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A little more on Cambridge Analytica, which Carole Caldwalla reported on recently in the Guardian. The audience-targeting company is being given significant credit by some for powering the Trump campaign to Electoral College victory. My main hesitation with believing online fake news was an predominant factor in the recent election is that Trump won overwhelmingly with older Americans, who seem to have been more plugged into Fox News than Facebook. It may have played a role, but did it really have a greater impact than, say, a legacy-media company like the New York Times, running an un-skeptical headline above the fold about the FBI suspiciously reopening the investigation into the Clinton emails? Or Russia hacking the election? It’s hard to untangle what just went on, but looking for a single smoking gun will probably always prove unsatisfactory. 

From Nicholas Confessore and Danny Hakim of the New York Times

Cambridge Analytica’s rise has rattled some of President Trump’s critics and privacy advocates, who warn of a blizzard of high-tech, Facebook-optimized propaganda aimed at the American public, controlled by the people behind the alt-right hub Breitbart News. Cambridge is principally owned by the billionaire Robert Mercer, a Trump backer and investor in Breitbart. Stephen K. Bannon, the former Breitbart chairman who is Mr. Trump’s senior White House counselor, served until last summer as vice president of Cambridge’s board.

But a dozen Republican consultants and former Trump campaign aides, along with current and former Cambridge employees, say the company’s ability to exploit personality profiles — “our secret sauce,” Mr. Nix once called it — is exaggerated.

Cambridge executives now concede that the company never used psychographics in the Trump campaign. The technology — prominently featured in the firm’s sales materials and in media reports that cast Cambridge as a master of the dark campaign arts — remains unproved, according to former employees and Republicans familiar with the firm’s work.

“They’ve got a lot of really smart people,” said Brent Seaborn, managing partner of TargetPoint, a rival business that also provided voter data to the Trump campaign. “But it’s not as easy as it looks to transition from being excellent at one thing and bringing it into politics. I think there’s a big question about whether we think psychographic profiling even works.”•

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Late to Industrialization, China entered the process knowing what much of the Western world had to learn the hard way in the 1970s: Urbanizing and modernizing an entire nation brings with it tremendous economic growth, but it can’t be sustained by the same methods–or perhaps at all–when the mission is complete. It’s a one-time-only bargain.

A richer nation can’t grow endlessly on the production of cheap exports, so the newly minted superpower is pivoting more to domestic demand, a nuance no doubt lost in the Trump Administration’s ham-handed appreciation of global politics. In “Trump’s Most Chilling Economic Lie,” a Joseph Stiglitz Vanity Fair “Hive” article, the economist highlights the insanity of America engaging in a trade war with China and expecting to emerge the richer. An excerpt:

Trump’s team may be tempted to conclude, naively, that because China exports so much more to the U.S. than the U.S. exports to China, the loss of a huge export market would hurt them more than it would hurt us. This reasoning is too simplistic by half. China’s government has far more control over the country’s economy than our government has over ours; and it is moving from export dependence to a model of growth driven by domestic demand. Any restriction on exports to the U.S. would simply accelerate a process already underway. Moreover, China’s government has the resources (it’s still sitting on some $3 trillion of reserves) and instruments to help any sector that has been shut out—and in this respect, too, China is better placed than the U.S.

China has already shown how it is likely to respond if Trump should launch a trade war. At Davos, President Xi Jinping came out as the great supporter of globalization and the international rule of law—as well China should. China, with its large emerging middle class, is among the big beneficiaries of globalization. Critics have said that China does not always play fair. They complain that as China has grown, it has taken away some of the privileges, some of the tax preferences, that it gave to foreigners in earlier stages of development. They are unhappy, too, that some Chinese firms have learned quickly how to compete—some of them even appropriating ideas from others, just as we appropriated intellectual property from Europe more than a century ago.

It is worth noting that, although large multinationals complain, they are not leaving. And we tend to forget the extensive restrictions we impose on Chinese firms when they seek to invest in the U.S. or buy high-tech products. Indeed, the Chinese frequently point out that if the U.S. lifted those restrictions, America’s trade deficit with China would be smaller.

China’s first response will be to try to find areas of cooperation. They are experts in construction. They know how to build high-speed trains. They might even provide some financing for these projects. Given Trump’s rhetoric, though, I suspect that such cooperation is just a dream.

If Trump insists on an adversarial stance, China is likely to respond within the framework of international law even if Trump puts little weight on such agreements—and thus is not likely to retaliate in a naive, tit-for-tat way. But China has made it clear that it will respond. And if history is any guide, it will respond both forcefully and intelligently, hitting us where it hurts economically and politically—where, for instance, cutbacks in purchases by China will lead to more unemployment in congressional districts that are vulnerable, influential, or both. If Boeing’s order book is thin, it might, for instance, cancel its purchases of Boeing planes.•

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Some things take on a life of their own, even when they’re not actually living. AI will likely slot into this category.

When Bill Gates suggests America tax robots not only to provide opportunities to those squeezed from the middle class but to also slow down innovation, he’s analyzing the situation as it if it existed inside a vacuum. That’s not the way technology proceeds.

Developing new tools is part of a constant competition among and within states and corporations. Innovating is paramount to maintaining a competitive edge in the marketplace or battlefield. Of course, holding your position or gaining an advantage means a nation (or nations) may be careering down a perilous path. Being militarily prepared for danger can, paradoxically, be very dangerous. The same will be true of biotech.

From Morgan Chalfant’s The Hill story about the surprising speed with which robotic soldiers may be reporting for duty:

Peter Singer, a strategist at the New America Foundation, said that artificial intelligence is among potential “disruptions” being developed in the realm of cyber conflict. 

“It’s not just when is it going to happen, but we don’t yet know is it going to privilege the offense or defense, what are going to be the affects of it,” Singer said, recommending that Congress hold a classified hearing on where the U.S. stands in comparison to likely adversaries on this capability. 

“We don’t want to fall behind,” he said. 

Healey expressed concerns about the possibility of artificial intelligence augmenting our adversaries’ offensive capabilities more significantly than the United States’ defense of its critical infrastructure. 

“The part of it that particularly worries me the most is that on the defensive side many people are thinking that artificial intelligence, new heuristics, better analytics and automation are going to help the defense, that if only we can roll these things out faster we will be better and the system will be more stable,” Healey explained.

“I think that these technologies are going to aid the offense much more than it aids the defense because to defend against these kinds of attacks, you need your own super computer,” he continued. 

Healey warned that while the Pentagon can afford computer systems necessary to defend against adversaries using artificial intelligence, small- or mid-sized enterprises that own U.S. critical infrastructure cannot.

“It leaves much of America undefended,” he said.•

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Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation is the “little” 1974 psychological thriller he squeezed in between the first two Godfather films, which fast-forwarded the disquiet of Antonioni’s Blow-Up into the Watergate Era, even if the director has always considered it more a personal than political film. The movie, which hangs on San Francisco surveillance expert Harry Caul’s descent into madness, remains a classic and has actually grown in stature as the Digital Age replaced the analog one. When I wrote briefly about the cerebral movie six years ago, I concluded with this:

In the era that saw the downfall of an American President who listened to the tapes of others and erased his own, The Conversation was amazingly relevant, but in some ways it may be even more meaningful in this exhibitionist age, in which we gleefully hand over our privacy to satisfy our egos. As Caul and Nixon learned, and as we may yet, those who press PLAY don’t always get to choose when to press STOP.•

This weekend, we had a sitting American President (baselessly) accuse his predecessor of tapping his phone lines, all the while the Intelligence Community searches for real tapes of this Administration’s officials conspiring with the Kremlin during the campaign. Such evidence would be treasonous.

It’s not shocking that Trump’s viciously ugly brand of nostalgia has forced us backwards into a Cold Way type of paranoia, in which 20th-century espionage is predominant. The greater insight to take from The Conversation may be more about the near future, however, when nobody has to hit PLAY because there’s no longer a STOP.

In an amazing find, the good people at Cinephilia & Beyond published a 1974 Filmmakers Newsletter interview in which Brian De Palma quizzed Coppola about this masterwork. It’s more a discussion of cinema than of Watergate, and there’s a very interesting exchange in which the subject reveals why he doesn’t regard Hitchcock with awe.

Here’s the opening:


Here’s a wonderful making-of featurette about The Conversation, which asked questions about a world where everyone is a spy and spied upon. The surprise more than 40 years later: Few seemed upset as we crept into the new order of the techno-society. We haven’t been trapped after all; we’ve logged on and signed up for it.

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When the idea of online personalization was first presented to me by an Web 1.0 entrepreneur, I was unimpressed and uninterested, saying I preferred newspapers and magazines introducing me to ideas I hadn’t been seeking. You could have your very own tailor-made newspaper or magazine, I was told, but I insisted that wasn’t what I would subscribe to. I naively believed others would feel the same way.

When the very young version of Mark Zuckerberg (who is still young) infamously said “a squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa,” he betrayed himself as stunningly callous at that point in his life but also demonstrated the myopia of personalization. Our new tools can enable us to live in a bubble, but that doesn’t mean they ennoble us.

Targeted information helps maximize online advertising revenue, but it’s lousy for democracy, paradoxically offering us greater freedom while simultaneously undermining it. Whether the Internet is inherently at odds with liberty is a valid question. And considering Fox News has been fake news for more than 20 years, the decentralized media in general has to similarly analyzed.


The opening of Tim Harford’s latest Financial Times column:

“Our goal is to build the perfect personalised newspaper for every person in the world,” said Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg in 2014. This newspaper would “show you the stuff that’s going to be most interesting to you.”

To many, that statement explains perfectly why Facebook is such a terrible source of news.

A “fake news” story proclaiming that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump was, according to an analysis from BuzzFeed, the single most successful item of news on Facebook in the three months before the US election. If that’s what the site’s algorithms decide is interesting, it’s far from being a “perfect newspaper.”

It’s no wonder that Zuckerberg found himself on the back foot after Trump’s election. Shortly after his victory, Zuckerberg declared: “I think the idea that fake news on Facebook, which is a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way . . . is a pretty crazy idea.” His comment was greeted with a scornful response.

I should confess my own biases here. I despise Facebook for all the reasons people usually despise Facebook (privacy, market power, distraction, fake-smile social interactions and the rest). And, as a loyal FT columnist, I need hardly point out that the perfect newspaper is the one you’re reading right now.

But, despite this, I’m going to stand up for Zuckerberg, who recently posted a 5,700-word essay defending social media. What he says in the essay feels like it must be wrong. But the data suggest that he’s right. Fake news can stoke isolated incidents of hatred and violence. But neither fake news nor the algorithmically driven “filter bubble” is a major force in the overall media landscape. Not yet.•


From Eli Pariser in the New York Times in 2011:

Like the old gatekeepers, the engineers who write the new gatekeeping code have enormous power to determine what we know about the world. But unlike the best of the old gatekeepers, they don’t see themselves as keepers of the public trust. There is no algorithmic equivalent to journalistic ethics.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, once told colleagues that “a squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.” At Facebook, “relevance” is virtually the sole criterion that determines what users see. Focusing on the most personally relevant news — the squirrel — is a great business strategy. But it leaves us staring at our front yard instead of reading about suffering, genocide and revolution.

There’s no going back to the old system of gatekeepers, nor should there be. But if algorithms are taking over the editing function and determining what we see, we need to make sure they weigh variables beyond a narrow “relevance.” They need to show us Afghanistan and Libya as well as Apple and Kanye.

Companies that make use of these algorithms must take this curative responsibility far more seriously than they have to date. They need to give us control over what we see — making it clear when they are personalizing, and allowing us to shape and adjust our own filters. We citizens need to uphold our end, too — developing the “filter literacy” needed to use these tools well and demanding content that broadens our horizons even when it’s uncomfortable.

It is in our collective interest to ensure that the Internet lives up to its potential as a revolutionary connective medium. This won’t happen if we’re all sealed off in our own personalized online worlds.•

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In his NYRB review of Daniel Dennett’s From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds, Thomas Nagel is largely laudatory even though he believes his fellow philosopher ultimately guilty of “maintaining a thesis at all costs,” writing that:

Dennett believes that our conception of conscious creatures with subjective inner lives—which are not describable merely in physical terms—is a useful fiction that allows us to predict how those creatures will behave and to interact with them.

Nagel draws an analogy between Dennett’s ideas and the Behaviorism of B.F. Skinner and other mid-century psychologists, a theory that never was truly satisfactory in explaining the human mind. Dennett’s belief that we’re more machine-like than we want to believe is probably accurate, though his assertion that all consciousness is illusory–if that’s what he’s arguing–seems off.

Dennett’s life work about consciousness and evolution has certainly crested at right moment, as we’re beginning to wonder in earnest about AI and non-human-consciousness, which seems possible at some point if not on the immediate horizon. In a Financial Times interview conducted by John Thornhill, Dennett speaks to the nature and future of robotics.

An excerpt:

AI experts tend to draw a sharp distinction between machine intelligence and human consciousness. Dennett is not so sure. Where many worry that robots are becoming too human, he argues humans have always been largely robotic. Our consciousness is the product of the interactions of billions of neurons that are all, as he puts it, “sorta robots”.

“I’ve been arguing for years that, yes, in principle it’s possible for human consciousness to be realised in a machine. After all, that’s what we are,” he says. “We’re robots made of robots made of robots. We’re incredibly complex, trillions of moving parts. But they’re all non-miraculous robotic parts.” …

Dennett has long been a follower of the latest research in AI. The final chapter of his book focuses on the subject. There has been much talk recently about the dangers posed by the emergence of a superintelligence, when a computer might one day outstrip human intelligence and assume agency. Although Dennett accepts that such a superintelligence is logically possible, he argues that it is a “pernicious fantasy” that is distracting us from far more pressing technological problems. In particular, he worries about our “deeply embedded and generous” tendency to attribute far more understanding to intelligent systems than they possess. Giving digital assistants names and cutesy personas worsens the confusion.

“All we’re going to see in our own lifetimes are intelligent tools, not colleagues. Don’t think of them as colleagues, don’t try to make them colleagues and, above all, don’t kid yourself that they’re colleagues,” he says.

Dennett adds that if he could lay down the law he would insist that the users of such AI systems were licensed and bonded, forcing them to assume liability for their actions. Insurance companies would then ensure that manufacturers divulged all of their products’ known weaknesses, just as pharmaceutical companies reel off all their drugs’ suspected side-effects. “We want to ensure that anything we build is going to be a systemological wonderbox, not an agency. It’s not responsible. You can unplug it any time you want. And we should keep it that way,” he says.•

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Ezra Klein of Vox has an excellent interview about meditation and much more with Yuval Noah Harari, though I don’t know that I’m buying the main premise which is that the Israeli historian can so ably communicate such cogent ideas because of his adherence to this “mind-clearing” practice.

If that’s so, then I would have to suppose Harari was meditating far less while writing Homo Deus than when composing Sapiens, because the follow-up, while still worth reading, is not nearly as incisive or effective as his first book. (Jennifer Senior had a very good review of the sophomore effort in the New York Times.)

What separates Harari from other historians trying to communicate with a lay audience is his ability to brilliantly synthesize ideas in a very organic way. Even when I’m not sure if I’m totally buying one of these combinations (e.g., Alan Turing created a test in which a computer could pass for a human because he spent his brief, tragic life trying to pass for heterosexual), it still provokes me to think deeply on the subject.

I would assume this talent is more a quirk of his own brain chemistry and diligent development of natural gifts than anything else. Of course, meditation could be aiding in the process, or, perhaps, the practice of Vipassana is more correlation than causation. I doubt even Harari truly knows for sure.

The two opening exchanges:

Ezra Klein:

You told the Guardian that without meditation, you’d still be researching medieval military history — but not the Neanderthals or cyborgs. What changes has meditation brought to your work as a historian?

Yuval Noah Harari:

Two things, mainly. First of all, it’s the ability to focus. When you train the mind to focus on something like the breath, it also gives you the discipline to focus on much bigger things and to really tell the difference between what’s important and everything else. This is a discipline that I have brought to my scientific career as well. It’s so difficult, especially when you deal with long-term history, to get bogged down in the small details or to be distracted by a million different tiny stories and concerns. It’s so difficult to keep reminding yourself what is really the most important thing that has happened in history or what is the most important thing that is happening now in the world. The discipline to have this focus I really got from the meditation.

The other major contribution, I think, is that the entire exercise of Vipassana meditation is to learn the difference between fiction and reality, what is real and what is just stories that we invent and construct in our own minds. Almost 99 percent you realize is just stories in our minds. This is also true of history. Most people, they just get overwhelmed by the religious stories, by the nationalist stories, by the economic stories of the day, and they take these stories to be the reality.

My main ambition as a historian is to be able to tell the difference between what’s really happening in the world and what are the fictions that humans have been creating for thousands of years in order to explain or in order to control what’s happening in the world.

Ezra Klein:

One of the ideas that is central to your book Sapiens is that the central quality of Homo sapiens, what has allowed us to dominate the earth, is the ability to tell stories and create fictions that permit widespread cooperation in a way other species can’t. And what you count as fiction ranges all the way from early mythology to the Constitution of the United States of America.

I wouldn’t have connected that to the way meditation changes what you see as real, but it makes sense that if you’re observing the way your mind creates imaginary stories, maybe much more ends up falling into that category than you originally thought.

Yuval Noah Harari:

Yes, exactly. We seldom realize it, but all large-scale human cooperation is based on fiction. This is most clear in the case of religion, especially other people’s religion. You can easily understand that, yes, millions of people come together to cooperate in a crusade or a jihad or to build the cathedral or a synagogue because all of them believe some fictional story about God and heaven and hell.

What is much more difficult to realize is that exactly the same dynamic operates in all other kinds of human cooperation. If you think about human rights, human rights are a fictional story just like God and heaven. They are not a biological reality. Biologically speaking, humans don’t have rights. If you take Homo sapiens and look inside, you find the heart and the kidneys and the DNA. You don’t find any rights. The only place rights exist is in the stories that people have been inventing.

Another very good example is money. Money is probably the most successful story ever told. It has no objective value. It’s not like a banana or a coconut. If you take a dollar bill and look at it, you can’t eat it. You can’t drink it. You can’t wear it. It’s absolutely worthless. We think it’s worth something because we believe a story. We have these master storytellers of our society, our shamans — they are the bankers and the financiers and the chairperson of the Federal Reserve, and they come to us with this amazing story that, “You see this green piece of paper? We tell you that it is worth one banana.”

If I believe it and you believe it and everybody believes it, it works. It actually works. I can take this worthless piece of paper, go to a complete stranger who I never met before, give him this piece of paper, and he in exchange will give me a real banana that I can eat.

This is really amazing, and no other animal can do it. Other animals sometimes trade. Chimpanzees, for example, they trade. You give me a coconut. I’ll give you a banana. That can work with a chimpanzee, but you give me a worthless piece of paper and you expect me to give you a banana? That will never work with a chimpanzee.

This is why we control the world, and not the chimpanzees.•

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Rebuilding the world has to rank at the top of economic low-hanging fruit of the last century. America, its forces marshaled, played a leading role in piecing together the shattered globe in the wake of WWII. Yes, four decades of unfortunate tax rates, globalization, automation and the demise of unions have all abetted the decline of the U.S. middle class, but just as true is that the good times simply ended, the job completed (more or less), the outlier ran headlong into entropy. The contents of this half-empty glass finally spilled all over the world in 2016, provoking outrageously regressive political shifts, with perhaps more states becoming submerged this year.

As An Extraordinary Time author Marc Levinson wrote in 2016 in the Wall Street Journal: “The quarter-century from 1948 to 1973 was the most striking stretch of economic advance in human history. In the span of a single generation, hundreds of millions of people were lifted from penury to unimagined riches.” In “End of a Golden Age,” an Aeon essay, the economist and journalist further argues the global circumstances of the postwar era were a one-time-only opportunity for runaway productivity, a fortunate arrangement of stars likely to never align again.

Well, never is an extremely long stretch (we hope), but the economic-growth-rate promises brought to the trail by Sanders and Trump, which have made it to the White House with the unfortunate election of the latter candidate, were at best fanciful, though delusional might also be a fair assessment. If I had to guess, I would say someday we’ll see tremendous growth again, but when that happens and what precipitates it, I don’t know. Nobody really does.

An excerpt:

When it comes to influencing innovation, governments have power. Grants for scientific research and education, and policies that make it easy for new firms to grow, can speed the development of new ideas. But what matters for productivity is not the number of innovations, but the rate at which innovations affect the economy – something almost totally beyond the ability of governments to control. Turning innovative ideas into economically valuable products and services can involve years of trial and error. Many of the basic technologies behind mobile telephones were developed in the 1960s and ’70s, but mobile phones came into widespread use only in the 1990s. Often, a new technology is phased in only over time as old buildings and equipment are phased out. Moreover, for reasons no one fully understands, productivity growth and innovation seem to move in long cycles. In the US, for example, between the 1920s and 1973, innovation brought strong productivity growth. Between 1973 and 1995, it brought much less. The years between 1995 and 2003 saw high productivity gains, and then again considerably less thereafter.

When the surge in productivity following the Second World War tailed off, people around the globe felt the pain. At the time, it appeared that a few countries – France and Italy for a few years in the late 1970s, Japan in the second half of the ’80s – had discovered formulas allowing them to defy the downward global productivity trend. But their economies revived only briefly before productivity growth waned. Jobs soon became scarce again, and improvements in living standards came more slowly. The poor productivity growth of the late 1990s was not due to taxes, regulations or other government policies in any particular country, but to global trends. No country escaped them.

Unlike the innovations of the 1950s and ’60s, which were welcomed widely, those of the late 20th century had costly side effects. While information technology, communications and freight transportation became cheaper and more reliable, giant industrial complexes became dinosaurs as work could be distributed widely to take advantage of labour supplies, transportation facilities or government subsidies. Workers whose jobs were relocated found that their years of experience and training were of little value in other industries, and communities that lost major employers fell into decay. Meanwhile, the welfare state on which they had come to rely began to deteriorate, its financial underpinnings stressed due to the slow growth of tax revenue in economies that were no longer buoyant. The widespread sharing in the mid-century boom was not repeated in the productivity gains at the end of the century, which accumulated at the top of the income scale.

For much of the world, the Golden Age brought extraordinary prosperity. But it also brought unrealistic expectations about what governments can do to assure full employment, steady economic growth and rising living standards. These expectations still shape political life today.•

The recent Presidential election revealed that U.S. citizens either have a terrible understanding of economics or they’re willing to surrender their security in the name of identity politics. Both are likely true to a significant extent.

Immigrants were blamed for the downgrading of the American worker on the trail while automation was never discussed, and Michigan voters swung to Trump, largely because Washington had supposedly forgotten about them, after the Obama Administration wagered $79 billion on bailing out the Detroit auto industry. Not too long after that salvage job by the federal branch, the state’s populace voted in an anti-union governor in Rick Snyder. The locals may have forgotten about themselves more than D.C. ever did.

Another vital topic of discussion that was never broached during the campaign was the role that contracted work has played in shrinking middle class. For several decades, American companies have been outsourcing mail-room work, maintenance, security and other “non-core” tasks to subcontractors who would save them some money by lowering salaries and reducing benefits to laborers. This shift created a separate class. Executive pay ballooned while those with more modest pay stubs took the elevator downward, further exacerbating wealth inequality.

I’ve written before about this destabilizing phenomenon. More from Eduardo Porter of the New York Times:

…Mr. Trump is missing a more critical workplace transformation: the vast outsourcing of many tasks — including running the cafeteria, building maintenance and security — to low-margin, low-wage subcontractors within the United States.

This reorganization of employment is playing a big role in keeping a lid on wages — and in driving income inequality — across a much broader swath of the economy than globalization can account for.

David Weil, who headed the Labor Department’s wage and hour division at the end of the Obama administration, calls this process the “fissuring” of the workplace. He traces it to the 1980s, when corporations under pressure to raise quarterly profits started shedding “noncore” tasks.

The trend grew as the spread of information technology made it easier for companies to standardize and monitor the quality of outsourced work. Many employers took to outsourcing to avoid the messy consequences — like unions and workplace regulations — of employing workers directly.

“It’s an incredibly important part of the story that we haven’t paid attention to,” Mr. Weil told me.

“Lead businesses — the firms that continue to directly employ workers who provide the goods and services in the economy recognized by consumers — remain highly profitable and may continue to provide generous pay for their work force,” he noted. “The workers whose jobs have been shed to other, subordinate businesses face far more competitive market conditions.”

The trend is hard to measure, since subcontracting can take many forms. But it is big.•

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In the time before centralized mass media, a whole host of traveling cons and medicine-show mountebanks could pull wool and push potions. During the era of centralized mass media, it was occasionally possible to work the masses in a big way, but mostly gatekeepers batted down these lies. In our age of decentralized communications, which began with President Reagan signing away the Fairness Doctrine and became fully entrenched with cable news and the Internet, the sideshow, now residing in the center ring, has never fooled more people who should know better.

One of the Barnums of this bizarre moment is right-wing radio talker Alex Jones, a compulsive eater and apeshit peddler of strange conspiracy theories that usually have an anti-government or bigoted bent. He is the kind of kook who would have been calling into late-night radio shows about UFOs in decades past, only to be hung up on by annoyed hosts. Today his strange fake-news impulses have provided him with a direct line to a White House led by a President who would have been laughed off the campaign trail in any reasonably decent and enlightened age. 

All of this has been enabled by a new form of hyper-democracy that resists checks and balances, in which every idea is equal true or not. It’s a scary moment in which anything–anything–is possible.

From Veit Medick’s great Spiegel profile of Jones, a Texas-sized F.O.T. (Friend of Trump):

Jones is stunned that not all Americans share his panicked view of the “jihadists.” Indeed, he believes the threat is so great that it would be best not to allow anyone at all to enter the United States anymore.

“Please forget the Statue of Liberty,” Jones says during a break. “It’s a symbol of propaganda. We should stop worshipping it and bending down to every Third World population that shows up with TB and leprosy.”

‘Foot Soldiers in the Trump Revolution’

Jones now plans to open an office in Washington. He says might hire 10 people to report on the White House, almost like a traditional media organization. He will be getting help from Roger Stone, a radical adviser to the president, who wrote a book in which he described former President Bill Clinton as a serial rapist without providing any proof. Under a deal reached between the two men, Stone began hosting the Alex Jones show for one hour a week a short time ago. “Elitists may laugh at his politics,” Stone says, but “Alex Jones is reaching millions of people, and they are the foot soldiers in the Trump revolution.”

It’s afternoon, and Jones is walking through the studio, his adrenaline level high and his blood sugar low. He needs to get something to eat. Platters of BBQ – chicken, beef and sausages – are set out on a table in the conference room. “Good barbecue,” says Jones. “You tasted it already?” 

He piles up food onto a plastic plate, and then he suddenly takes off his shirt without explanation. With his bare torso, he sits there and shovels meat into his mouth, a caricature of manliness, but also a show of power to the reporter sitting in front of him. He can do as he pleases.

Then Jones gets up and holds out a sausage. “Wanna suck?” he asks.•

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Futurist Thomas Frey has published “25 Shocking Predictions about the Coming Driverless Car Era in the U.S.,” a Linkedin article which envisions a time in the near future when almost all vehicles are autonomous and individual ownership has become a thing of the past.

Of course the idea that driverless will be imminently perfected and come to dominate the streets, roads and highways in, say, the next 15 years, is the most stunning of all prognostications and certainly not a sure thing. Technological and legislative hurdles most be surmounted and those unpredictable humans must be willing to let go of the wheel, if Frey’s “explosive transformation” is to proceed.

It’s certainly not impossible. Think of the monumental changes the Internet has brought in its 20+ years of wide usage and the way smartphones have rearranged life in only a decade. Driverless may do the same or perhaps we’ll all be talking when we’re old and gray about how the revolution never quite arrived.

If it does materialize, one big headache in addition to the jobs that will be shed too quickly for society to absorb is that we’ll rest inside surveillance devices while surveillance devices rest inside our pockets. We’ll be too deep inside the machine to ever extricate ourselves.

The opening two items:

1.) Life expectancy of autonomous vehicles will be less than 1 year

I’ve been doing some math on driverless cars and came to the startling conclusion that autonomous cars will wear out in as little as 9-10 months.

Yes, car speeds will be slower in the beginning, but within ten years as speeds increase and cars begin to average 60-70 mph on open freeways, a single car could easily average 1,000 miles a day.

Over a 10-month period, a single car could travel as much as 300,000 miles.

Cars today are only in use 4% of the day, less than an hour a day. An electric autonomous vehicle could be operating as much as 20 hours a day or 21 times as much as the average car today.

For an electric autonomous vehicle operating 24/7, that still leaves plenty of time for recharging, cleaning, and maintenance.

It’s too early to know what the actual life expectancy of these vehicles will be, but it’s a pretty safe assumption that it will be far less than the 11.5 years cars are averaging today.

2.) One Autonomous Car will Replace 30 Traditional Cars

2028-2030 will be the years of peak messiness for the driverless car revolution. The number of autonomous vehicles will grow quickly but they will be intermingled with traditional driver-cars.

Drivers bring with them a hard-to-quantify human variable, and that’s what makes driving today such problem-riddled experience.

There are roughly 258 million registered cars in the U.S. and replacing them will be a long drawn out process. But here’s what most people don’t understand. One autonomous vehicle that we can be summoned from a local fleet will replace 30 traditional cars.

For a city of 2 million people, a fleet of 30,000 autonomous vehicles will displace 50% of peak commuter traffic.**

During off-peak times, 30,000 autonomous vehicles will handle virtually all other transportation needs. Peak traffic times that will be the hardest to manage.•

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Bill Gates just conducted one of his wide-ranging Reddit AMAs, touching base on Guaranteed Basic Income, philanthropy, neuroscience, etc.

Like Mark Zuckerberg, who seems to be basing his development as a businessperson and public person on the Gates template, the Microsoft founder says he hopes that digital tools can help bring more citizens together without mentioning that some of these people will form horrible and dangerous blocs. It sure seems like we were better off before fringe Americans–conspiracists, new-wave KKKs and kooks of every stripe–were able to congregate online and form cohesive national movements that could push the agenda into dark corners, especially in a time of dramatic wealth inequality, when billionaires like Robert Mercer can fund hatemongers and fuel disinformation.

A few exchanges follow.


Question:

Any thoughts on the current state of the U.S.?

Bill Gates:

Overall like Warren Buffett I am optimistic about the long run. I am concerned in the short run that the huge benefits of how the US works with other countries may get lost. This includes the aid we give to Africa to help countries there get out of the poverty trap.


Question:

I have a question pertaining to an issue in the U.S. and it’s one that we’re all get sick of hearing.

Do you think social media – and perhaps the internet in general – has played a role in helping divide this country?

Instead of expanding knowledge and obtaining greater understandings of the world, many people seem to use it to

1) seek and spread information – including false information – confirming their existing biases and beliefs, and

2) converse and interact only with others who share their worldview (these are things I’m guilty of doing myself)

Bill Gates:

This is a great question. I felt sure that allowing anyone to publish information and making it easy to find would enhance democracy and the overall quality of political debate. However the partitioning you talk about which started on cable TV and might be even stronger in the digital world is a concern. We all need to think about how to avoid this problem. It would seem strange to have to force people to look at ideas they disagree with so that probably isn’t the solution. We don’t want to get to where American politics partitions people into isolated groups. I am interested in anyone’s suggestion on how we avoid this.


Question:

What do you think is the most pressing issue that we could feasibly solve in the next ten years?

Bill Gates:

A lot of people feel a sense of isolation. I still wonder if digital tools can help people find opportunities to get together with others – not Tinder but more like adults who want to mentor kids or hang out with each other. It is great that kids go off and pursue opportunities but when you get communities where the economy is weak and a lot of young people have left then something should be done to help.


Question:

What kind of technological advancement do you wish to see in your lifetime?

Bill Gates:

The big milestone is when computers can read and understand information like humans do. There is a lot of work going on in this field – Google, Microsoft, Facebook, academia,… Right now computers don’t know how to represent knowledge so they can’t read a text book and pass a test.

Another whole area is vaccines. We need a vaccine for HIV, Malaria and TB and I hope we have them in the next 10-15 years.


Question:

If you could give 19 year old Bill Gates some advice, what would it be?

Bill Gates:

I would explain that smartness is not single dimensional and not quite as important as I thought it was back then. I would say you might explore the developing world before you get into your forties. I wasn’t very good socially back then but I am not sure there is advice that would fix that – maybe I had to be awkward and just grow up….


Question:

If you could create a new IP and business with Elon Musk, what would you make happen?

Bill Gates:

We need clean, reliable cheap energy – which we don’t have. It is too bad the sun doesn’t shine all the time and the wind doesn’t blow all the time. The Economist had a good piece on this this week. So we need some invention – perhaps miracle batteries or super safe nuclear or making sun into gasoline directly.


Question:

What are the limits of money when it comes to philanthropy?

Bill Gates:

Philanthropy is small as a part of the overall economy so it can’t do things like fund health care or education for everyone. Government and the private sector are the big players so philanthropy has to be more innovative and fund pilot programs to help the other sectors. A good example is funding new medicines or charter schools where non-obvious approaches might provide the best solution.

One thing that is a challenge for our Foundation is that poor countries often have weak governance – small budgets, and the people in the ministries don’t have much training. This makes it harder to get things done.

If we had more money we could do more good things – even though we are the biggest foundation we are still resource limited.


Question:

What do you think about Universal Basic Income?

Bill Gates:

Over time countries will be rich enough to do this. However we still have a lot of work that should be done – helping older people, helping kids with special needs, having more adults helping in education. Even the US isn’t rich enough to allow people not to work. Some day we will be but until then things like the Earned Income Tax Credit will help increase the demand for labor.


Question:

What are you most curious about, Bill?

Bill Gates:

I still find the creation of life and the way the brain works the most fascinating areas. Nick Lane has some great books exploring what we know about how life started. It is amazing how little we know about the brain still but I expect we will know a lot more in 10 years.•

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In a vital Guardian article that ties together online-media manipulation, psychological profiling of voters, Trump and Brexit, reporter Carole Cadwalladr follows a byzantine trail that leads to the right-wing machinations of computer scientist and billionaire Robert Mercer, the single biggest donor in the 2016 U.S. Presidential race. 

Mercer, an old friend of fellow anti-government zealots Steve Bannon and Nigel Farage, has often futilely thrown money at his ultra-conservative causes, but when you have that much to wager, you can keep trying until you break the bank. In 2016, he did just that. 

The Renaissance Technologies CEO offered the services of data research firm Cambridge Analytica to both Trump and Leave.EU, which helped them game Facebook and Google in a large-scale way, create extensive individual profiles of citizens and destabilize genuine journalism. It permitted mud to be thrown with precision on both sides of the pond, creating propaganda to fit the Digital Age. As a ranking member of Leave.EU tells the Guardian: “What they were trying to do in the US and what we were trying to do had massive parallels.”

Mark Zuckerberg wants us to believe that Facebook, despite its many failings, should play a leading role in saving global democracy, but who will save it from Facebook?

From Cadwalladr:

Which is how, earlier this week, I ended up in a Pret a Manger near Westminster with Andy Wigmore, Leave.EU’s affable communications director, looking at snapshots of Donald Trump on his phone. It was Wigmore who orchestrated Nigel Farage’s trip to Trump Tower – the PR coup that saw him become the first foreign politician to meet the president elect.

Wigmore scrolls through the snaps on his phone. “That’s the one I took,” he says pointing at the now globally famous photo of Farage and Trump in front of his golden elevator door giving the thumbs-up sign. Wigmore was one of the “bad boys of Brexit” – a term coined by Arron Banks, the Bristol-based businessman who was Leave.EU’s co-founder.

Cambridge Analytica had worked for them, he said. It had taught them how to build profiles, how to target people and how to scoop up masses of data from people’s Facebook profiles. A video on YouTube shows one of Cambridge Analytica’s and SCL’s employees, Brittany Kaiser, sitting on the panel at Leave.EU’s launch event.

Facebook was the key to the entire campaign, Wigmore explained. A Facebook ‘like’, he said, was their most “potent weapon”. “Because using artificial intelligence, as we did, tells you all sorts of things about that individual and how to convince them with what sort of advert. And you knew there would also be other people in their network who liked what they liked, so you could spread. And then you follow them. The computer never stops learning and it never stops monitoring.”

It sounds creepy, I say.

“It is creepy! It’s really creepy! It’s why I’m not on Facebook! I tried it on myself to see what information it had on me and I was like, ‘Oh my God!’ What’s scary is that my kids had put things on Instagram and it picked that up. It knew where my kids went to school.”

They hadn’t “employed” Cambridge Analytica, he said. No money changed hands. “They were happy to help.”

Why?

“Because Nigel is a good friend of the Mercers. And Robert Mercer introduced them to us. He said, ‘Here’s this company we think may be useful to you.’ What they were trying to do in the US and what we were trying to do had massive parallels. We shared a lot of information. Why wouldn’t you?” Behind Trump’s campaign and Cambridge Analytica, he said, were “the same people. It’s the same family.”•

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Secondary to the sheer un-American nature and moral failing of Muslim bans and refugee refusal is just how injurious such policies are for business.

Whether it’s because these moves have instilled fear in international travelers or because vacationers have chosen to vote with their pocketbooks, tourists from abroad have turned away sharply from the U.S. in the weeks since Trump’s attempt at an Executive Order banning visitors from seven predominantly Muslim countries. That’s a severe threat to the livelihoods of many Americans, who are already facing myriad pressures in the Digital Age.

The causes of unemployment, underemployment and stagnant wages are amazingly complex, especially among the “structurally unemployed,” a contingent unlikely to be aided by catchphrases on baseball caps.

Two excerpts follow, one on what the travel ban means for U.S. workers and another about the web of troubles keeping citizens who want to work from doing so.


From Michelle Baran at Travel Weekly:

International flight-booking data released this week confirmed concerns across the travel industry that president Trump’s 90-day travel ban on nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries is dealing a significant blow to inbound travel to the U.S.

Following the Jan. 27 ban on travel to the U.S. by nationals from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan and Syria, net bookings from those seven countries were down 80% between Jan. 28 and Feb. 4, compared with the same period last year, according to flight reservation transactions analyzed by the travel data company ForwardKeys.

ForwardKeys also reported a 6.5% drop in overall international travel to the U.S. for the same period when compared with the equivalent eight-day period the year before.

Meanwhile, Hopper, a flight app that tracks GDS searches in order to analyze fare prices and demand, also found that the number of flight searches for travel from international points of origin to the U.S. — a key indicator of future travel intent — was down 17% the week of Jan. 27. Last year, there was only a 1.8% decline during the same time period.

“The data forces a compelling conclusion that Donald Trump’s travel ban immediately caused a significant drop in bookings to the USA and an immediate impact on future travel,” said Olivier Jager, CEO of ForwardKeys. “This is not good news for the U.S. economy.”•


From Jeanna Smialek’s Bloomberg portrait of a struggling Kentucky man named Tyler Moore:

His problems started in earnest in 2014. He had been living on his own for several years, having moved out at 18 after dropping out of high school, obtaining his GED, and going to work in security at a coal company. Moore is gay in an intensely conservative region, and he said he left school because of bullying.

Moore lost his job in late 2013 after smoking marijuana and failing a drug test. Though he found temporary work as a remote customer service representative, he lost that one when his mother died of a drug overdose in 2014 and he had to plan her funeral.

Deeply depressed and unemployed, he moved into an old Airstream camper propped on cinder blocks behind his father’s house, at the entrance to the litter-strewn trailer park that the older man owns in the misty hills of Lovely. There, surrounded by long-unemployed neighbors and rampant drug use, Moore began to abuse his medical prescriptions. “I guess I used it as my crutch, in a way,” he says.

Moore began getting in fights while drugged and was arrested twice. When he landed in jail for several months, he realized things needed to change. He graduated from a rehabilitation program in September, one year, one month, and 15 days after that last altercation. Since then, he’s deepened his friendship with Sister Therese Carew, a Catholic nun who ministers to the region, and dedicated his time to job seeking.

Opportunities are few. Coal mines have been closing, and they’ve taken most other businesses with them.

To employers outside the area, the fact that Moore is neatly groomed, soft-spoken, and polite can’t mask his history. What’s more, he’s the first to admit that the math skills he learned in the local public schools—where only eight in 10 students graduate—aren’t up to par, and his speaking patterns are colored by regional grammar.•

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Tim Wu, the Columbia law professor who coined the term “network neutrality” and recent candidate for New York State Lieutenant Governor, just conducted a predictably intelligent and engaging Reddit Ask Me Anything.

Net neutrality, which was supported by the FCC during the Obama Administration, is likely on the chopping block with all three branches of the government in the hands of Republicans, and often extremely conservative ones at that.

Regardless of what happens in the immediate future, it’s still an idea that makes sense if we are to be a democracy with equal opportunities for all. Just imagine if there were two national highway systems, one that allowed 55 mph for those that can pay more and another that permitted 25 mph for those who were poor. While airlines offer different options–first class, business class, coach–everyone arrives at the same time. If we’re not all permitted a roughly similar ETA at reasonable cost, the inequality we’re now experiencing will only grow.

A few exchanges follow.


Question:

Do you have (in your mind’s eye) a moment when American society reached it’s proverbial “fork in the road” leading us on this dark path?

Tim Wu:

That is an interesting question. There is a danger in always thinking that previous times were “golden” and now is dark. Nonetheless I do think now has an objective sense of darkness, where fear and loathing seem to be the currency of daily life.

On the question of whether America took a fork in the road. Here are a few candidates, one public one private:

In the 1990s, when progressives (myself included) were too sanguine about the effects of trade, various forms of deregulation and other policies on the middle and working classes. It was predicted and well known that inequality would result, but the argument that we needed a bigger pie that could then be redistributed. The redistribution never came. And led to the election of a demagogue.

Private: The 1980s – 90s, when corporate leadership at large lost any sense of noblese oblige — a duty to the country and began to feel that their only real duties were to shareholders and maximization of executive compensation. I think this also led us to mass inequality, which I see as the root cause of most of what ails us today.


Question:

With a Republican in the White House, one would assume antitrust enforcement is dead, but Trump seems to be far more interventionist (starting trade wars, threatening private enterprises who cut jobs, etc) than traditional hands-off-the-market, laissez faire Republicans. Meanwhile, Obama’s own Council of Economic Advisors conceded the US economy became more concentrated under his watch. Do you think antitrust could actually improve under Trump? If possible, please break out your prognosis for both the US economy at large vs the internet economy.

Tim Wu:

It is hard to predict anything related to Trump. My main fear is that if there is more enforcement, that it is arbitrary and capricious, based on the beefs the administration has with its perceived enemies.

There is some sense, already, that Trump wants to use the Time – AT&T proposed merger to “punish” CNN — have it sold to someone who will do what he says. This is not the kind of antitrust policy that I support.


Question:

Do you think net neutrality can be reinstated if it’s lost or will it be near impossible to reinstate?

Tim Wu:

The idea will always be around.

Question:

Do you also want to make it illegal for UPS and Amazon to offer priority mail at a premium?

Tim Wu:

As it stands, premium delivery is a user-selected option that does not strike me as a major factor in competition among the vendors of goods

I would be concerned if…

(1) If there were evidence of limited bandwidth capacity in the delivery system, and evidence that UPS wanted to slow down mail generally to promote their “premium product” (2) If UPS and Amazon charged vendors, not consumers, to have things delivered faster (i.e., charged Fischer Price to deliver toys faster than its rivals) (3) If there was a sense that Amazon / UPS were likely to use premium mailing to entrench a monopoly incumbent (4) If premium mailing had a discernible effect on the quality of the product once it arrived.•

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In America, quantity matters.

Peter Thiel’s billions has impressed all manner of serious people, economists and social scientists and politicos, dollar signs making them somehow ignore that this “genius” was sure that there were WMDs in Iraq and certain that an unqualified sociopath should lead the nation. He may be smart about business, but he’s stupid about life, and it’s the kind of stupid that can get people killed. Thiel’s a rich man and a poor one.

His fellow Silicon Valley billionaire Mark Zuckerberg is also sanctified for large numbers. Not only does he have oodles of money, but reportedly close to two billion people are active on Facebook, that quasi-nation, which is part surveillance state and also the world’s largest sweatshop. 

Despite years of dubious business moves, comments and “social experiments,” Zuckerberg may not be a bad person, but he also isn’t necessarily a wise one, despite what the shallowest of scoreboards may say. His recent religious revival and 50-state “listening tour” provoked speculation that he’d watched another (perhaps) billionaire celebrity snake his way into the Oval Office and decided he wanted to get into the game. He certainly would be better than Trump, but maybe we should actually elect someone who’s qualified?

But why settle for a petty bureaucrat’s position like President when you can lord over a multi-national empire?

In Zuckerberg’s recent 5,700-word position paper, “Building Global Community,” he asserts that his company must lead the way in building an Earth-sized social fabric, something that doesn’t take into consideration that a) many of us want no part of Facebook, b) many of the users possess bigoted and anti-social views, c) having for-profit companies play such a role is huge potential for abuses and d) there’s no substitute for good government or actual (rather than virtual) political movements. Moreover, social media is as much a bane to democracy as a boon–and that may be a hopeful reading of its effects–so such an initiative may be akin to treating a poisoning victim with more poison.

The opening of Nicholas Carr’s outstanding Rough Type post about the Facebook founder’s massive missive, which eviscerates its “self-serving fantasy about social relations”:

The word “community” appears, by my rough count, 98 times in Mark Zuckerberg’s latest message to the masses. In a post-fact world, truth is approached through repetition. The message that is transmitted most often is the fittest message, the message that wins. Verification becomes a matter of pattern recognition. It’s the epistemology of the meme, the sword by which Facebook lives and dies.

Today I want to focus on the most important question of all: are we building the world we all want?

It’s a good question, though I’m not sure there is any world that we all want, and if there is one, I’m not sure Mark Zuckerberg is the guy I’d appoint to define it. And yet, from his virtual pulpit, surrounded by his 86 million followers, the young Facebook CEO hesitates not a bit to speak for everyone, in the first person plural. There is no opt-out to his “we.” It’s the default setting and, in Zuckerberg’s totalizing utopian vision, the setting is hardwired, universal, and nonnegotiable.

Our greatest opportunities are now global — like spreading prosperity and freedom, promoting peace and understanding, lifting people out of poverty, and accelerating science. Our greatest challenges also need global responses — like ending terrorism, fighting climate change, and preventing pandemics. Progress now requires humanity coming together not just as cities or nations, but also as a global community.  …

Facebook stands for bringing us closer together and building a global community. When we began, this idea was not controversial.

The reason the idea  — that community-building on a planetary scale is practicable, necessary, and altogether good — did not seem controversial in the beginning was that Zuckerberg, like Silicon Valley in general, operated in a technological bubble, outside of politics, outside of history. Now that history has broken through the bubble and upset the algorithms, history must be put back in its place. Technological determinism must again be made synonymous with historical determinism.•

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

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


Question:

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

David Chalmers:

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


Question:

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

David Chalmers:

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


Question:

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

David Chalmers:

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


Question:

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

David Chalmers:

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


Question:

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

David Chalmers:

i hope we don’t have to choose!•

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Simon Romero in the New York Times:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The opening:

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Catherine Rampell at the Washington Post:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An excerpt:

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

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

The response in previous eras was quite different.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An excerpt:

Question:

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

Lawrence Summers:

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

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

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

Question:

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

Lawrence Summers:

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

Question:

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

Lawrence Summers:

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

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

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

An excerpt:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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