Sunday, June 19, 2016

A Visit with Futurist Calum Chace on his new book The Economic Singularity

This past year a friend has been  prodding me to learn more about Artificial Intelligence (AI) and as a result I've been reading a number of good books on this subject. One of the best that I found recently was Surviving AI by futurist and AI commentator Calum Chace.

In writing about the book last week I learned that he has a website/blog called Pandora's Brain. Every article is insightful and thought provoking. Check out Chace's AI-related New Year's forecasts. Spot on in many of these already. (The name is taken from the title of his 2014 book titled Pandora's Brain, a techno-thriller using the concepts of current AI futurists.)

The title of the book is interesting because there are few of us unfamiliar with the story of Pandora. Yet how familiar are we really? We remember that Pandora opened the box that permitted all manner of evils to enter the world, but do you know where she came from in the first place? I'd venture that very few of us are intimately acquainted with the details of that story, or how it relates to AI.

Chace's new book, The Economic Singularity,  focuses specifically on economic impact of AI. In the first half of the book he synthesizes all the various points of view on how AI will play out, citing all the leading experts in this field who are thinking about these things. Computer advances are happening so fast it would make grandpa's head spin. And change will only get faster. What differences will it make? Is AI a friend who will make life easier? Or a foe to be feared?

The book will be available for purchase within about a month.

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EN: In your new book you spent several pages on "the Luddite Fallacy." Can you sum that up very briefly here. It was insightful.

Calum Chace: The Luddites is a name given to people who smashed machines in England in the early nineteenth century because they believed the machines were rendering them unemployed. Their name came from a man called Nedd Ludd, who might not actually have existed, and was supposed to have broken a machine by accident.

The English government reacted viciously, rounding up suspects more-or-less at random, and executing some, sending others to the penal colonies in Australia.

Economists are also rather vicious to the Luddites, pointing out that automation has not so far led to widespread unemployment, but has instead produced economic growth, and hence more jobs. They dismiss fears of automation-led unemployment as the “Luddite Fallacy”.

In fact there was a period in the first half of the nineteenth century when economic returns to labour fell behind the returns to capital, probably because of automation, which means that unemployment probably did rise somewhat. This is known as the Engels Pause, but it ceased around the same time as it was noticed by Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx’s collaborator on the Communist Manifesto.

The big question is whether the new round of automation, where machines take over cognitive jobs, will cause lasting human unemployment. I happen to think that it will, and that if we are smart it can be a very good thing.

EN: The Economic Singularity addresses the impact A.I. will have on society and states it will be "the death of capitalism." In order to have a positive outcome in the transformation of our economic systems, won't we need a better political system as well? Will the U.S. lead in this or will such leadership come from somewhere else in the world?

CC: If we need a new economic system we are likely to need a new political system, too. Technology will also probably enable all sorts of new types of politics, including more direct forms of democracy than we have at the moment – although the UK’s current EU referendum suggests that on that front we should be careful what we wish for!

I do expect the US will have a leadership role, not least because it is the home to the six big tech firms that are leading the way in cutting-edge AI: Google, Facebook, Microsoft, IBM, Amazon, and Apple. China also has three: Baidu, Tencent and Alibaba. But the changes will probably sweep across the developed world very fast, and the developing world will catch up quickly, too.

EN: What are some books you would recommend for people to get up-to-speed on what is happening in A.I.?

CC: The leading textbook for AI as an academic discipline is probably still Artificial Intelligence, A Modern Approach by Stuart Russell and Peter Norvig, but what mainly interests me is not AI as a science, but its impact on society and on individual humans. Ray Kurzweil is controversial, but his book The Singularity is Near is definitely worth reading, and Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence is a must-read. People tell me that Surviving AI by some bloke called Calum Chace is an easy way into the field.

EN: If someone has school-aged children, what would be your recommendations for preparing them for the future they will inherit?

CC: If you’re lucky, get rich. If you’re smart, get into Deep Learning. (That will also have the benefit of making you rich.) For the rest of us, get a broad education in both science and the humanities. If we make a successful transition through the two singularities (technological unemployment and then superintelligence), then you’re probably going to have a very long life with lots of possibilities, and you’ll enjoy it better if you have a well-stocked mind.

EN: What authors do you personally align with as far as envisioning the future?

CC: Science fiction doesn’t usually forecast the future. It rarely makes accurate forecasts, and in fact it rarely tries to. But it does a great job of envisioning possible futures, and that is very valuable. My two favourite science fiction authors are Greg Egan and Ian M Banks.

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The cover of The New Singularity is a companion piece to the earlier book Surviving AI, both book covers designed by Rachel Lawston. The concept is intriguing. The illustration shows a large robot studying with wonder a human who is standing in the palm of its hand. The implication is that the power is massive and humankind is dwarfed by it, yet looking up in awe of it.

The cover illustration for the new book echoes the first, except that the human is reclining in something akin to a lawn chair or deck chair. The power disparity remains the same, but the human is at rest within the new context.

For what it's worth Chace offers a free story to people who sign up for the Pandora's Brain eNewsletter. The story I received was titled Fermi, a sci-fi story that examines a new possibility about the nature of reality. It's a fun read.

I myself have long been interested in these kinds of stories about the nature of reality. A few of them have been assembled in a short collection call Unremembered Histories, which is available (like much of the world's goods) at

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As we plan for the future, it is helpful to know where we are. Chace's books provide insights about where we are in terms of the technological features of the world we live in. They make accessible ideas that will be useful for understanding the future we are on the threshold of entering.

Meantime, life goes on all around you. Engage it.

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