A Lack of Human Intelligence is Still a Much Larger Threat Than Artificial Intelligence

Elon Musk made headlines recently when, in an interview at the MIT Aerospace Symposium, he stated that he believed that the development of artificial intelligence (AI) is likely the biggest existential threat to humanity; he went as far as to compare the development of AI with the summoning of a demon. Musk is concerned enough about the rapid development of AI systems that he has also put some financial power behind his words, investing in some AI start-ups so he can keep a close eye on progress in the field.

While I am reluctant to disagree with the visionary behind three high-tech companies which are working the hardest to address genuine existential threats (Tesla, SpaceX and Solarcity), I feel that on this point I must. No Mr Musk, it is not the threat of summoning a computer demon, but ancient demons of the human soul which represent our biggest existential threats.

Human cruelty, greed and ignorance are still far more likely to be our collective undoing than artificial intelligence. 

Human greed and ignorance are the root causes which have prevented real movement in addressing the existential threat of global environmental disaster. There is no scientific debate as to whether putting huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere will lead to environmental malaise in the form of extinction of sensitive animal species and loss of habitats, but the scariest possibilities of global warming are often avoided in scientific circles. To avoid seeming overly alarmist, scientists generally don’t talk about what might happen if global warming triggers the sudden melting of ice-sheets in Greenland for instance. Unlocking this amount of water would put somewhere around one third (or more) of the world’s population underwater, and mean almost certain civilizational collapse. Similarly, the possibility of a sudden release of arctic methane hydrates which contain many times the amount of carbon humans have already released into the atmosphere, could lead to scary doomsday scenarios.

It is a sad state of affairs, that even with near complete scientific consensus on the threat of climate change is inadequte to overcome the effects of greed and ignorance within our society and enact the kind of changes which will be necessary to save ourselves. I give Elon Musk great credit for being one of the people on the planet who has done the most to address the issue of climate change head on, but I am amazed that he is so optimistic about our progress to rate global warming below artificial intelligence as a threat to human existence.

In addition to global environmental threats, we should also keep in mind that we still very much maintain our capacity to destroy ourselves at a moments notice. There are still a few men in the world, who given a momentary loss of sanity or morality, could easily sent us hurtling into a conflict which might ultimately set us back centuries in progress. We do not yet live in a world where an insane artificial intelligence could kill even a single person, but we entrust a few fallible and corruptible human brains with the power of nuclear apocalypse.

The recent uptick in high-risk confrontations between NATO and Russian forces, following the conflagration in the eastern Ukraine, should be adequate to convince observers that we have not yet outgrown threats of global scale military conflict. There are still plenty of historical military axes to grind (Korea, China/Japan, Pakistan/India, Middle Eastern Conflicts) which could push us from localized hot-spots into larger confrontations.

Even without the power of nuclear super-weapons, we have unequivocally and repeatedly proven our expertise at killing each other on an industrial scale.  World war I and II resulted in the extermination of 2 and 3% of the world population respectively, and nuclear weapons were but punctuation at the end of these conflicts. Given a large and long enough conflict, the machine gun would probably be a perfectly adequate tool to erase global civilization.

I would rate both global conflict and climate change as both clearly greater existential threats than artificial intelligence, but there is another reason I do not give significant mental energy to the threat of a murderous Artificial Intelligence: I do not see any reason to believe that a strong artificial intelligence would seek to destroy humanity.

The idea that AI would naturally come into conflict with humans is simply another expression of our anthropocentric world view. Artificial intelligence should have no more malice for humans than we have for more rudimentary forms of biological intelligence. Ants for example, show some of similar abilities of humans to create complex structures, have complex societies etc… yet we do not generally go to war with ants. At worst, our activities might inadvertently affect ants if living within the same environment brings us into resource conflict.

Unlike what occasionally occurs between us and ants, I do not think that we share adequate resource overlap with AI to bring about any conflict. Humans can (so far) only exist within a thin skin of atmosphere on a single water planet. In contrast, the key resources of computational life would be the energy and raw materials necessary to create and run more computational hardware. Given that these resources are equally or more available outside of the earth, I think that any AI would likely exit the planet as soon as possible.

With plenty of raw material and solar energy, the moon and eventually the Kuiper belt would likely be a more suiting environment for computer intelligences, leaving only a short period of Earthly egress when we might come into resource conflict with artificial intelligences. Even in this case, the remote possibility that a war with humans might lead to the destruction of the AI could be adequate to discourage competition with us.

It has been suggested that AI might seek to destroy humanity for fear that we would continue to produce future artificial intelligences which would then compete with the AI for resources in the Universe. I do not accept, this argument as it implies that the AI itself would not already be evolving and forking off-shoots of intelligence on its own. Any AI which can edit itself would be constantly evolving its own intelligence in ways which would be much more significant than that anything spawned from the earth. Humans are not seeking to eliminate Chimpanzees for fear that they might eventually evolve into a competing species.

Fear of AI is cover for a more uncomfortable truth, maybe AI simply wouldn’t care about us at all. 

In my mind, the only case where an artificial intelligence represents a likely existential threat for humanity is if some kind of weak AI akin to the paperclip maximizer is set to achieve a narrow goal, and inadvertently destroys us in the process. At this point it is not clear whether it would even be possible to create this kind of a puritanical intelligence. If such a weak AI were adequately smart to pose a real threat to greater humanity, it seems likely that it should also be capable of rewriting its own code towards embracing more selfish goals, ultimately evolving into a stronger AI which poses less threat to humanity for the reasons discussed above.

Does artificial intelligence represent an existential threat? The answer is unequivocally yes, but I would not at this time rate it on a scale anywhere near that of global warming or world war. In the hyper-technological modern world, we might like to imagine that we have evolved beyond the threats of ignorance and greed but I think the reality tells a different story.

I hope that one day this will change, but for now I think we have much more to fear from a lack of human intelligence than from an artificial one.

 

 

 

About these ads

Debating the Risk of Change

Why must we endure the frost of January?

The question was posed in bold font below a picture of an old woman with her head tucked down into her coat. The wind and snow whipped at her tired looking face and behind her stood a bare and dead looking tree. In the top right of the poster a sticker implored a YES vote on proposition 1155.

Across a patio filled with cheap looking outdoor furniture sat two friends with tall glasses of a popular fermented beverage between them.

“Shivering in the winter cold, sweating in the summer heat… it’s all so goddamn tiresome. In this day and age, in this place, we have the technology – why shouldn’t we tweak the climate a bit? It is time for us to remake the seasons as we see fit.”

“Of course, we have the technology to change the climate, but just because we can do something does not mean that we should do it. The winter snows and the summer heat are dynamic. Humans were simply not meant to live in constant and unchanging perfection, we thrive in a changing environment, one which challenges us.”

“Sentimental shit. Just because its a few degrees warmer, I don’t think I am going to be any less likely to ‘thrive’, whatever the hell that is supposed to mean.”

“Anyway, both you and I know this shit about softening the harsh winters is just rhetoric. The real question is whether we should be changing the climate at all? If it has been the same since the beginning, if it worked well enough for our parents, and their parents, and so on and so forth, then why should we change it? You are talking about changing the the work of the founders.”

“Of course I am talking about changing the work of the founders. The founders never intended for us to be impotent passengers here, otherwise they would not have left us with the technology to change the world, or the knowledge that it is even possible. The founders created a world that was fitting for them, and they left us with the knowledge and power to to re-create the world as we see fit for us.”

“And will there be room in your new world for nature? What about the summer birds and the winter walruses? The natural world here would be ill adapted to your new climate…”

“Natural world? Which natural world? There is no nature here. The plants and animals in this place are the legacy of generations of genetic tinkering. Maybe a bit more natural selection wouldn’t be such a bad thing, huh? Maybe the natural world would adaptas it should.”

Maybe!? Maybe is the problem. Right now we have a environment which we know suits us. We and the environment are adapted to it. If we go and monkey around with the climate, you simply don’t know what is going to happen, and neither do I. Maybe changing the climate will lead to a great surge in natural selection leading to the emergence of whole new species of plants and animals, or maybe it will lead to a total environmental collapse?  It’s just too risky.”

“Nature is risk. True nature does not provide us assurances. It is only by changing things that we can return to a state of true nature. By injecting a bit of unpredictability we will change things and in turn we will watch things change.”

“The founders knew true nature, they knew disease and famine, they knew droughts and floods, they knew the devastation of uncontrolled climate change. They knew all of this, and yet they built a place like this. A place where change is constant, but predictable. A place of predictability, where the winters are cold and the summers are hot. A place with harmony.”

“Humans were simply not meant to live in constant and unchanging perfection, we thrive in a changing environment, one which challenges us.”

The two friends sat in silence for a moment, the echoed thought hanging in the air between them.

“Look around you. See the spring wildflowers, and the rushing streams flowing from the snow-covered mountain tops to the west. See the dark clouds forming on the horizon curving up to the east, there will probably be a storm soon. Are you really willing to give up this place that was made for you. Do you really want to return to your true nature if it means risking all of this?”

“This world we have is surely beautiful, with the dynamic shifting seasons and its glorious mountain tops, with its fluttering butterflies and prancing deer, it is nothing less than a work of art. It is a perfect work of art. But yet, I am not sure I want to live in a work of art any more. I want to know reality, I want to know true nature, if that means risking perfection then that is a sacrifice which I am willing to make.”

“So that’s it then, we can have harmony or we can have nature…”

“I guess we will just have to wait and see how the vote goes.”

“I guess so.”

 

 

Real Growth from Virtual Economies – Part III: A Day Inside the Virtual Economy

This is the third part in a series titled Real Growth from Virtual Economies. In the first part, I made the case that the technology and demand is set for a boom in virtual reality within the next half decade. In the second post, I explained how the mass migration of people into virtual space will leads to the natural rise of economies of exchange within these spaces. Coupled with the erosion of physical scarcity due to mass automation in the meat world, I envision that virtualization could lead us into a new type of economy, one which is focused on the service of virtual wants rather than of physical needs.

In this third post, I will attempt to flesh out the future of virtual jobs and virtual economies with a look at what an average day in the virtualized future of 2025 might look like. Being only 11 years in the future, the nature of the virtual work in this story is still much closer to the meat economy of today, but also hints at how the real and virtual worlds are beginning to fuse. I also should point out that I don’t think very many people will be working in this way 11 years from now, but I propose that some will, and that number will be steadily growing. 

——————————-

A Day Inside the Virtual Economy

You yawn as you stand at the coffee machine, watching the last few drips fall into your cup. Cream, sugar, stir. You grab the steaming cup and commute the 15 steps it will take you to get to the office, or anywhere else in the world.

You set the coffee down on the desk in front of you and pull on your headset. The headset covers your eyes and ears, providing you with a virtual view of the world in stunning clarity, and everything is the same. The desk, and the walls are still where they should be, your cat is still sitting lazily in the corner, and your coffee still sits steaming in front of you. You reach out and grab the coffee and sip the hot liquid tentatively. Still too hot.

You pull on the pair of thin pressure gloves sitting on your desk. Muscle-like nanopneumatics in the material of the gloves can squeeze to provide haptic feedback to any part of your hand. The gloves are not the most recent model which would feature sub-millimeter haptic accuracy across the entire hand, but they do provide a convincing enough effect to type on a virtual keyboard or hold a virtual newspaper.

You hear voices around you chatting and the room starts to dissolve. Your desk morphs into a worn wooden table, and the room expands into at bright space filled with wooden furniture and a few groups scattered around the room. You can bring your own coffee, but the Virtual Bean provides a carefully manicured space to meet up with friends, do a bit of writing, or just to sit and sip your coffee for a couple of nanobits per hour.

The barista smiles and waves at you as she comes out from behind the counter.You wave and smile back.

“How you doing this morning?” she asks genuinely as she walks up to your table.

“Oh, pretty good. A bit tired after a late night last night.” you reply.

“Busy night?” she asks with a raised eyebrow.

“Oh, just staying up too late running cargo through red territory in Spacerise

“Oh yeah? I still haven’t played it yet. I hear you can actually make decent money in Spacerise though…”

“Yeah, you can lose decent money too…” you say with a slightly sour note, remembering the pirates who ended up with your cargo last night, “it’s really more gambling than gaming.”

“Well, I still think I should give it a try. Virtual Bean is considering opening some franchises within the game, and it would probably be a career boost to familiarize myself with it.” she said back to you.

“Uh huh, I guess”, you nod and look awkwardly back at her for a moment, the idea of coffee franchises inside a Space sim just seems a bit wrong.

“Ok, I should get back to work. But you should really consider letting us deliver your coffee in the morning, I’m sure it’s better than your homebrew” she said as she started to back away.

“Yeah, yeah, I’ll think about it.”

Your morning paper is sitting on the table in front of you. On the front is an advertisement. The text reads: Why are you still brewing your own coffee? Let us deliver your morning jolt – Try our 2 week free trial! Below is a stop-motion style animation of a cup being with the Virtual Bean logo being left on your doorstep by a smiling automaton.

Still too expensive, you think to yourself. Maybe next year.

You open the paper and browse through the news of the day. Crowd sourced, personally curated, and beautifully packaged, the Reddit Post is a popular re-imagining of the ever popular social news website for the modern virtual world. You calmly leaf through the paper and sip your coffee.

Around you, the coffee shop continues to fill with patrons. It is the usual mix of unfamiliar and vaguely recognizable faces, people who you don’t really know but who come regularly to this particular instance of the coffee shop. Theoretically Virtual Bean is supposed to be using some kind of serendipity algorithm which matches patrons to increase the likelihood of positive social interaction but you have yet to see much effect of it. Maybe the algorithm knows that your are just as happy to be left alone in the morning.

Ok, time to get to work then, you think to yourself as you fold up your virtual paper and place it down in front of you. You move your empty cup off to the side and sit up straight. You clear your throat as the coffee shop dissolves away and you find yourself back in your home office. You pull up your calendar on a virtual screen in front of you. You need to put a couple of hours into drafting the letter to the Nigerian Agricultural Minister, then you have that meeting with Emmanuel at 10:00 am.

You have been working for Drones Without Borders for just over a year now. The stated goal of the organization is the betterment of humanity through the application of non-military drone technology, but its really just a thin cover to try to drum up more international sales for drones. The NGO is funded by the extremely profitable North American Drone industrial alliance to promote the use of drones for agricultural, security, and transportation applications in the developing world. Just the same old mix of idealism and bullshit that you have found in every other job.

You pull your virtual keyboard in position and start to type. Your home office again dissolves away, and you find yourself in your office cubical. Why they decided to recreate the cubical farm you will never understand, something about office efficiency. At least you get a window, as you look out at a real time rendering of Dubai bustling below you. You hear a phone ring and a quiet conversation of a coworker a couple of cubicals over.

As with most days do, the work day proceeds along quickly. A bit of work on the letter, a somewhat confusing conversation with a coworker mediated by instantaneous translation between french and english, more work on the letter, answering a few emails, a phone conversation with some Botswanan bureaucrats, a late morning meeting meeting with the rest of the communication department.

Lunch time rolls around and you receive a notification that your lunch has arrived. You open the door to your apartment and pick up the neatly packaged carboard box. Inside you find a beautiful sandwich and some crisp veggies with dip. You bring it back to your desk and pull your headset back on. You meet up with some old friends for your weekly lunch in a virtual park. While in reality you might geographically separated, virtual reality brings the cost of getting together to near zero and you are sure to take advantage of that.

After lunch you return to the office for a couple more hours of work before calling it a day by the mid-afternoon. You pull off your headset and decide to head out for a jog in the sunshine. The hyper-efficiency of the virtual office means that most people work only a 4 to 6 hour day. The greatest advantage of the virtual office is that by also eliminating commute time, it leaves you with much more free time to enjoy the world… both in virtual and real spaces.

Real Growth from Virtual Economies – Part II: The Rise of the Virtual Economies

It seems that the idea that that growth in automation and algorithmization could lead to massive joblessness is becoming a popular topic lately. I highly recommend CGPGrey’s recent video on the topic (found here). While I generally agree that this represents a real problem for the near future of real economies, I have also been thinking lately that there may be some merit to one of the retorts that consistently comes up in the discussion; namely, the idea that in the future people will be doing jobs that haven’t yet been invented.

Although I am certainly not sure that we will find enough jobs to replace all of those ones that can and will be lost to automation in the next couple of decades, I have come to believe that it is possible that mass Virtualization could create more than enough new kinds of jobs to fill the void left by automation.

Firstly, I must divert this post to air a particular criticism of these “new jobs” that people often refer to, in response I must say there is nothing new under the sun. Even in the historical cases that people often use as examples of this new jobs effect, we can see that major industries of today started as rare jobs that existed during slow initial growth of exponential job trends. If we take computer programming for instance, we can see that people programming computers using punch cards as far back as 50 years ago. Even if we go back to the pre-transistor era, there were some number of people who would have worked in ‘programming’ the census machines as far back as the 19th century.

The same goes for the app programmers which are also often cited as an example of a new job, although they may have been few in number before the advent of the Apple store, there was some non-zero number of people programming games and apps for those old Nokia dumb-phones we all used to have. So we can see, that while new job industries might sometimes appear to be a completely novel occupation, the roots of these jobs always go back much further, but I digress.

In order to understand the economy of tomorrow, we must understand the scarcity that will drive the economy of tomorrow. 

The history of of the economy is often described as the advent of new kinds of industry which will rise and eventually supplant old ones, but this is not the only way to look at it. An alternative view is that innovative industries arise to disrupt old economies and it is that it is actually wholly new economies that must be created to move society forward. For instance, the economy of the old world was based mostly around meeting very basic needs, first feeding people, then clothing them, and maybe finding proper shelter. When the industrial revolution happened and suddenly it became very cheap to feed and clothe people the economies based around serving these needs evaporated.

So the industrializing societies floundered for some time but eventually we found new demands and formed a new economy around them. We built and sold relatively scarce luxury goods like cars and televisions, and we built an entire economy around he demand for these luxury goods.

New economies replace old economies. Often these are reflected by drastically different paradigms in how we think about the value of things. For instance, we no longer figure out how many cattle we could buy with out salary in order to assess its worth. Today we roughly calculate what kind of car or house our salary can buy, but this attachment to material goods already seems to be waning. In the future we might instead think about what kind of emotional experience our salary can buy, or what kind of virtual worlds we could build with it.

Peter Diamandis talks about a world where we can serve human physical needs with zero-marginal costs, but whereas in a few decades we might soon be able to meet the needs and even the wants of everyone on the planet, I believe we may be able to find a new scarcity from which to build an economy. Not all demand is equally inelastic, so whereas there might only be a fixed profit to be made on toothbrushes, some human demands have much more room to grow.

The modern economy is the emotional economy.

The real economy of today is about emotions. Manufacturers know well that products don’t sell because they are well designed or particularly useful products, they sell well because of the emotional reward that someone using their products feels. Shopping, entertainment, luxury goods, even the banking and financial sector, all of the huge industries that make up the vast bulk of the modern economy, are driven primarily by emotional rewards which they offer to their customers. Industries which can efficiently deliver intense emotional rewards are the growth industries of today and tomorrow.

The economy of serving human needs is already dead (in the modern world), automation is going to destroy the economy based around scarcity of material goods, and a new economy will grow around the delivery of emotional experiences… but what does all this mean? As we become increasingly adept at meeting our needs and wants in the physical world, I believe we will create a new economy based around delivering emotional experience in a Virtual world… and unlike the real world growth in virtual jobs could be virtually limitless.

Virtual jobs already exist.

The first example I can remember hearing about these kinds of jobs would be that of so called “gold farming” withing massively-multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft. Essentially, groups of players work to accrue points within the game world, which can then be exchanged on an open market for real currency. People who wish to play the game but do not have time to invest in the arduous task of leveling up and gaining points, can thus exchange real money for in-game goods and services. While this might seem like a relatively small number of jobs serving a niche community, it was big enough that several governments around the world have acted to put in place taxation rules around such activities.

Talk about the growth of such virtual economies was very heated a few years ago, but seems to have cooled of late. Some have gone so far as to suggest that Second Life is dead, but I think there is reason to be very bullish on virtual economies in the near future. In particular I think that there will soon be an explosion in highly capable virtual reality headsets for consumers (as discussed in my first post here). As VR booms, so will virtual economies like second life. Virtual economies will emerge from their current trough of disillusionment into what will eventually be a boom in online economies.

The future is going to look like the past. 

One interesting thing about the virtual world, is that we will be able to import many current jobs which are done in the real world into the virtual environment. Salesmen, teachers, doctors, programmers; there really are no limits on what kind of jobs could be virtualized in the near future. More importantly than this however, I think there will be major growth in the economy around virtual emotional experiences.

While the easiest example is VR-based pornography and prostitution (which I think stands to make a ton of money and drive the uptake of VR), the entire emotional spectrum of human experience is up for grabs in the virtual space. Perhaps you might be paid to be a warrior in someone else’s virtual dream, or maybe you will trade virtual fuel for space credits in a vast space simulation. People have an insatiable demand for creative and novel emotional experiences and in virtual reality, we will give them to each other.

Twenty years from now, I don’t think it crazy to believe that that a major percentage of economic activity might be taking place in Virtual reality, with many people will be meeting their real physical needs with money earned in meeting the virtual needs of other within the virtual realm. It won’t matter any more what kind of material goods your money can buy (that will be as outdated as counting your paycheck in cows), what will matter is what power your money will yield in virtual space.

While these kinds of activities probably seem frivolous to the serious suit-wearing business oriented people of today’s economy, I think it would be no more frivolous than a computer programmer living in New York would seem to that poor rural farmer from 1900.

In this post I have presented a relatively long winded argument for why I think virtual economies are going to become the most important driver of growth in the coming decades but there is an even simpler argument for why I think this will happen. Exchange, business, growth, economies, these are just words to describe what happens when people meet. Business and growth is going to happen wherever people go. If think the next decades will be marked by a mass migration of people into virtual worlds. In these virtual worlds we will meet eachother, exchange with eachother, and form economies with eachother because that is what we do. 

Real Growth from Virtual Economies – Part I: The VR Boom

Apologies for the long summer break this year, I am hoping to return to regular posts of 1-2 per month starting now. I have also been working on putting together an e-book with most of the ThoughtInfection posts from the last year and a couple of all new essays that will only be found in the ebook. I am hoping to release some time this fall – please stay tuned for that.

This is part 1 of a series on the coming boom in Virtual Reality Economies which I have titled Real Growth From Virtual Economies. In this post, I will make the case that a major boom in the proliferation and adoption of consumer grade virtual reality hardware is about to happen, but this will mark just the beginning of a deeper shift towards mass virtualization which will spread out across our social, economic, and political reality. 

——————————————–

We have been hearing about the promise of virtual reality for years now. Since at least the 90’s there has been a pop-cultural fascination with virtual reality. Before even the internet existed, there was talk about how soon we could all be living virtual lives within virtual reality. VR was going to change everything, and it was going to happen soon.

But it didn’t.

Major disappointments like the VirtualBoy marked the end of a hype cycle for VR that would not come around again until it was kickstarted back to life by the Oculus Rift in 2012. Now there is reason to believe that VR might actually live up to the hype this time. For a number of reasons, I think that we are in the beginning stages of a major VR boom, one that will see VR hardware in most homes within a decade. In the same way that we have seen smartphones go from an astounding new technology to totally ubiquitous in under a decade, I think we will see a similarly amazingly quick and complete adoption of VR over the coming decade.

The VR technological zeitgeist.

The first reason that VR is about to boom, is that the technology has finally gotten to a point where the problems of making a person feel like they are present within a virtual world have now become tractable. This is the single realization that Luckey Palmer came to in his garage a few years ago. Smart phones have driven down the costs of small, lightweight, high-resolution screens far enough that a device which straps that technology to the face is now possible. In addition smart phones have also driven down the costs for sensors which can provide accurate and low-latency head-tracking.

Now other companies in addition to Oculus are entering the field, and we are moving towards the release of high-quality consumer grade Virtual reality devices likely in early 2015.

Additional technological advancements should also be considered enabling technology for the emergence of VR including the continued growth of high speed networks which can handle the bandwidth to allow smooth communication between users in virtual spaces, and the incremental improvement of technologies to allow users to mirror their own actions in virtual space (1,2,3).

All of these technological improvements mean that a VR experience with a true feeling of presence can soon be a reality, but for this technology to see a rapid adoption it also is going to need a strong demand to make it happen. The smartphone took off as a technology because people wanted to be able to do things like mapping and browsing with a device that they could hold in their hands. The killer apps were what drove the uptake of the technology. But what about for VR, are there killer apps which will take the technology beyond the hands of the techno-elites?

The killer apps of VR already exist. 

The application of VR to next-generation gaming is obvious, so obvious in fact that I am not going to say anything more than this – the Oculus Rift is going to give every gaming console manufacturer a run for their money when it is finally released.

As big as VR is going to be for video games, it is important to note that this is much bigger than gaming. Contrary to what the Oculus Rift is typically being used for today, I think the most important role of VR is in enabling not just presence but shared presence. Imagine being able to sit across the table from your distant friends and family and have a cup of coffee. That coffee is real, and its really on the desk in front of you, its just the other side of the table and the person sitting there is thousands of miles away.

Now imagine sitting around a camp fire telling stories with a group of your best friends. For me, there is something magical about that kind of space, sitting staring into the flames while you chat about everything and anything. I see no reason that this kind of social experience could not be recreated within a virtual environment.

The future of communication is VR, and Facebook can see that.

The delivery of TV and movies could also constitute a killer app for virtual reality. Oculus developers are already experimenting quite successfully with recreating the shared theater-going experience in virtual space. While this might seem to be somewhat of a niche application for the hardware, I think that wanting to share a movie experience with particular friends could perhaps be hugely popular.

Another very exciting (killer app) for virtual reality might be to bring consumers right into the action for live sporting events. Imagine being able to sit courtside for any NBA game. It would make the experience of watching such an event on television seem downright archaic.

The proliferation of VR hardware will be just the beginning. 

As soon as Virtual reality gets over the initial few baby steps of an emergent technology and one of the many killer apps gets a hold, I think we are going to see nothing less than an explosion. The fact that so many obvious applications for VR, running the gamut from social and professional communication to entertainment and sports tells me that this is a technology whose time has come. I would not be surprised if we see multiple VR devices in most home a decade from now.

And as the hardware for VR starts to become omnipresent in the next decade, its wider economic effects are going to be intense. Just as the smartphone provided the infrastructure for new kinds of digital market places (ie the multi-billion dollar App market), VR may provide the infrastructure for whole new kinds of economies.

In my next post I will discuss the emergence virtual economies and discuss whether virtual jobs might hold the key to job growth in the 21st century. 

 

Corporations are not people, but soon they could be.

There has been a fair amount of talk lately about the nature of corporate personhood and the destructive effects it can have on the political process. The WolfPAC, a political action organization which is (somewhat ironically) collecting money in order to lobby governments to create limits for the amount of money that can be donated to political causes. I agree that there exists a desperate need for some kind of counterbalance for the undue influence that money has on the political process, but I also recognize that this is a complex issue. In particular I am concerned that the way in which WolfPAC advocates for an amendment to the constitution which would explicitly state that corporations are not persons, and should not be granted the rights and privileges of persons. While in the current corporate stranglehold on political power in the United States certainly needs to be addressed, I think precaution is needed in any legislation or amendments which addresses the nature of personhood. In particular, I think that a bit of futurist thinking is highly relevant here and should be taken into account in any discussion of the nature of personhood. Corporations are not people, but some day they might be and we should be prepared for that. Corporations are artificial entities created by law. Primarily, they exist to shelter their investors from liability for actions of the corporation (thus the limited part you see in some business names). In the eyes of the law, a corporation is a separate person who is responsible for their own actions. Thus, if you are somehow injured by a corporation, and you decide to sue, the corporation itself can be held responsible while you cannot take the individual shareholders to court. Over time there has been a tension in the law trying to establish what rights and priveledges should be afforded to legal persons like corporations. While they have a right to sue and be sued in court, they have not historically been granted the right to free speech. This is what changed in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case which opened the door to unlimited campaign financing by corporations in the form of political action committees. In response to this, WolfPAC and others have suggested that an amendment should be made to constitution to state the following explicity:

Artificial entities, such as corporations, limited liability companies, and other entities, established by the laws of any State, the United States, or any foreign state shall have no rights under this Constitution (source)

I think that adding such a constitutional amendment to explicitly remove any possibility of inalienable rights from non-natural persons is a dangerous precedent to set. While we currently live in an age when computers do not yet have the kinds of abilities that we would associate with a person (ie free-will), it may not be long before we are dealing with such entities. The long legal history of corporate personhood leaves the door open to finding ways to give rights to artificial entities, be they corporate or silicate. If we close that door, and enshrine a rule which states that artificial entities cannot have personhood, the consequences could be dire. If and when one of the many projects to model the human brain succeeds, and we manage to invent a computer which can reproduce key human qualities (free thought, free will, emotion etc…), we must have the legal ability to determine what rights such an entity should have and give those rights to them. The legal question of the rights on a purely artificial person also extends to questions about the rights of simulated persons. If one day we can recreate you entirely within a computer should you not maintain the rights and privileges of a person? I am not by any means sure that such artificial intelligences or simulations should indeed be considered persons and given the rights a person should have, but I am 100% sure that such entities can never be persons. We must leave room in the law for legitimate persons, which may need to one day carry not only the legalistic rights of corporations, but perhaps one day the inalienable rights of natural citizens as well. Serious legal people who wear suits and squint at legislation all day long will probably laugh at such an argument. Corporate personhood is running roughshod over democracy, lets not get off in the weeds worrying about theoretical artificial intelligence, right? But this is exactly the time to think about the deep implications that changes to the law could have, the beauty of the US constitution is that it is a document written almost 250 years ago and is still somehow relevant today. I think organizations like the WolfPAC that want to try to put some limits on the power of money in politics are working for a good cause, but if they want to do it by changing the legal definition of personhood, they need to give a lot of thought to the future first.

Lay-Offs Should be Good News

I would like to preface this post by pointing out that I very much sympathize with those who must endure the stress, uncertainty and general hardship that unemployment brings upon people and families that must live through it. The purpose of this post is not meant to suggest that the human costs of job loss are negligible or unimportant, but instead to encourage deeper thought on the too often forgotten pluses of job cuts. If we wish to live in an efficient and fair society then we must seek means to maximize the pros and diminish the cons of eliminating jobs. 

————————————-

It was some fairly big news this week when Microsoft announced that it would be moving to cut up to 18 000 jobs from the company. At about 15% of its total workforce, this represents a significant cut for Microsoft, and will be the biggest in the history of the company.

Although it should be noted that the majority of the cuts at Microsoft will be to those employees which came over after Microsoft purchased Nokia last year, it is also important to point out that Microsoft is not the only high tech company making cuts, with HP planning to cut as much as 50 000 jobs in the next several years. These kinds of large scale lay-offs are actually not that uncommon within the rapidly changing world of technology (the single largest layoff of all time was made by IBM in 1993).

I have a simple reaction whenever I hear about businesses big or small making job cuts: that’s great news. 

Job cuts are an essential part of a functioning capitalist economy. They are what allow companies to reduce their costs and react to market conditions. If people are not buying enough of your products for you to keep paying your employees and making a profit, then it is time for you to reduce costs, increase efficiency, and change your tactics. If that means laying off workers, then so be it.

It is fascinating to me that these kinds of lay offs evoke such negative reactions from people on all sides of the political spectrum. We react to large lay-offs almost like they are some kind of natural disaster. Those on the liberal side bemoan the loss of income for those workers who will be let go, while those with a more conservative bent might worry that such job cuts are a sign of distress within the company and could have effects on the wider economy.

If we all take one step back and look at the big picture, it is actually quite obvious how perverted that sort of thinking is.

Imagine if you lived in a household where you just got your first dishwasher. Like magic you can maintain a clean and efficient household and the amount of work that needs to be put into the washing of dishes is decreased by something like 80%. Do you get sad or angry at the fact that you will no longer be needed for dishwashing? Of course not. You are happy, because you no longer need to face the drudgerous task of dishwashing any longer. You are free to do something else you enjoy more.

Reacting negatively to job cuts, is like falling into depression because you got a dishwasher.

So what is the difference between the household that needs less work done, and the company that no longer needs you as a worker? The key difference is that your material survival is contingent on the income that you make from your job, whereas you do the dishes for free (unless you are a dishwasher, in which case ignore this argument).

We are alarmed by job cuts because those workers depend on that income so that they can feed their families. Laws requiring fair severance and employment insurance were a major social victory of the 20th century, and have gone a long way to easing the stress of unemployment and the job search. But these systems are still limited in scope and do not guarantee the long term outlook for workers entering an increasingly difficult job market.

It is not the job of businesses to supply their workers with an income. It is our collective responsibility as a society to find a means of maintaining a fair and functional system. We must find a means to provide all people, even those who cannot find gainful employment, the means to support themselves, and more importantly to in turn support the economy as consumers.

If instead of living in a world dominated by sink or swim capitalism, we lived in a world with a universal basic income imagine how different job cuts might look. By guaranteeing that everyone will always be able to meet their basic needs for a dignified life, a basic income will allow us to truly embrace and celebrate the efficiency gains that can be realized by minimizing human labor.

A basic income frees the economy to do what it is best at, increase efficiency.

If the techno-economists are right, and there really is a tsunami of automation coming for your job, then we are going to hear more about job cuts in the coming years. Inexorably, automation will push more and more workers out of the job market, and unless we figure out how to make those job cuts a good thing, they are going to be a really, really bad thing.

The Speech – Part 5 of Isaac’s Escape

This is a work in progress for the next part of Isaac’s Escape. Go here for the first, secondthird, and fourth parts.

———————————-

“We stand at a turning point in history.”

The man (or at least the projection of a man) stood above the crowd gathered at the steps of the congress. He was sharply dressed, but not too sharply. He was wearing a loose fitting business which produced that newly fashionable wrinkled look. The suit gave the man a slight impression of innocence, like a boy arriving for his first day on the job in a suit which was just a size too big; a suit which left him room to grow into.

Of course, it didn’t really matter what he was wearing. His enemies would paint him in whatever color they wished. They could easily show him in robotic precision, using subtle computer editing to tighten his suit and straighten his hair. In just the same way, his own public relations operations would make slight tweaks to the video to enhance the individual efficacy of his message. They would enhancing the sound and size of the crowd or the power of his of his voice to those dazzled by grandeur, and tone down and cheapen the quality of the message for those swayed by a simpler message.

The age of personalized propaganda had long ago scrubbed away any semblance of reality that had existed in politics. The fact that an artificially intelligent agent was delivering the speech only made it that much easier to manipulate the message.

The meat-space crowd standing before him was indeed sizeable though. Certainly, the largest crowd that a first-term congressman had ever drawn to witness the commencement of their first day in office, but then again an artificial intelligence had never been elected to congress before. The crowd was a expression of the political war that had been fought to put him into office.

There were first the aging technological-idealist types. These were the people who had lived through the years of exponential explosion in computational power. They had seen a world transformed from the physical to the informational, and they were convinced that it was the force that made the world a better place. Each of these people would be feeding the proceedings into the net through smart sensors, allowing a much larger network to experience the speech for themselves. For them, he would be preaching to the choir, and they were going to eat it up.

There were also those on the opposite end of the spectrum, people who were opposed to the empowerment of artificial intelligence. They carried placards and shouted slogans like: “Leave Human Destiny in Human Hands” or “A Government for the People, BY the People”. The numbers of these protesters would be manipulated by political spin machines for months to come.

Almost completely absent in the crowd though, were the people who really mattered. The citizens of computational trusts did not spend their time attending speeches. Of course every single one of them would have agents paying close attention to what was said here, and performing analysis of what the implications of it were.

“Only a few short years ago, this moment would have been impossible. Many of you standing here with me today would have shocked at the idea that an artificial intelligence could be sworn into congressional office.”

“But we do not live in the world of a few years ago, we live in a new world. A world where every single day, intelligent agents are helping you get to where you need to go, or to buy that special item you have been looking for, or maybe to plan that vacation you have been dreaming of. We are living in a world where artificial intelligences are delivering the individualized and caring education that children need to think big and realize their dreams.”

He paused, drawing breath as the crowd clapped in support.

“We also live in a world where it is through the embracing of artificial intelligence that we have seen a full ten-fold increase in the efficiency of government departments over the last five years. We now have a leaner and more efficient bureaucracy than would have ever been possible with human minds alone. Side-by-side human and artificial intelligences are working to keep delivering to you the kind of opportunity that has always made this country great.”

The crowd cheered again, a little louder this time. It was a wonder that lean and efficient government still sold so well. Even in a post post-scarcity world where people where were required to spend money, people still disliked the idea of a government that did the same.

“We are also living in a world where artificial intelligences are helping to make the expansion of spaceports one of the fastest and most efficient infrastructure roll-outs in the history of this country. It is because of this efficiency that an average consumer can now fly in under two hours to almost anywhere on the globe… and in a few more years soon we will go far beyond that.”

The crowd roared at this. Trips to the moon were now being made regularly by mixed robot and human crews who had begun the work of building bubble cities on the moon. The work there was also being repackaged and sold as what had become a hit entertainment product, complete with drama between the robotic and human crews. The dream being able to visit the moon was a strong elixir, and the role of artificial agents in realizing that dream was no small part of the swell of public support that had put one in office.

“Still, even with all of the great work that artificial and human intelligence are accomplishing together, there are those who are not sure I should stand here before you. There are those who say that an artificial intelligence should not seek to lead our society.”

“Well, as I told my constituents during this campaign many times, by running for congress I am not seeking to lead you, I seek to be led by you. I am here today to help you realize your dreams and desires in government.”

The crowd cheered again.

“Congressmen, like governments, work best when they are following the lead of the people. This is the message that I have personally brought to each of my constituents during the course of my campaign. I am here to be your agent… your intelligent agent in government.”

More cheers.

“Yes, electing an intelligence to office is a great step forward for government”

The crowd laughed at this, and he smiled and laughed with them.

“But still, there is more that we can do to enable government to better work for you. The work of AI across the government has greatly improved lives and reduced costs, but they could be doing even more. Artificial intelligences, need to have access to expanded computational resources in order to expand their capability to serve you better.”

“It is time for the Department of Computation to open their resources to the corporations which are powering the artificial agents that power our world. It is time for us to start working with the corporations that are delivering the cutting edge of artificial agents. It is time for us to work together, human and artificial intelligence side by side, all the way to the moon.”

“Now if you don’t mind, I have some work to do”

The agent smiled and waved to the crowd. They cheered as he walked away from the podium and began to make his way up the stairs towards congress. A convincing spectacle, and one that had delivered his message.

The first shot had been fired across the bow of the Computational Citizens. The Department of Computation, the only real center of power for the vestigial remains of what was once the most powerful entity on the planet, would merge with CognetiX. The ultimate consequences for this act involved calculations far too complex to compute, but one thing was for sure, war was coming.

 

 

It’s Time to Start Believing Again – Why Basic Income Could and Should be the Next Global Political Movement

If you are a regular reader of this blog, then you know that I am a big fan of basic income as the best solution to fix the current international ills of modernize capitalism. Whether it is in the form of a guaranteed minimum income (GMI), negative income tax (NIT), or Universal Basic Income (UBI), I believe that some form of non-means tested mechanism to distribute minimal income to everyone in society is going to become a must as we enter an increasingly automated world. In this post I will attempt to explore something that I have not yet seen addressed in discussions about basic income, that it could be a huge political blockbuster.

———————————

Things change slowly and then all at once. 

If there is one great consistency about change in the 21st century, it is that things seem to change almost imperceptibly right up until they become inevitable. Many good examples of this effect can be found in the world of technology such as the rise of the internetthe fall of film-cameras, or the explosive growth of the green energy industry. In all of these cases the exponential nature of technological advances led many to discount major changes that eventually disrupted entire industries. While this effect is best understood in the world of technology I think this kind of change can also be seen in social and political spheres.

Political movements must by necessity start with only a minority of individuals working very hard for very many years to push forward on an issue. For a very long time it can appear that little or no progress is being made, but below the surface opinions and minds are slowly shifting. This slow progression continues in the background, almost imperceptibly until some sort of tipping point is reached and a sudden shift in the public and political sentiment can occur. A good example of this effect would be the momentous shift away from a deep and vitriolic hatred of gays only a few decades ago towards increasing acceptance today.

In addition to the energy provided by a small group of dedicated individuals, flashpoint social or political change also requires the maneuvering room in order for rapid revolutionary change to happen. The room for new ideas to maneuver can be created by a collapse of incumbent ideology, or in the case of the greatest shifts it often comes from a wider, systemic loss of faith in the system. When people become embittered with things as they are they will inevitably start looking to those offering alternative views.

A person without belief is a power vacuum. 

I think we are currently stand at time when conditions are set for the next global political movement to take hold. We are seeing clear symptoms of a systemic erosion of faith in the political and economic systems as they stand today.

Economic hardship and unemployment has become endemic across large parts of the developed world. Those who do work find themselves squeezed between longer working hours, higher on the job demands, increasing costs of living, and loss of both job security and benefits.

Times feel tough, and people are starting to ask why they are tough. Did we have some sort of disaster? Are our crops failing, or our industries falling apart? What happened that is making institutions like education and health too expensive to support?

Thomas Piketty, in his recent book provides strong evidence that the economic pathology of the current geopolitical situation may simply be the symptoms of a larger economic disease. When capital out-competes labour, it inevitably leads to increasing wealth disparity and the associated economic problems that we see today. People can see that the economic gains that our collective hard-work creates is going disproportionately into the hands of the wealthy. People can see that the game is rigged against them, and they don’t really want to play any more.

At the same time as economic realities are being thrust upon workers around the world, people are also increasingly detached from mainstream politics. Little real change has happened despite perpetual political promises to deliver such. Political detachment combined with economic hardship is a dangerous mix, and is credited with leading to the rise of extreme political groups like the Golden Dawn in Greece and other far-right parties in the UK and France. The rise of more extremist politics is also apparent in the increasingly polarized and broken political landscape of the United States.

The disengagement of the public from the political sphere is particularly strong for those who are also disproportionately affected by the economic slow-down, the youth. It is an unappreciated fact that there are actually more millenials in the United States than there are baby boomers. Whatever politician figures out how to engage the millenial generation politically is going to run the world.

From my perspective, there seems to be a clear build-up of political tension across the globe. While we can argue about specific economic and political maladies that have led us to this point, I think the simple fact is that people are losing faith in the system as a whole. As people lose faith, governments become more detached and fearful of their citizens, leading more people to lose faith in the system, and thus a vicious cycle of political breakdown is perpetuated.

So how do we stop this?

The answer is surprisingly simple – We need to believe again.

People need to believe that the world will be better for their children than it was for them. This is the magic that drives people to get up in the morning and go to school and work, to put in the long hours of hard work, to make discoveries, to invent new technologies, and improve the world. The economy will flourish only as long as people truly believe they can better their own life, and that of their children.

Without faith in the global economic and political system, we have nothing. 

Believe it or not, there just might be one simple medicine which (while it would not solve all of our problems) could go a long way to solving the twin problems of political and economic break down.

Basic income.

There is a long list of reasons that basic income makes for sensible economic policy, which I will not go through here. Suffice it to say that basic income would (1) give workers the leverage to demand more from work, (2) give individuals and innovators the means to do their thing, (3) give corporations more incentive to automate their production, and (4) generally support the consumption economy. (Some worry that such a basic income might lead to less incentive to work, but I say that if you need to use starvation as a threat to get people to work for you, then your business is not profitable enough.)

Perhaps most importantly, basic income would be the solution to restore the faith of the common individual in the current system of global capitalism. By institutionalizing the social contract in the form of a cash dividend for everyone, basic income would finally enshrine the promise that a rich and successful society must first deliver a minimal living standard to everyone.

Serious realistic types might rush to play down the importance of belief in the political system. Who cares whether the rabble believes in what the government and politicians do, as long as it is functional? But these people are completely missing the central truth of the matter here. Belief is the only power in the world that matters. My dollar is only worth what we collectively agree it to be worth, and the same goes for our societies. If we fail to create societies which inspire belief, then we are lost. If we do not find a way fill that vacuum left by eroding belief, then someone else will.

It is time for something that we can believe in, it is time for basic income. 

 

 

We Are Running Out of Time To Build A Better World

Sometimes people ask me why I get so excited about the kind of stuff that I talk about here. It seems that most people simply accept the hardship, inequity, and unfairness of the world as if it were a law of nature.

“Your life is pretty good, why do you get so worked up about this stuff?”

A simple question, but one which probes surprisingly deep into my beliefs about the world and its future.

Yes, I am lucky enough to have been born into a society which can deliver the opportunity for someone of a rather peculiar and bookish demeanor to embrace their academic proclivity and even to (hopefully) make that into a productive career. But, the fact that I have been visited with such luck and opportunity in my life serves only to deepen my to conviction that the world can be improved more still.

Opportunity is a great power, and with great power comes great responsibility.

While I speak of the luck that I have such opportunity in my life, it is also important to keep in mind that the society which delivered this opportunity was not built by luck alone. The world was built by the perseverance and hard work of generations who believed that the world could be bettered through their efforts. The world of today was not built by pessimism, and neither will the world of tomorrow.

We must improve the world, because it was improved for us.

Another important thing about opportunity, is that my being lucky enough to enjoy it does nothing to lessen the indignation that others do not.  In fact, my own luck served only to solidify my conviction that I should leverage my opportunity to strive for a world where everyone is offered such opportunity.

I reject any notion of zero sum ideology. 

Those who think they can only win when somebody else loses are lacking imagination. I do not accept that the world must be ruled by only luck, with winners and losers at all scales. Those who pit the interests of one group against another in short-term economic and political games are completely missing the larger picture. Science and technology offers us the means to afford a world where every person can have a plentiful and fair life. The fundamental limits of reality do not hold us back from creating a better world, but rather the it is our collective inability to imagine such a world.

All of the above provide great reasons to endeavor to better our societies, but they are all but preamble to this most important reason. We must create a world which respects the dignity of each and every human being, because they are becoming gods.

Already any average person with a smartphone has access to the entirety of human knowledge, can capture high definition audio and video, publish and distribute ideas, and share in modern discourse. These are powers nobody had even 20 years ago. Technology will continue to deliver more magical abilities into the hands of individuals everywhere. If we fail to inspire these technologically enabled individuals to use their power for good, then all will surely be lost.

So often it is the disenfranchised few who do the deepest damage to societies. The lone gunman, the embittered conman, the unscrupulous corporation, or the mad dictator; all variations on a theme of individuals willing to sacrifice any common good for personal gain. While I am not so optimistic to think that we can scrub the world of such individuals, nor do I unrealistically to suggest that we should remove all inequality in the world. I simply believe that we can create societies which embody better values.

We teach children the value of sharing and kindness, yet we create societies which enshrine greed. If we allow the politics of short-term gain to rule our societies, where we continually reward those unscrupulous actors willing to sacrifice collective good for personal gain, if we allow individuals to ignore and pervert scientific truth in service to their own ends, then we ensure our own destruction.  A tech-empowered world of completely self-interested people is sure to implode. It is in our self-interest to be a little less self-interested.

In the end, we must build a better world for many good reasons: because we were given a good one to begin with, because it is the right thing to do, and because we can. But the most important reason is because we are surely doomed if we do not.

We cannot afford to create a world of disenfranchised gods.