The Casual Blog

Tag: Andrew McAfee

Bluebird skiing in Telluride, a brief briefing, and reading The Second Machine Age

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Last week Sally and I joined Gabe and several friends in Telluride, Colorado, for a few days of skiing, eating, and talking. When I describe Telluride, I always mention how beautiful it is, but when I got there, I realized I’d forgotten how massive and magnificent the mountains are. The craggy alpine vistas surround you, regal and timeless. And the town itself has a friendly, unassuming charm. I tried to capture some of these feelings, but was uncomfortable taking my D7100 onto the slopes, and so used my little Canon point-and-shoot up there.
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Telluride has a lot of challenging terrain, and the question always is, can you handle it? Gabe Tiller has been living here five years, and he can answer that question with a yes. On our first day, he took me down a double black diamond mogul run called spiral stairs, which, once we were committed, he told me was “really steep.” He wasn’t kidding! He also led me into a tree run called Log Pile. These were pressing the outer edge of the envelope for me. Getting through in one piece was a great happiness!
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Moguls — aka bumps, or areas of irregular snow that form in steep areas — are terrifying for beginners, frustrating for intermediates, and challenging in varying degrees for those more advanced. If you want to ski the steep wild places, you just need to figure out moguls, and there’s no simple solution. It’s like three-dimensional chess – or make that speed chess. We complimented Gabe on how smooth and strong he looked in the tough mogul runs, and he noted, with admirably humility, that it only took him five years of work.

There is no way I’ll ever reach Gabe’s level, but I got a bit stronger and more stylish this week. I averaged three falls a day, which I take as an indicator that I’m still pushing my limits and improving. I also found new joy in the gladed runs – basically moguls with trees. These require creativity and intense concentration. We did on called Captain Jack’s, which Gabe told me would get “kind of loggy.” Indeed. I had only one scary crash, after I saw Gabe flash by doing hyperspeed turns, and was inspired to give chase. I made the first three turns, but missed the fourth and ran into a tree. I did some minor damage to my left shoulder, but I think it will heal up OK. My worst injury was sunburn on my lips. I got everything except the lips protected with sunblock – a rookie mistake.
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Our four ski days were all remarkably clear and sunny, with pleasant ski temperatures in the mid-30s. The snow was generally good – not too hard and not too soft – Goldilocks snow. Of course, it’s always a treat to get fresh light powder, but if it doesn’t happen, I’ll take bluebird days and Goldilocks. We were on the lifts almost as soon as they opened at nine and went at it hard until 3:30 or so. Then hot tub, relaxing, cocktails, and dinner. We particularly enjoyed eating at the Telluride Bistro, Siam, 221, and Hongas.
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I had one important work project: an amicus brief in the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank. The case involves a patent concerning financial intermediation, and presents the question of when software is patent eligible under 35 U.S.C. Section 101. I’ve thought about the paradox of software patents for a long time: how a system meant to foster innovation ends up hindering it. I was happy to take on the out-of-ordinary-course assignment of writing the brief myself, but the due date fell in the middle of the ski trip. With hard work, I got most of the writing done before the trip, and while my colleagues took care of cite checking and filing mechanics, I took responsibility for the needless worrying. In the end, I was reasonably happy with the brief, which I hope will help move the debate in the right direction. It can be downloaded here.
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For leisure reading, I made it most of the way through Brynjolfsson & McAfee’s new book , The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies. Their subject is how robots and automation are dramatically changing the world. Technology tends to provide more and more extraordinary wealth for the lucky few and the risk of redundancy for the rest. It’s a good introduction to the subject. They explain with clarity and verve why technological change is accelerating, point up examples of the disruptive technologies just starting to take over human work, and play out some of the economic implications.

They seem determined to be optimistic about the future, with examples of how humans and machines can each complement the other. I didn’t think some of their policy prescriptions (e.g. improved education, improve infrastructure, immigration reform, IP reform ) matched up very well with the long-term risks they identified (that is, machines becoming better than humans at almost everything and destroying the labor market). They give some weight to the idea of a guaranteed basic income, which would serve the purpose of preventing mass starvation, but they worry that it might result in dysfunctional communities. The identify employment as a social good, and like the idea of a negative income tax, because it would subsidize and encourage employment. This seems worth thinking about.

Upfitting my new Android phone and thinking more about accelerating technological change

This week I got my new Android smartphone upfitted with my email accounts and a variety of apps. I’d been reluctant to give up my old smartphone partly because of the investment, both in money and effort, of apps, but on reflection I realized that a good many of the apps I’d previously downloaded were seldom or never used. The move to the Galaxy was sort of like moving to a new apartment — a good opportunity for some app house cleaning.

I easily and with little expense replaced those things that were useful, like internet searching, weather reports, navigation, travel support, news, and music. I got my most used apps organized in folders that I could quickly get to. I installed personalized wallpaper (our dog Stuart). Everything seems to work fine, with the exception of the voice activated search feature, which is not ready for prime time.

Through clumsiness, I dropped the device a couple of times in the first few days, fortunately without causing damage. This provided some proof of its durability and toughness, but also served as a reminder that devices are not immortal. I ordered a Seido case for protection, which fits well and looks good. It has a neat little kickstand on the back.

I’ve been reading The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future, by Martin Ford. Like Brynjolfsson and McAfee, Ford starts with the premise that technology is developing at an ever-accelerating rate, and examines the economic implications of that development. As our machines get smarter and smarter, they will replace people in more and more jobs. At some point, the kinds of jobs that most people do will be taken over by the machines. Those people who’ve become redundant will not be able to earn an income, and so will not be able to buy goods and services, and their numbers will continue to grow. Producers of goods and services will eventually have no markets. Then the economy collapses. Q.E.D.

Ford thinks there is a possibility of avoiding economic meltdown, but he thinks that will require dramatic shifts in the economic order. To continue production, we’ll have to find a way to sustain consumption. Ford’s solution involves taxation of producers to redistribute wealth to consumers. He suggests that we think about a system where supplemental incomes is distributed to sustain the cycle of production and consumption. In this vision, the individual’s primary contribution is as a consumer, rather than a producer. Production is done by the machines.

I came upon a lengthy essay by Marshall Brain on this same subject titled Robotic Nation, which is well worth reading. Like Ford, Brain accepts the premise that Moore’s law and its corollaries are leading inexorably towards computers so powerful that they will render a great many human workers redundant. To address the problem of economic meltdown, Brain has proposed a concrete solution: the government pays $25,000 to every citizen. He sets out a variety of ways this could be financed, from selling advertising to a smorgasbord of taxes.

Assuming Brain and Ford are correct and we manage to avoid economic collapse, the question I keep coming back to is what are humans going to do once they’re obsolete as economic producers? How are they going to find meaning and joy?

I’d like to think that when robots have taken over most of the world’s work, people who get Brain’s $25,000 payments would devote themselves to communities and caring for others, exploring the mysteries of the physical universe with science, creating aesthetic wonder with the fine arts, expressing their physical energy in competition and travel, appreciating the delights of the world of the senses, and otherwise expanding and expressing their creative powers. But I have some concern that they might just watch more TV and eat more junk food. Think of WALL-E, the touching and intelligent animated Pixar movie about the eponymous robot, and the degenerate blobby humans in his world.

To avoid massive blobbiness, we’ll need to revise and expand our value systems. Fortunately, that’s something that we can get started on without a major political reform or expenditure of funds. Even if the robot-driven future never arrives, it would be a worthwhile project, since there’s a certain amount of blobbiness already.

The place where I’d begin is with a deeper understanding of how our brains function, how human communities function, and how our systems of values and morality currently work. There’s a lot of exciting cross-disciplinary work being done, and I’ve written about some of it in the last few months (including on books by Jonathan Haidt,Michael Gazzaniga, Daniel Kahneman and E.O Wilson). I’m on the lookout for more.

My new free smartphone, and some thoughts about technology and unemployment

I got my first free (aka open source) smartphone a couple of days ago, a Samsung Galaxy S III with the Android operating system. I love the larger screen, with its excellent resolution, and the form factor in general — light, thin, and rounded, and still small enough to go in my pocket. It comes with a good array of apps, and there are thousands more available at free or low cost. The touchscreen interface is intuitive. The voice command option does not seem as smart as Siri is reported to be, but other apps load fast and work beautifully.

Will this change the place of a smartphone in my life? Probably a bit, because the bigger screen and faster speeds (4G) make it easier to use. The civil libertarian in me worries somewhat about the ability of such devices to track me and potentially invade my privacy, but I’m also amazed and happy with all the useful things it can do, such as helping me with directions, accessing every type of knowledge on the internet, performing word processing and other computing functions, entertaining me with movies, music, and photographs, and connecting me to people through text, email, and phone. Smartphones can potentially make us more productive and happier.

At the same time, our technology is transforming us in other ways that are more worrisome. This morning’s New York Times has a long story on remarkable advances in robotics, which are replacing skilled manufacturing jobs in electronics and logistics, along with lots of others. The story cites a book I recently read and would recommend: Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy, by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee.

The authors, economists at MIT, present a clear overview of technological change, which they describe as increasing exponentially. Moore’s law continues to double processing power every 18 months, and software advances are moving much faster than that. Technology harbingers like Watson the Jeopardy champion and the Google self-driving car are the tip of the iceberg.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee recognize that computers can’t yet do everything humans can do, but they have already replaced many kinds of routine work, and inevitably will replace more and more skilled work. This accounts for part of our persistent problems of unemployment even as the economy is growing. Traditional economics assumes that new technologies will eventually produce new jobs, but B and M point out that if technology continues to improve exponentially, computers will be able to perform more and more human jobs better and more cheaply. It’s difficult to see how new jobs could equal those that are eliminated.

If they’re right (and I think they are), we’ve got major social dislocations ahead. In our society, people work not only to earn a living, but also define each other and themselves in large part according to their work. Thus unemployment is not just financially threatening — it’s humiliating. With more and more people unemployed, unable to buy goods and services and without social moorings, our social and financial system will face an existential crisis.

What is to be done? We’ll need to change the way we organize ourselves, the way we distribute wealth, and the way we think about value. We’ll need to find new approaches for valuing and caring for others, and for thinking about the meaning of our own lives.

I had a small epiphany on this yesterday when our friends Ken and Carol took us out on Falls Lake for some water skiing. They both retired early, and do things they enjoy doing, like boating, tennis, and travelling. I have trouble imagining myself retired in this sense. But as we sat on their boat on the lake in the late afternoon, we talked about our lives, told stories, and swam a little, and enjoyed the lake and surrounding forest. Then we took turns getting pulled by their quick little boat on one of their various toys. Ken rode a hydrofoil chair and a wakeboard, and I had a go with old school water skis, which I enjoyed enormously. These things have deep value: sharing stories and experiences.