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’OrĂ©al and VetOnline.com 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 :(

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