That is a quotation from a recent post from Rod Dreher, entitled “Silicon Valley Mordor”, jumping off a piece from Edge.org, “Death is Optional”. Ross Douthat dealt with the same topic in his Sunday column, but, as he is apt to do, keeps things a bit more low key. Summing up the Edge.org article, he says:
“Soon, if not tomorrow, the rich may be able to re-engineer bodies and minds, making human equality seem like a quaint conceit. Meanwhile, the masses will lose their jobs to machines and find themselves choosing between bread and circuses (or drugs and video games) and the pull of revolutionary violence — with the Islamic State’s appeal to bored youths possibly a foretaste of the future.”
In any case, this reminded me of this post I did a while back: “Mankind has always and always will seek to reach three fundamental things”.
The key quote from that post:
This might sound a bit far out and far off, but I would say that we can perhaps see the beginning birth pangs of this future in not only in the first industrial revolution, but in one that could be fast coming as well.
“…with an increase in functional knowledge and earthly power, man’s free powers tend to combine with devotion towards certain unbending principles and “cause-and-effect” laws (like a vending machine: ultimately manipulative “if-then” moralism), and the temptation is for this to take over completely, squelching out the last vestiges of an actual person who is God. In other words, this “highest of men”, rich in the knowledge and wisdom of the world, seeks to harness not only what have come to be known as the “laws of nature”** and “natural law”, but any “laws of the [increasingly depersonalized] supernatural” as well (whether more or less “systematically”). This is accomplished with the help of its magicians/scientists and priests as “salvation” comes through the mighty accomplishments of the appropriate “technologies”, dealing with both the material and the “spiritual”. Here, we find that the distinction between the natural and the supernatural, for whatever its beneficial uses, has actually been of some assistance in banishing the biblical God. Therefore, writ large,as unchecked Old Adam more successfully harnesses the order inhering in the creation, in practice he makes the Creator his impersonal creation and himself salvation.
As a result of this, the human person – not considered in light of the Divine person of Jesus Christ and His love for all – is inevitably trodden underfoot, as at least some persons inevitably become means to other ends.”
I’ve done some other posts with content from a library technology presentation I did last year that deals with these topics (Goethe said that in science and technology, every tool would be used to maximize the power of human being ; Salvation and damnation by technology: introducing the MSTM (modern scientific and technological mindset) ; C.S. Lewis’ prophecy regarding man’s abolition ; What’s not so good about internet technologies). Here is the info I had in that presentation – based on a good deal of research – about the new industrial revolution that many are saying is upon us.
Here it is:
Where is it [technology] going?
The “it” in the subtitle above illustrates another subtle difference between the modern sceintific and technological mindset (MSTM) and others who want to emphasize that technology does not “go” anywhere without us. Former Wired magazine editor Kevin Kelly might talk about What Technology Wants, but is it either true or wise to speak in such a fashion? If it turns out that things like ”information technology and Big data” draw our attention much like Droz’s automata – luring us in like any other “mechanical muse” – should we not rather want to emphasize our own autonomy and personal responsibility here to keep a clear head?
This is something that will be explored and developed more in subsequent sections. In any case, McLuhan’s idea that the “medium is the message” is certainly important to emphasize given the history of automated technology over the past 200 years. This suggests to someone like myself that one may want technological practice to be analogous to the practice of permaculture – where one utilizes nature in a deliberate fashion not so much to serve nature but in order to gently bend it towards the nurture and care for one’s fellow human beings. Of course, what has tended to happen in practice is that automated technologies have frequently taken jobs from human beings, even as, thankfully, new jobs have arisen to take their place, in a process that has been termed “creative destruction”.
But recent books by Martin Ford, Jaron Lanier and Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee all make a very strong case that while technical innovation has in fact historically created new jobs, there is no guarantee that this trend will continue.[ii] In fact, all of these men argue convincingly that recent technological innovation[iii] is largely responsible for what has been termed the “jobless recovery”, where production and profits remain high and “real spending on capital equipment and software has soared by 26 percent” [iv] even as fewer and fewer workers are hired. In other words, what is happening now is quite different than what has happened historically.
Let me briefly explain this in more detail. The claim is that this is simply because of the increasing power and role of computer power – often powered by Big data – in our world. It is made possible because “the critical building blocks of computing – microchip density, processing speed, storage capacity, energy efficiency, download speed, and so on – have been improving at exponential rates for a long time… When given to capable technologists, the exponential power of Moore’s Law eventually makes the toughest problems tractable”.[v]
And this means big changes in the economy. Even as some claim that automation really only has jobs that are “dirty, dull, and dangerous”[vi] in its sights, the fact of the matter is that more complex factory line work continues to be automated.
Not only this, but more and more of American’s information workers – which is 60-65% of the workforce[vii] – will find themselves affected, susceptible to what economists term “technological unemployment”. In the new book The Second Machine Age, we are told by Brynjolfsson and McAfee that limitations of mind more so than muscle will be overcome.[viii] As Martin Ford says, “routine and predictable jobs are really susceptible to all kinds of automation”, and we note that “routine” does not mean “unskilled”: professions like lawyers, doctors and radiologists are said to be susceptible.[ix] Turbotax can be seen as a microcosm for the phenomenon, even as now, programs are even able to improve through use, “teaching themselves”. In addition, digitization has made it possible for “superstars”[x] who have a special skill, algorithm or insight to replicate this across millions of consumers in a way that can quickly drowns out the competition.[xi] Finally, as Jaron Lanier points out, those with the largest computer networks tend to concentrate wealth and power.[xii]
What this means is that while historically it has worked out that technology has made persons better off, researchers from Oxford now predict that half of the jobs that currently exist in the United States will be able to be fully automated within the next few decades.[xiii] There are new jobs and new companies, but humans are not as necessary.[xiv] Martin Ford points out that this raises an important question: “when a substantial fraction of these people are no longer employed, where will market demand come from?[xv] [This graph], taken from Ford, sums up the dilemma that each of the authors mentioned above identifies.
While they offer a whole list of prescriptions, Brynjolfsson and McAfee see the problem as largely being rooted in the way we educate – we especially need to teach collaboration and creativity, in addition to advanced technical training in information systems.[xvi] This will encourage new entrepreneurs who will, they trust, be able to create a large amount of new jobs – even if I have a hard time believing they are really that confident of this.[xvii] For their part, men like Martin Ford and Jaron Lanier are far more skeptical and proffer their own solutions. But here is a key question: what if there are simply limits to how long the presence of technology – especially in the forms that it is taking today – can enable a society to build upon it and still employ human beings in meaningful work? What might it really mean, for example, that Instagram had 30 employees when it was sold to Facebook for 1 billion dollars while Kodak, at its height of influence, employed 145,300?[xviii] It seems to me that very few persons – save perhaps Lanier – really wants to deal with the disturbing possibility that there may not ways forward that are really amenable to many of us.
Why not? I submit the following: even pondering the general possibility of limits is by no means fashionable today, and one might even say it is downright un-American (even the ever-thoughtful Jaron Lanier’s own discussion of limits seems to me quite ambiguous and somewhat confusing – see pp 158-162 of his book). As a Sprint ad a few months ago put it (albeit in the context of the “need” to upload every photograph they take to the cloud): “I need – no, I have the right – to be unlimited”.[xix] In sum, asking serious questions about limits is not something the MSTM does. And yet, surely there must be one limit we can all recognize today: it is only man who is behind the curtain of any and every machine, yesterday and today. As Jaron Lanier has already pointed out in his insightful diagnosis of our current situation, while those successful companies with the most computer power (i.e. biggest servers) have certainly created much value through their innovation, there is also value that people in general contribute that makes their ideas and business innovations possible – “machine translation” being just one key example of many (this is made possible not by AI or even the semantic web, but Big data – i.e. massive amounts of human-made language translations).[xx] There are always many persons behind the curtain, for technology cannot exist without its creators and users (“at least so far” we are sometimes told).[xxi]
If this is indeed the case it becomes clear that the statement by Brynjolfsson and McAfee that man should race with, not against the machine, really needs to be adjusted. Of course man will race with the machine: the only questions are which men this will be, how they will race with them, and whether or not as a result of this process they will continue to act as men should.
And this raises the deeper, existential question: are there limits to be respected – are there, for example, things that are not possible as well as permanent things that will not bend from age to age? Or is to say that simply un-American, or now, at this point in time, un-Western? In sum – is saying this to be against all ideas of progress and the genuine help that science can bring us, as the MSTM might suggest or even insist?
All pics from Wikipedia Commons.
[i] Brynjolfsson, Erik. 2014. Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in the Time of Brilliant Technologies. [S.l.]: W W Norton, p. 162.
[ii] See, for example, Brynjolfsson, Erik, and Andrew McAfee. 2012. Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy. Lexington, Mass: Digital Frontier Press, p. 36
[iii] Some example of the more impressive innovations that illustrate the kind of technology that is now possible: “cars that drive themselves in traffic, Jeopardy!-champion supercomputers; autogenerated news stories; cheap, flexible factory robots; and inexpensive consumer devices that are simultaneously communicators, tricorders and computers.” Brynjolfsson, Erik. 2014. Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in the Time of Brilliant Technologies. [S.l.]: W W Norton, p. 48.
[iv] Ibid, p. 145.
[v] Ibid, pp. 49, 55.
[vi] Barclay, Paul. 2013. Morals and the Machine. Big Ideas. podcast radio program. Sydney: ABC Radio National, October 3. http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/bigideas/morals-and-the-machine/4881302
[vii] Brynjolfsson, Erik, and Andrew McAfee. 2012. Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy. Lexington, Mass: Digital Frontier Press, 52
[viii] Solman, Paul. 2014. In ‘Second Machine Age’of Robots, it’s Time for Humans to Get Creative. PBS Newshour. television program. United States: PBS, March 13. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/second-machine-age-will-require-more-human-creativity
[ix] Here is perhaps a more extreme prediction regarding “natural language processing” from James Barrat: “Advances in natural language processing will transform parts of the economy that until now have seemed immune to technological change. In another few years librarians and researchers of all kinds will join retail clerks, bank tellers, travel agents, stock brokers, loan officers, and help desk technicians in the unemployment lines. Following them will be doctors, lawyers, tax and retirement consultants. Think of how quickly ATMs have all but replaced bank tellers, and how grocery store checkout lines have started phasing out human clerks. If you work in an information industry (and the digital revolution is changing everything into information industries), watch out.
Here’s a quick example. Like college basketball? Which of these two paragraphs was authored by a human sportswriter….” Barrat, James. 2013. Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era. New York : Thomas Dunne Books, p. 225.
[x] “In a traditional market, someone who is 90 percent as skilled or works 90 percent as hard creates 90 percent as much value and can thus earn 90 percent as much money. That’s absolute performance. By contrast, a software programmer who writes a slightly better mapping application – one that loads a little faster, has slightly more complete data, or prettier icons – might completely dominate a market…. Ten mediocre mapping tools are no substitute for one good one. When consumers care mostly about relative performance, even a small difference in skill or effort or luck can lead to a thousand-fold or million-fold difference in earnings.” Brynjolfsson, Erik. 2014. Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in the Time of Brilliant Technologies. [S.l.]: W W Norton, p 153.
[xi] From that same program Matt Miller notes that maybe it was a “Luddite fantasy” that all jobs would be lost to machines for the first 200 years of capitalism…. but now, as explored in the program, “digitization creates superstars who can replicate their talent, or maybe their luck, across millions of consumers and automate the jobs of people who are doing routine information processing to the point where they aren’t really essential to production anymore….” Miller, Matt. 2013. The Robots Are Coming! This…Is Interesting. podcast radio program. Santa Monica: KCRW News, Apr 19. http://www.kcrw.com/news/programs/in/in130417the_robots_are_comin (with guests Martin Ford and Eric Brynjolfsson)
Jaron Lanier notes:
“Unions fought for pay and working conditions that turned driving jobs into middle-class ones. In this century, however, we have forgotten that wisdom and decided that when it comes to digital networks, more and more people will not be paid for what they do even though what they’re doing is needed.
Jobs involving communication and expression (music, journalism and so forth) are suddenly much harder to come by, because information is now held to be free. Naturally, a 19th-century trope, the Horatio Alger story, has reappeared. With enough hard work, opportunity is said to be around the corner for young journalists and musicians. Alas, there are only a few genuine success stories. Almost everyone else in the game lives on false hope, accepting the benefits of an informal economy — reputation and barter — while helping a small, distant elite build real wealth. Instead of a bell curve, the distribution looks like a razor-thin skyscraper dragging an emaciated “long tail” behind it.
The fate of journalism and music awaits every other industry, and every kind of job, unless this pattern is undone. As this century unfolds, technology will continue to evolve. More and more activities will be operated by software. Instead of Teamsters, there will be robotic trucks. Where there had once been miners, there will be mining robots. Instead of factories, there will be 3-D printers in every home. Experimental robots have already outperformed many a white-collar worker, including the legal researcher, the pharmacist and the scientific investigator.
Lanier, Jaron. “Fixing the Digital Economy.” New York Times, Jun 09, 2013, Late Edition (East Coast).
[xii] All forms of automation ultimately rely on data that come from people…. There is no magical “artificial intelligence.” When a big, remote computer translates a document from English to Spanish, for instance, it doesn’t understand what it is doing. It is only mashing up earlier translations created by real people, who have been forgotten because of the theater of the Internet.
There are always real people behind the curtain. The rise of inequality isn’t because of people not being needed — more precisely, it’s because of an illusion that they aren’t even there.
DISSECT almost any ascendant center of power, and you’ll find a giant computer at the core. In the past, power and influence were gained by controlling something that people needed, like oil or transportation routes. Now to be powerful can mean having the most effective computer on a network. In most cases, this means the biggest and most connected computer, though very occasionally a well-operated small computer can play the game, as is the case with WikiLeaks. Those cases are so rare, however, that we shouldn’t fall into the illusion of thinking of computers as great equalizers, like guns in the Wild West.
The new class of ultra-influential computers come in many guises. Some run financial schemes, like high-frequency trading, and others run insurance companies. Some run elections, and others run giant online stores. Some run social network or search services, while others run national intelligence services. The differences are only skin deep. I call this kind of operation a “Siren Server.”
Siren Servers are usually gigantic facilities, located in obscure places where they have their own power plants and some special hookup to nature, like a remote river, that allows them to cool a fantastic amount of waste heat.
Siren Servers calculate actions for their owners that reduce risks and increase wealth and influence. For instance, before big computers and cheap networking, it was hard for health insurance companies to gather and analyze enough data to be tempted to create a “perfect” insurance business, in which only those who need insurance the least are insured. But with a big computer it becomes not only possible, but irresistible.
Giant financial schemes are similarly tempting. It is commonly believed that deregulation motivated financial adventurism, but it can also be argued that Moore’s law, which holds that computing becomes better and cheaper at an accelerating rate, guaranteed that sooner or later the temptations of using computation to displace risk would become irresistible.
Financiers caught the seductive whiff of digital perfection in the 1970s. The first major market crash at least partially attributable to automated trading came in 1987. Big computer-centric schemes like those hatched by Long Term Capital Management and Enron, laid down a pattern that continued with the Great Recession of 2007-9.
Lanier, Jaron. “Fixing the Digital Economy.” New York Times, Jun 09, 2013, Late Edition (East Coast).
[xiii] Solman, Paul. 2014. In ‘Second Machine Age’of Robots, it’s Time for Humans to Get Creative. PBS Newshour. television program. United States: PBS, March 13. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/second-machine-age-will-require-more-human-creativity/#the-rundown
[xv] Ford, Martin. 2009. The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future. [U.S.]: Acculant Publishing, p. 97. Over the years, some have pointed out how it is a waste of effort and a “downright humiliation” for man to have to do what a machine can do. See Cohen, John. 1967. Human Robots in Myth and Science. South Brunswick [N.J.]: A.S. Barnes, pp. 113-114 where it talks about the prescient insight of Mary Boole, wife of the famous mathematician George Boole, writing in the early 1800s. That said, among good men and women, it is probably even more humiliating to not have a job – and as Ford points out, it is not good for anyone.
[xvi] Keen, Andrew. 2014. The Second Machine Age. Keen On. television program. Silicon Valley: Tech Crunch, February 6. http://techcrunch.com/video/the-second-machien-age-keen-on/518104664/
[xvii] Listen to this interview between 12 and 15 minutes: Roberts, Russ. 2010. Brynjolfsson on the Second Machine Age. EconTalk. podcast radio program. Fairfax County, Virginia : George Mason University – Library of Economics and Liberty, Feb 3. http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2014/02/brynjolfsson_on.html
[xviii] Brynjolfsson, Erik. 2014. Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in the Time of Brilliant Technologies. [S.l.]: W W Norton, pp. 126 and 127
[xx] Not only are the formulas/equations used here not taking one language and making them into another (by taking into account definitions, subjects and predicates, other rules of grammar, etc – in other words, no “grammar code” or something like this has even begun to be cracked… ), but they are also not working on their own – rather, they are querying millions of documents where we have the original and the translation, finding ones that have similar keywords, and then looking for similar phrases and mashing them up (at least this is how I understand it).
Lanier’s wider point is that here there are many, many people who are behind this curtain… and those who did that translation work that certainly has some value are not being compensated at all for what they did – and that this is more or less the same story with all these Siren servers, as he calls them.
One can readily imagine that for those in the field of artificial intelligence, it would be tempting to make it seem like this “machine translation”, is more or less independent and able to do what it does by understanding “how the language works”
One of my linguist friends, retired University of Chicago librarian David Bade, notes a very interesting development in the field of linguistics:
“Language is a natural system to be studied as an object of natural science: this is the assumption that oriented lingusitics in the 19th century as it did during the 20th century and continues to do so today. Ironically Chomsky’s desire to develop a “hard science” of linguistics has been strenously defended in a recent textbook which declares grammar to be “magic”: “syntax has a biological base, and that human beings, from whatever language community, sociocultural background, or millennium, are all bound together by the same basic grammatical magic”. Hall, Christopher J. 2005. An Introduction to Language and Linguistics: Breaking the Language Spell. [United States]: Bloomsbury Academic, p. 197.
So is linguistics science or magic? Evidently, one can ask the same question of things like “artificial intelligence” or any technology for that matter. As Bryniolfsson and McAfee quote Arthur C. Clarke in their recent book the Second Machine Age: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Brynjolfsson, Erik. 2014. Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in the Time of Brilliant Technologies. [S.l.]: W W Norton, p. 13.
[xxi] I would even go so far myself to say that not only are we not a gadget (Lanier), but the gadgets will never even approximate us.