Confronted with confounding complexity

Ever since I read Martin Ford’ ‘The rise of the robots’, I have been following his Twitter handle, from time to time. I am not on Twitter. Over the last two days, I had a rich harvest of articles to read. Just finished reading them. I am yet to comprehend the full import of all that I had read. Perhaps, it is not just possible.

The article about driverless trucks and the consequences of automation on the rise of extreme sentiments is of a garden-variety nature compared to the other articles that I read.

Prof. Tyler Cowen has a piece in which he expresses considerable disquiet about what the robotics/AI revolution holds. He presents evidence on what the Industrial Revolution wrought in terms of real wages. He is right that it has caused real pain to many, many people. Time has airbrushed them out of our collective conscience. More importantly, some of us never really experienced the fallout. So, it is easy to sound academically rational about it or as a techno-optimist.

Yet, he contrives to conclude on a note of ‘full steam ahead’. I am not able to understand that one. His choice. Useful to know the name of an economic historian, Gregory Clark, at UC Davis.

Then came the MIT Technology Review article. That too invoked an economic historian: Joel Mokyr at Northwestern University. His understanding of the problem seems very reasonable:

has spent his career studying how people and societies have experienced the radical transitions spurred by advances in technology, such as the Industrial Revolution that began in the late 18th century. The current disruptions are faster and “more intensive,” Mokyr says. “It is nothing like what we have seen in the past, and the issue is whether the system can adapt as it did in the past.”

But, his answer?

Mokyr describes himself as “less pessimistic” than others about whether AI will create plenty of jobs and opportunities to make up for the ones that are lost. And even if it does not, the alternative—technological stagnation—is far worse.

But, again, a good description of what a loss of a job means in the modern society:

There is no question that in the modern capitalist system your occupation is your identity,” he says. And the pain and humiliation felt by those whose jobs have been replaced by automation is “clearly a major issue,” he adds. “I don’t see an easy way of solving it. It’s an inevitable consequence of technological progress.”

Past is no guide to the future but is our recollection of even the past accurate?

Sample this:

Personal computers, the Internet, and other technologies of the last several decades did replace some bank tellers, cashiers, and others whose jobs involved routine tasks.

The full impact of the computing and internet revolution is being felt now. They enabled outsourcing and offshoring. Those who lost their jobs or income or both now want to shrink the world back to the familiarity of the past, in their own ways. Can we say that thse technologies simply replaced routine jobs and did nothing more in terms of damages?

Again, the same facile conclusion:

if we fail to use the technology in a way that benefits as many people as possible (see “Who Will Own the Robots?”), we risk fueling public resentment of automation and its creators. The danger is not so much a direct political backlash—though the history of the Luddites suggests it could happen—but, rather, a failure to embrace and invest in the technology’s abundant possibilities.

This is a short one but more of an introduction/summary of the BankUnderground blog post. BankUnderground is maintained by the Bank of England staffers. The header makes sense. To me, that is.

The Bank Underground article is a very important read because it shows – a bit like Tyler Cowen’s article above – how ‘this time it might be different’ – in terms of the time the latest wave of technology affords humans and societies to adapt – it could be far less. Telescoping of the pace of change – ask Alvin Toffler. Well, we cannot. He died last year but, who knows, technology might enable us to do so sometime in the future.

This is a series of articles in ‘Scientific American’. The lead article is a MUST READ. It touches upon all aspects such as personal liberty, our abilities to think, our freedom to make choices, etc., all those that will become playthings of technology. The page is not well formatted because headers of the subsequent sections merge into previous paragraphs.

Interestingly, the word, ‘complexity’ occurs eight times in these articles. Some of the sentences that bear them are interesting.

  1. But one look at the relevant scientific literature shows that attempts to control opinions, in the sense of their “optimization”, are doomed to fail because of the complexity of the problem. The dynamics of the formation of opinions are full of surprises.
  2. In a rapidly changing world a super-intelligence can never make perfect decisions (see Fig. 1): systemic complexity is increasing faster than data volumes, which are growing faster than the ability to process them, and data transfer rates are limited.
  3. Centralized, top-down control is a solution of the past, which is only suitable for systems of low complexity. Therefore, federal systems and majority decisions are the solutions of the present. With economic and cultural evolution, social complexity will continue to rise. Therefore, the solution for the future is collective intelligence.

This is an important point:

Collective intelligence requires a high degree of diversity. This is, however, being reduced by today’s personalized information systems, which reinforce trends…. Reducing sociodiversity often also reduces the functionality and performance of an economy and society. This is the reason why totalitarian regimes often end up in conflict with their neighbors. Typical long-term consequences are political instability and war, as have occurred time and again throughout history. Pluralism and participation are therefore not to be seen primarily as concessions to citizens, but as functional prerequisites for thriving, complex, modern societies.

If technology is tailored to reinforce and exploit what we like, then…. we lose the ability even to tolerat the ‘other’, let alone have an understanding of and accept them.

Thanks to Big Data, we can now take better, evidence-based decisions. However, the principle of top-down control increasingly fails, since the complexity of society grows in an explosive way as we go on networking our world. Distributed control approaches will become ever more important. Only by means of collective intelligence will it be possible to find appropriate solutions to the complexity challenges of our world.

There is a long NYT article on how Universal Basic Income is being experimented with, in a  village in Kenya. The idea of cash transfers is very appealing in such situations. But, it might prove to be wholly inadequate to the problems that AI/Robotics would be throwing up. For now, it is gaining traction because of the conscience salve that it is, for the technology industry. When Bill Gates said that one should tax robots, clearly, the technology companies that are unleashing them should pay for the externalities they are going to create. Taxation is the best instrument for it.

Just as banks have to create living wells and take up insurance to guard against economic consequences of their failures lest taxpayers are on the hook for collectivisation of losses while gains were kept private, technology companies have to do the same.

However, one good thing with UBI or Cash transfer is that the aid industry, as we know it, would be dead and that is a good thing.

Another NYT article says that with the recovery in oil prices, oil production is back on track in the United States but not the jobs. Nearly one third to one half of the jobs lost won’t come back. Why? Automation.

This may sound like a somewhat relatively lighter article about robots delivering sharing space with pedestrians but it would put delivery workers, drivers out of their jobs.

So, in the end, are we wiser? Yes. Are we confused? Yes. Are we worried? Yes. Do we have answers? No, except ‘tax the hell out of the companies that develop these’. For now, that is my only answser. One blogger is not going to stop the relentless march of humans to extinction in whichever manner it is achieved – hand to hand combat, animals, spears, arrows, swords, guns, bullets, missiles, bombs and technology.

It is time to remind the readers of the man who tried to redeem the world with logic. That is what these companies are trying to do with their technology. If you had not read that article, you should. If nothing else, it should make us humble, at least for a while.


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