Menu Close

Month: March 2017

Yup, Everything Will Definitely Be Fine Since No One Will Lose Their Job Ever

Here is a succinct and insightful comment, from Hacker News user AlisdairO, on the trend toward technology handling every kind of labor that can possibly be delegated to it:

The sad reality is that there’s a nontrivial chunk of the populace that isn’t able to pick up highly skilled roles. It also ignores the role of unskilled jobs in providing space for people whose job class has been destroyed and need to retrain (or mark time until retirement).

I’m not advocating slowing innovation to prevent job loss. I am advocating avoiding magic thinking (‘there’s always new jobs to go to’): we need to start a serious conversation about what we do with our society when we have the levels of unemployment we can expect in an AI-shifted world. Right now we’re trending much more towards dystopia than utopia.

I’m going to get around to the dystopian futurism part, but first, a long digression about intelligence! It’s a divisive topic but an important one.

Sometimes I get flack for saying this, but here goes: The average person is not very smart. Your intellect and my intellect probably exceed the average, simply by virtue of being interested in abstract ideas. We’re able to understand those ideas reasonably well. Most people aren’t. Remember what high school was like?

There’s that old George Carlin quip: “Think of how stupid the average person is, then realize that half of them are stupider than that.” This is not a very PC thing to talk about, especially because so many racists justify their hateful worldview with psychometrics. But it’s cruel to insist that everyone has the same level of ability, when that is clearly not true in any domain.

You and I may not be geniuses — I’m certainly not — but we have the capacity to be competent knowledge workers. Joe Schmo doesn’t. He may be able to do the kind of paper-pushing that is rapidly being automated, but he can’t think about things on a high level. He doesn’t read for fun. He can’t synthesize information and then analyze it.

That doesn’t mean that Joe Schmo is a bad person — if he were a bad person, we wouldn’t care so much that the economy is accelerating beyond his abilities. The cruel truth is that Joe Schmo is dumb. He just is. AFAIK there is no way to change this.

I hate that I have to make this disclaimer, and yet it’s necessary: I’m not in favor of eugenics. In theory selective breeding is a good idea, but I can’t think of a centrally planned way for it to be implemented among humans that wouldn’t be catastrophically unjust.

Also, while raw intellect may correlate with good decision-making, it doesn’t ensure it. Peter Thiel’s IQ is likely higher than mine, but I don’t want him to run the world. (Tough luck for me, I guess.) As Harvard professor and economist George Borjas told Slate:

Economic outcomes and IQ are only weakly related, and IQ only measures one kind of ability. I’ve been lucky to have met many high-IQ people in academia who are total losers, and many smart, but not super-smart people, who are incredibly successful because of persistence, motivation, etc. So I just think that, on the whole, the focus on IQ is a bit misguided.

It’s also notable that similarly high-IQ people disagree with each other often.

And now back to the topic of technological unemployment!

The two main responses to concerns along the lines of “all the jobs will disappear” are:

  1. Universal basic income, yay!
  2. No they won’t, look what happened after the Industrial Revolution!

The counterargument to universal basic income is, as Josh Barro put it:

UBI does nothing to replace the sense of reward or purpose that comes from a job. It gives you money, but it doesn’t give you the sense that you got the money because you did something useful. […] The robots have not taken our jobs yet. It is not time to surrender to a social change that is likely to further destabilize a world that is already troubled.

The counterargument to the Industrial Revolution parallel is that AI — alternately called machine learning, or automation, if you prefer those terms — is different. Andrew Ng is the chief scientist at Baidu, and this is what he told the Wall Street Journal:

Things may change in the future, but one rule of thumb today is that almost anything that a typical person can do with less than one second of mental thought we can either now or in the very near future automate with AI.

This is a far cry from all work. But there are a lot of jobs that can be accomplished by stringing together many one-second tasks.

And then there are concerns about general AI, which I don’t want to get into here.

If you’re curious about my opinion, it’s this: We’re in for a difficult couple of decades. Most hard problems can’t be solved quickly.


Tachikoma artwork by Abisaid Fernandez de Lara.

The Fleet Can Withdraw

For work I had to read Lyft co-founder John Zimmer’s manifesto about the future of cities. A quote that jumped out at me:

Technology has redefined entire industries around a simple reality: you no longer need to own a product to enjoy its benefits. With Netflix and streaming services, DVD ownership became obsolete. Spotify has made it unnecessary to own CDs and MP3s. Eventually, we’ll look at owning a car in much the same way.

I think he’s right. No doubt rich car enthusiasts will keep their toys, like people still cherish their record players. Who knows whether it will be legal for a human to drive on regular streets at that point? I’m not the first person to ask that question, but it hasn’t stopped being worth asking.

Nor am I the first person to identify the inevitable next step. When you don’t own any of the equipment that you use, someone else controls your access. They can cut you off. (Pretty sure there are multiple Black Mirror episodes about this.) Consider that your ability to challenge an access provider may be limited. Lyft, for example, includes an arbitration clause in their terms of service:

YOU AND LYFT MUTUALLY AGREE TO WAIVE OUR RESPECTIVE RIGHTS TO RESOLUTION OF DISPUTES IN A COURT OF LAW BY A JUDGE OR JURY AND AGREE TO RESOLVE ANY DISPUTE BY ARBITRATION, as set forth below. This agreement to arbitrate (“Arbitration Agreement”) is governed by the Federal Arbitration Act and survives after the Agreement terminates or your relationship with Lyft ends. ANY ARBITRATION UNDER THIS AGREEMENT WILL TAKE PLACE ON AN INDIVIDUAL BASIS; CLASS ARBITRATIONS AND CLASS ACTIONS ARE NOT PERMITTED. Except as expressly provided below, this Arbitration Agreement applies to all Claims (defined below) between you and Lyft, including our affiliates, subsidiaries, parents, successors and assigns, and each of our respective officers, directors, employees, agents, or shareholders.

Caps not added. I will never understand the aesthetic conventions of contracts.

For reasons that I can’t quite put my finger on, this passage from a Nathan Jurgenson essay about the glut of modern media feels related:

From 24-hour television to the online posts being cycled through algorithms optimized for virality, the constant churn of news seems to make everything both too important and of no matter. Every event is explained around the clock and none of these explanations suffice. Everything can be simultaneously believable and unbelievable.

Maybe because we don’t own the information we consume. Of course, we never owned our everyday data, except in the banal sense that people had to buy newspapers.

More likely the correspondence is that we dip in and out of infostreams — open up social media for a minute, scroll, close the app to switch to email — the way we duck in and out of rideshares.

Rhythms of engagement. Cycling like a heartbeat. Blood in, blood out.


Header artwork by Leonardo de Moura.

Pointillism of Failure

One of the most interested things that happened this week was an AWS outage. For those of you who aren’t familiar, Amazon Web Services is a sophisticated cloud host for websites and apps. It is very widely used, especially among startups. When it goes down, as it did on Tuesday, many tech workers can’t do their jobs. At least Twitter was still available, providing a convenient location for complaints. (Additional discussion took place on Hacker News.)

I wrote about the incident for work, first summing up reactions from Twitter and then making the case that AWS is not a monopoly and shouldn’t be regulated as such. In response to that argument, my friend Adam Elkus pointed out that decentralized infrastructure was a founding ideal of the internet. The beautiful new world of http://www was supposed to empower individuals at the expense of institutions, be they governmental or private.

It has done that — but as usual, the reality is more of a complex onion than the idealists seemed to expect. In my first Ribbonfarm essay, I wrote:

The internet enables more individual opportunity than ever before — how would my words manage to reach you otherwise? And the internet is more meritocratic than the landscape it took over, because anyone can distribute their own work to a potential audience of millions, but of course age-old power dynamics can’t be erased in one fell swoop. It also enables winner-take-all businesses, like Amazon’s dominance in ecommerce and Facebook’s reign over news media.

Centralization wins because it’s efficient, given the constraints and affordances of the internet. And yet this centralization can be penetrated — not dismantled, but surface segments can be peeled back. That’s what hackers do when they leak a database or whatever.

One of cyberpunk’s central insights, as an ethos, was that the internet gives individuals more power at the same time that amoral, corporatized institutions build up their strongholds. It’s funny that some of the same people — the cypherpunks, say — explicitly bridged cynical cyberpunk and sunny techno-utopianism.

In John Perry Barlow’s “Independence of Cyberspace” manifesto, presented to “Governments of the Industrial World” at Davos, he said:

The global conveyance of thought no longer requires your factories to accomplish. […] We must declare our virtual selves immune to your sovereignty, even as we continue to consent to your rule over our bodies. We will spread ourselves across the Planet so that no one can arrest our thoughts.

No one can arrest our thoughts, unless they’re hosted on AWS — a factory of the information economy if there ever was one — in which case someone fat-fingering a command kicks your thoughts into the inaccessible nowhere of a disconnected server farm. It’s impossible not to be at someone’s mercy.


Header artwork by Igor Kirdeika.