August 31, 2014

Larry Page and the Lathe of Heaven

"Those who dream of feasting wake to lamentation." 
Chuang Tse*    

An interesting set of confluences came my way over the summer.

They began during a lunch at the IEEE's Norbert Wiener in the 21st Century conference in Boston. I was sitting next to Greg Adamson, the chair of the conference, who in the course of the conversation mentioned a poll of engineers in which respondents were asked to indicate the priorities that were most important to them in their work. What were their chief goals, their motivations? Improving the lot of humankind, Greg said, came in fourth on the list.

I expressed surprise that improving the lot of humankind didn’t rate higher — like maybe first. Several others at the table said they would have expected it to rate even lower. I found that troubling, and said so, to which Greg responded, “I’ve never met an engineer who didn’t believe that what he was doing would benefit humankind.”

That resonated with something Larry Page, the CEO of Google, had said in a New York Times article the day before. The focus of the piece was Google’s vast ambitions to keep extending its reach until it plays a role in virtually everything, aiming ultimately to connect the planet into what Times tech columnist Farhad Manjoo called “a single, hyperaware computing system.”

Manjoo wondered if maybe Google’s urge for expansion might be getting “creepy,” and Page said he understood people’s concerns. “I think technology is changing people’s lives a lot, and we’re feeling it,” he said. “…Everyone can tell that their lives are going to be affected, but we don’t quite know how yet, because we’re not using these things [referring to some of the new technologies Google’s working on, such as Google Glass] — and because of that there’s a lot of uncertainty.”

Understanding people’s concerns doesn’t mean Page shares them. “For me, I’m so excited about the possibilities to improve things for people, my worry would be the opposite,” he said. “We get so worried about these things that we don’t get the benefits.”

Note the phrasing. Page is excited about the possibilities to improve things for people. The suggestion is that this is what drives him. You might think that, as the leader of one of the most powerful corporations in the world, he'd be interested mainly in increasing its profits and power. Think again. Page sees himself as a missionary. A technological missionary, out to serve, if not save, us all.

The second layer of confluence struck when I was driving home from the conference. On long drives I’m in the habit of listening to audio books on my iPod, and on this occasion I had a copy of a 1971 science fiction novel I’d read many years ago but didn’t remember at all, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven.

For anyone who hasn’t read it, be forewarned that the remainder of this post will discuss the plot in some detail. It’s spoiler from here on out.

The novel’s central character is a seemingly passive little man named George Orr. He’s in his late 20s or early 30s and he lives in Portland, Oregon. The year is 2002.

Orr has a problem: What he dreams comes true, in reality. The first time this happened, Orr was a teenager. His mother’s sister, in the process of getting a divorce, came to live with Orr and his mother. She was a loud and inconsiderate woman who flirted coarsely with Orr, making him uncomfortable and resentful. One night he dreamt that she’d been killed in a car accident in Los Angeles. When he woke up it turned out she’d been killed in a car accident in Los Angeles, several weeks before. She’d never come to live with Orr and his mother. No one remembered that reality but Orr.

Orr’s dreams become more powerful, and more terrifying, over time. He starts using his friends’ Pharmacy Cards, illegally, so that he can get enough pills from the autodrug to either keep him awake or knock him into dreamless sleep. Caught using a borrowed card, he’s required to see a therapist. The therapist he sees is the novel’s other central character, Dr. William Haber.

Haber and Orr, from the 1980 TV movie adaptation    

Haber, a dream specialist, assumes Orr’s problem is a delusion, one he’s confident can be taken care of without too much trouble. Haber is a confident man. Quickly, though, he sees that Orr’s dreams do indeed change reality. Using hypnosis, drugs, and the Augmenter, a sort of supercharged biofeedback machine he’s developed, Haber begins directing Orr to dream specific outcomes. He wants to use Orr’s gift to improve the world. The dreams generally accomplish what Haber suggests, but in distorted ways. Sometimes the results are better than others. Haber keeps working at it. Haber is a determined man.

Le Guin makes the point repeatedly that Haber intends only to use Orr’s dreams to do good. He wants to solve the problem of overpopulation and the problem of racism. He wants human beings to stop killing each other in wars. On the way to addressing these and other ills, Haber’s stature in the world steadily increases, as it must if his goals are to be realized. He moves from a nondescript office with no windows to a gigantic suite in a fancy office building. The building is the headquarters of an international agency called Human Utility: Research and Development, or HURD. Haber is the director of HURD, which in turn is the central office of the World Planning Center. World leaders come to confer with Haber there. The HURD building carries an inscription: THE GREATEST GOOD FOR THE GREATEST NUMBER.

Again, though, the mechanism of Haber’s success – Orr’s dreams – have a way of twisting things in unexpected ways. The overpopulation problem is solved by the disappearance of six million people. (They don’t disappear, exactly; they simply go from having existed to never having existed.) The race problem ends when everyone in the world turns gray. Humans stop killing each other in wars when they're forced to band together to resist an invasion of aliens dreamed by Orr.

Ursula Le Guin 
With every attempt at improvement, the world lurches into a different reality. Daily life become stranger, more confused; continuity frays. Orr desperately wants it all to stop, but Haber tells him he’s foolish to be afraid, that there's no such thing as complete safety, that he has to be willing to take a chance.

"Life’s not a static object,” he says. “It’s a process…Life –evolution – the whole universe of space/time, matter/energy – existence itself – is essentially change.”

Orr, who turns out to be not so much passive as reflective, disagrees. “That’s one aspect of it,” he says. “The other is stillness.”

The two of them have had this argument before. On the earlier occasion, Haber stated emphatically that Orr has a duty to use his dreams constructively.

“Isn’t that man’s purpose on earth?” Haber says. “To do things, change things, make a better world?”

Orr replies that he’s not sure everything has to have a purpose. “What’s the function of a galaxy?” he asks.

This offends Haber. He accuses Orr of being some sort of Buddhist.

Orr says he’s never studied the Eastern religions and knows nothing about them. “I do know it’s wrong to force the pattern of things,” he says. “It won’t do. It’s been our mistake for a hundred years.”

Orr asks Haber if he remembers what happened with their previous experiment, which turned out badly. At that point Haber tires of talking.

“All right!” he says, hooking Orr up to the Augmenter. “Let’s get on with it!”

Skillful science fiction identifies characteristics – human, scientific, technological -- that are driving the culture in directions that haven’t fully materialized. The Lathe of Heaven is an example. More than 40 years after its publication, Google’s Larry Page has his hands on the levers of the dream machine, and it’s clear he isn’t much interested in stillness.

“Don’t be evil” isn’t Google’s motto. “Let’s get on with it!” is. Larry Page and his friends are eager to improve things for people. 

*Le Guin uses quotations from Chuang Tse, including this one, as chapter epigraphs.

Le Guin photo: Dan Tuffs/Getty Images

©Doug Hill, 2014

August 27, 2014

The Indignation of Immanuel Kant

"One cannot suppress a certain indignation when one sees men's actions on the great world-stage and finds, beside the wisdom that appears here and there among individuals, everything in the large woven together from folly, childish vanity, even from childish malice and destructiveness. In the end, one does not know what to think of the human race, so conceited in its gifts."          
Immanuel Kant, On History

August 23, 2014

Oscar Wilde on the tyranny of the technocratic mind

Society often forgives the criminal. It never forgives the dreamer. The beautiful sterile emotions that art excites in us, are hateful in its eyes, and so completely are people dominated by the tyranny of this dreadful social ideal that they are always coming shamelessly up to one at Private Views and other places that are open to the general public, and saying in a loud, stentorian voice, “What are you doing?” whereas “What are you thinking?” is the only question that any single civilized being should ever be allowed to whisper to another…But someone should teach them that while, in the opinion of society, Contemplation is the gravest sin of which any citizen can be guilty, in the opinion of the highest culture it is the proper occupation of man.
Oscar Wilde*

*From "The Critic as Artist," as quoted in Richard Ellmann's biography

August 17, 2014

Is the Future as Grim as Science Fiction Says It Is?

Looking into the future (Viggo Mortensen in “The Road”)

It’s striking the degree to which our hopes and fears for the future are tied up with technology. It’s as if we all tacitly agree that, for better or for worse, where we’re headed depends on our machines.

Therein, of course, lies the rub. Is the future toward which technology carries us for better, or for worse?

Two writers have weighed in on this question recently, both arguing that the answer should be  “better,” but that far too many people are telling us the answer is “worse.”

One is Michael Solana, who posted an essay on a few days ago under the headline, “Stop Writing Dystopian Sci-Fi – It’s Making Us All Fear Technology.” Solana’s views echoed those expressed a few weeks earlier by Kevin Kelly, who posted an essay on Medium entitled, “A Desirable-Future Haiku: The coming hundred years, in one hundred words.”  

Kelly’s essay stemmed from a challenge he’d made on Twitter, offering a $100 prize to the person who best described, in no more than a hundred words, a technological future Kelly would want to live in. In addition to presenting the submissions received and naming a winner, Kelly's Medium essay included his own vision, which pictured a world laden with GMOs, nuclear power, robots, ubiquitous computer tracking, the quantitative monitoring of nature (whatever that means), and “mandatory” techno literacy. 

All of which caused me to appreciate that one man’s utopia is another man’s…you get the idea.


Both essays are, in my opinion, pretty silly, but the issues they address are worth responding to. A few points, then, to mention:

1. Kelly and Solana both argue that our visions of the future are being clouded by the relentless gloominess of current science fiction, in novels and in film. You can't deny that the fictional futures we’re getting these days are consistently downbeat. But that’s only in fiction.

What Kelly and Solana fail to acknowledge is that our media regularly expose us to the views of technological enthusiasts who present wildly utopian visions of the future as being completely plausible, in reality. Does the name Ray Kurzweil ring a bell? Other prominent advocates of technological deliverance include Kurzweil’s bosses at Google, PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, and Internet pioneer Marc Andreessen. 

2. To wish for more optimistic science fiction ignores the fact that fiction thrives on conflict. Utopian visions of a technological Eden aren’t going to be very compelling. Murder stories play a disproportionate role in popular fiction for the same reason. Kelly acknowledges this, as do some of those who commented on Solana’s piece.


3. Solana errs most egregiously when he fails to acknowledge that the purveyors of dystopia could be right. Here, too, Kelly is more forthcoming. “At the moment we have no shared positive vision of tomorrow,” he writes. 
We are unable to imagine it. I will be quick to add: that includes me. I too have difficulty in describing an exciting future for all of society in 100 years that seems plausible given what is happening today. I can imagine singular threads of the future rolling out positivemassive, continuous, cheap, real time connection between all humans, or total genetic control over crop plants, or synthetic solar fusion energybut it is hard to see how all these threads weave into the other threads of climate change, population decrease, habitat loss, human attention overload, robot replacement, and accelerating AI.
This is a surprising, even shocking admission from a writer who has long been one of our most prominent technological enthusiasts. This is not to say that Kelly has suddenly reversed himself. The qualifications in his technophilic reveries have been gradually but discernibly increasing for years. Still, for a man who as recently as December, 2012, argued in a Wired cover story that we ought to celebrate rather than fear the replacement of jobs by automation (“Let the robots take the jobs,” he wrote, “and let them help us dream up new work that matters.”), this may well be Kelly’s most frankly ambivalent statement yet.

"The Matrix"

4. Qualifications notwithstanding, from my perspective there’s a strong element of wishful thinking in both Kelly’s and Solana’s pieces, especially given that both admit things aren’t going so great right now.

It’s hard to understand how anyone can recognize our present state of danger and disorder and at the same time fail to recognize the role technology has played in the creation of those conditions. Don’t they realize that enthusiasts have been promising for centuries that technology will save us? Does it make sense to dream of a future in which technology comes to our rescue when to a large extent technology got us where we are in the first place? 

We do our artists a disservice if we discount the futures they envision. Their scenarios aren’t made up out of whole cloth; rather they can be seen as logical extensions of conditions that currently exist. Artists also tend to be attuned to vibrations in the collective unconscious, and despite the fact that most of our fellow citizens appear to retain their faith in progress, there are also reasons to suspect their faith has been shaken. Everybody seems to be on edge, and I don't think an over-abundance of science fiction dystopias is the reason why. 

©Doug Hill, 2014

August 12, 2014

A critical review of Pew's survey on automation and jobs

The Pew Research Center last week published the findings of a survey of technology experts on an issue that’s generated a substantial amount of discussion recently: Whether current advances in automation will create or replace jobs.

Pew, together with Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center, collected responses from 1,896 “targeted experts” to answer this question:
Will networked, automated, artificial intelligence (AI) applications and robotic devices have displaced more jobs than they have created by 2025?
Respondents were also asked how disruptive advances in automation might be, economically and socially.
(I’ve addressed these questions myself a few times over the past year, first in a blog post pegged to the ambitions of a robot hamburger maker named Momentum Machines, and later in a two-part discussion/debate on O’Reilly Radar.)
Respondents to the Pew survey were almost equally divided between those who believe that by 2025 “robots and digital agents” will displace significant numbers of blue- and white-collar workers, and those who believe that by 2025 automation will not displace more jobs than it creates. The percentages were 48% in favor of the “will displace” option and 52% in favor of the “won’t displace” option, a split that says a lot about how clearly we’re able to foresee where our technologies are taking us. (Which doesn’t relieve us of the responsibility of trying.)
The authors of Pew’s survey emphasize that these results should not be mistaken for a poll. It’s a non-random sample – they call it a “canvassing” – that represents only the views of those who answered the questions. What Pew doesn’t say is that not all of those expressing opinions seem to possess any genuine expertise on the subject at hand. Also not mentioned is the fact that not all of their answers make much sense.

I've read through the report so you don't have to. Here are some of the comments I found especially interesting, or annoying, in a variety of categories:  

Single smartest comment. John Markoff, senior writer for the Science section of the New York Times, addressed the “will displace” or “won’t displace” options offered by Pew: “You didn’t allow the answer that I feel strongly is accurate," he said. "—too hard to predict.”
Bob Ubell, vice dean for online learning at New York University, made the same point. “The history of technological advances can go either way," he said. "In some economic transitions, technological innovation can spur economic growth, creating vast new industries, with large new worker populations; but in other periods, technological advances can have the opposite effect, causing older industries to shed millions of workers. It’s far too soon to tell.”

Hal Varian
Magical Thinking. For centuries technological enthusiasts have promised that our machines will free us from drudgery, giving us the time to do all the creative, wonderful things we’ve always wanted to do. Hal Varian, chief economist for Google, told Pew he believes that promise is closer than ever to being fulfilled

As it has in the past, Hal Varian says, technology will continue to eliminate "dull, repetitive, and unpleasant" jobs – he cites as examples the dishwasher, the clothes washer, and the vacuum cleaner – in the process producing a “more equitable distribution of labor and leisure time.”

What Varian fails to mention is that technology has also helped make other jobs more dull, repetitive, and unpleasant. Testimony on that score can be gleaned from generations of factory workers and, more recently, from customer service representatives in any number of industries, from retail to public utilities to health care. Varian also seems not to have noticed that in the digital era the distribution of labor and leisure has become anything but “more equitable.” Abundant evidence suggests that exactly the opposite is true. 

Tom Standage
This point was addressed in Pew's survey by Tom Standage, digital editor for The Economist. Previous technological revolutions unfolded more slowly than current advances in automation are expected to, he wrote, giving workers more time to adjust. We're already seeing growing numbers of people moving by necessity from higher-skilled jobs to lower-paying service sector jobs. The widening disparity in incomes these shifts are creating, Standage said, “is a recipe for instability.”

Another of Varian’s claims bears examination. We’re all working less now than we once did, he says. “The work week has fallen from 70 hours a week to about 37 hours now, and I expect that it will continue to fall. This is what has been going on for the last 300 years so I see no reason that it will stop in the decade.”

It’s possible that Varian has enough integrity to acknowledge, were more space available for elaboration, that experts in other fields would dispute those numbers; some have argued that members of so-called “primitive” societies worked only a few hours a day. Regardless of who you believe, I personally encounter very few people who say they’re less stressed today than they were ten years ago. Again, exactly the opposite is true.

Daren Brabham
A more credible comment on this issue, in my judgment (and I acknowledge my own bias on this score), came from Pew respondent Daren C. Brabham, assistant professor at the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, University of Southern California. “It is a long-standing sci-fi fantasy that someday our advances in automation/AI/robots will make human labor obsolete and allow us to live happier, healthier lives of leisure,” he said. “That has never proven to be true—we work harder and longer in the U.S. now than we ever have, despite technological advances.”

Sleight of Hand. Several respondents in Pew’s survey expressed a theory that is common in discussions of this sort, which is that automation won’t eliminate jobs, but will shift them to other industries. Specific examples aren't usually mentioned, but when they are, the new jobs often seem connected in some fashion to computer programming, mechanical engineering, artificial intelligence, or related fields. Similarly, when asked how we can avoid an unemployment crisis in the future, respondents often insist that education must more effectively train people for just those sorts of jobs.

The advice regarding educational priorities may be realistic, given that nothing seems likely to slow the ongoing capitulation of every aspect of contemporary culture to technique. As far as employment goes, however, few seem to notice that if the job opportunities are shifting toward various forms of automation, those who have well-paid jobs in the future are increasingly likely to be working to find ways to eliminate other people's jobs. 

The myopia of this view can be discerned in the comment of John Wooten, a consultant whose web site doesn’t make clear exactly who he works with, or for. Wooten is among those who don't believe automation will cause a higher rate of job displacement than job creation in the next decade. Current trends related to automation and business intelligence tools have surprisingly led to more job creation in the markets I have been involved with,” he says. “For example, cloud computing has actually brought greater business necessity for hiring more IT persons, not less, as the implementation of ‘cloud’ affords IT personnel the ability to perform functions more critical to the organization as a whole.” 

Why it would be surprising that current trends in automation and business intelligence tools would stimulate a demand for IT personnel, Wooten doesn’t say.

Amy Webb
Another of my favorite comments in this regard came from Amy Webb, CEO of the Webbmedia Group. “Now more than ever,” she said, “an army of talented coders is needed to help our technology advance.”

The Elephant in the Room.  Almost none of the nearly two thousand replies Pew received make any mention of what I consider the single most important question about our future, regarding not only jobs but our survival. I refer to climate change. If automation is going to be as significant a social and economic factor in the coming decades as many of these respondents believe it will be, then some mention of the ways in which it might impact global warming would seem to make sense. Not so in this discussion: a search for the word “climate” in the full report turned up no hits. 

Mike Roberts, a member of the Internet Hall of Fame and first president of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, referred to climate change indirectly, in the context of labor and equitability. Electronic and human avatars, he said, will be competing for jobs within years, not decades. "The situation is exacerbated by the total failure of the electronics community to address to any serious degree sustainability issues that are destroying the modern 'consumerist' model and undermining the early 20th century notion of 'a fair day's pay for a fair day's work.' There is great pain down the road for everyone as new realities are addressed. The only question is how soon."  

Mike Roberts
When we're ready. Geoff Livingston is a marketing expert who, whether he knows it or not, shares the views of the social constructionists. “I see the movement towards AI and robotics as evolutionary, in large part because it is such a sociological leap,” he says. “The technology may be ready, but we are not—at least, not yet.”

I myself lean toward a determinist position (admittedly the minority view these days) and tend to believe that technologies will be introduced and adopted not so much when “we” are "ready" but when they're available and when it's to the advantage of a few individuals or groups to introduce them. We might be more ready to accept dishwashers and vacuum cleaners, for example, than we are robo calls and strip mining. Robo calls and strip mining are with us nonetheless. We also may think we're ready for a technology, only to realize, once it's become embedded in the culture, that we weren't as ready as we thought. Cars come to mind.

Larry Gell
Larry Gell, founder and director of the International Agency for Economic Development, discussed the readiness question in his response to Pew. “After 50+ years working for the heads of the world’s biggest corporations all over the globe,” he wrote, “—watching them cut costs every place starting with the biggest cost: PEOPLE; moving labor to cheapest markets, then replacing them as fast as possible with robots and automation—why would it stop? It will accelerate. Anything and everything that can be automated to replace humans will be done. You can bet on it!”

Technology isn’t destiny? Think again. The readiness question relates to a rather glib “point of agreement” that Pew’s authors say was expressed by partisans of both the “will displace” and “won’t displace” sides of the automation/jobs issue: “Technology is not destiny…we control the future we will inhabit.”

The authors elaborate: 
In the end, a number of these experts took pains to note that none of these potential outcomes—from the most utopian to most dystopian—are etched in stone. Although technological advancement often seems to take on a mind of its own, humans are in control of the political, social, and economic systems that will ultimately determine whether the coming wave of technological change has a positive or negative impact on jobs and employment.
Okay, it's hard to argue with that statement. Literally it's true that we can simply turn off our machines. Practically, though, it’s not that easy. If you think we’re in control of our technologies, try doing away with some of them and see what happens.

There’s no better example of this than the lack of meaningful response by governments, businesses, and individuals around the world to global warming. We know that unless we find ways to substantially lower emissions of greenhouse gases, warming trends already underway will produce, in the foreseeable future, climatic (and therefore economic and social) results that are nothing short of catastrophic. The scientific consensus on this is overwhelming, yet to date the nations of the world have failed to demonstrate a willingness to take anything close to adequate steps to address the problem. Why? Because we're so utterly committed to the technologies that are killing us that we're unable to bring ourselves to abandon them, or even to significantly moderate our use of them.

We’re stuck, in other words, unless we can find some sort of technological fix for the problem, a fix that in the process of saving the environment would almost certainly alter it in unforeseen ways.

So, despite the “point of agreement” of Pew’s respondents, technology is destiny, and we are not able to control the future we inhabit.* True, conceivably it is within our power to use automation techniques sensibly, taking into account the needs of working people to earn a living. But, as Larry Gell said, past experience tells us it is unlikely that we will do so, and it will become steadily less likely as businesses and economies invest in those techniques. The dynamics of technological momentum predict that investment becomes commitment. 

In short, we can't say for sure what will happen, but it will take a tremendous amount of political and social will to modify the directions in which our technologies are leading us. 

What I’m discussing in this section is the question of “technological autonomy.” I’ve written a number of blog posts on that subject. Examples can be found here, here, here, and here.

©Doug Hill, 2014