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Earlier today, I posted a piece about Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner, who’s bankrolling an attempt at an unpeopled reconnaissance mission to Alpha Centauri. A techno-optimist the way most high flyers in Silicon Valley are, Milner believes our increasing connectedness, including the Internet of Things, will bring about a more prosperous world–even a “global brain,” which will unite us all and serve as a “global central nervous system.” That new wealth may be distributed very unevenly, but the wholesale connectivity will likely arrive sooner than later. It will be both boon and bane.

From a Reuters report Chrystia Freeland filed in 2001, just twelve days after the 9/11 attacks:

Milner almost perfectly represents a global technology elite whose frame of reference is planet Earth. He mostly lives in Moscow, but has recently purchased a palatial home in Silicon Valley. He addressed the Ukrainian conference by video link from Singapore.

From that vantage point, the most pressing issue in the world today isn’t recession and political paralysis in the West, or even the rapid development and political transformation in emerging markets, it is the technology revolution, which, in Mr. Milner’s view, is only getting started. Here are the changes he thinks are most significant:

• The Internet revolution is the fastest economic change humans have experienced, and it is accelerating. Mr. Milner said two billion people are online today. Over the next decade, he predicts that that number will more than double.

• The Internet is not just about connecting people, it is also about connecting machines, a phenomenon Mr. Milner dubbed “the Internet of things.” Mr. Milner said that five billion devices are connected today. By 2020, he thinks more than 20 billion will be.

• More information is being created than ever before. Mr. Milner asserted that as much information was created every 48 hours in 2010 as was created between the dawn of time and 2003. By 2020, that same volume of information will be generated every 60 minutes.

• People are sharing information ever more frequently. The pieces of content shared on Facebook have increased from 140 million in 2009 to 4 billion in 2011. We are even sending more e-mails: 50 billion were sent in 2006, versus 300 billion in 2010.

• The result, according to Mr. Milner, is the dominance of Internet platforms relative to traditional media. “The largest newspaper in the United States is only reaching 1 percent of the population.” he said. “That compares to Internet media, which is used by 25 percent of the population daily and growing.”

• Internet businesses are much more efficient than brick-and-mortar companies. This was one of Mr. Milner’s most striking observations, and a clue to the paradox of how we find ourselves simultaneously living in a time of what Mr. Milner views as unprecedented technological innovation but also high unemployment in the developed West. As Mr. Milner said, “Big Internet companies on average are capable of generating revenue of $1 million per employee, and that compares to 10 to 20 percent of that which is normally generated by traditional offline businesses of comparable size.” As an illustration, Mr. Milner cited Facebook, where, he said, each single engineer supports one million users.

• Artificial intelligence is part of our daily lives, and its power is growing. Mr. Milner cited everyday examples like Amazon.com’s recommendation of books based on ones we have already read and Google’s constantly improving search algorithm.

• Finally — and Mr. Milner admitted this was “a bit of a futuristic picture” — he predicted “the emergence of the global brain, which consists of all the humans connected to each other and to the machine and interacting in a very unique and profound way, creating an intelligence that does not belong to any single human being or computer.”

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Online anarchy did not begin with the World Wide Web. More than a decade before Sir Timothy Berners-Lee’s cat-meme-and-fetish-porn-enabling gift, the Internet got its first real taste of widespread hacking. That was in 1983.

We reflect with respect on the phone phreaks who preceded these Reagan Era interlopers. John Draper (aka “Captain Crunch”), the teenaged Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak and other blue-box builders are credited with giving birth to a personal-computing culture that’s transformed the world. Their Internet progeny were not held in the same esteem, despite operating in an era before hacking laws existed.

In the early 1980s, the 414s and the Inner Circle, American teen hackers, were the subject of mass arrests for breaching government and corporate accounts. They mostly did so just to prove they could, not apparently with any malicious intent, but that hardly mattered when their garages and bedrooms were stormed by Feds.

The immediate aftermath in court was covered by the New York Times:

MILWAUKEE, March 16— Two young men who broke into large computers in the United States and Canada last June, simply to prove they could do it, have pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor charges, according to documents filed today in Federal District Court.

Eric Klumb, an Assistant United States Attorney, said it was the first such computer crime case in which the motive was not financial gain.

Gerald Wondra of West Allis, Wis., and Timothy D. Winslow of Milwaukee, both 21 years old, agreed to plead guilty to two counts each of making harassing telephone calls. Both are members of a loosely knit group of computer enthusiasts called the ”414’s,” after Milwaukee’s telephone area code. 

By charging the two, Mr. Klumb said he thought other computer enthusiasts might be deterred from similar intrusions.•

In an excellent Paleofuture post, Matt Novak recalls the watershed event and analyzes its fallout. An excerpt about one of the arrestees, Bill Landreth, the son of hippies whose dad was a financially struggling grow-lamp inventor:

When I met Bill Landreth at a Starbucks in Santa Monica, he was sitting quietly at a table drinking coffee with two bags on the the seat across from him, and a bag of blankets in the corner. A pipe made out of an apple and filled with what I assumed was medical marijuana sat at the table next to his coffee and Samsung tablet. A passing cop glanced at the spread but didn’t raise an eyebrow.

Arranging our meeting was tricky, because Bill isn’t sure where he’ll be sleeping from night to night. Now 52, with a slight goatee and a tussle of wavy hair that nearly reaches his shoulders, Bill has been living on the streets for 30 years. But if it weren’t for his receding hairline and a certain grayness to his gaze, he’d probably pass for a decade younger. There’s something assertive yet firmly guarded about the way he speaks. It’s as though Bill’s a man who’s not afraid to say what he thinks, but still worries about saying something out of line in front of me.

In our conversation, he was calm, affable, and clearly intelligent, and almost immediately began rattling off computers and computing languages of which I have little to no background or understanding.

Bill got his first computer in 1980, he tells me. It was a TRS-80 from RadioShack. He was 14 or 15, and explains that he planned to get the version with 8K of memory using $500 he had saved. His dad offered to pitch in another $500, and he got the 16K version with a cassette tape drive for storage. He also picked up a 300 baud modem.

Bill was a quick learner, and developed a knack for the BASIC programming language. From there he’d learn other languages, and his desire to explore the world of computing became overpowering.

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At the beginning of 2015, the great fiction writer Ken Kalfus suggested we take a deep breath before attempting to colonize Mars and instead send a human-less probe to Alpha Centauri. It would be a gift to our descendants, and in the meanwhile we could take a more sober approach to relocating humans into space.

Well, the former hasn’t happened, but it appears the latter might, thanks to the largesse of Yuri Milner, one of those modern Russian entrepreneurs so awash in wealth and next-level technology that they can dream the biggest dreams when tiring of mansions and yachts, ones formerly only possible for states, like “global brains” and space exploration. 

In a New York Times article, the excellent Dennis Overbye writes of the proposed mission, in which Milner is partnering with Stephen Hawking, among others. The opening:

Can you fly an iPhone to the stars?

In an attempt to leapfrog the planets and vault into the interstellar age, a bevy of scientists and other luminaries from Silicon Valley and beyond, led by Yuri Milner, a Russian philanthropist and Internet entrepreneur, announced a plan on Tuesday to send a fleet of robot spacecraft no bigger than iPhones to Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system, 4.37 light-years away.

If it all worked out — a cosmically big “if” that would occur decades and perhaps $10 billion from now — a rocket would deliver a “mother ship” carrying a thousand or so small probes to space. Once in orbit, the probes would unfold thin sails and then, propelled by powerful laser beams from Earth, set off one by one like a flock of migrating butterflies across the universe.

Within two minutes, the probes would be more than 600,000 miles from home — as far as the lasers could maintain a tight beam — and moving at a fifth of the speed of light. But it would still take 20 years for them to get to Alpha Centauri. Those that survived would zip past the star system, making measurements and beaming pictures back to Earth.

Much of this plan is probably half a lifetime away.•

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Donald Trump, equal parts Slobodan Milosevic and Simon Cowell, has run his half-assed campaign on the slogan, “Make America Great Again.” You don’t have to read too far between the lines to realize this actually means “Make America White Again.” It’s about turning back the clock to a time when there was even more privilege for some in the country. Many other pronouncements haven’t been so subtle; they’ve been more dog bites than dog whistles.

The time-machine promises extend beyond our borders, with Trump claiming he can magically get the whole world to do America’s bidding, one area where he’s completely in sync with nation-building neocons, who dream of winning hearts and minds. That’s not happening. That reality has changed, as other countries have become richer and more competitive, and the U.S. isn’t the center of the world. That’s good for the most part, as tens of millions have been lifted from poverty in China and Brazil and other patches on the globe, which makes for a stabler planet, even if the news headlines don’t always reflect that. America has a prime seat at the table, but we don’t hold all the cards. Slogans and slurs won’t change that.

From a Quora Q&A with Rice Psychology Professor David Schneider, an exchange that reflects the new world order:

Question:

If Donald Trump won the election, could he destroy civilization?

David Schneider:

Not in the normal course of things. Depends on what you mean by civilization, but the best part of it would be destroyed in an all out nuclear war. Possible? It’s always possible, and it could happen in a number of ways. One possibility would be an attack on Israel by say any number of countries unless the new POTUS works very hard to keep such weapons limited to the present few states. If Israel is attacked then it would retaliate, and there are lots of scenarios that get the US, then Russia involved. India and Pakistan? At the end of the day most Western countries really don’t care enough to risk getting involved. China? Not likely given their emphasis on economic growth and their need for Western countries to buy their goods. North Korea? They are just crazy enough to launch a nuclear device but they would be obliterated and no one would really care (except their people of course).

The most likely is a war between Russia and the U.S (maybe backed by Europe). Putin and Trump are both bullies and having them go toe to toe would be bad, bad, bad. I don’t think that Trump has the discipline or the skill to do the kind of negotiations required. Business negotiations are not the same as international ones for a lot of reasons. Putin has made it clear that he regards most of the former Soviet Union as his possessions and that his chief aim is to restore Russia to its formal power. Bullies with inferiority complexes are dangerous opponents.  I’m quite sure that he’s smart enough to realize that an atomic war would mean that there is no Russian left to restore itself to former glory. Still when people get angry or feel they are backed into a corner, they sometimes become irrational. It’s highly unlikely that any country would set out to wage such a war, but people are not always rational and escalation remains a constant danger. Some people seem to think that we ought to stand up to Russia whatever that means. But we have very little leverage and Putin is exactly the kind of leader you don’t want to bully.

Likely? No. Easy to imagine a scenario? Yes. Trump is so hugely ignorant (well, about most things) but especially about global politics. The days are over when the US, by itself, could dictate what other countries do. Conservatives, especially the neo-cons need to get over it. There are lots of reasons to think Trump would be a disaster as President, but the most important is that  he doesn’t have the right temperament not knowledge to conduct a reasonable foreign policy.•

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Alec Ross, author of The Industries of the Future, was asked in a Knowledge@Wharton interview about the next wave of work and wealth, and he echoed the sentiment in Tyler Cowen’s Average Is Over, noting that only those committed to continued education and possessing a flexible spirit will get ahead. Well, that’s good to know, but one obvious thing that often goes unmentioned in these discussions is what happens to the very large number of people who won’t be able to adapt to rapid change and do get left behind. That’s likely and must somehow be addressed. 

An excerpt:

Question:

As robots and codification and all of these other industries that you identify in the book become more prominent, how do you feel that’s going to change the world balance of power? How does that change the global economy and who has power and who doesn’t?

Alec Ross:

That’s a tremendous question. First of all, I’d put it into a certain kind of binary. The first is within the architecture of the 196 sovereign nation states, and the second is within those nation states, what kinds of individuals do well and what kinds of individuals do poorly.

You can live in a country that is prospering, but you can be doing very well or you could be doing very poorly. Or you could be living in a country that’s floundering, and you might be able to be doing pretty well. The principle political and economic binary of the 20th century was right versus left. In the 21st century, I think it’s open versus closed, defining open as upward economic mobility not confined to elites; social and cultural and religious norms not set from a central authority and broadly rights respecting for women, minorities of all type and what have you.

I believe that the centers of innovation and the wealth creation and job creation that come from that will be in the more open societies for the industries of the future. People conglomerating around what will probably be ten to 15 major centers over the next fifteen years. We already see this in development now. The more open societies will be those that compete and succeed most effectively.

Looking at this on an individual level, it’s going to be a terrible time to be mediocre at your job if you’re in a high-cost labor market. It’s an absolutely brutal truth. When people in Baltimore are competing against people in Bangalore, not just based on cost of labor but also quality of labor, which is now increasingly going to be the case, being more middle class or working class in the United States or Western Europe isn’t going to mean you’re starting life on second base to the degree that it did in the past.

You’ve got to be a committed lifelong learner. You’ve got to be adaptable. Otherwise you’re going to be left behind even if your country is producing substantial growth.•

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I’ve always traced the War on Drugs in the U.S. to the Nixon Administration, but British journalist Johann Hari, author of the book Chasing the Scream, dates it to the end of Prohibition, particularly to bureaucrat Harry Anslinger, a stern-faced Fed who looked like Mussolini as played by George C. Scott, who later mentored Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Tent City infamy. Hari also reveals how intertwined crackdown was (and is) with racism. No shocker there.

The so-called War has been a huge failure tactically and financially and has criminalized citizens for no good reason. All the while, there’s been a tacit understanding that millions of Americans are hooked on Oxy and the like, dousing their pain with a perfectly legal script. These folks are far worse off than pot smokers, but it’s the latter who are still afoul of the law in most states. I’m personally completely opposed to recreational drug use, but I feel even more contempt for the War on Drugs. It’s done far more harm than good. Decriminalize drugs that can be used in moderation, send users of harder drugs to rehab and only imprison those selling drugs to minors. It’s not ideal, but I think it’s a far saner solution. Or try something else; just make it less destructive.

From a LARB Q&A David Breithaupt conducted with Hari, an excerpt about the groups that inspired Anslinger’s folly, a seemingly never-ending waterloo:

He built the war on drugs around the three groups he hated most. The first was African-Americans. This is a man who was so racist that he was regarded as crazily so during the 1920s. His own Senator said he should have to resign because he used the “N word” so much in official memos. He believed that drugs were deranging African-Americans and leading them to attack whites and impregnate white women.

The second group was drug addicts. Anslinger believed that addicts were “contagious” and had to be “quarantined” — cut off from the rest of humanity. These first two groups came together, in his mind, in the form of the great jazz singer, Billie Holiday, who was his worst nightmare: a drug-addicted African-American woman challenging white supremacy. He was obsessed with her. In the book, I tell the story of how he stalked her, playing a key role in her death. The story of how Billie — and so many other Americans at the time — resisted Anslinger and the early drug war is one of the most inspiring I know.

The third group Anslinger hated was the Mafia. And here’s a complexity to the story: he was one of the first senior figures in federal government to realize the Mafia was real. It’s hard to believe now, but the Mafia was seen as an urban myth — like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster. But Anslinger had met these wiseguys as a young man. He knew they were real, and he wanted to destroy them. The tragedy is that the policy he believed would destroy them — drug prohibition — was, in fact, the biggest gift they received in the 20th century. He transferred the enormous industry in drugs from the people who used to control it — doctors and pharmacists — into the hands of organized crime. That’s what prohibition does. Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, said: “Al Capone was the product of alcohol prohibition. The Crips and the Bloods [and, he might well have added, Pablo Escobar and El Chapo] are the product of drug prohibition.”•

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I’ve mentioned before that the final 5% of perfecting driverless cars will be likely be more difficult than the first 95%. Those final digits make all the difference, of course, since, while aspects of automation can be useful, the technology is only transformational if it allows drivers to become passengers. When we can take our hands off the wheel and eyes off the road, the effects on the highway and the economy will be seismic. Consumers will probably have cheap rides a smartphone message away, and truckers, hacks and delivery people may be out of a job.

In a New Statesman article, Christian Wolmar argues that autonomous is a myth and that we will never own driverless cars. Well, someone will someday since nothing about the technology is theoretically impossible, even if the final strides of the marathon are arduous. His argument that driverless cars are as likely as jetpacks seems an exaggeration and his proof not entirely convincing. An excerpt:

The driverless car does not stand up to scrutiny. When pressed, Musk conceded that the “fully autonomous” car that he said would be ready by 2018 would not be completely automatic, nor would it go on general sale. There is a pattern. Whenever I ask people in the field what we can expect by a certain date, it never amounts to anything like a fully autonomous vehicle but rather a set of aids for drivers.

This is a crucial distinction. For this technology to be transformational, the cars have to be 100 per cent autonomous. It is worse than useless if the “driver” has to watch over the controls, ready to take over if an incident seems likely to occur. Such a future would be more dangerous than the present, as our driving skills will have diminished, leaving us less able to react. Google notes that it can take up to 17 seconds for a person to respond to alerts of a situation requiring him or her to assume control of the vehicle.

What is this technology for? The widespread assumption that driverless cars will be a shared resource, like the London Santander Cycles, is groundless. People like owning their personal vehicle because it is always available and can be customised to ensure that the child seat is properly in place and the radio tuned to Magic. Google may be right that a few parking lots will become redundant but it has no answer for the possibility that autonomy will encourage more vehicles on to the road.

The danger of all the hype is that politicians will assume that the driverless revolution obviates the need to search for solutions to more urgent problems, such as congestion and pollution. Why bother
to build infrastructure, such as new Tube lines or tram systems, or to push for road pricing, if we’ll all end up in autonomous pods? Google all but confesses that its autonomous cars are intended to be an alternative to public transport – the opposite of a rational solution to the problems that we face.•

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Capitalism will be just fine, though we’re fucked, very fucked.

In all seriousness, I think economic systems will look very different in the year 2100, when the vast majority of us are gone. 3D printing may have a huge impact on manufacturing, decentralizing it the way media has been. Scarcity-reducing automation will also be a great boon and bane simultaneously, taking much drudgery from our hands–but also paychecks. AI and robotics may not be destabilizing only for workers but for capital as well. Why, exactly, would anyone need to own a fleet of driverless cars or a lights-out factory? Couldn’t such outfits be self-owned and self-sustained?

But while markets will probably be very different, I think they’re stubborn things. I don’t believe they began as an accident but because of something deeply embedded in us–something evolutionary. They may be transformed, but I would guess they’ll persist.

Economic sociologist Wolfgang Streeck is far more dubious about the future of capitalism, believing we’re watching the system run aground. The title of his recent essay in the Socio-Economic Review doesn’t mince words: “On the Dismal Future of Capitalism.” The opening:

The writing is on the wall, and has been for some time; we must only learn to read it. The message is: capitalism is a historical social formation; it has not just a beginning but also an end.1 Three trends have run in parallel since the 1970s, throughout the family of rich capitalist democracies: declining growth, rising inequality of income and wealth and rising debt—public, private and total. Today the three seem to have become mutually reinforcing: low growth contributes to inequality by intensifying distributional conflict; inequality dampens growth by curbing effective demand; high levels of existing debt clog credit markets and increase the risk of financial crises; an overgrown financial sector both results from and adds to economic inequality etc. Already the last growth cycle before 2008 was more fake than real2 and post-2008 recovery remains anaemic at best, also because Keynesian stimulus, monetary or fiscal, fails to work in the face of unprecedented amounts of accumulated debt. Note that we are talking about long-term trends, not just a momentary unfortunate coincidence, and indeed about global trends, affecting the capitalist system as a whole and as such. Nothing is in sight that seems only nearly powerful enough to break the three trends, deeply ingrained and densely intertwined as they have become.

Moreover, looking back we see a sequence of political-economic crises that began with in- flation in the 1970s, followed by an explosion of public debt in the 1980s and by rapidly rising private debt in the subsequent decade, resulting in the collapse of financial markets in 2008. This sequence, again, was by and large the same for all major capitalist countries, whose economies have never really been in equilibrium since the end of postwar growth. All three crises began and ended in the same way: inflation, public debt and private debt initially served as expedient political solutions to distributional conflicts between capital and labour (and sometimes third parties such as raw material producers), until they became problems themselves: inflation in the early 1980s, public debt in a first consolidation phase in the 1990s, and private debt after 2008. Today’s political fix is called ‘quantitative easing’: essentially the printing of money by treasuries and central banks to keep interest rates down and accumulated debt sustainable, as well as prevent a stagnant economy from sliding into deflation, at the price of more inequality and of new bubbles in asset markets building and, eventually, collapsing.

The fundamental nature of the crisis is reflected in the extent to which the captains of capitalism have lost orientation and find themselves reduced to devising ever new provisional stopgaps until the next unpleasant surprise catches up with them. The wizards have become clueless. How long can quantitative easing go on? Is deflation the problem or inflation? How does one know a bubble before it blows up? Is growth restored through spending or through cutting back on spending? Is stricter financial regulation conducive or harmful to growth? Until the mid-1970s, growth was to result from redistribution from the top to the bottom; then, when Keynesianism was succeeded by Hayekianism, the opposite was true and markets were to be set free to redistribute from the bottom to the top. Now, seven years after the disaster of 2008, there is still no new growth formula and confusion rules the day. State-administered capitalism has failed—that is, was rejected by the owners of capital as too costly for them, to be replaced with free-market capitalism, which has also failed. For the time being, central banks act as regents waiting for a new ruler. But who would this be, and what would be his recipe for holding the capitalist enterprise together?

I suggest that after more than 200 years, capitalism has become unsustainable as a result of having become ungovernable.•

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America is no doubt plagued by ridiculous wealth inequality, but China, an authoritarian capitalist state, is no slouch in this area. There are copious reason for multimillionaires and billionaires minted in that nation to want to move their loved ones abroad, and one is that many of the industries that have enabled their filthy lucre have also blighted their homeland. These captains of industry have used their windfalls to disappear their children from the world’s highest cancer rates and unbreathable air, stashing them in America or Canada, where their conspicuous spending has heretofore received fewer sideways glances than it would have in the motherland. 

The Chinese elite and their super-rich kids (the “Golden Generation“) have left a mark on the cost of living in Vancouver in much the same way that money from abroad has made New York City all but unlivable for much of the 99%. Dan Levin of the NYT has a smart article about the lush life of “fuerdai” inside British Columbia’s largest city. An excerpt:

Many of Vancouver’s young supercar owners are known as fuerdai, a Mandarin expression, akin to trust-fund kids, that means “rich second generation.” In China, where the superrich are widely criticized as being corrupt and materialistic, the term provokes a mix of scorn and envy.

The fuerdai have brought their passion for extravagance to Vancouver. White Lamborghinis are popular among young Chinese women; the men often turn in their leased supercars after a few months for a newer, cooler status symbol.

Hundreds of young Chinese immigrants, along with a handful of Canadian-born Chinese, have started supercar clubs whose members come together to drive, modify and photograph their flashy vehicles, providing alluring eye candy for their followers on social media.

The Vancouver Dynamic Auto Club has 440 members, 90 percent of whom are from China, said the group’s 27-year-old founder, David Dai. To join, a member must have a car that costs over 100,000 Canadian dollars, or about $77,000. “They don’t work,” Mr. Dai said of Vancouver’s fuerdai. “They just spend their parents’ money.”

Occasionally, the need for speed hits a roadblock. In 2011, the police impounded a squadron of 13 Lamborghinis, Maseratis and other luxury cars, worth $2 million, for racing on a metropolitan Vancouver highway at 125 miles per hour. The drivers were members of a Chinese supercar club, and none were older than 21, according to news reports at the time.

On a recent evening, an overwhelmingly Chinese crowd of young adults had gathered at an invitation-only Rolls-Royce event to see a new black-and-red Dawn convertible, base price $402,000. It is the only such car in North America.

Among the curious was Jin Qiao, 20, a baby-faced art student who moved to Vancouver from Beijing six years ago with his mother. During the week, Mr. Jin drives one of two Mercedes-Benz S.U.V.s, which he said were better suited for the rigors of daily life.

But his most prized possession is a $600,000 Lamborghini Aventador Roadster Galaxy, its exterior custom wrapped to resemble outer space.

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Parallel to the dream of robotizing and automating warfare is one in which supersoldiers are created through PEDs, technological add-ons and implants, and genetic modification. Neither vision is anything new, of course. Case in point: Vietnam is considered the first drug-fueled American war, with what’s politely described as “pep pills” and other pharmaceuticals being popped like Pez. Of course, this crude, foolhardy experimentation may have dulled the pain at the moment, but it was really just delaying the inevitable.

The Atlantic has published a piece adapted from Lukasz Kamienski’s book, Shooting Up: A Short History of Drugs and War. The opening:

Some historians call Vietnam the “last modern war,” others the “first postmodern war.” Either way, it was irregular: Vietnam was not a conventional war with the frontlines, rears, enemy mobilizing its forces for an attack, or a territory to be conquered and occupied. Instead, it was a formless conflict in which former strategic and tactical principles did not apply. The Vietcong were fighting in an unexpected, surprising, and deceptive way to negate Americans’ strengths and exploit their weaknesses, making the Vietnam War perhaps the best example of asymmetrical warfare of the 20th century.

The conflict was distinct in another way, too—over time, it came to be known as the first “pharmacological war,” so called because the level of consumption of psychoactive substances by military personnel was unprecedented in American history. The British philosopher Nick Land aptly described the Vietnam War as “a decisive point of intersection between pharmacology and the technology of violence.”•

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Steve Case won’t be around to read his obituary, which is probably a good thing.

It would no doubt pain him that the lead will be the disastrous America Online-Time Warner merger, an attempt at synergy that wound up a lose-lose of historic proportions. Case, then the AOL CEO, bet on old media at a time when he needed to walk even more boldly into the future with the Internet. It was one step backwards, and he lost his leg.

AOL has long been done as a major player in any sector, but Case continues apace, with entrepreneurial endeavors and charitable work. Steven Levy just interviewed him about his book, The Third Wave: An Entrepreneur’s Vision of the Future, an attempt to predict what comes after Web 1.0 and 2.0. The journalist ventures into an apt topic in this insane political season: If technology has gifted us with more information than ever, why does the public seem less informed?

An excerpt:

Steven Levy:

In the book you include a very prescient statement you made after graduating college in the early 1980s about how technology would affect our lives. We have been transformed by all sorts of gadgets and networks that augment our powers. But judging from the current election process, it doesn’t seem to have made people smarter. You could even make a case for the opposite, saying people are dumber — anti-science, and more susceptible to mob thinking than they used to be.

Steve Case:

That’s fair. One of the things we felt passionate about 30 years ago was leveling the playing field so that everybody can have a voice. Back then when there were three television networks, unless you were rich and owned a printing press, you didn’t really have the opportunity to have your voice heard. Having millions of voices heard is awesome, but it gets noisy and some people are saying things that are inaccurate and not constructive and worse. There is absolutely this dynamic, of people living in a filtered bubble, hearing voices that reinforce their views and not really being exposed to the views of other people. That drives this hyper partisanship. I’m very concerned about it. We need to figure how to rebuild a center. Compromise should become a good word, not a bad word.

Steven Levy:

Has technology made it harder to find compromise?

Steve Case:

It has. In high school I wouldn’t have said this, but also sometimes to reach compromise you have to have a quiet discussion and cut a deal. When you have to have those negotiations, essentially in public, and talking points and sound bites on two-minute cable TV, things get noisier and it gets less constructive. With the current election, it is noisy and a little uncomfortable. The political process is getting disrupted.•

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At this point, the best Donald Trump can hope for is that his campaign goes down ingloriously in flames. The fire may not be metaphorical, however.

Remarkably unprepared–unwilling, even–to lead, the troll can only dream of the appearance of the Republican nomination being “stolen” from him should he not secure a majority of delegates. His thuggish Presidential bid, a crude and racist joke that got out of hand, may yet ball itself into a big fist that’s unleashed at the GOP convention, the misdemeanors of the trail escalating into felonies.

Among the uniformly irresponsible members of the rogues’ gallery who serve as the hideous hotelier’s braintrust, the gutter-level political hack Roger Stone has already turned prepper for an End of Days scenario in Cleveland, unveiling the threats, only further reducing Trump to the appearance of John Gotti with a Southern strategy.

In a New Yorker piece by Evan Osnos, one of my favorite contemporary nonfiction writers, the journalist reminds that when it comes to this ugly campaign season, Trump didn’t build it alone. It took a village. But how was the mob activated? An excerpt:

It’s easy to mock Trump for his thin-skinned fixation on the size of his audiences, but that misses a deeper point: you can’t have a riot without a mob. Even before he was a candidate, Trump displayed a rare gift for cultivating the dark power of a crowd. In his role as the primary advocate of the “birther” fiction, he proved himself to be a maestro of the mob mentality, capable of conducting his fans through crescendos of rage and self-pity and suspicion. Speaking to the Times editorial board, in January, he said, “You know, if it gets a little boring, if I see people starting to sort of, maybe, thinking about leaving, I can sort of tell the audience, I just say, ‘We will build the wall!,’ and they go nuts.”

The symbiotic exchange between a leader and his mob can thrive on what social psychologists call “emotional contagion,” a hot-blooded feedback loop that the science writer Maggie Koerth-Baker describes as “our tendency to unconsciously mimic the outward expression of other people’s emotions (smiles, furrowed brows, leaning forward, etc.) until, inevitably, we begin to feel what they’re feeling.”

When we are exposed to the right energy, even those of us who are not inclined to cross the boundaries from politics to force will do things that we would ordinarily consider reprehensible. Stephen David Reicher, a sociologist and psychologist at the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland, who has studied soccer mobs and race riots, told Wired last month, “People don’t lose control, but they begin to act with collective values.” Recently, he has turned his attention to studying Trump’s crowds. “It’s not your individual fate that becomes important but the fate of the group.”

And therein lies the key to Trump’s ability to introduce menace into the convention: he does not need to call upon his supporters to do anything but protect their newfound sense of identity and purpose.•

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YIWU, CHINA - MAY 18: (CHINA OUT) A "female" robot waiter delivers meals for customers at robot-themed restaurant on May 18, 2015 in Yiwu, Zhejiang province of China. Sophomore Xu Jinjin in 22 years old from Hospitality Management of Yiwu Industrial and Commercial College managed a restaurant where a pair of robot acted as waiters. The "male" one was named "Little Blue" (for in blue color) and the "female" one was "Little Peach" (for in pink) and they could help order meals and then delivered them to customers along the magnetic track and said: "Here're your meals, please enjoy". According to Xu Jinjin, They had contacted with the designer to present more robot waiters to make the restaurant a real one that depends completely on robots. (Photo by ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images)

The economist Alex Tabarrok participated in an interesting Q&A session at Quora, but I really wish I could ask him a follow-up on the exchange about Artificial Intelligence’s impact on the middle class. One point he makes is that the benefits of AI will flow to masses the way smartphones have. That sounds promising except that the diffuse nature of that particular technology has coincided by most estimates with a hollowing out of the middle. For instance, those phones have enabled Uber to destabilize the taxi industry, replacing solid jobs and small businesses with Gog Economy insecurity. Having a remarkably great tool in our shirt pockets isn’t necessarily a panacea for larger economic issues, and it’s possible the benefits from AI won’t cover the losses it creates. 

The exchange:

Question:

Will the proliferation of affordable AI decimate the middle class?

Alex Tabarrok:

Here is how I think about these issues. The Artificial in AI can sometimes mislead so let’s start by getting rid of the A and asking instead whether more NI, Natural Intelligence will decimate the middle class. For example, will increasing education in China decimate the American middle class? I don’t think so.

As I said in my TED talk, the brainpower of China and India in the 20th century was essentially “offline.” Instead of contributing to the world technological frontier the people of China and India were just barely feeding themselves. China and India are now coming online and I see the increase in natural intelligence as one of the most hopeful facts for the future. It’s been estimated that a reduction in cancer mortality of just 10 percent would be worth $5 trillion to U.S. citizens (and even more taking into account the rest of the world). A reduction in cancer mortality is more likely to happen with a well-educated China than with a poorly educated China. So we have a huge amount to gain by greater NI.

In the case of low-skill labor the rise of China has hurt some US low-skill workers (although US workers as a whole are almost certainly better off due to lower prices). The US has historically had an abundance of highly-skilled labor and with greater education around the world we have less of a competitive advantage. In the case of high-skill labor, however, I think the opportunities for gains are much greater than with competition for low-skill labor. Ideas are what drives growth and ideas are non-rivalrous, they quickly spread around the world. The more idea creators the better for everyone. At the world level, for example, the standard of living and the growth rate of world GDP have both gotten larger as population has increased.

Greater foreign intelligence and wealth could be a threat if intelligence turns from production to destruction (this is also a potential problem with AI). We probably can’t keep China poor, even if we tried, and any attempt to try to do so would likely backfire in the worst possible way. Thus, if want to keep high-skill Chinese workers working on medical rather than military breakthroughs, we must preserve a peaceful world of trade. Indeed, peace and trade become ever more important the richer the world gets. 

Now let’s turn from NI to AI. For the foreseeable future I see AI as being very similar to additional NI. Smart people in China aren’t perfect substitutes for smart people in the United States and there are also plenty of opportunities for complementarity. Similarly AI is not a perfect substitute for NI and there are plenty of opportunities for complementarity. An AI that drives your car, for example, complements your NI because it leaves more time for more productive tasks.

(What happens when AI does become a perfect substitute for NI? We could easily be 100 years or more from that scenario but my foresighted colleague, Robin Hanson, has a new book The Age of EM that discusses the implications of uploads, human intelligence copied into software—Hanson’s book is the most serious attempt in all of history to lay out the implications of a new technology but we may not know whether he is right for a long time.)

Thus, the analysis of AI and NI is similar except for one important fact. As Chinese workers become better educated a significant share of the gains will go to Chinese workers (although by no means all).  AI, however, is produced by capital. But in our world capital isn’t scarce. The world is awash in capital and computing power is getting ever cheaper. AI isn’t like an oil field owned by a handful of people. AI will be cheap and ownership will be widespread. Just look at your cellphone—it’s faster and more powerful than a multi-million dollar Cray-2 supercomputer of 1990. Moreover, in 1990 there were only a handful of Cray-2s and today there are billions of cell-phone super-computers including hundreds of millions and soon billions in poor countries. The gains from AI, therefore, will flow not to capital but to consumers. So if anything the gains from more AI are even larger than the gains from more NI.•

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While I don’t think the Singularity is upon us, mass automation could very well be. For all the good Weak AI can do for production, it will likely force us to reconsider politics, economics and even the meaning of being human.

It’s best, though, to be circumspect when considering the impact thus far of robotics. While it’s probably safe to assume machines have contributed to the middle-class decline in the U.S., there are other considerable factors, including tax codes. As far as the recent Case-Deaton findings about a spike in the death rate among white, middle-aged Americans, the wide availability of opioids has probably been as much the culprit as the decline of manufacturing. Tax codes and drug restrictions can be shifted, however, whereas automation is pointed in only one direction–and that’s up. If jobs of similar quantity and quality aren’t created to replace the vanished ones, something will have to give.

From Moshe Y. Vardi in the Guardian:

The US economy has been performing quite poorly for the bottom 90% of Americans for the past 40 years. Technology is driving productivity improvements, which grow the economy. But the rising tide is not lifting all boats, and most people are not seeing any benefit from this growth. While the US economy is still creating jobs, it is not creating enough of them. The labor force participation rate, which measures the active portion of the labor force, has been dropping since the late 1990s.

While manufacturing output is at an all-time high, manufacturing employment is today lower than it was in the later 1940s. Wages for private nonsupervisory employees have stagnated since the late 1960s, and the wages-to-GDP ratio has been declining since 1970. Long-term unemployment is trending upwards, and inequality has become a global discussion topic, following the publication of Thomas Piketty’s 2014 book Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

Most shockingly, economists Angus Deaton, winner of the 2015 Nobel memorial prize in economic science, and Anne Case found that mortality for white middle-aged Americans has been increasing over the past 25 years, due to an epidemic of suicides and afflictions stemming from substance abuse.

Is automation, driven by progress in technology, in general, and artificial intelligence and robotics, in particular, the main cause for the economic decline of working Americans?•

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For the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo, Japan is promising–perhaps overpromising–driverless taxis, robot assistants, instant language translation, etc. In the “et cetera” category is next-level maglev trains, which may reach a world-record 374 mph. Railroad geeks, a global phenomenon, are excited and turning out at viewing posts for test runs.

From Asahi Shimbun:

FUEFUKI, Yamanashi Prefecture–Railway buffs are getting up close and personal with the new superfast maglev train after two special observation platforms overlooking a test line were opened to the public last month.

In addition to seeing the ultimate in train technology speed past at close quarters, observers can also take in the beautiful backdrop of the expanse of the Kofu Basin and the peaks of the Southern Japan Alps.

As most parts of the test line has been carved underground through mountains, the observation platforms provide rare photo opportunities and places to wait for the test train.

The Yamanashi maglev test line is for what will be called the Linear Chuo Shinkansen, and when it goes into service it will allow passengers to travel between Tokyo and Nagoya in just 40 minutes.

One of the lookouts, the Hanatoriyama observatory, is in a park called “Linear no Mieru Oka” (hill where the linear motor train can be seen). The park spreads out over 2,900 square meters including the area for car parks for visitors.•

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There are numerous reasons for the surprising success of Donald’s Trump’s racist bumfight of a campaign, something even the hideous hotelier himself didn’t really want. He impetuously entered the race to “burnish his brand,” which stinks like a cheap cologne concocted from sewer water. A troll NEVER really wants to be king.

The emotional homunculus was subsequently aided by myriad factors: the the drift into the fringe by the GOP base, the initially overcrowded field of lacklustre candidates, a racist backlash to the first African-American President and struggling media companies gladly accepting free content, no matter how ugly or inappropriate the Reality TV show was. It’s not that cable news should have ignored the rise of Trump, but it shouldn’t have abetted it to erase the red ink, either. But there was CNN, Jeff Zucker’s clown car of infotainment, pretending populism in the name of the bottom line, and Maureen Dowd realizing far too late that Trump had never been a “fun brand” and had actually become something fascistic. They were not alone in their opportunism or blissful ignorance.

Two passages about this Baba Booey of an election season, one from Markus Feldenkirchen in Spiegel and a couple of David Remnick quotes from The Hollywood Reporter.


From Feldenkirchen:

The political culture that is emerging here is a mixture of primary school, mafia, and porn industry. It alternates between cries of “He started it!,” brawls, misogyny, and penis size comparison. It’s almost as if guests at a formal dinner, where basic table manners were a given, suddenly began to belch and break wind without restraint. America is currently experiencing not only political but also moral bankruptcy. Dirty tricks are not new in US election campaigns, but the new lows to which the candidates are currently stooping are unprecedented.

It’s not just the two bullies at the top who are to blame. Their rise was made possible through a decline in values such as decency, honesty, tolerance and fairness — a process that has been hastened by the Republican Party more than anyone else. For too long, it has pursued fiscal, economic and social policies that served only companies and the rich, the financial backers of their election campaigns. At the same time, millions of Americans slid into precarity. Cultural declines are often the consequence of real economic decline. Propriety isn’t the primary concern of those with financial worries, those who are embittered and living without hope. Instead, the neglected long for a culture of radicalism and coarseness. Destruction, they believe, may presage something better.

Over the course of decades, the Republicans have likewise built up a culture of contempt for public goods and services. They argue for educational policies that exclude the non-privileged, instead pushing them towards stultification and barbarization. They allow billionaires like the Koch brothers to direct the party’s policy and appoint it’s key candidates. A few years ago, Republicans furthermore embraced the radical and destructive Tea Party movement, thus marking the party’s departure from any semblance of moderation.It is too late to turn back the clock.•


From Remnick:

“Donald Trump, for decades, occupied a kind of comic space in the New York ego-scape,” [Remnick] continued. “He was the guy who discovered, ‘If I just say outrageous things and behave like a cartoon of Louis XIV, I will become enormously famous. It doesn’t matter that I’m wrong or it doesn’t matter that I’m ill-informed and it doesn’t matter that I’m even racist. Some portion of people will find this hilarious.’ But now it’s not a question of whether or not he gets to put his name on the side of a skyscraper. It’s whether he has the nuclear codes.”

Not surprisingly, The New Yorker’s coverage of the presidential candidate has been withering. Remnick penned a piece in the March 14 issue of the magazine that dredged up some Trump bon mots that would make even the shameless billionaire wince (marveling about Melania’s bowel movements or his willingness to have sex with Princess Diana). “This is not a Seth Rogen movie; this is as real as mud,” Remnick wrote.

Regardless of the outcome, the 2016 presidential campaign will go down in the annals of politics thanks to Trump, Remnick told THR.

“I can’t believe that in 100 years, we won’t remember the bizarre, frightening, hilarious — did I mention bizarre? — quality of this race, and it begins and ends with Donald Trump,” he added. “You have an American demagogue getting very close to the Republican nomination. This is as close as an American demagogue has gotten to power in history. George Wallace, Huey Long, all those people never got as close as Donald Trump. We may laugh and find it all a gas. And for journalists, it’s a kind of welfare program. Everybody’s ratings get boosted and people read about it and everybody’s happy, but it’s pretty damn frightening.”•

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maosurveillance

During the 1930s, a surprising number of American captains of industry looked longingly at Mussolini’s Italy and even Hitler’s Germany. What they thought they saw was indomitable power. How can we compete with well-coordinated Fascism and totalitarianism, they churlishly asked, with our impudent U.S. laborers? They’ll eat our lunch.

Although Mussolini met with the business end of a meat hook and Hitler died a bunker-based suicide, modern China has aroused those feelings of jealousy all over again in some of our current pouty plutocrats. There is some cause for envy. It’s awe-inspiring what that nation has done in short order, with its headlong dive through the Industrial Age and into the Digital one. Tens of millions have been lifted from abject poverty through mass, manic urbanization, though the day-to-day costs have been steep. It’s striking, though, that while the world’s highest cancer rates and the planet’s worst air pollution receive plenty of attention, the new money has seemingly papered over how sick the larger system is. Authoritarianism is still antithetical to human nature.

Xi Jinping’s current tough-on-crime crusade, aided by cutting-edge sensors and algorithms, is more a political purge than a righteous reckoning for the corrupt. It’s Mao married to modern technology.

The opening of “Crackdown in China,” Orville Schell’s excellent NYRB article:

“As a liberal, I no longer feel I have a future in China,” a prominent Chinese think tank head in the process of moving abroad recently lamented in private. Such refrains are all too familiar these days as educated Chinese professionals express growing alarm over their country’s future. Indeed, not since the 1970s when Mao still reigned and the Cultural Revolution still raged has the Chinese leadership been so possessed by Maoist nostalgia and Leninist-style leadership.

As different leaders have come and gone, China specialists overseas have become accustomed to reading Chinese Communist Party (CCP) tea leaves as oscillating cycles of political “relaxation” and “tightening.” China has long been a one-party Leninist state with extensive censorship and perhaps the largest secret police establishment in the world. But what has been happening lately in Beijing under the leadership of Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping is no such simple fluctuation. It is a fundamental shift in ideological and organizational direction that is beginning to influence both China’s reform agenda and its foreign relations.

At the center of this retrograde trend is Xi’s enormously ambitious initiative to purge the Chinese Communist Party of what he calls “tigers and flies,” namely corrupt officials and businessmen both high and low. Since it began in 2012, the campaign has already netted more than 160 “tigers” whose rank is above or equivalent to that of the deputy provincial or deputy ministerial level, and more than 1,400 “flies,” all lower-level officials.1 But it has also morphed from an anticorruption drive into a broader neo-Maoist-style mass purge aimed at political rivals and others with differing ideological or political views.

To carry out this mass movement, the Party has mobilized its unique and extensive network of surveillance, security, and secret police in ways that have affected many areas of Chinese life.•

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Despite Snowden’s leak, governments will continue to have powerful tools of surveillance and will likely use them often despite any legislation. But it isn’t a one-sided fight.

As the eye-popping Panama Papers demonstrate, we’ve permanently moved into an era of cat-and-mouse games among governments, corporations and private citizens, with encryption tools and smaller and more powerful microchips allowing the lone leaker to be the mouse that roared–to even become the feline.

Andy Greenberg’s Wired article details how the “Mother of All Megaleaks,” which makes Assange seem a relatively small matter, began simply with a mysterious message sent to a German newspaper reporter. The writer also explains how technology has enabled such revelations to grow in frequency, size and impact. An excerpt:

The leaks are bound to cause ripples around the world—not least of all for Mossack Fonseca itself. The firm didn’t respond to a request for comment from Wired, but it wrote to the Guardian that “many of the circumstances you cite are not and have never been clients of Mossack Fonseca” and that “we have always complied with international protocols … to assure as is reasonably possible, that the companies we incorporate are not being used for tax evasion, money laundering, terrorist finance or other illicit purposes.” Another letter posted to WikiLeaks’ Twitter feed, meanwhile, purports to show how the firm has responded to its own clients:

Mossack Fonseca and its customers won’t be the last to face an embarrassing or even incriminating megaleak. Encryption and anonymity tools like Tor have only become more widespread and easy to use, making it safer in some ways than ever before for sources to reach out to journalists across the globe. Data is more easily transferred—and with tools like Onionshare, more easily securely transferred—than ever before. And actual Moore’s Law continues to fit more data on smaller and smaller slices of hardware every year, any of which could be ferreted out of a corporation or government agency by a motivated insider and put in an envelope to a trusted journalist.

The new era of megaleaks is already underway: The Panama Papers represent the fourth tax haven leak coordinated by the ICIJ since just 2013.•

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Utopians tend to overpromise. 

Techno-utopians go even further. It’s not that Singularitarians with bold plans for transforming medicine or transportation are making theoretically impossible claims, but they sure have aggressive timeframes and seem to think tomorrow will be smooth as can be. But it’s a world with wrinkles and probably needs to be.

Perhaps by the end of the century, we’ll live in a post-scarcity society with robot assistants and miraculous medicine, though there’ll still be problems–stubborn old ones, new ones, ones we can’t yet imagine. We’re far from perfect, and our machines won’t be flawless, either. Progress is wonderful, but it’s not an arrow pointed toward the heavens.

From Nick Romeo’s Daily Beast piece about Singularity University:

It’s common for tech industry rhetoric to invoke the ideal of a better world, but since its 2008 inception, Singularity University has articulated an astonishingly ambitious series of goals and projects that use technological progress for philanthropic ends. Medicine is just one of many domains that [co-founder Peter] Diamandis wants to fundamentally change. He and others at Singularity are also working to develop and support initiatives that will provide universal access to high-quality education, restore and protect polluted environments, and transition the economy to entirely sustainable energy sources.

His audience was a group of 98 executives from 44 countries around the world; each had paid $14,000 to attend the weeklong program at Singularity University’s NASA Research Park campus in Mountain View, California. As Diamandis moved through the sectors of the economy that artificial intelligence would soon dominate—medicine, law, finance, academia, engineering—the crowd seemed strangely energized by the prospect of its imminent irrelevance. Singularity University was generating more than $1 million of revenue by telling its prosperous guests that they would soon be surpassed by machines.

But his vision of the future was nonetheless optimistic. Diamandis believes that solar energy will soon satisfy the demands of the entire planet and replace the market for fossil fuels. This will mean fewer wars and cleaner air. Systems for converting atmospheric humidity into clean drinking water will become cheap and ubiquitous. The industrial meat industry will also vanish, replaced by tastier and healthier laboratory-grown products with no environmental downsides. He also predicts that exponential increases in the power of AI would soon render teachers and universities superfluous. The best education in the world will become freely available to anyone.•

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Gary Silverman’s excellent Financial Times article includes passages about repossessed monkeys and Ukrainian trophy wives, as all good stories about the odious Trump campaign must.

The piece is about the corrosive candidate’s political point man in Vegas, his billionaire business partner Phil Ruffin, who would be a wonderfully entertaining Horatio Alger figure if he wasn’t working his damndest to elect an American Mussolini. A “Cadillac-and-redhead man” is how the journalist describes his subject, who in the ’50s repossessed a surly simian for a Texas department store and in the Aughts acquired a second wife, an Eastern European beauty queen 46 years his junior.

Ruffin hated the monkey and loves his bride but lacks any kind of passion for politics. He promised his buddy he’d back him, however, and a deal’s a deal.

An excerpt:

A wiry, wily Wichita, Kansas, native who was 147 pounds when he was winning titles as a high school wrestler, Mr Ruffin is the stylistic opposite of his brash buddy from New York. He wears wire-rim glasses. His thinning hair, dyed a deep orange, falls haphazardly across his scalp, unlike Mr Trump’s structured coiffure.

They are the kind of Americans who inspired historian Walter McDougall’s description of the US as a nation of “hustlers”, by which he meant “builders, doers, go-getters, dreamers, hard workers, inventors, organisers (and) engineers” as well as “self-promoters, scofflaws, occasional frauds and peripatetic self-reinventors”.

Both trace their family histories in the US to the frontier. Mr Trump is the grandson of a German immigrant who took part in the Alaska gold rush before settling in New York. Mr Ruffin’s paternal grandfather left Lebanon for Oklahoma, where Mr Ruffin’s father recalled witnessing the 1924 gunfight that took the life of Bill Tilghman, the legendary gunslinger and marshal of Dodge City, Kansas.

Neither Mr Trump nor Mr Ruffin has created a smartphone app or commanded an enterprise of the complexity of a General Electric, a Goldman Sachs or a Google. They are wheelers and dealers in real estate, hotels, casinos and whatever else comes their way. Theirs is a milieu where money is made by seizing moments, squeezing contractors, battling creditors, and “pushing and pushing and pushing,” as Mr Trump put it in The Art of the Deal, his 1987 book.

“We negotiate all the time,” says Mr Ruffin. “We negotiate something every week.”•

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Interesting Marketwatch article by Martin Libicki about the potential driverless age allowing law enforcement to override controls of cars. I only have one question: Why would the autos need to be driverless for this to occur?

Cars are already rolling computers and will only continue to be developed in that direction. Such machines can be hacked, and it would make sense that police will eventually have the ability to externally take control of a computerized car. I think the plausibility of this scenario will ultimately come down to what society finds acceptable when we write laws, not to the advent of autonomous vehicles.

From Libicki:

It is time to start thinking about the rules of the new road. Otherwise, we may end up with some analog to today’s chaos in cyberspace, which arose from decisions in the 1980s about how personal computers and the Internet would work.

One of the biggest issues will be the rules under which public infrastructures and public safety officers may be empowered to override how autonomous vehicles are controlled.

It is not hard to imagine why they might want such override power. One is for traffic control. As AVs proliferate there are many advantages to having them talk with intelligent roadways, the better to use scarce freeway space. Controls may also be imposed to leave lanes clear for emergency vehicles or crowded busses. Road conditions that are hard to detect by AV sensors, like weather-related lane closures, may also be more efficiently and fairly handled by having roadways or emergency crews redirect AVs away from problematic lanes, as well as around police, fire, and EMS activity. Overrides could be used to restrict certain vehicles from sensitive locations, like military sites.

More intrusive controls may be called for to deal with crime. For instance, high-speed chases could become a thing of the past.•

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Silicon Valley technologists are mythologized for birthing products in their garages, but considering the room serving as a makeshift workspace, cars are conspicuously not among those goods. Will 3D printing change that?

Will there come a day when a handful of engineers and designers in grad school are able to turn an automotive startup into a going concern, without massive factories and thousands of employees? Let’s say driverless makes vehicles lighter and cheaper and these latter-day Henry Fords dream up a better vehicle. They raise VC to purchase their own 3D printers or offload the production responsibility to companies that specifically handle that chore. Can they make a car that’s competitively priced? Can hundreds or thousands of such small-scale companies exist and compete? It’s already being tried, but can it succeed? Today’s costs make it almost impossible to envision presently, but you could have said the same of computer hardware a decade before Homebrew tinkerers began repurposing their garages.

Even if automaking isn’t markedly decentralized by 3D printers, much of manufacturing will likely be. It will have good and bad effects on the economy, as these outfits won’t produce a ton of assembly-line positions, but they will likely lower consumer costs greatly. It’s progress with an asterisk.

The opening of “How 3-D Printing Will Make Manufacturing in America Great Again,” a Newsweek piece by Kevin Maney:

If the folks at 3D Hubs are right, presidential candidates can stop fulminatingabout bringing back manufacturing from China or Bangladesh or wherever.

Technology will render such a shift inevitable. In the next decade, the whole business dynamic that makes it a good idea for a lot of U.S. companies to manufacture overseas will go poof. The very concept of a big honkin’ factory will eventually become as anachronistic as a typing pool.

Instead, companies are going to custom-make most things in small factories right in your neighborhood or town, close enough so you could go pick up your stuff, or maybe have it dropped onto your porch by a drone. Factories will essentially get broken up, scattered and made local. As 3D Hubs co-founder Bram de Zwart puts it, “Why would you put a thousand machines in one place when you can put one machine in a thousand places?”

Such is the promise of “distributed manufacturing.” The World Economic Forum last year named it one of the most important technology trends to watch. It is expected to have a mighty impact on jobs, geopolitics and the climate. And while massive distributed factories might seem a little far-fetched in 2016, a handful of companies are starting to make it happen.•

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Donald Trump, equal parts George Steinbrenner and George Wallace, has made it clear that there will be riots if he doesn’t get the GOP nomination. There will likely be riots even if he does. There’ll be riots.

The cancerous candidate sat for an interview with Bob Woodward and Robert Costa of the Washington Post, and while it doesn’t make Trump answer for his racist and xenophobic comments and peculiar policy positions, it is fascinating as a psychological portrait of a delusional megalomaniac who doesn’t even understand his own motivations. His extremely logorrheic explanation of why he entered politics isn’t exactly analogous to Ted Kennedy’s famous waterloo when he was unable to express why he wanted to be President during his 1979 joust with Jimmy Carter, but I think it does confirm suspicions that Trump impetuously entered the race because he’s an unhappy man whose need for attention can’t be sated. Thanks to a perfect storm of GOP craziness, he wound up the clear frontrunner, even if his path to delegate majority is increasingly difficult to find.

If it succeeds as a personality profile, the interview fails on other grounds. One passage that’s somehow making news is a Trump prediction the Post reporters were remiss in not effectively addressing. It’s this:

“I’m talking about a bubble where you go into a very massive recession. Hopefully not worse than that, but a very massive recession.”•

If it sounds familiar, that’s because Trump periodically releases such sky-is-falling mouthfarts which almost always turn out to be wrong. Here’s another one from 2012:

Billionaire Donald Trump says the U.S. economy is poised for “massive inflation” and is warning investors to take steps now to protect themselves.•

Someday the hideous hotelier will be correct in a stopped-clock-being-right-twice-a-day fashion, but it won’t be because of any knowledge. Woodward and Costa should have pushed back at this proclamation.

The opening:

Bob Woodward: 

And the real first question is, where do you start the movie of your decision to run for president? Because that is a big deal. A lot of internal/external stuff, and we’d love to hear your monologue on how you did it.  

Donald Trump: 

Where do you start the movie? I think it’s actually — and very interesting question — but I think the start was standing on top of the escalator at Trump Tower on June 16, which is the day — Bob, you were there, and you know what I mean, because there has. . . . I mean, it looked like the Academy Awards. I talk about it. There were so many cameras. So many — it was packed. The atrium of Trump Tower, which is a very big place, was packed. It literally looked like the Academy Awards. And . . .  .

Bob Woodward: 

But we want to go before that moment.

Donald Trump:   

Before that? Okay, because that was really . . .  .

Bob Woodward: 

Because, other words, there’s an internal Donald with Donald.

Robert Costa:

Maybe late 2014 or before you started hiring people?

Donald Trump: 

Well, but that was — okay, but I will tell you, until the very end. . . . You know, I have a good life. I built a great company. It’s been amazingly — I’m sure you looked at the numbers. I have very little debt, tremendous assets. And great cash flows. I have a wonderful family. Ivanka just had a baby. Doing this is not the easiest thing in the world to do. People have — many of my friends, very successful people, have said, “Why would you do this?”

Bob Woodward: 

So is there a linchpin moment, Mr. Trump, where it went from maybe to yes, I’m going to do this? And when was that?

Donald Trump:

Yeah. I would really say it was at the beginning of last year, like in January of last year. And there were a couple of times. One was, I was doing a lot of deals. I was looking at very seriously one time, not — they say, oh, he looked at it for many — I really, no. I made a speech at the end of the ’80s in New Hampshire, but it was really a speech that was, it was not a political speech. But because it happened to be in New Hampshire . . .  .

Bob Woodward: 

And that guy was trying to draft you.

Donald Trump: 

And he was a very nice guy. But he asked me. And he was so intent, and I made a speech. It was not a political speech, anyway, and I forgot about it.

Bob Woodward: 

And that was the real possibility? Or the first . . .  .

Donald Trump: 

Well no, the real possibility was the Romney time, or the Romney term. This last one four years ago. I looked at that, really. I never looked at it seriously then. I was building my business, I was doing well. And I went up to New Hampshire, made a speech. And because it was in New Hampshire, it was sort of like, Trump is going to run. And since then people have said, Trump is going to run. I never was interested. I could almost say at all, gave it very little thought, other than the last time, where Romney was running.•

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trumpani8359

Donald Trump wants to make America great again. You remember those halcyon days, right? Girls Gone Wild entrepreneur Joe Francis had not yet been incarcerated, the Bumfight producers hadn’t been sued and the hazards of Purple Drank were not fully appreciated. It was 2011, and it was ours.

Mitt Romney’s biggest moral failing during the last Presidential campaign may have been his dalliance with Birtherism stemming from his partnership with the megalomaniac Trump, but his greatest practical misstep was decrying government investment in alternative energy, going so far as to bury Tesla which had received a loan from the Obama stimulus. Elon Musk’s outfit wasn’t insolvent like Solyndra, paid back the borrowed money early and will be providing thousands of good jobs for Americans in its battery and solar plants in Nevada and New York. That is, of course, not even mentioning the dire need for replacing fossil fuels as we heat and melt even faster than feared.

This stance is but one of the disastrous decisions the GOP has doubled down on in the current egregious election season, with Trump the leader of the ugly mob. No, he didn’t start it, but he boiled the lies down to their purest and most dangerous form, selling the return of yesterday’s manufacturing base when it’s tomorrow’s high-tech positions that must be won.

From Issie Lapowsky’s Wired piece about the blowhard’s bad ideas about Apple and economics:

Still, it stands to reason that Trump would cling to this talking point. His campaign, exit polls show, has been largely buoyed by the populist anger of the so-called white working class, roughly defined as white working adults without a college degree. These are the people who once staffed the factories of the Rust Belt and the mines of coal country, and their opportunities have taken a big hit from the flow of manufacturing jobs overseas, as well as competition from new generations of immigrants and the rise of technology as a more efficient substitute for manual labor.

The number of voters who meet the “white working class” definition is shrinking. In 1980, 65 percent of voters were white and lacked a college education. In 2012, it was just 36 percent. But it’s been a powerful constituency for Trump, nonetheless, one that he’d be far less dominant without.

Which is why, despite the fact that as a businessman Trump is likely all too aware that upending Apple’s supply chain would be unfeasible, he continues to make grand claims about the company. With this promise, Trump is pandering to his base, promising to restore the kinds of jobs that were once a key part of the American Dream.

But Trump’s promises if realized, would actually hurt the very people he’s promising to help, experts say. That’s because today, those once dependable jobs on the assembly line have been reduced to low-wage, low-skill commodity labor. If Trump—or any of the presidential candidates—really want to help the working class, researchers say, they would be wise to focus less on the types of jobs the US has already lost and more on the industries the US is uniquely poised to create.

Forget Apple. Focus on Tesla

Trump isn’t wrong to see the tech industry as a potential creator of manufacturing jobs in America. He’s just looking at the wrong parts of the tech industry. What the candidates should be focusing on instead, says Jared Bernstein, senior fellow at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, are emerging technologies like robotics, electric vehicles, and autonomous aviation.•

 

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r2d2c3po890 (3)

Adrienne LaFrance’s Atlantic article “What Is a Robot?” is one of my favorite pieces thus far in 2016. As the title suggests, the writer tries to define what qualities earns a machine the name “robot,” a term perhaps not as slippery as “existential” but one that’s nebulous nonetheless. The piece does much more, presenting a survey of robotics from ancient to contemporary times and asking many questions about where the sector’s current boom may be leading us.

Two points about the article:

  • It quotes numerous roboticists and those analyzing the field who hold the opinion that a robot must be encased, embodied. I think this is a dangerous position. A robot to me is anything that is given instructions and then completes a task. It’s increasingly coming to mean anything that can receive those basic instructions and then grow and learn on its own, not requiring more input. I don’t think it matters if that machine has an anthropomorphic body like C-3PO or if it’s completely invisible. If we spend too much time counting fingers and toes, we may miss the bigger picture.
  • Early on, there’s discussion about the master-slave relationship humans now enjoy with their machines, which will only increase in the short term–and may eventually be flipped. The following paragraph speaks to this dynamic: “In the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s 1807 opus, The Phenomenology of Spirit, there is a passage known as the master-slave dialectic. In it, Hegel argues, among other things, that holding a slave ultimately dehumanizes the master. And though he could not have known it at the time, Hegel was describing our world, too, and aspects of the human relationship with robots.” I believe this statement is true should machines gain consciousness, but it will remain a little hyperbolic as long as they’re not. Holding sway over Weak AI that does our bidding certainly changes the meaning of us and will present dicey ethical questions, but they are very different ones than provoked by actual slavery. Further, the human mission being altered doesn’t necessarily mean we’re being degraded.

From LaFrance:

Making robots appear innocuous is a way of reinforcing the sense that humans are in control—but, as Richards and Smart explain, it’s also a path toward losing it. Which is why so many roboticists say it’s ultimately not important to focus on what a robot is. (Nevertheless, Richards and Smart propose a useful definition: “A robot is a constructed system that displays both physical and mental agency, but is not alive in the biological sense.”)

“I don’t think it really matters if you get the words right,” said Andrew Moore, the dean of the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon. “To me, the most important distinction is whether a technology is designed primarily to be autonomous. To really take care of itself without much guidance from anybody else… The second question—of whether this thing, whatever it is, happens to have legs or eyes or a body—is less important.”

What matters, in other words, is who is in control—and how well humans understand that autonomy occurs along a gradient. Increasingly, people are turning over everyday tasks to machines without necessarily realizing it. “People who are between 20 and 35, basically they’re surrounded by a soup of algorithms telling them everything from where to get Korean barbecue to who to date,” Markoff told me. “That’s a very subtle form of shifting control. It’s sort of soft fascism in a way, all watched over by these machines of loving grace. Why should we trust them to work in our interest? Are they working in our interest? No one thinks about that.”

“A society-wide discussion about autonomy is essential,” he added.•

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