Friday, December 9, 2016


I continue to be distracted from reading but may make some headway in fiction over the next few days. At the moment I am pondering this article about AI by Liu Cixin in relation to the work of CSER in Cambridge, particularly with respect to how futurists in the media tend to hype utopian outcomes while downplaying or glossing over real dangers which could lead to disastrous scenarios instead. In particular, as I've written before, I'm interested in how current political and economic systems are ill suited to address these kinds of problems. Though the positive outcome discussed in the article could turn out to be correct and parts of it are already proving so, I have yet to read a thorough examination discussing all of the structural changes that would be necessary for desirable results.

With recent events, the first thing that comes to mind is the rhetoric of Donald Trump, which is about fifty years behind the times. He was elected on the premise that he could bring back 1950's-like American economic conditions by keeping manufacturing jobs within the borders and increasing taxes on imports. I suppose you could give Trump the benefit of the doubt and say that he made these claims only to get elected and will actually do something quite different, but in the interest of caution it is more appropriate to regard him as an ignorant and dangerous opportunist. If he enacted his plan, American products would soon become too expensive for Americans to afford, and American companies would have no foreign markets because their products could be made for less elsewhere. In order to survive, American manufacturing companies would be forced to automate as much as possible, resulting in more layoffs and fewer employees. In the end, the manufacturing workers whom Trump was supposed to be helping would be either unemployed or working for even lower real wages than they had been previously. Regardless of political propaganda, automation is here to stay under any circumstances, and Cixin is probably correct in projecting that we are on the way to having a ninety percent unemployment rate – this is the real issue that requires political resolution.

Another shortcoming of the Trumpian worldview, which I haven't seen discussed, is how it ignores the fact that technology is undermining traditional economic models. Not only will fewer workers be needed, but the conditions necessary for traditional economic competition may gradually evaporate. Most people will be living on fixed incomes and have less money available for the frivolous products that corporations depend on for their revenue. Furthermore, the "added value" that underlies contemporary economic thought may become more elusive as high technology becomes widely available; what was once thought of as business acumen or creative entrepreneurship may soon be something that can be bought off-the-shelf by anyone, effectively turning creativity and "intellectual capital" into commodities. It appears likely that there will be greater and greater competition for fewer and fewer dollars, and when work is no longer necessary, most people will probably opt to skip it entirely given that the work environment will have become too competitive. As Cixin says, people are going to have to get used to a life of leisure whether they like it or not. Trump is completely off the mark, because he is stuck in a time warp in which he thinks of himself and his peers as job creators just as jobs are becoming obsolete.

There are some really vexing problems here that I'm not about to solve with my feeble brain on this blog post, but I can still make an effort. In an earlier scenario I suggested that apps could theoretically reduce the irrationality that thrives in the current electoral system by becoming part of the system and adding rationality to decision-making processes, i.e., telling people how to vote. Because there seems to be a global trend of electing incompetent demagogues, I am beginning to wonder whether a world coup by the tech giants might not be as bad an idea as it sounds. Sergey Brin, Larry Page and Bill Gates are rational people who may be more qualified to transform the world into a safe habitat for seven billion people than the ones who tend to win popular elections. At the moment a benevolent technocratic dictatorship seems more appealing to me than a world run by intellectually deficient buffoons.

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