You are currently browsing the archive for the Politics category.

When it comes to biotech or AI or military robotization, many think we can make sober decisions which will limit these amazingly powerful tools from becoming the most destructive weapons imaginable. But progress does not often proceed in an orderly fashion. Priorities can differ wildly from state to state and corporation to corporation, and decisions made by one actor can impact what others do. You can say you never want to tinker with genetics to radically improve human intelligence, but you may feel differently if another nation decides to. And this technology is likely moving too fast to for its negative potential to be unnaturally constrained by legislation.

In a Washington Post column, Vivek Wadhwa and Aaron Johnson write wisely on the the topic of military automation. They encourage a complete ban on such systems, but even smaller states will eventually be able to disrupt such an accord. An excerpt:

The technology is still imperfect, but it is becoming increasingly accurate — and lethal. Deep learning has revolutionized image classification and recognition and will soon allow these systems to exceed the capabilities of an average human soldier.

But are we ready for this? Do we want Robocops policing our cities? The consequences, after all, could be very much like we’ve seen in dystopian science fiction. The answer surely is no.

For now, the U.S. military says that it wants to keep a human in the loop on all life-or-death decisions. All of the drones currently deployed overseas fall into this category: They are remotely piloted by a human (or usually multiple humans). But what happens when China, Russia and rogue nations develop their autonomous robots and acquire with them an advantage over our troops? There will surely be a strong incentive for the military to adopt autonomous killing technologies.

The rationale then will be that if we can send a robot instead of a human into war, we are morally obliged to do so, because it will save lives — at least, our soldiers’ lives, and in the short term.•

Tags: ,


Elon Musk says he’ll put humans on Mars within a decade, but perhaps it’s the Botox talking. 

The Space X founder has had his fears about Artificial Intelligence shift somewhat since the Nick Bostrom bender he went on at around the time of the publication of Superintelligence. He’s not so worried about conscious AI obviating us now but instead thinks the concentration of such knowledge among a handful of countries and/or companies is highly dangerous. He wants to democratize AI, so that it instead can be accessed by all. Otherwise, he fears, dictators or rogue states can steal the science and use it to try to dominate the world.

But it’s possible Musk’s plan will end up making things more dangerous. Sixty years ago, President Eisenhower launched “Atoms for Peace,” sharing with the world nuclear knowledge and supplies, a move aimed at providing participating nations with relatively cheap energy and making the world less likely to end in Armageddon. This policy led to the building of the first nuclear reactors in some nations, Iran and Pakistan included, and a proliferation of WMDs. Everyone having similar weapons and knowledge only precludes brinkmanship if all actors involved are rational, and in that sense, the world is not flat. 

From Y Combinator:


Speaking of really important problems, AI. You have been outspoken about AI. Could you talk about what you think the positive future for AI looks like and how we get there?

Elon Musk:

Okay, I mean I do want to emphasize that this is not really something that I advocate or this is not prescriptive. This is simply, hopefully, predictive. Because you will hear some say, well, like this is something that I want to occur instead of this is something I think that probably is the best of the available alternatives. The best of the available alternatives that I can come up with, and maybe someone else can come up with a better approach or better outcome, is that we achieve democratization of AI technology. Meaning that no one company or small set of individuals has control over advanced AI technology. I think that’s very dangerous. It could also get stolen by somebody bad, like some evil dictator or country could send their intelligence agency to go steal it and gain control. It just becomes a very unstable situation, I think, if you’ve got any incredibly powerful AI. You just don’t know who’s going to control that.

So it’s not that I think that the risk is that the AI would develop a will of its own right off the bat. I think the concern is that someone may use it in a way that is bad. Or even if they weren’t going to use it in a way that’s bad but somebody could take it from them and use it in a way that’s bad, that, I think, is quite a big danger. So I think we must have democratization of AI technology to make it widely available. And that’s the reason that obviously you, me, and the rest of the team created OpenAI was to help spread out AI technology so it doesn’t get concentrated in the hands of a few. But then, of course, that needs to be combined with solving the high-bandwidth interface to the cortex.•


Gary Hart

There’s a fairly convincing counterfactual in which the Reagan Revolution was reversed in 1988 by President Gary Hart, a Democrat prescient about the effects technology and globalization was beginning to have on working-class America. His ascent would have prevented Middle American whites from becoming GOP stalwarts, making impossible three terms of Bushes. His monkey business with Donna Rice, it is said, dashed his dreams and ours.

But who knows?

In a smart Vanity Fair “Hive” interview conducted by Abigail Tracy, Hart bemoans that “the media has become more intrusive in people’s private lives and the loss of privacy on the part of candidates has caused an awful lot of people of quality to choose not to seek public office.” In this comment, I think Hart has had history pass him by. It was certainly true for awhile, certainly when Bill Clinton became caught in his zipper before the entire nation, but infidelities don’t seem a deal-breaker anymore, in much the same way that divorce or avoidance of military service are no longer disqualifying. It still not fair or pretty, but eyes prying into bedrooms seem beside the point.

Donald Trump (adulterer) didn’t ascend to the Republican Party nomination to oppose Hillary Clinton (married to one) because really gifted politicians were cowed by fears over past indiscretions. Fellow candidate Governor John Kasich is a gifted politician and true conservative who was rejected by GOP voters because he failed to pass a self-destructive purity test, refusing to spurn Obamacare in Ohio or engage in name-calling with the first African-American President. That’s a question of priorities, not prudishness. So is ignoring the amazing gains in household income made by non-rich citizens during the last eight years to support a party dead set on reversing policies that led to such an improvement. In our time, someone’s peccadillo may be an excuse to not vote for someone, but it’s certainly not a driving force.

One exchange from the Q&A:


How has the Democratic Party changed, in particular, since you were seeking the presidential nomination?

Gary Hart:

I was first elected to the Senate in 1974 and re-elected in 1980, and I began to realize that there were shifts, like tectonic plates under the surface, going on and it had to do with the beginning of globalization and the shift of the base of the economy from manufacturing to information. And with that shift, we began to see the Rust Belt, manufacturing states in the Midwest and the Northeast—Ohio, Pennsylvania, upstate New York, and other places—beginning to lose jobs, and communities beginning to decline. Whereas at the same time, you go to the West Coast and it was booming because of Silicon Valley.

This was all beginning in the 1970s. Foreign competition was beginning. Nations, which we had defeated in World War II, just 30 years before, were now exporting to us—cars and tech, and all kinds of consumer goods, which we had previously, in recent years, dominated world markets. So I began to talk about it and think about what the implications of this were. In 1984, I placed a great deal of emphasis on the long-term impacts of these shifts.

My principal competition in the Democratic primary, Vice President [Walter] Mondale, and I ended up dividing the country. I won 25 states and he won 25 states. No journalist to my knowledge ever tried to figure out if there was a pattern there, but there definitely was. I carried almost every state that was benefitting from world trade—the West Coast and other parts of the country—and he got the support of those areas in decline. So it was kind of an earthquake inside the Democratic Party as to who was winning and who was losing.•

Tags: ,

Donald Trump with Chewbacca and Darth Vader in a Star Wars–themed episode of The Apprentice, 2005

Just after Y2K fears subsided, America was struck by another disaster that shook it to its core, the Fox TV show Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? The program was a gross two-hour spectacle in which a woman was chosen by a supposedly rich man to become his insta-wife even though they barely knew one another. The broadcast provoked outrage for making a mockery of marriage, a traditional value (and financial arrangement) that had long been credited for holding together the fabric of our society. Despite a gigantic audience, the rerun was cancelled, apologies offered and an annulment hastily arranged.

In 2016, U.S. television is littered with thirsty aspiring brides and bachelors with no body hair nor brain cells. Nobody worries about such things anymore, the flood of programs washing away any resistance to a sideshow of emotionally destroyed people providing cheap content for endless channels. 

In some ways, the loosening of traditional mores is good. Back in 2000, when the Fox pseudo-nuptials took place, no state in the country was close to allowing gay people to marry, and now those unions are legal across the land. How amazing.

The flip side is that the constant shocks of our bread-and-Kardashians culture have numbed us to any sense of civility, even in a Presidential race. It seems acceptable to a surprising number of citizens that the country be in the hands of a Reality TV star who’s a vicious racist and xenophobe, an insomniac tweeter and a vulgar bumper sticker of a man who knows nothing more than simple catchphrases and how to reflexively point fingers. 

That’s our strange, new dichotomy. It’s unreal.

From Edward Luce in the Financial Times:

Every presidential election holds up a mirror to US society. In 2008 it was the hope promised by Barack Obama. This year it is unshockability. Donald Trump’s gaffes are too legion to list. From his reiteration this week that one of his former Miss Universes was too fat, to his criticism a year ago of John McCain’s record as a war prisoner, or his imitation of a disabled reporter, any one would have sunk an earlier candidate. Mr Trump’s immunity to his multitude of offences marks a shift in America’s sensibility. In an age of reality TV we have the reality politician.

Such shock fatigue is not limited to political incorrectness — though the rise of reality TV has inured people to humiliation as entertainment. It also extends to revelations about Mr Trump’s life. In the last month, the Washington Post has run investigative probes on the Trump Foundation, which have shocked political America, but caused barely a ripple beyond the Washington beltway. They allege Mr Trump’s charity, the Trump Foundation, paid off a plaintiff in a lawsuit against one of his businesses, bought portraits of Mr Trump and settled a public suit unrelated to his charity.

He also used it to make a $25,000 donation to Pam Bondi, Florida’s attorney-general, who was investigating whether to prosecute Trump University for fraud. The “university” — another of Mr Trump’s misleadingly titled ventures — faces class action lawsuits. Ms Bondi dropped the probe around the time she received the donation. Mr Trump was fined $2,500 for misusing charitable money. The Post has also detailed millions of dollars Mr Trump claims to have given to charities that were never made.

Again, such revelations would have destroyed a candidate in years past. There is no evidence Mr Trump has been scathed.•



The problem with the idea that humans and machines will work in tandem is that the latter will require the aid of too few of the former. The lucky ones who have those jobs may do quite well, but those who don’t adjust–or are just unlucky–will be left on the outside looking in. Average may be over in terms of demand but not supply. What becomes of those of us left behind?

Zume Pizza, which employs robots rather than chefs, may or not be a success but its methods will certainly succeed in the near future. Hot pies are even easier to make with machines than they are to deliver with drones. From CNBC:

The future has arrived in Mountain View, California. 

Zume Pizza is replacing human chefs with robots, slashing labor costs in half, and reinvesting those savings into higher-quality ingredients to carve out a portion of the $40 billion annual U.S. pizza business.

“What we are doing is leveraging the power of this evolution of automation, these intelligent robots, to put better food on people’s tables,” said Julia Collins, the company’s co-founder and co-CEO.

Zume, which is delivery-only, employs far fewer workers than the average pizza chain, but the employees it does hire — which include sous chefs and software engineers — get full benefits, education subsidies and shares in the business. The company — which made its first hire on Sept. 8, 2015 — has never had an employee quit, which is unusual in the restaurant business, said Collins.

“We’re a co-bot situation,” said Collins. “There are humans and robots collaborating to make better food, to make more fulfilling jobs and to make a more stable working environment for the folks that are working with us.”•



How do we reconcile a highly automated economy with a free-market one? If jobs of all skill levels emerge that can’t be outsourced beyond our species, we’ll be fine. But if average truly ls over, as Tyler Cowen and others have predicted, we could be in for some turbulence. Everyone and his brother can’t be quickly upskilled, and even if they could, there will be a limit to the number of driverless-car engineers needed. Abundance is great if we can figure out a good distribution system, something America has never perfected. If the macro financial picture is good but the micro is harsh, political solutions may become necessary.

From an PC World interview with The Wealth of Humans author Ryan Avent:

If this abundance of labor is indeed what is sparking global unrest, things will probably get a lot more chaotic before stability returns, unless the world embraces an Amish-style rejection of technology. So how should civilization proceed moving forward? Proposals include universal basic income (UBI), which is quite fashionable in Silicon Valley circles, or shortening the work week to four days.

“Eventually, we’re going to have to change the ways we do things so that people are working less and are also still able to buy the things they need—that would be where redistribution or basic income comes into the picture,” according to Avent. “There’s a couple of things to consider though. People don’t necessarily want to live in a world without work. Even though work is a drag, it creates structure for our day. It creates purpose and meaning. You can imagine that society would be kind of a messy place if nobody ever had to do anything. The other tricky thing is you need to find a way to pay for everything, which means that you have to tax somebody or create common ownership. Something that’s going to require a big political change.”

The big changes may be far in the future. Many of us may be able to wait out the big transformation, but where does that leave the next generation? Are they just completely screwed? As a parent of a young child, I am keenly interested in what skills—if any—will have any value in the decades to come.

“Those with a PhD in computer engineering will probably be okay. I don’t think that’s going to be something that goes away over the next few decades. The skills that will be applicable in a lot of parts of the economy will actually be the softer skills,” Avent says. “The ability to learn from others, to teach yourself new things, to get along in different cultural settings. Basically to be adaptive and be able to pick up new skills. That’s useful now, but in an environment where new sectors and new jobs are constantly be introduced will be critical to being successful.”•



If gambling on Elon Musk’s plan to quickly establish a colony on Mars, it would be wise to bet the under considering it would be the greatest and most challenging undertaking in human history. But the likelihood that it’s at all possible for one well-funded visionary to have a shot at accomplishing such a feat says as a lot not only about science but society as well. Some thoughts:

  • Wealth inequality has made us a weird and lopsided world. Sentences on automation like one recently in the WSJ,[Target Corp.] could take a risk on a new breed of robots from a reclusive billionaire,” no longer seem stunning. The Digital Age has made a few us so overwhelmingly wealthy that individuals can compete with the biggest governments on the grandest projects in for-profit sectors and philanthropy. But there’s a very dark side to such a widening gap, whether its Peter Thiel deciding to a publication into bankruptcy or Palmer Luckey using his Facebook windfall to fund alt-right trolls to game online surveys and plant dubious memes in an effort to enable a Fascist like Donald Trump into the White House. Persons as rich as nations has the potential for great good and bad.
  • Musk’s math in measuring the money needed to fund his first foray to Mars and provide the basic building blocks of a space society may wind up seeming as fanciful as a Paul Ryan budget, but regardless the price tag of such enterprises has fallen tantalizingly low thanks to the diminishing costs of the necessary tools, a culmination of decades of work bearing fruit in our times.
  • Putting humans in space doesn’t make much sense to me within Musk’s time frame. Becoming a multi-planetary species as a hedge against disaster, environmental or otherwise, is understandable, but racing Homo sapiens to Mars doesn’t seem the best plan. A century of robots being dispatched to plumb the planets and experiment with building enclosed habitats and growing food in space. seems the wiser course. But I’m not a Silicon Valley billionaire, so I don’t get a vote.

In the Ars Technica piece “Musk’s Mars Moments,” Eric Berger assesses the feasibility of the audacious plan and the person responsible for it. The writer unsurprisingly believes the Space X founder is underestimating costs but doesn’t dismiss the proposal as impossible, especially if it should develop into a private-public hybrid. The opening:

Elon Musk finally did it. Fourteen years after founding SpaceX, and nine months after promising to reveal details about his plans to colonize Mars, the tech mogul made good on that promise Tuesday afternoon in Guadalajara, Mexico. Over the course of a 90-minute speech Musk, always a dreamer, shared his biggest and most ambitious dream with the world—how to colonize Mars and make humanity a multiplanetary species.

And what mighty ambitions they are. The Interplanetary Transport System he unveiled could carry 100 people at a time to Mars. Contrast that to the Apollo program, which carried just two astronauts at a time to the surface of the nearby Moon, and only for brief sojourns. Moreover, Musk’s rocket that would lift all of those people and propellant into orbit would be nearly four times as powerful as the mighty Saturn V booster. Musk envisions a self-sustaining Mars colony with at least a million residents by the end of the century.

Beyond this, what really stood out about Musk’s speech on Tuesday was the naked baring of his soul. Considering his mannerisms, passion, and the utter seriousness of his convictions, it felt at times like the man’s entire life had led him to that particular stage. It took courage to make the speech, to propose the greatest space adventure of all time. His ideas, his architecture for getting it done—they’re all out there now for anyone to criticize, second guess, and doubt.

It is not everyday that one of the world’s notables, a true difference-maker, so completely eschews caution and reveals his deepest ambitions like Musk did with the Interplanetary Transport System. So let us look at those ambitions—the man laid bare, the space hardware he dreams of building—and then consider the feasibility of all this. Because what really matters is whether any of this fantastical stuff can actually happen.•



Really wonderful conversation between Sean Illing of Vox and the economist Tyler Cowen, whose thinking I always admire even when I disagree with him. The two discuss, among other topics, the Internet, biotech, politics, war, Kanye West and the “most dangerous idea in history.” An excerpt:


How do you view the internet and its impact on human life?

Tyler Cowen:

The internet is great for weirdos. The pre-internet era was not very good for weirdos. I think in some ways we’re still overrating the internet as a whole. It’s wonderful for manipulating information, which appeals to the weirdos. Now it’s going to start changing our physical reality in a way that will be another productivity boom. So I’m very pro-internet.


What do you think will be the next major technological breakthrough?

Tyler Cowen:

If you mean a single thing that you could put in a single headline, I would say self-driving vehicles. But I think a deeper and more important thing will be a subtle integration of software and hardware in way that will change everything and won’t have a single name.


Are you thinking here of the singularity or of something less radical?

Tyler Cowen:

No, nothing like the singularity. But software embedded in devices that will get better and smarter and more interactive and thoughtful, and we’ll be able to do things that we’ll eventually take for granted and we won’t even call them anything.


Do you think technology is outpacing our politics in dangerous, unpredictable ways?

Tyler Cowen:

Of course it is. And the last time technology outpaced politics, it ended in a very ugly manner, with two world wars. So I worry about that. You get new technologies. People try to use them for conquest and extortion. I’ve no predictions as to how that will play out, but I think there’s at least a good chance that we will look back on this era of relative technological stagnancy and say, “Wasn’t that wonderful?”•

Tags: ,


In last night’s Presidential debate, Donald Trump was slowed by a case of the sniffles and a case of being a complete fucking idiot. The sniffles may go away.

There might something to predictions made by artificial hive minds, though I wouldn’t bet the house on it, let alone the White House. But you do have to credit UNU for knowing before most of us that Trump was a legitimate contender. A few hours before yesterday’s debate, UNU conducted a Reddit AMA and made the predictions below. None of them really required a great leap of intelligence to answer, and only the hideous hotelier’s less-P.U.-than-usual behavior tripped up the AI.


Who wins the debate tonight? Does it matter for the election?


Clinton wins the debate tonight ‘by a lot’ and ‘i believe’ the debate matters for the election.


Will Trump come off as A. Presidential, or B. Impeachable?




Will Donald Trump use the phrase “Crooked Hillary” during the debate?


It’s likely.


Will Trump be aggressive, or on his best behavior?


Aggressive 99%.


Lester Holt is doing a good job of controlling the debate?


Totally disagree.


Will Trump blame the media if he does poorly?


It’s likely.


Roughly speaking, how much impact could this debate have on the overall election?


Roughly: A lot


Who would you rather have babysit your kid, the Donald or HRC?


Clinton by a lot•


Tags: , ,


Extrapolating current economic trends into the future is a tricky business. Things change.

The American middle class, besieged for decades by tax codes, globalization, automation, Silicon Valley creative destruction, Washington gridlock and the Great Recession, seems more like a dinosaur each day. Men in the U.S. have particularly watched their opportunities crater, with millions more jobs poised to vanish as soon as driverless vehicles take the wheel in trucking, the taxi industry and delivery. (The last of those occupations will also be emptied out by air and ground drones.)

Nicholas Eberstadt’s Men Without Work suggests this story has been seriously under-reported, the subtitle being “America’s Invisible Crisis.” Like Charles Murray, whom I’m not fond of, the author believes misguided social safety nets have played a large role in creating this unintended consequence. I call bullshit on that theory, which seems more driven by ideology than reality.

In a Financial Times review of the book, Lawrence Summers also disagrees with Eberstadt on how we got into this mess, but  he sees a potentially even bleaker future for American males than the author does. Maybe that won’t come to pass, but this is exactly the type of possible outcome we should be discussing right now.

An excerpt:

Now comes Nicholas Eberstadt’s persuasive and important monograph Men Without Work, demonstrating that these issues are not just matters of futurology. Eberstadt, a political economist based at the American Enterprise Institute, marshals a vast amount of data to highlight trends that have been noticed but not adequately emphasised before in the work experience of men in the US. The share of the male population who are neither working, looking for work, in school or old enough to retire has more than doubled over the past 50 years, even though the population has become much healthier and more educated. Today, even with a low overall unemployment rate, roughly one in six men between the ages of 25 and 54 is out of work.

Eberstadt goes on to show that, as one might expect, non-work is a larger issue for those with less education, without spouses or dependent children, for African-Americans and for those who have been convicted of crimes. He finds little redeeming in what those without work are doing, noting that the primary contrast in time use between those in and out of work is in time spent watching TV.

Finally, he highlights that men in the US are doing considerably worse than men in the rest of the industrial world, where even countries with notoriously sclerotic labour markets and bloated welfare systems such as France, and even Greece, enjoy higher rates of prime age male labour force participation.

One can cavil with Eberstadt’s emphasis on labour force withdrawal as distinct from unemployment in looking at the data, particularly when it comes to international comparisons, but overall the evidence he marshals that non-work is currently a crisis is entirely persuasive. As he notes, the impact of non-work on economic growth is the least of it. A society where large numbers of adults in the prime of life are without vocation is unlikely to provide opportunity for all its children, to maintain strong communities or have happy, cohesive families. As we are seeing this fall, such a society is prone to embrace toxic populist politics.

Indeed, Eberstadt understates the significance of what he studies by not highlighting the fact that, if current trends continue, a quarter of men between 25 and 54 will be out of work by mid-century. I would expect Eberstadt’s sorry trends to accelerate as IT accelerates job destruction on the one hand, and developments such as virtual reality make non-work more attractive and addictive on the other, so I can imagine scenarios in which a third or more of men in this cohort are out of work in the US by 2050.

Why is this happening?•

Tags: ,


Unions have always represented workers, but perhaps the Digital Age will see the unionization of non-workers.

I don’t mean people who don’t want to toil but rather those who are simply squeezed from the system, with robotics and sensors thinning out the need for carbon-based employees. Since the Great Recession, American corporations have able to throw away any applicant with a gap on their résumé or any other blemish. If positions continue to diminish, we could be headed for a real-world Hunger Games.

In a Venturebeat essay by Flint Capital’s Artem Burachenok. the writer wonders if mass automation will bring about the return of a “feudalistic lack of social mobility.” If that comes to pass, he predicts potential reactions to this action. Like Baidu’s Andrew Ng, Burachenok believes a new New Deal may become necessary. Two of his entries:

2. The end of college. College loan debt has turned into one of the biggest budget black holes in the US today, with more and more students borrowing huge sums of money to finance degrees at all levels, in the hope of cracking an increasingly competitive job market. But in the near future, it won’t be their classmates that these grads will compete with – it will be the robots, and most will find themselves losing out. As a result, young people who aspire to more than a McJob will opt for trade schools where they can learn skills. Either way, they won’t need, or want, to go into hock financing a college education. The top-tier universities, of course, will be educating the children of the 1 percent; it’s the state and non-Ivy private colleges that will lose out.

4. A new New Deal? The last time there was a hollowing out of the middle class was during the Great Depression – and it took massive government intervention in the economy to set things right. The United States admittedly has a much more socialized economy now than it did in the 1930s, and special interests carry a great deal of weight in Washington nowadays – but as the full pain of AI is felt among the vast majority, there will be increasing pressure on politicians to do something.




Many within the driverless sector think the technology is only five years from remaking our roads and economies. Perhaps they know enough to be sure of such a bold ETA, or perhaps they’re parked in an echo chamber. Either way, it appears this new tool will enter our lives sooner than later.

Beyond perfecting technology that works in all traffic situations and weather conditions are knotty questions about ethics, legislation, Labor, etc. Excerpts follow from two articles on the topic. 

From Anjana Ahuja’s smart FT piece on the problem of crowdsourcing driverless ethics:

Anyone with a computer and a coffee break can contribute to MIT’s mass experiment, which imagines the brakes failing on a fully autonomous vehicle. The vehicle is packed with passengers, and heading towards pedestrians. The experiment depicts 13 variations of the “trolley problem” — a classic dilemma in ethics that involves deciding who will die under the wheels of a runaway tram.

In MIT’s reformulation, the runaway is a self-driving car that can keep to its path or swerve; both mean death and destruction. The choice can be between passengers and pedestrians, or two sets of pedestrians. Calculating who should perish involves pitting more lives against fewer, young against old, professionals against the homeless, pregnant women against athletes, humans against pets.

At heart, the trolley problem is about deciding who lives, who dies — the kind of judgment that truly autonomous vehicles may eventually make. My “preferences” are revealed afterwards: I mostly save children and sacrifice pets. Pedestrians who are not jaywalking are spared and passengers expended. It is obvious: by choosing to climb into a driverless car, they should shoulder the burden of risk. As for my aversion to swerving, should caution not dictate that driverless cars are generally programmed to follow the road?

It is illuminating — until you see how your preferences stack up against everyone else.•

From Keith Naughton’s Businessweek article on legislating the end of human drivers:

This week, technology industry veterans proposed a ban on human drivers on a 150-mile (241-kilometer) stretch of Interstate 5 from Seattle to Vancouver. Within five years, human driving could be outlawed in congested city centers like London, on college campuses and at airports, said Kristin Schondorf, executive director of automotive transportation at consultant EY.

The first driver-free zones will be well-defined and digitally mapped, giving autonomous cars long-range vision and a 360-degree view of their surroundings, Schondorf said. The I-5 proposal would start with self-driving vehicles using car-pool lanes and expand over a decade to robot rides taking over the road during peak driving times.

“In city centers, you don’t even want non-automated vehicles; they would just ruin the whole point of why you have a smart city,” said Schondorf, a former engineer at Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV. “It makes it a dumb city.”

John Krafcik, head of Google’s self-driving car project, said in an August interview with Bloomberg Businessweek that the tech giant is developing cars without steering wheels and gas or brake pedals because “we need to take the human out of the loop.” Ford Chief Executive Officer Mark Fields echoed that sentiment last month when he said the 113-year-old automaker would begin selling robot taxis with no steering wheel or pedals in 2021.•

Tags: ,



The past isn’t necessarily prologue. Sometimes there’s a clean break from history. The Industrial Age transformed Labor, moving us from an agrarian culture to an urban one, providing new jobs that didn’t previously exist: advertising, marketing, car mechanic, etc. That doesn’t mean the Digital Age will follow suit. Much of manufacturing, construction, driving and other fields will eventually fall, probably sooner than later, and Udacity won’t be able to rapidly transition everyone into a Self-Driving Car Engineer. That type of upskilling can take generations to complete.

Not every job has to vanish. Just enough to make unemployment scarily high to cause social unrest. And those who believe Universal Basic Income is a panacea must beware truly bad versions of such programs, which can end up harming more than helping. 

Radical abundance doesn’t have to be a bad thing, of course. It should be a very good one. But we’ve never managed plenty in America very well, and this level would be on an entirely different scale.

Excerpts from two articles on the topic.

From Giles Wilkes’ Economist review of Ryan Avent’s The Wealth of Humans:

What saves this work from overreach is the insistent return to the problem of abundant human labour. The thesis is rather different from the conventional, Malthusian miserabilism about burgeoning humanity doomed to near-starvation, with demand always outpacing supply. Instead, humanity’s growing technical capabilities will render the supply of what workers produce, be that physical products or useful services, ever more abundant and with less and less labour input needed. At first glance, worrying about such abundance seems odd; how typical that an economist should find something dismal in plenty.

But while this may be right when it is a glut of land, clean water, or anything else that is useful, there is a real problem when it is human labour. For the role work plays in the economy is two-sided, responsible both for what we produce, and providing the rights to what is made. Those rights rely on power, and power in the economic system depends on scarcity. Rob human labour of its scarcity, and its position in the economic hierarchy becomes fragile.

A good deal of the Wealth of Humans is a discussion on what is increasingly responsible for creating value in the modern economy, which Mr Avent correctly identifies as “social capital”: that intangible matrix of values, capabilities and cultures that makes a company or nation great. Superlative businesses and nation states with strong institutions provide a secure means of getting well-paid, satisfying work. But access to the fruits of this social capital is limited, often through the political system. Occupational licensing, for example, prevents too great a supply of workers taking certain protected jobs, and border controls achieve the same at a national level. Exceptional companies learn how to erect barriers around their market. The way landholders limit further development provides a telling illustration: during the San Fransisco tech boom, it was the owners of scarce housing who benefited from all that feverish innovation. Forget inventing the next Facebook, be a landlord instead.

Not everyone can, of course, which is the core problem the book grapples with. Only a few can work at Google, or gain a Singaporean passport, inherit property in London’s Mayfair or sell $20 cheese to Manhattanites. For the rest, there is a downward spiral: in a sentence, technological progress drives labour abundance, this abundance pushes down wages, and every attempt to fight it will encourage further substitution towards alternatives.•

From Duncan Jefferies’ Guardian article “The Automated City“:

Enfield council is going one step further – and her name is Amelia. She’s an “intelligent personal assistant” capable of analysing natural language, understanding the context of conversations, applying logic, resolving problems and even sensing emotions. She’s designed to help residents locate information and complete application forms, as well as simplify some of the council’s internal processes. Anyone can chat to her 24/7 through the council’s website. If she can’t answer something, she’s programmed to call a human colleague and learn from the situation, enabling her to tackle a similar question unaided in future.

Amelia is due to be deployed later this year, and is supposed to be 60% cheaper than a human employee – useful when you’re facing budget cuts of £56m over the next four years. Nevertheless, the council claims it has no plans to get rid of its 50 call centre workers.

The Singaporean government, in partnership with Microsoft, is also planning to roll out intelligent chatbots in several stages: at first they will answer simple factual questions from the public, then help them complete tasks and transactions, before finally responding to personalised queries.

Robinson says that, while artificially intelligent chatbots could have a role to play in some areas of public service delivery: “I think we overlook the value of a quality personal relationship between two people at our peril, because it’s based on life experience, which is something that technology will never have – certainly not current generations of technology, and not for many decades to come.”

But whether everyone can be “upskilled” to carry out more fulfilling work, and how many staff will actually be needed as robots take on more routine tasks, remains to be seen.•

Tags: , ,

Republican National Convention: Day Four

If Perez Hilton had sex with Lee Atwater’s corpse–and I have no proof that didn’t happen–the resulting offspring might have been Milo Yiannopoulos, an alt-right, Kostabi-ish performance artist and self-promoter given to the ugliest politics. The Breitbart News dipshit supports Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant policies even though he’s a Brit working for a U.S. media outlet, taking a job away from a Real American™. A toad who spends his time harassing Leslie Jones on Twitter, Yiannopoulos may not have any actual authority, but in a decentralized media his outrages find outlets.

Another extremist potentially far closer to genuine power is Donald Trump Jr., the winner of several regional Patrick Bateman look-alike contests and an amateur eugenicist who thinks evolution has smiled on a stallion like himself. With his hideous hotelier of a father trying to moderate during the general election–at least by his bizarre standards–the chip off the old blockhead has been pandering to white supremacists at a furious clip, with a Holocaust reference here and a comparison of Syrian refugees to poison Skittles there. He is deplorable.

Excerpts below from articles about two of Donald Trump’s children.

From Joel Stein at Bloomberg Businessweek:

At 4 p.m., Milo Yiannopoulos puts on a pair of glasses for the first time today. He examines himself in a mirror to see if he wants to add a gray suit to his purchases, which will push his bill to almost $12,000 at Savile Row’s Gieves & Hawkes. He’s buying clothes for his next round of college speeches in, as his bus announces in huge letters next to five giant photos of him, the Dangerous Faggot Tour. It resumed at Texas Tech University on Sept. 12 and is scheduled to hit campuses including Columbia, Dartmouth, the University of Alabama, and the University of California at Berkeley before concluding at UCLA in February. “I have ridiculously bad eyesight, but I have learned to live with an impressionistic view. Life is a Monet painting,” he says, taking off his glasses. “I wander around enjoying myopia.”

Yiannopoulos is the 31-year-old British tech editor and star writer for Breitbart News, where he’s the loudest defender of the new, Trump-led ultraconservatism, standing athwart history, shouting to stop immigrants, feminists, political correctness, and any non-Western culture. Yiannopoulos gained his initial fame as the general in a massive troll war over misogyny in the video game world, known as Gamergate. He was permanently banned from Twitter in July after the social media company said his almost 350,000 followers were responsible for harassing Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones. He still has nearly 275,000 subscribers to his YouTube speeches, and CNBC and Fox turn to him as the most notorious spokesman for the alt-right, the U.S. version of Europe’s far right (led at various times by England’s Nigel Farage, France’s Marine Le Pen, Austria’s Jorg Haider, the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders, and Germany’s Frauke Petry). Their followers’ politics are almost exactly the same: They’re angry about globalization—culturally even more than economically. They’re angry about political correctness guilting them about insensitivity to women, minorities, gays, transgender people, the disabled, the sick—the everyone-but-them. They’re angry about feminism. They don’t like immigrants. They don’t like military intervention. They aren’t into free trade. They don’t like international groups such as the European Union, United Nations, or NATO—even the International Olympic Committee. They admire the bravado of authoritarians, especially Vladimir Putin. Some are white supremacists. Most enjoy a good conspiracy theory.

But members of the alt-right, unlike their old, frustrated European counterparts, are less focused on policy than on performance. Their MO usually involves pissing people off with hypermasculine taunts. They call establishment and even Tea Party Republicans “cuckservatives”—because they are cuckolded by the Left. They do most of their acting out online, often by organizing on 4chan or Reddit and then trolling targets on Twitter. The alt-right is a new enough phenomenon that in August, Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan—running against an alt-right candidate in a primary—mistakenly called it “alt-conservatism” on a radio show. “It’s a nasty, virulent strain of something,” he said. “I don’t even know what it is, other than that it isn’t us. It isn’t what we believe in.”

As Donald J. Trump has become the candidate of the alt-right, Breitbart News has become the movement’s voice.•

From David A. Graham at the Atlantic:

Donald Trump Jr. isn’t just his father’s namesake or dark-haired doppelgänger. He is increasingly emerging as his father’s id—or perhaps simply his father’s emissary to the alt-right.

Over the last few weeks, Trump has made an effort to tone down his rhetoric and try to avoid the most outrageous comments, the ones that endeared him to the racists, misogynists, and xenophobes who gather in darker corners of the internet. Ironically, this switch has come since he installed Stephen Bannon, the CEO of Breitbart, a leading alt-right outlet, as his campaign CEO. It has also produced positive results, with Trump reaching his high point of the campaign with just about 50 days to go.

But it’s still important to maintain the base, and that role seems to have fallen to Donald Trump Jr. Trump fils has been increasingly catering to the fringe right in his social-media statements and interviews.•

Tags: , , ,

H.G. Wells hoped the people of Earth would someday live in a single world state overseen by a benign central government–if they weren’t first torn apart by yawning wealth inequality abetted by technology. He was correctly sure you couldn’t decouple the health of a society with the machines it depended on, which could have an outsize impact on economics.

In a smart The Conversation essay, Simon John James advises that the author’s social predictions have equal importance to his scientific ones. The opening:

No writer is more renowned for his ability to foresee the future than HG Wells. His writing can be seen to have predicted the aeroplane, the tank, space travel, the atomic bomb, satellite television and the worldwide web. His fantastic fiction imagined time travel, alien invasion, flights to the moon and human beings with the powers of gods.

This is what he is generally remembered for today, 150 years after his birth. Yet for all these successes, the futuristic prophecy on which Wells’s heart was most set – the establishment of a world state – remains unfulfilled. He envisioned a Utopian government which would ensure that every individual would be as well educated as possible (especially in science), have work which would satisfy them, and the freedom to enjoy their private life.

His interests in society and technology were closely entwined. Wells’s political vision was closely associated with the fantastic transport technologies that Wells is famous for: from the time machine to the Martian tripods to the moving walkways and aircraft in When the Sleeper Wakes. In Anticipations (1900), Wells prophesied the “abolition of distance” by real-life technologies such as the railway. He stressed that since the inhabitants of different nations could now travel towards each other more quickly and easily, it was all the more important for them to do so peacefully rather than belligerently.•

Tags: ,



supermanrobot (1)

  • Somehow I don’t think toil will ever completely disappear from the human struggle, but then I’m a product of my time.
  • Limitless abundance is on the table as more and more work becomes automated as is societal collapse. Distribution is the key, especially in the near future.
  • If post-scarcity were to become reality in the next several hundred years, humans would have to redefine why we’re here. I’m not so worried about that possibility if it happens gradually. I think we’re good at redirecting ourselves over time. It’s the crash into the new that can cause us trouble, and right now a collision seems more likely than a safe landing.
  • When we decided to head to the moon, many, even the U.S. President, thought travel into space would foster peace on Earth. Maybe it has helped somewhat and perhaps it will do so more in the future as we fan out through the solar system, but it wasn’t a cure-all for what ails us as a species. Neither would a work-free world make things perfect. We’ll still fight amongst ourselves and struggle to govern. It will likely be better, but it won’t be utopia. 

In a Guardian piece, Ryan Avent, author of The Wealth of Humans, writes of the potential pluses and perils of a work-free world. An excerpt:

Despite impressive progress in robotics and machine intelligence, those of us alive today can expect to keep on labouring until retirement. But while Star Trek-style replicators and robot nannies remain generations away, the digital revolution is nonetheless beginning to wreak havoc. Economists and politicians have puzzled over the struggles workers have experienced in recent decades: the pitiful rate of growth in wages, rising inequality, and the growing flow of national income to profits and rents rather than pay cheques. The primary culprit is technology. The digital revolution has helped supercharge globalisation, automated routine jobs, and allowed small teams of highly skilled workers to manage tasks that once required scores of people. The result has been a glut of labour that economies have struggled to digest.

Labour markets have coped the only way they are able: workers needing jobs have little option but to accept dismally low wages. Bosses shrug and use people to do jobs that could, if necessary, be done by machines. Big retailers and delivery firms feel less pressure to turn their warehouses over to robots when there are long queues of people willing to move boxes around for low pay. Law offices put off plans to invest in sophisticated document scanning and analysis technology because legal assistants are a dime a dozen. People continue to staff checkout counters when machines would often, if not always, be just as good. Ironically, the first symptoms of a dawning era of technological abundance are to be found in the growth of low-wage, low-productivity employment. And this mess starts to reveal just how tricky the construction of a workless world will be. The most difficult challenge posed by an economic revolution is not how to come up with the magical new technologies in the first place; it is how to reshape society so that the technologies can be put to good use while also keeping the great mass of workers satisfied with their lot in life. So far, we are failing.

Preparing for a world without work means grappling with the roles work plays in society, and finding potential substitutes.•


David Frost was a jester, then a king. After that, he was somewhere in between but always closer to royalty than risible. The Frost-Nixon interview saw to that.

Below is an excerpt from a more-timely-than ever interview from Frost’s 1970 book, The Americansan exchange about privacy the host had with Ramsey Clark, who served as U.S. Attorney General, who is still with us, doing a Reddit Ask Me Anything just last year. At the outset of this segment, Clark is commenting about wiretapping, though he broadens his remarks to regard privacy in general.

Ramsey Clark:

[It’s] an immense waste, an immoral sort of thing.

David Frost:

Immoral in what sense?

Ramsey Clark:

Well, immoral in the sense that government has to be fair. Government has to concede the dignity of its citizens. If the government can’t protect its citizens with fairness, we’re in real trouble, aren’t we? And it’s always ironic to me that those who urge wiretapping strongest won’t give more money for police salaries to bring real professionalism and real excellence to law enforcement, which is so essential to our safety.

They want an easy way, they want a cheap way. They want a way that demeans the integrity of the individual, of all of our citizens. We can’t overlook the capabilities of our technology. We can destroy privacy, we really can. We have techniques now–and we’re only on the threshold of discovery–that can permeate brick walls three feet thick. 

David Frost:

How? What sorts of things?

Ramsey Clark:

You can take a laser beam and you put it on a resonant surface within the room, and you can pick up any vibration in that room, any sound within that room, from half a mile away.

David Frost:

I think that’s terrifying.

Ramsey Clark:

You know, we can do it with sound and lights, in other words, visual-audio invasion of privacy is possible, and if we really worked at it with the technology that we have, in a few years we could destroy privacy as we know it.

Privacy is pretty hard to retain anyway in a mass society, a highly urbanized society, and if we don’t discipline ourselves now to traditions of privacy and to traditions of the integrity of the individual, we can have a generation of youngsters quite soon that won’t know what it meant because it wasn’t here when they came.•


Among the many vile, disgusting things about the Presidential campaign of Donald Trump is the love for autocrats expressed by the candidate and his followers. In exchange for a few words of flattery directed at the hideous hotelier, Vladimir Putin has been treated as if he were a hero rather than the preening capo he is. The thugocrat is celebrated for being “strong” when he’s actually foolishly leading his country into the past, trying to make Russia great again in a way that will never work. Sound familiar?

From Courtney Weaver at the Financial Times

From his perch in southern California, Jeff Grimord knows Vladimir Putin is no saint.

A 71-year-old executive recruiter in Newport Beach, Mr Grimord acknowledges the Russian president is often accused of “nasty things”. “Journalists who criticise him are found dead. A little bit of him is still a communist at heart.” Yet despite it all, he cannot help but feel enamoured of the Russian strongman.

“I think he’s the only leader of a large, major country that stands out these days,” Mr Grimord, a supporter of Donald Trump, explained in a recent interview. “He acts like he’s acting in his country’s interest and makes no bones about it.” 

Among the many curveballs of the US election, here is one more to add to the list. After years by being pilloried by western leaders, criticised by human rights groups and targeted by sanctions, Vladimir Putin has a small but sizeable fan club in certain corners of the US, particularly among voters who back Donald Trump. Perhaps more improbably, that fan club appears to be growing.•

Tags: , , ,


Just under two weeks ago, the BBC’s economics editor, Kamal Ahmed, sat down for a fascinating 90-minute Intelligence Squared conversation with Sapiens historian Yuval Noah Harari, whose futuristic new book, Homo Deus, was just released in the U.K. and has an early 2017 publication date in the U.S.

The Israeli historian believes that during the Industrial Revolution, humans have intellectually, if not practically, figured out how to put under our control the triple threats of famine, plague and war. He says these things still bedevil us, if to a lesser degree, because of politics and incompetence, not due to ignorance. (I’ll also add madness, individual and the mass kind, to those causes.) That’s great should we continue to use knowledge to reduce counterproductive politics, incompetence, and, ultimately, to further mitigate suffering. 

For the first time in history, Harari asserts, wide abundance is now more of a threat to us than want, with obesity a greater threat than starvation. As he says, “McDonald’s and Coca-Cola pose a far greater threat to our lives than Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.”

What will we do over the next century or two if we are able to shuffle off the old obstacles?

Harari says: “Try overcome sickness and death, find the keys to happiness and upgrade humans into gods…in the literal sense…to design life according to our wishes. The main products of the human economy will no longer be vehicles and textiles and food and weapons. The main products will be bodies and brains and minds. 

“The next phase will involve trying to gain mastery of what’s inside, of trying to decipher human biochemistry, our bodies, our brains, learning how to re-engineer them, learning how to manufacture them. This will require a lot of computing power. There’s no way the human brain has the capacity to decipher the secrets, to process the data that’s necessary to understand what’s happening inside. You need help from Artificial Intelligence and Big Data Systems, and this is what is happening already today. We see a merger of the biological sciences with computer sciences.”

Despite such promise, Harari doesn’t believe godliness is assuredly our ultimate destination. “The result may not be uploading humans into gods,” he says. “The result may be massive useless class…the end of humanity.”

The academic acknowledges he’s not an expert in AI and technology and when he makes predictions about the future, he takes for granted the accuracy of the experts in those fields. He argues that “you don’t really need to know how a nuclear bomb works” to understand its impact.

Also discussed: technological unemployment, a potentially new and radical type of wealth inequality, the poisonous American political season and how Native peoples selling Manhattan for colorful beads is recurring now with citizens surrendering private information for “free email and some cute cat videos.”•

Tags: ,


The American military has long dreamed of an automated force, though it was only a publicity stunt during the Jazz Age when robots “joined” the army. Since then, powerful tools emerged and were miniaturized, ultimately sliding low-priced supercomputers into almost every pocket. Now when it comes to making our fighting machine an actual machine, anything seems possible–or may soon be.

Even if we remain in control of the strategic decisions governing these new warriors, the mere presence of “unkillable” battalions will likely come to bear on our thinking. Sooner or later, with several well-funded nations vying for supremacy, mission creep could remove the controls from human hands.

In “Our New War Machines,” Scott Beauchamp’s Baffler piece, the Army veteran and writer says this shift from carbon to silicon soldiers will result in “less democratic oversight of the American military.” The opening:

For an institution synonymous with tradition and continuity, the American military is in quite a radical state of flux. In just the six or so years since I left the Army, two major demographic shifts that might superficially appear unrelated (or even contradictory) have taken place within the Department of Defense. The first of these transformations involves opening up the ranks of service to previously excluded or marginalized populations: bringing women soldiers into all combat roles, allowing gay and lesbian personnel to serve openly, repealing the ban on trans people in the military.

The other major change, known in the defense industry and milblog enclaves as the Third Offset Strategy, involves taking the human element out of combat entirely. Third Offset focuses on using robots to automate warfare and reduce human (or at least American human) exposure to combat. So at the same moment that more people than ever are able to openly serve in the United States military and find the level of service best suited to their talent and abilities, fewer people are actually necessary for waging war. 

The “offset” terminology itself signals the projected scale this transformation. In Pentagon-ese, an offset denotes a strategy aimed at making irrelevant a strategic advantage held by enemy forces. The first modern offset was the exploitation of American’s nuclear arsenal in the 1950s to compensate for the Warsaw pact participants’ considerable manpower advantage. The second offset was likewise geared toward outsmarting the Soviet war machine once it had gained roughly equivalent nuclear capabilities; it involved things like stealth technology, precision-guided munitions, and ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) platforms. But forty years on, our “near-peer” competitors, as the defense world refers to China and Russia, have developed their own versions of our second offset technologies. And so something new is needed; hence the Pentagon’s new infatuation with roboticized warfare.•



Aeon, which already presented a piece from Nicholas Carr’s new book, Utopia Is Creepy, has another, a passage about biotechnology which wonders if science will soon move too fast not only for legislation but for ethics as well.

The “philosophy is dead” assertion that’s persistently batted around in scientific circles drives me bonkers because we dearly need consideration about our likely commandeering of evolution. Carr doesn’t make that argument but instead rightly wonders if ethics is likely to be more than a “sideshow” when garages aren’t used to just hatch computer hardware or search engines but greatly altered or even new life forms. The tools will be cheap, the “creativity” decentralized, the “products” attractive. As Freeman Dyson wrote nearly a decade ago: “These games will be messy and possibly dangerous.”

From Carr:

If to be transhuman is to use technology to change one’s body from its natural state, then we are all already transhuman. But the ability of human beings to alter and augment themselves might expand enormously in the decades ahead, thanks to a convergence of scientific and technical advances in such areas as robotics, bioelectronics, genetic engineering and pharmacology. Progress in the field broadly known as biotechnology promises to make us stronger, smarter and fitter, with sharper senses and more capable minds and bodies. And scientists can already use the much discussed gene-editing tool CRISPR, derived from bacterial immune systems, to rewrite genetic code with far greater speed and precision, and at far lower cost, than was possible before. In simple terms, CRISPR pinpoints a target sequence of DNA on a gene, uses a bacterial enzyme to snip out the sequence, and then splices a new sequence in its place. The inserted genetic material doesn’t have to come from the same species. Scientists can mix and match bits of DNA from different species, creating real-life chimeras.

As long ago as 1923, the English biologist J B S Haldane gave alecturebefore the Heretics Society in Cambridge on how science would shape humanity in the future. ‘We can already alter animal species to an enormous extent,’ he observed, ‘and it seems only a question of time before we shall be able to apply the same principles to our own.’ Society would, Haldane felt sure, defer to the scientist and the technologist in defining the boundaries of the human species. ‘The scientific worker of the future,’ he concluded, ‘will more and more resemble the lonely figure of Daedalus as he becomes conscious of his ghastly mission, and proud of it.’

The ultimate benefit of transhumanism, argues Nick Bostrom, professor of philosophy at the University of Oxford, and one of the foremost proponents of radical human enhancement, is that it expands human potential, giving individuals greater freedom ‘to shape themselves and their lives according to their informed wishes’.Transhumanismunchains us from our nature. Critics take a darker view, suggesting that biological and genetic tinkering is more likely to demean or even destroy the human race than elevate it.

The ethical debate is profound, but it seems fated to be a sideshow.•



Read the fine print. That’s always been good advice, but it’s never been taken seriously when it comes to the Internet, a fast-moving, seemingly ephemeral medium that doesn’t invite slowing down to contemplate. So companies attach a consent form to their sites and apps about cookies. No one reads it, and there’s no legal recourse from having your laptop or smartphone from being plundered for all your personal info. It quietly removes legal recourse from surveillance capitalism.

In an excellent and detailed Locus Magazine essay, Cory Doctorow explains how this oversight, which has already had serious consequences, will snake its way into every corner of our lives once the Internet of Things turns every item into a computer, cars and lamps and soda machines and TV screens. “Notice and consent is an absurd legal fiction,” he writes, acknowledging that it persists despite its ridiculous premise and invasive nature.

An excerpt:

The coming Internet of Things – a terrible name that tells you that its proponents don’t yet know what it’s for, like ‘‘mobile phone’’ or ‘’3D printer’’ – will put networking capability in everything: appliances, light­bulbs, TVs, cars, medical implants, shoes, and garments. Your lightbulb doesn’t need to be able to run apps or route packets, but the tiny, com­modity controllers that allow smart lightswitches to control the lights anywhere (and thus allow devices like smart thermostats and phones to integrate with your lights and home security systems) will come with full-fledged computing capability by default, because that will be more cost-efficient that customizing a chip and system for every class of devices. The thing that has driven computers so relentlessly, making them cheaper, more powerful, and more ubiquitous, is their flexibility, their character of general-purposeness. That fact of general-purposeness is inescapable and wonderful and terrible, and it means that the R&D that’s put into making computers faster for aviation benefits the computers in your phone and your heart-monitor (and vice-versa). So every­thing’s going to have a computer.

You will ‘‘interact’’ with hundreds, then thou­sands, then tens of thousands of computers every day. The vast majority of these interactions will be glancing, momentary, and with computers that have no way of displaying terms of service, much less presenting you with a button to click to give your ‘‘consent’’ to them. Every TV in the sportsbar where you go for a drink will have cameras and mics and will capture your image and process it through facial-recognition software and capture your speech and pass it back to a server for continu­ous speech recognition (to check whether you’re giving it a voice command). Every car that drives past you will have cameras that record your like­ness and gait, that harvest the unique identifiers of your Bluetooth and other short-range radio devices, and send them to the cloud, where they’ll be merged and aggregated with other data from other sources.

In theory, if notice-and-consent was anything more than a polite fiction, none of this would hap­pen. If notice-and-consent are necessary to make data-collection legal, then without notice-and-consent, the collection is illegal.

But that’s not the realpolitik of this stuff: the reality is that when every car has more sensors than a Google Streetview car, when every TV comes with a camera to let you control it with gestures, when every medical implant collects telemetry that is collected by a ‘‘services’’ business and sold to insurers and pharma companies, the argument will go, ‘‘All this stuff is both good and necessary – you can’t hold back progress!’’•


1473606747742It’s amusing that the truest thing Hillary Clinton has said during the election season–the “basket of deplorables” line–has caused her grief. The political rise of the hideous hotelier Donald Trump, from his initial announcement of his candidacy forward, has always been about identity politics (identity: white), with the figures of the forgotten, struggling Caucasians of Thomas Frank narratives more noise than signal.

The American middle class has legitimately taken a big step back for four decades, owing to a number of factors (globalization, computerization, tax rates, etc.), but the latest numbers show a huge rebound for middle- and lower-class Americans under President Obama and his worker-friendly policies. 

Perhaps that progress will be short lived, with automation and robotics poised to alter the employment landscape numerous times in the coming decades. But the Digital Age challenges have been completely absent from Trump’s rhetoric (if he even knows about them). And his stated policies will reverse the gains made by the average American over the last eight years. His ascent has always been about color and not the color of money.

From Sam Fleming at the Financial Times:

Household incomes surged last year in the US, suggesting American middle class fortunes are improving in defiance of the dark rhetoric that has dominated the presidential election campaign.

A strengthening labour market, higher wages and persistently subdued inflation pushed real median household income up 5.2 per cent between 2014 and 2015 to $56,516, the Census Bureau said on Tuesday. This marked the first gain since the eve of the global financial crisis in 2007 and the first time that inflation-adjusted growth exceeded 5 per cent since the bureau’s records began in 1967.

But the increase in 2015 still brought incomes to just 1.6 per cent below the levels they were hovering at the year before the recession started and they remain 2.4 per cent below their peak in 1999. Income gains were largest at the bottom and middle of the income scale relative to the top, reducing income inequality. 

The US election debate has been dominated by the story of long-term income stagnation, with analysts attributing the rise of Donald Trump in part to the shrinking ranks of America’s middle class, rising inequality and the impact of globalisation on household incomes. Tuesday’s strong numbers, which cover the year in which the Republican candidate launched his campaign, cast that narrative in a new light.•

Tags: , ,


Not that long ago, it was considered bold–foolhardy, even–to predict the arrival of a more technological future 25 years down the road. That was the gambit the Los Angeles Times made in 1988 when it published “L.A. 2013,” a feature that imagined the next-level life of a family of four and their robots.

We may not yet be at the point when “whole epochs will pass, cultures rise and fall, between a telephone call and a reply“–I mean, who talks on the phone anymore?–but it doesn’t require a quarter of a century for the new to shock us now. In the spirit of our age, Alissa Walker of the Curbed LA works from the new report “Urban Mobility in the Digital Age” when imagining the city’s remade transportation system in just five years. Regardless of what Elon Musk promises, I’ll bet the over on autonomous cars arriving in a handful of years, but it will be transformative when it does materialize, and it’ll probably happen sooner than later.

The opening:

It’s 2021, and you’re making your way home from work. You jump off the Expo line (which now travels from Santa Monica to Downtown in 20 minutes flat), and your smartwatch presents you with options for the final two miles to your apartment. You could hop on Metro’s bike share, but you decide on a tiny, self-driving bus that’s waiting nearby. As you board, it calculates a custom route for you and the handful of other passengers, then drops you off at your doorstep in a matter of minutes. You walk through your building’s old parking lot—converted into a vegetable garden a few years ago—and walk inside in time to put your daughter to bed.

That’s the vision for Los Angeles painted in Urban Mobility in the Digital Age, a new report that provides a roadmap for the city’s transportation future. The report, which was shared with Curbed LA and has been posted online, addresses the city’s plan to combine self-driving vehicles (buses included) with on-demand sharing services to create a suite of smarter, more efficient transit options.

But it’s not just the way that we commute that will change, according to the report. Simply being smarter about how Angelenos move from one place to another brings additional benefits: alleviating vehicular congestion, potentially eliminating traffic deaths, and tackling climate change—where transportation is now the fastest-growing contributor to greenhouse gases. And it will also impact the way the city looks, namely by reclaiming the streets and parking lots devoted to the driving and storing of cars that sit motionless 95 percent of the time.

The report is groundbreaking because it makes LA the first U.S. city to specifically address policies around self-driving cars.•



We should always err on the side of whistleblowers like Edward Snowden because they’ve traditionally served an important function in our democracy, but that doesn’t mean the former NSA employee has changed America for the better–or much at all.

In the wake of 9/11, most in the country wanted to feel safe and were A-OK with the government taking liberties (figuratively and literally). Big Brother became the favorite sibling. The White House position and policy has shifted somewhat since Snowden went rogue, but I believe from here on in we’re locked in a cat-and-mouse game among government, corporations and citizens, with surveillance and leaks a permanent part of the landscape. The technology we have–and the even more powerful tools we’ll have in the future–almost demands such an arrangement. We’re all increasingly inside a machine now, one that moves much faster than legislation. That’s the new abnormal.

The Financial Times set up an interview with Snowden conducted by Alan Rusbridger, former EIC of the Guardian, the publication that broke the story. The subject is unsurprisingly much more hopeful about the impact of his actions than I am. An excerpt:

Alan Rusbridger:

It’s now, what, three years since the revelations?

Edward Snowden:

It’s been more than three years. June 2013.

Alan Rusbridger:

Tell me first how the world has changed since then. What’s changed as a result of what you did, from your perspective? Not from your personal life, but the story you revealed.

Edward Snowden:

The main thing is that our culture has changed, right? There are many different ways of approaching this. One is we look at the structural changes, we look at the policy changes, we look at the fact that the day the Guardian published the story, for example, the entire establishment leaped out of their chairs and basically said ‘This is untrue, it’s not right, there’s nothing to see here’. You know, ‘Nobody’s listening to your phone calls’, as the president said very early on. Do you remember? I think he sort of spoke with the voice of the establishment in all of these different countries here, saying, ‘I think we’ve drawn the right balance’.

Then you move on to later in the same year when the very first court verdicts began to come forward and they found that these programmes were ‘unlawful, likely unconstitutional’ — that’s a direct quote — and ‘Orwellian in their scope’ — again a quote. And this trend continued in many different courts. The government realising that these programmes could not be legally sustained and would have to be amended if they were to keep any of these powers at all. And to avoid a precedent that they would consider damaging, which is that the Supreme Court basically locks the power of mass surveillance away from them forever, they need a pretty substantial pivot, whereby January of 2014 the president of the US said that, well, of course you could never condone what I did. He believes that this has made us stronger as a nation and that he was going to be recommending changes to a law of Congress, which then later, again this is Congress, they don’t do anything quickly, they actually did amend the law.

Now, they would not likely have made these changes to law on their own without the involvement of the Courts. But these are all three branches of government in the US completely changing their position. In March of 2013, the Supreme Court flushed the case, right, saying that this is a state secret, we can’t talk about it and you can’t prove that you were spied on. Then suddenly when everyone can prove that they had been spied on, we see that the law changed. So that’s sort of the policy side of looking at that. And people can look at the substance there and say, ‘This is significant’. Even though it didn’t solve the problem, it’s a start and, more importantly, it empowers people, it empowers the public; it shows that, for the first time in four years, we can actually start to impose more oversight on intelligence agencies, on spies, rather than giving them a free pass to do whatever, simply because we’re scared, which is understandable but clearly not ethical.

As online threats race up national security agendas and governments look at ways of protecting their national infrastructures a cyber arms race is causing concern to the developed world. Then there’s the other way of looking at it, which is in terms of public awareness.•

Tags: ,

« Older entries § Newer entries »