Wednesday, September 26, 2018

The Robots are Coming­­

Hal, Open the Pod Bay Doors”
“I can’t do that, Dave.”

Arthur C. Clarke, 2001, A Space Odyssey

“Success in creating AI would be the biggest event in human history. Unfortunately, it might also be
the last, unless we learn how to avoid the risks.”

Stephen Hawking

The autumn has come to Vermont.   The trees turn red and yellow, leaves floating to the ground and we are getting ready to head south.

Tonight, it will be 38° and the fireplace is blazing primaevally.

The media, consumed with the Kavanaugh confirmation potential sex scandal, fails to address the issues that are crucial to America.  No one seems to be paying attention to Artificial Intelligence, climate change, technological displacement of workers and what America will look like thirty years from now.  There is a shortage of vision in the political class or an examination how candidates feel about these overwhelming issues.

All around the world, scientific and technological advances render our current system of government increasingly challenging.  Even the abolition of the Electoral College cannot gain any traction, not to mention the quality of people making decisions affecting our daily lives and well-being.  Entire classes of workers are becoming irrelevant and even expendable. And no one in the political class speaks about these issues.  The media is distracted by whether the president of the United States will get his money to build a wall on the Rio Grande, and, in fact whether he will be impeached by a new congress.

Existential questions are asked in a new book by Yuval Noah Harari, the Israeli author of the critically acclaimed Sapiens, Homo Deus, and now, 21 Lessons for the 21st century.

What will America look like 30-50 years from now?  How will we provide income to those who become irrelevant, replaced by machines?  How will those in that category make a living, fill their days, and fundamentally alter the American and international political landscape?

Increasingly evident to thinkers who look to the future are those questions as well as the fact that our government may not, as presently structured, be suitable for governance. For example, they see that the people who elect politicians cannot even reach a consensus on climate change.  Some place short term goals such as lower taxes, corporate profits and employment above what the long-term goal should be to deal with massive unemployment in an increasingly unemployable work force.  People who have already been displaced in coal mines, steel mills, farms, ranches and automobile assembly lines, and have grown enraged, blaming immigration when 80% of the jobs lost have been lost to technological changes and to automation. Companies that used to employ hundreds of thousands now can make more money with a tenth of the work force and be even more productive.

Others fail to see the implications of artificial intelligence disrupting the economy and lives of people who will never be able to find employment.  Computers may not become sentient beings, but they certainly will be more competent in using algorithms to diagnose disease, drive vehicles, and do other tasks amenable to processing large amounts of data; this list grows exponentially. 

Throughout history, societies have been riven by changes in technology. For example, our democratic institutions, crafted in the 18th century may no longer be workable in governing our society.   Will democracy give way to a more efficient form of government?   In China, an entire new infrastructure is being built without the messy decisions of a democratic process.  Will representative democracy survive the change?  If, for example, Harari argues, do passengers on a jetliner take a vote on whether the pilot should pull up on the throttle, or is better to leave the intricacies of governmental decision-making to experts in their fields?

In the 18th century, our constitution created a system allowing a government whereby white land-owning people elected representatives to represent them and stated that all people were entitled to the “pursuit of happiness.”   Does that mean that people should not have to work on boring jobs that are only done for money?  Is happiness a logical pursuit in a society that requires people to work on jobs they do not like?  It is quite possible that happiness will be achieved by a new leisure class resembling the British aristocracy, hunting pheasants, and playing polo, machines having taken over the drudgery of work and creating greater productivity than ever before, but at the same time displacing workers.  The irrelevance of workers succumbs, therefore, to a new definition of the pursuit of happiness and possibly a guaranteed annual income for those who can no longer work.

None of today’s candidates have articulated a view, Harari argues, that considers the three most important challenges to society:  Nuclear war, climate change, and technological displacement through AI.   Will intelligent robots displace 80% of the workforce, and thereby generate violent revolutionary change?

Politicians seeking office today need to answer these questions before they are elected.  Politicians of both parties look at these pressing issues as though it might be how a unicorn spends its time.   Long term issues of humanity are nowhere in the political dialog the crux of which is how does Trump keep his hair so orange, his television viewing habits or how often he golfs with his criminal contingent.

Ok, so Trump is a criminal, or an unindicted co-conspirator, or a Russian money launderer.  How is that going to help us on these large looming threats?  Nuclear War, Technological displacement, or climate change and rising seas?

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Inside the House of Horrors

It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.

William Shakespeare

Authoritarian leadership includes suppression of a free press, imprisonment of dissidents,  police state tactics, and the perversion of law enforcement agencies, jailing or poisoning reporters and opposition government officials.  Our current president espouses these principles as his idea of statecraft and admires those who can actually do those malevolences.

American institutions are strong, but numerous books, including the Road to Unfreedom by the noted Yale scholar Timothy Snyder, enumerate the steps in history that lead to dystopian or autocratic governments.  George Orwell often pointed out that lies told often enough become an alternate reality to those who have no other source of information.   People stuck on Fox News, for example, hear very little about the current madness at the White House, including an anonymous high level inside editorialist reflecting upon the “Crazytown” fulminations of President Trump.  In his new book, “Fear,” Bob Woodward, the scrupulous journalist has compiled eyewitness, recorded documentation of the inherent agony of  working in a crucible of disinformation, lies and alternative reality, with a president who does not have the patience to understand policy, empathize with others, or discern anything other than his own self-interest. 

The people there are either saints or devils, struggling to inform America what may be coming next.  A 25th Amendment removal around the corner?  Is that what the NewYorkTimes op-ed was hinting?  Impeachment beginning as early as the new congress takes office, not that long away, assuming a Democratic victory?  And maybe  Republicans will wake up if there is a wave election and their constituents push them to control the hurricane.  

If the Democrats win the House of Representatives, there will be a parade of witnesses, subpoenas, hearings, bills protecting special counsel Muller, to name a few of the television treats for CNN, MSNBC, and FOX keeping their ratings stratospheric.   We will have a show far worse than Watergate.  Even Nixon respected the dignity of the Presidency and did not conduct Nurnberg type rallies to fire up his base, consisting of white people fearing brown and yellow people, stoked by Trump’s continuing divisive con.  America’s racism is on steady display and Trump’s demagoguery  is fueling the inferno.

None of us have any idea, though, what will happen.  Pundits on CNN decry the crisis,  pundits on FOX say Trump is delivering for the American people. All manner of civility has disappeared from the national dialog. Tax cuts, trade deals, military expenditures to make us strong, they argue.   But is Trump really doing that or he a stooge for Putin, or the subject of Kompromat?  Will the Republicans in congress put country above party?  Are the Democrats sensing blood? How far should partisanship be carried?  Becoming increasingly clear is that the Trump Organization has operated for many years as a gigantic money laundry for Russian oligarchs and probably Vladimir Putin.  One can be sure that Muller has all this information, including the surreptitious tax returns of the President.  It is quite possible that following the money will be far larger than any “Russian collusion.”

Trump calls the anonymous New York Times op-ed cowardly; he may be right.  The author should perhaps have the courage to identify himself and then resign.  If it is a cabal of more than one, (A Murder on the Orient Express scenario ) then they all should resign en masse to protest what they consider to be unfitness of the President to lead our country.  The notion that they are staying on to protect the Republic because there are “adults” still in the room rings hollow. Moreover, they have not been elected to a regency.  No one voted for them.  Stealing papers off the President’s desk so he will not do something impulsive or rash seems like a de facto coup d’etat.  It is almost like a three year old being fenced in to keep him away from the swimming pool or a dog put in what politically correct owners say is a crate, but is really a cage,  preventing Fido from peeing on the rug.

On the other hand, some argue that they are working in the interest of the country by putting a leash on the president.  But there are constitutional methods to remove the president.  Impeachment is an unwieldy, long vote of no confidence.  In the UK for example, if the Prime Minister were insane, his party or Parliament could remove him with a vote of no confidence.

Clearly, our electoral system is broken, the Constitution not functioning very well, the Republican Party, hijacked by a gerrymandered congress and a minority president, laying waste to what Lindsay Graham says is that if you want to appoint supreme court justices, you must win elections.  The thing is that our system has effectively disenfranchised more than 3,000,000 Americans and the prospect very dim that Trump will be ousted by his own party, were they interested in more than tax cuts and corporate profits.  And asserting as Senator Graham disingenuously  has done undermines democracy.

People do fear that the nation is in danger, however.  But still, Trump has done nothing as destructive as invading the wrong country (Iraq) or torturing enemy combatants as was done under the Bush administration.

Trump says Jeff Sessions, the attorney general of the United States has an obligation to  protect Trump, as if he were his own personal lawyer.  But he is not.  He is a member of the cabinet, the people’s lawyer.  Trump thinks that Sessions should be doing what Michael Cohen did, who now will be disbarred and don an orange jump suit.  Sessions, as deplorable as is his policies, did the only thing he could do—recuse himself from the Russia investigation. 

Democrats need a  plan to unseat him.  They need a candidate who can debate Trump and make him look like the foolish knave that he is.  Political correctness unseated Al Franken, and that is semi tragic, because he could beat Trump at his own game—by mocking him.  And even if women think he is another Harvey Weinstein, he is not.  He is a warrior for woman’s rights and the anti Trump. Franken is Trump’s Kryptonite.  He is the anti Trump.  Other Democratic candidates do not immediately come to mind, but perhaps one will emerge.

And now, we are entering a more pronounced phase of insanity, as the walls close in on an unhinged, cornered man whose paranoia is overwhelming him.