Belmont Club

The Fearful Future

An advertisement for Momentum machines is likely to strike fear among those who are enrolled in the 10 most worthless college majors. Momentum has a machine designed to replace fast food workers capable of serving 360 hamburgers per hour. The sandwiches emerge fully assembled, with bun, relish, sauce and patty at “gourmet quality”. For it can grind and chop its ingredients fresh. It never forgets to wash up. Always adds the right amount of seasoning — or perhaps the customer would like to adjust it himself. It is designed to replace the armies of low paid workers, for whom a fast food job is an entry level position and — for some — a career. Founded by engineers from Berkeley, Stanford, UCSB, and USC, Momentum is looking to hire a few good people, namely: a mechatronics engineer and a machine vision specialist.


Thousands displaced. Two hired.

Some would consider Momentum’s tagline that “our technology will democratize access to high quality food making it available to the masses” a cruel irony. Combined with self-driving cars, drones which deliver to your doorstep and other innovations, some might say the future looks bleak; that the coming revolution in robotics bids fair to end lower and middle tier unemployment permanently and introduce a new era of welfare statism.

Princeton University economist Alan Blinder, a former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve predicts that in the future the economy will produce absolutely more but the cornucopia will be distributed more unevenly than before.

It may seem strange to cast technology in the role of the villain, and in a larger sense it’s not. Improving technology is the main source of higher living standards. So it is good, not bad, for a country to experience faster technological progress. But new technologies inevitably leave some people behind. … The Internet revolution gave this process new momentum and a new twist. While e-commerce eliminated many “ordinary” jobs (think Amazon instead of bookstores, or online reservation systems instead of travel agents), it also enhanced the opportunities and rewards for some “extraordinary” jobs. Think of entertainers or inventors of successful apps, for example. The result has been that the rich got richer while the poor and middle class got relatively poorer.

Slate fears humanity may be facing a jobless future, citing “a provocative new study by Carl Frey and Michael Osborne at Oxford University”:

In “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation?,” Frey and Osborne estimate that 47 percent of U.S. jobs are “at risk” of being automated in the next 20 years. This does not mean that they necessarily will be automated (despite the way the study has been portrayed in some media outlets)—rather, the authors argue, it is plausible over the next two decades that existing and foreseeable AI technologies could be used to cost-effectively automate those jobs out of existence.


The answer to the problem is of course the government. Where 90% of the income is derived from .01% of the population it seems obvious that by redistributing the wealth things can be rendered tolerable. In an article titled “The Libertarian Case for Basic Income”, Matt Zwolinski writes that we should embrace the suck. “Current federal social welfare programs in the United States are an expensive, complicated mess. According to Michael Tanner, the federal government spent more than $668 billion on over one hundred and twenty-six anti-poverty programs in 2012. Wouldn’t it be better just to write the poor a check?”

A Basic Income Guarantee might be required on libertarian grounds as reparation for past injustice. A Basic Income Guarantee might be required to meet the basic needs of the poor. …

A Basic Income Guarantee involves something like an unconditional grant of income to every citizen. So, on most proposals, everybody gets a check each month. “Unconditional” here means mostly that the check is not conditional on one’s wealth or poverty or willingness to work. But some proposals, like Charles Murray’s, would go only to adult citizens. And almost all proposals are given only to citizens. Most proposals specify that income earned on top of the grant is subject to taxation at progressive rates, but the grant itself is not.

That’s the future. A check in the mail and nothing much to do.

In that scenario, Momentum Technologies and its handful of mega-skilled engineers would generate a cornucopia of wealth, from which the government would skim a portion to sustain the armies of would-have-been fast food workers who will forever be unemployable.  They can send us all a check so we can afford those same Momentum hamburgers. And it goes on. As online learning spreads, the teacher’s unions can just move everyone to the famous Rubber Rooms where they can sit and wait for their paychecks.

Money for nothing and our time is free.

But the notion of a future where we live idly on the largesse of our robot overlords is probably wrong. Humanity — including aspiring fast food workers — are much more likely to be on the verge of a new era in personal productivity. Gary Kasparov writing on the subject of artificial intelligence in the New York Review of Books explains why, using the metaphor of chess. Kasparov was the greatest chess player in the world until a computer beat him. But something strange happened. Now anybody can beat IBM’s super chess program Deep Blue, provided he has other computers to help him.


Today supercomputers can defeat even the best unassisted human players simply because it can look down a shallow path of combinations more comprehensively than a human. It can look up a database of won games and apply the appropriate solution. Kasparov writes that “today, for $50 you can buy a home PC program that will crush most grandmasters. In 2003, I played serious matches against two of these programs running on commercially available multiprocessor servers—and, of course, I was playing just one game at a time—and in both cases the score ended in a tie with a win apiece and several draws.”

What was not anticipated was how the equation changed once humans had some machine help. Kasparov writes about the counterintuitive result. With cheap computers to help him even a mediocre chess player can beat the best that programming can buy:

Lured by the substantial prize money, several groups of strong grandmasters working with several computers at the same time entered the competition. At first, the results seemed predictable. The teams of human plus machine dominated even the strongest computers. The chess machine Hydra, which is a chess-specific supercomputer like Deep Blue, was no match for a strong human player using a relatively weak laptop. Human strategic guidance combined with the tactical acuity of a computer was overwhelming.

The surprise came at the conclusion of the event. The winner was revealed to be not a grandmaster with a state-of-the-art PC but a pair of amateur American chess players using three computers at the same time. Their skill at manipulating and “coaching” their computers to look very deeply into positions effectively counteracted the superior chess understanding of their grandmaster opponents and the greater computational power of other participants. Weak human + machine + better process was superior to a strong computer alone and, more remarkably, superior to a strong human + machine + inferior process.

This synergy is known as “Moravec’s Paradox, in chess, as in so many things, what computers are good at is where humans are weak, and vice versa,” says Kasparov. So when human and machine get together the result is greater than the two separately. Kasparov notes that the world consists of complex problems, few of which can be analytically solved in polynomial time. Chess is a toy example of a complex system, and yet: “the number of legal chess positions is 10^40, the number of different possible games, 10^120 … Diego Rasskin-Gutman points out that a player looking eight moves ahead is already presented with as many possible games as there are stars in the galaxy.”


Solving these problems is beyond a machine. It is beyond unaided human capability. But put the two together and …  So for most worthwhile problems human beings extended by machines is the way to go.  Maybe we should be glad that Momentum machines has invented a burger-flipping machine. People are capable of doing much, much more than positioning pickles on a patty. They can, with some organization be finding a cure for cancer.

At conversation I had with a highly regarded tech leader, I learned that the problem of gene sequencing had an unexpected similarity to certain classes of astronomical puzzles. And by harnessing the computing power and algorithms in astronomy, advances in medicine were forthcoming.  Why not turn the burger flippers into something better? Make it simple and they can. Innovation, left to itself, will create those opportunities. It doesn’t mean there is no need for transfer payments to cushion the transition. But it means there is a something else to which we will transition to.

Man working with smart machines is not so very different as man working with a lathe or power hammer. Even the UAW has no problem with that. Tim Wu wrote recently in the New Yorker that man is already technologically extended in unnoticed ways.

A well-educated time traveller from 1914 enters a room divided in half by a curtain. A scientist tells him that his task is to ascertain the intelligence of whoever is on the other side of the curtain by asking whatever questions he pleases.

The traveller’s queries are answered by a voice with an accent that he does not recognize (twenty-first-century American English). The woman on the other side of the curtain has an extraordinary memory. She can, without much delay, recite any passage from the Bible or Shakespeare. Her arithmetic skills are astonishing—difficult problems are solved in seconds. She is also able to speak many foreign languages, though her pronunciation is odd. Most impressive, perhaps, is her ability to describe almost any part of the Earth in great detail, as though she is viewing it from the sky. She is also proficient at connecting seemingly random concepts, and when the traveller asks her a question like “How can God be both good and omnipotent?” she can provide complex theoretical answers.

Based on this modified Turing test, our time traveller would conclude that, in the past century, the human race achieved a new level of superintelligence. Using lingo unavailable in 1914, (it was coined later by John von Neumann) he might conclude that the human race had reached a “singularity”—a point where it had gained an intelligence beyond the understanding of the 1914 mind.


Actually the lady behind the curtain just has a smartphone, of the sort you can buy for $150 down at the mall. Through the magic of Bing, Google Maps, the built-in calculator and Wikipedia she can appear to be a genius to the holder of an Oxford First from 1914. In the Chinese Room sense, she is objectively a 1914 standard genius.

So Blinder is only only half right. Technology will destroy jobs, but it will create new jobs in categories that haven’t even been invented yet. And by cutting the unit cost of production of say, hamburgers, the real cost of living, medical treatment, air travel, entertainment or housing will drop to the point where even poor Africans can live at late 20th century western standards before too long. “So it is good, not bad, for a country to experience faster technological progress.”

What can stop it is the temptation to let government manage the world or pick winners and losers. This tendency is already in evidence. Recently, Barack Obama announced his intention to create jobs using the mechanism of public-private partnership. He plans to create “manufacturing hubs” in North Carolina.

What he will probably do is destroy jobs with subsidies and “investments” in his notion of the future. Government is, by definition, controlled by the lobbies representing the status quo  and administered by the very graduates of the 10 most worthless college majors who would be otherwise unemployable. As such they will create a world in their image in very nearly every case.

The Left is and has always been a regressive ideology which relies in “progressive taxation” to pursue a 19th century dream. Marx couldn’t even imagine that dream. He lived a world where have two or three suits of clothes was a big deal. If you look about your home and consider which of the plethora of consumer items was invented under socialism it would be a very short list. In product innovation, America produced Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and thousands of others. Socialism brought forth Mikhail Kalashnikov.


In the coming years the political call will go out to stop the world and return to some imaginary New Deal Paradise. But can we ever return to the past?  Yes of course we can the Left will say. And they will say it on their Tablets without realizing the irony. But to those who wish to return to the garden and are without innovative sin, let him cast the first smartphone.

Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with you friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.

The War of the Words for $3.99, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity for $3.99, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea $0.99, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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