Thursday, 3 April 2014

Automation Will Change the World Sooner Than You Think

The Lights in the Tunnel by Martin Ford explores the implications of the increasing automation of labor. It begins by visualizing the world economy, and how it will change as automation increasingly eliminates labor. Many commonly held beliefs are dispelled throughout the book with convincing logic and some unquestionable evidence. This is not something we can afford to ignore. Even without the current rapid advances in technology or full artificial general intelligence, automation is going to have some significant effects on society, and it is going to happen sooner than you think.

The Reality of Automation

No More VacanciesThis is not science fiction. Far-off notions of intelligent androids performing our every wish are the least of our worries. Automation is set to displace workers in many areas with little advance in technology. Much of this displacement is simply a question of design. With profit as the incentive, it is only a matter of time.
You might also be reassured by the belief that "Robots can't do everything", and that until the day they take all the jobs, or perhaps just your job, you don't have to worry about it.
Wrong.
The entire system of consumerism depends on the majority having jobs. There is in fact a tipping point, a point where there are not enough people earning an income to sustain our current system.

The Tipping Point

With no buyers, there can be no sellers. The lack of consumer confidence will result in less demand and businesses will be less likely to take on more staff. The economy will embark on a downward spiral of unemployment.
This, of course, is not just a problem for the average worker, but for the rich elite, who will no longer have a market from which to make their fortune. Not only will fewer workers be bad for the economy, but with the massive drop in income tax revenues, even public services are set to be hit hard by the coming unemployment tsunami.
Nobody will be safe. Even cheap labor jobs in countries such as India and China cannot sustain their level of growth once automation hits critical mass, partly because they rely on Western prosperity in the first place, but also because their jobs will also be subject to automation, both at home and back in developed countries.
Then there is the misconception of the "Luddite Fallacy", the belief that the economy will always create new jobs, and advancing technology will continue to create new industries for displaced workers.
Martin Ford's argument is that accelerating automation technology will ultimately invade many of the industries that have traditionally been labor intensive. He also argues that any new industries that are created by these advances are unlikely to be labor intensive, focusing more on capital and expensive equipment - take Google's extremely low staff number compared with its income as a prime example.
Therefore, our fate is sealed - and the idea that every person must "earn their living by the sweat of their brow" is all but obsolete. Ironically, it is capitalism that has led us to this transition.

$lavery

There was an interesting point made in the book: This concept of "free labor" has happened before.
The slave trade in America was active for over 200 years. It made slave owners rich beyond their dreams, while poorer whites, unable to compete against free labor, lived in abject poverty. So how did it continue for 200 years, with so much poverty? Well, the slave colonies relied on exports. There was a constant flow of new money from overseas.
A system that depends on external resources can only increase its prosperity as long as the external resources continue. Today, we function under the illusion of separate countries trading with each other, but in essence, the whole world is the market, so really there is nobody to export to. Growth in this case can only come from inside the system - from more of the Earth's limited resources, including labor.
Today, we are the slaves. Although we are paid, our money is simply to drive the system of consumption. It is what allows the producers to grow. At first, this sounds like a good thing. Essentially, the corporations provide us with value.
The problem becomes apparent when we realize that the system relies on us as much as we rely on it.
The labor of the working classes feeds this system. This is why we are, in effect, forced to work.
We need to consume to live, but to consume, we must work. This system, where producers are also the consumers, relies on itself to function. Production drives consumption and consumption drives production. Break this cycle and the system cannot continue.

A World Without Jobs

Our automated future will decouple production from consumption. Things can still be produced, but there will be no way of affording it, because we won't have jobs.
How can we have production if there is nobody to consume?
While Martin Ford does a great job of identifying the problems of automation in the current economy, most of his solutions are fundamentally flawed. One suggestion is an overwhelming "Robin Hood" style government welfare system that taxes producers to allow the consumers to continue consuming. He says that even the most hardcore libertarian will have to agree to this, as without it, there will be no market to which any business can sell its goods.
He explains that in this system, there would still be incentives for people to do good for society for example, and capitalism would still reward those who become the best producers.
However, it soon becomes clear that many of the problems of capitalism (relentless growth, inherently aberrant behavior, destructive affluence etc) are still not addressed in his suggested solutions.
Additionally, his argument is based on the assumptions that consumption is necessary for growth, and that growth is necessary for progress. This is a very narrow view. To believe that consumption is a necessary factor in progress is an assumption with little grounding, and as we all know, growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of cancer.
Regardless of Martin Ford's suggestions, we cannot ignore the most pressing implication of the decoupling of labor from the production/consumption cycle. That is, the elimination of the assumption that everyone must work.
This is a profound concept that will have significant implications on society. Without a job, how can one survive? If not everyone has to work, why should anyone? It wouldn't be fair if some people went to work and some didn't.
What do we do when the lack of employment combines with technology and actually removes our requirement to work? For example, when our essential amenities are provided for free by renewable-energy-powered, fully automated farms, house building machines, and more, and the masses suddenly realize that work is no longer obligatory - we will see a near instantaneous collapse of the labor based economy.
These imminent tipping points will force us to rethink the roles of humans in the economy. This is perhaps the most pressing issue in our transition to a new kind of economy.
Changes ComingLuckily, the world is changing, and changing fast. We are seeing more and more possibilities, game changers, emerging ideas. The Internet is opening up entirely new landscapes of economic paradigms. Movements are forming that no longer participate in the current economic system. Technology is enabling people to manipulate the system to their own ends. 
The movement towards a new system, a system where producers and consumers are no longer the same thing, where jobs are no longer obligatory, is already in progress.
As our very survival depends on our employment, it is critical that this transition happens from the ground up.


Wednesday, 26 June 2013

From Resource Control to Digital Revolution


What is politics? Is it the influence of the public on governing policies or the influence of state on public affairs? It could be argued that in a democracy it is the former, and in a dictatorship it is the latter. In essence though, they are two sides of the same coin. Both infer a separation between the people and the government.

It seems that the hierarchy which separates the majority from a governing elite has always existed in human society, in some form or another. From tribal leaders to superpower governments, stratification of power seems to be an inevitability in human social structure.

How did this come about? Is it that humans are easily led, happy to outsource authority? Perhaps there is some element of this. Psychology of control no doubt plays a part in the rise to power. However, it’s evident that the roots of authority stem significantly from resource acquisition.

From Jeff Vail’s “A Theory of Power” which can be downloaded at his site:

“When one farmer was able to grow more than his neighbours, he would have surplus to distribute, and these gifts created social obligations. Farmers would compete to grow the greatest surplus, because this surplus equated to social standing, wives, and power. The result of larger surpluses was that there was more food to support a greater population, and the labors of this greater population would, in turn, produce more surplus. The fact that surplus production equates to power, across all scales, is the single greatest driver of growth in hierarchy.”http://www.jeffvail.net/2005/03/theory-of-power-online.html

Growth, by definition, is continuous. Acquisition leads to accumulation and with this comes more power to accumulate even more. Today, we see how resource acquisition and accumulation have reached their conclusion with an unrivaled superpower with the United States.

And we see, as their accumulation reaches global limits (assisted by peak oil and a destruction of the global economy), as does their power.

At its essence, the goal of governance is, and always has been, the allocation of resources. Ideologies and philosophies may masquerade as politics, but they are just distractions from this true purpose. These philosophies serve as a convenient illusion to the public who believe they are influencing public policies, when really it’s all just about the resources.

However, in recent years, this is becoming more obvious. The masses are realizing that the influence of powerful lobbying groups on governance is no small coincidence. They are seeing wealth drain from society into the hands of minorities - the rich elite - and they are seeing how accumulation is self-perpetuating. Resource allocation is at the core of this and it is forcing people to question the validity and sustainability of the political system we call capitalism.

Politics in the Connected Age


The internet has been hailed as a “technological liberator” for its role in raising the profile of these oppressive forces. We saw this take on significance first with Twitter’s influence in the Arab spring, where it assisted in informing and mobilizing those directly involved as well as raising awareness to the wider world.

The effectiveness of awareness is gaining prominence as the internet speeds up the process and gives us more opportunities to study its effects. A recent scientific finding found that there is a “tipping point” of ideas which is lower than we might have expected. These revolutions, although short lived, may owe their success to the reaching of this threshold. 

“Scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have found that when just 10 percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will always be adopted by the majority of the society. The scientists, who are members of the Social Cognitive Networks Academic Research Center (SCNARC) at Rensselaer, used computational and analytical methods to discover the tipping point where a minority belief becomes the majority opinion. The finding has implications for the study and influence of societal interactions ranging from the spread of innovations to the movement of political ideals.”

http://phys.org/news/2011-07-minority-scientists-ideas.html

This concept of “minority rules” is consequential for all those who want to further their agenda. Of course, this becomes useful not only to the oppressed – but to the oppressors themselves.

Evgeny Morozov has written and talked extensively about this. His TED talk, “How the Net aids dictatorships”, explains how authoritarian administrations use the openness of the internet for their own advantage.

As well as simply spying on citizens with what is essentially “open source intelligence”, dictatorships can also manipulate the interaction for their own ends. Rebellions can be quashed by simply planting seeds of distrust within the participants. Also, involving the population can serve other, more subtle purposes, such as allowing them to “share the blame for failed policies” or diverting focus towards less significant issues.

http://www.ted.com/talks/evgeny_morozov_is_the_internet_what_orwell_feared.html

A Harvard study echoed these sentiments albeit not so strongly, remarking that the management of information was secondary to the role of the internet in organizing political movements.

From Political Change in the Digital Age: The Fragility and Promise of Online Organizing:
“…policymakers and scholars that have been most optimistic about the impact of digital tools have over-emphasized the role of information, specifically access to alternative and independent sources of information and unfiltered access to the Internet. We argue, in contrast, that more attention should be paid to the means of overcoming the difficulties of online organisation in the face of authoritarian governments in an increasingly digital geopolitical environment.

"The Internet has an important role in increasing information sharing, access to alternative platforms, and allowing new voices to join political debates. The Internet will continue to serve these functions, even with state pushback, as activists devise ways around state online restrictions. Conditions that contribute to success are likely determined not by the given technological tool, but by human skill and facility in using the networks that are being mobilized. … It is less clear how far online organizing and digital communities will be allowed to push states toward drastic political change and greater democratization, especially in states where offline restrictions to civic and political organisation are severe. As scholars, we ought to focus our attention on the people involved and their competencies in using digitally-mediated tools to organize themselves and their fellow citizens, whether as flash mobs or through sustained social movements or organisations, rather than the flow of information as such."http://dash.harvard.edu/handle/1/4609956

So then came the Occupy movement. From the frustration and passion, both new, and updated modes of politics were born – many of these which could not have existed in the pre-internet age. These modes, or “micro-political modules”, are, in true peer to peer fashion – reproducible and open. They can be integrated piece by piece into current political systems without requiring disruptive overhauls to the political process. Yet overall, their potential to shift political landscapes is substantial.

Some examples;
  • The permanent occupation provided a physical anchor for virtual supporters.
  • Acting as a “leaderless” movement increased interest in peer-run organisations and open initiatives.
  • The General Assemblies became examples of open democracy out in public.
  • The movement’s open source ideology allowed observers to become participants by not restricting control of the methodology – allowing anyone to get involved and connect to the movement with their own particular angle – ie Occupy Energy.
  • Of course the whole endeavor has been run from the beginning with a huge emphasis on social media. An ever growing network was was used for raising awareness, sharing resources, documenting experiences, and sharing stories – and not just by the movement themselves but outsiders as well.
  • Add to these mainly philosophical modules a whole host of physical modules, such as street medics, legal teams, free kitchens, campsites, and street infrastructure, reignited a previously forgotten confidence in community, and helped push the realization that if we come together and help each other, we can be extremely sufficient.

Read more about this module based political “API” here:http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/11/a-guide-to-the-occupy-wall-street-api-or-why-the-nerdiest-way-to-think-about-ows-is-so-useful/248562/

Effecting Change


Activism is one thing, but actually influencing policies and progressing democratic systems is quite another. How can the interconnection afforded by the internet allow people to really achieve any degree of control over the systems of politics? How can the people hope to have a chance of out-competing hierarchy in an environment where resource accumulation rewards itself? Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation believes that this interconnection can give rise to significant global coordination which will, in time, totally out-compete traditional politics.

"If you observe an occupation, you see a community that is producing its politics autonomously, not following hierarchical or authoritarian political movements with a pre-ordained program; you see for-benefit institutions in charge of the provisioning of the occupiers (food, healthcare), and the creation of an ethical economy around it (such as Occupy’s Street Vendor Project). This is prefigurative of a new form of society in which the commons is at the core of value creation; these commons’ are maintained by non-profit institutions, and the livelihoods are guaranteed through an ethical economy. Of course there are historical precedents, but what is new is the extraordinary organisational, mobilization and co-learning potential of their networks. Occupy works as an open API with modules, such as ‘protest camping’, ‘general assemblies’, which can be used as templates and modified by all, without the need for central leadership. We can now have global coordination and mutual alignment of a multitude of small-group dynamics, and this requires a new type of leadership. The realization of historical moment of Peak Hierarchy, the moment in which distributed networks asymmetrically challenge vertical institutions in a way they could not do before, forces social movements to look for new ways of governance…
“We have reached a point in history, a true turning point, where a new form of social organisation, starts to outcompete hierarchy.”

http://blog.p2pfoundation.net/from-peak-oil-to-peak-hierarchy/2008/07/27

As technology moves forward, the internet is becoming much more than just the sharing of information. It is now facilitating increasingly complex applications – functional systems of connectivity which empower and transform people.

Where such applications take on political significance is when they empower people to re-take control of resources. We are seeing this gather momentum most notably in the field of “collaborative consumption” – which is: “a social and economic system driven by network technologies that enable the sharing and exchange of all kinds of assets from spaces to skills to cars in ways and on a scale never possible before.” We are also seeing a growing number of non-profits, coordinated through the internet, which aim to outcompete traditional enterprises with their for-benefit - rather than for-profit - models.

Politics = Resources


And so it comes back to resources. He who controls the resources, may control the masses. But the internet is turning this around. Our connectedness lends itself to speed and efficiency, awareness, and most importantly, to community.

In the end, the shift away from hierarchy is inevitable. Benefit driven people will use the tools of connectivity to build more resilient communities, coming together to build alternative models of resource management. They will find ways around state sponsored restrictions, grass roots knowledge increasingly trumping media manipulation. Globally and locally connected communities, will, eventually, out-compete traditional hierarchy.

Ideas, many based around fairness, will reach their tipping points with accelerating frequency, forcing the elite to concede their power little by little. As the public grows educated and informed, the traditional tricks of authority will lose their potency.

It may seem that there is a long way to go. But the connected public has ingenuity and adaptability on their side.
“Government is slow. Change is fast, government is slow, and the gap between the two fills with lost opportunity. Soon this gap is going to be larger than the positive functions of government, as things like spectrum regulation and inane copyright and patent law strangle progress in increasingly vital areas. Vested interests co-opt the collective power of the people and use it to line their own pockets at the expense of all, and as the network documents what is wrong, but the polling booths offer no remedy, cracks will begin to show.

In America you can see it around medical marijuana. In Sweden, it’s around copyright. In China, it’s about free speech and free access to information. In all cases, the problem is that governments are failing to adapt to the current conditions. People flow like water, but the governments stand like stones.” Vinay Gupta

http://vinay.howtolivewiki.com/blog/global/whats-going-to-happen-in-the-future-670

More info

http://p2pfoundation.net/Category:Politics
http://techliberation.com/2011/01/04/book-review-the-net-delusion-by-evgeny-morozov/

This post was originally published in Spirit of the Times Magazine.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Guns Might Be the Least of Our Worries


Whatever side of the gun debate you sit, it's important to remember why this is such a potent issue.

It's not so much that guns kill, it's that they empower. Weapons have always elevated humans above other species and their peers, but none quite so much as the gun. And the ability to instantly kill without fail has been a game changer in our social order.

This empowerment goes a long way in shaping our entire civilisation. In some countries, it is used to completely control the population in fear, in others, the same idea but a more subtle effect, we are forced to pay taxes and obey the law for threat of arrest at gunpoint.

Guns tip the balance of power because of the ability they afford us. That it's the ability to kill is in no way insignificant, but the ability could be anything.

They are an enabling technology.

Enabling technology elevates individuals and shifts society's order. In the past, this has been fairly limited to weapons; guns, nuclear missiles, military hardware. But access to life sustaining knowledge and technology such as drugs and agriculture have also driven global politics and had significant impact on the lives of many.

Now, as we hit the knee of technology's exponential curve, we are likely to encounter an increasing number of new enabling technologies. What will this mean for society?

Given their empowering nature, we would do well to be vigilant about who has access to certain technologies. Elites will likely work to prevent or restrict general population access (after dropping the ball with the internet) as much as possible. They will also attempt to commandeer certain technologies for their own purposes, surveillance, resource acquisition, health (immortality?) benefits or other, not-thought-of powers. This already happens, but its effects will become much more significant.

Imagine soldiers upgraded to be bullet proof, or have the ability to heal themselves. Arial drones are already causing havoc for the United States. It won't be long before we have robots everywhere, monitoring us, or even preventing us from performing certain actions - which might be unjustly deemed crimes. What if a bird was not a bird but a bomb? What if a tiny fly flew into your ear and injected you with an RFID chip? These technologies are extremely close - and most are already here.

There is of course the threat of these technologies falling into the hands of terrorists, murderers and psychopaths. We can go a certain way to preventing this with controls (like gun control), but what's stopping a criminal getting hold of a black market 3D printed gun? When the empowering nature of the technology can itself enable the undermining of such controls - what good are they?

Albert Einstein said: It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.”

As the creation of enabling technology escalates, it seems our humanity is simultaneously declining.

Thursday, 31 May 2012

The Ethical Implications of Dismantling the Planet Mercury


George Dvorsky's article about How to Build a Dyson Sphere was absolutely fascinating and I feel the concept deserves much further exploration.

"By enveloping the sun with a massive array of solar panels, humanity would graduate to a Type 2 Kardashev civilization capable of utilising nearly 100% of the sun's energy output. A Dyson sphere would provide us with more energy than we would ever know what to do with"

Now, this is the kind of ridiculous, overambitious idea that that really captures my imagination. It would be a hyper structure, like the Hoover dam but on steroids, where we would create unfathomable devastation, calling on the skills and labour of thousands, enduring the harshest that nature can throw at us in order to tame it - all in the name of energy. Where the Hoover dam transformed a country, this would transform our entire solar system. But it's not without cost. And that's what I want to discuss.

In order to get the materials to build this monolith of human achievement, we're going to have to make some sacrifices. Namely, the planet Mercury.

But what are the ethical implications of dismantling an entire planet for our own purposes?

One might argue that it's an otherwise useless planet, a burning chunk of iron and rock with no desirable real estate or even aesthetic value. But does that make it Ok to take it apart for spares?

What will future generations think about dismantling the planet Mercury? They will probably be a lot more conscious about the implications of such vast resource exploitation, given that they will be growing up in a world full of pollution and big empty holes where coal and precious metals used to be.

In today's world, these kinds of concerns are rarely considered, or if they are, they are still ignored if there is money to be made or amenities are required. But the people of the future will have their say, either way. This will bring the debate into the the public arena, allowing countless others to raise topics and concerns that may never have been thought about - issues that could have untold implications on the project.

Legalities


Mercury of course raises another issue that may throw a spanner in the works, that of legal rights. Who owns Mercury? Does anyone? Even if someone did own it - this might not stop someone who has the facilities to get there from taking it from someone who can't. 

We could put it to a democratic vote, involving the whole world, but could you imagine the political nightmare a worldwide vote would be? Coordinating the political process across different cultures, legal systems, technology levels, ideologies, and population sizes would be a logistical task comparable to dismantling a planet.

How Decisions are Made in the Real World


At the end of the day whether or not something is ethical has very little bearing on whether it goes ahead. What matters is the decision making mechanism of the time.

Right now, our decisions are based on finances. What is wrong or right is always superseded by the potential to make money, save money, or the liability to cost money. If it would be profitable to dismantle the planet Mercury, all it takes is someone with enough power to get the idea into their head and it will happen. I'm not sure that currently, there is any business or government in the world with enough money or resources to put this idea into practise yet, but that may change in the future.

Perhaps by the time a Dyson sphere becomes feasible, society will be running on a different modus operandi. Perhaps there will be a different currency other than money, something else that holds value but is traded in a similar way. If this currency was directly related to the Dyson sphere, for example, if it was energy, then this might also drive the Dyson sphere's production and supersede any moral concerns about dismantling planets. If the currency was something else, such as art or community help, then production might not be pursued as the need for the Dyson sphere wouldn't be reconciled by the needs of the people. But the project will always remain a possibility as long as energy holds value, and it probably always will, the question would be how much.

Practical Implications


As well as the ethical and legal implications, we would also have to consider the practical ones, as these may also have ethical implications of their own. For example, what about the effect on the gravity of the whole solar system? If something went wrong, the Earth could end up falling into the sun or flying off into space - these are pretty serious ethical concerns! Of course there would need to be some extremely accurate calculations before we attempted to commence resource extraction of this scale.

A Responsibility

After all the negative ethical dilemmas brought about when deciding whether or not to dismantle Mercury, It could very well be argued that it is actually our responsibility to uplift humanity, to alleviate suffering. That it's humanity's purpose to advance our technology, our civilisation, our place in the universe. To do this, we need to use all the resources we have available to us. It would be unethical not to.

The question would then be, what will be the return on this mother of all investments?

Monday, 21 May 2012

Corrolation, Causation, and Prediction in a World of Data


 As image memes gain popularity on social networks and forums, they are fast securing their place as a defining cultural aspect of the early tweenies...(unlike the word "tweenies", thankfully).

Most of these images are humourous, as this is great for virality, many are profound, some just witty nuggets of wisdom.

And then there is the propaganda. Intended to illicit an emotional response to a political idea, propaganda memes are used to affirm or reaffirm a political bias or dogma. They are often aimed at a very particular niche. If you have any particular political or activist persuasion, you will no doubt have seens endless streams of these one-sided affirmations.

At best, they are intellectual masturbation. At worst, it's pseudo-scientific social engineering.

The worst form of this that I have seen is data correlation inferences. Just because something happened on a certain date does not mean it caused something else that happened around the same time. It is completely irrational to infer causation from a correlation, and most people are subconciously aware of this, they will just choose to ignore it if the correlation fits in with their beliefs. So this form of non-sequitur is becoming an increasingly utilised mechanism for these pieces.

It is a shame that this kind of irrationality is being entertained, not least because data correlations can be valuable analysis tools. Correlations can be useful indicators for understanding social dynamics, as long as it is acknowledged that this evidence is purely circumstantial.

Alone, correlations are not proof , but they can reveal vital clues about possible causation.

They can also be powerful in assisting predictions. The more we know, the more correlations we will uncover, and the more we can use the circumstantial correlations of the past to make reasonable conjectures about the future.

As Twitter and Google and other web-enabled data collectors increase both the range and volume of their publically available data, the more correlations become available to anyone with the inclination to look for them. Using tools like PowerPivot, our prediction capabilities become ever more reliable, and with them, the possibilities of social engineering reach new and increasingly influential heights.