges ahead. I don’t think that these problems are “easily solved”, or that they can be solved with our current level of engagement, although I certainly applaud the tens of thousands in Wisconsin and Michigan, and all the people who are truly trying to move and shake this thing up. But our so-called “democracy” is surely in jeopardy when the spineless marionettes we call politicians side with The Money over the government workers, teachers, fireman, policemen, nurses, and everyone else who turned out in force. When popular support was 300:1 against the bank bailout/Theft of 700 billion dollars from the American people and their children, and yet it still passed. I’m not seeing a lot of “hope and change” optimism abounding when the Washington “outsider” put into office to shake things up hires the unholy Wall Street triumverate who dismantled Glass-Steegle and helped seed the financial FUBAR onto his economic advisory, and continues to play sweetheart to the banks despite pretty uplifting but empty Oprah-book-club speeches. I’m going to have to temper that optimism with a strong chaser of realism. And if you think things are going to start getting better soon: we haven’t even had the *first* shoe drop with our financial mess, let alone the Great Automation. Give it a year or two of Japanese-style lost-decade and wait till we *actually* take the pain.

The human desire to compete for wealth and status and prestige and its second-order effects within complex socio-political configurations are routinely glossed over by the platonic hallowed Shangrilahs that permeates much of Marxist ethos and its spiritual progeny. You can try to deny that desire to compete, like some communist states and flower-throwing communes and na├»ve Silicon Valley programmers, and believe that billions of years of psychological evolution are just going to go away, and we’ve all seen how the Soviet experiment turned out. Somebody will always come out on top, whether that’s 500 frat brother network of CEOs, a genocidal dictator, an authoritarian People’s Republic. Today’s cute anti-authoritarian revolutionary in the bushes is tomorrow’s tyrant on the throne. Today’s “hope n change” presidential candidate is tomorrow’s Wall Street-owned puppet. Today’s grass roots take-back-the-government tea party is tomorrow’s “guns gods n gays” Republican freakshow. Revolution may come, but it is not enough to let the Tzar’s heads roll under your Bolshevik revolution if you wake up the next morning, rub the party hangover out of your eyes, and discover a Stalin at the podium. And marxists/abundantists who prefer to leave that fundamental non-linear x-factor out of their perfect equations for their model worlds are making their own Procrustean Beds (and the similarly deadly beds of innocent and/or ignorant bystanders). Not unlike the hordes of Gaussian Copula and “Great Moderation” flaunting economists who tried to fit the world to their theories and not vice versa. And we’ve all seen starkly and painfully how that 2008 economic Singularity worked out.

“More leisure time” is a myth: we’re working longer hours when you count all the work we have to take home, both parents and often kids need to work just to stay afloat in more cases than not, half of all Americans have no health insurance or have dismal coverage, and we’ve got multiple families stuffed into houses or apartments that used to be affordable by a single working parent half a century ago. It’s true, we have a lot more cheap crap nowadays, gadgets and xboxes and bling with which to tweet our neocortices into net-gen comas to keep us distracted and anesthetized from what’s going on. It’s also crappier crap that breaks easy — it’s five times cheaper but break five times faster than it used to, and you can count how long an iPad lasts with any children in the household in days. And the notion that capitalism is doing such a fantastic job making stuff so cheap has been as imaginary a gain as the 600 trillion in derivatives paper bullshit still orbiting the planet like some invisible Cthulu-entity patiently awaiting the next sovereign default / bubble burst that gets counted as “GDP increase”. That bargain iPad you picked up at Futureshop is provided by slave labor by some suicidal one-legged teen working in a Shenzen Foxconn factory 16 hours nonstop in a cloud of asbestos snapping together “lickable” beige plastic for a dollar a day, forget overtime or benefits. Externalized costs: shift the red off to someone else and frame the black in gold, and call it “progress”, that’s what we have to thank our “capitalist free market” system for in modern times (more like “kleptocratic distorted market”). Personally, I’d like the health care, an affordable home, and more leisure time to spend with family and friends over a bunch of cheap flat screens and gizmos and poison baby formula covered in negative karma.

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