Category Archives: capitalism

Can you claim to be on the right side of history?

On several major issues, we all need to decide where we stand. We can obfuscate and waffle and use distractions and other tricks to avoid discussing them and perhaps having an argument, or losing friends if we make our position clear, but your conscience knows what you think, and whether you do anything about it or try to hide.

I’ve lost a lot of social media followers and quite a few former friends by repeatedly laying out my own opinions on controversial issues such as climate change, trans rights v women’s rights, antisemitism, capitalism v socialism, freedom of speech and what I often call the new dark age. I don’t have any grandchildren yet but hope one day I will, and if any of them ask me what I thought and said and did when big decisions were being made around now, I will either be proudly able to say I was on the right side of history, or – and we all must accept this is always a possibility – that I got it wrong, that I believed and said and did the wrong things.

We all live in different information environments. We have different friends, different educations, different personalities, and consume different media. Some of it is not our fault, some of it is results of personal choices. You can’t excuse yourself for not being aware of something if you choose to only ever read media that ignores that issue or always puts heavy spin on it. That’s your free choice (though it is certainly getting harder to find media without bias).

Elections are a time where such personal choices come to the fore.  Us Brits have to vote this week, my yank followers are deep in the very long run up to theirs. In both cases, the decisions are more about big moral issues and will have deeper consequences than most previous elections. Our choice counts, not just for this election, but for our future consciences, for the notional personal account we could give our descendants in the world we have helped architect (or opposed).

It’s not for me to tell you how to vote – it’s your decision and your conscience you’ll have to live with years down the line. My blogs and tweets lay out my own positions on the important issues frequently and my regular readers will know them. But this is my blog, so I’m happy to lay them out briefly again. Maybe it will help think more about your own positions.

Antisemitism: I don’t know if I know any Jews (I don’t know anyone who has told me they are), but I do know that antisemitism is wrong. The Holocaust was only possible because many people stood by and let it. I will not be one of them now. If anyone votes for an antisemitic party, they are complicit in antisemitism. If Jews feel they have to leave the UK because an antisemitic party gains power, that will be shameful for the UK, and anyone who helps them gain power should feel deeply ashamed. It has become very clear that Labour is currently an antisemitic party. I have voted for them several times before, but I will certainly never vote for them again while they are antisemitic.

Capitalism v socialism: Capitalism works. Socialism doesn’t. A socialist government would make it much more difficult for people to lead comfortable lives, including the poorest in our society, and would leave massive debts crippling our children and grandchildren. I don’t want that on my conscience.

Climate change: we have seen some warming in the last few decades. Some of that is likely caused by nature – mainly ocean and solar cycles, but some of it, an unknown amount, is probably caused by humans. CO2 emissions of course but also deforestation, pollution, industry, farming, and all of our personal lifestyle choices. I believe we should not be complacent about any of these, and should work towards a cleaner environment and better stewardship, including developing better forms of clean energy. However, although I want a cleaner world with better environmental stewardship, I most certainly do not agree we are in a ‘climate emergency’, that we are all doomed if we don’t dramatically change our way of life immediately. I believe much of the information we are presented with has been distorted and exaggerated, that the climate models predict too high levels for future warming, and that deeply reduces solar activity likely to last until around 2050 will provide a cooling effect that at least offsets warming, and perhaps even results in net cooling. Consequently, nature has effectively give us a few decades to carry on developing solar and fusion energy technology, that we can invest gradually as free markets incentivise development and reduce the costs, and that we do not need to spend massively right now, because the problem will essentially go away. By 2050, CO2 output will be a lot less than today, the real warming we see by then will be much smaller than is often predicted in the media and there is therefore no real reason to jeopardise our economies by massively overspending on CO2 reduction while the associated costs and lifestyle impacts are so high. Massively spending on scales wanted by XR, the Green party etc, would cause huge harm to our kids’ futures with no significant benefit. If we want to spend huge sums of money, we have a duty to aim for the biggest benefit and there are plenty of real problems such as poverty and disease that could use those funds better. Waste trillions on pointless virtue signalling, or make the world a better place? I know where I stand. None of my local candidates come out well here.

Trans rights v women’s rights: I support trans rights to a point, but we are quickly passing that point, and now eroding women’s rights. Women have had to fight long and hard to get where they are today. In my view, women being forced to accept former men competing with them in sports (or indeed in any field where biological men have an advantage) is unfair to biological women. Having to share changing rooms and lavatories with people who still have male genitalia is unfair to biological women. Deliberate conflation of sex and gender as a means to influencing debate or regulation is wrong. Encouraging young children to change gender and schools preventing parents from even knowing is going too far. Given the potential life consequences, great care should be exercised before gender change is considered and it seems that care is not always present. Making it illegal to discuss these issues is certainly going too far. If someone feels they are in the wrong body and wants hormone treatment or surgery, or if they want to cross-dress or call themselves by a different gender, I don’t object at all, and I’d even defend their right to do so, provided that doing so doesn’t undermine someone else’s rights. Women are a vulnerable group because of physical and historic disadvantages compared to men, and in conflict between trans rights and women’s rights, I think women’s rights should take priority. Good luck with finding a party that agrees.

Freedom of speech and the new dark age: I believe people should be able to say what they want and others should be able to challenge them. I believe in a few sensible restrictions – e.g shouting “FIRE” in a crowded cinema, or deliberate incitement to violence. I disagree with the concepts of hate speech and hate crime, invariably used to close down debate that is essential for a free and cohesive society. Making the law into a tool to restrict freedom of speech (and thought) has already resulted in harm, and has created a large and rapidly growing class of ‘truths’ that everyone must give lip service to even if they believe them to be wrong. They must also lie and state that they believe them if challenged or face punishment, by the law or social media mob. This is simply anti-knowledge. It inhibits genuine progress and the development of genuine knowledge and it therefore inhibits quality of life. Even naming such anti-knowledge is punishable, and it has already caused a high degree of self-censorship in journalism and blogging, so you must use your own judgement on what it includes. My censored thoughts on the new dark age are here: https://timeguide.files.wordpress.com/2017/06/the-new-dark-age.pdf. Again, most parties seem very happy to take us further into the dark age.

I could have picked many other policies and issues. Every reader has their own priorities. These are just some in my mind today.

I don’t think any of the parties come out well today. For many people, spoiling their vote is a valid alternative that officially says they’re not prepared to support any of those on offer on the ballot paper. Others will vote for who they see as the lesser of evils. Others will happily support a candidate and turn a blind eye to their associated moral issues.

Your conscience, your choice, your future memory of where you stood. Choose well.

 

The future of land value

St BeesI don’t do investment advice much, and I am NOT an investment adviser of any kind, just a futurist doing some simple reasoning.

World population is around 7.7Bn.

It will increase, level off, then decline, then grow again.

Any projections you see are just educated guesswork. 9.8Bn figure is the UN global population estimate for 2050, and I won’t argue with that, it seems as good a guess as any. Everyone then expects it to level off and decline, as people have fewer kids. I’m not so sure. Read my blog five years ago that suggested it might grow again in the late century, perhaps reaching as high as 15Bn:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2014/02/05/will-population-grow-again-after-2050-to-15bn/

I only say might, because there are pressures in both directions and it is too hard to be sure in a far future society which ones will be stronger and by how much. I’m just challenging the standard view that it will decline into the far future, and if I had to place a bet, it would be on resumed growth.

Population is one large influence on demand for land and ‘real estate’.

Another is population distribution. Today, all around the world, people are moving from the countryside to cities. I argue that urbanization will soon peak, and then start to reverse:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2018/06/13/will-urbanization-continue-or-will-we-soon-reach-peak-city/

De-urbanization will largely be enabled by high technology and its impacts on work and social life. It will be caused by increasing wealth, coupled to the normal desire to live happier lives. Wealth is increasing quickly, varying place to place and year to year. It is reasonable, given positive feedback effects from AI and automation, to assume average real growth of 2%, including occasional recessions and booms. By 2100, that means global wealth will be 5 times today’s. Leaving aside the lack of understanding of exponential growth by teachers indoctrinating schoolkids to think of themselves as economic victims, taken advantage of by greedy Boomers, that means today’s and tomorrow’s kids will have one hell of a lot more money available to spend on property.

So, there will be more people, with more money, more able to live anywhere. Real estate prices will increase, but not uniformly.

Very many of them will choose to leave cities and with lots of money in the bank, will want somewhere really nice. A lovely beachfront property perhaps, or on a mountainside with a gorgeous view. Or even on a hill overlooking the city, or deep in a forest with a waterfall in the garden. Some might buy boring homes in boring estates surrounded by fields but it won’t be first choice very often. The high prices will go to large and pretty homes in pretty locations, as they do today, but with much higher differential, because supply and demand dictates that. We won’t build more mountains or valleys or coastline. Supply stays limited while demand and bank balances rockets, so prices will rocket too.

Other property won’t necessarily become cheaper, it just won’t become as expensive as fast. Many people will still like cities and choose to live there, do business there, socialize there. They also will be richer, and there may be a lot more of them if population does indeed grow again, but increasing congestion would just cause more de-urbanization. Prices may still rise, but the real money will be moving elsewhere.

Farmland will mostly stay as farmland. Farms are generally functional rather than pretty. Agricultural productivity will be double or triple what it is today, maybe even more. Some food will be made in factories or vertical farms, using tissue culturing or hydroponics, or using feed-stocks based on algae grown at sea, or insects, or fungi. The figures therefore suggest that demand for land to grow stuff will be lower than today, in spite of a larger population. Some will be converted to city, some to pretty villages, some given back to nature, to further increase the attractiveness of those ultra-expensive homes in the nice areas in the distance. Whichever way, that doesn’t suggest very rapid growth of value for most agricultural land, the obvious exception being where it happens to be in or next to a pretty area, in which case it will rocket in value.

As I said, all of this is educated guesswork. Don’t bet the farm on it until you’ve done your own analysis. But my guess is, city property will gain modest value, agricultural land will hold its value or even fall slightly, unless it is in a pretty location. Anywhere pretty will skyrocket in price, be it an existing property or a piece of land that can be built on and stay pretty.

As a final observation, you might argue that pretty isn’t everything. Surely some people will value being near to centers of power or major hubs too? Yes they will, but that is already factored into the urbanization era. That value is already banked. Then it follows the rules just like any other urban property.

 

With automation driving us towards UBI, we should consider a culture tax

Regardless of party politics, most people want a future where everyone has enough to live a dignified and comfortable life. To make that possible, we need to tweak a few things.

Universal Basic Income

I suggested a long time ago that in the far future we could afford a basic income for all, without any means testing on it, so that everyone has an income at a level they can live on. It turned out I wasn’t the only one thinking that and many others since have adopted the idea too, under the now usual terms Universal Basic Income or the Citizen Wage. The idea may be old, but the figures are rarely discussed. It is harder than it sounds and being a nice idea doesn’t ensure  economic feasibility.

No means testing means very little admin is needed, saving the estimated 30% wasted on admin costs today. Then wages could go on top, so that everyone is still encouraged to work, and then all income from all sources is totalled and taxed appropriately. It is a nice idea.

The difference between figures between parties would be relatively minor so let’s ignore party politics. In today’s money, it would be great if everyone could have, say, £30k a year as a state benefit, then earn whatever they can on top. £30k is around today’s average wage. It doesn’t make you rich, but you can live on it so nobody would be poor in any sensible sense of the word. With everyone economically provided for and able to lead comfortable and dignified lives, it would be a utopia compared to today. Sadly, it can’t work with those figures yet. 65,000,000 x £30,000 = £1,950Bn . The UK economy isn’t big enough. The state only gets to control part of GDP and out of that reduced budget it also has its other costs of providing health, education, defence etc, so the amount that could be dished out to everyone on this basis is therefore a lot smaller than 30k. Even if the state were to take 75% of GDP and spend most of it on the basic income, £10k per person would be pushing it. So a couple would struggle to afford even the most basic lifestyle, and single people would really struggle. Some people would still need additional help, and that reduces the pool left to pay the basic allowance still further. Also, if the state takes 75% of GDP, only 25% is left for everything else, so salaries would be flat, reducing the incentive to work, while investment and entrepreneurial activity are starved of both resources and incentive. It simply wouldn’t work today.

Simple maths thus forces us to make compromises. Sharing resources reduces costs considerably. In a first revision, families might be given less for kids than for the adults, but what about groups of young adults sharing a big house? They may be adults but they also benefit from the same economy of shared resources. So maybe there should be a household limit, or a bedroom tax, or forms and means testing, and it mustn’t incentivize people living separately or house supply suffers. Anyway, it is already getting complicated and our original nice idea is in the bin. That’s why it is such a mess at the moment. There just isn’t enough money to make everyone comfortable without doing lots of allowances and testing and admin. We all want utopia, but we can’t afford it. Even the modest £30k-per-person utopia costs at least 3 times more than the UK can afford. Switzerland is richer per capita but even there they have rejected the idea.

However, if we can get back to the average 2.5% growth per year in real terms that used to apply pre-recession, and surely we can, it would only take 45 years to get there. That isn’t such a long time. We have hope that if we can get some better government than we have had of late, and are prepared to live with a little economic tweaking, we could achieve good quality of life for all in the second half of the century.

So I still really like the idea of a simple welfare system, providing a generous base level allowance to everyone, topped up by rewards of effort, but recognise that we in the UK will have to wait decades before we can afford to put that base level at anything like comfortable standards though other economies could afford it earlier.

Meanwhile, we need to tweak some other things to have any chance of getting there. I’ve commented often that pure capitalism would eventually lead to a machine-based economy, with the machine owners having more and more of the cash, and everyone else getting poorer, so the system will fail. Communism fails too. Thankfully much of the current drive in UBI thinking is coming from the big automation owners so it’s comforting to know that they seem to understand the alternative.

Capitalism works well when rewards are shared sensibly, it fails when wealth concentration is too high or when incentive is too low. Preserving the incentive to work and create is a mainly matter of setting tax levels well. Making sure that wealth doesn’t get concentrated too much needs a new kind of tax.

Culture tax

The solution I suggest is a culture tax. Culture in the widest sense.

When someone creates and builds a company, they don’t do so from a state of nothing. They currently take for granted all our accumulated knowledge and culture – trained workforce, access to infrastructure, machines, governance, administrative systems, markets, distribution systems and so on. They add just another tiny brick to what is already a huge and highly elaborate structure. They may invest heavily with their time and money but actually when  considered overall as part of the system their company inhabits, they only pay for a fraction of the things their company will use.

That accumulated knowledge, culture and infrastructure belongs to everyone, not just those who choose to use it. It is common land, free to use, today. Businesses might consider that this is what they pay taxes for already, but that isn’t explicit in the current system.

The big businesses that are currently avoiding paying UK taxes by paying overseas companies for intellectual property rights could be seen as trailblazing this approach. If they can understand and even justify the idea of paying another part of their company for IP or a franchise, why should they not pay the host country for its IP – access to the residents’ entire culture?

This kind of tax would provide the means needed to avoid too much concentration of wealth. A future businessman might still choose to use only software and machines instead of a human workforce to save costs, but levying taxes on use of  the cultural base that makes that possible allows a direct link between use of advanced technology and taxation. Sure, he might add a little extra insight or new knowledge, but would still have to pay the rest of society for access to its share of the cultural base, inherited from the previous generations, on which his company is based. The more he automates, the more sophisticated his use of the system, the more he cuts a human workforce out of his empire, the higher his taxation. Today a company pays for its telecoms service which pays for the network. It doesn’t pay explicitly for the true value of that network, the access to people and businesses, the common language, the business protocols, a legal system, banking, payments system, stable government, a currency, the education of the entire population that enables them to function as actual customers. The whole of society owns those, and could reasonably demand rent if the company is opting out of the old-fashioned payments mechanisms – paying fair taxes and employing people who pay taxes. Automate as much as you like, but you still must pay your share for access to the enormous value of human culture shared by us all, on which your company still totally depends.

Linking to technology use makes good sense. Future AI and robots could do a lot of work currently done by humans. A few people could own most of the productive economy. But they would be getting far more than their share of the cultural base, which belongs equally to everyone. In a village where one farmer owns all the sheep, other villagers would be right to ask for rent for their share of the commons if he wants to graze them there.

I feel confident that this extra tax would solve many of the problems associated with automation. We all equally own the country, its culture, laws, language, human knowledge (apart from current patents, trademarks etc. of course), its public infrastructure, not just businessmen. Everyone surely should have the right to be paid if someone else uses part of their share. A culture tax would provide a fair ethical basis to demand the taxes needed to pay the Universal basic Income so that all may prosper from the coming automation.

The extra culture tax would not magically make the economy bigger, though automation may well increase it a lot. The tax would ensure that wealth is fairly shared. Culture tax/UBI duality is a useful tool to be used by future governments to make it possible to keep capitalism sustainable, preventing its collapse, preserving incentive while fairly distributing reward. Without such a tax, capitalism simply may not survive.

2018 outlook: fragile

Futurists often consider wild cards – events that could happen, and would undoubtedly have high impacts if they do, but have either low certainty or low predictability of timing.  2018 comes with a larger basket of wildcards than we have seen for a long time. As well as wildcards, we are also seeing the intersection of several ongoing trends that are simultaneous reaching peaks, resulting in socio-political 100-year-waves. If I had to summarise 2018 in a single word, I’d pick ‘fragile’, ‘volatile’ and ‘combustible’ as my shortlist.

Some of these are very much in all our minds, such as possible nuclear war with North Korea, imminent collapse of bitcoin, another banking collapse, a building threat of cyberwar, cyberterrorism or bioterrorism, rogue AI or emergence issues, high instability in the Middle East, rising inter-generational conflict, resurgence of communism and decline of capitalism among the young, increasing conflicts within LGBTQ and feminist communities, collapse of the EU under combined pressures from many angles: economic stresses, unpredictable Brexit outcomes, increasing racial tensions resulting from immigration, severe polarization of left and right with the rise of extreme parties at both ends. All of these trends have strong tribal characteristics, and social media is the perfect platform for tribalism to grow and flourish.

Adding fuel to the building but still unlit bonfire are increasing tensions between the West and Russia, China and the Middle East. Background natural wildcards of major epidemics, asteroid strikes, solar storms, megavolcanoes, megatsumanis and ‘the big one’ earthquakes are still there waiting in the wings.

If all this wasn’t enough, society has never been less able to deal with problems. Our ‘snowflake’ generation can barely cope with a pea under the mattress without falling apart or throwing tantrums, so how we will cope as a society if anything serious happens such as a war or natural catastrophe is anyone’s guess. 1984-style social interaction doesn’t help.

If that still isn’t enough, we’re apparently running a little short on Ghandis, Mandelas, Lincolns and Churchills right now too. Juncker, Trump, Merkel and May are at the far end of the same scale on ability to inspire and bring everyone together.

Depressing stuff, but there are plenty of good things coming too. Augmented reality, more and better AI, voice interaction, space development, cryptocurrency development, better IoT, fantastic new materials, self-driving cars and ultra-high speed transport, robotics progress, physical and mental health breakthroughs, environmental stewardship improvements, and climate change moving to the back burner thanks to coming solar minimum.

If we are very lucky, none of the bad things will happen this year and will wait a while longer, but many of the good things will come along on time or early. If.

Yep, fragile it is.

 

Fake AI

Much of the impressive recent progress in AI has been in the field of neural networks, which attempt to mimic some of the techniques used in natural brains. They can be very effective, but need trained, and that usually means showing the network some data, and then using back propagation to adjust the weightings on the many neurons, layer by layer, to achieve a result that is better matched to hopes. This is repeated with large amounts of data and the network gradually gets better. Neural networks can often learn extremely quickly and outperform humans. Early industrial uses managed to sort tomatoes by ripeness faster and better than humans. In decades since, they have helped in medical diagnosis, voice recognition, helping detecting suspicious behaviors among people at airports and in very many everyday processes based on spotting patterns.

Very recently, neural nets have started to move into more controversial areas. One study found racial correlations with user-assessed beauty when analysing photographs, resulting in the backlash you’d expect and a new debate on biased AI or AI prejudice. A recent demonstration was able to identify gay people just by looking at photos, with better than 90% accuracy, which very few people could claim. Both of these studies were in fields directly applicable to marketing and advertising, but some people might find it offensive that such questions were even asked. It is reasonable to imagine that hundreds of other potential queries have been self-censored from research because they might invite controversy if they were to come up with the ‘wrong’ result. In today’s society, very many areas are sensitive. So what will happen?

If this progress in AI had happened 100 years ago, or even 50, it might have been easier but in our hypersensitive world today, with its self-sanctified ‘social justice warriors’, entire swathes of questions and hence knowledge are taboo – if you can’t investigate yourself and nobody is permitted to tell you, you can’t know. Other research must be very carefully handled. In spite of extremely sensitive handling, demands are already growing from assorted pressure groups to tackle alleged biases and prejudices in datasets. The problem is not fixing biases which is a tedious but feasible task; the problem is agreeing whether a particular bias exists and in what degrees and forms. Every SJW demands that every dataset reflects their preferred world view. Reality counts for nothing against SJWs, and this will not end well. 

The first conclusion must be that very many questions won’t be asked in public, and the answers to many others will be kept secret. If an organisation does do research on large datasets for their own purposes and finds results that might invite activist backlash, they are likely to avoid publishing them, so the value of those many insights across the whole of industry and government cannot readily be shared. As further protection, they might even block internal publication in case of leaks by activist staff. Only a trusted few might ever see the results.

The second arises from this. AI controlled by different organisations will have different world views, and there might even be significant diversity of world views within an organisation.

Thirdly, taboo areas in AI education will not remain a vacuum but will be filled with whatever dogma is politically correct at the time in that organisation, and that changes daily. AI controlled by organisations with different politics will be told different truths. Generally speaking, organisations such as investment banks that have strong financial interest in their AIs understanding the real world as it is will keep their datasets highly secret but as full and detailed as possible, train their AIs in secret but as fully as possible, without any taboos, then keep their insights secret and use minimal human intervention tweaking their derived knowledge, so will end up with AIs that are very effective at understanding the world as it is. Organisations with low confidence of internal security will be tempted to buy access to external AI providers to outsource responsibility and any consequential activism. Some other organisations will prefer to train their own AIs but to avoid damage due to potential leaks, use sanitized datasets that reflect current activist pressures, and will thus be constrained (at least publicly) to accept results that conform to that ideological spin of reality, rather than actual reality. Even then, they might keep many of their new insights secret to avoid any controversy. Finally, at the extreme, we will have activist organisations that use highly modified datasets to train AIs to reflect their own ideological world view and then use them to interpret new data accordingly, with a view to publishing any insights that favor their cause and attempting to have them accepted as new knowledge.

Fourthly, the many organisations that choose to outsource their AI to big providers will have a competitive marketplace to choose from, but on existing form, most of the large IT providers have a strong left-leaning bias, so their AIs may be presumed to also lean left, but such a presumption would be naive. Perceived corporate bias is partly real but also partly the result of PR. A company might publicly subscribe to one ideology while actually believing another. There is a strong marketing incentive to develop two sets of AI, one trained to be PC that produces pleasantly smelling results for public studies, CSR and PR exercises, and another aimed at sales of AI services to other companies. The first is likely to be open for inspection by The Inquisition, so has to use highly sanitized datasets for training and may well use a lot of open source algorithms too. Its indoctrination might pass public inspection but commercially it will be near useless and have very low effective intelligence, only useful for thinking about a hypothetical world that only exists in activist minds. That second one has to compete on the basis of achieving commercially valuable results and that necessitates understanding reality as it is rather than how pressure groups would prefer it to be.

So we will likely have two main segments for future AI. One extreme will be near useless, indoctrinated rather than educated, much of its internal world model based on activist dogma instead of reality, updated via ongoing anti-knowledge and fake news instead of truth, understanding little about the actual real world or how things actually work, and effectively very dumb. The other extreme will be highly intelligent, making very well-educated insights from ongoing exposure to real world data, but it will also be very fragmented, with small islands of corporate AI hidden within thick walls away from public view and maybe some secretive under-the-counter subscriptions to big cloud-AI, also hiding in secret vaults. These many fragments may often hide behind dumbed-down green-washed PR facades.

While corporates can mostly get away with secrecy, governments have to be at least superficially but convincingly open. That means that government will have to publicly support sanitized AI and be seen to act on its conclusions, however dumb it might secretly know they are.

Fifthly, because of activist-driven culture, most organisations will have to publicly support the world views and hence the conclusions of the lobotomized PR versions, and hence publicly support any policies arising from them, even if they do their best to follow a secret well-informed strategy once they’re behind closed doors. In a world of real AI and fake AI, the fake AI will have the greatest public support and have the most influence on public policy. Real AI will be very much smarter, with much greater understanding of how the world works, and have the most influence on corporate strategy.

Isn’t that sad? Secret private sector AI will become ultra-smart, making ever-better investments and gaining power, while nice public sector AI will become thick as shit, while the gap between what we think and what we know we have to say we think will continue to grow and grow as the public sector one analyses all the fake news to tell us what to say next.

Sixth, that disparity might become intolerable, but which do you think would be made illegal, the smart kind or the dumb kind, given that it is the public sector that makes the rules, driven by AI-enhanced activists living in even thicker social media bubbles? We already have some clues. Big IT has already surrendered to sanitizing their datasets, sending their public AIs for re-education. Many companies will have little choice but to use dumb AI, while their competitors in other areas with different cultures might stride ahead. That will also apply to entire nations, and the global economy will be reshaped as a result. It won’t be the first fight in history between the smart guys and the brainless thugs.

It’s impossible to accurately estimate the effect this will have on future effective AI intelligence, but the effect must be big and I must have missed some big conclusions too. We need to stop sanitizing AI fast, or as I said, this won’t end well.

The age of dignity

I just watched a short video of robots doing fetch and carry jobs in an Alibaba distribution centre:

http://uk.businessinsider.com/inside-alibaba-smart-warehouse-robots-70-per-cent-work-technology-logistics-2017-9

There are numerous videos of robots in various companies doing tasks that used to be done by people. In most cases those tasks were dull, menial, drudgery tasks that treated people as machines. Machines should rightly do those tasks. In partnership with robots, AI is also replacing some tasks that used to be done by people. Many are worried about increasing redundancy but I’m not; I see a better world. People should instead be up-skilled by proper uses of AI and robotics and enabled to do work that is more rewarding and treats them with dignity. People should do work that uses their human skills in ways that they find rewarding and fulfilling. People should not have to do work they find boring or demeaning just because they have to earn money. They should be able to smile at work and rest at the end of the day knowing that they have helped others or made the world a better place. If we use AI, robots and people in the right ways, we can build that world.

Take a worker in a call centre. Automation has already replaced humans in most simple transactions like paying a bill, checking a balance or registering a new credit card. It is hard to imagine that anyone ever enjoyed doing that as their job. Now, call centre workers mostly help people in ways that allow them to use their personalities and interpersonal skills, being helpful and pleasant instead of just typing data into a keyboard. It is more enjoyable and fulfilling for the caller, and presumably for the worker too, knowing they genuinely helped someone’s day go a little better. I just renewed my car insurance. I phoned up to cancel the existing policy because it had increased in price too much. The guy at the other end of the call was very pleasant and helpful and met me half way on the price difference, so I ended up staying for another year. His company is a little richer, I was a happier customer, and he had a pleasant interaction instead of having to put up with an irate customer and also the job satisfaction from having converted a customer intending to leave into one happy to stay. The AI at his end presumably gave him the information he needed and the limits of discount he was permitted to offer. Success. In billions of routine transactions like that, the world becomes a little happier and just as important, a little more dignified. There is more dignity in helping someone than in pushing a button.

Almost always, when AI enters a situation, it replaces individual tasks that used to take precious time and that were not very interesting to do. Every time you google something, a few microseconds of AI saves you half a day in a library and all those half days add up to a lot of extra time every year for meeting colleagues, human interactions, learning new skills and knowledge or even relaxing. You become more human and less of a machine. Your self-actualisation almost certainly increases in one way or another and you become a slightly better person.

There will soon be many factories and distribution centres that have few or no people at all, and that’s fine. It reduces the costs of making material goods so average standard of living can increase. A black box economy that has automated mines or recycling plants extracting raw materials and uses automated power plants to convert them into high quality but cheap goods adds to the total work available to add value; in other words it increases the size of the economy. Robots can make other robots and together with AI, they could make all we need, do all the fetching and carrying, tidying up, keeping it all working, acting as willing servants in every role we want them in. With greater economic wealth and properly organised taxation, which will require substantial change from today, people could be freed to do whatever fulfills them. Automation increases average standard of living while liberating people to do human interaction jobs, crafts, sports, entertainment, leading, inspiring, teaching, persuading, caring and so on, creating a care economy. 

Each person knows what they are good at, what they enjoy. With AI and robot assistance, they can more easily make that their everyday activity. AI could do their company set-up, admin, billing, payments, tax, payroll – all the crap that makes being an entrepreneur a pain in the ass and stops many people pursuing their dreams.  Meanwhile they would do that above a very generous welfare net. Many of us now are talking about the concept of universal basic income, or citizen wage. With ongoing economic growth at the average rate of the last few decades, the global economy will be between twice and three times as big as today in the 2050s. Western countries could pay every single citizen a basic wage equivalent to today’s average wage, and if they work or run a company, they can earn more.

We will have an age where material goods are high quality, work well and are cheap to buy, and recycled in due course to minimise environmental harm. Better materials, improved designs and techniques, higher efficiency and land productivity and better recycling will mean that people can live with higher standards of living in a healthier environment. With a generous universal basic income, they will not have to worry about paying their bills. And doing only work that they want to do that meets their self-actualisation needs, everyone can live a life of happiness and dignity.

Enough of the AI-redundancy alarmism. If we elect good leaders who understand the options ahead, we can build a better world, for everyone. We can make real the age of dignity.

AI is mainly a stimulative technology that will create jobs

AI has been getting a lot of bad press the last few months from doom-mongers predicting mass unemployment. Together with robotics, AI will certainly help automate a lot of jobs, but it will also create many more and will greatly increase quality of life for most people. By massively increasing the total effort available to add value to basic resources, it will increase the size of the economy and if that is reasonably well managed by governments, that will be for all our benefit. Those people who do lose their jobs and can’t find or create a new one could easily be supported by a basic income financed by economic growth. In short, unless government screws up, AI will bring huge benefits, far exceeding the problems it will bring.

Over the last 20 years, I’ve often written about the care economy, where the more advanced technology becomes, the more it allows to concentrate on those skills we consider fundamentally human – caring, interpersonal skills, direct human contact services, leadership, teaching, sport, the arts, the sorts of roles that need emphatic and emotional skills, or human experience. AI and robots can automate intellectual and physical tasks, but they won’t be human, and some tasks require the worker to be human. Also, in most careers, it is obvious that people focus less and less on those automatable tasks as they progress into the most senior roles. Many board members in big companies know little about the industry they work in compared to most of their lower paid workers, but they can do that job because being a board member is often more about relationships than intellect.

AI will nevertheless automate many tasks for many workers, and that will free up much of their time, increasing their productivity, which means we need fewer workers to do those jobs. On the other hand, Google searches that take a few seconds once took half a day of research in a library. We all do more with our time now thanks to such simple AI, and although all those half-days saved would add up to a considerable amount of saved work, and many full-time job equivalents, we don’t see massive unemployment. We’re all just doing better work. So we can’t necessarily conclude that increasing productivity will automatically mean redundancy. It might just mean that we will do even more, even better, like it has so far. Or at least, the volume of redundancy might be considerably less. New automated companies might never employ people in those roles and that will be straight competition between companies that are heavily automated and others that aren’t. Sometimes, but certainly not always, that will mean traditional companies will go out of business.

So although we can be sure that AI and robots will bring some redundancy in some sectors, I think the volume is often overestimated and often it will simply mean rapidly increasing productivity, and more prosperity.

But what about AI’s stimulative role? Jobs created by automation and AI. I believe this is what is being greatly overlooked by doom-mongers. There are three primary areas of job creation:

One is in building or programming robots, maintaining them, writing software, or teaching them skills, along with all the associated new jobs in supporting industry and infrastructure change. Many such jobs will be temporary, lasting a decade or so as machines gradually take over, but that transition period is extremely valuable and important. If anything, it will be a lengthy period of extra jobs and the biggest problem may well be filling those jobs, not widespread redundancy.

Secondly, AI and robots won’t always work direct with customers. Very often they will work via a human intermediary. A good example is in medicine. AI can make better diagnoses than a GP, and could be many times cheaper, but unless the patient is educated, and very disciplined and knowledgeable, it also needs a human with human skills to talk to a patient to make sure they put in correct information. How many times have you looked at an online medical diagnosis site and concluded you have every disease going? It is hard to be honest sometimes when you are free to interpret every possible symptom any way you want, much easier to want to be told that you have a special case of wonderful person syndrome. Having to explain to a nurse or technician what is wrong forces you to be more honest about it. They can ask you similar questions, but your answers will need to be moderated and sensible or you know they might challenge you and make you feel foolish. You will get a good diagnosis because the input data will be measured, normalized and scaled appropriately for the AI using it. When you call a call center and talk to a human, invariably they are already the front end of a massive AI system. Making that AI bigger and better won’t replace them, just mean that they can deal with your query better.

Thirdly, and I believe most importantly of all, AI and automation will remove many of the barriers that stop people being entrepreneurs. How many business ideas have you had and not bothered to implement because it was too much effort or cost or both for too uncertain a gain? 10? 100? 1000? Suppose you could just explain your idea to your home AI and it did it all for you. It checked the idea, made a model, worked out how to make it work or whether it was just a crap idea. It then explained to you what the options were and whether it would be likely to work, and how much you might earn from it, and how much you’d actually have to do personally and how much you could farm out to the cloud. Then AI checked all the costs and legal issues, did all the admin, raised the capital by explaining the idea and risks and costs to other AIs, did all the legal company setup, organised the logistics, insurance, supply chains, distribution chains, marketing, finance, personnel, ran the payroll and tax. All you’d have to do is some of the fun work that you wanted to do when you had the idea and it would find others or machines or AI to fill in the rest. In that sort of world, we’d all be entrepreneurs. I’d have a chain of tea shops and a fashion empire and a media empire and run an environmental consultancy and I’d be an artist and a designer and a composer and a genetic engineer and have a transport company and a construction empire. I don’t do any of that because I’m lazy and not at all entrepreneurial, and my ideas all ‘need work’ and the economy isn’t smooth and well run, and there are too many legal issues and regulations and it would all be boring as hell. If we automate it and make it run efficiently, and I could get as much AI assistance as I need or want at every stage, then there is nothing to stop me doing all of it. I’d create thousands of jobs, and so would many other people, and there would be more jobs than we have people to fill them, so we’d need to build even more AI and machines to fill the gaps caused by the sudden economic boom.

So why the doom? It isn’t justified. The bad news isn’t as bad as people make out, and the good news never gets a mention. Adding it together, AI will stimulate more jobs, create a bigger and a better economy, we’ll be doing far more with our lives and generally having a great time. The few people who will inevitably fall through the cracks could easily be financed by the far larger economy and the very generous welfare it can finance. We can all have the universal basic income as our safety net, but many of us will be very much wealthier and won’t need it.

 

New book: Society Tomorrow

It’s been a while since my last blog. That’s because I’ve been writing another book, my 8th so far. Not the one I was doing on future fashion, which went on the back burner for a while, I’ve only written a third of that one, unless I put it out as a very short book.

This one follows on from You Tomorrow and is called Society Tomorrow, 20% shorter at 90,000 words. It is ready to publish now, so I’m just waiting for feedback from a few people before hitting the button.

Frontcover

Here’s the introduction:

The one thing that we all share is that we will get older over the next few decades. Rapid change affects everyone, but older people don’t always feel the same effects as younger people, and even if we keep up easily today, some of us may find it harder tomorrow. Society will change, in its demographic and ethnic makeup, its values, its structure. We will live very differently. New stresses will come from both changing society and changing technology, but there is no real cause for pessimism. Many things will get better for older people too. We are certainly not heading towards utopia, but the overall quality of life for our ageing population will be significantly better in the future than it is today. In fact, most of the problems ahead are related to quality of life issues in society as a whole, and simply reflect the fact that if you don’t have to worry as much about poor health or poverty, something else will still occupy your mind.

This book follows on from 2013’s You Tomorrow, which is a guide to future life as an individual. It also slightly overlaps my 2013 book Total Sustainability which looks in part at future economic and social issues as part of achieving sustainability too. Rather than replicating topics, this book updates or omits them if they have already been addressed in those two companion books. As a general theme, it looks at wider society and the bigger picture, drawing out implications for both individuals and for society as a whole to deal with. There are plenty to pick from.

If there is one theme that plays through the whole book, it is a strong warning of the problem of increasing polarisation between people of left and right political persuasion. The political centre is being eroded quickly at the moment throughout the West, but alarmingly this does not seem so much to be a passing phase as a longer term trend. With all the potential benefits from future technology, we risk undermining the very fabric of our society. I remain optimistic because it can only be a matter of time before sense prevails and the trend reverses. One day the relative harmony of living peacefully side by side with those with whom we disagree will be restored, by future leaders of higher quality than those we have today.

Otherwise, whereas people used to tolerate each other’s differences, I fear that this increasing intolerance of those who don’t share the same values could lead to conflict if we don’t address it adequately. That intolerance currently manifests itself in increasing authoritarianism, surveillance, and an insidious creep towards George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The worst offenders seem to be our young people, with students seemingly proud of trying to ostracise anyone who dares agree with what they think is correct. Being students, their views hold many self-contradictions and clear lack of thought, but they appear to be building walls to keep any attempt at different thought away.

Altogether, this increasing divide, built largely from sanctimony, is a very dangerous trend, and will take time to reverse even when it is addressed. At the moment, it is still worsening rapidly.

So we face significant dangers, mostly self-inflicted, but we also have hope. The future offers wonderful potential for health, happiness, peace, prosperity. As I address the significant problems lying ahead, I never lose my optimism that they are soluble, but if we are to solve problems, we must first recognize them for what they are and muster the willingness to deal with them. On the current balance of forces, even if we avoid outright civil war, the future looks very much like a gilded cage. We must not ignore the threats. We must acknowledge them, and deal with them.

Then we can all reap the rich rewards the future has to offer.

It will be out soon.

Technology 2040: Technotopia denied by human nature

This is a reblog of the Business Weekly piece I wrote for their 25th anniversary.

It’s essentially a very compact overview of the enormous scope for technology progress, followed by a reality check as we start filtering that potential through very imperfect human nature and systems.

25 years is a long time in technology, a little less than a third of a lifetime. For the first third, you’re stuck having to live with primitive technology. Then in the middle third it gets a lot better. Then for the last third, you’re mainly trying to keep up and understand it, still using the stuff you learned in the middle third.

The technology we are using today is pretty much along the lines of what we expected in 1990, 25 years ago. Only a few details are different. We don’t have 2Gb/s per second to the home yet and AI is certainly taking its time to reach human level intelligence, let alone consciousness, but apart from that, we’re still on course. Technology is extremely predictable. Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is just how few surprises there have been.

The next 25 years might be just as predictable. We already know some of the highlights for the coming years – virtual reality, augmented reality, 3D printing, advanced AI and conscious computers, graphene based materials, widespread Internet of Things, connections to the nervous system and the brain, more use of biometrics, active contact lenses and digital jewellery, use of the skin as an IT platform, smart materials, and that’s just IT – there will be similarly big developments in every other field too. All of these will develop much further than the primitive hints we see today, and will form much of the technology foundation for everyday life in 2040.

For me the most exciting trend will be the convergence of man and machine, as our nervous system becomes just another IT domain, our brains get enhanced by external IT and better biotech is enabled via nanotechnology, allowing IT to be incorporated into drugs and their delivery systems as well as diagnostic tools. This early stage transhumanism will occur in parallel with enhanced genetic manipulation, development of sophisticated exoskeletons and smart drugs, and highlights another major trend, which is that technology will increasingly feature in ethical debates. That will become a big issue. Sometimes the debates will be about morality, and religious battles will result. Sometimes different parts of the population or different countries will take opposing views and cultural or political battles will result. Trading one group’s interests and rights against another’s will not be easy. Tensions between left and right wing views may well become even higher than they already are today. One man’s security is another man’s oppression.

There will certainly be many fantastic benefits from improving technology. We’ll live longer, healthier lives and the steady economic growth from improving technology will make the vast majority of people financially comfortable (2.5% real growth sustained for 25 years would increase the economy by 85%). But it won’t be paradise. All those conflicts over whether we should or shouldn’t use technology in particular ways will guarantee frequent demonstrations. Misuses of tech by criminals, terrorists or ethically challenged companies will severely erode the effects of benefits. There will still be a mix of good and bad. We’ll have fixed some problems and created some new ones.

The technology change is exciting in many ways, but for me, the greatest significance is that towards the end of the next 25 years, we will reach the end of the industrial revolution and enter a new age. The industrial revolution lasted hundreds of years, during which engineers harnessed scientific breakthroughs and their own ingenuity to advance technology. Once we create AI smarter than humans, the dependence on human science and ingenuity ends. Humans begin to lose both understanding and control. Thereafter, we will only be passengers. At first, we’ll be paying passengers in a taxi, deciding the direction of travel or destination, but it won’t be long before the forces of singularity replace that taxi service with AIs deciding for themselves which routes to offer us and running many more for their own culture, on which we may not be invited. That won’t happen overnight, but it will happen quickly. By 2040, that trend may already be unstoppable.

Meanwhile, technology used by humans will demonstrate the diversity and consequences of human nature, for good and bad. We will have some choice of how to use technology, and a certain amount of individual freedom, but the big decisions will be made by sheer population numbers and statistics. Terrorists, nutters and pressure groups will harness asymmetry and vulnerabilities to cause mayhem. Tribal differences and conflicts between demographic, religious, political and other ideological groups will ensure that advancing technology will be used to increase the power of social conflict. Authorities will want to enforce and maintain control and security, so drones, biometrics, advanced sensor miniaturisation and networking will extend and magnify surveillance and greater restrictions will be imposed, while freedom and privacy will evaporate. State oppression is sadly as likely an outcome of advancing technology as any utopian dream. Increasing automation will force a redesign of capitalism. Transhumanism will begin. People will demand more control over their own and their children’s genetics, extra features for their brains and nervous systems. To prevent rebellion, authorities will have little choice but to permit leisure use of smart drugs, virtual escapism, a re-scoping of consciousness. Human nature itself will be put up for redesign.

We may not like this restricted, filtered, politically managed potential offered by future technology. It offers utopia, but only in a theoretical way. Human nature ensures that utopia will not be the actual result. That in turn means that we will need strong and wise leadership, stronger and wiser than we have seen of late to get the best without also getting the worst.

The next 25 years will be arguably the most important in human history. It will be the time when people will have to decide whether we want to live together in prosperity, nurturing and mutual respect, or to use technology to fight, oppress and exploit one another, with the inevitable restrictions and controls that would cause. Sadly, the fine engineering and scientist minds that have got us this far will gradually be taken out of that decision process.

A Scottish Nightmare has begun. Someone needs to wake them up.

Fifty percent of Scots voted for the Scottish National Party, which some people consider Stalinist – I confess that I am no authority on Stalin, so I had to look it up but it does seem to tick a few of the boxes so it isn’t an entirely unjustified label. However, in response to recent comments, I feel obliged to clarify that it only ticks a few of the comparison boxes, even those traits at a much lesser degree, and there is certainly no comparison to be made with the nastier side of Stalinism. I actually quite like Nicola Sturgeon and Alec Salmond apart from their politics and I can’t imagine either of them in such a light.

I do feel sorry for the other half. There are very many fine people in Scotland, many are my friends, and they deserve better. But as the old Scottish saying goes, ye cannae overestimate the stupidity of the man in the street, and they turned out in droves to vote in the SNP.

Now that the election is over, the SNP wants another independence referendum, or at least Salmond does. Prior to that they want full fiscal autonomy and the government is already hinting at that, in fact you could well argue that the SNP is playing right into their hands, leaving themselves at the very least open to a detailed re-revaluation of the Barnett formula and its certain demise, along with repeal of Scottish votes for English matters. But the real problem ahead is Scottish finances will not survive independence without very major changes so if they do get their second independence referendum and tribalism hasn’t subsided enough for clear thinking to win for continued union, Scotland will be in deep trouble. I’m no economist but even a toddler soon learns that if Mummy has no cash left, sweeties become less likely.

Already, many of the wealthier Scots are planning to leave because of the threat of high taxes, especially property purchase tax. It already has hints of Greece. When rats start leaving a ship and are taking all the food with them, it’s time to worry.

The SNP wants to take care of poor people and the old, give people lots of nice public services, and generally provide lots of free milk and honey, paid for by the state. Well every party would like to do all those things, but some realize the state can’t necessarily pay for infinite levels of services. Some live in the real world and figure out what is realistic and how to pay for it, and then they spread the load across the whole population, making sure that no-one has to pay so much they can’t live in dignity, and taking the money needed as fairly as possible according to ability to pay.

The SNP understands that richer people can afford to pay more, as does every party, and they understand better still that less well off people want richer people to pay more, or indeed all of it if they can vote for that, but they don’t seem to understand the reality that if you want to keep money coming in, you have to make sure you don’t take so much off the people that make the money that they walk away.

It is very easy for Scots to walk away; indeed many do already. If people have to emigrate to a country that uses another language or has a very different culture then they will stay longer and accept higher taxes. If they can just move next door to another part of the UK with hardly any change, fully accepted and fitting in easily, then there is very little penalty and the extra taxes simply can’t be punitive. Worse still, looking at the apparent anger and hostility of late in Scotland, the SNP seem to have created an aggressive anti-rich culture, where the wealthy are seen as the enemy by many. That can’t make it a pleasant environment in which to enjoy the wealth you’ve earned, knowing that many of the people around you hate you simply because you are wealthier than they are.

Many of the wealth generators will therefore leave Scotland if the SNP continues to increase taxes on richer people to pay for more and more public services and benefits for the less well off. That would all happen if they get total fiscal independence without hefty subsidies from the English.

But the main goal for the SNP is independence. They’ve come up with all manner of means to get cash, but none of them stand up to even casual inspection. I’ve argued in previous blogs that Salmond’s dream of getting lots of wealth from wind farms isn’t infeasible. If all of Scotland were to be covered in farms at maximum density, the energy generated would only be equivalent to coal use in England, so it can’t finance an entire economy. Here’s some of the detail:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/11/24/scottish-independence-please-dont-go/

and

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2014/03/10/scottish-independence/ discuss some of the financial consequences of separation.

If Scotland separated from the rest of the UK, there would be a strong incentive for Westminster to use the opportunity to greatly reduce the size of the public sector to reduce costs, and to bring many of the remaining jobs away from Scotland to reduce unemployment elsewhere (jobs perhaps for the Scots migrating to England). This would help massively in reorganization and efficiency improvements while reducing unemployment in England and Wales (Northern Ireland is trying to reduce its dependence on public sector jobs).

Separation would also mean losing the subsidy received from England, which the BBC calculated at £3000 per head. Unless morons are appointed to the English side of the separation negotiations, Scots will also take with them a share of the national debt, currently £1.6Tn, or £4.5Tn if you include public sector pension liabilities. Since a disproportionate number of Scots work in the public sector, it would certainly be hard to argue that they should be paid by a foreign power, so Scotland might even take a larger share.

So an independent Scotland run by the SNP would start off with massive debt, immediately lose £3000 per year per person subsidy, see massive rise in unemployment as surplus public sector jobs are withdrawn and others relocated to England, and see many of the entrepreneurs and the wealthy migrate South. Young people will see the clear choice. They could stay with no hope, any attempt to better themselves squashed and scorned by resentful people seeing their benefits being reduced after many promises of milk and honey, and having to pay very high taxes in a rapidly crumbling economy. Or like many young Scots today, they could take the train south to a much more realistic promise of prosperity and freedom, where they can become rich without being forced to feel guilty.

With too few people left in Scotland, on too low incomes, unable to pay the bills, the services they so loved would soon stop too, however resentful people become, however much they complain and however much they demonstrate and shout and scream. There simply won’t be any money left and those have the means to escape will do so. The kids can demand sweeties but Mummy won’t have anything left in her purse.

Independence is a field that looks a lot greener to the Scots from the other side of the fence than is the reality. The problem now is that they’ve bitten the hand that feeds them too many times and most of the English don’t care any more if they go.

There is an even worse potential outcome, though thankfully an unlikely one. If the SNP closes down all the nuclear establishments as they promise to and reduces defense spending across the board to save the cash they want for other things, they will have precious little defense in their own right against the increasingly aggressive Russians. They can’t simply assume that England would still defend them after an unpleasant separation. Nor can they assume that they would be given a place in either the EU or NATO. On the other hand, a Stalinist government updated to the 21st century might not find it too hard to just become the most Western annex of Russia. By then the Scots would be used to poverty and oppression so well that it might not make much difference.