Category Archives: Society

Future Surveillance

This is an update of my last surveillance blog 6 years ago, much of which is common discussion now. I’ll briefly repeat key points to save you reading it.

They used to say

“Don’t think it

If you must think it, don’t say it

If you must say it, don’t write it

If you must write it, don’t sign it”

Sadly this wisdom is already as obsolete as Asimov’s Laws of Robotics. The last three lines have already been automated.

I recently read of new headphones designed to recognize thoughts so they know what you want to listen to. Simple thought recognition in various forms has been around for 20 years now. It is slowly improving but with smart networked earphones we’re already providing an easy platform into which to sneak better monitoring and better though detection. Sold on convenience and ease of use of course.

You already know that Google and various other large companies have very extensive records documenting many areas of your life. It’s reasonable to assume that any or all of this could be demanded by a future government. I trust Google and the rest to a point, but not a very distant one.

Your phone, TV, Alexa, or even your networked coffee machine may listen in to everything you say, sending audio records to cloud servers for analysis, and you only have naivety as defense against those audio records being stored and potentially used for nefarious purposes.

Some next generation games machines will have 3D scanners and UHD cameras that can even see blood flow in your skin. If these are hacked or left switched on – and social networking video is one of the applications they are aiming to capture, so they’ll be on often – someone could watch you all evening, capture the most intimate body details, film your facial expressions and gaze direction while you are looking at a known image on a particular part of the screen. Monitoring pupil dilation, smiles, anguished expressions etc could provide a lot of evidence for your emotional state, with a detailed record of what you were watching and doing at exactly that moment, with whom. By monitoring blood flow and pulse via your Fitbit or smartwatch, and additionally monitoring skin conductivity, your level of excitement, stress or relaxation can easily be inferred. If given to the authorities, this sort of data might be useful to identify pedophiles or murderers, by seeing which men are excited by seeing kids on TV or those who get pleasure from violent games, and it is likely that that will be one of the justifications authorities will use for its use.

Millimetre wave scanning was once controversial when it was introduced in airport body scanners, but we have had no choice but to accept it and its associated abuses –  the only alternative is not to fly. 5G uses millimeter wave too, and it’s reasonable to expect that the same people who can already monitor your movements in your home simply by analyzing your wi-fi signals will be able to do a lot better by analyzing 5G signals.

As mm-wave systems develop, they could become much more widespread so burglars and voyeurs might start using them to check if there is anything worth stealing or videoing. Maybe some search company making visual street maps might ‘accidentally’ capture a detailed 3d map of the inside of your house when they come round as well or instead of everything they could access via your wireless LAN.

Add to this the ability to use drones to get close without being noticed. Drones can be very small, fly themselves and automatically survey an area using broad sections of the electromagnetic spectrum.

NFC bank and credit cards not only present risks of theft, but also the added ability to track what we spend, where, on what, with whom. NFC capability in your phone makes some parts of life easier, but NFC has always been yet another doorway that may be left unlocked by security holes in operating systems or apps and apps themselves carry many assorted risks. Many apps ask for far more permissions than they need to do their professed tasks, and their owners collect vast quantities of information for purposes known only to them and their clients. Obviously data can be collected using a variety of apps, and that data linked together at its destination. They are not all honest providers, and apps are still very inadequately regulated and policed.

We’re seeing increasing experimentation with facial recognition technology around the world, from China to the UK, and only a few authorities so far such as in San Francisco have had the wisdom to ban its use. Heavy handed UK police, who increasingly police according to their own political agenda even at the expense of policing actual UK law, have already fined people who have covered themselves to avoid being abused in face recognition trials. It is reasonable to assume they would gleefully seize any future opportunity to access and cross-link all of the various data pools currently being assembled under the excuse of reducing crime, but with the real intent of policing their own social engineering preferences. Using advanced AI to mine zillions of hours of full-sensory data input on every one of us gathered via all this routine IT exposure and extensive and ubiquitous video surveillance, they could deduce everyone’s attitudes to just about everything – the real truth about our attitudes to every friend and family member or TV celebrity or politician or product, our detailed sexual orientation, any fetishes or perversions, our racial attitudes, political allegiances, attitudes to almost every topic ever aired on TV or everyday conversation, how hard we are working, how much stress we are experiencing, many aspects of our medical state.

It doesn’t even stop with public cameras. Innumerable cameras and microphones on phones, visors, and high street private surveillance will automatically record all this same stuff for everyone, sometimes with benign declared intentions such as making self-driving vehicles safer, sometimes using social media tribes to capture any kind of evidence against ‘the other’. In depth evidence will become available to back up prosecutions of crimes that today would not even be noticed. Computers that can retrospectively date mine evidence collected over decades and link it all together will be able to identify billions of real or invented crimes.

Active skin will one day link your nervous system to your IT, allowing you to record and replay sensations. You will never be able to be sure that you are the only one that can access that data either. I could easily hide algorithms in a chip or program that only I know about, that no amount of testing or inspection could ever reveal. If I can, any decent software engineer can too. That’s the main reason I have never trusted my IT – I am quite nice but I would probably be tempted to put in some secret stuff on any IT I designed. Just because I could and could almost certainly get away with it. If someone was making electronics to link to your nervous system, they’d probably be at least tempted to put a back door in too, or be told to by the authorities.

The current panic about face recognition is justified. Other AI can lipread better than people and recognize gestures and facial expressions better than people. It adds the knowledge of everywhere you go, everyone you meet, everything you do, everything you say and even every emotional reaction to all of that to all the other knowledge gathered online or by your mobile, fitness band, electronic jewelry or other accessories.

Fools utter the old line: “if you are innocent, you have nothing to fear”. Do you know anyone who is innocent? Of everything? Who has never ever done or even thought anything even a little bit wrong? Who has never wanted to do anything nasty to anyone for any reason ever? And that’s before you even start to factor in corruption of the police or mistakes or being framed or dumb juries or secret courts. The real problem here is not the abuses we already see. It is what is being and will be collected and stored, forever, that will be available to all future governments of all persuasions and police authorities who consider themselves better than the law. I’ve said often that our governments are often incompetent but rarely malicious. Most of our leaders are nice guys, only a few are corrupt, but most are technologically inept . With an increasingly divided society, there’s a strong chance that the ‘wrong’ government or even a dictatorship could get in. Which of us can be sure we won’t be up against the wall one day?

We’ve already lost the battle to defend privacy. The only bits left are where the technology hasn’t caught up yet. In the future, not even the deepest, most hidden parts of your mind will be private. Pretty much everything about you will be available to an AI-upskilled state and its police.

The future for women, pdf version

It is several years since my last post on the future as it will affect women so here is my new version as a pdf presentation:

Women and the Future

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.

 

Augmented reality will objectify women

Microsoft Hololens 2 Visor

The excitement around augmented reality continues to build, and I am normally  enthusiastic about its potential, looking forward to enjoying virtual architecture, playing immersive computer games, or enjoying visual and performance artworks transposed into my view of the high street while I shop.

But it won’t all be wonderful. While a few PR and marketing types may worry a little about people overlaying or modifying their hard-won logos and ads, a bigger issue will be some people choosing to overlay people in the high street with ones that are a different age or gender or race, or simply prettier. Identity politics will be fought on yet another frontier.

In spite of waves of marketing hype and misrepresentation, AR is really only here in primitive form outside the lab. Visors fall very far short of what we’d hoped for by now even a decade ago, even the Hololens 2 shown above. But soon AR visors and eventually active contact lenses will enable fully 3D hi-res overlays on the real world. Then, in principle at least, you can make things look how you want, with a few basic limits. You could certainly transform a dull shop, cheap hotel room or an office into an elaborate palace or make it look like a spaceship. But even if you change what things look like, you still have to represent nearby physical structures and obstacles in your fantasy overlay world, or you may bump into them, and that includes all the walls and furniture, lamp posts, bollards, vehicles, and of course other people. Augmented reality allows you to change their appearance thoroughly but they still need to be there somehow.

When it comes to people, there will be some battles. You may spend ages creating a wide variety of avatars, or may invest a great deal of time and money making or buying them. You may have a digital aura, hoping to present different avatars to different passers-by according to their profiles. You may want to look younger or thinner or as a character you enjoy playing in a computer game. You may present a selection of options to the AIs controlling the passer person’s view and the avatar they see overlaid could be any one of the images you have on offer. Perhaps some privileged people get to pick from a selection you offer, while others you wish to privilege less are restricted to just one that you have set for their profile. Maybe you’d have a particularly ugly or offensive one to present to those with opposing political views.

Except that you can’t assume you will be in control. In fact, you probably won’t.

Other people may choose not to see your avatar, but instead to superimpose one of their own choosing. The question of who decides what the viewer sees is perhaps the first and most important battle in AR. Various parties would like to control it – visor manufacturers, O/S providers, UX designers, service providers, app creators, AI providers, governments, local councils, police and other emergency services, advertisers and of course individual users. Given market dynamics, most of these ultimately come down to user choice most of the time, albeit sometimes after paying for the privilege. So it probably won’t be you who gets to choose how others see you, via assorted paid intermediary services, apps and AI, it will be the other person deciding how they want to see you, regardless of your preferences.

So you can spend all the time you want designing your avatar and tweaking your virtual make-up to perfection, but if someone wants to see their favorite celebrity walking past instead of you, they will. You and your body become no more than an object on which to display any avatar or image someone else chooses. You are quite literally reduced to an object in the AR world. Augmented reality will literally objectify women, reducing them to no more than a moving display space onto which their own selected images are overlaid. A few options become obvious.

Firstly they may just take your actual physical appearance (via a video camera built into their visor for example) and digitally change it,  so it is still definitely you, but now dressed more nicely, or dressed in sexy lingerie, or how you might look naked, using the latest AI to body-fit fantasy images from a porn database. This could easily be done automatically in real time using some app or other. You’ve probably already seen recent AI video fakery demos that can present any celebrity saying anything at all, almost indistinguishable from reality. That will soon be pretty routine tech for AR apps. They could even use your actual face as input to image-matching search engines to find the most plausible naked lookalikes. So anyone could digitally dress or undress you, not just with their eyes, but with a hi-res visor using sophisticated AI-enabled image processing software. They could put you in any kind of outfit, change your skin color or make-up or age or figure, and make you look as pretty and glamorous or as slutty as they want. And you won’t have any idea what they are seeing. You simply won’t know whether they are respectfully celebrating your inherent beauty, or flattering you by making you look even prettier, which you might not mind at all, or might object to strongly in the absence of explicit consent, or worse still, stripping or degrading you to whatever depths they wish, with no consent or notification, which you probably will mind a lot.

Or they can treat you as just an object on which to superimpose some other avatar, which could be anything or anyone – a zombie, favorite actress or supermodel. They won’t need your consent and again you won’t have any idea what they are seeing. The avatar may make the same gestures and movements and even talk plausibly, saying whatever their AI thinks they might like, but it won’t be you. In some ways this might not be so bad. You’d still be reduced to an object but at least it wouldn’t be you that they’re looking at naked. To most strangers on a high street most of the time, you’re just a moving obstacle to avoid bumping into, so being digitally transformed into a walking display board may worry you. Most people will cope with that bit. It is when you stop being just a passing stranger and start to interact in some way that it really starts to matter. You probably won’t like it if someone is chatting to you but they are actually looking at someone else entirely, especially if the viewer is one of your friends or your partner. And if your partner is kissing or cuddling you but seeing someone else, that would be a strong breach of trust, but how would you know? This sort of thing could and probably will damage a lot of relationships.

Most of the software to do most of this is already in development and much is already demonstrable. The rest will develop quickly once AR visors become commonplace.

In the office, in the home, when you’re shopping or at a party, you soon won’t have any idea what or who someone else is seeing when they look at you. Imagine how that would clash with rules that are supposed to be protection from sexual harassment  in the office. Whole new levels of harassment will be enabled, much invisible. How can we police behaviors we can’t even detect? Will hardware manufacturers be forced to build in transparency and continuous experience recording

The main casualty will be trust.  It will make us question how much we trust each of our friends and colleagues and acquaintances. It will build walls. People will often become suspicious of others, not just strangers but friends and colleagues. Some people will become fearful. You may dress as primly or modestly as you like, but if the viewer chooses to see you wearing a sexy outfit, perhaps their behavior and attitude towards you will be governed by that rather than reality. Increased digital objectification might lead to increase physical sexual assault or rape. We may see more people more often objectifying women in more circumstances.

The tech applies equally to men of course. You could make a man look like a silverback gorilla or a zombie or fake-naked. Some men will care more than others, but the vast majority of real victims will undoubtedly be women. Many men objectify women already. In the future AR world , they’ll be able to do so far more effectively, more easily.

 

The caravan and migration policy

20 years ago, fewer than half of the people in the world had ever made a phone call. Today, the vast majority of people have a smartphone with internet access, and are learning how people in other parts of the world live. A growing number are refusing to accept their poor luck of being born in poor, corrupt, or oppressive or war-torn countries. After all, nobody chooses their parents or where they are born, so why should people in any country have any more right to live there than anyone else?  Shouldn’t everyone start life with the right to live anywhere they choose? If they don’t like it where they were born, why shouldn’t someone migrate to another country to improve their conditions or to give their children a better chance? Why should that country be allowed to refuse them entry? I’d like to give a brief answer, but I don’t have time. So:

People don’t choose their parents, or where they are born, but nor did they exist to make that choice. The rights of the infinite number of non-existent people who could potentially be born to any possible combination of parents at any time, anywhere, under any possible set of circumstances is no basis for any policy. If lives were formed and then somehow assigned parents, the questions would be valid, but people don’t actually reproduce by choosing from some waiting list of would-be embryos. Even religious people don’t believe that their god has a large queue of souls waiting for a place and parents to be born to, assigning each in turn to happiness or misery. Actual people reproduce via actual acts in actual places in actual circumstances. They create a new life, and the child is theirs. They are solely responsible for bringing that life into existence, knowing the likely circumstances it would emerge into. The child didn’t choose its parents, but its parents made it. If they live in a particular country and choose to have a baby, that baby will be born with the rights and rules and all the other attributes of that country, the skin color, religion, wealth and status of its parents and so on. It will also be born in the prevailing international political and regulatory environment at that time. Other people in other countries have zero a priori political, social, economic or moral responsibility towards that child, though they and their country are free to show whatever compassion they wish, or to join international organisations that extend protection and human rights to all humans everywhere, and so a child anywhere may inherit certain internationally agreed rights, and countries will at some point have signed up to accept them. Those voluntary agreements or signings of international treaties may convey rights onto that child regarding its access to aid or  global health initiatives or migration but they are a matter for other sovereign bodies to choose to sign up to, or indeed to withdraw from. A poor child might grow up and decide to migrate, but it has no a priori right of entry to any country or support from it, legally or morally, beyond that which the people of that country or their ancestors choose to offer individually or via their government.

In short, people can’t really look any further than their parents to thank or blame for their existence, but other people and other countries are free to express and extend their love, compassion and support, if they choose to. Most of us would agree that we should.

Given that we want to help, but still don’t have the resources to help everyone on the planet to live in the standard they’d like, a better question might be: which people should we help first – those that bang loudly on our door, or those in the greatest need?

We love and value those close to us most, but most of us feel some love towards humans everywhere. Few people can watch the migrant caravan coverage without feeling sympathy for the parents trying to get to a better life. Many of those people will be innocent people running away from genuine oppression and danger, hoping to build a better future by working hard and integrating into a new culture. The proportion was estimated recently (Channel 4 News for those who demand sources for every stat they don’t like) at around 11% of the caravan. We know from UK migration from Calais that some will just say they are, advised by activists on exactly what phrases to use when interviewed by immigration officials to get the right boxes ticked. Additionally, those of us who aren’t completely naive (or suffering the amusingly named ‘Trump derangement syndrome’ whereby anything ‘Fake President’ Trump says or does must automatically be wrong even if Obama said or did the same), also accept that a few of those in the caravan are likely to be drug dealers or murderers or rapists or traffickers or other criminals running away from capture and towards new markets to exploit, or even terrorists trying to hide among a crowd. There is abundant evidence that European migrant crowds did conceal some such people, and we’ll never know the exact numbers, but we’re already living with the consequences. The USA would be foolish not to learn from these European mistakes. It really isn’t the simple ‘all saints’ or ‘all criminals’ some media would have us believe. Some may be criminals or terrorists – ‘some’ is a very different concept from ‘all’, and is not actually disproved by pointing the TV camera at a lovely family pushing a pram.

International law defines refugees and asylum seekers and makes it easy to distinguish them from other kinds of migrants, but activist groups and media often conflate these terms to push various political objectives. People fleeing from danger are refugees until they get to the first safe country, often the adjacent one. According to law, they should apply for asylum there, but if they choose to go further, they cease to be refugees and become migrants. The difference is very important. Refugees are fleeing from danger to safety, and are covered by protections afforded to that purpose. Migrants don’t qualify for those special protections and are meant to use legal channels to move to another country. If they choose to use non-legal means to cross borders, they become illegal immigrants, criminals. Sympathy and compassion should extend to all who are less fortunate, but those who are willing to respect the new nation and its laws by going through legal immigration channels should surely solicit more than those who demonstrably aren’t, regardless of how cute some other family’s children look on camera. Law-abiding applicants should always be given a better response, and law-breakers should be sent to the back of the queue.

These are well established attitudes to migration and refugees, but many seek to change them. In our competitive virtue signalling era, a narrative constructed by activists well practiced at misleading people to achieve their aims deliberately conflates genuine refugees and economic migrants to make their open borders policies look like simple humanitarianism. They harness the sympathy everyone feels for refugees fleeing from danger but and routinely mislabel migrants as refugees, hoping to slyly extend refugee rights to migrants, quickly moving on to imply that anyone who doesn’t want to admit everyone lacks basic human decency. Much of the media happily plays along with this deception, pointing cameras at the nice families instead of the much larger number of able young men, with their own presenters frequently referring to migrants as refugees. Such a narrative is deliberately dishonest, little more than self-aggrandizing disingenuous sanctimony. The best policy remains to maintain and protect borders and have well-managed legal immigration polices, offering prioritized help to refugees and extending whatever aid to other countries can be afforded. while recognizing that simple handouts and political interference can be sometimes counter-productive. Most people are nice, but some want to help those who need it most, in the best way. Moral posturing and virtue signalling are not only less effective but highly selfish, aimed at polishing the egos of the sanctimonious rather than the needy.

So, we want to help, but do it sensibly to maximize benefit. Selfishly, we also need some migration, and we already selfishlessly encourage those with the most valuable skills or wealth to migrate from other countries, at their loss (even after they have paid to educate them). Every skilled engineer or doctor we import from a poorer country represents a huge financial outlay being transferred from poor to rich. We need to fix that exploitation too. There is an excellent case for compensation to be paid.

Well-managed migration can and does work well. The UK sometimes feels a little overcrowded, when sitting in a traffic jam or a doctor waiting room, but actually only about 2% of the land is built on, the rest isn’t. It isn’t ‘full’ geographically, it just seems so because of the consequences of poor governance. Given sensible integration and economic policies, competently executed, immigration ought not to be a big problem. The absence of those givens is the main cause of existing problems. So we can use the UK as a benchmark for reasonably tolerable population density even under poor government. The UK still needs migrants with a wide range of skills and since some (mainly old) people emigrate, there is always room for a few more.

Integration is a growing issue, and should be a stronger consideration in future immigration policy. Recent (last 100 years) migrants and their descendants account for around 12% of the UK population, 1 in 8, still a smallish minority. Some struggle to integrate or to find acceptance, some don’t want to, many fit in very well. Older migrations such as the Normans and Vikings have integrated pretty well now. My name suggests some Viking input to my DNA, and ancestry research shows that my family goes back in England at least 500 years. Having migrated to Belfast as a child, and remigrated back 17 years later, I know how it feels to be considered an outsider for a decade or two.

What about the USA, with the migrant ‘caravan’ of a few thousand people on their way to claim asylum? The USA is large, relatively sparsely populated, and very wealthy. Most people in the world can only dream of living at US living standards and some of them are trying to go there. If they succeed, many more will follow. Trump is currently under fire from the left over his policy, but although Trump is certainly rather less eloquent, his policy actually closely echoes Obama’s. Here is a video of Obama talking about illegal immigration in 2005 while he was still a Senator:

https://www.c-span.org/video/?c4656370/sen-barack-obama-illegal-immigration

Left and right both agreed at least back then that borders should be protected and migrants should be made to use legal channels, presumably for all the same common sense reasons I outlined earlier. What if the borders were completely open, as many are now calling for? Here are a few basic figures:

Before it would get to UK population density, the USA has enough land to house every existing American plus every single one of the 422M South Americans, 42M Central Americans, 411M Middle Easterns, the 105M Philippinos and every African. Land area isn’t a big problem then. For the vast majority in these regions, the average USA standard of living would be a massive upgrade, so imagine if they all suddenly migrated there. The USA economy would suddenly be spread over 2.5Bn instead of 325M. Instead of $60k per capita, it would be $7.8k, putting the USA between Bolivia and Guatemala in the world wealth rankings, well below most of Central and South America (still 40% more than Honduras though). Additionally, almost all of the migrants, 87% of the total population would initially be homeless. All the new homes and other infrastructure would have to be paid for and built, jobs created, workforce trained etc. 

Even the most fervent open borders supporter couldn’t pretend they thought this was feasible, so they reject reasoning and focus on emotion, pointing cameras at young families with sweet kids, yearning for better lives. If the borders were open, what then would prevent vast numbers of would-be migrants from succumbing to temptation to better their lives before the inevitable economic dilution made it a worthless trip? Surely opening the borders would result in a huge mass of people wanting to get in while it is still a big upgrade? People in possession of reasoning capability accept that there need to be limits. Left and right, Obama and Trump agree that migration needs to be legal and well managed. Numbers must be restricted to a level that is manageable and sustainable.

So, what should be done about it. What policy principles and behaviors should be adopted. The first must be to stop  misuse of language, particularly conflating economic migrants and refugees. Activists and some media do that regularly, but deliberate misrepresentation is ‘fake news’, what we used to call lies.

Second, an honest debate needs to be had on how best to help refugees, whether by offering them residency or by building and resourcing adequate refugee camps, and also regarding how much we can widen legal immigration channels for migrants while sustaining our existing economy and culture. If a refugee wants to immigrate, that really ought to be a separate consideration and handled via immigration channels and rules. Dealing with them separately would immediately solve the problem of people falsely claiming refugee status, because all they would achieve is access to a refugee camp, and would still have to go through immigration channels to proceed further. Such false claims clog the courts and mean it takes far longer for true refugees to have their cases dealt with effectively.

Thirdly, that debate needs to consider that while countries naturally welcome the most economically and culturally valuable immigrants, there is also a good humanitarian case to help some more. Immigration policy should be generous, and paralleled with properly managed international aid.

That debate should always recognize that the rule of law must be maintained, and Obama made that argument very well. It still holds, and Trump agreeing with it does not actually make it invalid. Letting some people break it while expecting others to follow it invites chaos. Borders should be maintained and properly policed and while refugees who can demonstrate refugee status should be directed into refugee channels (which may take some time), others should be firmly turned away if they don’t have permission to cross, and given the information they need to apply via the legal immigration channels. That can be done nicely of course, and a generous country should offer medical attention, food, and transport home, maybe even financial help. Illegal immigration and lying about refugee status should be strongly resisted by detainment, repatriation and sending to the back of the queue, or permanently denying entry to anyone attempting illegal entry. No country wants to increase its population of criminals. Such a policy distinguishes well between legal and illegal, between refugees and migrants, and ensures that the flow into the country matches that which its government thinks is manageable.

The rest is basically ongoing Foreign Policy, and that does differ between different flavors of government. Sadly, how best to deal with problems in other countries is not something the USA is known to be skilled at. It doesn’t have a fantastic track record, even if it usually intends to make things better. Ditto the UK and Europe. Interference often makes things worse in unexpected ways. Handouts often feed corruption and dependence and support oppressive regimes, or liberate money for arms, so they don’t always work well either. Emergencies such as wars or natural catastrophes already have polices and appropriate agencies in place to deal with consequences, as well as many NGOs.

This caravan doesn’t fit neatly. A few can reasonably be directed into other channels, but most must be turned away. That is not heartless. The Mediterranean migration have led to far more deaths than they should because earlier migrants were accepted, encouraging others, and at one point it seemed to be the EU providing a safe pickup almost as soon as a trafficker boat left shore. The Australian approach seemed harsh, but probably saved thousands of lives by deterring others from risking their lives. My own solution to the Mediterranean crisis was:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2015/04/19/the-mediterranean-crisis/ and basically suggested making a small island into a large refugee camp where anyone rescued )or captured if they managed to make the full trip) would be taken, with a free trip home once they realized they wouldn’t be transferred to mainland Europe. I still think it is the best approach, and could be replicated by the USA using a large refugee/migrant camp from which the only exit is back to start or a very lengthy wait from the back of the legal migration queue.

However:

My opening questions on the inequity of birth invite another direction of analysis. When people die, they usually leave the bulk of their estates to their descendants, but by then they will also have passed on a great deal of other things, such as their values, some skills, miscellaneous support, and attitudes to life, the universe and everything. Importantly, they will have conveyed citizenship of their country, and that conveys a shared inheritance of the accumulated efforts of the whole of that countries previous inhabitants. That accumulation may be a prosperous, democratic country with reasonable law and order and safety, and relatively low levels of corruption, like the USA or the UK, or it may be a dysfunctional impoverished dictatorship or anything between. While long-term residents are effectively inheriting the accumulated value (and problems) passed down through their ancestors, new immigrants receive all of that for free when they are accepted. It is hard to put an accurate value on this shared social, cultural and financial wealth, but most that try end up with values in the $100,000s. Well-chosen immigrants may bring in value (including their descendants’ contributions) greatly in excess of what they receive. Some may not. Some may even reduce it. Whether a potential immigrant is accepted or not, we should be clear that citizenship is very valuable.

Then analysis starts to get messier. It isn’t just simple inheritance. What about the means by which that happy inherited state was achieved? Is one country attractive purely because of its own efforts or because it exploited others, or some combination? Is another country a hell hole in part because of our external interference, as some would argue for Iraq or Syria? If so, then perhaps there is a case for reparation or compensation, or perhaps favored immigration status for its citizens. We ought not to shirk responsibility for the consequences of our actions. Or is it a hell hole in spite of our interference, as can be argued for some African countries. Is it a hell hole because its people are lazy or corrupt and live in the country they deserve, as is possible I guess, though I can’t think of any examples. Anyway, heredity is a complex issue, as is privilege, its twin sister. I did write a lengthy blog on privilege (and cultural appropriation). I probably believe much the same as you but in the hostile competitive offence-taking social media environment of today, it remains a draft.

Sorry it took so many words, but there is so much nonsense being spoken, it takes a lot of words to remind of what mostly used to be common sense. The right policy now is basically the same as it was decades ago. Noisy activism doesn’t change that.

 

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.

Thoughts on declining male intelligence

I’ve seen a few citations this week of a study showing a 3 IQ point per decade drop in men’s intelligence levels: https://www.sciencealert.com/iq-scores-falling-in-worrying-reversal-20th-century-intelligence-boom-flynn-effect-intelligence

I’m not qualified to judge the merits of the study, but it is interesting if true, and since it is based on studying 730,000 men and seems to use a sensible methodology, it does sound reasonable.

I wrote last November about the potential effects of environmental exposure to hormone disruptors on intelligence, pointing out that if estrogen-mimicking hormones cause a shift in IQ distribution, this would be very damaging even if mean IQ stays the same. Although male and female IQs are about the same, male IQs are less concentrated around the mean, so there are more men than women at each extreme.

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2017/11/13/we-need-to-stop-xenoestrogen-pollution/

From a social equality point of view of course, some might consider it a good thing if men’s IQ range is caused to align more closely with the female one. I disagree and suggested some of the consequences that should be expected if male IQ distribution were to compress towards the female one and managed to confirm many of them, so it does look like it is already a problem.

This new study suggests a shift of the whole distribution downwards, which could actually be in addition to redistribution, making it even worse. The study doesn’t seem to mention distribution. They do show that the drop in mean IQ must be caused by environmental or lifestyle changes, both of which we have seen in recent decades.

IQ distribution matters more than the mean. Those at the very top of the range contribute many times more to progress than those further down. Magnitude of contribution is very dependent on those last few IQ points. I can verify that from personal experience. I have a virus that causes occasional periods of nerve inflammation, and as well as causing problems with my peripheral motor activity, it seems to strongly affect my thinking ability and comprehension. During those periods I generate very few new ideas or inventions and far fewer worthwhile insights than when I am on form. I sometimes have to wait until I recover before I can understand my own previous ideas and add to them. You’ll see it in numbers (and probably quality) of blog posts for example. I really feel a big difference in my thinking ability, and I hate feeling dumber than usual. Perhaps people don’t notice if they’ve always had the reduced IQ so have never experienced being less smart than they were, but my own experience is that perceptive ability and level of consciousness are strong contributors to personal well-being.

As for society as a whole, AI might come to the rescue at least in part. Just in time perhaps, since we’re creating the ability for computers to assist us and up-skill us just as we see numbers of people with the very highest IQ ranges drop. A bit like watching a new generation come on stream and take the reins as we age and take a back seat. On the other hand, it does bring forwards the time where computers overtake humans, humans become more dependent on machines, and machines become more of an existential threat as well as our babysitters.

Will urbanization continue or will we soon reach peak city?

For a long time, people have been moving from countryside into cities. The conventional futurist assumption is that this trend will continue, with many mega-cities, some with mega-buildings. I’ve consulted occasionally on future buildings and future cities from a technological angle, but I’ve never really challenged the assumption that urbanization will continue. It’s always good  to challenge our assumptions occasionally, as things can change quite rapidly.

There are forces in both directions. Let’s list those that support urbanisation first.

People are gregarious. They enjoy being with other people. They enjoy eating out and having coffees with friends. They like to go shopping. They enjoy cinemas and theatre and art galleries and museums. They still have workplaces. Many people want to live close to these facilities, where public transport is available or driving times are relatively short. There are exceptions of course, but these still generally apply.

Even though many people can and do work from home sometimes, most of them still go to work, where they actually meet colleagues, and this provides much-valued social contact, and in spite of recent social trends, still provides opportunities to meet new friends and partners. Similarly, they can and do talk to friends via social media or video calls, but still enjoy getting together for real.

Increasing population produces extra pressure on the environment, and governments often try to minimize it by restricting building on green field land. Developers are strongly encouraged to build on brown field sites as far as possible.

Now the case against.

Truly Immersive Interaction

Talking on the phone, even to a tiny video image, is less emotionally rich than being there with someone. It’s fine for chats in between physical meetings of course, but the need for richer interaction still requires ‘being there’. Augmented reality will soon bring headsets that provide high quality 3D life-sized images of the person, and some virtual reality kit will even allow analogs of physical interaction via smart gloves or body suits, making social comms a bit better. Further down the road, active skin will enable direct interaction with the peripheral nervous system to produce exactly the same nerve signals as an actual hug or handshake or kiss, while active contact lenses will provide the same resolution as your retina wherever you gaze. The long term is therefore communication which has the other person effectively right there with you, fully 3D, fully rendered to the capability of your eyes, so you won’t be able to tell they aren’t. If you shake hands or hug or kiss, you’ll feel it just the same as if they were there too. You will still know they are not actually there, so it will never be quite as emotionally rich as if they were, but it can get pretty close. Close enough perhaps that it won’t really matter to most people most of the time that it’s virtual.

In the same long term, many AIs will have highly convincing personalities, some will even have genuine emotions and be fully conscious. I blogged recently on how that might happen if you don’t believe it’s possible:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2018/06/04/biomimetic-insights-for-machine-consciousness/

None of the technology required for this is far away, and I believe a large IT company could produce conscious machines with almost human-level AI within a couple of years of starting the project. It won’t happen until they do, but when one starts trying seriously to do it, it really won’t be long. That means that as well as getting rich emotional interaction from other humans via networks, we’ll also get lots from AI, either in our homes, or on the cloud, and some will be in robots in our homes too.

This adds up to a strong reduction in the need to live in a city for social reasons.

Going to cinemas, theatre, shopping etc will also all benefit from this truly immersive interaction. As well as that, activities that already take place in the home, such as gaming will also advance greatly into more emotionally and sensory intensive experiences, along with much enhanced virtual tourism and virtual world tourism, virtual clubbing & pubbing, which barely even exist yet but could become major activities in the future.

Socially inclusive self-driving cars

Some people have very little social interaction because they can’t drive and don’t live close to public transport stops. In some rural areas, buses may only pass a stop once a week. Our primitive 20th century public transport systems thus unforgivably exclude a great many people from social inclusion, even though the technology needed to solve that has existed for many years.  Leftist value systems that much prefer people who live in towns or close to frequent public transport over everyone else must take a lot of the blame for the current epidemic of loneliness. It is unreasonable to expect those value systems to be replaced by more humane and equitable ones any time soon, but thankfully self-driving cars will bypass politicians and bureaucrats and provide transport for everyone. The ‘little old lady’ who can’t walk half a mile to wait 20 minutes in freezing rain for an uncomfortable bus can instead just ask her AI to order a car and it will pick her up at her front door and take her to exactly where she wants to go, then do the same for her return home whenever she wants. Once private sector firms like Uber provide cheap self-driving cars, they will be quickly followed by other companies, and later by public transport providers. Redundant buses may finally become extinct, replaced by better socially inclusive transport, large fleets of self-driving or driverless vehicles. People will be able to live anywhere and still be involved in society. As attendance at social events improves, so they will become feasible even in small communities, so there will be less need to go into a town to find one. Even political involvement might increase. Loneliness will decline as social involvement increases, and we’ll see many other social problems decline too.

Distribution drones

We hear a lot about upcoming redundancy caused by AI, but far less about the upside. AI might mean someone is no longer needed in an office, but it also makes it easier to set up a company and run it, taking what used to be just a hobby and making it into a small business. Much of the everyday admin and logistics can be automated Many who would never describe themselves as entrepreneurs might soon be making things and selling them from home and this AI-enabled home commerce will bring in the craft society. One of the big problems is getting a product to the customer. Postal services and couriers are usually expensive and very likely to lose or damage items. Protecting objects from such damage may require much time and expense packing it. Even if objects are delivered, there may be potential fraud with no-payers. Instead of this antiquated inefficient and expensive system, drone delivery could collect an object and take it to a local customer with minimal hassle and expense. Block-chain enables smart contracts that can be created and managed by AI and can directly link delivery to payment, with fully verified interaction video if necessary. If one happens, the other happens. A customer might return a damaged object, but at least can’t keep it and deny receipt. Longer distance delivery can still use cheap drone pickup to take packages to local logistics centers in smart crates with fully block-chained g-force and location detectors that can prove exactly who damaged it and where. Drones could be of any size, and of course self-driving cars or pods can easily fill the role too if smaller autonomous drones are inappropriate.

Better 3D printing technology will help to accelerate the craft economy, making it easier to do crafts by upskilling people and filling in some of their skill gaps. Someone with visual creativity but low manual skill might benefit greatly from AI model creation and 3D printer manufacture, followed by further AI assistance in marketing, selling and distribution. 3D printing might also reduce the need to go to town to buy some things.

Less shopping in high street

This is already obvious. Online shopping will continue to become a more personalized and satisfying experience, smarter, with faster delivery and easier returns, while high street decline accelerates. Every new wave of technology makes online better, and high street stores seem unable or unwilling to compete, in spite of my wonderful ‘6s guide’:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/01/16/the-future-of-high-street-survival-the-6s-guide/

Those that are more agile still suffer decline of shopper numbers as the big stores fail to attract them so even smart stores will find it harder to survive.

Improving agriculture

Farming technology has doubled the amount of food production per hectare in the last few decades. That may happen again by mid-century. Meanwhile, the trend is towards higher vegetable and lower meat consumption. Even with an increased population, less land will be needed to grow our food. As well as reducing the need to protect green belts, that will also allow some of our countryside to be put under better environmental stewardship programs, returning much of it to managed nature. What countryside we have will be healthier and prettier, and people will be drawn to it more.

Improving social engineering

Some objections to green-field building can be reduced by making better use of available land. Large numbers of new homes are needed and they will certainly need some green field to be used, but given the factors already listed above, a larger number of smaller communities might be better approach. Amazingly, in spite of decades of dating technology proving that people can be matched up easily using AI, there is still no obvious use of similar technology to establish new communities by blending together people who are likely to form effective communities. Surely it must be feasible to advertise a new community building program that wants certain kinds of people in it – even an Australian style points system might work sometimes. Unless sociologists have done nothing for the past decades, they must surely know what types of people work well together by now? If the right people live close to each other, social involvement will be high, loneliness low, health improved, care costs minimized, the need for longer distance travel reduced and environmental impact minimized. How hard can it be?

Improving building technology such as 3D printing and robotics will allow more rapid construction, so that when people are ready and willing to move, property suited to them can be available soon.

Lifestyle changes also mean that homes don’t need to be as big. A phone today does what used to need half a living room of technology and space. With wall-hung displays and augmented reality, decor can be partly virtual, and even a 450 sq ft apartment is fine as a starter place, half as big as was needed a few decades ago, and that could be 3D printed and kitted out in a few days.

Even demographic changes favor smaller communities. As wealth increases, people have smaller families, i.e fewer kids. That means fewer years doing the school run, so less travel, less need to be in a town. Smaller schools in smaller communities can still access specialist lessons via the net.

Increasing wealth also encourages and enables people to a higher quality of life. People who used to live in a crowded city street might prefer a more peaceful and spacious existence in a more rural setting and will increasingly be able to afford to move. Short term millennial frustrations with property prices won’t last, as typical 2.5% annual growth more than doubles wealth by 2050 (though automation and its assorted consequences will impact on the distribution of that wealth).

Off-grid technology

Whereas one of the main reasons to live in urban areas was easy access to telecomms, energy and water supply and sewerage infrastructure, all of these can now be achieved off-grid. Mobile networks provide even broadband access to networks. Solar or wind provide easy energy supply. Water can be harvested out of the air even in arid areas (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-5840997/The-solar-powered-humidity-harvester-suck-drinkable-water-AIR.html) and human and pet waste can be used as biomass for energy supply too, leaving fertilizer as residue.

There are also huge reasons that people won’t want to live in cities, and they will also cause deurbansisation.

The biggest by far in the problem of epidemics. As antibiotic resistance increases, disease will be a bigger problem. We may find good antibiotics alternatives but we may not. If not, then we may see some large cities where disease runs rampant and kills hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps even millions. Many scientists have listed pandemics among their top ten threats facing humanity. Obviously, being in a large city will incur a higher risk of becoming a victim, so once one or two incidents have occurred, many people will look for options to leave cities everywhere. Linked to this is bioterrorism, where the disease is deliberate, perhaps created in a garden shed by someone who learned the craft in one of today’s bio-hacking clubs. Disease might be aimed at a particular race, gender or lifestyle group or it may simply be designed to be as contagious and lethal as possible to everyone.

I’m still not saying we won’t have lots of people living in cities. I am saying that more people will feel less need to live in cities and will instead be able to find a small community where they can be happier in the countryside. Consequently, many will move out of cities, back to more rural living in smaller, friendlier communities that improving technology makes even more effective.

Urbanization will slow down, and may well go into reverse. We may reach peak city soon.

 

 

AI that talks to us could quickly become problematic

Google’s making the news again adding evidence to the unfortunate stereotype of the autistic IT nerd that barely understands normal people, and they have therefore been astonished at the backlash that normal people would all easily have predicted. (I’m autistic and work in IT mostly too, and am well used to the stereotype it so it doesn’t bother me, in fact it is a sort of ‘get out of social interactions free’ card). Last time it was Google Glass, where it apparently didn’t occur to them that people may not want other people videoing them without consent in pubs and changing rooms. This time it is Google Duplex, that makes phone calls on your behalf to arrange appointment using voice that is almost indistinguishable from normal humans. You could save time making an appointment with a hairdresser apparently, so the Googlanders decided it must be a brilliant breakthrough, and expected everyone to agree. They didn’t.

Some of the objections have been about ethics: e.g. An AI should not present itself as human – Humans have rights and dignity and deserve respectful interactions with other people, but an AI doesn’t and should not masquerade as human to acquire such privilege without knowledge of the other party and their consent.

I would be more offended by the presumed attitude of the user. If someone thinks they are so much better then me that they can demand my time and attention without the expense of any of their own, delegating instead to a few microseconds of processing time in a server farm somewhere, I’ll treat them with the contempt they deserve. My response will not be favourable. I am already highly irritated by the NHS using simple voice interaction messaging to check I will attend a hospital appointment. The fact that my health is on the line and notices at surgeries say I will be banned if I complain on social media is sufficient blackmail to ensure my compliance, but it still comes at the expense of my respect and goodwill. AI-backed voice interaction with better voice wouldn’t be any better, and if it asking for more interaction such as actually booking an appointment, it would be extremely annoying.

In any case, most people don’t speak in fully formed grammatically and logically correct sentences. If you listen carefully to everyday chat, a lot of sentences are poorly pronounced, incomplete, jumbled, full of ums and er’s, likes and they require a great deal of cooperation by the listener to make any sense at all. They also wander off topic frequently. People don’t stick to a rigid vocabulary list or lists of nicely selected sentences.  Lots of preamble and verbal meandering is likely in a response that is highly likely to add ambiguity. The example used in a demo, “I’d like to make a hairdressing appointment for a client” sounds fine until you factor in normal everyday humanity. A busy hairdresser or a lazy receptionist is not necessarily going to cooperate fully. “what do you mean, client?”, “404 not found”, “piss off google”, “oh FFS, not another bloody computer”, “we don’t do hairdressing, we do haircuts”, “why can’t your ‘client’ call themselves then?” and a million other responses are more likely than “what time would you like?”

Suppose though that it eventually gets accepted by society. First, call centers beyond the jurisdiction of your nuisance call blocker authority will incessantly call you at all hours asking or telling you all sorts of things, wasting huge amounts of your time and reducing quality of life. Voice spam from humans in call centers is bad enough. If the owners can multiply productivity by 1000 by using AI instead of people, the result is predictable.

We’ve seen the conspicuous political use of social media AI already. Facebook might have allowed companies to use very limited and inaccurate knowledge of you to target ads or articles that you probably didn’t look at. Voice interaction would be different. It uses a richer emotional connection that text or graphics on a screen. Google knows a lot about you too, but it will know a lot more soon. These big IT companies are also playing with tech to log you on easily to sites without passwords. Some gadgets that might be involved might be worn, such as watches or bracelets or rings. They can pick up signals to identify you, but they can also check emotional states such as stress level. Voice gives away emotion too. AI can already tell better then almost all people whether you are telling the truth or lying or hiding something. Tech such as iris scans can also tell emotional states, as well as give health clues. Simple photos can reveal your age quite accurately to AI, (check out how-old.net).  The AI voice sounds human, but it is better then even your best friends at guessing your age, your stress and other emotions, your health, whether you are telling the truth or not, and it knows far more about what you like and dislike and what you really do online than anyone you know, including you. It knows a lot of your intimate secrets. It sounds human, but its nearest human equivalent was probably Machiavelli. That’s who will soon be on the other side of the call, not some dumb chatbot. Now re-calculate political interference, and factor in the political leaning and social engineering desires of the companies providing the tools. Google and Facebook and the others are very far from politically neutral. One presidential candidate might get full cooperation, assistance and convenient looking the other way, while their opponent might meet rejection and citation of the official rules on non-interference. Campaigns on social issues will also be amplified by AI coupled to voice interaction. I looked at some related issue in a previous blog on fake AI (i.e. fake news type issues): https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2017/11/16/fake-ai/

I could but won’t write a blog on how this tech could couple well to sexbots to help out incels. It may actually have some genuine uses in providing synthetic companionship for lonely people, or helping or encouraging them in real social interactions with real people. It will certainly have some uses in gaming and chatbot game interaction.

We are not very far from computers that are smarter then people across a very wide spectrum, and probably not very far from conscious machines that have superhuman intelligence. If we can’t even rely on IT companies to understand likely consequences of such obvious stuff as Duplex before thy push it, how can we trust them in other upcoming areas of AI development, or even closer term techs with less obvious consequences? We simply can’t!

There are certainly a few such areas where such technology might help us but most are minor and the rest don’t need any deception, but they all come at great cost or real social and political risk, as well as more abstract risks such as threats to human dignity and other ethical issues. I haven’t give this much thought yet and I am sure there must be very many other consequences I have not touched on yet. Google should do more thinking before they release stuff. Technology is becoming very powerful, but we all know that great power comes with great responsibility, and since most people aren’t engineers so can’t think through all the potential technology interactions and consequences, engineers such as Google’s must act more responsibly. I had hoped they’d started, and they said they had, but this is not evidence of that.

 

People are becoming less well-informed

The Cambridge Analytica story has exposed a great deal about our modern society. They allegedly obtained access to 50M Facebook records to enable Trump’s team to target users with personalised messages.

One of the most interesting aspects is that unless they only employ extremely incompetent journalists, the news outlets making the biggest fuss about it must be perfectly aware of reports that Obama appears to have done much the same but on a much larger scale back in 2012, but are keeping very quiet about it. According to Carol Davidsen, a senior Obama campaign staffer, they allowed Obama’s team to suck out the whole social graph – because they were on our side – before closing it to prevent Republican access to the same techniques. Trump’s campaign’s 50M looks almost amateur. I don’t like Trump, and I did like Obama before the halo slipped, but it seems clear to anyone who checks media across the political spectrum that both sides try their best to use social media to target users with personalised messages, and both sides are willing to bend rules if they think they can get away with it.

Of course all competent news media are aware of it. The reason some are not talking about earlier Democrat misuse but some others are is that they too all have their own political biases. Media today is very strongly polarised left or right, and each side will ignore, play down or ludicrously spin stories that don’t align with their own politics. It has become the norm to ignore the log in your own eye but make a big deal of the speck in your opponent’s, but we know that tendency goes back millennia. I watch Channel 4 News (which broke the Cambridge Analytica story) every day but although I enjoy it, it has a quite shameless lefty bias.

So it isn’t just the parties themselves that will try to target people with politically massaged messages, it is quite the norm for most media too. All sides of politics since Machiavelli have done everything they can to tilt the playing field in their favour, whether it’s use of media and social media, changing constituency boundaries or adjusting the size of the public sector. But there is a third group to explore here.

Facebook of course has full access to all of their 2.2Bn users’ records and social graph and is not squeaky clean neutral in its handling of them. Facebook has often been in the headlines over the last year or two thanks to its own political biases, with strongly weighted algorithms filtering or prioritising stories according to their political alignment. Like most IT companies Facebook has a left lean. (I don’t quite know why IT skills should correlate with political alignment unless it’s that most IT staff tend to be young, so lefty views implanted at school and university have had less time to be tempered by real world experience.) It isn’t just Facebook of course either. While Google has pretty much failed in its attempt at social media, it also has comprehensive records on most of us from search, browsing and android, and via control of the algorithms that determine what appears in the first pages of a search, is also able to tailor those results to what it knows of our personalities. Twitter has unintentionally created a whole world of mob rule politics and justice, but in format is rapidly evolving into a wannabe Facebook. So, the IT companies have themselves become major players in politics.

A fourth player is now emerging – artificial intelligence, and it will grow rapidly in importance into the far future. Simple algorithms have already been upgraded to assorted neural network variants and already this is causing problems with accusations of bias from all directions. I blogged recently about Fake AI: https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2017/11/16/fake-ai/, concerned that when AI analyses large datasets and comes up with politically incorrect insights, this is now being interpreted as something that needs to be fixed – a case not of shooting the messenger, but forcing the messenger to wear tinted spectacles. I would argue that AI should be allowed to reach whatever insights it can from a dataset, and it is then our responsibility to decide what to do with those insights. If that involves introducing a bias into implementation, that can be debated, but it should at least be transparent, and not hidden inside the AI itself. I am now concerned that by trying to ‘re-educate’ the AI, we may instead be indoctrinating it, locking today’s politics and values into future AI and all the systems that use it. Our values will change, but some foundation level AI may be too opaque to repair fully.

What worries me most though isn’t that these groups try their best to influence us. It could be argued that in free countries, with free speech, anybody should be able to use whatever means they can to try to influence us. No, the real problem is that recent (last 25 years, but especially the last 5) evolution of media and social media has produced a world where most people only ever see one part of a story, and even though many are aware of that, they don’t even try to find the rest and won’t look at it if it is put before them, because they don’t want to see things that don’t align with their existing mindset. We are building a world full of people who only see and consider part of the picture. Social media and its ‘bubbles’ reinforce that trend, but other media are equally guilty.

How can we shake society out of this ongoing polarisation? It isn’t just that politics becomes more aggressive. It also becomes less effective. Almost all politicians claim they want to make the world ‘better’, but they disagree on what exactly that means and how best to do so. But if they only see part of the problem, and don’t see or understand the basic structure and mechanisms of the system in which that problem exists, then they are very poorly placed to identify a viable solution, let alone an optimal one.

Until we can fix this extreme blinkering that already exists, our world can not get as ‘better’ as it should.