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In a Wall Street Journal article, Christopher Mims writes that killer robots aren’t inevitable, spoiling it for everyone. I mean, we need to be obliterated by really smart robots, the sooner, the better. Please.

Mims is right, of course, that banning research on Strong Ai is the wrong tack to take to ensure our future. This work is going to go ahead one way or another, so why not proceed, but with caution? He also points out that many of the scientists and technologists signing the Open Letter on Artificial Intelligence are engaged in creating AI of all sorts.

An excerpt about the bad news:

Imagine the following scenario: It’s 2025, and self-driving cars are widely available. Turning such a vehicle into a bomb isn’t much harder than it is to accomplish the same thing with a conventional vehicle today. And the same goes for drones of every scale and description.

It’s inevitable, say the experts I talked to, that nonstate actors and rogue states will create killer robots once the underpinnings of this technology become cheap and accessible, thanks to its commercial use.

“I look back 10 years, and who would have thought people would be using cellphone technology to detonate IEDs?” says retired Rear Admiral Matthew Klunder, who as chief of research spent four years heading up the Navy’s work on autonomous systems.

And what about killing machines driven by artificial intelligence, which could learn to make decisions themselves, a fear that recently bubbled to the surface in an open letter signed by the likes of Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking. The letter warned that an arms race was “virtually inevitable” between major powers if they continue to develop these kinds of weapons.•


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Was anybody else put off by Maureen Dowd’s New York Times op-ed about Donald Trump, in which she allowed the hideous hotelier to run roughshod over her column space, while labeling him as a “braggart” or “cartoonish,” when a more accurate description would have been “vicious racist”? Does it seem that an attempt at a fun piece about a gutter-level racist is wrong?

Not only is he king of the Birthers, but the hideous hotelier has also said that “laziness is a trait in blacks” and described Mexicans as “rapists.” That’s not someone who should be treated as an amusingly undiplomatic blowhard who sticks his foot into it by boasting about his golf courses or denying Heidi Klum perfect-ten status. 

Dowd treated the whole sordid affair as if it was just harmless entertainment, an amusing sideshow (even featuring an extra-fun lightning round!), when Trump’s bigotry and those attracted to it are anything but a laugh. It’s unadulterated ugliness that should be called out by anyone who interviews him. Believing that the campaign is foolishness that will eventually blow away isn’t an excuse for a reporter to abdicate responsibility. In this instance, Dowd failed to be the equal of Megyn Kelly.

From her NYT piece:

The billionaire braggart known for saying unfiltered things is trying to be diplomatic. Sort of.

It has suddenly hit Trump that he’s leading the Republican field in a race where many candidates, including the two joyless presumptive nominees, are sputtering. He’s got the party by the tail — still a punch line but not a joke.

The Wall Street Journal huffed that Trump’s appeal was “attitude, not substance,” and the nascent candidate is still figuring out the pesky little details, like staff and issues, dreaming up his own astringent campaign ads for Instagram on ISIS and China.

The other candidates, he says, “have pollsters; they pay these guys $200,000 a month to tell them, ‘Don’t say this, don’t say that, you use the wrong word, you shouldn’t put a comma here.’ I don’t want any of that. I have a nice staff, but no one tells me what to say. I go by my heart. The combination of heart and brain. When Hillary gets up there she reads and then goes away for three days.”

As he headed off this weekend to see the butter cow in Iowa — “Iowa is very clean. It’s not like a lot of places where you and I would go, like New York City” — Trump is puzzling over a conundrum: How does he curb the merciless heckler side of himself, the side that has won over voters who think he’s a refreshing truth teller, so that he can seem refined enough to win over voters who think he’s crude and cartoonish?

How does he tone it down when he’s proud of his outrageous persona, his fiery wee-hours Twitter arrows and campaign “gusto,” and gratified by the way he can survive dissing John McCain and rating Heidi Klum when that would be a death knell for someone like Scott Walker?

“Sometimes I do go a little bit far,” he allowed, adding, after a moment: “Heidi Klum. Sadly, she’s no longer a 10.”



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If gene-editing was utilized to keep animals from wanting to harm one another–no more predators, no more prey–you think there might be a few unintended consequences? Some, right? David Pearce, a philosopher and Transhumanist, wants to engineer all suffering out of existence, from the ecosystem to the human brain. Given enough time, I suppose anything is possible. Excerpts follow from two interviews with Pearce.


The opening of a 2014 i09 Q&A by George Dvorsky:


The idea of re-engineering the ecosystem such that it’s free from suffering is a radically ambitious project — one that’s been referred to as the “well intentioned lunacy” of a futurist. That said, it’s an idea rooted in history. From where do you draw your ideas and moral philosophy?

David Pearce:

Sentient beings shouldn’t harm each other. This utopian-sounding vision is ancient. Gautama Buddha said “May all that have life be delivered from suffering”. The Bible prophesies that the wolf and the lion shall lie down with the lamb. Today, Jains sweep the ground in front of their feet rather than unwittingly tread on an insect.

My own conceptual framework and ethics are secular — more Bentham than Buddha. I think we should use biotechnology to rewrite our genetic source code; recalibrate the hedonic treadmill; shut down factory farms and slaughterhouses; and systematically help sentient beings rather than harm them.

However, there is an obvious problem. On the face of it, the idea of a pain-free biosphere is ecologically illiterate. Secular and religious utopians tend to ignore the biology of obligate carnivores and the thermodynamics of a food chain. Feed a population of starving herbivores in winter and we’d trigger a population explosion and ecological collapse. Help carnivorous predators and we’d just cause more death and suffering to the herbivores they prey on. Richard Dawkins puts the bioconservative case quite bluntly: “It must be so.” Fortunately, this isn’t the case.•


From a 2007 interview by Ingo Niermann of the German edition of Vanity Fair:

Vanity Fair:

You claim that it is possible to eradicate all suffering on earth, whether physical or mental. When?

David Pearce: 

It will technically be possible to get rid of all suffering within a century or two. Its abolition would be practical only if it were agreed in the sense of something like the moon program or the human genome project – if there was a degree of social consensus. There are certainly technological obstacles, but they are dwarfed by the ethical-ideological ones. Many people’s negative reaction to the idea of a world without suffering comes from a fear that someone is going to be manipulating and controlling them. Partly, too, the abolition of suffering seems to make a mockery of one’s life projects. Most of us spend the greater part of our lives seeking happiness for ourself and others we care about. But we do so in extremely inefficient and in many cases self-defeating ways. This is a problem with existing human society. Even though we have made extraordinary progress technologically and medically, we aren’t any happier than our ancestors. Even if we could arrange society in the most utopian way imaginable, there would be some people who would still be depressed and anxious. There would be some people who would be consumed by jealousy or unhappy love affairs. No amount of environmental reform or manipulation is going to get rid of suffering. Only biotechnology can eradicate its neural substrates.

Vanity Fair: 

Statistics say that on the average people in Bangladesh are happier than in the Western World.

David Pearce: 

In Bangladesh, if you lose a child through malnourishment or disease it’s absolutely dreadful, just as it is if you lose a child here. But yes, statistically the hedonic set-point around which our lives fluctuate is pretty similar whether you live in London, Berlin or Bangladesh. If someone offers you a million dollars, for instance, you get a quick boost in the same way that (to use a more extreme example) crack-addicts do. Even though crack-addicts know that the drug is going to make them awfully miserable in the long-term, they still strive for their next hit. Here in the rich West, we know money won’t make us happy, but we strive for it compulsively.

If you take suffering seriously, the only way to eradicate it is by biological reprogramming. In the short run, this may involve superior designer drugs. In the long run, the only realistic way to abolish suffering is through genetic engineering.

Vanity Fair: 

There would be a very simple method to make all people happy straight away: by putting electrodes in their pleasure centres.

David Pearce: 

Wireheading is offensive to human dignity, to our conception of who we are. The real value of wireheading is that it serves as an existence-proof for people who are sceptical that it is possible to be extremely happy indefinitely. Wireheading shows there is no tolerance to pure pleasure. The normal process of inhibitory feedback doesn’t seem to kick in. We don’t understand why this is the case. When we do, it will be a very important discovery.

Vanity Fair: 

The anaesthetist Stuart Meloy discovered accidentally that by putting an electrode in a certain area of the spinal cord a woman could experience endless orgasms. But he had a hard time finding enough people volunteering for a trial.

David Pearce: 

I can’t see wireheading as an evolutionary stable solution. Wireheads will not want to have children, or want to look after their children.

Vanity Fair: 

But what is your idea of paradise engineering? What should an ever-happy life be like?

David Pearce: 

It is not a uniform happiness but a world with a motivational system based entirely on gradients of well-being. Think of your ideal fantasy. With the right biological substrates, the reality could be millions of times better.•

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Like many in postwar America, Ray Kroc found it rather easy to make money. It’s different today for the franchise, struggling in a much more competitive global economy. The typical McDonalds restaurant has half the staff it did 50 years ago, and there’s a chance that number could go much lower, owing to automation.

How much of the human element can be sacrificed from the Hospitality Industry (restaurants, hotels, etc.)? Probably a good deal, enough to hollow out staffs peopled by low-skill workers as well as novices and retirees. The push for a national $15 minimum wage (which workers dearly need) has some wondering if the process will be hastened.

From Lydia DePillis at the Washington Post:

Of course, it’s possible to imagine all kinds of dramatic productivity enhancements. Persona ­Pizzeria’s [Harold] Miller predicts that drone delivery systems will eventually get rid of the need to come into a restaurant at all, for example. [Middleby Corp COO Dave] Brewer has a bold prediction: He thinks that all the automation working its way into restaurants could eventually cut staffing levels in half. The remaining employees would just need to learn how to operate the machines and fix things when they break.

“You don’t want a $15-an-hour person doing something that the person who makes $7 an hour can do,” Brewer said. “It’s not downgrading the employees. It’s that the employees become managers of a bunch of different systems. They’ll become smarter and smarter.”

The value of a human touch

Not everybody, however, agrees that machines could make that much of a dent in labor costs. Implementing new systems is expensive, and mistakes can be devastating. And for some concepts, it’s possible that the presence of employees is actually a restaurant’s competitive advantage. Compared with grocery stores and gas stations, many people come to restaurants exactly because they want some human interaction.•


An industrial video from 50 years ago about AMF, which brought automation and computers to bowling, trying to make fast food even more inhuman.


As we witnessed with horror in Ferguson, the tools we create to fight wars overseas find their way back to the home front, free markets taking over where DARPA and other Defense departments trail off. Beyond guns and drones, surveillance equipment is the latest boomerang returning, and there are few rules in place to moderate their use, the technology, as usual, outstripping legislation. 

From Timothy Williams at the New York Times:

SAN DIEGO — Facial recognition software, which American military and intelligence agencies used for years in Iraq and Afghanistan to identify potential terrorists, is being eagerly adopted by dozens of police departments around the country to pursue drug dealers, prostitutes and other conventional criminal suspects. But because it is being used with few guidelines and with little oversight or public disclosure, it is raising questions of privacy and concerns about potential misuse.

Law enforcement officers say the technology is much faster than fingerprinting at identifying suspects, although it is unclear how much it is helping the police make arrests.

When Aaron Harvey was stopped by the police here in 2013 while driving near his grandmother’s house, an officer not only searched his car, he said, but also took his photograph and ran it through the software to try to confirm his identity and determine whether he had a criminal record.•


It amazes me that California’s water shortage seems to be viewed in this country as a regional problem for them, when it’s clearly a grave concern for us. As farmers in that state search deeper and deeper for the scarce liquid hoping to stave off personal disaster, we all near a collective one. If California dying of thirst isn’t a national emergency, I don’t know what is. Globally, the water crises may be the most serious threat to world peace. From the Spiegel report “World Without Water“:

“Water is the primary principle of all things,” the philosopher Thales of Miletus wrote in the 6th century BC. More than two-and-a-half thousand years later, on July 28, 2010, the United Nations felt it was necessary to define access to water as a human right. It was an act of desperation. The UN has not fallen so clearly short of any of its other millennium goals than the goal of cutting the number of people without this access in half by 2015.

The question is whether water is public property and a human right. Or is it ultimately a commodity, a consumer good and a financial investment?

The world’s business leaders and decision makers gathered at the annual meeting in snow-covered Davos, Switzerland in January to discuss the most pressing issues of the day. One of the questions was: What is the greatest social and economic risk of the coming decade? The selection of answers consisted of 28 risks, including wars, weapons of mass destruction and epidemics. The answer chosen by the world’s economic elite was: water crises.

Consumers have recognized for years that we need to reduce our consumption of petroleum. But very few people think about water as being scarce, even though it’s the resource of the future, more valuable than oil because it is irreplaceable. It also happens to be the source of all life.•


A few days ago, I posted an excerpt from a New York Times op-ed written by Peter Georgescu, the Young & Rubicam chairman emeritus, who believes wealth inequality must be remedied by corporations (not particularly likely) or we’ll have social uprisings and ginormous tax increases. Well, something’s got to give.

The essay touched a nerve, leading to a raft of Facebook questions directed at the writer. He answered some of them for the Times. Unfortunately, none address automation potentially adding to the short- and medium-term woes with technological unemployment. 

One exchange about what the questioner and Georgescu see as the precarious position of contemporary capitalism:


A quick prelude is that I fear that our capitalist model is in danger. In the early days of capitalism (here in the US and elsewhere) companies were mostly family owned and run even for generations. Now we have the board, stockholders and CEO model, which appears very flawed. The stockholders often are just looking for short term gain, the board has no real ties to or ‘skin’ in the company, and the CEO is often colluding with the stockholders for short term gain.

After that long-winded lead in, do you share those fears? Any thoughts on improving the current public corporate model? How about the German system of requiring public corporations to have a union representative on the board?

Peter Georgescu

I fear for the future of capitalism in our country and around the world. Capitalism really means free enterprise. The name came from the resource that once drove the free-market engine. Capital no longer plays that prominent role. Creativity and innovation drive global business today. Capital is just one resource, important, but no longer the major differentiator. Historically, this so-called capitalist free-enterprise engine achieved extraordinary results. It propelled America into the superpower that is it today. It lifted hundreds of millions of people from deep poverty to a more humane standard of living. (Think China, India, Brazil, countries in Africa and more.)

But that extraordinary engine has been hijacked by a rogue philosophy that says that shareholders’ interests come first and which threatens to destroy both this magnificent engine and our very way of life. The misguided philosophy says that one of a corporation’s stakeholders, the shareholders, deserves to have their value maximized in the short term. The three other vital stakeholders are not adequately represented at the decision-making table and inadequately compensated. First, the employees — who are the real value creators. They have been turned into a cost to be squeezed. Then, the corporation itself, where investment in R&D and innovation is grossly inadequate. Finally, a business’s customers, who should be a corporation’s prime stakeholder — not the shareholders.

Even the moral justification that the shareholder is the owner and an owner gets what they want when they want it is a myth. In fact the shareholder is a mentor at best. They come into stock when they want and leave at their will. And they are of course immune from any corporation liabilities. That’s not ownership. The preponderance of legal opinion is clear. The corporation owns its own assets, not the shareholder.

So yes, we must rebalance a business’s incremental value returns among the key stakeholders — the employees, the shareholders and the corporation itself. And we must always put the customer’s interests first.

If we do that, we can liberate free enterprise from its present-day shackles.


Robots may relieve us of much of the work currently monopolizing our time, which sounds great. I mean, life is too short. Unfortunately, the U.S. and many other patches on the globe don’t have economic systems capable of supporting a populace in which near-total employment isn’t the goal. Martin Ford and Andrew McAfee and Eric Brynjolfsson have written that the future is arriving too quickly and, unlike in the ’50s and ’60s, automation leading to massive technological unemployment is a real possibility. 

Add computer scientist and entrepreneur Jerry Kaplan, author of Humans Need Not Apply, to that list. In a lively Ask Me Anything at Reddit, Kaplan lays out his argument that a scary storm is gathering. A few exchanges follow.



Do you feel like people are too fearful of artificial intelligence?

Jerry Kaplan:

The problem is that they are fearing the wrong thing. The robot apocalypse will be economic, not ‘military‘!



What is the minimum wage of an average robot? How cost-effective are they (R&D+Maintenance+Hydro etc…/X hrs. wk.)?

Jerry Kaplan:

Ha interesting way to put the question. You don’t “pay” robots, of course. They are simply machines, like any others, so the question is whether the machine can perform some task in an economically advantageous way. This is a simply buy-vs-hire decision in most cases.

In my experience, it’s almost always better to use the machines, if you can afford it. Go forth and automate, my children!



With the growing increase of machines taking over manual jobs do you feel that the workplace will be made up almost entirely of machines and people will then become less focused on work and more on leisure?

Jerry Kaplan:

What counts as work has shifted over the past centuries. What we do now would be considered optional “leisure” during the agrarian economy 200 years ago. They would think that our farms are made up almost entirely of machines today, and would wonder why on earth we aren’t living more simply and just enjoying ourselves!

But the desire to work is human nature. I think it’s a myth that most people just want to goof off and have fun … they’d rather work and own a fancier car!



How far do you think we are away from living in a world with a ton AI in day to day life?

Jerry Kaplan:

You already are, you just don’t realize it. (Read my book and it will really scare you about what’s going on!)

Amazon, for one, is little more than a giant machine learning algorithm that arbitrages purchase and sale transactions. It watches your every move and decides exactly what is necessary to get you to buy. That’s why you see weird changes in the prices of things in your Cart, just for starters.

The ads you see online are another amazing example of how AI crafts things to get you to act in other people’s interests! I detail this in my book, it’s really unbelievable what happens when you load a web page, as AIs research everything about you in milliseconds, then an auction is performed, and the highest bidder gets to show their ad.



Do you support Basic Income?

What are the machine-replaced workers suppose to do to feed their families?

Jerry Kaplan:

Basic income is a good thing, it will spur innovation. In principle machines make society wealthier — the question is who gets the wealth. We need to ensure that new wealth is distributed more fairly.

Food used to consume more than 50% of the average worker’s income. Now it’s under 10%. That’s real progress!



Does the amount of money that the military invests in AI scare you or excite you?

Jerry Kaplan:

Well the military invests in AI for two reasons:

(1) To ensure that we have a ‘reserve’ of new technology that can both benefit society and is available in times of military threat.

(2) So we have the biggest bat in the league.

The challenge is now to achieve these two goals without bankrupting society or spurring continual arms races. Unfortunately this doesn’t lend itself to simple sound-bite answers. The military types I talk to (and I do have friends in DARPA, among other places) are not war-mongers at all, quite the contrary they want to try to keep us safe with minimum damage to life and property. We don’t always get this balance right, but it’s a hard (and mostly thankless) job.



What makes a futurist? Are there specific credentials and methods?

Jerry Kaplan:

Nope – you just have to believe your own nonsense and talk about it persuasively, as if you were on Fox News.

Just get yourself a crystal ball and one of those weird turbans. LSD works well too (or so I hear?).

Seriously, it’s a ball. Give it a try.•


American politics aren’t merely an endless horserace as many pundits seem to think it is, but you don’t get to effect real change unless you wind up in the winner’s circle. Claire McCaskill, Democratic Senator in the red state of Missouri, realized this when running for reelection in 2012. In a Politico piece she penned, McCaskill confirms something suspected at the time: She consciously and audaciously helped the most extreme and defeatable GOP opponent, Todd Akin, win the Republican nomination, giving herself the best chance of general-election victory. She even advised Akin about which of his TV ads were working and should be continued. “This was the most fun I’d had in a long time,” she writes.

It was a risky gambit since the state could have been left with a wingnut nonpareil in the Senate, but it worked. Not even McCaskill could have anticipated Akin’s “legitimate rape” comments, a despicable bit of reasoning and a monumental political gift. An excerpt:

Akin’s track record made him my ideal opponent. Many of his votes in Congress contradicted his claim of being a fiscal conservative. While he opposed President Barack Obama’s authority to raise the debt limit, during the Bush administration, in 2004, he had voted to raise the limit by $800 billion. A vocal opponent of the Obama administration’s stimulus efforts, in 2001 Akin had voted in favor of a $25 billion stimulus package that mostly benefited large corporations and the wealthy. And he was a big earmarker: in one fiscal year he sponsored or cosponsored $14 million worth of pork and once sought $3.3 million in a special appropriation for a highway near nine acres he owned and was planning to develop. While opposing spending money for child nutrition programs, veterans’ health benefits, and disaster relief, he repeatedly voted to raise his own salary.

His extreme positions on social issues and ridiculous public statements made him anathema to many independent voters. He sponsored an amendment that would define life as beginning at conception, thereby outlawing common forms of birth control. He voted against repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” legislation. When the Affordable Care Act was being debated, he stood on the House floor and asked for God’s help in keeping the nation from “socialized medicine.” In 2008, he claimed in a House floor speech that it was “common practice” for doctors to conduct abortions on women “who were not actually pregnant.” He had made speeches calling for America to pull out of the United Nations and claiming the government had “a bunch of socialists in the Senate” and a “commie” in the White House.

So how could we maneuver Akin into the GOP driver’s seat?•

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The only thing trickier than predicting future population is interpreting what those people will mean for the world and its resources. From Malthus to Ehrlich, population bombs have defused themselves, even proved beneficial. Down deep, most likely think there’s a tipping point, a tragic number, but, of course, development of technologies can rework that math, stretch resources to new lengths. And a larger pool of talent makes it easier to create those new tools.

It would seem to make sense that immigrant nations can ride the wave of fluctuations best, not being dependent on internal fertility numbers. Robotics may reduce that advantage, however. Japan is certainly banking on that transformation.

In a Financial Times piece, Robin Harding writes that fertility seems to be on a steep decline globally, leveling off. If so, the ramifications will be many, including for Labor. The opening:

The extent of the plunge in childbearing is startling. Eighty-three countries containing 46 per cent of the world’s population — including every single country in Europe — now have fertility below replacement rate of about 2.1 births per woman. Another 46 per cent live in countries where the birth rate has fallen sharply. In 48 countries the population will decline between now and 2050.

That leaves just 9 per cent of the world’s population, almost all in Africa, living in nations with pre-industrial fertility rates of five or six children per woman. But even in Africa fertility is starting to dip. In a decade, the UN reckons, there will be just three countries with a fertility rate higher than five: Mali, Niger and Somalia. In three decades, it projects only Niger will be higher than four.

These projections include a fertility bounce in countries such as Germany and Japan. If more fecund nations follow this path of declining birth rates, therefore, a stable future population could quickly be locked in.

That would have enormous consequences for the world economy, geo­politics and the sum of human happiness, illustrated by some of the middle-income countries that have gone through a dramatic, and often ignored, fall in fertility.•



Televox was the 1920s robot that reportedly fetched your car from the garage or a bottle of wine the cellar. While these feats, along with many others, were said to have been ably performed, the cost of such a machine made it unmarketable.

Televox was also the star attraction of a very early insinuation of robotics into the American military when, in 1928, he barked out orders to the grunts. It was a bit of a publicity stunt but also the beginnings of robotizing war, which some then thought implausible, though nobody does now. An article follows from the June 11, 1928 Brooklyn Daily Eagle.


At least outwardly, William F. Buckley was approving in the 1990s of Rush Limbaugh replacing him as the voice of Conservatism, believing he was to be succeeded by a more populist talker. Neither pundit, however, was really a driving force in American society. They were just well-positioned observers as responsible for political movements as alarm clocks are for the sun’s rise. Both were simply the noise accompanying the moment, as commentators almost always are.

Buckley and Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer and Germaine Greer were figures we used to call “public intellectuals,” although quite often they behaved like adult babies hurling balls of ego at one another. I don’t know we’re worse for their absence (though I grant that when Mailer wrote of technology, he was quite insightful).

As Garry Wills states in a NYRB piece, a single episode of The Daily Show or The Colbert Report did more to elucidate than every last insult and threat of fisticuffs from these supposed heavyweights.

From Wills:

A more ambitious project is Kevin M. Schultz’s Buckley and Mailer. He argues that the 1950s was a placid time narcotized by Eisenhower. But two radical voices, Buckley from the right and Mailer from the left, called out across the dreary middle ground, shaking things up—deep calling to deep, in Schultz’s telling. When chaos broke out in the 1960s, the two men pulled back from the violence they had created.

But had they created it? The upsetting of the old order was accomplished mainly by the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, and the anti-war movement. Those three things, and the vehement opposition to them, did the real churning of the waters; and Buckley and Mailer were only briefly and peripherally involved in them. The real troublemakers were people like Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin, opposed by the likes of Strom Thurmond and George Wallace. Feminists like Gloria Steinem and Kate Millett were opposed to the pious legions of Phyllis Schlafly and Beverly LaHaye. On Vietnam, Benjamin Spock and Tom Hayden faced down Nixon’s hardhats and Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO. These deeply committed people with real followings had little time for the filigreed warblings of Buckley or Mailer. Deep to deep? Rather, flamboyant shallow to flamboyant shallow. Buckley and Mailer did not make history. They made good copy.•


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According to Paul Mason, author of PostCapitalism, technology has reduced the economic system to obsolescence or soon will. While I don’t agree that capitalism is going away, I do believe the modern version of it is headed for a serious revision.

The extent to which technology disrupts capitalism–the biggest disruption of them all–depends to some degree on how quickly the new normal arrives. If driverless cars are perfected in the next few years, tens of millions of positions will vanish in America alone. Even if the future makes itself known more slowly, employment will probably grow more scarce as automation and robotics insinuate themselves. 

The very idea of work is currently undergoing a reinvention. In exchange for the utility of communicating with others, Facebook users don’t pay a small monthly fee but instead do “volunteer” labor for the company, producing mountains of content each day. That would make Mark Zuckerberg’s company something like the biggest sweatshop in history, except even those dodgy outfits pay some minimal fee. It’s a quiet transition.

Gillian Tett of the Financial Times reviews Mason’s new book, which argues that work will become largely voluntary in the manner of Wikipedia and Facebook, and that governments will provide basic income and services. That’s his Utopian vision at least. Tett finds it an imperfect but important volume. An excerpt:

His starting point is an assertion that the current technological revolution has at least three big implications for modern economies. First, “information technology has reduced the need for work” — or, more accurately, for all humans to be workers. For automation is now replacing jobs at a startling speed; indeed, a 2013 report by the Oxford Martin school estimated that half the jobs in the US are at high risk of vanishing within a decade or two.

The second key point about the IT revolution, Mason argues, is that “information goods are corroding the market’s ability to form prices correctly.” For the key point about cyber-information is that it can be replicated endlessly, for free; there is no constraint on how many times we can copy and paste a Wikipedia page. “Until we had shareable information goods, the basic law of economics was that everything is scarce. Supply and demand assumes scarcity. Now certain goods are not scarce, they are abundant.”

But third, “goods, services and organisations are appearing that no longer respond to the dictates of the market and the managerial hierarchy.” More specifically, people are collaborating in a manner that does not always make sense to traditional economists, who are used to assuming that humans act in self-interest and price things according to supply and demand.•

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The perfecting of autonomous cars would do many good things (fight pollution, reduce highway deaths) and some bad (threaten job security for millions, be a scary target for hackers). Like most technologies, the size of the victories will be determined by how we manage the losses.

One thing that almost assuredly happens during a robocar age will be a decrease in traffic, due in large part to the end of the maddening search for parking spots.

From Peter Wayner at the Atlantic:

There’s plenty of research showing that a surprisingly large number of people are driving, trying to find a place to leave their car. A group called Transportation Alternatives studied the flow of cars around one Brooklyn neighborhood, Park Slope, and found that 64 percent of the local cars were searching for a place to park. It’s not just the inner core of cities either. Many cars in suburban downtowns and shopping-mall parking lots do the same thing.

Robot cars could change all that. The unsticking of the urban roads is one of the side effects of autonomous cars that will, in turn, change the landscape of cities— essentially eliminating one of the enduring symbols of urban life, the traffic jam full of honking cars and fuming passengers. It will also redefine how we use land in the city, unleashing trillions of dollars of real estate to be used for more than storing cars. Autonomous cars are poised to save us uncountable hours of time, not just by letting us sleep as the car drives, but by unblocking the roads so they flow faster.•


Rand Paul’s Weimar-like hyper-inflation hasn’t quite come to pass


Paul Krugman was eviscerated for a Rolling Stone cover he wrote in 2014 about the accomplishments of the Obama Administration. It was mostly Liberals who were enraged, feeling the President had betrayed his promise. But the progress in the country in many areas was real, and since then environmentalism and diplomacy and science and civil rights have advanced in a number of ways. Gerrymandering and Citizens United are still among very real problems, but I never let political purity get in the way of important victories.

In Krugman’s most recent column, he states something obvious but very necessary in these times of attention deficits: Many of the candidates running for the GOP nomination promised the President’s policies, from the Affordable Care Act to investing borrowed money in the economy, would lead to financial calamity. They’ve been saying such things from early in his first term. Donald Trump predicted “massive inflation” and Rand Paul went so far as to raise the specter of America as a Weimar Republic. The Republican race may currently revolve around Trump’s Reality TV campaign, but sooner or later and certainly in the general-election, these terrible prognostications will be fodder.

Krugman’s opening:

What did the men who would be president talk about during last week’s prime-time Republican debate? Well, there were 19 references to God, while the economy rated only 10 mentions. Republicans in Congress have voted dozens of times to repeal all or part of Obamacare, but the candidates only named President Obama’s signature policy nine times over the course of two hours. And energy, another erstwhile G.O.P. favorite, came up only four times.

Strange, isn’t it? The shared premise of everyone on the Republican side is that the Obama years have been a time of policy disaster on every front. Yet the candidates on that stage had almost nothing to say about any of the supposed disaster areas.

And there was a good reason they seemed so tongue-tied: Out there in the real world, none of the disasters their party predicted have actually come to pass. President Obama just keeps failing to fail. And that’s a big problem for the G.O.P. — even bigger than Donald Trump.•


In Andrew Schrank’s Pacific·Standard essay about Labor in the Digital Age, which imagines possible enlightened and benighted outcomes, he says the truest thing anyone can say on the topic: “The future of work and workers will not be dictated by technology alone.” No, it won’t.

An excerpt in which he looks at the Google Glass as half-full:

Is a jobless future inevitable? Do automation, computerization, and globalization necessarily conspire to undercut employment and living standards? Or might they be harnessed to benign ends by farsighted leaders? The answer is anything but obvious, for the relationship between automation and job loss is at best indeterminate, both within and across countries, and the relationship between automation and compensation is similarly opaque. For instance, Germany and Japan boast more robots per capita and less unemployment than the United States, and the stock of industrial robots and the average manufacturing wage have been growing in tandem—at double digit rates, no less—in China.

What excites me about the future of work and workers, therefore, is the possibility that the technological determinists are wrong, and that we will subordinate machinery to our needs and desires rather than vice versa. In this rosy scenario, machines take over the monotonous jobs and allow humans to pursue more leisurely or creative pursuits. Working hours fall and wages rise across the board. And productivity gains are distributed (and re-distributed) in accord with the principles of distributive justice and fairness.

While such a scenario may seem not just rosy but unrealistic, it is not entirely implausible.•


You certainly don’t want to be a nation left behind by robotics any more than you’d want to miss out on the Industrial Revolution, but at the same time you need jobs for citizens of all skill levels. What to do?

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s goal of reducing unemployment among the nation’s many unskilled workers is threatened by automation, a sector other countries in the region (particularly Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia) are investing heavily in. The need for cheap labor is disappearing just when the nation needs it most. From Natalie Obiko Pearson at Bloomberg:

Robots and automation are invigorating once-sleepy Indian factories, boosting productivity by carrying out low-skill tasks more efficiently. While in theory, improved output is good for economic growth, the trend is creating a headache for Prime Minister Narendra Modi: Robots are diminishing roles for unskilled laborers that he wants to put to work as part of his Make in India campaign aimed at creating jobs for the poor.

India’s largely uneducated labor force and broken educational system aren’t ready for the more complex jobs that workers need when their low-skilled roles are taken over by machines. Meanwhile, nations employing robots more quickly, such as China, are becoming even more competitive.

“The need for unskilled labor is beginning to diminish,” Akhilesh Tilotia, head of thematic research at Kotak Institutional Equities in Mumbai and author of a book on India’s demographic impact. “Whatever education we’re putting in and whatever skill development we’re potentially trying to put out – – does it match where the industry will potentially be five to 10 years hence? That linkage is reasonably broken in India.” …

In the race to create factory jobs, Modi isn’t just competing against Asian rivals. Robots are increasingly helping developed economies. In Switzerland, robots make toothbrushes for export; in Spain, they cut and pack lettuce heads — a job previously done by migrants; in Germany, they fill tubs of ice cream, and in the U.K. they assemble yogurt into multipacks at a rate of 80 a minute.


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Peter Georgescu, Chairman Emeritus of Young & Rubicam, believes the conscious uncoupling of productivity and worker prosperity, if continued, will eventually lead to social unrest or drastic taxation in America.

That’s hopeful, really. It means citizens won’t forever settle for bread and Kardashians and will demand remedies for a sick system. In a New York Times op-ed about wealth disparity, Georgescu suggests preemptive steps corporations can take to move the haves and have-nots closer to one another, strategies that would require businesses to take a long-term view and unilaterally make concessions–not how things usually are done. He also doesn’t address how increasing automation might impact his prescriptions, but it’s still worth reading. An excerpt:

We business leaders know what to do. But do we have the will to do it? Are we willing to control the excessive greed so prevalent in our culture today and divert resources to better education and the creation of more opportunity?

Business has the most to gain from a healthy America, and the most to lose by social unrest or punitive taxation. Business can start the process in two steps. First, invest in the actual value creators — the employees. Start compensating fairly, by which I mean a wage that enables employees to share amply in productivity increases and creative innovations.

The fact that real wages have been flat for about four decades, while productivity has increased by 80 percent, shows that has not been happening. Before the early 1970s, wages and productivity were both rising. Now most gains from productivity go to shareholders, not employees.

Second, businesses must invest aggressively in their own operations, directing profit into productivity and innovation to boost real business performance. Today, too many corporations reduce investment in research and development and brand building. As a result, we see a general decline in the value of their brands and other assets. To make up for those declines and for anemic revenues, businesses buy back their stock (now at record levels) and thus artificially boost earnings per share.•


Transhumanist Presidential candidate Zoltan Istvan penned a Vice article about the influence next-wave technologies may have on violent crime, which he views largely as a form of mental disease. A lot of it is pretty far out there–cranial implants modifying behavior, death-row inmates choosing to be cryogenically frozen, etc. I’ll grant that he’s right on two points:

1) Criminal behavior is modified already in many cases by prescription drugs and psychiatry.

2) Surveillance and tracking, for all the issues they bring, will make it increasingly difficult to stealthily commit traditional crimes.

But debates about cerebral reconditioning and lobotomy? Yikes. Sounds almost criminal.

From Istvan:

One other method that could be considered for death row criminals is cryonics. The movie Minority Report, which features precogs who can see crime activity in the future, show other ways violent criminals are dealt with: namely a form of suspended animation where criminals dream out their lives. So the concept isn’t unheard of. With this in mind, maybe violent criminals even today should legally be given the option for cryonics, to be returned to a living state in the future where the reconditioning of the brain and new preventative technology—such as ubiquitous surveillance—means they could no longer commit violent acts.

Speaking of extreme surveillance—that rapidly growing field of technology also presents near-term alternatives for criminals on death row that might be considered sufficient punishment. We could permanently track and monitor death row criminals. And we could have an ankle brace (or implant) that releases a powerful tranquilizer if violent behavior is reported or attempted.

Surveillance and tracking of criminals would be expensive to monitor, but perhaps in five to 10 years time basic computer recognition programs in charge of drones might be able to do the surveillance affordably. In fact, it might be cheapest just to have a robot follow a violent criminal around all the time, another technology that also should be here in less than a decade’s time. Violent criminals could, for example, only travel in driverless cars approved and monitored by local police, and they’d always be accompanied by some drone or robot caretaker.•



Thinking Donald Trump ruined his campaign in the aftermath of the GOP debates with his gross and stupid comments about Megyn Kelly of Fox News is missing the point for two reasons:

1) A campaign based on bluster, bigotry, insult and ego cannot be undone by bluster, bigotry, insult and ego.

2) What Trump continues to do is speak brazenly to the underlying reality of the modern Republican Party, saying aloud the racist, sexist things that are its driving force. No coded language for him.

The GOP and Fox News have long cultivated bigotry–Kelly herself has made some gross and stupid comments–blaming black and brown people and women for encroaching on white, male privilege. Erick Erickson can feign outrage at Trump all he wants, but he’s at least as much of a sexist toolbox. Conservatives can pretend they’re repulsed by attacks on John McCain’s military service, but John Kerry and Tammy Duckworth were broadly given the same treatment. They can make believe that Trump calling Mexicans “rapists” is beyond the pale, but he’s just echoing what elected Republicans have said.

Trump is the GOP’s private dream and also its public nightmare. At long last, he’s the party’s reckoning.

Of course, someone at some point might actually ask him a detailed policy question instead of playing into his hand. But the ugliness beneath the surface isn’t going away.

From a NBC News report about its post-debate poll:

If Donald Trump’s comments about Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly are hurting his standing in the Republican primary, it’s not showing in the numbers.

According to the latest NBC News Online Poll conducted by SurveyMonkey, Trump is at the top of the list of GOP candidates that Republican primary voters would cast a ballot for if the primary were being held right now.

The overnight poll was conducted for 24 hours from Friday evening into Saturday. During that period, Donald Trump stayed in the headlines due to his negative comments about Kelly and was dis-invited from a major conservative gathering in Atlanta.

None of that stopped Trump from coming in at the top of the poll with 23 percent. Sen. Ted Cruz was next on the list with 13 percent.

During the Fox News debate Thursday evening, Trump was the only Republican candidate to say he would not rule out a run as an independent candidate. According to this poll, that’s just fine with over half of his supporters. 54% of Trump supporters said they would vote for him for president, even if he didn’t win the GOP nomination. About one in five Trump supporters said they would switch and support the eventual Republican candidate.


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It would be great to ban autonomous-weapons systems, but you don’t really get to govern too far into the future from the present. Our realities won’t be tomorrow’s, and I fear that sooner or later the possible becomes the plausible. Hopefully, we can at least kick that can far enough down the road so that everyone will be awakened to the significant risks before they’ve been realized. As Peter Asaro makes clear in a Scientific American essay, there will be grave consequences should warfare be robotized. An excerpt:

Autonomous weapons pose serious threats that, taken together, make a ban necessary. There are concerns whether AI algorithms could effectively distinguish civilians from combatants, especially in complex conflict environments. Even advanced AI algorithms would lack the situational understanding or the ability to determine whether the use of violent force was appropriate in a given circumstance or whether the use of that force was proportionate. Discrimination and proportionality are requirements of international law for humans who target and fire weapons but autonomous weapons would open up an accountability gap. Because humans would no longer know what targets an autonomous weapon might select, and because the effects of a weapon may be unpredictable, there would be no one to hold responsible for the killing and destruction that results from activating such a weapon.

Then, as the Future of Life Institute letter points out, there are threats to regional and global stability as well as humanity. The development of autonomous weapons could very quickly and easily lead to arms races between rivals. Autonomous weapons would reduce the risks to combatants, and could thus reduce the political risks of going to war, resulting in more armed conflicts. Autonomous weapons could be hacked, spoofed and hijacked, and directed against their owners, civilians or a third party. Autonomous weapons could also initiate or escalate armed conflicts automatically, without human decision-making. In a future where autonomous weapons fight autonomous weapons the results would be intrinsically unpredictable, and much more likely lead to the mass destruction of civilians and the environment than to the bloodless wars that some envision. Creating highly efficient automated violence is likely to lead to more violence, not less.

There is also a profound moral question at stake.•



The passage below from Rachel Nuwer’s BBC report about technological unemployment speaks to why I largely disagree with Jerry Kaplan that robotics will be far worse for male workers than female. There probably will be a difference, but if the machines come en masse in a compressed period of time, they come for most of us.

Oxford’s Carl Frey tells Nuwer that “overall, people should be happy that a lot of these jobs have actually disappeared,” when speaking of drudgery that’s heretofore been vanished by electrical gadgets, but the new reality may mean a tremendous aggregate improvement enjoyed by relatively few. In the long-term, that may all work itself out, but we better be ready with solutions in the short- and medium-term.

The excerpt:

Self-driving trucks wouldn’t be good news for everyone, however. Critics point out that, should this breakthrough be realised, there will be a significant knock-on effect for employment. In the US, up to 3.5 million drivers and 5.2 million additional personnel who work directly within the industry would be out of a job. Additionally, countless pit stops along well-worn trucking routes could become ghost towns. Self-driving trucks, in other words, might wreck millions of lives and bring disaster to a significant sector of the economy.

Dire warnings such as these are frequently issued, not only for the trucking industry, but for the world’s workforce at large. As machines, software and robots become more sophisticated, some fear that we stand to lose millions of jobs. According to one unpublished study, the coming wave of technological breakthroughs endangers up to 47% of total employment in the US.

But is there any truth to such projections, and if so, how concerned should we be? Will the robots take over, rendering us all professional couch potatoes, as imagined in the film Wall-E, or will technological innovation give us the freedom to pursue more creative, rewarding endeavours?•

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Donald Trump, a colostomy bag stuffed with ill-considered opinions, face-planted at the first GOP Presidential debate, but how far can you really fall when you live in the gutter? Some thought Trump would be surprisingly good in the forum since he has plenty of TV experience, but if you think about it, he only seems potent in those venues when he goes unchallenged, when he’s the boss. Like most bullies, he grows flustered when having to ward off a return blow.

Far more than any other venue, including reliably Lefty outlets like MSNBC, Fox News led Republicans to a horrifying national defeat in 2012, reassuring the faithful with dodgy poll readings that Barack Hussein couldn’t possibly gain a second term. That led to complacency during campaign season and shocked disbelief on Election Day. Reince Priebus and the party called for a full check-up, with the patient to begin a new course in the immediate future.

But not much has changed. Immigrants, women, LGBT people, universal health care and a sane foreign policy are still anathema to almost all the candidates. Perhaps the Fox moderators’ contentiousness was an attempt to awaken the contenders to another November nightmare, but it was most likely just another Reality TV show, with the hosts pushing buttons to gain ratings. For Trump, of course, it was a different kind of program from the one he’s used to–it was one where he could get fired.

The opening of Edward Luce’s predictably astute Financial Times analysis of the debate:

If clarity and geniality count for anything, Donald Trump was the loser of the Republican Party’s first 2016 debate.

With star billing in the biggest reality TV show of all, the property magnate struggled for rapport with the audience. At several points in the two-hour debate, he was booed.

In the post-debate autopsy, Fox News Channel’s focus groups found Mr Trump to be rude, lacking in specific answers and unpresidential. It is hard to believe the average television viewer would have come away feeling radically different.

Yet it is also hard to believe they did not already know all this about him before the show began. Mr Trump has held a double digit poll lead for several weeks. Might the debate have arrested his rise?

We will have to await the polls. But it is worth bearing in mind that at every point in Mr Trump’s steep ascent since mid-June, the political classes have called his peak — and been wrong. The Fox News debate may be no exception.•

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America was not a particularly militarized country until we were forced to enter WWII, and we haven’t been anything else ever since. Thanks, Germany.

In a Spiegel Q&A conducted by Joachim Mohr and Matthias Schepp, Pizza Hut salesman Mikhail Gorbachev doesn’t believe the world has any hope of being nuclear-free until the U.S. changes its mindset about defense. I could see the country conceding on nukes and reducing spending overall, but Gorbachev’s desire to see America stop creating new weapons systems seems unrealistic. DARPA is going to push robotics and AI as far as they can go. Gorbachev also allows that President Reagan was convinced that there could be no “winner” of a nuclear war, no matter his cowboy-ish bluster.

An excerpt:


Can the goal of a nuclear free world still be achieved today?

Mikhail Gorbachev:

It is the correct goal in any case. Nuclear weapons are unacceptable. The fact that they can wipe out the entirety of civilization makes them particularly inhumane. Weapons like this have never existed before in history and they cannot be allowed to exist. If we do not get rid of them, sooner or later they will be used.


In recent years, a number of new nuclear powers have emerged.

Mikhail Gorbachev:

That’s why we should not forget that the elimination of nuclear weapons is the obligation of every country that signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Though America and Russia have by far the largest arsenals at their disposal.


What do you think of the oft-cited theory that mutually assured destruction prevents nuclear wars?

Mikhail Gorbachev:

There’s a dangerous logic in that. Here’s another question: If five or 10 countries are allowed to have nuclear weapons, then why can’t 20 or 30? Today, a few dozen countries have the technical prerequisites to build nuclear weapons. The alternative is clear: Either we move toward a nuclear-free world or we have to accept that nuclear weapons will continue to spread, step by step, across the globe. And can we really imagine a world without nuclear weapons if a single country amasses so many conventional weapons that its military budget nearly tops that of all other countries combined? This country would enjoy total military supremacy if nuclear weapons were abolished.


You’re talking about the US?

Mikhail Gorbachev:

You said it. It is an insurmountable obstacle on the road to a nuclear-free world. That’s why we have to put demilitarization back on the agenda of international politics. This includes a reduction of military budgets, a moratorium on the development of new types of weapons and a prohibition on militarizing space. Otherwise, talks toward a nuclear-free world will be little more than empty words. The world would then become less safe, more unstable and unpredictable. Everyone will lose, including those now seeking to dominate the world.•


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Howard Schultz, the President of coffee, has been suggested (by…someone) as a potential game-changing Democratic candidate for those weary from Clinton fatigue. The Starbucks CEO has declared he’s not running, but he apparently loved being seriously considered (by…someone). Taking precious time from getting me my fucking five-dollar frappuccino while I stand here waiting, Schultz has penned a New York Times op-ed in perfect politician speak.

In it, he feigns that Washington gridlock is the result of equivalent irresponsibility of both parties rather than due to the modern GOP being insane, a time-tested gambit to make it appear one’s above the fray. He also declares from within his CEO bubble that “I have no intention of entering the presidential fray. I’m not done serving at Starbucks,” as if those two “nations” were equal. Well, in all fairness to him, only one of them is turning a profit. Schultz thinks we can improve as a country if we just embrace those different from us and try working together. Too bad Obama didn’t think of that.

At any rate, I should be grateful for the rare corporate executive who realizes the American middle class is going, going, gone–even if he might be adding to the problem. An excerpt:

Our nation has been profoundly damaged by a lack of civility and courage in Washington, where leaders of both parties have abdicated their responsibility to forge reasonable compromises to expand the economy, rebuild our infrastructure, improve schools, transform entitlement programs and so much more. We have become too desensitized to the horrendous metrics that define today’s America, from student-loan debt to food-stamp dependency to the size of our prison population.

As a boy growing up in public housing in Brooklyn, I was told by my mother that I could be the first in my family to graduate from college. A scholarship and an entry-level job at Xerox created a path upward that was typical for many of my generation.

For too many Americans, the belief that propelled me, that I had the opportunity to climb the ladder of prosperity, has greatly diminished. I hear it from coast to coast as I sit with customers in our stores. Six in 10 Americans believe that the younger generation will not be better off than their parents. Millennials have never witnessed politics devoid of toxicity. Anxiety, not optimism, rules the day.•


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