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Self-generated Noise

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.