Erik Brynjolfsson Diagnoses the Problem in the Economy But Has No Solution

In this talk Erik Brynjolfsson clearly makes the case that productivity and employment are decoupling from each other. His presentation is a fantastic description of what is happening today and a fitting answer to the stagnationists.

That said, his solution at the end of this video amounts to little more than a clever turn of phrase: namely he suggests that we need to race with machines. In my detailed review of Erik’s book Race Against the Machine I criticized this idea:

The first suggestion the authors make can be summarized as “race with machines.” A human-machine combo has the potential to be much more powerful than either a human or machine alone. So therefore it’s not simply a question of machines replacing humans. It’s a question of how can humans and machines best work together.

I don’t disagree with this point on the surface. But I fail to see how it suggests a way out of our current predicament. The human-machine combo is a major cause of the superstar economics described earlier in the book. Strengthen the human-machine combo and the superstar effect will only get worse. In addition, if computers are encroaching further and further into the world of human skills, won’t the percentage of human in the human-machine partnership just keep shrinking? And at an exponential pace?

Moreover, as I’ve written about before on this site, the human-machine partnership can sometimes be less than the sum of its parts. Consider the example of airline pilots:

“In a draft report cited by the Associated Press in July, the agency stated that pilots sometimes “abdicate too much responsibility to automated systems.” Automation encumbers pilots with too much help, and at some point the babysitter becomes the baby, hindering the software rather than helping it. This is the problem of “de-skilling,” and it is an argument for either using humans alone, or machines alone, but not putting them together.”

At some point it may be possible to literally race with machines in the sense of actually merging man and machine together. But this has not been the current trend. What we have been seeing instead is people offloading cognitive tasks to independent machine algorithms. How many of us remember phone numbers anymore? Indeed memory has been one of the first cognitive tasks to get offloaded.

In order to race with machines I am convinced we need to actually enhance human intelligence directly. This is probably not impossible, but will require a much better understanding of the brain, and as a solution it will probably not arrive in time to stave off the massive decoupling that is affecting our economy.

Here is Eliezer Yudkowsky on the relative difficulty of agumenting humans versus developing standalone artificial intelligence:

“I originally gave the example of humans augmented with brain-computer interfaces, using their improved intelligence to build better brain-computer interfaces. A difficulty with this scenario is that there’s two parts to the system, the brain and the computer. If you want to improve the complete system, you can build interfaces with higher neural bandwidth to more powerful computers that do more cognitive work. But sooner or later you run into a bottleneck, which is the brain part of the brain-computer system. The core of your system has a serial speed of around a hundred operations per second. And worse, you can’t reprogram it. Evolution did not build human brains to be hacked. Even if on the hardware level we could read and modify each individual neuron, and add neurons, and speed up neurons, we’d still be in trouble because the brain’s software is a huge mess of undocumented spaghetti code. The human brain is not end-user-modifiable.

“So trying to use brain-computer interfaces to create smarter-than-human intelligence may be like trying to build a heavier-than-air flying machine by strapping jet engines onto a bird. I’m not saying it could never, ever be done. But we might need a smarter-than-human AI just to handle the job of upgrading humans, especially if we want the upgrading process to be safe, sane, healthy, and pleasant. Upgrading humans may take a much more advanced technology, and a much more advanced understanding of cognitive science, than starting over and building a mind from scratch.”

The Supposed “Plight” of Artists is Not a Good Justification For Bad Policy

Every once and a while, Cory Doctorow writes a piece that perfectly expresses what I’ve been thinking. Today, he has a great essay up at the Guardian that starts by contextualizing the plight of artists with regards to piracy:

“Virtually everyone with a solution to the copyright wars is worried about the income of artists, while I’m worried about the health of the internet… Oh, sure, I worry about the income of artists, too, but that’s a secondary concern. After all, practically everyone who ever set out to earn a living from the arts has failed – indeed, a substantial portion of those who try end up losing money in the bargain. That’s nothing to do with the internet: the arts are a terrible business, one where the majority of the income accrues to a statistically insignificant fraction of practitioners – a lopsided long tail with a very fat head. I happen to be one of the extremely lucky lotto winners in this strange and improbable field – I support my family with creative work – but I’m not parochial enough to think that my destiny and the destiny of my fellow 0.0000000000000000001 percenters are the real issue here….What is the real issue here? Put simply, it’s the health of the internet.” (link to full essay)

Doctorow later concludes his essay with a classic quote from Heinlein:

“‘There has grown up in the minds of certain groups in this country the notion that because a man or corporation has made a profit out of the public for a number of years, the government and the courts are charged with the duty of guaranteeing such profit in the future, even in the face of changing circumstances and contrary to public interest. This strange doctrine is not supported by statute or common law. Neither individuals nor corporations have any right to come into court and ask that the clock of history be stopped, or turned back.'”

I simply could not agree more. And in fact, I want to take this argument a bit further.

In my mind, artists are special for two reasons. First, for how utterly common they are. People love to be creative. Art is one of the primary human activities. And the reason people practice art and creativity in such large numbers is because doing so is fun and fulfilling. In short, art is its own reward. This truth implies that the primary justification for copyright—namely, that it incentivizes creativity—is completely bankrupt. With today’s access to tools, if you can’t be inspired to create—lf you can’t find the time and energy to make something unless you have a guarantee of a government-backed monopoly protecting you—then I’m sorry, but you’re just not a real artist.

Second, artistic success is, and has always been, very rare. Cory is absolutely right about the .0000000000000000000001 percent. The notion that we should bend over backwards to protect such a small minority from unfavorable technological change (change which isn’t really even unfavorable, since truly talented artists are still doing just fine) is absolutely insane. What about all of the other far more common professions that are being automated away by technology? What about the cashiers and truck drivers that are just about to be made obsolete? Last I checked, their numbers dwarf the number of working artists. Should we ban automatic checkout machines? Or self-driving cars? Of course we shouldn’t. Reflexively banning technologies that harm employment would be silly. But such silly measures would  arguably make more sense than some of the internet-harming proposals designed to “protect artists.”