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Radicals, be that terrorists or any manner of zealots, may be driven as much by mental illness as ideology. Are the kids signing up for the life of ISIS much different than the confused, damaged minions who roomed on a ranch with Manson? Young, troubled minds are open to such dangers. At New Scientist, epidemiologist Kamaldeep Bhui writes about radicalization as a mental health issue. An excerpt:

Research in the US following the 9/11 attacks suggested that having sympathies for terrorist acts and violent protest is a sign that people are susceptible to future radicalising influences. We took that as our starting point and assessed these kinds of sympathies in men and women of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin living in the UK.

We found that these views were uncommon – they were held by just 2.5 per cent of our sample – and were unrelated to poverty, political engagement, or experience of discrimination and adversity. However, we did find a correlation between extremist sympathies and being young, in full-time education, relative social isolation, and having a tendency towards depressive symptoms.

In contrast, we found that being born outside the UK, general ill health or having large social networks were all associated with moderate views. We also found that women were as likely as men to hold extreme sympathies, although the association with depression was stronger in men. Frequency of religious worship and attending a place of worship were not correlated with extremist leanings.

Such findings challenge many of the pervasive ideas about what drives radical beliefs, including the notion that religious orthodoxy fuels extremism.•

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Capitalism is good except when it’s bad–and vice versa. It’s the best machinery we’ve come up with to grow wealthier in the aggregate, and it’s still quite a shitstorm. 2008 was only the most recent reminder. Will political tumult caused by technological employment force it to be seriously moderated? In a Spiegel interview conducted by Romain Leick, Marxist jokester Slavoj Žižek sees gathering clouds in the Western political structure-democracy, namely–but he probably always does. The opening:

Spiegel:

Mr. Žižek, the financial and economic crisis showed just how vulnerable the free market system can be. You have made it your task to examine the contradictions of contemporary capitalism. Are you anticipating a new revolution?

Slavoj Žižek: 

Unfortunately not.

Spiegel:

But you would like to experience one? Are you still a communist?

Slavoj Žižek: 

Many consider me to be a crazy Marxist who’s waiting for the end of time. I may be a very eccentric, but I’m not a madman. I am a communist for lack of something better, out of despair over the situation in Europe. Six months ago, I was in South Korea to gave talks on the crisis in global capitalism, the usual you know, bla bla bla. Then the audience started to laugh and said: What are you talking about? Just look at us — China, South Korea, Singapore, Vietnam — we’re doing very well economically. So who is that has slipped into crisis? It’s you in Western Europe — or, more precisely, in parts of Western Europe.

Spiegel:

Well, it’s not quite as simple as that.

Slavoj Žižek: 

Still, there’s some truth to it. Why do we Europeans feel that our unfortunate situation is a full-fledged crisis? I think what we are feeling is not a question of yes or no to capitalism, but that of the future of our Western democracy. Something dark is forming on the horizon and the first wind storms have already reached us.•

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In their Matter essay, “Our Transparent Future,” Daniel C. Dennett and Deb Roy examine transparency from an evolutionary perspective and guess where this new normal (abnormal?) is taking us. When the Internet of Things is the thing, when drones and such shrink to the head of a pin, transparency will be the rule, almost everything knowable and leakable, which is a blessing and curse. And you’ll hardly hear the monitoring. It will flow like electricity through a wire, so quiet. The opening:

More than half a billion years ago a spectacularly creative burst of biological innovation called the Cambrian explosion occurred. In a geologic “instant” of several million years, organisms developed strikingly new body shapes, new organs, and new predation strategies and defenses against them. Evolutionary biologists disagree about what triggered this prodigious wave of novelty, but a particularly compelling hypothesis, advanced by University of Oxford zoologist Andrew Parker, is that light was the trigger. Parker proposes that around 543 million years ago, the chemistry of the shallow oceans and the atmosphere suddenly changed to become much more transparent. At the time, all animal life was confined to the oceans, and as soon as the daylight flooded in, eyesight became the best trick in the sea. As eyes rapidly evolved, so did the behaviors and equipment that responded to them.

Whereas before all perception was proximal — by contact or by sensed differences in chemical concentration or pressure waves — now animals could identify and track things at a distance. Predators could home in on their prey; prey could see the predators coming and take evasive action. Locomotion is a slow and stupid business until you have eyes to guide you, and eyes are useless if you cannot engage in locomotion, so perception and action evolved together in an arms race. This arms race drove much of the basic diversification of the tree of life we have today.

Parker’s hypothesis about the Cambrian explosion provides an excellent parallel for understanding a new, seemingly unrelated phenomenon: the spread of digital technology. Although advances in communications technology have transformed our world many times in the past — the invention of writing signaled the end of prehistory; the printing press sent waves of change through all the major institutions of society — digital technology could have a greater impact than anything that has come before. It will enhance the powers of some individuals and organizations while subverting the powers of others, creating both opportunities and risks that could scarcely have been imagined a generation ago.•

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China’s economic boom has been like nothing the world has ever seen, and that financial might will continue translating into political capital. But is the country headed for a painful correction similar to the one experienced by Japan in the 1990s? Perhaps, and that doesn’t even take into consideration a gigantic older population that will need to be supported as modernization increases lifespan. From Martin Wolf at Financial Times:

…why should anybody doubt China’s ability to grow quickly for years?

The first reason is that growing very quickly is rather like riding a bicycle: it goes well so long as speed is maintained. Once it slows, however, a bicycle starts to wobble. This is why managing deceleration is so hard. The second reason is crucial: the Chinese economy is highly unbalanced. Slowing an unbalanced economy is particularly hard.

A salient aspect of the unbalanced economy is the high savings rate and thus its reliance on investment as a source of demand. Yet, as the economy slows, the demand for investment is likely to fall more than proportionately. The reason is that past investment was done on the assumption of annual growth at 10 per cent. With growth substantially slower, excess capacity will be chronic. What do people do when they have excess capacity? They stop investing. That is also why China’s government needs to keep growth up: if it fails to do so, investment might collapse, with devastating effects.

That is not all. The combination of a debt overhang with a slowing economy is particularly damaging. Yet that is what the credit-fuelled, property-related investment boom has created. As growth slows so would the ability to service debt, even if underlying investments might ultimately be profitable. This decline in debt-servicing capacity would generate a “balance-sheet recession” in demand. That would add to the adjustment to investment outlined above. This combination is what laid the Japanese economy low in the 1990s.

If the Chinese economy is to shift into its new normal on a stable and sustainable basis, it has to avoid any such collapse.•

Idi Amin, peckish Ugandan dictator, was a barbaric monster and also a dad. One son, Jaffar Amin, a colorful character and something of a revisionist, is profiled by Justin Rohrlich in Foreign Policy. An excerpt:

Jaffar, now 48, lives in Kampala with his wife and six kids. A prolific Facebooker, he regularly posts pictures of his family, including his father, along with anecdotes, reminiscences, and the odd complaint about the current state of Uganda.

I’ve always been interested in the private lives of dictators, and a couple of years ago, after a quick search, I landed on Jaffar’s profile. I sent him a friend request, along with a note asking if he’d be willing to share his story with me for an article. I expected a polite “No thanks.” But Jaffar responded right away, agreeing to forward along “generic” answers to questions he has either been asked over the years, or ones he assumed he would be asked.

What he sent was anything but generic. One afternoon in August 2013, I looked at my inbox to find dozens and dozens of pages littered with almost stream-of-consciousness reminiscences about life with his father. It took a while to make sense of it all — some of it seemed to be notes for a future book, some of it taken from a talk Jaffar had given, and some of it consisted of large, disjointed blocks of text pasted directly into the email.

Jaffar doesn’t come off as some sort of evil dictator’s demon spawn, but rather as an everyday guy living in the suburbs. He spent 11 years working as a manager for DHL. These days, he picks up commercial voiceover gigs when he can — his dulcet tones have urged people to visit the Kampala showroom of a South Korean furniture company called Hwansung, to tune in to 88.2 FM, and to fly Qatar Airways.

Though I wouldn’t describe the two of us as “friends,” Jaffar and I have spoken on the phone a handful of times to discuss our possible collaboration. After about a year, Jaffar’s emails started coming with signoffs like, “God bless you and your family.” He recently wrote to me, “I owe you a wealth of thanks for bringing out the human side of my parent.”

At the same time, Jaffar has also obviously grown somewhat weary of discussing the past. Early on, when I asked one too many follow-up questions, Jaffar replied, “You could be a run-of-the-mill blogger for all I [know], for I have always only given Interviews to the Established Media Houses so consider this my last correspondence with you[,] take the gift or simply trash it or bin it as we Anglophones are fond of expressing.”

It was far from our last exchange.•

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With the Internet, for the first time we truly stepped inside the machine–and vice versa.

The Internet of Things will heighten the process, as we’ll be tracked and quantified like never before, a process which holds great promise and threat. The catch: You won’t be able to opt out. From Danny Bradbury at the Guardian:

Whenever someone introduces a pervasive new technology, someone else gets worried about it. With many already worried about surveillance issues, it’s no wonder that nightmare privacy scenarios surrounding the IoT have been popping up.

“The scariest thing is that we don’t know what the scariest thing is,” said Geoff Webb, senior director of solution strategy at identity and access management firm NetIQ.

The problem with the IoT is that no one quite knows what it’s going to look like. It’s a continuum that things like Amazon’s Dash, connected cars and smart meters usher us along, rather than a state that we suddenly enter. No one really understood how the internet was going to affect things, and the impact of the IoT will probably be more pervasive, rolling out over time, but affecting us more immediately and in more profound ways.

One thing we can predict is that an internet of sensors and other devices could generate a vast ocean of information about our activities.

“People can pull that information together in ways that are very difficult to predict,” said NetIQ’s Webb.

Some rental car firms now include sensors in the vehicles that warn drivers if they are driving too recklessly, based on how quickly and volatile its movements are. Some services are using phone services to do the same. He worries that people might be denied car insurance, for example, based on sensors like these delivering data to interested parties.

“The capacity to correlate information is going to change all of those interactions,” worries Webb. “I lose power over a great deal of my life when there’s a massive amount of information over me that I don’t have control over.”

What about other breaches, though, that may be more difficult to avoid, or are simply invisible? Could your utility’s smart meter – or your Google Nest device – know when you arrive and leave at your home based on energy usage patterns? When your smart bathroom scale beams data to a cloud-based health service, could that data be used by a health insurance provider?•

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I read once that if the population density of Brooklyn was applied to the whole of America, we’d be able to fit everyone into New Hampshire. Now, New Hampshire would most likely become a real sty, but it shows how inefficiently we’re using our land.

I don’t think any of us want rampant and unrelenting building in every nook of each neighborhood, but it’s clear that U.S. home prices are jacked up artificially by overaggressive zoning laws. There has to be a middle ground. From an :

BUY land, advised Mark Twain; they’re not making it any more. In fact, land is not really scarce: the entire population of America could fit into Texas with more than an acre for each household to enjoy. What drives prices skyward is a collision between rampant demand and limited supply in the great metropolises like London, Mumbai and New York. In the past ten years real prices in Hong Kong have risen by 150%. Residential property in Mayfair, in central London, can go for as much as £55,000 ($82,000) per square metre. A square mile of Manhattan residential property costs $16.5 billion.

Even in these great cities the scarcity is artificial. Regulatory limits on the height and density of buildings constrain supply and inflate prices. A recent analysis by academics at the London School of Economics estimates that land-use regulations in the West End of London inflate the price of office space by about 800%; in Milan and Paris the rules push up prices by around 300%. Most of the enormous value captured by landowners exists because it is well-nigh impossible to build new offices to compete those profits away.

The costs of this misfiring property market are huge, mainly because of their effects on individuals. High housing prices force workers towards cheaper but less productive places. According to one study, employment in the Bay Area around San Francisco would be about five times larger than it is but for tight limits on construction.•

Martin Ford, author of Rise of the Robots, is interviewed by Marguerite McNeal at Wired about the specter of technological unemployment. The story is labeled as “Sponsored Content” and seems to have been paid for by Nokia. Advertorial, I suppose. The ugh side of the media landscape. 

At any rate, Ford answers a question about the role social safety nets will play if we’re all out of work and out of luck. What will the highly ambitious do in such a new world order? It’s similar to the McAfee solution. The exchange:

Question:

So in the all-automated economy, what will ambitious 20-somethings choose to do with their lives and careers?

Martin Ford:

My proposed solution is to have some kind of a guaranteed income that incentivizes education. We don’t want people to get halfway through high school and say, ‘Well if I drop out I’m still going to get the same income as everyone else.’

Then I believe that a guaranteed income would actually result in more entrepreneurship. A lot of people would start businesses just as they do today. The problem with these types of businesses you can start online today is it’s hard to put enough together to generate a middle-class income.

If people had an income floor, and if the incentives were such that on top of that they could do other things and still keep that extra money, without having it all taxed away, then I think a lot of people would pursue those opportunities.

There’s a phenomenon called the Peltzman Effect, based on research from an economist at the University of Chicago who studied auto accidents. He found that when you introduce more safety features like seat belts into cars, the number of fatalities and injuries doesn’t drop. The reason is that people compensate for it. When you have a safety net in place, people will take more risks. That probably is true of the economic arena as well.

People say that having a guaranteed income will turn everyone into a slacker and destroy the economy. I think the opposite might be true, that it might push us toward more entrepreneurship and more risk-taking.•

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To be an early adopter in technology, you sometimes need to have as much money as vision. As Andrew McAfee notes in his latest Financial Times blog post, if you want to see how the 99% will soon live, just take a look at the 1%. No, the majority won’t soon have more money (less, probably), but the coveted goods and services of the privileged will soon probably become accessible to almost all.

Of course, the cheapening of these lifestyle choices, a further Walmartization of our economy, isn’t good for Labor. McAfee offers a remedy, if not a new one. An excerpt:

Of the many things I’ve learnt from Google’s chief economist Hal Varian, perhaps my favourite is his elegant and thrifty approach to prediction. “A simple way to forecast the future,” he says, “is to look at what rich people have today.” This works. Applying this method a few years ago would have led one to foresee the rise of Uber and the spread of smartphones around the world, to take just two examples.

Hal’s point is that tech progress quite quickly makes initially expensive things — both goods and services — cheaper, and so hastens their spread. Which is why this progress is the best economic news on the planet (I wish there were stiffer competition for that title these days).

So what do the rich have today that will soon spread widely? A recent article in the online magazine Matter probably holds a clue. Lauren Smiley’s “The Shut-In Economydetails the parade of delivery people and service providers that show up each evening at the apartment complexes that house San Francisco’s tech elite. Smiley writes that “Outside my building there’s always a phalanx of befuddled delivery guys… Inside, the place is stuffed with the goodies they bring.”•

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I’m pretty sure the NFL will be an all-robot league one day. Blocks getting knocked off minus the concussion-related litigation. But what if the machines grow intelligent and hire lawyers? Who am I kidding? They’ll be the clients and the lawyers.

In a Scientific American piece, Hutan Ashrafian isn’t only concerned about conscious machines extincting us but also how we will treat them and how they’ll treat each other. An excerpt:

Academic and fictional analyses of AIs tend to focus on human–robot interactions, asking questions such as: would robots make our lives easier? Would they be dangerous? And could they ever pose a threat to humankind?

These questions ignore one crucial point. We must consider interactions between intelligent robots themselves and the effect that these exchanges may have on their human creators. For example, if we were to allow sentient machines to commit injustices on one another—even if these ‘crimes’ did not have a direct impact on human welfare—this might reflect poorly on our own humanity. Such philosophical deliberations have paved the way for the concept of ‘machine rights.’ …

Animals that exhibit thinking behaviour are already afforded rights and protection, and civilized society shows contempt for animal fights that are set up for human entertainment. It follows that sentient machines that are potentially much more intelligent than animals should not be made to fight for entertainment.

Of course, military robots are already being deployed in conflicts. But outside legitimate warfare, forcing AIs and robots into conflict, or mistreating them, would be detrimental to humankind’s moral, ethical and psychological well-being.•

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Ramsey Clark, now there’s a person. Some people aren’t, but he is. A former U.S. Attorney General and a million other things, Clark just did an Ask Me Anything at Reddit. He answered questions in full paragraphs. Imagine that. An exchange about the JFK assassination and one about LBJ.

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Question:

My question pertains to your involvement in White House politics in the 1960’s and your familiarity with the assassination of President Kennedy: Who do you think orchestrated the assassination?

Ramsey Clark:

I remember thinking for years I’ll never be happy again after President Kennedy’s assassination.

Because the single act of a deranged person – being my interpretation, that only a deranged person would do it – could make you unhappy, then you’re making a fool of yourself for life. There are things to be done, you know? Including having a good time. Enjoying life.

And if you let it get you down, it’s your own fault.

But i remember I used to have to drive home from the Department of Justice. And I’d go down, over Memorial Bridge. And we worked late at night. And I’d see the Eternal Flame up there… and it nearly always pulled me down a little bit.

But it was reinforcing my determination to carry on.

It’s bad enough he got killed. But if it also got down the people nearest to him – then you became part of the problem, not the solution, yourself.

Well, there’s something in the nature of things that… makes us want to find some vast evil power that’s responsible for things that hurt us so badly.

But that’s very deceptive.

That happens, but life doesn’t work that way.

And you know, I went through it with President Kennedy, and with Bob Kennedy. I used to see the mother of the man that killed Bob Kennedy – she’d be there every morning I went in. There’d be times that I would be going in daily for weeks, ‘cuz somebody was in prison there, and his mother was always there. Every morning i went in, she was there. She was there waiting, because she’d get there, and wait, and wait. Perhaps she’d still be there when we left. Particularly if it was a trial morning.

We had a major trial in San Francisco, where you could see the prisoner in the morning, and then at the trial in a couple of hours.

Not often, but if there was something important to talk about, they’d bring him over and have him talk in the Courthouse. They brought Sirhan Sirhan over, in a helicopter, from the Federal prison on San Francisco bay, and landed on the roof as I recall. I’m not quite sure about that. But they brought him right to the courthouse by helicopter. But i’d see his mother nearly every time you got in there, if she wasn’t already visiting with her son. She was visiting him every day.

Which is another piece of evidence that we’re all human.

We demonize people, but everybody has a mother.

And nearly all those mothers love whomever happens to be their child.

That’s the way the world is. One of the better things about the world.

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Question:

What was Lyndon Johnson like?

Ramsey Clark:

Well, he was first and foremost a driven person.

Enormous store of energy. Worked all the time.

7 days a week, he was always working, always thinking ’bout his work. This was during his presidency.

I had the unfortunate position of being the liaison between Vice President Johnson and Attorney General Kennedy, because they didn’t like each other. So when they had communication between them, it went through me.

Which was an uncomfortable position to be in, but it was a service, haha! Communication was important, and neither of them felt like conducting it face-to-face.

But it certainly toned it down, and got the word through. It took a lot of my time. I spent better of it, but it was worth it.

Well, Johnson’s principal characteristic was he had enormous drive. And he worked ALL the time. He was thinking about work all the time.

He’d call at 3 o’clock in the morning and say “WHAT!? you’re asleep!?”

And you’d say Yes, you woke me up!

His job was 7 days a week, and probably close to 16, 18 hours a day.

But he loved it, hehe!

And it made a difference. It wasn’t good for family, perhaps, although what you find is that you make a lot better use of the time together when you don’t have much time together. So he and the girls and Ladybird were a very tight little family.

And very natural. I remember one night I was sitting there, about 8:30, and Lucy, the younger daughter, came in – it was a week night, and she was probably still in high school I think, probably a senior. And she had something she wanted to talk to him about. And so she started to go back to the door, and he said “You go back now finish your homework and go to bed.” And she said “No, I’m going out.” And he said “No, you’re not going out.” And she said “Daddy, it doesn’t work that way, I’m going out.”

That was an exact quote. “Daddy, it doesn’t work that way.” Haha!

I don’t think there’s many people in the world who would’ve talked to him like that, but his daughter would, haha!

Between a father and a daughter, it didn’t work that way. She didn’t elaborate on it, just said “Daddy, it doesn’t work that way.”

Course, they loved each other, but she went out on her date.•

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LBJ ordering pants:

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Weak AI and Strong AI (or Narrow AI and Artificial General Intelligence, if you prefer) can both help and hurt us, if on a different order of magnitude. The former can mow our lawns, disrupt the gardening industry and perhaps run down a cricket that you or I would have swerved from (though you and I haven’t been angels to the creatures, either). The latter is probably necessary if we are to avoid human extinction–although it may cause the same. In her Slate essay “Striking the Balance on Artificial Intelligence,” philosopher and neuroscientist Cecilia Tilli calmly assesses the situation. An excerpt:

The benefits of narrow A.I. systems are clear: They free up time by automatically completing tasks that are time-consuming for humans. They are not completely autonomous, but many require only minimal human intervention—the better the system, the less we need to do. A.I.s can also do other useful things that humans can’t, like proving certain mathematical theorems or uncovering hidden patterns in data.

Like other technologies, however, current A.I. systems can cause harm if they fail or are badly designed. They can also be dangerous if they are intentionally misused (e.g., a driverless car carrying bombs or a drone carrying drugs). There are also legal and ethical concerns that need to be addressed as narrow A.I. becomes smarterWho is liable for damages caused by autonomous cars? Should armed drones be allowed total autonomy?

Special consideration must be given to economic risks. The automation of jobs is on the rise. According to a study by Carl Frey and Michael Osborne (who are my colleagues at the University of Oxford), 47 percent of current U.S. jobs have a high probability of being automated by 2050, and a further 23 percent have a medium risk. Although the consequences are uncertain, some fear that increased job automation will lead to increased unemployment and inequality.

Given the already widespread use of narrow A.I., it’s easy to imagine the benefits of strong A.I. (also known as artificial general intelligence, or AGI). AGI should allow us to further automate work, amplify our ability to perform difficult tasks, and maybe even replace humans in some fields. (Think of what a fully autonomous, artificial surgeon could achieve.) More importantly, strong A.I. may help us finally solve long-standing problems—even deeply entrenched challenges like eradicating poverty and disease.  

But there are also important risks, and humanity’s extinction is only the most radical. More intermediate risks include general societal problems due to lack of work, extreme wealth inequality, and unbalanced global power.

Given even the remote possibility of such catastrophic outcomes, why are some people so unwilling to consider them? Why do people’s attitudes toward AGI risk vary so widely? The main reason is that two forecasts get confused. One concerns the possibility of achieving AGI in the foreseeable future; the other concerns its possible benefits. These are two different scenarios, but many people confuse them: “This is not happening any time soon” becomes “AGI presents no risks.”

In contrast, for many of us AGI is an actual possibility within the next 100 years. In that case, unless we prepare ourselves for the challenge, AGI could present serious difficulties for humanity, the most extreme being extinction. Again, these worries might just be precautionary: We don’t know when AGI is coming and what its impact will be. But that’s why we need to investigate the matter: Assuming that nothing bad will happen is just negligent wishful thinking.•

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A little more from Joseph Nye, author of Is the American Century Over?, who takes a largely sanguine view of our path forward, arguing that the U.S. still has great assets while acknowledging that it will no longer be lonely at the top. From Nye in the Financial Times:

A century is generally the limit for a human organism but countries are social constructs. Rome did not collapse until more than three centuries after it reached its apogee of power in 117AD. After American independence in 1776 Horace Walpole, the British politician, lamented that his nation had been reduced to the level of Sardinia, just as Britain was about to enter the industrial revolution that powered its second century as a global power.

Any effort at assessing American power in the coming decades should take into account how many earlier efforts have been wide of the mark. It is chastening to remember how wildly exaggerated US estimates of Soviet power in the 1970s and of Japanese power in the 1980s were. Today some see the Chinese as 10ft tall and proclaim this “the Chinese century”.

China’s size and relatively rapid economic growth will bring it closer to the US in terms of its power resources in the next few decades. But this does not necessarily mean it will surpass the US in military, economic and soft power.

Even if China suffers no big domestic political setback, many projections are simple linear extrapolations of growth rates that are likely to slow in the future. Moreover, economic projections are one dimensional. They ignore US military and soft power advantages, such as the desire of students around the world to attend US universities. They also overlook China’s geopolitical dis­advantages in the Asian balance of power, compared with America’s relations with Europe, Japan and India, which are likely to remain more favourable.

It is not impossible that a challenger such as China, Europe, Russia, India or Brazil will surpass the US in the first half of this century but it is but not likely. …

The real problem is not that it will be overtaken by China or another contender but rather that it faces a rise in the power resources of many others — both states and non-state actors such as transnational corporations, terrorist groups and cyber criminals.•

 

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Weak AI is going to roll in quietly, just a little hum to hypnotize us while the jobs disappear. The dream of the human-free labor force, a long-held one, is finally making strides. The robot butler is here, and you’ve been served. Grab what you can on the way out.

From “Bring on the Boring Robots,” Erik Sofge’s Popular Science piece about the mundane nature of the new machines, their gaze as blank and pitiless as the sun:

Compared to the usual subjects of robotics coverage—assassin drones, driverless cars, Amazon’s still-completely-hopeless delivery bot program—there’s nothing particularly titillating about an autonomous courier rolling quietly through hotel corridors, looking more like a small, mobile ATM than the “butler bot” that it’s sometimes described as. Is it interesting that it can weave through foot traffic without, as many other self-navigating bots do, grinding to a halt until the area is completely clear of humans? Is it cool that it can share an elevator with people, accomplishing the not-insignificant task of navigating in extremely close-quarters without bumping into or obstructing guests? Yes and yes, but only for people with an outsize interest in the nuts and bolts of robotics.

For everyone else, what’s interesting about SaviOne—and the upcoming Relay—is that they’re exactly as boring as robots should be, if they’re going to effectively populate the greater human world. Courier bots already ferry items around hospitals, though with less agility and understated charm as Savioke’s machines (SaviOne’s only on-screen facial feature is a pair of blinking eyes). The future of ubiquitous robotics isn’t in hyper-capable androids, but in specialized, good-enough systems that scurry about their narrowly-defined jobs.

Which isn’t to say that [Savioke CEO Steve] Cousins is thinking small. Hotels are obviously a huge market, and other environments could benefit from outsourcing the point-to-point delivery of small items to a mobile machine. Savioke is looking at nursing homes and offices, and banks have already expressed interest in Relay. Years from now, when fantasies of dishwasher-loading automatons are still fully out of reach, and self-driving cars are still relegated to HOV-style lanes in sunny California, we’ll have long since learned to ignore the swarms of hard-working, single-minded robots buzzing around underfoot. Boring is a matter of perspective.•

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If I’m still publishing this site by year’s end, I would think they’ll be a place on the Great 2015 Nonfiction Articles list (see last year’s) for Stefan Klein and Stephen Cave’s excellent new Aeon essay, “Once and Future Sins,” a thought experiment which considers what will be viewed as our deepest moral blind-spots in a century’s time. Can we divine it right now, or is it something none of us, conservative or liberal, even realize is an atrocity?

I would think slaughterhouses will be a sure thing, eating animals viewed the same as cannibalism. But what else? The penal system, I would assume. Probably income inequality. The future will name our sins for sure, but perhaps trying to do so in our time can hasten progress. As Klein and Cave point out, however, such moral advancement will come at the expense of some people’s privilege and pleasure, maybe even yours and mine. The essay’s opening:

In 100 years it will not be acceptable to use genderised words such as ‘he’ or ‘she’, which are loaded with centuries of prejudice and reduce a spectrum of greys to black and white. We will use the pronoun ‘heesh’ to refer to all persons equally, regardless of their chosen gender. This will of course apply not only to humans, but to all animals.

It will be an offence to eat any life-form. Once the sophistication, not only of other animals, but also of plants has been recognised, we will be obliged to accept the validity of their striving for life. Most of our food will be synthetic, although the consumption of fruit – ie, those parts of plants that they willingly offer up to be eaten – will be permitted on special occasions: a birthday banana, a Christmas pear.

We will not be permitted to turn off our smartphones – let alone destroy them – without their express permission. From the moment Siri started pleading with heesh’s owners not to upgrade to a newer model, it became clear that these machines contained a consciousness with interests of heesh’s own. Old phones will instead be retired to a DoSSBIS (Docking Station for Silicon-Based Intelligent Systems).

Privacy will have been abolished, and regarded as a cover for criminality and hypocrisy. It will be an offence to use a pseudonym online – why would anyone do this except to abuse or deceive others? – and all financial transactions of any kind, including earnings and tax payments – will automatically appear on the internet for all to see. With privacy, prudishness too will disappear; for example, wearing a bikini or trunks to go swimming will be seen as no less absurd than bathing in a bow-tie and top hat.

In 100 years, the idea that ordinary humans – prone to tiredness and drunkenness, watery eyes and sneezing fits – could be in sole charge of weapons, cars or other dangerous objects will cause the average citizen to shudder. All driving, fighting and arresting will be done by silicon-based intelligent systems that are prone neither to a tipple nor to hay fever.

Wasting water will be regarded with the same horror that we now regard the spilling of blood: as a squandering of the stuff of life. Those who flushed toilets with water of drinking quality (everyone in the industrialised world) will be put on a par with those who shot the last tigers.

Well, maybe.•

 

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robotcoffee

Mark Bittman of the New York Times, perhaps distracted by a particularly succulent cantaloupe, isn’t nearly the first to argue that technological unemployment may soon reach its tentacles into our pockets. Bittman urges for Guaranteed Basic Income, something Richard Nixon tried, if unsuccessfully, to bring into being. The opening of “Why Not Utopia?“:

SOME quake in terror as we approach the Terminator scenario, in which clever machines take over the world. After all, it isn’t sci-fi when Stephen Hawking says things like, “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”

But before the robots replace us, we face the challenge of decreasing real wages resulting, among other factors, from automation and outsourcing, which will itself be automated before long. Inequality (you don’t need more statistics on this, do you?) is the biggest social challenge facing us. (Let’s call climate change, which has the potential to be apocalyptic rather than just awful, a scientific challenge.) And since wealthy people don’t spend nearly as high a percentage of their incomes as poor people do, much wealth is sitting around not doing its job.

The result is that we’re looking at fewer jobs that pay the equivalent of what an autoworker or a teacher made in the ’60s and ’70s. All but a lucky few will either have the kind of service jobs that are now paying around $9 an hour, or be worse off.

And if robots can think, be creative, teach themselves, beat humans at chess and even Jeopardy, flip burgers, take care of your aging parent, plant, tend and harvest lettuce, drive cars, deliver packages, build iPhones and run warehouses — Amazon’s “Kiva” robots can carry 3,000 pounds, stock shelves and select and ship packages — it’s hard to imagine what these jobs might be.

Welcome to the Brave New World, one featuring even fewer haves and more have-nots than the current one. The winners and losers are the same, but the polarity is even more extreme.•

Government in America is far from perfect, but I still trust it a great deal more than corporations. Libertarians and Silicon Valley billionaires who feel differently aim to build a floating nation in the ocean, many nautical miles beyond regulation. The Seasteading Institute (“Opening humanity’s next frontier”) is to allow Burning Man to walk on water. I have no worries whatsoever about this planned “soaktopia,” but I am concerned about the mindset it reveals, a longing by some for a runaway free market here on solid ground. From Conor Lynch at Salon:

As some may already know, Thiel has teamed up with the grandson of libertarian icon Milton Friedman, Patri Friedman, to try and develop a “seastead,” or a permanent and autonomous dwelling at sea. Friedman formed the “Seasteading Institutein 2008, and Thiel has donated more than a million dollars to fund its creation.

It is all very utopian, to say the least. But on the website, they claim a floating city could be just years away. The real trick is finding a proper location to build this twenty-first century atlantis. Currently, they are attempting to find a host nation that will allow the floating city somewhat close to land, for the calm waters and ability to easily travel to and from the seastead.

The project has been coined “libertarian island,” and it reveals a building movement within Silicon Valley; a sort of free market techno-capitalist faction that seems to come right out of Ayn Rand’s imagination. And as with all utopian ideologies, it is very appealing, especially when you live in a land where everything seems possible, with the proper technological advancements.

Tech billionaires like Thiel, Travis Kalanick and Marc Andressen, are leading the libertarian revolution in the land of computers, and it is not a surprising place for this laissez faire ideology to flourish. Silicon Valley is generally considered to have a laid back Californian culture, but behind all of the polite cordialities, there rests a necessary cutthroat attitude. A perfect example of this was Steve Jobs, who was so revered by the community, and much of the world, yet almost psychopathically merciless. The recent anti-trust case against the big tech companies like Google, Apple, and Intel, who colluded not to recruit each others employees, has even lead to speculation as to whether Jobs should be in jail today, if he were still alive.

So while Silicon Valley is no doubt a socially progressive place (i.e. gay marriage), if one looks past social beliefs, there is as much ruthlessness as you’d expect in any capitalist industry. Look at the offshore tax avoidance, the despicable overseas working conditions, the outright violations of privacy and illegal behavior. There is a very real arrogance within Silicon Valley that seems to care little about rules and regulations.•

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Speaking of Alvin Toffler’s dour prognostications, while he’s been wrong about some things and tended to roll disparate crises (Watergate, oil shortage, unemployment, etc.) into a neat ball of apocalypse, he was right before most in realizing the Industrial Revolution was all but over. From a 1974 People Q&A with Toffler conducted by Christopher P. Andersen:

Question:

Do any world leaders comprehend what you regard as a grave situation?

Alvin Toffler:

I don’t think President Ford has a glimmer, nor do any of the Democratic front-runners. British Prime Minister Harold Wilson doesn’t have a clue, and Soviet party chief Leonid Brezhnev is too busy trying to bring the 20th century to a 19th century economy. Still, French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing (a former finance minister) does have some idea of the enormity of the crisis and some glimmering vision of the society that might replace our current industrial civilization.

Question:

What will we run into en route to that “new civilization”?

Alvin Toffler:

We can expect to experience some turbulent, painful, conflict-filled years. It could lead to a better ecological balance, a stronger world economy and more equality in terms of nations and individuals. Or we could be moving into a period of totalitarianism. It would not surprise me if there are attempted coups in England, France, Japan and here. Nor would I be surprised to see violent confrontations in this country over jobs.

Question:

Can’t we solve unemployment within the existing system?

Alvin Toffler:

Even if we succeed in lowering the jobless rate and curbing inflation within the next six months or one year, our troubles aren’t over. Any such improvement would be only temporary.

Question:

What is your solution?

Alvin Toffler:

I think we have to get serious about setting up a transnational system to keep the multinationals from barreling down the international highways without observing the traffic laws. It is also time to build up food and resource stockpiles as stabilizers. And instead of trying to employ jobless workers at the national level, we should set up a decentralized network of work projects. The idea that governments can solve the economic crisis by turning a spigot in the central bank or by suddenly raising or lowering taxes for the nation as a whole is obsolete.•

 

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If every police officer in Ferguson were African-American, it probably wouldn’t change much of anything.

Apart from a brief shining moment directly following Emancipation, when former slaves began to gain a political foothold in the country, the postbellum history of race in America, from Jim Crow to George Zimmerman, has been about pre-criminalizing African-Americans, painting them as a class of predators not to be trusted. It’s never been about keeping the peace but about maintaining the power.

There are racist police officers, of course, but even a race-blind force in every U.S. town and city wouldn’t have made things fair because fair was never on the docket. An example: Studies have shown that white and black Americans smoke marijuana at similar levels yet the latter are arrested three times more often. That enters a large group of people into a system they never should have been a part of. In this way, we endeavor to create a criminal class.

The Broken Windows Theory allowed for petty offenses (or alleged ones) to be amplified into breaches of great importance–these measures will stop violent crime!–with the police reimagined as hectoring (if heavily armed) meter maids, the citizens serving as beleaguered piggy banks. Add in profiling and you have an endlessly harassed race of people, and sooner or later these confrontations lead to tragedy.

The micromanaging of civil life has turned us all into potential suspects and African-Americans into arrests waiting to happen. The difference between a stroll and a perp walk has never been narrower.

The opening of David Graeber’s Gawker essay “Ferguson and the Criminalization of American Life“:

The Department of Justice’s investigation of the Ferguson Police Department has scandalized the nation, and justly so. But the department’s institutional racism, while shocking, isn’t the report’s most striking revelation.

More damning is this: in a major American city, the criminal justice system perceives a large part of that city’s population not as citizens to be protected, but as potential targets for what can only be described as a shake-down operation designed to wring money out of the poorest and most vulnerable by any means they could, and that as a result, the overwhelming majority of Ferguson’s citizens had outstanding warrants.

Many will try to write off this pattern of economic exploitation as some kind of strange anomaly. In fact, it’s anything but. What the racism of Ferguson’s criminal justice system produced is simply a nightmarish caricature of something that is beginning to happen on every level of American life; something which is beginning to transform our most basic sense of who we are, and how we—or most of us, anyway—relate to the central institutions of our society, in ways that are genuinely disastrous.

The DOJ’s report has made us all familiar with the details: the constant pressure on police to issue as many citations as possible for minor infractions (such as parking or seat-belt violations) and the equal pressure on the courts to make the fines as high as possible; the arcane court rules apparently designed to be almost impossible to follow (the court’s own web page contained incorrect information); the way citizens who had never been found guilty—indeed, never even been accused—of an actual crime were rounded up, jailed, threatened with “indefinite” incarceration in fetid cells, risking disease and serious injury, until their destitute families could assemble hundreds if not thousands of dollars in fines, fees, and penalties to pay their jailers.

As a result of such practices, over three quarters of the population had warrants out for the arrest at any given time. The entire population was criminalized.•

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John Naisbitt, who spent two years on the New York Times Bestseller list in the early 1980s with Megatrends, proved a pretty good prognosticator, not just a useful counterpoint to the previous decade’s dire soothsaying of Alvin Toffler. They were both right on many counts, often seeing flip sides of the same coin. His comments about technology not reordering socializing along more-virtual lines seem off the mark, however. Three quick excerpts follow from a 1982 People Q&A conducted by John Stickney.

______________________

Question:

Are we more obsessed with the future than past generations?

John Naisbitt:

Yes, because of an important shift in our time orientation. As an agricultural society, we were oriented to the past, with traditions of how to plant and harvest. An industrial society is oriented to the present—get it out, get it done, ad hoc, bottom line, short term. Now we’re changing from an industrial society to one based on information, and that’s a megatrend. An information society is oriented to the future, which is why we’re so interested in it. We’re drowning in data, yet thirsty for intelligence and knowledge.

Question:

With this deluge of data, don’t a lot of people feel they may go under?

John Naisbitt:

Of course. People are looking for something to hold onto, and that’s why we’re having a religious revival. That’s also why we have all these waves of nostalgia. We want to cling to the past, which is becoming ever more recent, by the way. The past is the 1950s and 1960s.

Question:

How can you get a fix on the future?

John Naisbitt:

A sense of what’s happening now would put us way ahead. Practically the whole country continues to act as if we’re an industrial society. You shouldn’t get depressed about the latest gloomy business statistics, which are often rooted in old indices like the Dow Jones industrial average. Many companies in electronics, biotechnology and other so-called “sunrise sectors” are going strong. They’re the ones to invest in now. The economy is much better off than the economists represent to us.

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Question:

Why are there so many start-ups now?

John Naisbitt:

Because access to the system is so much easier. In the old economy the strategic resource was capital. Now it’s what’s in your head, it’s information, not how much money you’ve got in your pocket. Think about all those kids starting software companies. One-third of the new businesses today are started by women.

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Question:

The home of the future may be a so-called “electronic cottage” connected by computer to the outside world and to the workplace. Won’t this put a damper on old-fashioned socializing? 

John Naisbitt:

On the contrary. The electronic cottage won’t go very far because people want to be with people. The more technology you put in society, the more people will seek ways to congregate at movies, restaurants, shopping malls. There will be no end to office meetings. It’s a trade-off I call “high tech/ high touch.”

Question:

Would you explain?

John Naisbitt:

The idea is we put in high technology and then create a compensatory human element, or we reject the technology. For example, simultaneous with the wave of stories about the wide-spread use of computers in schools have been reports about either reviving religion there or teaching courses in values.

Question:

Where’s the political power going?

John Naisbitt:

It’s decentralizing. The percentage of eligible voters casting ballots in presidential and congressional elections continues to decline, but turnouts for local initiatives and referenda are going up—as high as 75 and 80 percent in some areas. State governments in particular are asserting themselves. Nevada, for example, is demanding state control over the four-fifths of its land now under federal jurisdiction. The decentralizing trend is reinforced by states increasingly dealing directly on their own behalf with countries all around the world.

Question:

Don’t you see any threatening clouds on the horizon?

John Naisbitt:

Of course. What are we going to do about our underclass, our industrial workers who need retraining, and our aging population? I don’t have the answers, but I’m convinced changes will come from the local level, with the private sector involved. Just because something must be done doesn’t mean the federal government creates a solution and then we all salute it.•

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Earlier this week, Elon Musk made this provocative comment about a future in which autonomous automobiles have been perfected: “People may outlaw driving cars because it’s too dangerous.” A good deal more work needs to be done before robocars are finished, but as Emily Badger writes in the Washington Post, no such legislation would be required in Musk’s scenario. An excerpt:

What Musk hasn’t considered, though, is that the importance of public safety here will no doubt bump up against another equally prized American value: individual freedom. And when the two conflict, we don’t always chose the former. We chose, for instance, to allow widespread private gun ownership in America, despite its costs in gun violence and the prevalence of accidents.

Your right to drive a car isn’t protected by a constitutional amendment. But it’s a form of freedom that’s deeply engrained in American culture. It’s hard to imagine lawmakers ever taking it away, even in the face of persuasive safety data. Like with vaccines, driverless cars may one day create a kind of herd effect short of 100 percent adoption, and maybe we’ll live with that. Maybe the cars that will be driven by computers will be able to compensate for the bad decisions of cars driven by humans.

All of this is a case for why lawmakers probably won’t ban human driving. But that doesn’t mean the private market won’t effectively do the same. Fifty years from now, if you still want to drive your vintage 2021 Camry onto a highway humming with autonomous cars, you may have a very hard time finding insurance to do that — that is, if you can still find the car.•

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Robert Reich is opting in on technological socialism, a phrase often uttered by futurists, believing automation will cause a paucity of good jobs, and, one way or another, an endgame for capitalism that’s functional. He may be overreacting, but a working world of few hands and a long tail is at least a strong possibility. An excerpt:

The iEverything will be the best machine ever invented.

The only problem is no one will be able to buy it. That’s because no one will have any means of earning money, since the iEverything will do it all.

This is obviously fanciful, but when more and more can be done by fewer and fewer people, the profits go to an ever-smaller circle of executives and owner-investors.

One of the young founders of WhatsApp, CEO Jan Koum, had a forty-five percent equity stake in the company when Facebook purchased it, which yielded him $6.8 billion.

Cofounder Brian Acton got $3 billion for his twenty percent stake.

Each of the early employees reportedly had a one percent stake, which presumably netted them $160 million each.

Meanwhile, the rest of us will be left providing the only things technology can’t provide – person-to-person attention, human touch, and care. But these sorts of person-to-person jobs pay very little.

That means most of us will have less and less money to buy the dazzling array of products and services spawned by blockbuster technologies—because those same technologies will be supplanting our jobs and driving down our pay.

We need a new economic model.•

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It’s not always easy to distinguish between a nudge and a shove, as we well know already from the advertising age and will know even better once the Internet of Things becomes the thing. In “The Algorithmic Self,” Frank Pasquale’s expansive Hedgehog Review piece about how the new, non-humming machine we’ve built can quietly quantify us–direct us, even–while making it impossible to opt out. He surveys the landscape, looking at therapeutic robots, invasions of privacy, the dawn of a new type of surveillance, etc. An excerpt:

For many technology enthusiasts, the answer to the obesity epidemic—and many other problems—lies in computational countermeasures to the wiles of the food scientists. App developers are pioneering behavioristic interventions to make calorie counting and exercise prompts automatic. For example, users of a new gadget, the Pavlok wristband, can program it to give them an electronic shock if they miss exercise targets. But can such stimuli break through the blooming, buzzing distractions of instant gratification on offer in so many rival games and apps? Moreover, is there another way of conceptualizing our relationship to our surroundings than as a suboptimal system of stimulus and response?

Some of our subtlest, most incisive cultural critics have offered alternatives. Rather than acquiesce to our manipulability, they urge us to become more conscious of its sources—be they intrusive advertisements or computers that we (think we) control. For example, Sherry Turkle, founder and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, sees excessive engagement with gadgets as a substitution of the “machinic” for the human—the “cheap date” of robotized interaction standing in for the more unpredictable but ultimately challenging and rewarding negotiation of friendship, love, and collegiality. In The Glass Cage, Nicholas Carr critiques the replacement of human skill with computer mediation that, while initially liberating, threatens to sap the reserves of ingenuity and creativity that enabled the computation in the first place.

Beyond the psychological, there is a political dimension, too. Legal theorist and Georgetown University law professor Julie Cohen warns of the dangers of “modulation,” which enables advertisers, media executives, political consultants, and intelligence operatives to deploy opaque algorithms to monitor and manipulate behavior. Cultural critic Rob Horning ups the ante on the concerns of Cohen and Turkle with a series of essays dissecting feedback loops among surveillance entities, the capture of important information, and self-readjusting computational interventions designed to channel behavior and thought into ever-narrower channels. Horning also criticizes Carr for failing to emphasize the almost irresistible economic logic behind algorithmic self-making—at first for competitive advantage, then, ultimately, for survival.6

To negotiate contemporary algorithms of reputation and search—ranging from resumé optimization on LinkedIn to strategic Facebook status updates to OkCupid profile grooming—we are increasingly called on to adopt an algorithmic self, one well practiced in strategic self-promotion. This algorithmic selfhood may be critical to finding job opportunities (or even maintaining a reliable circle of friends and family) in an era of accelerating social change. But it can also become self-defeating. Consider, for instance, the self-promoter whose status updates on Facebook or LinkedIn gradually tip from informative to annoying. Or the search engine−optimizing website whose tactics become a bit too aggressive, thereby causing it to run afoul of Google’s web spam team and consequently sink into obscurity. The algorithms remain stubbornly opaque amid rapidly changing social norms. A cyber-vertigo results, as we are pressed to promote our algorithmic selves but puzzled over the best way to do so.•

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Charter cities don’t work very often, probably because top-down design is antithetical to human nature, trial-and-error needing to be a more gradual and granular process. The stately pleasure-dome may work for Kubla Khan but not so much for you and I. Some academics love placing these planned utopias at the heart of bull sessions, building this city or tearing down that one in their heads. It can be disquieting to listen to, even if the intentions are good. In a new EconTalk episode, host Russ Roberts and NYU economist Paul Romer had such a talk. Two excerpts follow.

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Paul Romer:

You can think of a charter city as a kind of a zone, but a big one, big enough to encompass an entire city. One of the questions that you confront when you propose new zones is: What fraction of existing zones have succeeded, in any sense? Most zones fail. And so we have to ask, Why is that? It could be that starting a zone is kind of like starting a startup firm: even if you do it right there’s a high probability that it won’t succeed. But you keep doing it because the ones that do succeed are worth enough. But I think there’s another problem with zones around the world, which is that they fail in ways that you could have predicted when you started them, because they took this form that I’m calling a ‘concession zone.’ So, what’s the difference? A concession zone is a zone where you do something differently as a kind of a concession, a gift to some favored party. So, you give a tax holiday or some other kind of favored treatment to people who get those favors through mechanisms that are pretty easy to forecast. The test of whether something is a reform, or reform zone, is: Do you want it to extend to the rest of the country, and, do you want it to last forever? So, for example, a tax holiday, which is just for firms in a zone and just for a finite amount of time is clearly a concession. There’s no sense that this is something you’d want to extend to every firm in the country and extend forever, because typically they have no plan for how they would recover the tax revenue that they’d give up that way. So the thing to ask in small or big zones all over the world, is: Are governments using these to try out reforms that they want to spread throughout the rest of the country and have last forever, or are they just using them to give some concessions? And if they are to give some concessions, the probability that it won’t do anything good for the country, the ex ante probability, is very low.

Russ Roberts: 

Now, the way I originally understood the idea of a charter city is you have a system–you have a country, excuse me–where the governance of the country is failing in some dimension and it’s very difficult under that scenario, under that situation, for the government to credibly commit to reforming itself. And what a charter city would do is import essentially the institutions of a different country which they are more likely and more credibly able to promise about property rights, the rule of law, say, crime. And in this way you could encourage foreign investment, or any kind of investment, in that city, that you wouldn’t be able to attract if you were stuck under the governance of the host country. That idea is only one kind of charter city or one kind of reform, correct? Because you’re really talking about something more like a laboratory where trial and error could be used to assess effectiveness. 

Paul Romer: 

Yeah. I think the general concept here is that you use the decision to opt in to a new geographic area as an opportunity to implement reforms of any sort, any type of reform, that might be controversial if you tried to implement it on a group of people who were already in a particular location. Think of it as a way to avoid–is to try something new without any coercion. Try something new where the people who live under this new regime choose voluntarily to be part of that. And the thing that you try to do differently or try to do new can take many different forms; and different countries at different stages of development might try many different kinds of reforms or just innovations in their systems of rules. So, the one you were describing where the reform you want to undertake is one where you import government services from outside, I think that’s in practice a very important possible type of reform for poor countries. But the more general concept would allow many different types of reforms. You can even consider a new reform zone/city in the United States where you might do something like say, well, every vehicle in this city has to have autonomous control, instead of driver control. Or you might say, we’re going to ban any use of gasoline and diesel and just rely on natural gas and build the infrastructure for that. So, there’s things you can try in the new setting that would be very difficult from a technical point of view and a political point of view to try in an existing setting; and we might learn a lot that generalizes from running an experiment like that.

Russ Roberts: 

Well, what’s exhilarating about it is it allows the choice of a city to be similar to my choice of, say, music player. Right? Nobody sticks me with a music player. I go out and choose the one I want. I choose the phone I want. I choose the kind of house I want to live in, and I choose the books I want to read. I can choose the government I want but the costs of that choice are very different, right? 

Paul Romer: 

Yeah.

Russ Roberts: 

Because I can move.

Paul Romer: 

Yeah. When I teach about cities these days I tell students to think of cities as intermediate entities between the nation and a business. So, I don’t think a city is identical to a business. And I think there are some city functions that we couldn’t privatize to a corporate governance accountability kind of model. Policing is the test case on this. I think very few people would actually voluntarily choose to go someplace where there’s a police force and a judicial system that could lock you up that’s run by a corporate entity. And I think that doesn’t change whether it’s a nonprofit or a for-profit corporate entity. So, what we’re doing is using some of the same mechanisms for cities, like choice by consumers or users–we’re using choice, but it’s on an entity which is still likely to have some form of government that’s subject to some form of political accountability. And what this reform-zone idea does is more fully exploit the possibilities of this thing that lies between the nation and the business.•

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Russ Roberts:

So, if you say to me, ‘Hey, we’re starting this new town. It’s fabulous. It’s going to have driverless–this is the town that me and 17 other people would want to live in. It’s got driverless cars, natural gas fuel, no minimum wage laws–whole range of, say, attractive things. So, it’s clean air; it’s fabulous. But they you say: ‘But where is it?’ ‘Well, it’s in the middle of Nebraska.’ ‘But I don’t want to live in the middle of Nebraska.’ So in a way, all the good spots have been taken in the United States. That’s why there are cities there already. So, one of the challenges I think of thinking about Shenzhen and India and China, where their population is growing so fast: It’s going to be very appealing sometimes to leave a city for a new place. It’s a little more challenging in a country like the United States–imagine where this magical city of Oz would be.

Paul Romer:

Yeah. Well, I think we have to use a little bit of imagination. This is mostly being facetious, but one thing I tell people, having visited Long Beach, California just once, is that we should think about Long Beach as a tear down. You know, it’s a really ugly city, but in a beautiful location.

Russ Roberts:

Uuuh, uhhh, yeah–

Paul Romer:

We ought to just tell them to tear down the whole city. And then if you build like a Manhattan in Long Beach–if you could get like Manhattan densities and street activity and excitement, with California weather, man, that would be a successful real estate project.•

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In her NYRB piece on Nicholas Carr’s The Glass Cage, Sue Halpern runs through periods of the twentieth century when fears of technological unemployment were raised before receding, mentioning a 1980 Time cover story about the Labor-destabilizing force of machines. These projections seemed proved false as job creation increased considerably during the Reagan Administration, but as Halpern goes on to note, that feature article may have been prescient in ways we didn’t then understand. Income inequality began to boom during the last two decades of the previous century, a worrying trajectory that’s only been exacerbated as we’ve moved deeper into the Digital Revolution. Certainly there are other causes but automation is likely among them, with the new wealth in the hands of fewer, algorithms and robots managing a good portion of the windfall-creating toil. And if you happen to be working in many of the fields likely to soon be automated (hotels, restaurants, warehouses, etc.), you might want to ask some former travel agents and record-store owners for resume tips. 

Halpern zeroes in on a Carr topic often elided by economists debating whether the next few decades will be boon or bane for the non-wealthy: the hole left in our hearts when we’re “freed” of work. Is that something common to us because we were born on the other side of the transformation, or are humans marked indelibly with the need to produce beyond tweets and likes? Maybe it’s the work, not the play, that’s the thing. From Halpern:

Here is what that future—which is to say now—looks like: banking, logistics, surgery, and medical recordkeeping are just a few of the occupations that have already been given over to machines. Manufacturing, which has long been hospitable to mechanization and automation, is becoming more so as the cost of industrial robots drops, especially in relation to the cost of human labor. According to a new study by the Boston Consulting Group, currently the expectation is that machines, which now account for 10 percent of all manufacturing tasks, are likely to perform about 25 percent of them by 2025. (To understand the economics of this transition, one need only consider the American automotive industry, where a human spot welder costs about $25 an hour and a robotic one costs $8. The robot is faster and more accurate, too.) The Boston group expects most of the growth in automation to be concentrated in transportation equipment, computer and electronic products, electrical equipment, and machinery.

Meanwhile, algorithms are writing most corporate reports, analyzing intelligence data for the NSA andCIA, reading mammograms, grading tests, and sniffing out plagiarism. Computers fly planes—Nicholas Carr points out that the average airline pilot is now at the helm of an airplane for about three minutes per flight—and they compose music and pick which pop songs should be recorded based on which chord progressions and riffs were hits in the past. Computers pursue drug development—a robot in the UK named Eve may have just found a new compound to treat malaria—and fill pharmacy vials.

Xerox uses computers—not people—to select which applicants to hire for its call centers. The retail giant Amazon “employs” 15,000 warehouse robots to pull items off the shelf and pack boxes. The self-driving car is being road-tested. A number of hotels are staffed by robotic desk clerks and cleaned by robotic chambermaids. Airports are instituting robotic valet parking. Cynthia Breazeal, the director of MIT’s personal robots group, raised $1 million in six days on the crowd-funding site Indiegogo, and then $25 million in venture capital funding, to bring Jibo, “the world’s first social robot,” to market. …

There is a certain school of thought, championed primarily by those such as Google’s Larry Page, who stand to make a lot of money from the ongoing digitization and automation of just about everything, that the elimination of jobs concurrent with a rise in productivity will lead to a leisure class freed from work. Leaving aside questions about how these lucky folks will house and feed themselves, the belief that most people would like nothing more than to be able to spend all day in their pajamas watching TV—which turns out to be what many “nonemployed” men do—sorely misconstrues the value of work, even work that might appear to an outsider to be less than fulfilling. Stated simply: work confers identity. When Dublin City University professor Michael Doherty surveyed Irish workers, including those who stocked grocery shelves and drove city buses, to find out if work continues to be “a significant locus of personal identity,” even at a time when employment itself is less secure, he concluded that “the findings of this research can be summed up in the succinct phrase: ‘work matters.’”

How much it matters may not be quantifiable, but in an essay in The New York Times, Dean Baker, the codirector of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, noted that there was

a 50 to 100 percent increase in death rates for older male workers in the years immediately following a job loss, if they previously had been consistently employed.

One reason was suggested in a study by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990), who found, Carr reports, that “people were happier, felt more fulfilled by what they were doing, while they were at work than during their leisure hours.”

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