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AI, the Straw. Inequality, the Camel.

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AI, the Straw. Inequality, the Camel.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the...

18 Minutes Read

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only”.

Charles Dickens wrote these famous words in 1859 about 1775. Would he be surprised, I wonder, to find that their truth still resonates 159 years later? Perhaps not; A Tale of Two Cities was set at the beginning of the French revolution a generation before his own times, but Dickens’ view of the immutability of human nature informed his sense that “plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose”.

Perhaps though, he would; perhaps as the first science fiction writer (one of the main characters in A Christmas Carol is of course the “Ghost of the Future”) he would land in 2018 and be taken aback by the very visceral sense that it is still the best of times, and the worst of times.  “Why, you all live like Kings! But you stare down so much – metaphorically and literally!”

If you’re Steven Pinker or Hans Rosling life has never been better. Unemployment is at record lows and if you work in a professional STEM related field life is just dandy. If you’re a 28 year old crypto trader life is not just dandy, but a dream...

If you’re Steve Brill or Richard Reeves however, things are going the other way in a handbasket. The modern dandies have hoarded the American Dream and left 40% of their fellow Americans struggling to afford the basics of bourgeois life

And then if you’re Henry Kissinger Machines Doing Everything don’t just portend an era of economic struggle, they herald the end of human history! This time the End of History, Kissinger believes, won’t end so well ...

I’ve written before that the future presents us with a Rorschach test. How we see the future reflects on who we are, where we are, what stage of life we’re at, in many cases what time of day it is, and what’s on the table in front – or inside – of us. As I’ve pointed out, “In a world of 24/7, 365 infotainment, we are all swirling in an ocean of bad news, buffeted about by the needs of the industrial media complex. If it bleeds, it leads. Fiat by Twitter and On Demand Outrage are the (dis)order of the day”.  As Robert Harris puts it in The Fear Index, many “thrive on panic”. Or in CBS CEO Leslie Moonves’ words, the rise of Donald Trump “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS”.

On my recent travels telling the great story of our time; the rise of Artificial Intelligence – coming to a town near you soon – I’ve been struck again and again by how evenly distributed the season of darkness, the winter of despair is spread in conference rooms across the world. Audience members frequently comment on how refreshing it is to hear a positive take on the future ahead, which doesn’t surprise me – as I’ve heard it so often now – but does surprise me; are we the only ones out on the rubber chicken circuit (occasionally rubber caviar) singing a song of hope? It feels, as of June 2018, that to many, these are more like the worst of times, not the best.

And now to make things even darker, the Bard of Seat 27B (Dan Brown) has started pilling on. Professor Robert Langdon of Harvard University (Tom Hanks to you mate!) stars in Origin, a Robert De Niro/Charles Grodin style buddy caper in which “Winston”, the loveable AI, may not be so loveable after all …

Talking of the Roman Catholic Church (which Brown does incessantly …), the Vatican has also waded into future of work waters issuing a paper with some Considerations for an Ethical Discernment Regarding Some Aspects of the Present Economic-Financial System which amplifies tenants of the recently published Toronto Declaration calling on “both governments and tech companies to ensure that algorithms respect basic principles of equality and non-discrimination”.

And it is these last two initiatives that have gotten me thinking that perhaps the fate of AI will be a fate that none of us have predicted, not even the prediction machines themselves; perhaps AI will turn out to be the straw that breaks the back of techno-driven inequality.

Say what optimistic futurist? “You dissin’ on the dank you been pimpin’”, as Pusha T might say to Drake. Well, bear with me - remember it’s my brief to think the unthinkable.

There is little argument, I think it’s fair to say, that technology has played a role in the widening gulf between winners and runners up (it would be impolite to say losers) apparent to all but the most ideological of eyes. Those who have kept abreast of the rise of automation, arbitrage, and the Plimsoll line of economic efficiency have over the last few decades done well. Those who have mastered the new means of production have done fabulously well. Conversely, those who have not kept pace have seen their share of the spoils become thinner and thinner. [Exactly how much precisely this is due to technology is debatable but is beyond the word count of this piece; my point here is that technology has played a significant role].  The double helixesque relationship between technology and finance is now so powerful that Rockefeller scale fortunes are made with the only crime being placing adverts in front of people’s eyes. Financial engineering is now far more lucrative than engineering. Trading in companies generates far greater personal wealth than running them.

In the wake of this unprecedented explosion and concentration of money, a whole industry of academics, economists, and “think tankers” has arisen to map and chart this new terrain; Inequality: A Short History by Michele Alacevich and Anna Soci is a good primer if you’re feeling too comfortable as you whistle on your way to work. Monsieur Piketty is the OG, bien sur.

As we have repeatedly pointed out it is incumbent on every institution and everyone that wants to keep up to get with the program (now written in Python). Tech literacy has always been the surest route to wealth and power – animal bones were the Nvidia chips of Moonwatcher’s age - and will continue to be so long after the Star Child is born. What To Do When Machines Do Everything outlines how you (personally, corporately) can get ahead in this age of AI, Algorithms, Bots and Big Data. WTDWMDE is the master program.

Gratifyingly, lots of people are taking our advice and re-tooling for the next wave of competition. But worryingly, many aren’t. Even the second best-selling business book of 2017 (forgive the humble brag) will only reach a fraction of the people and organizations that are staring irrelevancy in the face. And even more worryingly, it is amongst those who see tech not as part of the solution but as part of the problem that a new consensus of stopping AI is forming.

AI, seen through these eyes, will exacerbate further the differential between superstar and mere mortal (many mere mortals it should be pointed out making seven figures a year). Brilliant technology in the hands of brilliant people will leave not just 40% behind, but almost everyone. The geeks will truly inherit the earth (a sign found on the car of the protagonist of Brown’s hero in the aforementioned Origin); AI could be a force for good, but more likely will be a force for ill, this argument goes.

Spreading AI (and STEM skills in general) more broadly to give a greater number of people the chance to compete in the age of algorithms – the core of our argument in WTDWMDE, and central to our efforts to aid in training and retraining – appeals to some but appears to fall on many deaf ears.

The anti-AI perspective acknowledges the power of AI but precisely because of that is existentially worried about it. The view is not based on denial (as is the case with those who poo-poo climate change) but on honest reckoning. A simile might posit AI as the soccer striker that the opposition fans boo and jeer, because they’re worried about him. Their silence would convey indifference to his impotence …

In this light we get back to my uncomfortable thought – that AI may become the straw in the global debate about distribution of wealth and opportunity.

As I’ve also written before the huge disparities of wealth between the reclaimed warehouses of NYC’s Meatpacking District and the un-reclaimed warehouses of New Bedford, MA (let alone the tarpaulin shacks of New Delhi) are so stark as to be unignorable. Only the coldest of hearts and/or the most Randian of minds could think “fine, no problem”. But as I’ve pointed out, these differences entirely pre-date the rise of AI – AI’s contribution to them is minimal. Yet, AI is becoming the lightning rod around which every aspect of the inequality debate is swirling. In this logic, stopping AI will reverse the tide of inequality and steer us back to Happy Days.

While we reject this logic – it being at foundation entirely illogical – there is a part of me however that feels that if we have to press “pause” on AI for a while to make progress on lessening the compounding of wealth and poverty, then maybe that is a price worth paying. If the rise of AI focuses our minds on the downsides of allowing winner take all reward systems to undermine the social fabric of the western world – liberal democracy itself in Dr. Kissinger’s words – then painful as it may be to technophiles and business mavens alike – the greater good should prevail.

Fixing inequality will make few demands of AI. Rather it will overturn Citizen’s United, it will close the carried interest loophole, it will institute workers boards, it will limit executive pay, it will reinstitute death duties, re-impose progressive tax rates, invest in public infrastructure, raise pay for the most vital members of society (teachers and nurses), limit inwards investment from corrupt sources, forbid tax inversions, end the Internet tax holiday, fine domestic corporations that hold excessive amounts of earnings offshore to avoid tax payments, extend Earned Income Tax Credits, make public colleges tuition-free, and reduce military expenditures (to more than pay for most of the above). It will focus on changing the culture of modern society by reintroducing notions of shame, denial, embarrassment, restraint, modesty. It will remind the secular (in a non-religious way) that a love of money is the root of all evil. It will stop us short with the thought that a society that worships money is a society that rots from the head.

While all of this is being worked through (2 or 3 years tops, don’t you think?) AI can continue to develop in the laboratory; kinks can be ironed out, racist algorithms can be taught to not be so like Roseanne. If we’re smart more and more people of goodwill can quietly learn the new tools of the trade in online sandboxes and be ready for when the safety car of the race against the machine leaves the track.

Then when society is fixed AI can be unleashed again, ready to take its place in helping the oppressors and oppressed alike find their rightful reward.

My tone turns slightly satirical here because the notion of a “pause” seems entirely unlikely, non? Fixing inequality is a serious undertaking – absolutely the right one because unless the enlightened bourgeoisie fix it they in turn will be fixed (literally into soap and glue). But fixing inequality through stopping the development of AI seems like shooting at the wrong target. If it’s the only target, then, well as I say, perhaps it is a necessary evil. But it isn’t. Rather, we should circle back to our core argument in the second best-selling business book of 2017 (did I mention that?!) that the only route to economic security (which of course is the only real kind of security) is through educating ourselves to take advantage of the latest and greatest technology threshold A.K.A. AI. 

2018 sees us on the cusp of an AI based world in which no parent ever again has to say goodbye to their beloved child due to a drunk driver. It also sees us on the cusp of a world in which millions of middle aged people will lose their job driving a truck and face grim prospects of ever making the same level of income again (pitifully small as that already was).

As ever, it is the best of times, it is the worst of time. In the superlative degree of comparison, we all sense that we have come a long way, but there is a long way still to go. Dickens, as time traveler back with us in 2018, sitting in the Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street – which he would recognize – drinking a Lemon Musk alcopop – which he wouldn’t – would probably smile and feel some satisfaction that his faith in the immutability of human nature meant his name was still alive and kicking in classrooms and corridors of power across London and across the world years after his actual death. He would listen in amazement as Siri answered his question, “what is Charles Dickens’ best novel?” And he would sigh in wonder as his Uber toured him past all the houses that have blue plaques with his name on them …   

He would, we believe, have shared our view that AI will help us get to where we are going. In his review of Robert Hunt’s book The Poetry of Science, or Studies of the Physical Phenomena of Nature (1848) he wrote, “[Science] can, like Nature herself, restore in some new form whatever she destroys; that, instead of binding us, as some would have it, in stern utilitarian chains, when she has freed us from a harmless superstition, she offers to our contemplation something better and more beautiful, something which, rightly considered, is more elevating to the soul, nobler and more stimulating to the soaring fancy: is a sound, wise, wholesome object” - words that sound remarkably like those in Chapter 12 of What To Do When Machines Do Everything – though we’re not claiming for a moment that our writing is as good as his!

Dickens, like many eminent Victorians believed in the power of science. But also believed, firmly, in the power of reason. He would, I suspect, have understood that it would be reasonable, on occasion, to wait for stragglers to catch up. And he probably would have said that wouldn’t be a bad thing; his empathy for the underdog being a key to why his writing endures. Ultimately though he would have continued to argue that whilst we debate the proper response to the most powerful technology man has every created – to some, man’s last invention - the future is always confusing and unsettling and that ergo, the present is always immutably, the best and worst of times. AI may be set to change everything but, immutably, “plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose”.


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