I remain hopeful that come Wednesday, November 4, 2020, the republic will still exist, and that the winner of this year’s presidential election will be declared. I even harbor the hope, and the belief, that should President Trump lose, there will be a peaceful transition.
In other words, I long for the days when histrionics is no longer the national pastime, when we can get back to work producing goods and services.
Call me naïve.
Since the pandemic started, I’ve struggled to learn how best to manage my personal risk of illness. Since economic shutdowns were ordered, I’ve labored to meet the commitments I have to a business partner, employees and clients. Since the civil unrest that has come to define the summer erupted, I’ve struggled to make sense of it all without yielding to apocalyptic despair.
All this, mind you, while the stock market has reached new highs.
How can this be a season of record gains for investors while the common man struggles? Just this afternoon, the financial press reported that U.S. tech stocks are worth more than all stocks in Europe combined.
What’s going on?
My hunch is that all the finger-pointing and angst about the response to COVID-19 and the so-called “racial reckoning” inspired by the shooting of George Floyd in May are just a supercharged version of ordinary electoral year politics. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that social media companies have been manipulated, perhaps by the Russians, to push our hot buttons in just the right way. We tear at one another, red in the tooth and claw of our self-righteousness, with abandon.
But in the meantime, the economy -- the necessary part of the economy, that is – hums along. Tech stocks boom. Research in artificial intelligence, AI, continues apace, transforming the world. I’ve spent a good deal of time in the past six months listening to podcasts by folks researching AI. They’re too busy, and engaged the work of producing things, to agonize much over who said what to whom, what grievance best moves the electoral needle, and who to blame for the news cycle’s most recent tragedy.
All around us, researches are busy creating a brave new world.
Are you ready to live in it?
A good introduction to the challenges of machine learning and artificial intelligence is Robot Ethics 2.0: From Autonomous Cars to Artificial Intelligence, a collection of 24 essays edited by Patrick Lin, Ryan Jenkins and Keith Abney. The book, published in 2017 by Oxford University Press, is a new edition of a series of essays first published by the authors in 2012.
Robotics are everywhere. Simple machines perform repetitive tasks, freeing humans from dull, dangerous and dirty tasks. But more powerful than these mere automatons are devices that are capable of teaching themselves new things: Big data makes it possible for algorithms to teach themselves to diagnose illnesses, to drive cars, to serve as companions to the elderly and ill, to sit with children, even to serve as lovers. All around us is the challenge of responding to a world in which machines assume ever larger roles in creating things, providing services, and informing, if not making, major life decisions.
Is it possible for us to keep astride these developments? Or will the machines take over? Can humans flourish in a world of algorithmic devices?
It’s an open question. The essays in this book, each brief and well-annotated, provide a brilliant snapshot of what’s at stake. Are self-driving cars safer than those driven by humans? Yes. But how do we assure that the range of possibilities a self-driving car considers are ethical? What ethical theories should govern, a casual utilitarianism, or the strict formal requirements of Kant’s deontological view? Is it possible that we will trust robots too much, thereby losing something valuable in our relationships with others, and even ourselves? Will the use of robots in warfare lower the human cost of warfare, thus increasing conflict, with potentially disastrous consequences?
Unaddressed in this volume is my greatest fear about AI: that it will bring to pass a pattern of distribution of goods and services at less than full employment. In less prosaic terms: Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” now resides in the cloud. A maximally efficient allocation of things is now possible not as a result of the unfolding of billions upon billions of small choices, but as a result of the un-planned central plan: an algorithm will decide what is efficient, even if that decision fails to include everyone.
Which brings me to our present discontent.
The civil unrest we are experiencing is not about police brutality. It runs deeper than that. It is not about “systemic racism.” It is more fundamental than the ephemera of race. What’s at stake now is a world in which not all lives matter. Many of us are, as Scrooge grumbled long ago, “surplus population.”
Today’s howling about how to respond to the pandemic, the overheated rhetoric about race, all this is noise from the steerage class as the Titanic teeters. The stock market booms because there is a productive world busy at work. It’s just that there isn’t enough work for us all. So those on the margins clamor for a place. There’s a dark apocalyptic, even suicidal, rage in the land: Unless all of us have a place, no one will be secure in their place. How else to explain the play-acting outside Jeff Bezos’s Washington, D.C., home, where protestors set up a mock guillotine just the other day?
Robot Ethics 2.0 ends with a fascinating essay on Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber, who, over a 20-year period, mailed or personally delivered 16 explosive devices to people he had targeted. Kaczynski wrote a manifesto late in his criminal career that was published in The New York Times and the Washington Post. He also responded to questions for purposes of the essay in this book, an essay written by Jai Galliott.
It was a little unnerving to read a scholarly essay on why the Unabomber, a man who spent time on the FBI’s Most Wanted List and will now spend the rest of his time on earth locked up in a federal super-maximum prison, engaged in a sometimes murderous bombing campaign. But Kaczynski, a Ph.D. in mathematics, had his reasons. They are reasons resonant with the violence of our time.
“The system makes an individual’s life easier for him in innumerable ways, but in doing so it deprives him of control over his own fate,” Kaczynski wrote in his manifesto. In other words, industrial society can increasingly and more efficiently satisfy material wants, but it does so at the expense of what makes humans, human – a sense of purpose and the satisfaction that comes of achieving those purposes.
I watch the protests/violence going on night by night, week by week, month by month in cities around the country. What do these folks do for a living?, I wonder. Probably nothing. And that’s the point. There may not be enough livings to go around. There may not need to be.
Perhaps the algorithm is speaking and we just don’t like what we’re hearing. Perhaps all this pre-election noise is mere political posturing, grasping at the scraps falling from a shrinking table.
One thing is certain: Neither Democrats nor Republicans are talking in concrete way about the shape of the world to come. Both are engaging in distracting sound and fury.
Read Robot Ethics 2.0. It foreshadows the world to come, a world in which the likes of Biden, Trump, Harris and Pence look like epiphenomenal players on a stage they cannot see.