Wednesday 1 November, 2023


… is going on here? Who knows? London, June.

Quote of the Day

“Markets can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent.”

  • John Maynard Keynes

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Elton John | Rocket Man (Glastonbury 2023)


Memorable performance. I watched it live.

Long Read of the Day

Boogeyman Diplomacy

On the day when the UK’s ‘AI Safety Summit’ opens, this lovely blog post by Neil Lawrence seems appropriate, not least because Neil is one of the foremost experts on ‘AI’, i.e. machine-learning.

Just like behind my garage, there are many dangers to AI, and some of those dangers are unknown. In the rubbish there could have been rats and asbestos. Similarly with today’s information technologies we already face challenges around power asymmetries, where a few companies are control access to information. Competition authorities on both sides of the Atlantic are addressing these. We also face challenges around automated decision making: the European GDPR is an attempt to regulate how and when algorithmic decision making can be used. The AI boogeyman is frightening extreme conflation of these two challenges, just as an asbestos breathing rat would be a very disturbing conflation of the challenges behind my garage.

But just as the right approach to dealing with an asbestos breathing rat would be to deal with the rats and the asbestos separately, so the AI boogeyman can be dealt with by dealing with both power asymmetries and automated decision making. In both these areas many of us have already been supporting governments in developing new regulation to address these risks. But by combining them, boogeyman diplomacy runs the serious risk of highlighting the problems in a way that distracts us from the real dangers we face.

However, like Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon’s panda diplomacy, boogeyman diplomacy does promise a potential benefit. It is far easier to agree on an exchange of pandas than it is to bridge cultural and political divides between two great nations…

Neil has found a neat way of highlighting the fundamental problem we have with this technology, which is that governments and tech companies are obsessed with contemplating the speculative existential risks of the technology. This is a diversionary tactic because it enables both sides to avoid confronting the actual and real harms already being caused by the technology as it’s being applied right now.

The biggest risk posed by runaway AI isn’t speculative

If its deployment isn’t managed, then it’ll really undermine democracy. Why? Because history suggests that having a stable middle class is an essential requirement for a stable democratic polity. As Rana Faroohar pointed out in yesterday’s FT,

One recent academic study from OpenAI and the University of Pennsylvania found that 80 per cent of the US workforce will have at least some of their work tasks transformed by AI. There’s a huge productivity multiple there — Goldman Sachs estimates labour productivity could rise by 1.5 per cent, which is twice the recent historic rate. That would be similar in scale to the effect of the PC and the tech boom of the 1990s, which doubled the US GDP growth rate. 

The key question is: will the productivity be shared? I suspect we may see the blue-collar disruption of the 80s and 90s come to service work. The OECD warned in July that the job categories most at risk of displacement would be highly skilled, white-collar work accounting for a third of employment in the developed world. Think about the populism that could result — manufacturing is 8 per cent of the US workforce, while jobs at risk immediately from AI represent about 30 per cent.

Her colleague, Edward Luce, has an answer to that question about sharing the fruits of massive increases in productivity.

I share all the forebodings about the future of warfare, the deepfake impact on democracy and the ultimate question about computers deciding we are too stupid as a species to keep around (I have periodic twinges of sympathy with the latter). But an immediate concern is the massive rates of return that owners of AI will inevitably reap in the coming years. We are already living in an oligarchic society. I fear that today will look like child’s play compared to what is around the corner. In other words, it is the Elon Musks and other humans that I fear the most. 

Me too. And in that context, isn’t it interesting that Rishi Sunak has chosen to make a big deal about a live-streamed interview he’s done with Elon Musk, one of the tech lords who have turned up to Bletchley Park. Unregulated deployment of this technology is an entry ramp onto a highway that leads to a techno-feudalism future of the kind envisaged by Marc Andreessen and other fanatics.

My commonplace booklet

From the Economist:

“When on October 20th the Rolling Stones released ‘Hackney Diamonds’, the band’s first original album in almost two decades, many acolytes bought it on vinyl—an old format befitting an old act. The vinyl revival, now well into its second decade, crosses generations and genres. In America, 25- to 34-year-olds buy as many vinyl records as the over-55s.”


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

The iShuffle Principle

Nice little essay from 2005 by Om Malik. He returned to the theme the other day. Nice.


Many thanks to the readers who, very politely, pointed that Margaret Atwood only has one ’t’ in her surname. And humble apologies to the wonderful lady herself.

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