Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Economic Singularity: New Book by Calum Chace Designed to Awaken Us to Tomorrow's Perils and Possibilities

“The jobs of the future don’t exist today and the jobs of today will not exist in the future. Technological Singularity will change everything, but its first manifestation will come in the domain of economics, most likely in the shape of technological unemployment." ~Dr. Roman V. Yampolskiy,

Calum Chace is a British futurist whose most recent book, Surviving AI, introduces us to the potential changes that will be wrought by the coming of Artificial Intelligence (AI). The books addresses both the possibilities and perils of the advances currently taking place in the realm of computer technology. After reading Surviving AI we made contact and I was able to interview the author about his newest book, soon to be released, The Economic Singularity.

This book will be eye-opening for those who have not been reading about the economic problems that AI and robotics are likely to produce, if not sooner then eventually. The past fifty years we've been distracted more by the population explosion, the depletion of natural resources, climate change and other potential disasters. Artificial Intelligence and the emerging supercomputers have not really taken up a lot of our worry-time. That is, unless you're a professional futurist working in the area of emerging technologies.

For Calum Chace, this theme is central. As a result he's read widely on the subject and explored a lot of territory that most people have been unaware even existed.

Ben Medlock, co-founder of Swiftkey, states: "Following his insightful foray into the burgeoning AI revolution and associated existential risks, Calum focuses his attention on a nearer term challenge - the likelihood that intelligent machines will render much of humanity unemployable in the foreseeable future."

Interestingly enough, massive unemployment does not have to become a problem, Chace explains, as long as we rethink our social systems and adjust to the new realities of unprecedented productivity gains and abundance.

He lays out the premise of the book up front:

There is a lot of talk in the media at the moment about technological unemployment – the process of people becoming unemployed because machines can do any job that they could do, and do it cheaper, faster and better. There is widespread disagreement about whether this is happening already, whether it will happen in the future, and whether it is a good or a bad thing. This disagreement is natural and inevitable: one of the main features of a singularity is that what lies beyond its event horizon is hard to see. Nevertheless we must try to peer into the hazy future if we are to prepare ourselves for it. In this book I will argue that technological unemployment is not happening yet (or at least, not much), that it will happen in the next few decades, and that it can be a very good thing indeed - if we prepare for it, and manage the transition successfully.

Chace puts the current era of technological change into a historical context, citing the disruption caused by the industrial revolution. The impact of machines on agriculture is vividly demonstrated when you look at the numbers. In 1900 41% of the U.S. was employed in agriculture. By 1970 this was a mere 4%. In Britain farmers are but 1% of the population.

Though machines replaced labor, humans had other capabilities besides muscle. This transition, like many, had challenges but they were for the most part overcome. Chace believes that this time it will be different and he cites various scholars who stand on both sides of this position, that there will be massive unemployment coming, very likely in our lifetimes.

This is one of the strong features of this book. Though he himself clearly has a position on these maters, he takes great pains to quote opposing points of view. Many are pessimistic about the future but there are many equally optimistic.


I myself have written a couple articles stimulated by the film Back to the Future, so it was fun to see this reference here:

We are strangely nostalgic about the future, and we are often disappointed that the present is not more like the future that was foretold when we were younger. 2015 was the 30 the 1985 movie “Back to the Future”, and it was also the year to which the hero travels at the end anniversary of the story. Journalists and commentators complained about the failure of hoverboards and flying cars to arrive, as predicted in the film.

We didn't get hoverboards, but we did get something even more significant. As recently as the late 20 century, knowledge workers could spend hours each day looking for information. Today, less than twenty years after Google was incorporated in 1998, we have something close to omniscience. At the press of a button or two, you can access pretty much any knowledge that humans have ever recorded. To our great-grandparents, this would surely have been more astonishing than flying cars. (Some people are so impressed by Google Search that they have established a Church of Google, and offer nine proofs that Google is God, including its omnipresence, near-onmiscience, potential immortality, and responses to prayer. Admittedly, at the time of writing, there are only 427 registered devotees, or “readers”, at their meeting-place, a page on the internet community site Reddit. lxxviii

New Jobs?

Here's the issue Chace wants us to consider. If machines end up taking most of our existing jobs, can we create new ones? If not, then what? Just because it didn't happen in the past doesn't mean it an't happen in the future. The author proposes that the real solution will have to be a fundamental change with regard to our Capitalist economic structure. Thinking outside the box he suggests that we consider the Star Trek Economy.

Money is not required in Star Trek's United Federation of Planets because energy has become essentially free, and products can be manufactured in so-called Replicators, devices which create useful (including edible) objects out of whatever matter is available.

...The Star Trek economy is the post-scarcity economy, the economy of radical abundance. In their 2012 book “Abundance: the future is better than you think”, Peter Diamandis and Stephen Kotler argue that this world is within reach in the not-too-distant future, thanks largely to the exponential improvement in technology.

Universal Basic Income (UBI)

In chapter five Chace outlines an alternative social structure, built upon a Universal Basic Income and an economy of abundance.

The point of this book so far has been to persuade you that within a few decades, it is likely that many people will be rendered unemployable by machine intelligence. If I have not wholly succeeded in that aim, then I hope you are at least prepared to accept that the possibility is serious enough that we should be thinking about the implications, and what to do about it if it happens. But UBI will not alone be sufficient to enable us to cope with the end of jobs. The other big problem we will have to tackle is cohesion. We will address that later on in this chapter, but first we should review the alleged problem of how people find meaning in a world without jobs.

It's not Marxism or conventional socialism that he's proposing. It's essential that we begin thinking of a new paradigm. Capitalism may not be too well-suited for an economy of abundance, where machines do the work, where most people are unemployed, and where technology is changing the species quickly.

The book is not yet available, but when it hits you'll find it a useful addition to your readings on this important subject. If you're young, it may have a bearing on your career.

Meantime, life goes on all around you. Think about it.

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