Monday, April 24, 2017

"The future is already here ... "

The full William Gibson quote: "The future is already here - it's just not very evenly distributed".

We'll wait a long time for AI systems as competent as human workers (for day-to-day tasks). But when those systems arrive, their great benefit will be low marginal cost: software copied for free, hardware rolling off production lines.

And people won't have to do those jobs, unless - hipster-like - they especially want to.

So what would society be like with an abundance of cheap, competent labour?

This future already exists (to the benefit of some of the people) in places with an overabundance of cheap human labour.

From Marginal Revolution:
"The first couple of times I took a taxi to a restaurant I was surprised when the driver asked if I wanted him to wait. A waiting taxi would be an unthinkable expense for me in the United States but in India the drivers are happy to wait for $1.50 an hour. It still feels odd.

The cars, the physical capital, in India and the United States are similar so the low cost of transportation illustrates just how much of the cost of a taxi is the cost of the driver and just how much driverless cars are going to lower the cost of travel. ...

Every mall, hotel, apartment and upscale store has security. It’s all security theatre - India is less dangerous than the United States - but when security theatre can be bought for $1-$2 an hour, why not?

Offices are sometimes open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Not that anyone is in the office, just that with 24 hour security there is no reason to lock up, so the office physically stays open. ...

At offices, cleaning staff are on permanent hire so they come not once or twice a week but once or twice an hour. The excessive (?) cleanliness of the private spaces makes the contrast between private cleanliness and public squalor all the more striking."
Karl Marx's communism (abundance for all!) is often portrayed - by members of the elite - as an unattainable utopia; but Marx himself observed that communism for the masses would merely be an extension of the experience of the elite aristocracy through the ages.

Communism 'is already here', as the man said, but '... not very evenly distributed'.

Not yet.


India, with its oversupply of relatively unskilled manual workers, is not an optimal emulation of an AI future. AI systems will be more diverse, more embedded and hopefully not oversupplied.

Those waiting taxis come with negative externalities.


  1. It would be ironic if, in the end, the AIs were not quite as flexible and suitable as Humans for many of these labour intensive tasks.
    (Business) people (especially in India it seems) might hanker back to the good old days when the Cleaning/Security/Driving/etc was all done by Humans ...

  2. The Royal Society Report on Machine Learning was published today (25th April). Some interesting points e.g. the German Plan for Industry 4.0 (WP q.v.). Various considerations and concerns covered. Good point that "Big Data" is the "Oil" for the new industry.

    Lack of transparency of Machine decisions issue, might prove insurmountable as this isnt (general) AI, merely Machine Learning (as emphasised in the Report).

    Also I am not confident that this revolution will be very socially fair. The main reasons are (1) Cost of Machines; (2) Cost of the Big Data Oil - so big companies will dominate. Indeed even the many startups from the UK get bought over by US platforms, so it is not clear that the UK will fully benefit.

    Only possibility for fairness would be repaying the "Public" for the use of its data ie pay the creatures who make the New Oil. This idea is not mentioned in the above Report though...

    The DeepMind program learned its Go initially from the play of 30 000 000 online amateur Go players - I bet nobody paid them. Even the Treacle blog might be getting analysed right now for its valuable insights ....


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