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Libertopian Doublethink on the Singularity
J. Hughes   Oct 27, 2008   Ethical Technology  

Boy, Marshall sure stirred the pot at the Singularity Summit this weekend. Apparently you are allowed to opine that super-robots will either bring us a perfect world free from want, or possibly wipe us off the map. But if you suggest that we might need social policies to ensure our economic welfare when robots take most of the jobs then you are a socialist throwback unaware that free markets have always solved the structural unemployment problems of the past.

Take for instance Jason Pratt who points out the foolishness of previous Progressive-era social policies, like “the 40-hour workweek, the income tax, Social Security, and child labor laws (including truancy laws.).” Policies like those were unnecessary restrictions on the free market :

Child labor would have gone the way of the dodo bird anyway (no parent *wants* to send their child to dangerous factory work, and only economic growth can deliver us out of that scenario). We restricted child labor to enforce adult labor, and now we are faced with robot labor. So Marshall wants to restrict adult labor (a shorter workweek), and provide for unemployment (longer unemployment benefits.) A rehash of the Progressive movement.

Crazy talk! Apparently unfazed by the sudden collapse of the neo-liberal capitalist model, and the public criticism/self-criticism sessions that have the Friedmanites publicly recanting in every fora in which they can still get a hearing (Fox News not counting), Mr. Pratt insists

Some people (young people for example) love to work 80 or 100 hours a week…Let’s let the chips fall where they may this time. A creative, vibrant economy is critical to solving this global challenge. Anything we do via government to “soften the blow” is likely to make the next challenge even harder to solve.

Now that’s a “crack of a future dawn” Singularitarian utopia we can all get behind: 100 hour work weeks, no unemployment benefits, and your kids working right alongside you. Think of it as a family-friendly S^ vision.

Kevin Dick’s (and no, I did not make up Mr. Pratt and Mr. Dick’s names, just as Marshall’s name really is Mr. Brain) summary of the Singularity Summit events loved all the “Yes we can built it and the gods will come” enthusiasm but had two big complaints. First Vernor Vinge, namer of the Singularity idea, opened the meeting with an interview in which he propounded the “glaringly erroneous” idea that

as humans outsource their cognition to machines, the number of jobs suitable for humans will narrow. Economic history contradicts this theory.

Mr. Dick could also add computer scientist Hans Moravec to his tut-tut list, since Moravec proposed in Robot that we should expand Social Security to cover all humans after robots take all the jobs. Of Marshall Brain, who is a computer scientist, founder of the HowStuffWorks website that he just sold for an eye-popping $250 million, and author of pieces like “How an Economic Depression Works” Mr. Dick opines

It’s not a good idea to discuss the economic implications of AI and robotics when you don’t understand anything about economics.

Yo, fellow meatbag, isn’t this the conference about the idea that greater than human intelligence will be such a profound rupture with all human history that we can’t predict the outcome? So that Singularity idea applies to everything except the magical capability of the market to find ways for human beings to compete in labor markets with super-capable robots, which you think is easily extrapolable from the migration of human peasants into human industrial jobs and then into shuffling meaningless numbers through computers with human fingers? What exactly are the jobs you imagine humans doing better than robots and AI in the Singularity future?

Patri Friedman chimes in with the dismissive comment

Marshall Brain’s (talk) was full of zero-sum thinking, and contained claims trivially refuted by Ricardo’s principle of comparative advantage…

I guess that means, as Anders Sandberg has pointed out, that even though the supposed Singularity-level AIs are supposed to be as much smarter than us as we are to ants, that we will somehow figure out a way to do and trade something with AIs that they want. Like we do with ants.

But wait. Mr. Friedman also foresees a solution to human unemployment in the rapid AI ascension to godlikeness:

5 years after robots can do chores around the house, they won’t want to anymore! A robot smart enough to be helpful will be smart enough to demand an income and to spend that income on getting smarter.

Ah, finally an argument for libertopian policy that takes Singularitarianism seriously. We won’t need public policies for a structurally unemployed world because all our toasters and ovens will become so smart that they will stop working for carbon-based life forms, and we will be back to hiring human cooks to hold our bread over open fires. So we get full employment, so long as Skynet lets us live. Lovely.

Laudably S^ Summit reviewer “retired urologist” seems to get it in his summary of Marshall’s argument:

Left to free-market policies, there will be a marked redistribution of wealth, with concentration at the top. He encourages social and governmental plans now to address this inequity. Interestingly, given the same information, Peter Diamandis, of the X-Prize Foundation, draws the opposite conclusion. He feels that wealth concentration in a relative few hands makes for more efficient philanthropy and drives innovations in technology…Democrats versus Republicans.

OK, you could put a partisan gloss on the observation that the unfettered free market certainly will or probably won’t provide universal economic welfare for all after the Singularity. Then again this is an election year in which the party that started nationalizing the banks and calling for the nationalization of home mortgages is accusing the party that wants a slightly more progressive income tax of being “socialist.” We’re all Mensheviks this year, and the free market fundamentalists aren’t even Republicans any more, they’re just in deep denial.

Here’s a little testable prediction about whether the AI/automation-induced structural unemployment thesis is correct or not. When we start to come out of this casino capitalism-induced global depression, sometime in the next one to five years, watch to see if the number of new jobs created is as anemic as it was in the 2002-2005 recovery from the 2000-2001 bust. If so, it is a clue that we are in fact slowly shifting toward an economy in which investments in automation and IT are more profitable than investments in human jobs.

Then again, the market fundamentalists are sure to simply insist in 2012 that we are all still living under socialism, and that if we just removed all regulation, social welfare and taxes we would see unemployment eliminated.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union one could still find Communists who insisted real Communism had not yet been tried, and of course one can still find flat earthers, young earth creationists and all manner of delusional true believers. I’m a sociologist so I expect and celebrate willfull irrationality, especially around an idea like the Singularity which stirs up so many millennial passions. But just as Superman can probably beat up Spiderman, doesn’t the godlike AI trump the godlike invisible hand?

James Hughes Ph.D., the Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, is a bioethicist and sociologist who serves as the Associate Provost for Institutional Research, Assessment and Planning for the University of Massachusetts Boston. He is author of Citizen Cyborg and is working on a second book tentatively titled Cyborg Buddha. From 1999-2011 he produced the syndicated weekly radio program, Changesurfer Radio. (Subscribe to the J. Hughes RSS feed)


Not all libertarians display such closed-mindedness. Robert Anton Wilson, who described himself as a libertarian who didn’t hate poor people, had no trouble promoting ideas similar to Brain’s:

The RICH Economy

Markets are just rule-sets designed to crowdsource logistical decisions, therefore they statistically work until they don’t, which depends a lot on the design of the constraints, the distribution of information, and the distribution of wealth (in no particular order).

Trying to split this into a pro-markets or pro-regulation argument is falling into an ancient trap and missing the forests for the trees. It’s like education, the problem isn’t that we don’t have private schools or adequetely funded public schools - the problem is that the schools are designed to crush individuals into obedient, unquestioning, corporate drones. Likewise, market economies as we know them are designed to benefit the designers and operators of that game - in a manner not unlike how World of Warcraft is designed to make Blizzard wealthy at the expense of their player’s time, money and probably mental and physical health.

So let’s get over the dialectic and get analytic.

First off, the very definition of work is egregious, so let’s revise that before we tweak the parameters. Many successful and creative people, artists, designers, angel investors, writers, musicians, street performers, and the occasional corporate executive will all tell you that they tend to work and play more or less indivisibly the majority of their waking hours. Therefore, trying to constraint an arbitrary variable of “workweek” hours makes little sense now, much less in a post-Singularity novelty-economy.

For example, a more elegant regulation could be the mandatory offering of a type of employment option involving a lower work-week, with a negotiable overtime rate or something similar. Being more explicit and operation when describing potential regulation limits the dangers of both intellectual dissonance and the significant risk of governments amplifying problems rather than fixing them. You must concede I have a lot of historical precedent to point to in citing that risk.

Living in Buenos Aires has showed me that a net worth of maybe two grand, at most, is enough. I’m talking about a computer, some exercise equipment, an MP3 player, maybe a bit of silver or whatever your preferred investment vehicle is, that’s enough. So clearly we could make a more open-ended scenario where people are given a basic standard of living, basic tools such as a computer - like Socialism would prescribe - and then let people have the freedom to negotiate and act with those tools - like a libertarian utopian would envision. Best of both worlds.

Yes, howstuffworks was sold in 2007 for $250 million, but in 2002 it was sold for a little over one million to convex.

CEO of HowStuffWorks, Jeff Arnold is after acquiring the company in 2003, raised more than $75 million in private equity for the company and orchestrated its sale to Discovery Communications, the No. 1 nonfiction media company. Jeff also founded and served as CEO of The Convex Group, a media and technology holding company whose portfolio included HowStuffWorks until its sale to Discovery in 2007.

So a triple of the money since 2003. The original investors were supposed to get some money back if it was sold. Probably not proportional participation. Marshall Brain and his original investors probably had liquidity in 2002 and 2003 and may have gotten all of their original investment back. Marshall probably would get more payout from whatever shares and participation he had for still writing his segment of the blog and from books but not likely anything from the Discover sale. Plus the Discover sale included other acquired sites.

It cannot be said that he made many millions from howstuffworks. Or that the sites went from startup to the sale multiplying its value. Probably 200%-250% return over 4-5 years for the private investors in 2003.

The dichotomy of unrestrained market forces vs guaranteed income and other protections seems to presume that market economics will continue to dominate as they do now.  I believe that we are going to soon find that other ways of organizing group action have a fundamentally lower friction than currency transactions.  For instance, imagine trying to use money to organize a flash mob.  Combine that new spontaneous organizational power with the means of a production in a box, fabrication, and there’s little that won’t be naturally free.  Money as we understand it now may seem very archaic by the end of the next decade.


Now look at all the anti-government sentiment this talk has stirred up, and tell me, with a straight face, that singularitarians and transhumanists are mostly progressives.

There isn’t any inconsistency between these responses and the overal progressive politics of transhumanists. These flabbergasted libertopians were Bay area singularitarians, who are overwhelmingly libertarian. Only a quarter to a third of transhumanists are S^, and only a fraction live in the Bay area of the USA.

In the current political climate, I’m a progressive.  Philosophically, I’m an anarchist.  Depending on what goes down (particularly what disruptive technologies are discovered), I may at some point support absolute totalitarian control.  I believe that we must remain flexible, because we don’t yet know exactly what we’re dealing wiith.

I would not equate an anti-government sentiment with radical market libertarianism—these are two very different things.

As a citizen, I think the government has a useful function to perform. I think a reasonable degree of redistribution of wealth is necessary in our society, and that taxation is still the most practical way to implement it. I am in favor of BIG, which in this economy can only be implemented by a government.

So I am not anti-government, but I am often anti-this-government.

When I see the government wasting our money on stupid measures and not using our money where it is needed, or when I see greedy government officers stealing our money for personal gain, I call bullshit and wish to change _this_ government. Since I am not a US citizen I am not talking of the Obama administration, but of the bunch of greedy idiots that passes for a government in many EU regions.

And there is worse: most governments have been unable to run things, as it is shown by the current crisis. But they are always ready to interfere with the civil rights of citizens. Here I see that things have became much worse in the last few decades, and now we live in nanny states where the government wishes to control every little detail of our lives, even those irrelevant to the public sphere.

In summary: I am not anto-government but I want a _good_ government. I want less bullshit, less thieves, less oppression, more civil rights, and government intervention where and _only where_ it is needed. I think most transhumanists, and most serious citizens, would agree.

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