Belmont Club

Demagoguery as Unskilled Labor

The importance of information to modern civilization was highlighted by a government report suggesting low wage jobs were doomed. “It’s intuitive that automation will take low-wage jobs … the White House, in its annual economic report of the president, has broken down just how much that is so.”  It essentially predicts that a person with a low wage job will be replaced by a robot.

There’s an 83% chance that automation will take a job with an hourly wage below $20, a 31% chance automation will take a job with an hourly wage between $20 and $40, and just a 4% chance automation will take a job with an hourly wage above $40.

Coincidentally, the two American cities least threatened by robotic replacement according to studies are Boston and Washington DC, presumably because their denizens perform tasks no machine can learn to do — or perhaps which no one will “send” a machine to accomplish.  The study suggests that while those who perform repetitive commodity labor are vulnerable to replacement,  the intelligent elites will remain masters of the situation.

Things may not be that simple.  What is smart? In the video above the Boston Dynamics robot never pushes back.  However one could imagine a situation where, if the robot’s goals were narrowly specified as stacking shelves at all costs,  it might unexpectedly take action against the man obstructing its work.  That may not be what we want, but its what we’ll get.  The biggest danger of artificial intelligence is it will take a surprise route a poorly specified goal.   We are rarely smart enough to correctly tell a complicated piece of machinery what to do.  We make the dangerous assumption that it will understand what we want.

Lately the establishment leadership is increasingly feeling that things are getting out of hand.  Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, tried to understand why the political punditry, including himself, failed to anticipate the rise of Donald Trump.  Drezner argues in the Washington Post that political professionals lulled themselves into thinking that “pitch framing” would steer voters away from Trump.  They relied on their theory and their theory failed.

Last month Fangraph’s Jeff Sullivan wrote something interesting about the waning ability of major league catchers to “frame” pitches — i.e., make a ball look like a strike to home plate umpires. In short, over the past year or so catchers who were historically skilled at pitch framing stopped having consistent success at it. …

So what happened? Sullivan’s hypothesis is that because of all the analysis of this phenomenon, umpires are now cognizant of pitch framing. They responded to the new data by becoming more suspicious of catchers who are really good at it. …

When Trump announced that he was running last summer, his lack of establishment support and high unfavorables made it extremely easy to very smart people to confidently assert that he had almost no chance at securing the GOP nomination. I certainly predicated my own horrible, no-good, very bad predictions on this kind of analysis. …

They kept reading analysis after analysis in 2015 about how Donald Trump had little chance of winning the GOP nomination. They read smart take after smart take telling them that Trump didn’t have a chance. Even as the media covered Trump, even as late as the South Carolina debate, pundits were also talking about how his latest transgressive comment would doom his chances.

Sanders, Trump, Cruz and Rubio should have been non-viable.  The pundits had it all figured out — but a funny thing happened along the way.  The public didn’t behave in the way automation-proof Boston and Washington DC predicted. They are now trying to debug a whole slew of error messages.  Whether it is students rebelling against speech codes; people rising up against the Trust and Safety Council of Twitter or the electorate doing unpredictable things there appears to be something in the water that the operatives cannot explain.  For some reason the complex machinery of the Western world is doing what inputs tell it to do.  It’s not doing what the leaders want.

Perhaps one of the reasons that “boots on the ground” are looking less attractive compared to robotic assassins is the belief that automata are more reliable servants of elite will.  Corrupt governments, unable to master diplomacy, strategy or governance have turned to the shortcut of the drone as the magic solution. The Los Angeles Times reports that the fastest growing club in the world today are drone using states.  It includes, believe it not, third world countries like Nigeria.  The LA Times writes, “the grainy video might appear to be another U.S. drone strike, but this was a Nigerian military crew operating a Chinese-built Rainbow drone against Boko Haram, an extremist militia allied with Islamic State, in northeastern Nigeria’s remote Sambisa Forest on Feb. 2.”

The “efforts to control the spread of drones will be relatively meaningless in the face of China’s relative promiscuity when it comes to selling drones,” said Sarah Kreps, a Cornell University professor who studies weapons proliferation. “China’s drones seem especially attractive to countries that have … been rebuffed by the U.S.”

China is “engaged in an ambitious effort” to sell drones in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, said Ian Easton, a research fellow at the Project 2049 Institute, which is based in Arlington, Va., and tracks security issues in Asia.

Killer drones were being shipped into Gaza concealed in a consignment of toys.  The sacred offices and prerogatives of the Western world, behind which incompetence could lurk are being commoditized.  Technological diffusion may be changing the world faster than those inside the Beltway can cope.  From the collapse of nonproliferation regime, to the spread of ISIS in Libya to China’s bid not for parity — but dominance in Asia the world the leaders of the West must be feeling: “there seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today.”

What’s wrong is that merely occupying high office can no longer offset mediocrity.   Automation may be replacing not just the $20/hour jobs but also the $225,000 a speech ones which deliver empty blather.

The growing competition from power rivals has revealed that the great and the good without talent are just unskilled labor. Recently the former Director of the CIA and NSA, General Michael Hayden, explained that the administration’s drone kill list, contrary to the narrative, was not a masterpiece of judicial and Solomonic judgment by president Obama but simply the result of a computer program. “We kill people based on metadata,” Hayden said.

He then qualified that stark assertion by reassuring the audience that the US government doesn’t kill American citizens on the basis of their metadata. They only kill foreigners.

Pakistanis, specifically. It turns out that the NSA hoovers up all the metadata of 55m mobile phone users in Pakistan and then feeds them into a machine-learning algorithm which supposedly identifies likely couriers working to shuttle messages and information between terrorists.

A program prints it out.  Obama reads it and signs it.  In a very real sense the occupant of the Oval Office has been partially replaced by a hit-list generator actually called Skynet, as Ars Technica explains.

SKYNET works like a typical modern Big Data business application. The program collects metadata and stores it on NSA cloud servers, extracts relevant information, and then applies machine learning to identify leads for a targeted campaign. Except instead of trying to sell the targets something, this campaign, given the overall business focus of the US government in Pakistan, likely involves another branch of the US government—the CIA or military—that executes their “Find-Fix-Finish” strategy using Predator drones and on-the-ground death squads.

In addition to processing logged cellular phone call data (so-called “DNR” or Dialled Number Recognition data, such as time, duration, who called whom, etc.), SKYNET also collects user location, allowing for the creation of detailed travel profiles. Turning off a mobile phone gets flagged as an attempt to evade mass surveillance. Users who swap SIM cards, naively believing this will prevent tracking, also get flagged (the ESN/MEID/IMEI burned into the handset makes the phone trackable across multiple SIM cards).

Skynet is learning all the time and in due course may come to know more about terror lists than a secretary of state who can’t use email or a president whose college transcripts are still sealed. Just exactly what value they add to the entire process is a question that has to be asked.  Overlooked in the whole debate over whether Apple should build a backdoor to encrypted Iphones is the fact that the FBI accidentally locked the terrorist’s phone to which it is now seeking access.  Technology can’t save us from human stupidity.  What technology does is make incompetence in high places more expensive to ignore.

Perhaps the lesson one should draw from the failure to anticipate the rise of Sanders and Trump is that the old rent-seeking leadership is obsolete.  You have to be something more than the “first woman”, “a blank screen” or a “campaign van driver” to lead a country. An image no longer does it. Particularly foolish was the conceit that the administration consisted of the “smartest people in the room”, “the only adults” who “never do anything stupid.” Not only are they not these, they were fools to think they ever were.

Information has become so important in the modern world that mental dishonesty and intentional mediocrity are no longer forgivable mistakes but fatal flaws.  The world may soon witness not only a crisis of the low-skilled labor market, but an even bigger crisis in the professions of the incompetent but overpaid.

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