The Casual Blog

Tag: Martin Ford

Bees, batching it, basic incomes, Confucius, and a brand new ballet

At Raulston Arboretum

At Raulston Arboretum

Sally’s tennis team made it to the state finals, which was in Greensboro this week. Of course we were proud of her, but also concerned, since this meant leaving Gabe and me, and the three cats and two dogs, to fend for ourselves for a few days. Sally is our goddess, but also our our binding agent, and general civilizing force. There was a risk we’d have a quick return to the state of nature and a Lord of the Flies situation.

In the end, the cats threw up less than normal, the dogs sustained bladder control, and we kept things reasonably tidy and companionable. A couple of evenings, Gabe and I did parallel play, each in the living room with our MacBooks, working on Adobe programs. While I’ve been trying to learn Lightroom, he’s been delving into Illustrator as part of his exploring becoming a graphic designer. I’ve always thought he was talented in this direction, and so this doesn’t seem unrealistic, though I worry that creative careers are for most people underpaid ones.

Speaking of careers, I read more this week about the quick rise of artificial intelligence that will likely render redundant large chunks of the world’s workers. I started Martin Ford’s new book, Rise of the Robots, Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, which talks about the latest advances in AI and robotics, along with unemployment problems. He’s an advocate of the guaranteed basic income to address the problem of increasing structural unemployment. There’s a piece in the Atlantic about the basic income movement — paying everyone enough for the necessities, so they can continue to buy goods and services. This could stave off economic collapse, which would be a good thing.

Of course, the idea of a bigger safety net seems wildly unrealistic in these days of so-called conservative political ascendancy. But this week there were reminders that good ideas that seemed impossible a short while ago can suddenly become the new normal. Nebraska legislators ended the death penalty in that very red state! Kansas legislators who championed tax cutting are talking about raising taxes to pay for basic services. Not so long ago, it seemed impossible that the United States would ever legalize marijuana or gay marriage, and now those things seem more probable than not. And despite continuing fear mongering, it looks like the Patriot Act is going to expire tonight. A guaranteed basic income could become as American as Social Security.

I realize I’m jumping around a bit, but this is related in a way (political ideas/notions of human meaning and purpose): there was a thought-provoking book excerpt by Henry Rosemont, Jr. in the Huffington Post contrasting the libertarian strain of western political thought with Confucianism. About all I thought I knew about Confucianism was that it involved something about ancestor worship, but Rosemont presents some profound and useful ideas about social relations, morality, and the role of the individual.

He writes,

By emphasizing not our individuality but our sociality, the Confucians simultaneously emphasize our relationality: an abstract individual I am not, but rather a particular son, husband, father, grandfather, teacher, student, colleague, neighbor, friend, and more. In all of these roles I am defined in large measure by the other(s) with whom I interact, highly specific personages related to me in one way or another; they are not abstract autonomous individuals either. Moreover, we do not “play” these roles, as we tend to speak of them, but rather live our roles, and when all of them have been specified, and their interrelationships made manifest, then we have, for Confucius, been thoroughly individuated, but with nothing left over with which to piece together an autonomous individual self. Being thus the aggregate sum of the roles I live, it must follow that as I grow older my roles will change, and consequently I become quite literally a different person.

Rosemont goes on to explain that the quest for a single definition of one’s self is futile, because “we are basically constituted by the roles we live in the midst of others.” That is, the self is a dynamic construction made by individuals working in concert. As to meaning, he writes, “My life can only have meaning as I contribute to the meaningfulness of the lives of others, and they to me.” This does not seem radical to me, but it stands in stark contrast to the traditional western view of the individual as autonomous and self-directed. I’m considering getting Rosemont’s book and exploring this more.

Sally got back from the tournament in Greensboro on Saturday in time for us to get to the Carolina Ballet studios for the first ever performance of a new ballet by Zalman Raffael. Sonata 17, set to Beethoven’s piano sonata op. 31, no. 2, was created with a grant from the New York Choreographic Institute, and involved four male and four female dancers, including our friend Alyssa Pilger. It was romantic in the sense that Beethoven is romantic, and had a boy-seeking-girl subplot, but at the same time was coolly modern. My main criticism was that the pas de deux second movement seemed overly minimal.

The third movement got off to a blazingly kinetic start, but then Rammaru Shindo fell and was unable to get up. The music stopped, and he was helped off the stage. The other dancers finished the piece, with blanks where Shindo would have been. It was a reminder of that the amazing athleticism of these dancers involves serious risks, and they can and do get hurt. There was a reception afterwards, where we had a glass of wine and chatted with Zali, Alyssa, Michael and Amy Tiemann, and other friends.

That evening we saw a very good documentary on Netflix called First Position about young dancers preparing for and participating in a large ballet competition. The dancers were amazingly talented! It was a pleasure to watch, and also showed the incredible discipline and drive of top dance students.

I took these pictures at Raulston Arboretum on May 29, 2015, at about 6:30 p.m. The season of pure new blossoms has passed, but there were bees hard at work. They work fast, with only a moment on a flower, but photographically frozen, they look like they love their flowers. I was also pleased to come upon a well-camouflaged little snake who was intently sensing the world with his tongue.

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.