Robots, humans and other animals

John Markoff’s ends with a reference to Thorstein Veblen’s (not a book I’ve read – I’ve always found Veblen really heavy going). Apparently Veblen argued that the increasing technological complexity of society would give political power to the engineers. Markoff draws the analogy with the central role of algorithms in modern life: “Today the engineers who are designing the artificial intelligence-based prorams and robots will have tremendous influence over how we use them.”

[amazon_image id=”0062266683″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Machines of Loving Grace: The Quest for Common Ground Between Humans and Robots[/amazon_image]  [amazon_image id=”1614273707″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Engineers and the Price System[/amazon_image]

is a history of the tension between artificial intelligence (AI) research, which substitutes robots for human activity, and ‘intelligence augmentation’ (IA) complementing human skills. It is also a call for those engineers to ensure their work is human-centred. It’s all about the humans, not about the machines, Markoff concludes. The book dismisses what he calls the ‘Apocalyptic AI’ tradition embraced by people like Ray Kurzweil and Hans Moravec, looking forward to the Singularity, the moment when our machine intelligence creation becomes conscious and alive. Yet Markoff worries about the failure of the ‘AI’ (rather than ‘IA’) researchers to stay alert to the dangers of not writing people into the algorithmic script.

[amazon_image id=”0141439475″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus (Penguin Classics)[/amazon_image]  [amazon_image id=”1614275025″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Cybernetics: Second Edition: Or the Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine[/amazon_image]  [amazon_image id=”0691168423″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Butterfly Defect: How Globalization Creates Systemic Risks, and What to Do about It[/amazon_image]

The danger has always been apparent. Norbert Wiener’s , “Posed an early critique of the arrival of machine intelligence: the danger of passing decisions on to systems that, incapable of thinking abstractly, would make decisions in purely utilitarian terms rather than in consideration of richer human values.” (A comment that struck me because economics is of course purely utilitarian and notorious for setting the ‘richer human values’ aside.) Another danger is pointed out later in the book, attributed here to Alan Kay: that relying on machines, “Might only recapitulate the problem the Romans faced by letting their Greek slaves do their thinking for them. Before long, those in power were able to think independently. ” Markoff cites evidence that reliance on GSP is eroding memory and spatial reasoning. There is also, surely, the problem Ian Goldin underlines in his book : that greater reliance on complex networks means greater vulnerability when they go wrong, or are attacked.

[amazon_image id=”B00IIB2CUY” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Coming Of Post-industrial Society (Harper Colophon Books) by Bell, Daniel (1976) Paperback[/amazon_image]

To go back to the Veblen point, his was a political argument in the Progressive era. Accumulations of political power, via ownership of assets including technology and skills, always trigger political struggles. Daniel Bell made a similar point in – that the political faultline of the post-industrial age would be technocratic expertise versus populist demands. Perhaps he was too early: we seem to be deep into a populist backlash against the technologists right now. But for me the question isn’t so much whether the robots are human-friendly as whether the political and economic structures within which technological advance occurs are human-friendly. It isn’t looking promising.

Anyone prompted to mull over the question of what makes a silicon-based non-human being intelligent should read this wonderful article about carbon-based non-human intelligence. If it’s ever a case of us against the machines, we’ll have the dogs, dolphins and chimpanzees on our side.


Economic progress

It’s reading week here so I’ve had the luxury of an afternoon in my office, thinking quietly about my favourite subject, economic statistics and their meaning. I picked up Colin Clark’s from the shelf: “The securing of an abundant supply of these goods and services, though among the most important objects of economic science, is by no means the only object. We properly include among the objects of economic science the attaining of a just distribution of wealth between individuals and groups, and security of their livelihoods, the mitigation of economic fluctuations, and the increase in leisure, though recognising that these objects are sometimes inconsistent with each other.” To improve the trade-offs, he continues, we need “disciplined study of the facts.”

Hear, hear. The question of the aims of economic policy (and economic science) came up at the conference I attended this morning, organised by my politics and development colleagues in honour of the late, great Sammy Finer. For policy debate has become narrowly focused on GDP growth, and it isn’t obvious how anybody can break out of the cycle: media criticise politicians on economic growth record – politicians obsess about GDP – statistical effort is dominated by GDP figures – published GDP figures grab media attention.

I guess my hope is that modernising economic statistics will inject some humility about taking the GDP statistics as accurate gospel, and ultimately lead to some conceptual work on measuring economic welfare better than current statistics allow us to do. Hence some of my recent posts – this for the latest NIESR Review and this for the FT’s The Exchange blog.

Back to Colin Clark.


Public goods and private profit

As I prepare my lecture notes for the coming semester, covering the typology of types of goods and market failures, it has become ever clearer that a lot of new digital goods and services have all the features of public goods and then some. This article in The Awl (courtesy of Azeem Azhar’s The Exponential View) about Uber/Lyft as a privatized public transport system  – for the affluent –  seems to fit into the theme, albeit not as pure an example as a search engine, say. Anyway, it seem to me that the traditional 4-way classification of goods along the rivalry/excludability axes needs to be expanded – it would have a super-rivalrous line for positional goods, and a super-non-rivalrous line for network goods.

The article cites an excellent book, Martin Gilens’ , which is an empirical study of the way political decisions have come to be shaped in the interests of the rich. However, Azeem tweeted me:

@diane1859 Uber might be the only way America gets anything resembling broad based ‘public transport’, with Uber collecting the tax…
30/08/2015 13:42

Of course there is also government failure, and America has plenty of it. And certainly the private sector can provide some public goods; but of course under-provides them and rarely cares about universality, the characteristic that ties together different people in a single political and cultural community. Universality is too often under-valued, especially by those for whom economic efficiency is everything.

[amazon_image id=”B008AU9LZM” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America[/amazon_image]


Whose island?

A hint of broadband here …. Next in the holiday line-up was James Meek’s thought-provoking I was doubly interested to read this because the boundary between the state and the market, and the space for other non-state, non-market collective institutions is one of the themes running through the course I teach on public policy economics.

[amazon_image id=”1784782068″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Private Island: Why Britain Now Belongs to Someone Else[/amazon_image]

The book covers several of the UK’s privatised industries – electricity, rail, water, and post, as well as the housing crisis, the NHS and its marketisation, and a final chapter on immigration and the rise of UKIP. The chapters are largely self-contained, and indeed some started as extended essays in the London Review of Books. Each raises valid questions about the specific failures of privatisation – in particular, the failure of the privatisers to consider that markets need far more than private ownership of assets to operate efficiently and in the interests of consumers. Competition and regulation are required, in the right mix, regulations that do not turn out to inhibit competition, but rather limit monopoly rents and enable new entry.

In the end, though, the book is more a lament about financialisation and short-termism than about private sector operation of these sectors in itself. It is hard to tell whether Meek objects to private ownership at all, but he certainly objects to the ownership of large amounts of the country’s infrastructure by foreign owners and/or through debt-financed instruments. The grounds for this objection shift between chapters. In the case of water, it is that overseas bondholders require high financial returns and so necessary investment has not occurred. In the case of electricity, it is that EDF, a state-controlled French company, has bought the UK’s nuclear fleet and plans to invest in new nuclear plants – even though the essay accepts that low-carbon baseload generation is needed, and even though no UK companies were prepared to make the investment. (I sit on an advisory panel for EDF Energy.)

Should we be concerned about the high proportion of UK infrastructure owned by foreigners? I don’t know. Will Hutton recently used the purchase of the FT by Japan’s Nikkei to make this argument. But I’ve not seen a full analysis of what extent of foreign ownership is ok, in which sectors, and why nationality matters, although of course there are obvious arguments in some cases eg the threat of offshoring R&D in pharma made by big multinationals which had to be bought off with a big tax break (the ‘patent box’). It seems to me an academic questin, however, until and unless British investors are prepared to stump up the funds for long-term projects and long-lived asset holding.

Meek doesn’t address this question, though some chapters do have clear and sound policy conclusions. Build more council housing is one – yes! Scrap the dreadful ‘Help to Buy’ scheme – yes!

Still, overall the essays, with their sympathetic reportage of the conditions of casualised mail workers, about-to-be-homeless disabled people, flooded householders, add up to a powerful critique of the absence of strategic thinking in the British state. “No one has answered the question,” he writes, “of how governments with five year terms can be held to account for their stewardship of projects whose lifespan is measured in generations.” Only the Treasury, with its equally short-termist, penny-wise pound-foolish principles endures. I don’t think the question is mainly specific accountability, though; it is the absence of any institutions or public consensus about the need to take a long term perspective and embody responsibility to the future.


Not all economists are neoliberal, honest

It was because of a tweet linking to her LSE lectures that I decided to read Wendy Brown’s . My relationship with the concept of neoliberalism is an uneasy one, in that I don’t really know what it means. Often, radical writers use it to mean ‘most of economics’ – Philip Mirowski’s Never Let A Serious Crisis Go to Waste is a good example of this –  making an exception only for certain Marxist or otherwise unimpeachably heterodox economists. I understand the idea well enough to know is not neoliberal. However, writing off all the rest of economics makes it an unhelpful concept in my book. Of course there are ideologically right wing economists but there is a wide range of views about both politics and economics within the profession.

[amazon_image id=”1935408534″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (Zone Books Ner Futures)[/amazon_image]

I thought Brown’s book was going to be subtler. Here is her definition: “neoliberalism is not about the state leaving the economy alone. Rather, neoliberalism activates the state on behalf of the economy, not to undertake economic functions or intervene in economic effects, but rather to facilitate economic competition and growth, and to economize the social, or as Foucault puts it, to ‘regulate society by the market’.” She adds that neoliberalism entails “the dramatic curtailment of public values, public goods and popular participation in political life.” This definition makes sense to me – and makes neoliberalism a political ideology, one that uses its claim about the primacy of markets to extend a certain political order into more and more areas of life. It is similar to Michael Sandel’s argument in .

However, Brown goes on to list all the neoliberal economists who include Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, Gary Becker – but also Joseph Stiglitz. Wait – Joe Stiglitz in the same camp as Becker?! Barack Obama also gets labelled as neoliberal, along with Reagan and Bush. So this is back to vacuous.

It’s a shame because the argument that the primacy of the market has been extended into inappropriate domains needs to be taken seriously. People regard ticket scalping as unfair – this includes many economists – so those of us who do economics have to respect the fact that some values other than economic efficiency might have to win out. Freedom, civic cohesion, fairness are all important values. Where it is appropriate to prioritise efficiency, or to use market processes to achieve either efficiency or other outcomes, should always be a matter of public and political debate. Most of the economists I hang out with – applied micro people – think it will depend on both people’s political choices and on the exact circumstances: the US trade in SO2 emissions works well, the EU market in carbon emissions does not; ‘s matching markets for kidneys or medical jobs are magical (and no money changes hands). My kind of economists tend to be pragmatists, unlike those in politics who argue the market is always best.

There are some real dilemmas. Later in the book, Brown gives short shrift to the idea that ‘governance’ is ever more important than politics, and argues that independent, technocratic bodies such as central banks should not take decisions with political consequences – and no doubt the many critics of the ECB and the right-wing critics of the Fed would warmly agree. It does not seem so obvious to me. Central banks take ‘better’ decisions when they are independent in the specific sense that growth is less volatile and inflation lower. Yet of course they need legitimacy – answering to parliament, fulfilling a remit set by the government. And the Greek crisis has indeed demonstrated that central banking is political at times of great stress. Perhaps Brown is right but I don’t think she argues the case well, when there are areas of policy in which expert advice or decisions made by technocrats delivers good outcomes. Surely this is debatable.

Anyway, is an interesting book even though I ended up disagreeing with much of it. I will say that whenever anybody next tells me economics is an abstract, wholly theoretical subject, I will make them read this. But it still helped me understand Michel Foucault’s almost totally incomprehensible , which I read recently. And I do think it’s important to push back against the political stance that disguises ideological projects with the claim that market are always right.