NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Saturday, October 6th, 2018

Book Review: In the future of “Unscaled”, AI will keep the rich different from you and me

“The rich are dif­fer­ent from you and me.”

“Yes, they have more money.”

No exchange like that between F. Scott Fitzger­ald and Ernest Hem­ing­way ever took place, but it’s a lot more fun to imag­ine that it did.

The ini­tial­ly curt put-down con­tains with­in it the germ of a much more intense con­cur­rence the more you think about it. Unscaled by Hemant Tane­ja, or “How AI and a New Gen­er­a­tion of Upstarts Are Cre­at­ing the Econ­o­my of the Future” man­ages to embody both read­ings of that exchange.

The mul­ti­mil­lion­aire ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist’s book often reads like a lit­er­al van­i­ty-press prod­uct, talk­ing of its sub­jects as an excuse to brag about all of the occa­sions Tane­ja’s invest­ments thus far have paid off. That includes invest­ments you’ve heard of like the tem­po­rary-mes­sages app Snapchat as well as those you prob­a­bly haven’t, like the “con­sumer dig­i­tal health com­pa­ny”, Livon­go.

In that way, the expe­ri­ence of read­ing Unscaled is very much like any­one who’s ever been cor­nered at a house par­ty by some­one you’ve just met, quite sure every­thing they do will be as inter­est­ing for you to hear as it clear­ly is for them to recount.

But, the rich are dif­fer­ent from you and me, and what inter­ests Tane­ja ver­sus what does not is almost like read­ing an alien species talk about the impli­ca­tions of tech­nol­o­gy for the future.

Take this sum­ma­ry of the chal­lenges posed by CRISPR gene-edit­ing techniques.

Wealthy peo­ple will have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to make them­selves bet­ter, health­i­er, and smarter than poor­er peo­ple, cre­at­ing a gap between rich and poor that’s not just about wealth and oppor­tu­ni­ty but about tal­ent and phys­i­cal prowess. … We could end up with a soci­ety of per­ma­nent class­es. Gov­ern­ments must think this through before it becomes reality.

That cer­tain­ly sounds pro­found­ly impor­tant and inter­est­ing. Yet even with what’s con­tained in the ellipses, the entire­ty of reflec­tion on the sub­ject is one para­graph, and the book then skips mer­ri­ly along to the genet­ic-test­ing com­pa­ny 23andMe’s data dis­clo­sure then the future of ener­gy for a para­graph, offer­ing noth­ing more about how we might avoid active­ly bring­ing the world of Gat­ta­ca to reality.

I don’t real­ly need two pages on why Jeff Bezos thinks a “Day 1” mind­set is impor­tant to keep­ing a mega-cor­po­ra­tion vir­ile when you’ve just told me it’s entire­ly plau­si­ble all my descen­dants will be Mor­locks, Hemant.

His premise that the world is unscal­ing rather than accel­er­at­ing hav­ing-yet-more to the haves is also not entire­ly con­vinc­ing when, accord­ing to Oxfam, eighty-two per­cent of all new wealth went to the rich­est one per­cent of the globe from 2016 to 2017, and those peo­ple already had half of every­thing, per Cred­it Suisse, the Swiss bank­ing multinational.

More­over, if com­pa­nies like Face­book and Ama­zon are allowed to extend their monop­o­lies, to buy out their com­peti­tors when they need to taste break­fast octo­pus, to steal from and crush them if they choose not to sell, how exact­ly are we sup­posed to see few­er giants? Who the par­tic­u­lar giants are may change with time, but that’s sort of like shuf­fling around which patri­cian fam­i­lies get to rule Rome.

If, as Tane­ja argues, the future is unscaled and per­son­al­ized, and you’re to have an indi­vid­ual prod­uct made just for you and no one else, why would­n’t the com­pa­nies already capa­ble of cre­at­ing the most per­fect psy­cho­graph­ic pro­file of you based on their access to your data see their advan­tages increase further?

As to how Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence is going to change all this for the bet­ter, well, there’s always a cer­tain fla­vor of futur­ist with opti­mism for what they promise is just about to be pos­si­ble while nev­er reck­on­ing with how what’s already pos­si­ble has­n’t real­ized that same utopi­an result.

One of the most pop­u­lar exam­ples of this, in the book and cul­ture gen­er­al­ly, is the bright, ever-approach­ing day when we’ll have self-dri­ving cars.

The most moti­vat­ed sup­port­ers cast the ulti­mate effect as some­thing akin to erad­i­cat­ing polio because they’re going to be erad­i­cat­ing traf­fic death and injury, or at least reduc­ing it to close to noth­ing. Indeed, remov­ing human error from bil­lions of inter­ac­tions each day glob­al­ly would be a mon­u­men­tal accom­plish­ment, if the secu­ri­ty dan­gers can be over­come.

But this ignores how for well more than a cen­tu­ry we’ve had the tech­nol­o­gy to effect the largest part of that decrease: invest­ing in mass transit.

Mov­ing folks in tens and hun­dreds — hav­ing pro­fes­sion­als respon­si­ble for apply­ing their sober, wake­ful atten­tion in pro­fes­sion­al­ly-main­tained vehi­cles that are account­able to pub­lic audit — makes traf­fic deaths all but evaporate.

For New York City in 2017, there were 214 deaths in a year count­ing all pedes­tri­ans, cyclists, motor­cy­clists, and auto­mo­bile occu­pants. By con­trast, the car-glut­ted twelve coun­ties in the Dal­las-Fort Worth Metro­plex had a mil­lion few­er peo­ple than NYC and five hun­dred more trans­porta­tion deaths: sev­en hun­dred and forty-three.

Mass pub­lic tran­sit avail­able to all man­ages to accom­plish oth­er nigh-mag­i­cal ends like mak­ing real estate more valu­able by allow­ing for greater den­si­ty. It wastes less space most­ly-unused roads for sin­gle-occu­pant cars and places to park them. It reduces racial dis­par­i­ties by pro­vid­ing free­dom of move­ment irre­spec­tive of wealth. It gives more options for peo­ple to live and work where they choose.

Of course, mass tran­sit isn’t a good fit every­where, but we have man­aged some fur­ther inno­va­tions since the Amer­i­can Civ­il War, like seat­belts sen­sors and the igni­tion-lock breath­a­lyz­er. That may seem flip­pant, but of the 37,461 traf­fic deaths in 2016, 10,428 were relat­ed to lack of seat­belts and 10,497 to alco­hol impairment.

We don’t actu­al­ly need more inno­va­tions; we just need the will to make auto­mo­bile trans­porta­tion rar­er and safer. We’ve had the tech­nol­o­gy to stop drunk dri­ving for 30 years and not done it because it’s too incon­ve­nient to the wrong people.

You see, I total­ly believe that self-dri­ving vehi­cles will help com­pa­nies become even more prof­itable by giv­ing them few­er employ­ees to pay, espe­cial­ly long-haul truck­ers and ware­house work­ers. Those who can afford self-dri­ving vehi­cles, afford the upkeep, and afford ensur­ing they’re the ones their algo­rithm chauf­feurs con­sid­er most valu­able, will feel quite comfortable.

But tech­nol­o­gy and machines age, and the Trol­ley Prob­lem turns out not to be so much of a prob­lem as soon as you put it into the con­text of the real world and real world pow­er dynam­ics. We don’t care much at all about med­ical care or pro­tec­tion from nat­ur­al dis­as­ters when it comes to 2.3 mil­lion prisoners.

We don’t care about the elder­ly when they’re too poor to afford a decent assist­ed liv­ing facil­i­ty. Does any­one hon­est­ly believe that Elon Musk would get into a self-dri­ving car with his next girl­friend if it might have to swerve into a pylon just to avoid killing ten peo­ple in a home­less camp?

In a coun­try where we go along with per­ma­nent­ly sep­a­rat­ing asy­lum seek­ers from their chil­dren and force tod­dlers to rep­re­sent them­selves at depor­ta­tion hear­ings, would you be shocked if the algo­rithm did­n’t give any weight to peo­ple it could­n’t rec­og­nize as being prop­er­ly-doc­u­ment­ed residents?

Chi­na, famous for its slav­ish devo­tion to Black Mir­ror / Com­mu­ni­ty premis­es, recent­ly rolled out an actu­al social score for its cit­i­zens.

Why would­n’t col­li­sion algo­rithms fac­tor that into their trol­ley prob­lem to ensure that they’re fair to more valu­able citizens?

In a cap­i­tal­ist coun­try, why should­n’t you be able to pay to have your sta­tus upgrad­ed for bet­ter protection?

One of the few pre­scrip­tions Tane­ja is will­ing to offer for how a gig-based econ­o­my for the nine­ty-nine per­cent can avoid mas­sive social unrest of the teem­ing mass­es and the per­func­to­ry rit­u­al can­ni­bal­iza­tion of GMO ultra-rich is the idea of a Uni­ver­sal Basic Income. Along with cheap Vir­tu­al Real­i­ty and on-demand 3D print­ing, this may be enough to pla­cate the poor while guar­an­tee­ing a soci­ety still based on wealth does­n’t churn too much or at all.

More than AI, more than self-dri­ving or self-taught things, there’s a dis­rup­tive, unscal­ing inno­va­tion for the future that bil­lion­aires and ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists don’t ever seem too jazzed about. Instead of a Uni­ver­sal Basic Income, we could have a Uni­ver­sal Max­i­mum Wealth, Huey Long-style.

If that were the case — if the gulf between rich and poor and what was avail­able to each, now and in the future — weren’t quite so dis­parate, maybe the only dif­fer­ence between us would be that the rich have a bit more money.

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