Beyond Labels

A 360° Discussion of Foreign, National and Local Policy Issues

Beyond Labels, December 30

For those of you in town, we will be meeting (as usual) today at 10:30am.

There is no set topic for the week, but I (Scott Miller) will come prepared with a couple of things to discuss if no one else has a compelling recommendation.


  • Some information that I discovered (and in a few cases rediscovered) in the course of what I thought was a very interesting conversation. This has turned into a longer post than I originally planned, but for those who stick with it, I hope it will be useful.

    First, I recommend this TED talk by Lawrence Lessig, which gives the best explanation of why almost nothing gets done in Washington, and provides at least a prescriptive direction. Summary below the link:
    “There is a corruption at the heart of American politics, caused by the dependence of Congressional candidates on funding from the tiniest percentage of citizens. That’s the argument at the core of this blistering talk by legal scholar Lawrence Lessig. With rapid-fire visuals, he shows how the funding process weakens the Republic in the most fundamental way, and issues a rallying bipartisan cry that will resonate with many in the U.S. and beyond.”

    Someone mentioned that US became a debtor nation in 1985. Below is a link to an article in the NY Times on the subject, and a link to the an article from the Heritage Foundation that I think puts the scary news in a proper perspective. To quote the article:

    The reason for the hysteria is that foreigners now have investments of over $900 billion in the U.S., whereas American investments overseas are now slightly below that amount. Hence the picture of America living on borrowed money. Yet this “indebtedness” actually results from a massive vote of confidence in the American economy by foreign investors. Strangely, when a business is actively pursued by willing investors, it is taken as a sign of strength. When foreigners put their money in American industry, however, there is concern that the U.S. has become a “debtor nation.”

    On the subject of computers taking the jobs of people, I offer the following rather alarming analysis (I will give the source later). The premise, that “computers can do all things better than human beings” is a extreme, but the coming reality, I aver, is that computers will be able to do most things better than most human beings.

    The argument that computers will gradually be able to take over almost all human work activities is as follows:
    1. To have a computer do a job instead of a human requires three conditions be met: the computer must be able to be programmed to do the job; the computer must have enough computing power to do the job at least as fast as a human being; the computer must be able to do the job at least as inexpensively as a human.
    2. Computers have been successfully programmed to carry out intellectually tasks as diverse as medical diagnosis (See article “IBM’s Watson is better at diagnosing cancer than human doctors” and and capable of handing call center operations (See article “IBM’s Watson Now A Customer Service Agent….”
    3. In some cases computers can be use to redefine a job so that a human is no longer needed: (See article: “This Waiter Doesn’t Need A Tip: How restaurants will use tablet computers to replace servers.”
    4. This reduces the problem from one of technical capability to one of economics, and here the battle is an unfair one. Computer hardware evolves to become more capable through improved design and manufacturing at a rapid, exponential rate; computer hardware likewise becomes less costly at rapid, exponential rate. Software also evolves through a design driven evolutionary process and any piece of software, once developed, can be installed in any number of computers nearly instantly, and at nearly zero cost.

    Brains, the hardware that people depend on, and knowledge, the software that people depend on, also evolve. But human hardware evolves slowly, nearly imperceptibly, through process of trial and error genetic modification. Human learning evolves more rapidly than human hardware, but slowly relative to the evolution of software; and the once knowledge is acquired in one human brain it can be transferred to another human brain only through an expensive, and years-long process.

    The result: whatever computers can be programmed to do they will be able to do roughly twice as fast and half as expensively every two to three years. There’s no way that people can compete with that.

    Now for the analysis, based on that asumption:

    First let us postulate that the computer scientists succeed in developing intelligent machines that can do all things better than human beings can do them. In that case presumably all work will be done by vast, highly organized systems of machines and no human effort will be necessary. Either of two cases might occur. The machines might be permitted to make all of their own decisions without human oversight, or else human control over the machines might be retained.
    If the machines are permitted to make all their own decisions, we can’t make any conjectures as to the results, because it is impossible to guess how such machines might behave. We only point out that the fate of the human race would be at the mercy of the machines. It might be argued that the human race would never be foolish enough to hand over all the power to the machines. But we are suggesting neither that the human race would voluntarily turn power over to the machines nor that the machines would willfully seize power. What we do suggest is that the human race might easily permit itself to drift into a position of such dependence on the machines that it would have no practical choice but to accept all of the machines’ decisions. As society and the problems that face it become more and more complex and machines become more and more intelligent, people will let machines make more of their decisions for them, simply because machine-made decisions will bring better results than man-made ones. Eventually a stage may be reached at which the decisions necessary to keep the system running will be so complex that human beings will be incapable of making them intelligently. At that stage the machines will be in effective control. People won’t be able to just turn the machines off, because they will be so dependent on them that turning them off would amount to suicide.
    On the other hand it is possible that human control over the machines may be retained. In that case the average man may have control over certain private machines of his own, such as his car or his personal computer, but control over large systems of machines will be in the hands of a tiny elite – just as it is today, but with two differences. Due to improved techniques the elite will have greater control over the masses; and because human work will no longer be necessary the masses will be superfluous, a useless burden on the system. If the elite is ruthless they may simply decide to exterminate the mass of humanity. If they are humane they may use propaganda or other psychological or biological techniques to reduce the birth rate until the mass of humanity becomes extinct, leaving the world to the elite. Or, if the elite consists of soft-hearted liberals, they may decide to play the role of good shepherds to the rest of the human race. They will see to it that everyone’s physical needs are satisfied, that all children are raised under psychologically hygienic conditions, that everyone has a wholesome hobby to keep him busy, and that anyone who may become dissatisfied undergoes “treatment” to cure his “problem.” Of course, life will be so purposeless that people will have to be biologically or psychologically engineered either to remove their need for the power process or make them “sublimate” their drive for power into some harmless hobby. These engineered human beings may be happy in such a society, but they will most certainly not be free. They will have been reduced to the status of domestic animals

  • Mike Wolf posted on this topic, but it wasn’t emailed out. I encourage you to check it out by visiting this post.


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