Politeness, not willpower.

From an essay on disconnecting by Philip Reid:

Of course, it’s true that cellphones can be used responsibly. We can shut them off or simply ignore the incoming text. But this takes extraordinary willpower. According to a recent Pew survey, 82% of Americans believe that cellphone use in social situations more often hurts than helps conversation, yet 89% of cell owners still use their phones in those situations.

Not me, though. Which is why people who are trying to get in touch with me during the day sometimes find me infuriating. I very rarely take a call or reply to a text when I’m with people. It’s not so much a matter of high principle: I just think it’s incredibly rude to privilege a device over another human being.

Should robots be taxed

This morning’s Observer column:

The problem with the future is that it’s unknowable. But of course that doesn’t stop us trying to second-guess it. At the moment, many people – and not just in the tech industry – are wondering about the impact of automation on employment. And not just blue-collar employment – the kind of jobs that were eliminated in the early phase of automating car production, for instance – but also the white-collar jobs that hitherto seemed secure…

Read on

At the end of the piece I mentioned (and applauded) Bill Gates’s suggestion that robots should be taxed — just as human workers are — to enable the social and human costs of automation to be mitigated. There’s a thoughtful Schumpeter column in this week’s Economist arguing that this might not be such a good idea.

“A robot is a capital investment”, writes the Schumpeter columnist,

like a blast furnace or a computer. Economists typically advise against taxing such things, which allow an economy to produce more. Taxation that deters investment is thought to make people poorer without raising much money. But Mr Gates seems to suggest that investment in robots is a little like investing in a coal-fired generator: it boosts economic output but also imposes a social cost, what economists call a negative externality. Perhaps rapid automation threatens to dislodge workers from old jobs faster than new sectors can absorb them. That could lead to socially costly long-term unemployment, and potentially to support for destructive government policy. A tax on robots that reduced those costs might well be worth implementing, just as a tax on harmful blast-furnace emissions can discourage pollution and leave society better off.

The biggest problem with the Gates proposal, he goes on, is not that automation is happening but that it is not happening quicker.

Mr Gates worries, understandably, about a looming era of automation in which machines take over driving or managing warehouses. Yet in an economy already awash with abundant, cheap labour, it may be that firms face too little pressure to invest in labour-saving technologies. Why refit a warehouse when people queue up to do the work at the minimum wage? Mr Gates’s proposal, by increasing the expense of robots relative to human labour, might further delay an already overdue productivity boom.

And even if automation speeds up, the share of income attributed to the machines might also decline quickly — or at any rate follow the historic trend.

A new working paper by Simcha Barkai, of the University of Chicago, concludes that, although the share of income flowing to workers has declined in recent decades, the share flowing to capital (ie, including robots) has shrunk faster. What has grown is the markup firms can charge over their production costs, >ie, their profits. Similarly, an NBER working paper published in January argues that the decline in the labour share is linked to the rise of “superstar firms”. A growing number of markets are “winner takes most”, in which the dominant firm earns hefty profits.

Large and growing profits are an indicator of market power. That power might stem from network effects (the value, in a networked world, of being on the same platform as everyone else), the superior productive cultures of leading firms, government protection, or something else. Waves of automation might necessitate sharing the wealth of superstar firms: through distributed share-ownership when they are public, or by taxing their profits when they are not. Robots are a convenient villain, but Mr Gates might reconsider his target; when firms enjoy unassailable market positions, workers and machines alike lose out.: the owners of robots have to be taxed so that the increases in productivity (and profits) that they enable is redistributed.

Thus by a roundabout route the Economist columnist reaches the right conclusion — although even then it’s a rather weaselly concession: waves of automation might necessitate sharing the wealth of superstar firms. Might??? Gates’s proposal may have been motivated by a shrewd conviction that, in this neoliberal world, redistributive taxation of that kind is never going to happen. Taxing robots like workers is, in contrast, something that even the dumbest government can organise.

LATER Yanis Varoufakis isn’t impressed by the Gates proposal.

Common sense on AI

Interesting responses from Stuart Russell in an World Economic Forum interview:

Are robots taking over the world?

SR: There are three timescales and three versions of this question, and the answers are “Not if I can help it”, “Quite possibly, but hopefully in a good way” and “We would be crazy to be complacent on this issue”. In the near term, autonomous weapons in the hands of unpleasant humans are a real threat, the UN is working (slowly) towards a treaty banning them, and our council has been active in building support for a treaty within the profession and in the media. In the medium term, will robots take away all of our jobs? Some experts say yes, and economists recommend more unemployment insurance as the solution. Better ideas wanted!

But the real world-changing questions are further off, when, after several intrinsically unpredictable breakthroughs, we have human-level or superhuman AI. See, for example, Elon Musk’s comment that superintelligent AI poses the greatest existential threat to the survival of the human race. His point was that regulatory oversight at a national and international level is needed to responsibly develop technology. In my view it’s too soon to start designing regulations – on equations?? – but not too soon to start solving the technical questions of how to maintain absolute control over increasingly intelligent machines.


Kenneth Arrow, RIP

The great economist has passed away, at the age of 95. I liked this story from the NYT obituary:

Professor Arrow was widely hailed as a polymath, possessing prodigious knowledge of subjects far removed from economics. Eric Maskin, a Harvard economist and fellow Nobel winner, told of a good-natured conspiracy waged by junior faculty to get the better of Professor Arrow, even if artificially. They all agreed to study the breeding habits of gray whales — a suitably abstruse topic — and gathered at an appointed date at a place where Professor Arrow would be sure to visit.

When, as expected, he showed up, they were talking out loud about the theory by a marine biologist — last name, Turner — which purported to explain how gray whales found the same breeding spot year after year. As Professor Maskin recounted the story, “Ken was silent,” and his junior colleagues amused themselves that they had for once bested their formidable professor.

Well, not so fast.

Before leaving, Professor Arrow muttered, “But I thought that Turner’s theory was entirely discredited by Spencer, who showed that the hypothesized homing mechanism couldn’t possibly work.”

Trump’s media strategy: “darkly brilliant”

Bret Stephens of the WSJ gave the Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture this week at UCLA. It’s well worth reading in full, but this bit is really fine:

Ideologically, the president is trying to depose so-called mainstream media in favor of the media he likes — Breitbart News and the rest. Another way of making this point is to say that he’s trying to substitute news for propaganda, information for boosterism.

His objection to, say, the New York Times, isn’t that there’s a liberal bias in the paper that gets in the way of its objectivity, which I think would be a fair criticism. His objection is to objectivity itself. He’s perfectly happy for the media to be disgusting and corrupt — so long as it’s on his side.

But again, that’s not all the president is doing.

Consider this recent exchange he had with Bill O’Reilly. O’Reilly asks:

“Is there any validity to the criticism of you that you say things that you can’t back up factually, and as the President you say there are three million illegal aliens who voted and you don’t have the data to back that up, some people are going to say that it’s irresponsible for the President to say that?”

To which the president replies:

“Many people have come out and said I’m right.”

Now many people also say Jim Morrison faked his own death. Many people say Barack Obama was born in Kenya. “Many people say” is what’s known as an argumentum ad populum. If we were a nation of logicians, we would dismiss the argument as dumb.

We are not a nation of logicians.

I think it’s important not to dismiss the president’s reply simply as dumb. We ought to assume that it’s darkly brilliant — if not in intention then certainly in effect. The president is responding to a claim of fact not by denying the fact, but by denying the claim that facts are supposed to have on an argument. [Emphasis added]

He isn’t telling O’Reilly that he’s got his facts wrong. He’s saying that, as far as he is concerned, facts, as most people understand the term, don’t matter: That they are indistinguishable from, and interchangeable with, opinion; and that statements of fact needn’t have any purchase against a man who is either sufficiently powerful to ignore them or sufficiently shameless to deny them — or, in his case, both.

This is brilliant. Really nails it.

Conservatism as performance art

From the NYT report of the abrupt fall of an alt-right provocateur:

Many on the right are pointing to the Yiannopoulos controversies as a symptom of a trend toward conservatism as performance art, placing less value on ideas like small government and self-reliance than it does on attitude, personality and provocation. While there are respected conservative thinkers on issues like tax reform, immigration and health care, they say, provocateurs like Mr. Yiannopoulos suck up most of the oxygen, becoming the public face of the movement and pushing more serious ideas to the sideline.

“You essentially have a world where there are no adults left, nobody exercising moral authority to say, ‘No, this does or does not meet our standards,’” said Matt Lewis, the conservative author of “Too Dumb to Fail,” which dissected how conservatives have abandoned ideas for outrage. “Everybody is just responding to perverse incentives to get more buzz.”

Mr. Lewis said he would bet that most conservatives had no idea where Mr. Yiannopoulos stood on taxes, abortion or any other issue that has traditionally been important to them. “The only thing we know about him is he’s vulgar, he’s a provocateur and he fights political correctness,” he said. “And I guess that’s what the definition is now for being a conservative.”

Why we still need expertise

From “How America Lost Faith in Expertise” by Tom Nichols…

In 2014, following the Russian invasion of Crimea, The Washington Post published the results of a poll that asked Americans about whether the United States should intervene militarily in Ukraine. Only one in six could identify Ukraine on a map; the median response was off by about 1,800 miles. But this lack of knowledge did not stop people from expressing pointed views. In fact, the respondents favored intervention in direct proportion to their ignorance. Put another way, the people who thought Ukraine was located in Latin America or Australia were the most enthusiastic about using military force there.

And the USA’s greatest cybersecurity vulnerability is… its President

This morning’s Observer column:

My favourite image of the week was a picture of the Queen opening the National Cyber Security Centre in London. Her Majesty is looking bemusedly at a large display while a member of staff explains how hackers could target the nation’s electricity supply. The job of the centre’s director, Ciaran Martin, is to protect the nation from such dangers. It’s a heavy responsibility, but at least he doesn’t have to worry that his head of state is a cybersecurity liability.

His counterpart in the United States does not have that luxury…

Read on

Can Zuck fix it?

Astute comment from Dave Pell on Mark Zuckerberg’s epistle to his believers:

Earlier this year, as he set out to visit all fifty states, speculation swirled that Mark Zuckerberg might be considering a future run for president. Of course, that theory brings up an obvious question: Why would he want the demotion? He already runs a virtual nation with a population that’s headed towards the two billion mark. But like the physical country in which he resides, there is a growing divide in Zuckerberg’s online community about the role of globalization. “Facebook stands for bringing us closer together and building a global community. When we began, this idea was not controversial.” It is now. And the Internet that was designed to bring us all together may in fact be driving us further apart. As I’ve mentioned before, the open communication network we thought we were building turned into a hunting ground for trolls and spammers; unavoidable because of our ferocious addiction to our mobile screens. Social media evolved into a confirmation bias-riddled cesspool of lies, hate, and totally unrealistic versions of our lives; which would gradually amount to little more than weightless collections of Retweets and Likes. And somehow – with more tools to connect than ever before — we made our lives less diverse; racially, politically, and culturally; each of us left to sink in the quicksand that lines the thickening walls of our silos of homogeneity. So we’re left with a question. Can Zuck fix it?

Answer: of course not. But pause for a moment to think about what lies behind this. One way of viewing it is to find Zuckerberg’s naïveté touching. Aw, shucks, what a sweet guy. But a more sceptical way of viewing it would be to read his epistle as a proposition for Facebook becoming the Internet. In other words: the world wide Internet has become a nasty, unsafe place. But we can make Facebook a warm cosy place. So why not give up on the public Internet and come inside where it’s safe?

The madness of King Donald – contd.

This interesting letter from a psychiatrist in the New York Times:

Most amateur diagnosticians have mislabeled President Trump with the diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder. I wrote the criteria that define this disorder, and Mr. Trump doesn’t meet them. He may be a world-class narcissist, but this doesn’t make him mentally ill, because he does not suffer from the distress and impairment required to diagnose mental disorder.

Mr. Trump causes severe distress rather than experiencing it and has been richly rewarded, rather than punished, for his grandiosity, self-absorption and lack of empathy. It is a stigmatizing insult to the mentally ill (who are mostly well behaved and well meaning) to be lumped with Mr. Trump (who is neither).

Bad behavior is rarely a sign of mental illness, and the mentally ill behave badly only rarely. Psychiatric name-calling is a misguided way of countering Mr. Trump’s attack on democracy. He can, and should, be appropriately denounced for his ignorance, incompetence, impulsivity and pursuit of dictatorial powers.

His psychological motivations are too obvious to be interesting, and analyzing them will not halt his headlong power grab. The antidote to a dystopic Trumpean dark age is political, not psychological.


Coronado, Calif.

The writer, professor emeritus of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University Medical College, was chairman of the task force that wrote the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV (D.S.M.-IV).