The Robot Lord Scenario

A robot slices a ball of dough and drops the strips into a pot to make noodles at a food stall in Beijing. - photo by AP

A robot slices a ball of dough and drops the strips into a pot to make noodles at a food stall in Beijing. – photo by AP

I just finished reading Rise of the Robots, by Martin Ford. This is a nonfiction book in which Ford predicts that all jobs will soon be automated away, and that this will lead to an economic crash, since no one will have any money to buy anything.  I’ve written about this idea before, and Ford’s position hasn’t changed much since his previous book, Lights in the Tunnel.

Economists call the idea that automation makes jobs disappear the “Luddite fallacy,” and have long dismissed that this can happen.  Because, up until now, whenever jobs were taken away by automation in one area, new jobs were created in another, so there was nothing to worry about.  Luddites are named after Ned Ludd, who, along with his followers, smashed some weaving machines at some point in English history in order to save the jobs of weavers.  But progress rolled on and weavers apparently found other jobs to do.  Just as automation on the farm put farmhands out of work, new jobs opened up in factories.  This pattern has been repeated over and over since the Industrial Revolution.

So why should we even listen to Ford and his ranting that jobs are actually disappearing, not just changing?  Well, for one because he does a decent job of documenting actual job stagnation.  I had assumed that we were just sending jobs (such as call center jobs) overseas, i.e. offshoring.  And while this feels painful to us, if it means that even poorer and hungrier people in other countries get more food, then that doesn’t seem like a bad tradeoff.  But while Ford acknowledges that maybe offshoring is the cause of employment stagnation in the US, most of our money is spent on services that can’t be offshored.  So he insists that jobs are being taken by machines, not by starving foreigners.

He documents an impressive array of recent machine accomplishments, from making hamburgers to composing emotionally compelling music.  I don’t doubt that this is happening.  There is almost nothing that humans do to earn money that machines won’t be able to do more cheaply at some point.  The key question is WHEN this will happen.  Ford thinks that this could happen somewhat soon, and that we’d better whip out the guaranteed minimum income pretty quickly, so we don’t have a massive social collapse.  He even digs up Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, who is worshipped by free market libertarians, and who thought that the guaranteed minimum income was a good idea, in order to overcome their objections to this idea.

Unsurprisingly, he fails to placate the free market libertarian Robin Hanson, who rationalists know and love from his OvercomingBias blog.  Hanson wrote  a nice takedown piece of Ford’s book on Reason.com.  Hanson focuses on Ford’s egalitarian streak and is most annoyed that anyone would object to his beloved economic inequality, which he holds near and dear to his heart, as any proper conservative should.  Ford and Hanson have locked horns before, and I do find their sparring entertaining, but I don’t feel that Hanson properly dissects the core of Ford’s argument.

To me, the basic question is this: Can our world  economy continue to function in the absence of consumers at the bottom?

In Ford’s view, the economy will stall if there are only rich consumers, because the rich spend a smaller percentage of their income than the poor do.  This is called the “marginal propensity to consume” or something.  Yet, somehow, consumer spending has increased even as wages have remained stagnant, and also, the rich have made up a greater percentage of consumer spending.  Ford says that this is because debt has increased.  Hanson replies with the apparent non sequitur that debt hasn’t increased as much as inequality.  Uh, what?  Debt needs to increase enough to cover consumer spending, not to match inequality.  But the fact is that if consumer spending increases, and the percentage that the rich contribute to consumer spending also increases, well, maybe we don’t need poor people to run the economy.

I don’t really understand these economics.  But it does sort of seem that the Fed is just printing money and trucking it directly into the bank accounts of the super rich, who aren’t spending much, so that would explain how inflation is held in check.  Then again, deflation from automation would balance all that quantitative easing.  Um, I think I will shut up now.

Anyway, I figured that of course you need a lot of poor consumers because they will cover the space of all possible desires for products better than a few rich consumers, and thus provide a broader base for innovation.  But then again, the poor are just cattle that herd together like idiotic conformists, all consuming the same garbage media like Taylor Swift and wearing the same outfits from the mall.  Whereas the rich value eccentricities?  They probably spend more money on Cristal and superyachts than fine art and health extension.  I don’t know.  Next topic.

If it does play out that the poor are automated out of work, and yet the economy keeps running based on the demands of a tiny, super rich elite, we could end up with what Noah Smith calls the Robot Lord scenario:

“The day that robot armies become more cost-effective than human infantry is the day when people power becomes obsolete.  With robot armies, the few will be able to do whatever they want to the many.  And unlike the tyrannies of Stalin and Mao, robot enforced tyranny will be robust to shifts in popular opinion.  The rabble may think whatever they please, but the Robot Lords will have the guns.  Forever.”

Nice!  Noah is a futurist after my own heart.  Who is going to force the super rich to hand out guaranteed incomes if they can sequester themselves in gated communities protected by autonomous weapon systems?  Sick as this may seem, it’s a remarkably American way for things to play out.  So what would happen to the lumpen masses?  This is grist for a great sci-fi novel.  Ragged, unaugmented humans trying to scrape out a meager existence in the trash heaps of the super rich transhuman aristocrats.  I guess the film Elysium examines this sort of scenario.  I haven’t seen it, but I might check it out in spite of the Hollywood stench that surrounds it.  Bruce Sterling sees this trend of “dematerialization” as more than just a Silicon Valley buzzword and imagines a “favela chic” scenario:

“You have lost everything material, no job or prospects, but you are wired to the gills and really big on Facebook.”

It’s not clear to me how the government fits into this scenario.  Governments do like to stockpile weapons and other real assets.  It is hard to see how they would go away entirely.  Maybe they will be the ones handing out the food bars while we fervently click the “like” buttons to trigger neurotransmitter spikes with our VR headsets on.

Nonetheless, we can imagine that hackers will play some unique role in this fully automated future.  They might be like Merlin, working magic for the future kings of capital.  Or perhaps some will be like Robin Hood, stealing from the rich to feed the poor.  Still others will be like Loki, wreaking havoc and glorying in the chaos, as hackers have always done.  But maybe the aristos will simply be replaced by hackers in the end.  After all, when all you have are robots to protect you, you better not be vulnerable to any SQL injection attacks, or you will get owned by super class a hackers.  I better book my trip to Las Vegas for DefCon this year.  I’ve got a lot of studying up to do if I want to survive the next feudal age.

The Truth About Morals

A Sudanese man looks at the ruins of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in the yellow glow of a sandstorm in Khartoum, Sudan. - photo by Scott Peterson/TCSM/Getty Images

A Sudanese man looks at the ruins of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in the yellow glow of a sandstorm in Khartoum, Sudan. – photo by Scott Peterson/TCSM/Getty Images

Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky recently argued (via email) about whether or not the intentions behind an action determined if the action was moral, and I thought this was an interesting question.  We are all busy people, so I will toss aside the nuances of this argument and try to reduce it to its simplest terms.

First, let me introduce the two people arguing:

  • Sam Harris is an author, philosopher, and neuroscientist, who is a critic of religion and proponent of scientific skepticism and the “New Atheism.”  He is also very publicly anti-Muslim (which I can appreciate).
  • Noam Chomsky is sometimes described as the “father of modern linguistics” and is a major figure in analytic philosophy.  He has written many books attacking US foreign policy, and after 9/11 he basically said that it was a terrible tragedy, but the US is the biggest terrorist state in the world.

Now let me get to the argument:

Harris tries to make the case that the US government, while it does do some terrible things, is morally superior to Islamic terrorists because it has good intentions and only kills lots of civilians by accident, whereas Islamic terrorists do not have good intentions and kill civilians on purpose.  Harris berates Chomsky for ignoring the intentions of the actors.

Chomsky sputters in response that he damn well has considered the intentions of the actors and, in fact, has been studying these questions for 50 years.  He treats Harris like a pipsqueak for not having done his homework, stating:

“As I’ve discussed for many years, in fact decades, benign intentions are virtually always professed, even by the worst monsters, and hence carry no information…”

So basically what he’s saying is that everyone believes that their intentions are good, and history can show that the worst atrocities have been committed with good intentions in mind.  For example, Chomsky points out that the Japanese fascists slaughtering the Chinese were sincerely trying to bring about an earthly paradise.  Similarly sincere intentions could be assigned to the Germans during WWII or to certain Stalinist officials, who also thought they were creating a utopia.  This reminds me of Haidt’s theory in the Righteous Mind that people generally think they are doing the right thing, even if they seem like bad actors from another point of view.

So Chomsky claims that nothing in general can be said about intentions in moral decisions, in other words, you can’t say that all acts done with good intentions are therefore good.

The main example Chomsky gives is a case in which the US did not appear to have good intentions.  Apparently, after a US embassy in Africa was bombed, President Clinton ordered the bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory.  This factory was one of the only factories in Sudan that made pharmaceuticals.  It was bombed under the premise that it was producing chemical weapons, but no strong evidence of that was ever presented to the public.  This probably resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands who did not get the medicines they needed.

Chomsky takes the position that there was never any strong evidence that the factory actually produced nerve gas, and the timing of the event, which occurred just after the embassy bombing, makes it look like a retaliation.  Harris counters by parrotting the US government’s story and claiming that President Clinton didn’t want to kill innocent civilians, he just wanted to keep Al Qaeda from getting nerve gas.

Chomsky agrees that Clinton’s goal was not to kill civilians, but that he and his advisors must have known that destroying the main medicine factory in Sudan would have that result.  Yet he bombed away anyway, treating those African lives as so many ants one might crush on the street.  Ouch.  Then Chomsky wonders if this isn’t WORSE than a terrorist who intends to kill civilians, but at least recognizes the humanity of their victims.  This is a problem for me, since killing someone isn’t good evidence that you have recognized their humanity, but that’s beside the point.

Even Chomsky wasn’t cynical enough in my mind.  There is this thing called the military industrial complex and there is this thing called the secret government, which means that we sometimes drop bombs because we need to keep the work orders flowing for the defense industry.

“Rumsfeld complained that there were no decent targets for bombing in Afghanistan … we should consider bombing Iraq which he said had better targets.” – PBS.org

But I like Sam Harris and I want to give him the benefit of the doubt.  I agree that Western morals sure look a lot more sophisticated than those in the rest of the world.  We have PETA for chrissake.  We care about animals and gays and minorities now, which Peter Singer calls the expanding circle of empathy.

But I’m afraid Harris doesn’t consider the idea that our leaders might not share the moral values of our population.  In fact, it seems that our systems are set up such that the least empathetic psychopaths can rise to the top of many organizations because they aren’t hamstrung by what we might refer to as common decency.  The morals required to survive as a bureaucratic foreign policy maker probably look very strange to the common American.  If you don’t value defense industry profits over the lives of remote foreigners, you might not be able to keep your job for very long.

Harris has this other idea about morality that he calls the Moral Landscape.  In this theory, he proposes that there must be a way to find objective moral truths.  He takes as a premise that all morals basically boil down to achieving the greatest good for the greatest number of conscious minds, more or less.

But what if we treat morals as memes?  What if morals are behaviors that evolve to allow us to survive in different environments?  The rich West has a different environment generally than the Global South.  The US Defence Department has a different environment than GreenPeace.  This fellow Axelrod used this thing called game theory to simulate simple games among agents to see which strategies survived.  He discovered that a tit-for-tat strategy was the most successful; so people who cooperate at first, but are willing to punish bad behavior, will be more successful.  There is also this idea that forgiveness can help people break out of the cycles of vengeance we see in Hatfield and McCoy sort of conflicts.  Morals are probably a lot more like these strategies, and Harris would do well to put survival as the starting premise.

If we recognize that morals are strategies that help us survive in our local environments, then we can move closer to discovering the real objective truth about morals.

Lovers and Daydreamers Conquer All

Many people appreciate love, art, and even daydreaming, without realizing that they inherently make you stronger.  While most people only think of evolution as a competitive tooth and nail fight to the top, in fact cooperation is also a strategy that evolved in this environment.  People who share and cooperate with each other simply outcompete those who don’t.

Many people appreciate love, art, and even daydreaming, without realizing that they inherently make you stronger.  While most people only think of evolution as a competitive tooth and nail fight to the top, in fact cooperation is also a strategy that evolved in this environment.  People who share and cooperate with each other simply outcompete those who don’t.

This past summer, Scott Alexander posted a piece called Meditations on Moloch on his excellent blog, Star Slate Codex.  I like this piece, since it is a strange mashup of ideas from Ginsberg’s Howl, AI disaster scenarios from Bostrum’s Superintelligence, and dark age ideas about how society should be structured from one of these new conservative types.  This piece has really captured the imagination of the rationalist community and many people I know seem to fully agree with his viewpoint.  I happen to disagree with some of the premises, so I want to clarify my thoughts on the matter.  

… Scott Alexander posted a piece called Meditations on Moloch on his excellent blog, Star Slate Codex.  I happen to disagree with some of the premises, so I want to clarify my thoughts on the matter.

It’s very hard to sum up Alexander’s post, as you might imagine from the disparate sources he is trying to bring together.  But one key focus is on “multipolar traps,” in which competition causes us to trade away things we value in order to optimize for one specific goal.  He gives many examples of multipolar traps, all of which are problematic for various reasons, but I will try to give one example that Bay Area home buyers can relate to: the two-income trap.  Alexander believes that two-income couples are driving up home prices, and that if everyone agreed to have only one earner per household, home prices would naturally drop.  Here is how Alexander sums up this particular multipolar trap:

It’s theorized that sufficiently intense competition for suburban houses in good school districts meant that people had to throw away lots of other values – time at home with their children, financial security – to optimize for house-buying-ability or else be consigned to the ghetto.

From a god’s-eye-view, if everyone agrees not to take on a second job to help win the competition for nice houses, then everyone will get exactly as nice a house as they did before, but only have to work one job. From within the system, absent a government literally willing to ban second jobs, everyone who doesn’t get one will be left behind.

So he is describing a sort of competition that helps no one, but that no one can escape from.  It’s hard to think of how folks could coordinate to solve this, though a law capping real estate prices seems more realistic than banning second jobs.  I actually think this is a bad example, since it seems to put the burden of driving up home prices on two-income families.  In fact, I am confident that home prices demand two middle income earners because of the huge amount of capital amassed by the very rich.  If all middle income earners coordinated their efforts and stopped buying homes priced above a certain level, I predict the crash in real estate prices wouldn’t last very long.  The very rich would just continue snapping up real estate and drive the price right back up.  

 Alexander believes that two-income couples are driving up home prices, and that if everyone agreed to have only one earner per household, home prices would naturally drop.  In fact, I am confident that home prices demand two middle income earners because of the huge amount of capital amassed by the very rich.  If all middle income earners … stopped buying homes priced above a certain level … the very rich would just continue snapping up real estate and drive the price right back up.

Of course I’m happy to allow that multipolar traps do exist, government corruption is a persistent bane to civilization, for example.  And Alexander himself points out that the universe has traits that protect humans from the destructive impact of multipolar traps.  In his view, there are four reasons human values aren’t essentially destroyed by competition: 1. Excess resources, 2. Physical limitations, 3. Utility maximization, and 4. Coordination.  Let me try to address each point in turn.

First, here is what Alexander says about excess resources:

This is … an age of excess carrying capacity, an age when we suddenly find ourselves with a thousand-mile head start on Malthus. As Hanson puts it, this is the dream time.

As long as resources aren’t scarce enough to lock us in a war of all against all, we can do silly non-optimal things – like art and music and philosophy and love – and not be outcompeted by merciless killing machines most of the time.

This actually seems like a misunderstanding of what resources actually are.  Humans aren’t like reindeer on an island who die out after eating up all the food.  Most animals are unable to manage the resources around them.  (Though those other farming species ARE fascinating.)  But for humans, resources are a function of raw materials and technology.  Innovation is what drives increases in efficiency or even entirely new classes of resources  (i.e. hunter and gatherers couldn’t make much use of petroleum).  So in fact we are always widening the available resources.

I don’t believe we are in some Dream Time, when humans have a strange abundance of resources, and that we are doomed to grow our population until we reach a miserable Malthusian equilibrium.  It’s well understood that human fertility goes down in advanced (rich) cultures and is more highly correlated with female education than food production.  Humans seem to be pretty good about reigning in their population once they are educated and healthy enough.  There is some concern about fertility cults like Mormons and Hutterites, but time isn’t kind to strange cults.  Alexander himself points out that their defection rates are very high.  It’s not fun taking care of so many kids, I hear.  

I don’t believe we are in some Dream Time, when humans have a strange abundance of resources, and that we are doomed to grow our population until we reach a miserable Malthusian equilibrium.  It’s well understood that human fertility goes down in advanced (rich) cultures and is more highly correlated with female education than food production. … Actually, innovation might just be a function of population, so the more people we have, the more innovation we will have.  Innovation (and conservation) will always expand the resources available to us.

But actually, innovation might just be a function of population, so the more people we have, the more innovation we will have.  Innovation (and conservation) will always expand the resources available to us.  It’s foolish to think that we have learned all there is to know about manipulating matter and energy or that we will somehow stop the trend of waste reduction.

But a more interesting point to consider is that art, music, philosophy, and love actually make cultures MORE competitive.  The battlefield of evolution is littered with “merciless killing machines” who have been conquered by playful, innovative humans.  This has been my most surprising insight as I examined my objections to Alexander’s Moloch or Hanson’s Dream Time.  In fact, it’s the cultures with art, philosophy, and love that have utterly crushed and destroyed their competitors.  And the reason is complex and hard to see.  Surely art and love are facilitators of cooperation, which allows groups to cohere around shared narratives and shared identities.  But Hanson and Alexander are dismissing these as frivolous when they actually form the basis of supremacy.  Even unstructured play is probably essential to this process of innovation that allows some cultures to dominate.  Madeline Levine has a lot to say about this.

Alexander alludes to this poem by Zack Davis that imagines a future world of such stiff competition that no one can indulge in even momentary daydreaming. … But a more interesting point to consider is that art, music, philosophy, and love actually make cultures MORE competitive. … In fact it’s (these) cultures that have utterly crushed and destroyed their competitors.

Alexander alludes to this poem by Zack Davis that imagines a future world of such stiff competition that no one can indulge in even momentary daydreaming.  But this is a deeply flawed understanding of innovation.  Innovation is about connecting ideas, and agents that aren’t allowed to explore idea space won’t be able to innovate.  So daydreaming is probably essential to creativity.  In rationalist terms, Davis imagines a world in which over-fitted hill climbers will dominate, when in fact, they will all only reach local maxima, just as they always have done.  They will be outcompeted by agents who can break out of the local maxima.  It’s especially ironic that he uses contract drafting as an example where each side has an incentive to scour ideaspace for advantageous provisions that will still be amenable to the counterparty.

It’s strikes me as very odd to think that human values are somehow at odds with natural forces.  Alexander brings up how horrible it is that a wasp would lay its eggs inside a caterpillar so that it’s young could hatch and consume from the inside out.  Yet, humans lovingly spoon beef baby food into their toddler’s mouths that is derived from factory farm feedlots, which are so filthy that some cows fall over and can no longer walk, but are just bulldozed up into the meat grinder anyway.  So much for tender human sensibilities.  This might be a good example of where sociopaths can play a role in the population dynamics.  A few psycho factory farmers can provide food for the vast squeamish billions who lack the stomach for such slaughter.

Because really, love conquers all, literally.  Alexander overlooks this:

But the current rulers of the universe – call them what you want, Moloch, Gnon, Azathoth, whatever – want us dead, and with us everything we value. Art, science, love, philosophy, consciousness itself, the entire bundle. And since I’m not down with that plan, I think defeating them and taking their place is a pretty high priority.

In fact, the universe has been putting coordination problems in front of living organisms for  billions of years.  Multicellular organisms overcame the competition between single cells, social animals herded together to survive, and humans harnessed art, science, philosophy, and maybe even consciousness, to take cooperation to a whole other level.  Far from being a strange weak anomaly, cooperation in all its forms is the tried and true strategy of evolutionary survivors.  Alexander makes an allusion to this at the end of his essay when he mentions Elua:

Elua. He is the god of flowers and free love and all soft and fragile things. Of art and science and philosophy and love. Of niceness, community, and civilization. He is a god of humans.

The other gods sit on their dark thrones and think “Ha ha, a god who doesn’t even control any hell-monsters or command his worshippers to become killing machines. What a weakling! This is going to be so easy!”

But somehow Elua is still here. No one knows exactly how. And the gods who oppose Him tend to find Themselves meeting with a surprising number of unfortunate accidents.

No one is sure how Elua survives?  Well, it’s clear that multicellular organisms outcompete single-celled organisms.  The cooperative armies of the early civilizations defeated whatever hunter gatherer tribes they came across.  The nonviolent resistance of India ended British rule, and the Civil Rights movement in America mirrored that success.  Modern America has drawn millions of immigrants in part due to its arts and culture, which are known around the world.  Coordination is a powerful strategy.  Love, art, and culture are all tools of coordination.  They are also probably tools of innovation.  If creativity is drawing connections between previously unconnected concepts, then having a broader palette of concepts to choose from is an obvious advantage.  

Love, art, and culture are all tools of coordination.  They are also probably tools of innovation.  If creativity is drawing connections between previously unconnected concepts, then having a broader palette of concepts to choose from is an obvious advantage.

Cooperation has certainly evolved, and so have human values.  I am with Pinker on this.  Alexander prefers to quote esoteric texts in which time flows downhill.  But in Pinker’s world, we are evolving upward.  Why not?  Life is some strange entropy ratchet after all, why not just go with it.  But if our values are tools that have evolved and are evolving, then it doesn’t make sense to lock them in place and jealously protect them.

Alexander is a good transhumanist, so he literally wants humanity to build a god-like Artificial Intelligence which will forever enshrine our noble human virtues and protect us against any alternative bad AI gods.  I can’t really swallow this proposition of recursively self-improving AI.  My most mundane objection is that all software has bugs and bugs are the result of unexpected input, so it seems impossible to build software that will become godlike without crashing.  A deeper argument might be that intelligence is a network effect that occurs between embodied, embedded agents, which are tightly coupled to their environment, and this whole hairy mess isn’t amenable to instantaneous ascension.

But I will set aside my minor objections because this idea of fixed goals is very beloved in the rationalist scene.  God forbid that anyone mess with our precious utility functions.  Yet, this seems like a toy model of goals.  Goals are something that animals have which are derived from our biological imperatives.  For most animals, the goals are fairly fixed, but humans have a biological imperative to sociability.  So our goals, and indeed our very desires, are subject to influence from others.   And, as we can see from history, human goals are becoming more refined.   We no longer indulge in cat burning, for example.  This even happens on the scale of the individual, as young children put aside candy and toys and take up alcohol and jobs.  An AI with fixed goals would be stunted in some important ways.  It would be unable to refine its goals based on new understandings of the universe.  It would actually be at a disadvantage to agents that are able to update their goals

If we simply extrapolate from historical evolution, we can imagine a world in which humans themselves are subsumed into a superorganism in the same way that single-celled organisms joined together to form multicellular organisms.  Humans are already superintelligences compared to bacteria, and yet we rely on bacteria for our survival.  The idea that a superintelligent AI would be able to use nano-replicators to take over the galaxy seems to overlook the fact that DNA has been building nano-replicators to do exactly that for billions of years.  Any new contestants to the field are entering a pretty tough neighborhood.

So my big takeaway from this whole train of thought is that, surprisingly, love and cooperation are the strategies of conquerors.  Daydreamers are the masters of innovation.  These are the things I can put into effect in my everyday life.

So my big takeaway from this whole train of thought is that, surprisingly, love and cooperation are the strategies of conquerors.  Daydreamers are the masters of innovation.  These are the things I can put into effect in my everyday life.  I want to take more time to play and daydream to find the solutions to my problems.  I want to love more and cooperate more.  I want to read more novels and indulge in more art.  Because, of course, this is the only way that I will be able to crush the competition.