Self-generated Noise

Technology has costs as well as benefits (The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images)

Technological innovation (artificial intelligence specially) promises to provide goods and services in abundance.  Hardly a week goes by without an article predicting robots will take over most jobs leaving humanity with the problem of filling their spare time.  But something seems to be wrong.  Everyday life should be getting better month by month. The breaking dawn should be glimpsed where it is most advanced. Yet even in countries where automation is widespread the robot paradise seems no nearer.  Japan leads the planet in robotic adoption but its economy is stagnant and its population is shrinking. “Japan’s overall population is now declining at the fastest rate globally. The country sells more adult diapers than baby diapers and fewer workers to support an aging population likely leads to poor economic growth.”


Third World countries have undergone an ever more radical transformation relative to their starting point.  They should be even happier than Japan. Yet not since the Second World War has population displacement and conflict been more widespread than today.  Where’s the party? One explanation for the delay in festivities is technological innovation hasn’t gone far enough yet.  Maybe we need to wait a little longer.  Once artificially intelligent production becomes more widespread in Japan and the rest of the world the negative trends will reverse.  Then the beer will arrive and the music will start to play.

The alternative explanation for the gloom is that many of the benefits of innovation have been offset by the costs of complexity.  Perhaps items like cars, printers, computers etc, though better are now so complicated we can’t even repair them.  The good news is your cell phone is great; the bad news is if it stops working, toss it.  Just complexity alone displaces people whose skills fall below a certain threshold — and that threshold is rising all the time.

Less obvious is what might be termed the innovation race cost.  This is most obvious in military affairs where innovation empowers not only the US military but its foes, leaving no one further ahead.  Boeing builds wide bodied jetliners; al-Qaeda flies them into the World Trade Center.  Cell phones connect the world; they also link the bomb maker to IED detonators.  Photographic drones give us better pictures.  They also become small, nearly unstoppable, grenade carriers. Houthi rebels are now able to bombard Saudi Arabian refineries with ballistic missiles from the sands of Yemen. North Korea can reach Hawaii with nuclear missiles. Each increase in complexity generates not only a benefit but a cost term and sometimes benefit minutes cost is a net negative.


As Adam learned long ago knowledge sometimes has a downside.  It’s as if technological innovation generates some unavoidable self-noise which sometimes drowns out the signal. “Progress” has transformed relatively simple, homogenous societies into collections of fractious, competing interest groups.  The food may be better, but even Europe is finally acknowledging that it underestimated the costs of multicultural complexity. Denmark may think free birth control for African countries will slow Europe’s migrant crisis, but only if advances in transportation technology don’t complexity to Europe faster than their “free birth control” can damp it.

When artificial intelligence becomes commodified it will bring a capability to groups and individuals a capability once reserved to great powers. “Robots are now doing things that seemed like science fiction just a short time ago. Was anyone talking about a retail-sector meltdown, driven in good measure by AI-facilitated e-commerce, last year? Second, fasten your seatbelts. Whether you call it ‘the second machine age’—as MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee do, in a 2014 book by that name—or the fourth industrial revolution, this will be big.”

So big in fact that maybe even the Democrats can’t handle it. Chuck Schumer admitted in a New York Times editorial that “things have changed” enough to spook the population into a populist rebellion. Finally he sees a runaway train headed straight for the Blue Model.


There used to be a basic bargain in this country that if you worked hard and played by the rules, you could own a home, afford a car, put your kids through college and take a modest vacation every year while putting enough away for a comfortable retirement. In the second half of the 20th century, millions of Americans achieved this solid middle-class lifestyle. I should know — I grew up in that America.

But things have changed.

But having realized that Schumer can’t see how to get out of the way.   His “Better Deal” is in fact FDR’s big state “New Deal” only 80 years older. “Our better deal is … about reorienting government to work on behalf of people and families.”  But who needs government if robots are working for everyone? Any AI which can replace doctors can displace bureaucrats whose repetitive, rule driven jobs are prime candidates for automation. A guaranteed basic income would require minimal bureaucracy most since the amount remitted to everyone is the same.

Innovation is on track to displace him and the whole machinery of government as a welfare provider. For the first time since 1848 it’s beginning to dawn on progressives that they won’t have a job in the worker’s paradise. The actual function of future government may be managing the huge complexity unleashed by billions of technologically empowered, essentially displaced people.  If an “idle mind is the devil’s workshop” one can only imagine the devilry that multitudes of idle minds with magic toys might generate.  To control these impulses future society will need — you guessed it — artificial intelligence.  The coming decades may witness an innovation race between rival artificial intelligences where the only control common humanity will retain over its creations only at the highest level of abstraction.  “Why” will be the most crucial question in a world where the average person has long ceased to know the answer to “how”.


The reason why the long awaited robot party hasn’t happened is that costs are offsetting the benefits; the noise is obscuring the signal.  All we can be certain of is the future will be different.  It won’t necessarily be better.

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President’s Secrets: The Use and Abuse of Hidden Power, Author Mary Graham tracks the rise in governmental secrecy that began with surveillance and loyalty programs during Woodrow Wilson’s administration, explores how it developed during the Cold War, and analyzes efforts to reform the secrecy apparatus and restore oversight in the 1970s. Chronicling the expansion of presidential secrecy in the Bush years, she explains what presidents and the American people can learn from earlier crises, why the attempts of Congress to rein in stealth activities don’t work, and why presidents cannot hide actions that affect citizens’ rights and values.

Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, by Joshua Foer. This book recounts Foer’s year-long quest to improve his memory under the tutelage of top “mental athletes.” He draws on cutting-edge research, a surprising cultural history of remembering, and venerable tricks of the mentalist’s trade to transform our understanding of human memory. From the United States Memory Championship to deep within the author’s own mind, his journey reminds us that, in every way that matters, we are the sum of our memories.


Magnum! The Wild Weasels in Desert Storm: The Elimination of Iraq’s Air Defence, by Brick Eisel and James Schreiner. This book is based upon a journal Schreiner kept during his deployment to the Persian Gulf region for Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Building on that record and the recollections of other F-4G Wild Weasel aircrew, the authors show a slice of what life and war was like during that time.

Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville, translated by Henry Reeve. First published in 1835, this book endures as a brilliant study of America’s national government and character. Woodrow Wilson wrote that the author’s “ability to illuminate the actual workings of American democracy was “possibly without rival.” For today’s readers, de Tocqueville’s concern about the effect of majority rule on the rights of individuals remains deeply meaningful and his observations about the “almost royal prerogatives” of the president and the need for virtue in elected officials are particularly prophetic. His profound insights into the great rewards and responsibilities of democratic government are words every American needs to read, contemplate, and remember.

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The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
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Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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