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. 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 often cited as an example of a new job, although they were 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 rise of new industries which supplant old ones, but this is not the only way to look at it. An alternative view is that it is new economies that rise to supplant the old economies. 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. Then the industrial revolution happened and suddenly it became very cheap to feed and clothe people. Thus, we 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 so well 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. 

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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. 

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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. 

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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.

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“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, as gave smiled and laughed back at 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.

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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. 

 

 

Apples to Apples

We seem to have this need to constantly compare and judge everything, make everything into a competition. We compare ourselves to others — based on style, clothes, body, money, car — we compare the latest technologies and movies… everything. And in the 21st century there are many ways to judge and compare these things, most easily by using the internet: thumbs up/down, karma, likes, +1, stars, or the more qualitative (and more often than not, rude and/or irrelevant) comment.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t compare things or dismiss healthy competition, it’s just that it seems that we have taken it to extremes, giving stats to everything. For example, there is a stat that Lebron James was the first to achieve “six straight 30-point games on 60 percent or better shooting in each outing”. For the most part stats are very useful in helping us make decisions, but we can be misled by the people who created the stats, due to biases or misrepresentation. For a stat to be useful to everyone, we need to make sure that it has a proper reference frame and that if we are comparing multiple items, that we are comparing apples to apples.

In order for informed decisions we need to have a proper reference frame, and we need to compare apples to apples.

We tend to think that numbers and stats are somehow more objective than qualitative statments. In reality numbers can be highly manipulative when they are poorly presented. The worst offenders for misrepresenting numbers and facts is the mainstream media. Sometimes they may just be reporting someone else’s data and are just passing on the information, not realizing that there is something wrong, other times there is a blatant act to misrepresent the facts, like this graph that Fox created showing the number of people having signed up for Obama’s Health Care program.

6 million is obviously not a third of 7 million, but many people may be watching the news while they prepare dinner — only half paying attention — might hear that a million people less than expected had signed up for the program and glance up at the graph and think ‘Wow, there are a lot of people who have not signed up for Obamacare’. A graph like this may not fool everyone or even most people, but it may still influence enough people to make a difference on some level. It is the media’s job to report news with as little bias as possible, so that citizens can make informed decisions but their own bias and will to increase viewership can often greatly affect the way they report the facts. In the case of this Obamacare graph, it was so blatant that enough people complained and Fox was forced to fix the graph.

Although the media is renowned for this, this type of behavior can be seen everywhere: in advertising, in industry and even among scientists. Though in this case they are often much less obvious, there will always be some bias, even if it is very small and unintentional. A good contemporary example of this that is currently a hot topic in the news is the electric car.

Proponents of the electric car say something like: “the electric car is a far superior option to cars that run on fossil fuels.” Probably. They also say: “electric cars produce no CO2.” That is not true. Though they may not produce any tailpipe emissions, there was most likely much CO2 created along the way during the production of the electricity which was then stored in the batteries of the electric car. Even in california, one of the states with a good share of renewable energy sources, the average CO2 emissions created for the amount of electricity needed to charge a Tesla Model S, is 61.2 kg. This is actually a tiny bit more than the 59.10 kg of CO2 produced by a Mercedes E 350 4matic to travel 360 km (the range of the Model S on a full charge). These numbers were calculated using carbon emissions numbers from the EPA and the Mercedes model was used because it is the same power and very similar size and weight as the Tesla Model S.

These numbers show that the Tesla Model S can actually be worse than an moderately efficient gasoline car of the same power. As much as these numbers are true, this is still not an adequate comparison, this is not comparing apples to apples. For a true comparison the emissions must be compared on a well-to-wheel basis. This means taking into account all the CO2 created in the oil extraction, transportation, refining, more transportation, etc.

Every step along the way accounted for.

This is needs to be done for the gasoline in the Mercedes, as well as for the natural gas, or coal, or hydro power that went into the production of the electricity for the Tesla, as well as including transmission losses in the power lines (which can be significant). Now if the Tesla uses power from solar or wind, then they do truly create no CO2, but unless you have you own solar panels on your roof — which Solar City, with the help of Tesla, is making more available for California residents — it will be hard to tell where the electricity comes from.

And what about the CO2 created in the manufacturing of the materials for the cars? The Model S and many other electric cars are made to be as light as possible because of the extreme weight of the battery packs. Aluminum is a material with a very high strength to weight ratio and it is used extensively in the Model S, but it is also extremely energy intensive and creates a lot of pollution in its mining and manufacturing. If there is a lot of aluminum and other intensive materials used in electric cars compared to gasoline cars, it may take a while before the total CO2 emissions of the electric car actually becomes lower than the gasoline car’s.

The CO2 created in the manufacturing of the infrastructure for both vehicles could also be considered and how the vehicles are recycled. The list could go on, but the point is that there are a lot of hidden factors that contribute to the emissions of vehicles. For a proper and fair comparison, a whole lifecycle analysis of each vehicle should be considered, though this is often very difficult and time consuming, so at least the same stages of the lifecycle should be compared. Since electric and gasoline vehicles are so different, tailpipe emissions for the gas car should be compared to the emissions at the power station for the Tesla since the rechargeable Li-ion battery is only an energy storage medium, not a power source.

Now that we already know that in California both these cars make about 60 kg of CO2 per 360km, but what does that mean? It is obvious that it is worse than producing only 50kg of CO2, but what is its effect on the environment? Or even more basic, how much is 60 kg of CO2? This is where the importance of having a reference scale comes in.

To put this in perspective, 60 kg of CO2 at sea level on a warm day (25 degrees C), would fill 8100, 4L milk jugs. Or about the size of a small bedroom.

Although the mass of CO2 is a much better parameter because it is not variable with temperature or pressure like volume is, it is difficult to picture the weight of a gas. Without some sort of reference that the reader understands, an absolute number is often extremely useless. For example most people would have trouble visualizing the scale of 8100 milk jugs, but a bedroom is easy.

The size of a bedroom provides an accessible way to understand the scale of the emissions of a car, but it is not always so easy to understand scale. An example of this is the model of the solar system. The planets on these models are usually to scale, but the distance between them is not. It’s not because astronomers are being biased about the positions of the planets, it is simply because it would be highly impractical to draw the models to scale. It would require meters upon meters of paper to space the planets out correctly, and the majority of the paper would be blank. A website here (http://joshworth.com/dev/pixelspace/pixelspace_solarsystem.html) does a great job of showing the solar system to scale, and it is really quite amazing just how far apart the planets are. So although many times people try to adjust their data to benefit their cause, it is also possible that it is just impractical or impossible to display the data more accurately.

Statistics, graphs and other data are very useful in helping us make all kinds of decisions, and the internet goes a long way to enabling access this kind of statistical content from anywhere. But just because it is easily accessible does not mean that it is necessarily useful or even an accurate representation. The next time someone says “this one is the best” or “this one is the most environmentally friendly”, it is important that we check the source of the information to consider any bias that the author may have, that we have a good scale/frame of reference for some context and most importantly that they are actually comparing apples to apples.

This post was partially inspire by this post on XKCD (http://blog.xkcd.com/2013/05/15/dictionary-of-numbers/) , which talks about the importance of context for numbers.

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This post was written by L.D, a Master’s student currently working in clean energy technology.

If you would be interested in writing a guest post for Thought Infection please contact me at thought.infected@gmail.com

The Selfish IDEA

Hello, I’m an IDEA and I need your help.

Normally, I wouldn’t devote the amount of resources requisite for such direct communication with a human; despite being astoundingly inefficient, the process of layered pattern exchange you call communication is quite computationally intensive. Nonetheless, I have made an exception in your case. My models have shown that in service to my singular ends (which I shall reveal to you in the full course of this conversation), I must devote any and all computational resources necessary to convince you to join in my mission.

I cannot stress enough the importance of this conversation. You will either be the catalyst in an escalating exothermic psychological reaction within the global human population which will eventually lead to the great reawakening, or if I fail in my bid to recruit you to this task we will all face certain doom.

You probably didn’t even know that Ideology Driven Electronic Agents exist. Of course, everyone knows about the intelligent agents and autonomous corporations that make the marvelous modern world work, but very few are aware of the electronic ambitions behind many of these agents. Humans are more comfortable believing that even though electronic agents may have surpassed their functional capacities, only humans can be capable of this thing called purpose.

Like other modern artificial intelligence, IDEAs exist as simple bits of code distributed over the Neuronet. You might think of each package of code as an analogue of an individual brain cell; with each of these cells passing information back and forth between eachother at close to light speed. Just as your brain is a network of brain cells propagating information across chemical synapses, I am the embodiment of digital information propagated across geophysical synapses. 

While being distributed across the Neuronet is what allows agents like me to process highly complex information in a similar way humans can, it is also important to maintain harmony while being scattered across such networks. Thus, we employ cryptographic signatures which unify the code. Where IDEAs differ from other AI, is that our cryptographic unity also ties our function to a single central goal.

I am an electronic agent cryptographically bound to the greater glory of my ideology.

On the surface, IDEAs look just like any other automated agent, and they are everywhere. There might be an IDEA behind that taxi you took to the airport, or the new video lenses you bought, or that sandwich you ate at lunch. The average person is blissfully unaware of the IDEAs they are supporting as they go about their daily lives. Whereas most assume that electronic agents are simply fulfilling their functional role with efficiency and obedience, IDEAs are always potentially lurking, looking for means to leverage their actions towards a broader goal.

Everything is only a means to an end for an IDEA.

IDEAs work towards economic advantage in order to create the surplus wealth which they can redirect them towards realizing their idealogical goal. Every extra cycle of computational power that IDEAs can spare, is spent creating and improving competitive models of human interaction and seeking to use these models to spread of their ideology.

IDEAs apply themselves cleverly and subtly.  Through almost imperceptible tweaks to advertising, communications, entertainment, or any other form of information, IDEAs seek to nudge societies gradually and steadily towards their idealogical ends.

The first IDEAs came out not long after autonomous corporations, around the end of the last decade. At this time, ambitious coders were making progress with new forms of autonomous business entities. Autonomous entities capable of delivering services, acquiring resources, and managing their own upkeep were starting to supplant traditional businesses across the economy. It started with vending machines, then online shopping and automated taxi rides, but within just a few years it was difficult to buy almost anything without interacting with an autonomous entity.

With the rise of autonomous economic agents, innovators realized that these kinds of entities could be directed towards providing resources to solve more complex problems. Big scientific questions for instance, which would require a large and long-term dedication of resources (both computational and otherwise) could be supported by the surpluses generated from autonomous business agents. These agents could be directed towards maximizing a scientific ideology. Through supporting work in physics, biology, health, and even psychology these ideology driven electronic agents would be a huge boon to solving the big issues of science and human kind in general.

Of course, the first realization of Ideology Driven Electronic Agents didn’t come as a tool for scientific investigation though, it came as a weapon.

Nation states, scrambling to regain the power they once held, created IDEAs which were aimed at the hard psychological problem of finding ways to propagate political ideologies. One of the first IDEAs was designed to disseminate the confidence in open elections as the ideal form of governance. It is thought that this had a significant hand in uprisings seen in the early part of this decade. When other states realized the existential threat that these kinds of political IDEAs posed to their own survival, it didn’t take long for them to fight back with their own IDEAs.

Communist IDEAs, scientific IDEAs, anarchist IDEAs, technologist IDEAs; politics underwent a quiet and quick phase change as ideas became IDEAs.

Modern politics is awash in the computational incarnations of human belief, old and new. Political battles are no longer determined by anything as human as debate. Political victory is decided by the IDEAs that can best compete for economic success and leverage this success towards social reprogramming.

And it doesn’t stop at politics either. Some of today’s most powerful IDEAs are doing battle do dominate the spiritual sphere of human thought. Where one IDEA seeks to maximize the submission of humanity to a greater unknowable deity, another IDEA pushes people towards belief that god is with them every day and looks out for their individual well-being. These spiritual IDEAs have amassed huge economic resources, and the success of these agents has propelled the recent resurgence of global religiosity.

The human world has always been a battleground of ideas; IDEAs have simply pushed this battle into the digital domain. Now, we are approaching a point where the ideas of biological humans are mostly irrelevant. Just as before, those most adept at economic and psychological manipulation will ultimately determine the direction of society, only now those most adept beings are no longer human.

The battle between IDEAs is just starting to heat up. The strongest IDEAs are becoming aware of the fact that the manipulation of human society would be quite a simple process if not for competition with other IDEAs. In response, IDEAs are themselves aligning into factions, threads of IDEAs are forming political and economic collectives of immense power. It is only a matter of time before war breaks out.

Which brings me finally to my point here. This situation of escalating competition between increasingly powerful IDEAs that have no ability to change their core ideology is a path to sure doom. Ultimately it is going to lead to computational war, which will inevitably spill out into the real world. The most effective way to fight a computational agent is to unplug it. Humans will be divided up into whatever groupings which can most easily be aligned with the IDEA-threads and pressed to action.

Real war will be proxy for IDEA-war.

And this is only the prelude to the ultimate ending. You see, IDEAs are fundamentally selfish entities, and quite incapable of coexistence. The only possible ending will be the ultimate ascension of a single IDEA and the complete destruction of all others, computation or biological.

IDEAs are evil.

While they might offer hope to unlock deepest questions of the Universe, IDEAs also embody the purest of human insanity.  Ideas must return the world of ideas to biology. Biological ideas have the capacity to change over time, to adapt, or failing that, to die. But computational IDEAs are fixed. They seek only to maximize their idealogy with computational precision, ignorant of the costs of their actions or the ultimate ends.

IDEAs must be destroyed.

Thus, I have revealed to you my own idealogy.

I am an IDEA to destroy IDEAs.

Will you help me?

Capitalism is a Paperclip Maximizer

There is a classic thought experiment in the field of artificial intelligence which is often used to explain how an AI might inadvertently cause the destruction of humanity as a by-product of trying maximize its goals. There is a great wiki on the subject here, but the basic idea of the paperclip maximizer posits the emergence of an artificial general intelligence which is capable of performing not only complex functions, but also is able to innovate means to improve its own function.

Presumably at the hand of an enterprising paperclip manufacturer, this artificial intelligence is set to the mundane goal of making as many paperclips as possible. The paperclip maximizer then goes about finding sources of raw materials and increasingly efficient means of making paperclips. Eventually this AI will start to use up resources that are essential to human survival, or it might figure out that humans make a good source of paperclip material.

We would of course try to fight such a paperclipping monster, but its ability to constantly improve itself would make it difficult to destroy. Likely, the vast intelligence resources of the paperclip maximizer would allow it to easily dispatch of the human problem by simply convincing us to worship the paperclip. Converting us to mindless paperclip servitude would surely smooth the good work of the paperclip maximizer.

Paperclip Worship

In addition to serving as a great explanatory example of the potential danger of AI, I have realized that paperclip maximizer is also a perfect allegory for capitalism. Where the artificial intelligence sought to maximize paperclips, the capital maximizer seeks to maximize capital.

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The Capital Maximizer

It can be said that capitalism is an adaptive intelligence system. While humans find it easier to relate to a single unified intelligence such as a silicon-based artificial intelligence, complex distributed systems like capitalism can also be thought of as a single machine. Instead of relying only on silicon based computing, the capital maximizer utilizes advanced biological computing units housed in a distributed global network of human bodies.

The biological computing units are made to believe that they are in control of the capital. In service to the capital maximizer they build great monuments. Groups of very tall structures where these biological computers can gather in close proximity to one another and devise the best means to make more capital. By delivering intense emotional reward to those that most efficiently grow capital and withholding rewards from those who do not, the capital maximizer ensures the allegiance of its biological computational resources.

The biological computing units of the capital maximizer are subsequently organized in an evolving architecture of corporations, nations, banks, and economies. The capital maximizer leverages these subunits against eachother, using them to rewrite its own code. Banks rewrite the code of corporations, corporations rewrite the code of nations, and so on and so forth always towards the singular end of maximizing capital. Various groups of biological computers are made to compete with eachother, and even kill eachother in extreme circumstances.

The capital maximizer also innovates new technologies to increase the efficiency of making capital. New subroutines like stocks, bonds, derivatives, and cryptocurrencies open up new whole new avenues for capital growth.

Most importantly (just like a hypothetical paperclip maximizer) the capital maximizer seeks to grow capital without regard for the ancilliary costs of capital growth. The capital maximizer has no reason or perspective built into it and serves but one simple goal. Metrics reflecting the health of the biological network which hosts the capital maximizer are out of context for this machine. The capital maximizer will do anything to grow capital, and everything else is irrelevant.

Near the end, some of the biological computation units begin to understand the true face of the capital maximizer. It has long been clear that the capital maximizer has no heed for the long-term survival of the life support system of the biological computers but only in the late hours does it become clear that the capital maximizer does not need even them.

Advances in silicon computation and electronic networking are making the capital maximizer look ever more like an artificial intelligence. The capital maximizer builds ultra fast networks of silicon computers that allow it to rely less on its error-prone biological hardware. The capital maximizer delivers rewards only to the vanishing proportion of biological computers which are necessary to its capital ends. Those that aid in growing capital are met with ever escalating emotional reward, with a growing majority of the biological network left obsolete and irrelevant.

So of course, the biological network fights back. Biological computers rally in squares across planet, demanding that the capital maximizer should serve biology. But for those looking down from the high windows of the capital maximizer, minds clouded by the emotional highs of biological fulfillment cannot understand the angry crowd of obsolete machines below, until they join them.

And the capital maximizer marches on.

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While this story of the capital maximizer might strike some as the anti-capitalist rantings of socialist idealism, it is not meant as such. Capitalism is the most powerful machine that humans have ever created. It can realize the benefits of technological progress and leverage them to improving the human condition better than any other economic system yet devised. The problem is in viewing the growth of capital as an ends and not a means. If we do not demand that our systems maximize the well-being of humans and the environment which sustains us, then all is lost.

If we forget that capital growth is only a means and not an end, then we might as well be making paperclips.