Monday, May 11, 2015

I should learn to stop worrying and love the bomb

The New Yorker has a lengthy essay that profiles Marc Andresseen and his venture capital firm a16z. It is a piece in the New Yorker, which means it is not some dumb biography, of course.  No, sir. Of the many troubling aspects there, here is one:
Last year, a programmer named Alex Payne wrote an open letter to Andreessen in which he observed, “People are scared of so much wealth and control being in so few hands. Consequently, wherever you and other gatekeepers of capital direct your attention—towards robots, 3D printers, biotech, whatever—you’re going to detect a fearful response as people scramble to determine the impact of your decisions and whims,” which only compound “lingering structural unemployment and an accumulation of capital at the top of the economic pyramid.”
Payne addressed his thoughts to Andreessen because Andreessen represents the Valley—both in its soaring vision and in its tendency to treat people as a fungible mass.
The gazillion dollar issue of our time.

Andresseen is a sharp thinker.  What was his response?
Andreessen waved away the criticisms as the ravings of “a self-hating software engineer.”
Just like that!

This being the New Yorker, the writer is no dummy either:
I told him it seemed paradoxical that some of his other babies, such as Instacart and Lyft, make their profits off blue-collar drivers and pickers who must freelance without a safety net to make ends meet. Unsurprisingly, he strongly disagreed: “Maybe there’s an alternate way of living, a free-form life where you press the button and get work when you want to.”
In many previous posts, I have expressed my angst that the remarkably rapid technological advancements are creating very few jobs anymore and many of those jobs are pretty much variations of the freelance types.  Andresseen doesn't seem to care.
One 2013 paper argues that forty-seven per cent of all American jobs are destined to be automated. Andreessen argues that his firm’s entire portfolio is creating jobs, and that such companies as Udacity (which offers low-cost, online “nanodegrees” in programming) and Honor (which aims to provide better and better-paid in-home care for the elderly) bring us closer to a future in which everyone will either be doing more interesting work or be kicking back and painting sunsets. But when I brought up the raft of data suggesting that intra-country inequality is in fact increasing, even as it decreases when averaged across the globe—America’s wealth gap is the widest it’s been since the government began measuring it—Andreessen rerouted the conversation, saying that such gaps were “a skills problem,” and that as robots ate the old, boring jobs humanity should simply retool. “My response to Larry Summers, when he says that people are like horses, they have only their manual labor to offer”—he threw up his hands. “That is such a dark and dim and dystopian view of humanity I can hardly stand it!”
A lengthy piece at that other favorite magazine of mine, the Economist, is all about the rise of machines and artificial intelligence, which also refers to this 2013 paper and automation:
The worry that AI could do to white-collar jobs what steam power did to blue-collar ones during the Industrial Revolution is therefore worth taking seriously. Examples, such as Narrative Science’s digital financial journalist and Kensho’s quant, abound. Kensho’s system is designed to interpret natural-language search queries such as, “What happens to car firms’ share prices if oil drops by $5 a barrel?” It will then scour financial reports, company filings, historical market data and the like, and return replies, also in natural language, in seconds. The firm plans to offer the software to big banks and sophisticated traders. Yseop, a French firm, uses its natural-language software to interpret queries, chug through data looking for answers, and then write them up in English, Spanish, French or German at 3,000 pages a second. Firms such as L’Oréal and already use it for customer support on their websites.
Nor is this just a theoretical worry, for some white-collar jobs are already being lost to machines. ... Forecasting how many more jobs might go the same way is much harder—although a paper from the Oxford Martin School, published in 2013, scared plenty of people by concluding that up to half of the job categories tracked by American statisticians might be vulnerable.
Maybe reading these essays on a Monday wasn't a good idea.  Especially when the sun has hid behind the clouds.  But, I suspect reading these on a sunny weekend would not have been uplifting either.
One day, perhaps, something like the sort of broad intelligence that characterises the human brain may be recreated in a machine. But for now, the best advice is to ignore the threat of computers taking over the world—and check that they are not going to take over your job first.
Sure, the machines are not threatening my very professional existence at this moment.  But, they are an immense threat and competition to the jobs that my students will want after graduation.  Given that I don't like to bullshit, I am at a loss anymore when that rare student stops by my office asking for advice.

To wrap up this lengthy post, I wondered whatever happened to Alex Payne, who wrote that open letter to Andresseen.  A Google search led me to this Oregonian news story that Payne has returned "to Portland as tech mentor and vegan restaurateur."  In his blog, Payne writes:
Democratic socialist politics are my politics. I’m a socialist because I want to live in a just society. More than that, I want to live in a survivable society. The form of capitalism we live under does not present a viable future ecologically, economically, or socially. It is a system designed for the creation and preservation of capital, not human life. I’m a socialist because I believe that the wealth of society can best be harnessed through cooperation, not competition.
My problem is this: I agree with Payne and I disagree with Payne. I agree with Andresseen and I disagree with him.  Maybe I am rebelling without a cause after all :(



Ramesh said...

Well, this is an area where you have blogged extensively before, so let me turn to a different dimension to the problem - one that has been explored a fair bit in science fiction.

Our species always adapts to change. Increased automation in an inevitable development and one we cannot reverse. Perhaps the human race will respond with a decrease in population. This is already happening in the West and Japan and will increasingly happen everywhere. Perhaps the world population will settle down to a smaller number.

Science fiction has postulated that this will happen until the human race starts to colonize worlds outside of Earth. Then there will be a population boom again. Of course these happen on huge time scales, while the technological shifts happen in rapid fire time. And yet perhaps in the long term future, this is what might happen.

As you are very fond of pointing out, in the larger scheme of the universe, what might seem long time scales to us are actually a mere blip in the continuum of time.

By the way, you had a sunny weekend ???? Wonders will never cease :)

Sriram Khé said...

it is spring time and it is gorgeous here. the flowers are in bloom, the trees are green, moisture in the air ... from now until mid-October, this is paradise ... want to plan a visit--if you can get a visa, that is? ;)

If it is the Japanese model, well, that is a country that is not immigration-friendly. If not, as we both agreed in my earlier post, there are millions of people who will gladly rush to Japan and carve out a livelihood and homes of their own. And the Japanese population won't be a problem either.

True, in the cosmic clock, these are temporary nuisances. However, when we measure things by our human clock, unemployment is not merely a nuisance. It will be a century before the human population is expected to stabilize and then start a slow decrease. By then you and I will be dead and gone and so will most of my students. I will be most delighted to find out what the world will be in 2115. If only I believed in reincarnation ;)

I tell ya, that first human reproduction outside earth will be one giant leap for mankind!!!

Anne in Salem said...

Okay, gentlemen, teaching time.

There have been income inequality and wealth disparities as long as there have been incomes and wealth. Why is this such an issue now? And, what is so wrong with income inequality? I don't mean that I favor people being poor, but what is wrong with someone who has studied and trained, who has significant natural intelligence, using her skills and talents to her financial benefit? Why shouldn't an entrepreneur earn $500,000 per year? Does that fact some of his employees earn $15 per hour mean that he shouldn't reward himself for his work, his risk, and his ideas?

Sriram Khé said...

I have no problems with people earning whatever they earn pursuing legal activities. The fact that Ramesh is immensely wealthier than me does not bother me one bit. I don't even care if what Ramesh or others earn is thanks to their intelligence or skills or talents. All those, to quote Perry Mason, are irrelevant and immaterial.

My point of departure in these discussions is this: Economic activities do not happen in a vacuum. They happen within contexts. Contexts have huge implications.
For instance, probabilistically, the economic future of a Freddie Gray who was born and raised in a certain context will be far different from the economic future of a young Bill Gates who was born and raised in a completely different context, irrespective of the intelligence or skills or talents. It was not Freddie Gray's fault that he was born and raised in a certain context, nor was it Gates's making to have been in a luckier context. (Ramesh with his Hindu belief in reincarnation might be ok with this, as in these are the results of sins in past life?)

Studies show with more and more evidence that "inequality is now determined more by where you live than the class you belong to." When inequality is so much a function of the place and the parents, the question then is what next?

Different people have different approaches to it. Some don't care, some moderately care, and some are troubled by these. As I tell students in my classes, what you do with those facts are your call.

Anne in Salem said...

So income inequality is a misnomer for the problem? Perhaps the "birth curse" would be more accurate? Do I understand your point to mean a person's place of upbringing influences the level of education, quality of education, prevalence of gangs and violence, job opportunities, etc.? In addition, whether one's parents are educated, employed, in gangs, or on welfare plays a significant role as well.

If so, how does taxing the wealthy or increasing payroll taxes help? The federal government doesn't put cops in neighborhoods to make them safer or pay for daycare for people to go to school or get jobs. Increasing pay rates won't necessarily help if employees don't use the income any more wisely than they use the income they now earn. Increasing welfare benefits won't help because it will encourage more people to get on welfare and further entrench those who are already receiving it.

What is the solution?

Sriram Khé said...

When you write "If so, ..." and ask "What is the solution?" there is a good chance you will be disappointed when I reply with "I don't know."

The honest truth is that I don't know what the solution is. All I know is that the parents and the location profoundly affect one's economic future. Note here that I am repeating the economic future. Because, there is more to life than mere economics. Even a simple thing like book reading as a habit can be influenced by the location and parents. But, if we want objective numbers that we can be confident about, then the economic aspects are the ones for which there are lots of data that experts have also sifted through.

So, about the solution ... it requires the society to engage in honest discussions. When the society is more than 300 million people, then we elect people to represent us and our views--but, those representatives do not engage in open and honest discussions. As long as we don't have that kind of constructive discussions, well, we are screwed!

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