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In Carl Sagan’s 1969 article “Mr. X,” the physicist wrote of his marijuana experience, summing it up most colorfully this way: “When I closed my eyes, I was stunned to find that there was a movie going on the inside of my eyelids.” Dude!

A movie going on inside the head is one metaphor the Australian philosopher David Chalmers uses to try to describe that inscrutable thing called consciousness. He comes up with several other analogies in a Reddit AMA about the hard problem. Below are some of the more accessible exchanges. 


Question:

In your TED talk you metaphorically characterized consciousness as “a movie playing inside your head,” and more comically in an IAI video as “that annoying thing between naps”. Do you have or have you come across any other metaphors of consciousness that you find fruitful when trying to get across just exactly what consciousness is?

David Chalmers:

um, the virtual reality inside our head? (probably better than a movie!) the thing mary wouldn’t know about from inside her black and white room, despite knowing all about the physical processes in the brain? the thing that makes us different from zombies or robots without an inner life? the first-person point of view?


Question:

When we talk about the dangers of AI, we may be talking about the danger of having a self-driven car and its decision making, or a more general AI and whether it will lead to an AI+, and ultimately to a larger danger concerning all of us. I am interested when philosophers (specifically) talk about the imminent dangers of the second type of AI, based on recent achievements (general Atari game playing, beating Go champion, usage in medical environments etc) and my question is: What do you think should be the relationship between academic philosophers, who focus on how imminent the AI danger is, and the actual engineering behind the aforementioned achievements? Should academic philosophers incorporate into their arguments what are the specific modelling techniques or search algorithms (eg monte carlo tree search, back-propagation, deep neural nets) and how they work when they argue about how close to the possible danger we are? If not, is the imminent part argued in a satisfactory way in your opinion?

David Chalmers:

i don’t know if philosophers are the best judges of just how imminent human-level AI or AI+ is. in my own work on the topic (e.g., the paper on the singularity) i’ve stressed that a lot of the philosophical issues are fairly independent of timeframe. of course it’s true that the question of imminence is highly relevant for practical purposes. i think that to assess it one has to pay close attention to the current state of AI as well as related fields: e.g. in the current situation, to try to figure out just what deep learning can and can’t do, what are the main obstacles, and what are the prospects for overcoming them. but the fact is that even experts in this area have widely varied views about the timeframe and are wary of making confident predictions. i chaired a panel on just this topic at the recent asilomar conference on beneficial AI, with eight leading AI researchers, and few of them were willing to make confident predictions (though consensus high-confidence area seems to be somewhere between 20 and 100 years). so i think that we should think about and plan for human-level AI in a way that is fairly robust over different timeframes.


Question:

Do you watch Westworld? It’s an amazing TV show that covers topics like AI and consciousness. If yes, what do you think about it?

David Chalmers:

i love westworld. it’s really well-done. i do think its reliance on julian jaynes’ long-discarded theory of consciousness (that it involves realizing the voices in your head are your own) is disappointing, though perhaps it’s somewhat cinematic. in general i think although the show presents itself as a meditation on consciousness in AIs and others, i think it’s much more of an exploration of free will. it seems to me that the AIs in the show are pretty obviously conscious, but there are real questions of what sort if any of free will they might have, given the way their actions are grounded in routines. and the “journey” of the AIs seems more like a journey toward free will and perhaps toward greater self-consciousness than toward consciousness per se. of course there are also very rich materials in the show for thinking about the ethics of AI.


Question:

Do you think any substantial progress on the hard problem of consciousness will be made in time for the debate on AI rights? If by that time we still haven’t made any progress on the hard problem of consciousness, how should humanity value the life of an “apparently sentient” AI, especially relative to a human life?

David Chalmers:

i hope so, but there are no guarantees. on the other hand, we can have an informed discussion about the distribution of consciousness even without solving the hard problem. we’re doing that currently in the case of consciousness in non-human animals, where most people (including me) agree that there is strong evidence of consciousness in many soecies. i think it’s conceivable we could get into a situation like that with AI, though there would no doubt be many hard cases. i do think that when an AI is “apparently sentient” based on behavior, we should adopt a principle of assuming it is conscious, unless there’s some very good reason not to. and if it’s conscious in the way that we are, i think prima facie its life should have value comparable to ours (though perhaps there will also be all sorts of differences that make a moral difference).


Question:

Do you think sustained consciousness will be worth it without the pleasures of the body?

David Chalmers:

i hope we don’t have to choose!•

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In the Digital Age, robots aren’t easy to identify.

That’s a problem since some, including Bill Gates, have recently suggested America tax them. On the face of it, that seems like a good idea, but the picture gets fuzzier the longer you stare at the situation.

Consider Uber, for instance. The company, using just algorithms, disrupted the taxi industry, undermining solid working-class jobs and replacing them with piecemeal precariousness, while employing very few workers in its own middleman function. Because it doesn’t utilize what we’d traditionally define as robots, it wouldn’t be taxable by the Gates standard. Even if we classify these computer systems as robotics and wanted to levy algorithm-centric companies like Uber–or Netflix or Amazon or Spotify–their effect on the economy, while real, is also amorphous. 

Let’s say now that driverless becomes realistic within a decade. This capability would remove Uber’s freelance drivers from behind the wheel. Because autonomous cars are considered robotics, they could be taxed, which would create more resources for education and social-welfare programs. But in that scenario, couldn’t Uber just delay its transition until a more politically advantageous moment? That would be a lose-lose outcome from a purely economic viewpoint, since companies in other countries would likely move forward with this innovation and outstrip its U.S.-based counterpart.

Even with actual robots, it’s not so simple. For instance: Are Roombas taxed? We don’t know if they’re actually eliminating jobs or just toil. I don’t have any good answer in regards to this problem, but I don’t know that anyone else, Gates included, currently has one either.

In a smart Financial Times piece, philosopher Luciano Floridi cuts to the heart of the matter, arguing that seemingly easy answers to the situation just birth far more thorny questions. An excerpt:

We are laying down foundations for the mature information societies of the near future, so we need new ethical frameworks to determine which forms of artificial agency we are happy to see flourishing in them. Against this background, the EU’s initiative provokes mixed feelings: excitement at the aspiration but disappointment at the implementation. There is too much fantasy and too little realism.

Consider two key issues: jobs and responsibilities. Robots replace human workers. Retraining unemployed people was never easy, but it is more challenging now that technological disruption is spreading so rapidly, widely and unpredictably. There will be many new forms of employment in other corners of the infosphere — think of how many people have opened virtual shops on eBay. But new and different skills will be needed. More education and a universal basic income may mitigate the impact of robotics on the labour market.

Society will need more resources. Unfortunately, robots do not pay taxes. And more profitable companies are unlikely to pay enough extra taxes to compensate for the loss of revenues. So robots cause a higher demand for taxpayers’ money and a lower supply of it.

How can one get out of this tailspin? The report correctly identifies the problem. But its original recommendation of a robo tax on companies that employ robots — a proposal that did not survive into the final text approved the parliament — may not be feasible, for what counts as a robot? It may also work as a disincentive to innovation.•

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Speaking of bigoted public businessmen, not even the Andrew “Dice” Jackson currently in the White House could hold a taillight to Henry Ford, who was such a virulent anti-Semite that he actually published a newspaper to disseminate his hateful views. The Model-T magnate purchased the Dearborn Independent in 1919, and until it was sued out of existence eight years later, he helped to fan the flames of intolerance that eventually led to the greatest tragedy of the twentieth century. At least, though, he never became President.

Retro racism isn’t the only aspect of Ford’s worldview that’s ascendant once more. Like today’s Libertarian sea-steaders and deep-pocketed New Zealand zealots, the industrialist dreamed of skirting rules and regulations and building a haven according to his narrow worldview far from the madding crowd. Fordlândia, as he modestly called it, was established in 1928 in the Amazon Rainforest to create a cheap supply of rubber for automobile parts.

It wasn’t long before the locals hired for the project bristled under the incredibly severe lifestyle requirements laid down by the plutocrat. Open revolt began. These uprisings and poor planning ultimately forced the settlement into failure by 1934, when it was abandoned.

From Simon Romero in the New York Times:

From the start, ineptitude and tragedy plagued the venture, meticulously documented in a book by the historian Greg Grandin that I read on the boat as it made its way up the Tapajós. Disdainful of experts who could have advised them on tropical agriculture, Ford’s men planted seeds of questionable value and let leaf blight ravage the plantation.

Despite such setbacks, Ford constructed an American-style town, which he wanted inhabited by Brazilians hewing to what he considered American values.

Employees moved into clapboard bungalows — designed, of course, in Michigan — some of which are still standing. Streetlamps illuminated concrete sidewalks. Portions of these footpaths persist in the town, near red fire hydrants, in the shadow of decaying dance halls and crumbling warehouses.

“It turns out Detroit isn’t the only place where Ford produced ruins,” said Guilherme Lisboa, 67, the owner of a small inn called the Pousada Americana.

Beyond producing rubber, Ford, an avowed teetotaler, anti-Semite and skeptic of the Jazz Age, clearly wanted life in the jungle to be more transformative. His American managers forbade consumption of alcohol, while promoting gardening, square dancing and readings of the poetry of Emerson and Longfellow.

Going even further in Ford’s quest for utopia, so-called sanitation squads operated across the outpost, killing stray dogs, draining puddles of water where malaria-transmitting mosquitoes could multiply and checking employees for venereal diseases.

“With a surety of purpose and incuriosity about the world that seems all too familiar, Ford deliberately rejected expert advice and set out to turn the Amazon into the Midwest of his imagination,” Mr. Grandin, the historian, wrote in his account of the town.

These days, the ruins of Fordlândia stand as testament to the folly of trying to bend the jungle to the will of man.•

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Was planning on stopping by my favorite bookstore on Wednesday or Thursday to pick up a copy of Walter Scheidel’s The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century. Just as an extra nudge, the author published an article on the topic today in The Atlantic. As you might have guessed from the subtitle, it is not a hopeful piece. “With the rarest of exceptions, great reductions in inequality were only ever brought forth in sorrow,” the author writes.

No candidate was particularly honest about the economy and wealth inequality in the recent Presidential election. In one debate during the Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton argued that the free markets had allowed post-war America to create an upward trajectory for those seeking a solid middle-class existence. Well, not exactly.

The free market was important, sure, but it can’t be forgotten that progressive tax rates reached 90% during the Eisenhower Administration, a figure even your average liberal today would say is draconian, and that money was redistributed via investment in those who had less, often through education, social welfare and infrastructure development. Without flourishes from both capitalism and socialism, the level playing field that inched into the 1970s never would have existed for more than two decades. And if you remove World War II from the equation, it never would have happened at all. 

Scheidel doesn’t relate his thoughts on the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era in this article, though hopefully he does in his book.

The opening:

Calls to make America great again hark back to a time when income inequality receded even as the economy boomed and the middle class expanded. Yet it is all too easy to forget just how deeply this newfound equality was rooted in the cataclysm of the world wars.

The pressures of total war became a uniquely powerful catalyst of equalizing reform, spurring unionization, extensions of voting rights, and the creation of the welfare state. During and after wartime, aggressive government intervention in the private sector and disruptions to capital holdings wiped out upper-class wealth and funneled resources to workers; even in countries that escaped physical devastation and crippling inflation, marginal tax rates surged upward. Concentrated for the most part between 1914 and 1945, this “Great Compression” (as economists call it) of inequality took several more decades to fully run its course across the developed world until the 1970s and 1980s, when it stalled and began to go into reverse.

This equalizing was a rare outcome in modern times but by no means unique over the long run of history. Inequality has been written into the DNA of civilization ever since humans first settled down to farm the land. Throughout history, only massive, violent shocks that upended the established order proved powerful enough to flatten disparities in income and wealth. They appeared in four different guises: mass-mobilization warfare, violent and transformative revolutions, state collapse, and catastrophic epidemics. Hundreds of millions perished in their wake, and by the time these crises had passed, the gap between rich and poor had shrunk.•

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The main reason I preferred Hillary Clinton to Bernie Sanders was simple math. 

In addition to his impossible pledge of America no longer having the highest incarceration rate of Western nations by the end of his first term, Sanders based his extraordinary spending plans on fanciful economic growth numbers (5.3%) that he couldn’t possibly deliver. That promise made Sanders policies seem less debt-heavy than they were, a dishonest way of doing business.

Although Donald Trump is promising a smaller if still out-of-reach 3.0-3.5%, he’s doing something the Vermont Senator would have never done: Ordering the Council of Economic Advisers to backfill all of its projections at his unrealistic rate. That intellectually deceptive gaming, he hopes, will be the smoke and mirrors he needs to cover the exorbitant cost of the tax cuts he plans for the nation’s highest earners. 

From Catherine Rampell at the Washington Post:

Astonishingly, the White House still hasn’t released details for any of the major economic initiatives Trump promised during the campaign (a “terrific” Obamacare replacement, a top-to-bottom tax overhaul, massive infrastructure investment). But thanks to recent leaks about the administration’s economic book-cooking, we at least know that whatever Trump ultimately proposes will be very, very expensive.

After the election, the Trump transition team began the long, arduous process of putting together the presidential budget. As is always the case, it worked with the (non-political) career staffers at the Council of Economic Advisers.

Normally this process starts by asking the CEA staff to estimate baseline economic growth under current policies. These professionals then build on this baseline to forecast how the president’s proposals will affect the overall economy, as well as budget deficits.

The end results are often more optimistic than what independent forecasters predict — the White House is factoring in new policies it believes are pro-growth, after all — but not wildly so. The numbers still need to be credible.

Like I said, that’s how things normally work. Not this time around.

As the Wall Street Journal first reported (and as I’ve independently confirmed through my own sources), the Trump transition team instead ordered CEA staffers to predict sustained economic growth of 3 to 3.5 percent. The staffers were then directed to backfill all the other numbers in their models to produce these growth rates.•

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Nothing pleases me more than the smart-stupid tweets from the account of Jose Canseco, which serves as its own parody. The former baseball player and amateur chemist has, it would seem, recently become aware of the Second Machine Age and has addressed its arrival in the most dystopian 140-character bursts possible. 

In “No, Robots Aren’t Killing the American Dream,” the New York Times has a more sober Editorial Board take on the topic that gets a lot right, but it skates over some troubling points. The Times is correct in saying that robotics is good for a society’s wealth in the aggregate and that it should be a boon for all if robust public policy is done properly. But it makes that seem too simple.

“The response in previous eras was quite different,” the op-ed declares, suggesting yesteryear’s politicians were nimble with answers to the challenges that attended the Industrial Age. Not so. The rise of Labor Unions was born (quite literally) of blood, and the G.I. Bill, which the essay lauds, was labeled as “welfare” by those on the right who wanted to kill it. 

The path to a fairer country was always a jagged one, and Times also fails to mention, perhaps most importantly, that the pace of change is poised to be far faster now as robotics matures, a dynamic that will put further stress on even good policy. Additionally, thinking of automation in a vacuum neglects an important part of the contemporary Labor story, as Internet companies with few employees have been able to disrupt industries formerly full of steady middle-class work. That’s another ingredient missing from the twentieth-century’s struggles.

Yes, policy is the answer. No, it never was so simple in our capitalist society and won’t be now.

An excerpt:

And yet, the data indicate that today’s fear of robots is outpacing the actual advance of robots. If automation were rapidly accelerating, labor productivity and capital investment would also be surging as fewer workers and more technology did the work. But labor productivity and capital investment have actually decelerated in the 2000s.

While breakthroughs could come at any time, the problem with automation isn’t robots; it’s politicians, who have failed for decades to support policies that let workers share the wealth from technology-led growth.

The response in previous eras was quite different.

When automation on the farm resulted in the mass migration of Americans from rural to urban areas in the early decades of the 20th century, agricultural states led the way in instituting universal public high school education to prepare for the future. At the dawn of the modern technological age at the end of World War II, the G.I. Bill turned a generation of veterans into college graduates.

When productivity led to vast profits in America’s auto industry, unions ensured that pay rose accordingly.

Corporate efforts to keep profits high by keeping pay low were countered by a robust federal minimum wage and time-and-a-half for overtime.

Fair taxation of corporations and the wealthy ensured the public a fair share of profits from companies enriched by government investments in science and technology.

One troubling aspect of globalization is that those not adversely affected by the flow of international trade and actually helped by it (most Americans) are often opposed to a smaller world because of prejudice or some other irrational fear.

While financial concerns in the Rust Belt may have put Trump over the top (along with Russian hacking and FBI machinations), the bigoted President’s voters enjoy an overall higher household income than the average U.S. resident. Many were turning the lever for something else, and that was nationalism, which is sadly something most dear to many among us.

In an excellent Five Questions interview, Lawrence Summers discusses the strictly economic repercussions of globalization. He acknowledges that while he thinks the process still works in the big picture, our bumpy ride is just beginning, meaning we’ll need to strengthen “systems of social insurance,” something which seems to not be on the horizon in the U.S. Sooner or later, though, people will tire of bread and Kardashians.

An excerpt:

Question:

Finally, a title from last year. Richard Baldwin’s The Great Convergence (2016). Please give us a precis.

Lawrence Summers:

It’s the newest of the books and it’s a very powerful description of the newest phase of globalization. Two ideas about this newest phase of globalization that Baldwin emphasizes are hugely important.

The first is that we used to think very much in terms of trade in goods—some country exports washing machines, some other country exports dryers. Increasingly, goods are produced with global supply chains. Part of a good is produced in one country, part of a good is produced in another country and assembly takes place in a third country. So trade is part of the production process, whether it takes place within a multi-national corporation or between companies. Trade is part of production through supply chains.

The other idea that is emphasized is the role of trade and globalization in sharing knowledge. Baldwin uses a very powerful analogy. He says it’s one thing for a soccer team in one country to play against a soccer team in another country. It’s a very different thing if the coach in one country starts to coach teams in many countries and therefore promotes convergence. Baldwin argues that the second type of openness may be more problematic than the first. And, increasingly, trade is taking that form.

Question:

Please explain the challenges to politics and economic policy presented by this “great convergence” he describes.

Lawrence Summers:

The challenge is that there are likely to be more winners associated with global convergence, but there are also likely to be more losers and more potential volatility. In this latest stage of globalization, ideas can be traded and support production elsewhere, leading to less identification of entrepreneurship with location. The example I like to give is when George Eastman invented the instamatic camera, he got rich and Rochester, New York, where he founded his company, had a strong middle class for several generations. When Steve Jobs made equally powerful innovations, involving the iPhone and the iPad, the result was that he got very, very rich and there was an increase in the demand for labor globally, primarily in Asia, with no similarly broad increase in local wealth.

Question:

In recent years, you have been sounding an alarm about the role of globalization in contributing to local dislocations and inequality. What caused your worries and what are your solutions for globalization going forward.

Lawrence Summers:

I’ve said, for some years, that global integration won’t work if it means local disintegration. Unfortunately, that proved prescient.•

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  • The meek were promised they would inherit the earth, but policies change.
  • Trump’s Administration, fueled by Exxon and coal, is eager to deregulate as many environmental protections as possible and embrace what will be the death of us. The willful ignorance of the ruling party may not kill off all of humanity–not immediately, anyway–but you better have a large bankroll or be especially lucky if you want a chance at persisting in life.
  • I wrote last month on Evan Osnos’ New Yorker article about members of the financial elite planning on escaping a large-scale calamity, readying themselves for the Big Withdrawal from a disaster that will envelop their less-well-funded friends. Perhaps they’ll relocate away from the worst of a heating planet or maybe the wars that will likely attend higher mercury. Peter Thiel has a backup plan if the sociopath he enabled into the White House is the final nail in our coffin, but for most there will be no avoiding the creeping disaster of climate change.
  • It’s the worst possible moment for the most destructive American political uprising in memory. The earth is cracked and so are the people.

In “The Slow Confiscation of Everything,” an excellent Baffler essay, Laurie Penny analyzes how the meaning of end-of-world scenarios have changed through the ages and the political undertones of the current ruinous impulses among the masses. 

An excerpt:

This month, in a fascinating article for The New Yorker, Evan Osnos interviewed several multi-millionaires who are stockpiling weapons and building private bunkers in anticipation of what preppers glibly call “SHTF”—the moment when “Shit Hits The Fan.” Osnos observes that the reaction of Silicon Valley Svengalis, for example, is in stark contrast to previous generations of the super-rich, who saw it as a moral duty to give back to their community in order to stave off ignorance, want and social decline. Family names like Carnegie and Rockefeller are still associated with philanthropy in the arts and sciences. These people weren’t just giving out of the goodness of their hearts, but out of the sense that they too were stakeholders in the immediate future.

Cold War leaders came to the same conclusions in spite of themselves. The thing about Mutually Assured Destruction is that it is, well, mutual—like aid, or understanding, or masturbation. The idea is that the world explodes, or doesn’t, for everyone. How would the Cuban Missile Crisis have gone down, though, if the negotiating parties had known, with reasonable certainty, that they and their families would be out of reach of the fallout? 

Today’s apocalypse will be unevenly distributed. It’s not the righteous who will be saved, but the rich—at least for a while. The irony is that the tradition of apocalyptic thinking—religious, revolutionary or both—has often involved the fantasy of the destruction of class and caste. For many millenarian thinkers—including the puritans in whose pinched shoes the United States is still sneaking about—the rapture to come would be a moment of revelation, where all human sin would be swept away. Money would no longer matter. Poor and privileged alike would be judged on the riches of their souls. That fantasy is extrapolated in almost every modern disaster movie—the intrepid survivors are permitted to negotiate a new-made world in which all that matters is their grit, their courage, and their moral fiber. 

A great many modern political currents, especially the new right and the alt-right, are swept along by the fantasy of a great civilizational collapse which will wash away whichever injustice most bothers you, whether that be unfettered corporate influence, women getting above themselves, or both—any and every humiliation heaped on the otherwise empty tables of men who had expected more from their lives, economic humiliations that are served up and spat back out as racism, sexism, and bigotry. For these men, the end of the world sounds like a pretty good deal. More and more, it is only by imagining the end of the world that we can imagine the end of capitalism in its current form. This remains true even when it is patently obvious that civilizational collapse might only be survivable by the elite.•

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Newspapers could simply fade in America, unable to make the post-print transition, but what if they’re able to turn a profit from a much smaller readership and sustain themselves, even thrive, in that fashion?

If companies can monetize this tinier base without touching the masses, that could lead to the present polarization becoming permanently entrenched, a battle between those largely informed and those not nearly. You don’t have to ban books if most people aren’t reading, and you needn’t censor the news if enough eyes are closed.

On his blog, journalist Clive Davis posted a pertinent quote from Alistair Cooke, who wondered in 1952 how fascism would be received when newsprint was no longer prominent, when a Hitler wouldn’t even have to bother to wrest control of the presses. An excerpt:

We don’t know yet what the televising of the conventions will do to American politics, to elections, to the convention system itself. Some of us fear what one good demagogue with a fine voice and a rousing profile might do to the tyranny of popular government…. The only time that I ever saw Adolf Hitler was at a big rally outside the Brauhaus in Munich in 1931. I was a student who had only just heard of him. I got jammed in there and I watched him and soon felt my heart begin to pound. He was – all morals, politics aside – a superb performer. When he got to his peroration, he ended on a practically meaningless sentence. He shouted, “It is five minutes to twelve.” Nobody knew in his head what Hitler meant. But they felt they had been slapped on the back and a sword put in their hands. Hitler paid a direct physical compliment to the nervous system. I had to fight my frightened way out over fainting women and cheering, sobbing men.

I was glad the next morning to sit down and see it in the newspaper and know that most Germans could sit back and read, and judge the speech unmoved, unseduced by the physical experience of the thing itself. The next Hitler will not suffer from this restraint.•

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“You’re far better off affecting policy if you’re in the room” is a true statement in U.S. politics if we’re talking about your average conservative, liberal or moderate elected official, but it doesn’t extend to this moment in our history, with a reckless, dangerous, kleptocratic and, perhaps, traitorous sociopath in the White House.

In this case, it’s better to be outside the room, refusing to lend your reputation to an aspiring autocrat and raising your voice in protest, especially if you have a giant megaphone like Travis Kalanick or Elon Musk. The former did the morally correct thing in resigning from Trump’s economic advisory council, while the latter still sees this un-American Administration as a game he can officiate.

In a jaw-dropping BuzzFeed article, William Alden reports on political consultant Bradley Tusk’s work advising Silicon Valley titans on how to deal with a deeply irregular White House, encouraging them to ignore their consciences at all costs and do what’s best for the bottom line. It’s not shocking there are people so amoral they can’t see beyond business as usual even in these desperate times, but it is surprising to hear someone so publicly announce such a dicey position.

An excerpt:

Last week, he sent a memo to clients outlining a strategy for dealing with Trump, advising them to take a deep breath and think before engaging in political protest. Taking a stand against Trump might be the right choice, Tusk said, but only if it makes business sense.

“If the business demands immediate action, that’s one thing. If it’s your conscience, that’s another,” he wrote in the memo. Pressure from the media or even from employees, he added, wouldn’t necessarily be a sufficient reason to speak out, especially if it would create other problems.

The memo came just days after Tusk’s flagship client, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, resigned from President Trump’s economic advisory council. More than 200,000 Uber customers had deleted their accounts, according to The New York Times, after the ride-hailing company was accused of trying to undermine a taxi strike over Trump’s immigration order. Uber also came under pressure from employees and drivers, many of whom are immigrants. Kalanick’s resignation from the advisory council contrasted with the decision of another tech titan, Elon Musk, to stay there.

“This is one of those cases where the symbolism and the emotion on both sides of it took everything in such an incredible direction that people like Travis, like Elon, who are pretty well intentioned, and are saying, ‘O.K., let’s see if we can help things,’ got put in a really, really impossible position,” Tusk told BuzzFeed News. “And they’re handling it in different ways. But that’s kind of why I wrote this memo.”

Tusk said Kalanick made the right decision in this case, but he expressed regret that it had to be that way. “I think Travis joined the council for the right reasons,” Tusk said. “You’re far better off affecting policy if you’re in the room.”•

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Another repercussion of having a Constitution-shredding sociopath in the Oval Office is the possibility that a foundation will be laid for a long-term bifurcated government, with the executive branch and the intelligence community constantly angling to undermine one another. 

The concern of a “Deep State” in Washington or worries of the White House operating a shadow National Security Agency speak to the fathomless rift orchestrated by a deeply polarizing President. Intel leaks about the Administration’s involvement in Russia have become a deluge, spies are reportedly withholding information from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for fear they’ll be shared with the Kremlin and Trump has threatened a review of the intelligence community to be spearheaded by one of his billionaire buddies.

Agents anonymously leaking the truth may be the best bet to prevent the end of American democracy, but in the long term (should there be one) the intelligence community being put in a position where it has to go rogue could have serious ramifications. As Karl Rove said: Elections have consequences.

From “As Leaks Multiply, Fears of a ‘Deep State’ in America,” by Amanda Taub and Max Fisher of the New York Times:

Though the deep state is sometimes discussed as a shadowy conspiracy, it helps to think of it instead as a political conflict between a nation’s leader and its governing institutions.

That can be deeply destabilizing, leading both sides to wield state powers like the security services or courts against one another, corrupting those institutions in the process.

In Egypt, for instance, the military and security services actively undermined Mohamed Morsi, the country’s democratically elected Islamist president, contributing to the upheaval that culminated in his ouster in a 2013 coup.

Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has battled the deep state by consolidating power for himself and, after a failed coup attempt last year, conducting vast purges.

Though American democracy is resilient enough to resist such clashes, early hints of a conflict can be tricky to spot because some push and pull between a president and his or her agencies is normal.

In 2009, for instance, military officials used leaks to pressure the White House over what it saw as the minimal number of troops necessary to send to Afghanistan.

Leaks can also be an emergency brake on policies that officials believe could be ill-advised or unlawful, such as George W. Bush-era programs on warrantless wiretapping and the Abu Ghraib detention facility in Iraq.

“You want these people to be fighting like cats and dogs over what the best policy is, airing their views, making their case and then, when it’s over, accepting the decision and implementing it,” said Elizabeth N. Saunders, a George Washington University political scientist. “That’s the way it’s supposed to work.”

“Leaking is not new,” she said, “but this level of leaking is pretty unprecedented.”•

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Drain the swamp was the most obvious lie of the campaign that landed a kleptocrat in the White House. Did his supporters actually believe this line or was its acceptance just a rationalization to cover up other motivations?

I blogged last year about Alexandra Suich’s The Economist 1843 article which reported on the eye-popping conspicuous consumption of deep-pocketed Silicon Valley titans, which was an echo of the outrageous displays of wealth of Wall Street wizards just prior to the 2008 economic collapse that laid so many low. Especially egregious was Blackstone Group CEO Steve Schwarzman’s vomit-inducing 60th birthday party, which the Trumps attended, of course. The exclamation point at the end of the sentence occurred later when Schwarzman compared Obama raising taxes on the highest earners to Hitler invading Poland.

A decade later, with Schwarzman now chairing Trump’s Strategic and Policy Forum, his big 7-0 was welcomed with another circus-like bash replete with Gwen Stefani, fireworks, acrobats and even camels. The swamp may not be drained but the desert is a little barer.

In Amanda L. Gordon’s Bloomberg piece on the bash, Howard Marks of Oaktree Capital said, “It’s nice to have an evening where everybody’s happy, harmonious and upbeat.” Well, not everybody, with much of the camel-less country in the greatest state of unrest in 50 years.

The opening:

There were camels in the sand, a gondolier in the pool and a giant birthday cake in the shape of a Chinese temple — with Gwen Stefani on hand to help sing Happy Birthday at midnight.

Steve Schwarzman’s 70th birthday party in Palm Beach, Florida, on Saturday was another memorable affair, according to guests who attended. (The event was closed to the media.)

“You walked into what used to be the tennis court, and there was a balcony with trapeze artists,” said Larry Gagosian, the art dealer. “The level of detail and creativity, it was extraordinary. Steve loves parties.”

Guests said they were impressed by the production overseen by Schwarzman’s wife, Christine Hearst Schwarzman, and the event-design firm Van Wyck & Van Wyck, whose clients have included Madonna, Calvin Klein and David Koch for his own 70th.

Ivanka and Jared

“It was brilliantly stimulating,” said Koch, the day after Schwarzman’s party. “You learned a lot about Asian theater. There were acrobats, Mongolian soldiers and two camels. It was a little bit of everything.”

The guest list also was a little bit of everything, reflecting Schwarzman’s vast personal, professional, philanthropic and, increasingly, White House connections as the billionaire chief executive officer of Blackstone Group.

Representing President Trump’s sphere were daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner and incoming cabinet members Steve Mnuchin, Wilbur Ross and Elaine Chao. Bank bosses included Jes Staley of Barclays and Michael Corbat of Citigroup. Investing titans Henry Kravis, David Rubenstein and Howard Marks paid respects.

Philanthropic recipients and leaders abounded. Olympians, whose training Schwarzman sponsored, mingled. So did Susan George, executive director of the Inner-City Scholarship Fund, and Nigel Thrift, executive director of the Schwarzman Scholars program.

And for some glamour: Donatella Versace, Sloan Barnett in Yves Saint Laurent, Jean Pigozzi who came up from Panama, Nicolas Berggruen, the Hiltons, Philippe Dauman and Francois Delattre, France’s representative to the United Nations.•

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Amnesia is a trouble that often plagues a long-stable society. It’s easy to forget what doesn’t ail you. That’s true whether we’re being forgetful about the value of democracy or disease prevention. Jogging the memory, unfortunately, can be painful, even deadly.

Figures on the Left and Right, journals both high and low, doctors and celebrities alike conspired over the last two decades to needlessly create a panic about vaccines that allowed for the return of outbreaks we thought were forever buried. The craziness began in 1998 when British doctor Andrew Wakefield published a now-retracted Lancet article linking immunizations to autism. The study was based on junk science and dishonesty, and his medical license was ultimately revoked.

Over the years, publications from Salon to the Huffington Post to Rolling Stone have published pieces further feeding a growing online fury, providing platforms to disparate, wrong-minded personalities from Jenny McCarthy to Robert F. Kennedy. (It should be noted that Salon and the Huffington Post have long since abandoned this misinformation.)

The opening of Amy Wallace’s smart 2009 Wired story on the subject related just how hysterical the situation had become:

TO HEAR HIS enemies talk, you might think Paul Offit is the most hated man in America. A pediatrician in Philadelphia, he is the coinventor of a rotavirus vaccine that could save tens of thousands of lives every year. Yet environmental activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. slams Offit as a “biostitute” who whores for the pharmaceutical industry. Actor Jim Carrey calls him a profiteer and distills the doctor’s attitude toward childhood vaccination down to this chilling mantra: “Grab ’em and stab ’em.” Recently, Carrey and his girlfriend, Jenny McCarthy, went on CNN’s Larry King Live and singled out Offit’s vaccine, RotaTeq, as one of many unnecessary vaccines, all administered, they said, for just one reason: “Greed.”•

During the Arab Spring, there was debate about whether smartphones and social media were truly able to make mass movements go viral. It seems they really do, though it’s a two-way street, and one avenue leads to ignorance. The culmination of all this foolishness was on display in the Presidential election, in which two candidates, Donald Trump and Dr. Jill Stein, expressed solidarity with the anti-Vaxxers. Trump won and RFK Jr. reiterated today that he will head a “vaccine safety commission.” 

From Daniel Smith at the New York Review of Books:

Measles is a severe virus than can result in high fever, diarrhea, pneumonia, deafness, brain swelling, and death. It is very hardy and therefore wildly contagious; it can survive in the air for up to two hours after an infected person has sneezed or coughed. Among those who aren’t immune, nine out of ten people who are exposed to measles will contract the virus. It is one of the leading causes of childhood death worldwide—and it is a growing threat to the United States.

In 2014, the US Centers for Disease Control recorded twenty-three separate outbreaks of measles in the United States, involving 668 individual cases—the highest number in twenty years and more than the previous five years combined. Many of these cases were contracted by children whose parents had refused to vaccinate them, out of a fear that doing so would cause developmental problems. And now in 2017 we have President Donald Trump, a man who is not only the most prominent and media-savvy fear-monger in the English-speaking world but also a dedicated, unabashed, very loud purveyor of myths about the dangers of vaccines. 

Trump has been fixated for years on a discredited link between childhood vaccines and autism. As recently as Tuesday, during a White House meeting with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and a group of educators, Trump launched into rambling remarks on the subject, drawing directly on the claims of the anti-vaccination movement: “So what’s going on with autism? When you look at the tremendous increase, it’s really—it’s such an incredible—it’s really a horrible thing to watch, the tremendous amount of increase. Do you have any idea?” There is in fact no evidence to support the claim that we are in the midst of an autism epidemic, let alone to connect autism to vaccines. 

The stakes of Trump’s allegiance to anti-vaccination canards are huge. The CDC declared in 2000 that measles had been “eliminated,” meaning that it was no longer endemic to the United States. After that point, any cases that occurred were carried in from outside the country. Outbreaks still happened, but they were minor and restricted to small geographic areas. This changed in 2014. The most serious of the measles outbreaks that year began in Disneyland, in southern California, and quickly radiated outward, north to Oregon, Washington, and Canada, east to Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and Nebraska, and south to Mexico. By the time the outbreak ran its full course, at least 111 people had contracted the illness, half of them children.

What caused this sudden burst of outbreaks?•

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The problem with pointing out that the Trump Administration wants to severely shift focus on Muslims involved in terrorism to the point of ignoring domestic radical right-wing and anti-government groups is that it’s not an oversight.

These are some of the very people, often white nationalists, who most ardently supported Trump’s bigoted campaign, and it’s not likely that the self-avowed tough-on-crime politician will turn on these militias. That will put law enforcement officers, government officials and non-white folks in general in harm’s way. Perhaps an outcry from police groups can bring greater light on what could be a lethal decision?

From an article by Emily Tamkin, Robbie Gramer and Molly O’Toole of Foreign Policy:

Such a shift would also downplay the threat from other forms of terrorism. Far-right and anti-government groups plan and carry out domestic attacks at a greater frequency than foreign terrorist groups, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit focused on advocacy and civil rights. There are nearly 1,000 such groups in the United States, such as the Crusaders, which counts among its membership three men in Kansas who plotted in October 2016 to bomb an apartment complex where Somalis live. The SPLC noted an increase in hate crimes in the month following Trump’s election.

And since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, anti-government groups have racked up a death toll on par with that of Islamist extremists, according to New America, a think tank, which keeps a database on terrorist incidents. Until the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, in 2016, in which a New York man pledging allegiance to the Islamic State killed 49 people, far-right extremism caused more deaths in the United States than did jihad.

“The trend lines look very similar,” David Sterman, a terrorism analyst with New America, told FP.

According to a 2015 survey of nearly 400 law enforcement agencies at the federal, state, and local levels, authorities considered anti-government violent extremists, rather than radicalized Muslims, to be “the most severe threat of political violence that they face.”

And that threat may be growing. The former U.S. counterterrorism official said recent intelligence briefings showed an uptick in domestic threats associated with white nationalists and anti-government groups. Police officers are being threatened by these groups as well, the official said — and are even being infiltrated by them, according to a classified FBI counterterrorism policy guide from April 2015.•

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In handicapping what kind of President Trump would be just before he was inaugurated, Brad DeLong did not consider “Russian traitor,” which now might be the most obvious choice.

The economic historian did write these chilling words about the Silvio-style kleptocracy that seemed poised to unfold: “Italy lost a decade of economic growth, I think, because of Berlusconi.” If Trump survives the corrupt and perhaps treasonous morass he’s engulfed in, America could be headed down the same sinkhole, which would be awful for us and wonderful for China and other autocracies.

Already have written that in addition to various high-tech fields, America should invest in creating positions that focus on maintenance of many kinds: health, environment, infrastructure. The demand is certainly evident. In the Financial Times, Martin Sandbu argues the new Administration’s manufacturing fetish is regressive, especially in a society heading deeper into automation, while the “caring industry” is the future.

An excerpt:

The economic nationalism of President Trump and Messrs Navarro and Bannon can be described as Germany-envy. In those manufacturing powers, they see countries that have fought to hold on to the good, manly jobs that validate the status of the native working class. Like so often with machismo, the envy is rooted in insecurity — a feeling of inadequacy compared with the perceived strength sported by these economies. Since export surpluses cannot be enjoyed by all countries (unlike broader gains from trade), manufacturing fetishism leads logically to a zero-sum view of trade policy. It entails an attempt to displace the current surplus of manufacturing producers. Thus, in the context of a Germany-envying inferiority complex, the desire to repatriate global supply chains, limit imports and boost manufacturing makes sense.

But, outside the fetishists’ fantasies, it will not produce the desired effect. First, manufacturing machismo itself is a handicap when it comes to grasping the opportunities for a thriving economy. By far the largest number of jobs to be created in the US over the next decade will be in services, in particular the caring professions. 

Factory fetishists might retort that it is this development they want to oppose by resurrecting factory employment. But this runs headlong into a second obstacle. Regardless of trade, automation is reducing the need for manufacturing jobs everywhere.•

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The United Arab Emirates announced it will build the first city on Mars by 2117, and I would also like to announce I will build the first city on Mars by 2117. Why not? Plenty of wiggle room there.

While the ETA date is probably a lot more realistic than Elon Musk’s proposed mad dash into space, the UAE really wants to use the project to create an international coalition that can help advance science in the region and educate their next several generations of students and workers for employment in the technological and information sectors, not a bad plan for enjoying continued wealth tomorrow in a world that wants to wean itself off of oil. 

From Gulfnews:

The scientific initiative will first be implemented by an Emirati scientific team, and will eventually expand to include international scientists and researchers that will run in parallel with the coordination of human research efforts in the field of exploring and inhabiting Mars.

“The landing of people on other planets has been a longtime dream for humans. Our aim is that the UAE will spearhead international efforts to make this dream a reality,” said Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid.

He emphasised that the project prioritises the building of scientific capacities of Emiratis, and transforming our universities into research centres, thus consolidating the passion of leadership in our generations to come.

Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid said that the UAE is ranked among the most important nine countries in the world that invest in space science, and our goal is to accelerate human researches in this field.

“Human ambitions have no limits, and whoever looks into the scientific breakthroughs in the current century believes that human abilities can realise the most important human dream,” he added.

“The new project is a seed that we are planting today, and we expect the next generations to reap its fruits,” Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid said.

Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed said that the short-term goal is to develop the capacities and skills of Emiratis. “The 2117 Mars initiative is a long-term project, which will first help develop our education, universities and research centres that will empower young Emiratis to enter all disciplines of scientific research fields,” said Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed.

“The findings of the project will be available to all international research institutes,” he said, and added that the research outcomes will contribute to aspects of transportation, energy and food as part of the Mars project to achieve scientific breakthroughs that contribute to developing human life on Earth.

“The UAE has become part of dynamic human scientific efforts to explore space and making scientific contributions to human knowledge,” Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed said.

“With the launch of this project, we begin a new journey that will last for decades to come, and it will speed up human endeavors to explore other planets,” he added.•

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While the headline of Emily Jane Fox’s Vanity Fair “Hive” article “Jared Kushner Emerges as Trump’s True Believer” is misleading because he always was just that, it goes a good way toward being a corrective for an earlier piece she wrote which perplexingly distanced Ivanka Trump and her spouse from the chaos and bigotry they supported into the White House. 

It may be difficult for some to accept that Kushner, who was raised in an Orthodox Jewish background, would be so simpatico with the white nationalists and anti-Semites central to the campaign’s success (and now the Administration), but that’s exactly who Kushner is. He isn’t a mitigator but a co-conspirator, not especially bright and seriously lacking in decency.

An excerpt:

Both Bannon and Kushner have tried to articulate their improbable mutual affection. In explaining the unlikely relationship between himself (an orthodox Jew whose grandparents survived the Holocaust), and Bannon (who ran the alt-right Web site Breitbart News, which has published anti-Semitic comments), Kushner defended his colleague’s character in an interview with Forbes. “What I’ve seen from working together with him was somebody who did not fit the description that people are pushing on him. I choose to judge him based on my experience and seeing the job he’s done, as opposed to what other people are saying about him.” Bannon had a similar take. “If you’re in a foxhole with him, and fighting with him, you’re a brother, and he will defend you nonstop,” Bannon told New York Magazine.

Nevertheless, a perception existed during the campaign and transition that Kushner was a moderating voice to Bannon’s nationalistic agenda. Kushner, after all, came from a major Democratic family. He hosted fundraisers for Corey Booker. He privately reassured his friends and business leaders in his orbit that his father-in-law and Trump’s team would pull back from some of the extreme rhetoric that they peddled on the trail once they got into the West Wing. As one source close to Kushner described to me last month, Kushner was thought of as the “secure line” as a result—someone whom moderates could call in order to be heard by the president and to hear what the president really planned to do behind all that political bombast.

But now, a month into his new job in the West Wing, Kushner appears to have become a true believer in Bannon’s agenda. Several sources told me that Kushner was defensive about the executive order that temporarily barred Muslim immigrants and refugees. The longtime friend said that when he pointed out that refugees had not, in fact, been responsible for any of the terror attacks on U.S. soil, Kushner, he said, answered by saying that that was not true.

The source close to the Trump administration explained that Kushner has “always been far more defensive of Donald and their policies than the general public has believed.•

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It’s appalling that basically sane and intelligent people like James Baker still can’t discern the grave danger American democracy is now facing. Not even the removal of the word “Jewish” from the Holocaust Remembrance Day announcement, an attempt at a Muslim ban and repeated attacks on the judicial branch and press have awakened them to this reality.

In an interview in the international edition of Süddeutsche Zeitung that is required reading, Matthias Kolb questions Yale historian Timothy Snyder about the fascist threat to the U.S. that is the Trump Administration, which doesn’t want only to rule but to also destroy the rule of law. History, decency and liberty are also on the chopping block.

While Snyder’s spirits have been buoyed by the early resistance, he believes we don’t have much time to save the Republic, especially with a non-responsive legislative branch. “What happens in the next few weeks is very important,” he warns.

An excerpt:

Question:

When [Steve] Bannon calls the press the main “opposition party“ that should make everyone concerned. This is not only intended to cheer up Trump supporters.

Timothy Snyder:

When you say that the press is the opposition, than you are advocating a regime change in the United States. When I am a Republican and say the Democrats are the opposition, we talk about our system. If I say the government is one party and the press is the opposition, then I talk about an authoritarian state. This is regime change.

Question:

Last week Trump called those who take part in demonstrations “thugs” and “paid protestors”. This doesn’t show respect for First Amendment right, it sounds more like Putin.

Timothy Snyder:

That is exactly what the Russian leadership does. The idea is to marginalize the people who actually represent the core values of the Republic. The point is to bring down the Republic. You can disagree with them. but once you say they have no right to protest or start lying about them, you are in effect saying: „We want a regime where this is not possible anymore.“  When the president says that it means that the executive branch is engaged in regime change towards an authoritarian regime without the rule of law. You are getting people used to this transition, you are inviting them into the process by asking them to have contempt for their fellow citizens who are defending the Republic. You are also seducing people into a world of permanent internet lying and way from their own experiences with other people. Getting out to protest, this is something real and I would say something patriotic. Part of the new authoritarianism is to get people to prefer fiction and inaction to reality and action. People sit in their chairs, read the tweet and repeat the clichés: “yes, they are thugs” instead of “it is normal to get out in the streets for what you believe.” He is trying to teach people a new behavior: You just sit right where you are, read what I say and nod your head. That is the psychology of regime change. …

Question:

On Facebook there are a lot of countdowns: 3 years, 11 months, 1 week until President Trump’s first term is over. How is your mood, do you see hope?  

Timothy Snyder:

The marches were very encouraging. These were quite possibly the largest demonstrations in the history of the US, just in sheer numbers on one single day. That sort of initiative has to continue.  The constitution is worth saving, the rule of law is worth saving, democracy is worth saving, but these things can and will be lost if everyone waits around for someone else. If we want encouragement out of the Oval Office, we will not get it. We are not getting encouragement thus far from Republicans. They have good reasons to defend the republic but thus far they are not doing so, with a few exceptions.  You want to end on a positive note, I know; but I think things have tightened up very fast, we have at most a year to defend the Republic, perhaps less. What happens in the next few weeks is very important.•

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Elon Musk was saying things again today. He likes to say things.

The technologist and F.O.T. (Friend of Trump), who has completely misunderstood this political moment and either doesn’t comprehend or doesn’t care that he’s been permanently lowered in many eyes, spoke out on the topics of Guaranteed Basic Income and cyborgism.

Musk is in favor of both, thinking the first will be necessary for society to survive the rough patch of Digital Age transformation, and the second will be required for human beings to survive at all as Artificial Intelligence become more profound. Of course, even if the latter is needed, the melding of human and machine would create something that isn’t exactly human as we know it, so we wouldn’t truly survive.

At any rate, if GBI and human-machine interface become realities, I would hope someone with a more developed sense of morality than Musk is leading the way. A person born in an Apartheid nation should know better than to cozy up to an Administration that would like to turn America into one.

Two excerpts follow.


From Fast Company:

“There will be fewer and fewer jobs that a robot cannot do better. I want to be clear. These are not things I wish will happen; these are things I think probably will happen. And if my assessment is correct and they probably will happen, than we have to think about what are we going to do about it? I think some kind of universal basic income is going to be necessary. The output of goods and services will be extremely high. With automation there will come abundance. Almost everything will get very cheap. I think we’ll end up doing universal basic income. It’s going to be necessary.•


From CNBC:

Billionaire Elon Musk is known for his futuristic ideas and his latest suggestion might just save us from being irrelevant as artificial intelligence (AI) grows more prominent.

The Tesla and SpaceX CEO said on Monday that humans need to merge with machines to become a sort of cyborg.

“Over time I think we will probably see a closer merger of biological intelligence and digital intelligence,” Musk told an audience at the World Government Summit in Dubai, where he also launched Tesla in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
 
“It’s mostly about the bandwidth, the speed of the connection between your brain and the digital version of yourself, particularly output.”
 
Musk explained what he meant by saying that computers can communicate at “a trillion bits per second,” while humans, whose main communication method is typing with their fingers via a mobile device, can do about 10 bits per second.

In an age when AI threatens to become widespread, humans would be useless, so there’s a need to merge with machines, according to Musk.

“Some high bandwidth interface to the brain will be something that helps achieve a symbiosis between human and machine intelligence and maybe solves the control problem and the usefulness problem,” Musk explained.

The technologists proposal would see a new layer of a brain able to access information quickly and tap into artificial intelligence.•

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In this strange moment of global unrest, the common denominator among questionable political decisions in various countries on different continents seems to be that each state wants someone to force a spirit back into the bottle. Often, the citizens can’t even precisely name the demons they want under cork.

In America, the Trump campaign ran against soaring murder rates (which don’t exist) and the extreme criminality of immigrants (not a reality), among other fictions. Globalization and income inequality played a key role in his narrow election, allowing the dangerous demagogue to appeal to dormant racist feelings, blaming (non-white) others for the plight of his base. You could say the same of the UK and the Brexit vote.

There’s no doubt the Philippines, currently led by the remorseless murderer and popular president, Rodrigo Duterte, had a genuine and severe narcotics and crime epidemic, but the people made an extreme choice when they knowingly elected a vicious, shoot-first madman who has unloosed murder squads on suspected drug dealers and whomever else he deems their accomplices. He is also, ironically, perhaps a pillbilly.

Even in this beleaguered island country, though, some of the dissatisfaction driving the nation into a potential Duterte dictatorship stems from issues that sound strikingly Western: wealth inequality, lack of opportunity, distrust of the government.

As Ernest Bower, an expert on the region told Time a year ago: “They wanted to take a wrecking ball to what they see as an establishment that has not given them a fair hand over the last five decades…It’s a big risk, but they were willing to take it.” In that same piece, Professor Teresa S. Encarnacion Tadem asserted: “They like the personality of Duterte — because he’s the most authentic. With him, what you see is what you get.” Seem familiar?

In “Duterte’s Last Hurrah: On the Road to Martial Law,” the second part of James Fenton’s excellent New York Review of Books reportage, the author writes that an increasingly chaotic situation may result in an authoritarian regime for the Southeast Asian country.

An excerpt:

Today by contrast the pretense of due process is impossible, because the man at the top simply blows it away. One of Duterte’s chief selling points as a leader is that he doesn’t give a shit. So, when he gets in front of any crowd, he will say whatever he thinks will make an impact at that very moment, and it is striking that most of the most shocking things we have learned about Duterte have come from his own mouth. For instance, it was Duterte who compared himself to Hitler:

Hitler massacred three million Jews. Now there is three million, what is it, three million drug addicts [in the Philippines] there are. I’d be happy to slaughter them. At least if Germany had Hitler, the Philippines would have [me]. You know my victims. I would like them to be all criminals, to finish the problem of my country and save the next generation from perdition.

It was Duterte who revealed that he had been abusing fentanyl, the synthetic opioid—the drug involved in the deaths of both Michael Jackson and Prince, which is supposed to be a hundred times more powerful than morphine. He needs painkillers to combat both his daily migraines and the pain from a motorcycle accident, which damaged his spine. However, when he saw the reaction to this revelation, he thought again. “Fools,” he said, “I just made up that story and you believed it.”

Addicted or not, he has, on his own admission, four concurrent illnesses: acute bronchitis, regular migraines, Barrett’s esophagus, and Buerger’s disease. But as he is careful to point out, not cancer. His mortality, however, does seem to weigh upon him and he often alludes to it. Speaking to members of the Filipino community in Cambodia in December, he said: “This is my last hurrah. After this, 77. I am not sure if I will still be around by the end of my term.”

So far, Duterte’s war has been largely against the softest of targets—drug users and small-time pushers, pedicab drivers and the like, whose families are too poor to hit back in any way. None of them can afford to sue the police, or to mount any kind of campaign on behalf of the victims. It is out of the question.

Of course a campaign that is largely a war on the poor is going to be short on credibility, so Duterte has recently been raising his sights a little, and increasing his attacks on the mayors who are said to be involved in the “shabu,” or crystal meth, trade. In January this year he was quoted as saying: “As long as I’m president, these big ‘shabu’ dealers will die and the next batch would really be these mayors. I will call them and lock them up.” He has a thick dossier that he regularly displays during such speeches. “I will talk to them,” he said. “With the thick document I showed you, I will tell them, ‘Look for your name there, you son of a bitch. If your name is there, you have a problem. I will really kill you.’”•

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Trump Adviser Stephen Miller is one of the true ideologues of the Administration, a dweeb eager to encourage a demagogue’s worst impulses.

In a 2016 Politico profile by Julie Ioffe, Miller said of his liberal high school that “a number of students lacked basic English skills,” and commented about his alma mater Duke that “many professors had radical beliefs and engaged in outrageous behavior.”

Now he’s the willing marionette of an Administration in which most seem to lack basic English skills, have radical beliefs and engage in outrageous behavior–a Pinocchio to Gestapo-ish Geppettos.

What’s worst about the bald-faced lies he offers on TV news shows as he did over the weekend is they’re meant to confer upon the occupant of the Oval Office an unimpeachable authoritarian status. The President’s powers here are beyond question,” he commented in immigration on ABC’s This Week, trying to cut a path for the Simon Cowell-ish strongman to do what he pleases with no dissent brooked.

In a smart Vox interview conducted by Alexander Bisley, Garry Kasparov reminds that the “U.S. President shouldn’t need to speak like a tyrant.” He also offers tips on how to stop the birth of dictatorship in America based on Russia’s descent under Putin. An excerpt:

Alexander Bisley:

What can Trump opponents do?

Garry Kasparov:

You have to reinforce the institutions, steadily and legally, and work through them. If you go too far, and react violently, it will only play into the hands of the Trump administration, which is already portraying all opposition as paid agitators and other ridiculousness straight from Putin’s playbook. When I talk about these things on Twitter or Facebook, I immediately receive a bunch of “Here too!” responses from people living in other authoritarian regimes, from Venezuela to Vietnam.

Riots will only frighten the “moderate middle” you will need as allies sooner or later. If Trump convinces them with lies that the opposition is controlled by dangerous thugs, you’re going to have eight years of Trump and another of his kind to follow. Stick to the facts, repeat them boldly and frequently, so his supporters see the would-be emperor has no bathrobe!

The courts are important, but things won’t really change unless enough Republicans start to see Trump as a liability to their fundraising and reelection chances. That could be quite soon if he can’t fulfill his many campaign promises. Making him look like a loser is crucial. Either the GOP will turn on him or he will be chastened and more likely to compromise. If a demagogue succeeds in claiming credit for wins and scapegoating his enemies for losses, he’s very hard to stop.

Trump will continue to push the limits, to find the cracks in the system that constrains him. America is finding out the hard way that much of its government is based on tradition and the honor system, and not explicit laws. There will be a crisis every day.

Everyone must do what they can themselves and not wait for others to act. If you want change, you have to initiate action, even at a personal level that might seem insignificant. As the motto of Soviet dissidents went: “Do what you must, and so be it.”•

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Steve Bannon seems like one of those voracious if prejudiced consumers of media who might be persuaded that ancient aliens helped Hitler become Führer. He has read widely not to debunk his crackpot theories and deep-seated bigotry but to collect fuel for them. The Chief Strategist reminds me of a line from the jacket of Blaise Cendrars’ Moravagine: “He is a monster, a man in pursuit of a theorem that will justify his every desire.”

Until recently, I never connected him to a 2004 film I reviewed called In the Face of Evil: Reagan’s War in Word and Deed, which is one of the more deranged, heavy-handed and paranoid pieces of propaganda I’ve ever seen, Riefenstahl included. I remember thinking then that the director must be a unhinged person badly in need of mental help. Until the last five years or so, I watched 250 to 300 films a year during my entire adult life, and because of the quantity I don’t remember many of them, even some good ones, but I still can vividly recall how delusional and chilling this work was.

When not busy making his pseudo-documentaries, Bannon was a decade ago trying to sell virtual gold for real money, then peddled tin-pot despotism at Breitbart, and now he’s trying his hand at political alchemy, a white nationalist in the White House, serving as a Rasputin or Alexander Dugin to Trump. As Jason Horowitz of the New York Times reports, one of the Oval Office insider’s influences is the monocled Italian philosopher Julius Evola, who swayed Mussolini and embraced Hitler, and now serves as a hero to Internet-friendly neo-Nazis.

An excerpt:

Born in 1898, Evola liked to call himself a baron and in later life sported a monocle in his left eye.

A brilliant student and talented artist, he came home after fighting in World War I and became a leading exponent in Italy of the Dada movement, which, like Evola, rejected the church and bourgeois institutions.

Evola’s early artistic endeavors gave way to his love of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and he developed a worldview with an overriding animosity toward the decadence of modernity. Influenced by mystical works and the occult, Evola began developing an idea of the individual’s ability to transcend his reality and “be unconditionally whatever one wants.”

Under the influence of René Guénon, a French metaphysicist and convert to Islam, Evola in 1934 published his most influential work, “The Revolt Against the Modern World,” which cast materialism as an eroding influence on ancient values.

It viewed humanism, the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation and the French Revolution all as historical disasters that took man further away from a transcendental perennial truth.

Changing the system, Evola argued, was “not a question of contesting and polemicizing, but of blowing everything up.”

Evola’s ideal order, Professor Drake wrote, was based on “hierarchy, caste, monarchy, race, myth, religion and ritual.”

That made a fan out of Benito Mussolini.•

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Whether we’re baristas or bureaucrats, the robots will come for us.

No, they won’t take every position and in some cases they’ll create more, but if they kill enough jobs and displace a sufficient number of human workers, it can provoke societal disarray, especially in countries without enlightened policies to deal with the transition. The idea that smart machines will only complement workers and not supplant them seems particularly foolish to me. Even in the cases where that occurs, fewer humans will likely be needed. 

Steve Cousins, founder and CEO of Savioke which provides robots to the services industry, clings to this notion of human-robot tandem in a TechCrunch piece:

Innovation is going to happen; we can’t and shouldn’t stop it if we want the U.S. to maintain its strong position in the global economy. It’s how we manage this transition that’s our collective challenge and opportunity. Income inequality continues to increase worldwide, with educated individuals gaining ground quickly in innovation economies, while lower-skilled workers fall behind. Instead of jettisoning the members of society who feel left behind by technological progress, we need to include them in the jobs created by innovation.

Finding ways to incorporate all members of society in technology’s rapid progress doesn’t just include education and training — though those are essential — but also requires engineers to design intuitive, easy-to-use machines. With touchscreen interfaces and simple commands, many of the emerging collaborative robots are easy to operate. In the same way cashiers have learned to use high-tech registers — basically retail computers — people can learn to operate robots in service, hospitality, retail, healthcare or other sectors. Thus, as robots take over mundane tasks, humans can rise into more fulfilling jobs as operators of these machines.•

I agree with him that innovation shouldn’t be stymied, but it’s likely that a lot more than graceful interfaces ad perhaps more than training will be required to smooth out what could be a very rough patch. There won’t be endless positions for “machine operators.”

Two excerpts on the topic follow.


From Danny King at Travel Weekly:

LOS ANGELES — Hotel robots that perform tasks like delivering amenities to guests or cleaning rooms will be the norm within the next five years, panelists at the Americas Lodging Investment Summit (ALIS) held here last week predicted.

The anticipated growth in hotel robots was largely attributed to falling technology costs and guests becoming more accustomed to the concept.

Early hotel adopters say devices such as Savioke’s Relay robot and Maidbot are gaining favor because they are efficient at both delivering items such as toiletries and bottled water to guests and cleaning rooms. They are also a novelty among family travelers.

Executives with both larger hotel owners like Host Hotels and smaller counterparts like Southern California-based Seaview Investors both expressed satisfaction on the ALIS panels with their early trials of the robots.

“We feel that it pays for itself, more from a guest-satisfaction standpoint than from labor savings,” said ALIS panelist moderator and Seaview Investors president Robert Alter. Seaview has used a Relay robot at his company’s Residence Inn Los Angeles LAX for the past 18 months.

Host Hotels managing director Michael Lentz, said, “We’re testing Maidbots for cleaning rooms. You have to think in years ahead that there are opportunities to reduce our operating costs.”

Front and center at the conference was Savioke’s Relay robotic butler, which debuted as Botlr at select properties under then-Starwood Hotels’ Aloft brand in 2014.

Panelist and Savioke “chief robot whisperer” Tessa Lau said hotels typically lease a Relay for about $2,000 a month (the company does not sell the robots) and the device, on average, performs a front-desk-to-room delivery of smaller products like toothpaste or bottled water in less than four minutes. Lau, too, alluded to the novelty factor, noting that many families with kids take “robot selfies.”•


From the Economist:

Steve Cousins, Savioke’s founder, is more realistic. In an article for TechCrunch, he accepts that his machines will eliminate the need for many of those currently working at hotels. But he argues that automation means jobs will be displaced rather than lost. “Dull and low paid occupations” will go, he writes, and be replaced by more interesting careers. This has frequently been true in the past. The Luddites, for example, burned weaving machines that were threatening their jobs in the 19th century. Yet as machines increased output and lowered prices, employment went up along with demand. The number of people working for weavers quadrupled between 1830 and 1900.

There are two big differences today, however. One is the speed at which new technological advances are introduced. Until the market catches up with the changes, there will probably be a lag between people’s jobs being automated away and new ones being created. We also seem to be heading for a more protectionist world. One reason why a Singaporean hotel might be so keen on employing Relay is that it has a shortage of people willing to work in Mr Cousin’s “dull and low paid occupations”. That is partly because of restrictions on foreign workers. Likewise, in London as many as 70% of jobs in the travel and tourism sector depend on migrants, according to the Association of British Travel Agents. If such labour is in short supply once Britain “takes back control” of immigration after Brexit, then hotels will face a simple choice: employ cheap robots or pay high wages for locals who are not keen on the jobs they have to offer. Expect more droids knocking on your hotel door with your morning coffee.•

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Speaking of immortality, former Transhumanist Presidential candidate Zoltan Istvan is the subject of a well-written profile by Mark McConnell in the New York Times Magazine, adapted from his about-to-be-published book, To Be a Machine.

Unlike, say, Bobby Jindal, the newbie pol knew he had no chance of winning the White House, so he resigned himself to stump for radical life extension, gene editing and other futurist dreams–a CRISPR in every pod and a driverless car in every garage!–and ultimately vote for Hillary Clinton. He did so while acknowledging he didn’t dislike Trump, which seemed a puzzling stance to take on someone who was deeply bigoted, anti-science, wholly unqualified and seemingly unhinged.

In a pre-election Ask Me Anything, Istvan explained his preference for a traditional candidate like Clinton despite his outré opinions: 

One main reason is that if Trump becomes President, and gets assassinated, Mike Pence will take office and that could be a disaster for science and tech, especially in the gene editing and AI era.

Trump can live out his term in perfect health and science in the U.S. is still going to get clobbered, much to the delight of China and other countries competing with us.

McConnell, who traveled part of the way with Istvan during his campaign across America aboard the “Immortality Bus,” reflects on the unsettling and, perhaps, enlightening experience. An excerpt:

He confided that his wife, Lisa, a gynecologist who worked for Planned Parenthood, recently started to express a keen interest in his doing something productive with his life. Lisa had just given birth to their second child and, what with the exponentially growing cost of living in the Bay Area, she was becoming increasingly concerned about the need to begin saving for their two daughters’ educations. He explained to me that he was reluctant to fritter away money on such things, given that by the time the girls were in their late teens, it would be possible to upload the informational content of a Harvard or Yale degree directly to their brains and at a fraction of what such an education costs today.

Lisa, he said, was largely tolerant of his views, but drew the line at gambling their children’s futures on the fanciful notion of some imminent technological intervention.

“Obviously she’s a little resistant to transhumanist ideas,” he said, “because in the near future her entire profession will be obsolete. What with actual childbirth becoming a thing of the past. You know, with babies being produced by ectogenesis and whatnot.”

When, some months later, Istvan emailed me about his decision to run for president, I immediately called him. The first thing I asked was what his wife thought of the plan.

“Well, in a way,” he said, “it was Lisa who gave me the idea. Remember how I said she wanted me to do something concrete, get some kind of a proper job?”

“I do,” I said. “Although I’m guessing running for president on the immortality platform was not what she had in mind.” 

“That’s correct,” he confirmed. “It took a little while for her to come around to the idea.”

“How did you break it to her?”

“I left a note on the refrigerator,” he said, “and went out for a couple hours.”

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Response by U.S. citizens and news outlets to the fascistic noises of Trump and co. have thus far been reassuring, even if the Congress and Senate have been as disappointingly partisan and enabling as expected. It’s important there’s early pushback against the Administration because authoritarianism is a creeping thing, with those wishing to seize absolute control committing outrages to see what the response will be and how far the line can be moved.

A good example during the election was when Trump said midway through his campaign that “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” Once the adoring crowd didn’t disperse after that line or subsequent his mockery of American POWs or countless other provocations, he knew he could go further, and so he did.

In a smart Washington Post op-ed, Michael McFaul, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, writes of the parallels between Putin’s initial anti-democratic actions and Trump’s. An excerpt:

Today, of course, we see clearly how Putin’s first modest antidemocratic steps ultimately led to autocracy. Whenever Putin faced challenges to his power or constraints on his personal rule, he chose to increase repression, not to moderate. He arrested business leaders who dared to try funding opposition parties, including, most dramatically, the richest man in Russia at the time, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. He used the powers of the state to limit real competition in national elections. He ended the direct election of governors.

And when tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets to protests against his regime in December 2011, Putin labeled them traitors and puppets of the United States, and then used a variety of means — disinformation, blackmail, and arrests based on bogus charges — to weaken and eliminate his opponents. One of the leaders of these protests, Boris Nemtsov, was later assassinated. Some remain in jail or under house arrest, while many others now live in exile. Just last week, liberal opposition leader Vladimir Kara-Murza was apparently poisoned for the second time in two years.

To counter the urban, educated, wealthy “creative class” protesting against him, Putin also mobilized his electoral base: the rural, poor, uneducated supporters who were the primary losers of Russia’s (partial) integration into the global market economy. Putin and his administration took deliberate actions to polarize Russian society, pitting citizens from big cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg against “real” Russians in the rural heartland.

In retrospect, Russians who lament the consolidation of Putin’s autocracy all say they reacted too slowly at the beginning. They didn’t believe things could get so bad. They didn’t believe Putin would ever go as far as he did. Back in 2000, Putin had few allies within the state, and lukewarm support in society. He won his first election because of government support and weak opponents, not because of wild enthusiasm among voters for him or his ideas. Back then, important actors in Russia’s business class remained autonomous from the state, regional leaders also acted a check on Moscow’s power, independent media still existed and parliament still enjoyed some real power. Had these forces pushed back immediately against creeping authoritarianism, Russia’s political trajectory might have been different.

Sounds familiar?•

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