As you know, I like to talk about our collective need to “make new maps” to better navigate this age we live. Another way to think about this same need is to question the fitness of our “social technologies”.
An economist and historian at Columbia University, Richard Nelson, points out that we humans employ two types of technology: physical technologies (which is all the stuff we normally think of when we hear “technology”—things like steam engines and semiconductors); but also social technologies, which are the ways we organize ourselves to do things—ways like settled agriculture, the rule of law, money…and democracy.
These two classes of technology evolve with each other. This co-evolution is easy to see: just look at how the list of subjects taught in universities changes over time. In an earlier letter about artificial intelligence, I gave the example of mass manufacturing—a new physical technology that challenged society to deal with a new scale and complexity of inputs, outputs and money flows. Our accounting systems couldn’t cope, and so in response, we evolved a new social technology—finance—to help us to help society to cope with, and more fully leverage the possibilities of these mass production systems.
But sometimes this co-evolution falls badly out of sync. Lately, we’ve been innovating our physical technologies very rapidly (or, as I argued in Age of Discovery, at a revolutionary pace reminiscent of the Renaissance). But our social technologies—our legal frameworks, tax systems, education systems, political systems and so on—are adapting at an evolutionary pace. That is a very simple, intuitive way to explain the widening anxiety that has been observed across the world’s advanced countries today.
One branch of social technology where the need for innovation is urgent, but not urgently pursued, is in our politics—and specifically, in our democracy.
Democracy in its modern form has been with us since Magna Carta, an agreement signed in 1215 between King John of England and his feudal barons, which recognized that the powers of the king had limits. (As a pure aside, I’ve seen one of the few surviving copies of Magna Carta several times during my years at Oxford University. It’s gorgeous. Magna Carta is often trotted out when VIPs come to town. When it’s not on display, it’s kept deep underground in a nuclear bomb-proof shelter, along with a Gutenberg Bible and other precious artifacts.)
Magna Carta, the American Declaration of Independence, the French Revolution and other seminal moments set the basic features that define all liberal democracies today. And the most basic feature of this social technology called “democracy” is the idea that (A) we choose our representatives, who are then (B) accountable to us for how well they protect, and advance, our well-being.
A still works. B makes less sense with every passing day.
The basic problem is that 21st-century humanity is tangled together now—and not, as people say, “connected”. The distinction is crucial to understanding what ails democracy today. In a tangled world, cause-and-effect are hard to see; goods and bads flow globally; and we can’t disentangle ourselves from risks and shocks that originate elsewhere.
In reality, humanity’s well-being is all tangled. But in our politics, we gather in discrete national groupings to choose people to advance our group’s well-being. The people we nominate (our elected representatives) make promises to our group: to grow the economy, to create jobs, to keep us safe, to clean up the environment. But given our tangled reality, in many situations they lack the power to deliver.
Take, for example, the US president. Donald Trump’s presidency is an example of…well, it’s an example of many things…but it is also an example of the widening gap between the promises our democratically elected leaders make to us and their capacity to fulfil them.
Across the world’s democracies, the US president is arguably the elected representatives with the most power to shape the world according to the interests of his national group. But that power is proving illusory. Take just one big example: jobs, specifically jobs in the US coal industry. Donald Trump got elected in part because he promised voters in key states to save the American coal industry. And yet, since he was elected, no new coal plants have been announced or opened in the US. Instead, 10 more coal plants have announced they will shut down. Trump is powerless to deliver on his promise to create new jobs for American coal miners, because scientific consensus about climate change, because advances in clean energy and electric vehicles, and other broad trends that entangle the coal industry overpower any actions one country might take on the issue.
What aspects of public well-being can our elected officials deliver on? The list keeps shrinking. Public safety and security? Such promises are challenged by the online radicalization of our own neighbours, or by anonymous hacks to steal our data and identities.
Public health? It’s only as secure as the weakest link in the world’s quarantine capabilities. Remember SARS? We were all lucky that the easy-to-spread pandemic hit Hong Kong, Beijing, Singapore and Toronto first—all cities with very strong public health authorities. Remember Ebola? The public health authorities in those West African countries where it struck were quickly overwhelmed. The rest of the world was just lucky that Ebola, unlike SARS, can’t spread through the air.
This coming winter’s flu season is likely to be severe across the northern hemisphere—not because public health officials are asleep at the wheel, but because southern countries like Australia, whose winter ended a couple weeks ago, have just endured one of their toughest flu seasons on record. And right now, those strains of flu virus are spreading globally through our airports.
Obviously, many determinants of our well-being remain local. The world isn’t flat; it’s more mountainous than ever. And local government policy (say, over housing prices, public transit and migration) does a lot to determine how high its residents can reach.
But many of the biggest determinants of our well-being are now beyond the power of our own political community to decide: environmental change, pandemics, tax avoidance, industrial growth and collapse, commodity prices, technological change, personal privacy and the integrity of our public discourse.
What, then, is the contract we are making with our political leaders when we elect them? Across the democratic world, trust in political institutions fell sharply after the global financial crisis. Did our politicians betray our trust? Or did we make the mistake, by believing that financial stability was within their power to maintain?
Calling all innovators
Now is the next critical moment in the long story of the social technology we call “democracy”. To help us face many of the biggest threats to our well-being, we might need to give our political leaders more trust, not less. More authority, not less. But we can’t do that, because it demands a trust we don’t feel.
Can we innovate this social technology, democracy, to suit the new world we find ourselves in? Tune in next week…
Three links to help navigate the now:
- Follow Geoff Mulgan. He’s the Chief Exec of Nesta, one of the world’s biggest policy innovation labs. Also a writer, social entrepreneur and policy geek. Everything he retweets is a “must-read”.
- Watch a brilliant, one-hour debate hosted by The Guardian between Jeffrey Sachs, David Miliband and Ngaire Woods on the question, “Are we facing a crisis of democracy?” (Or, if you only have two minutes, here’s a brief highlight and another.)
- Read Eileen Donahoe’s essay on whether government, or the big tech companies, should be in charge of protecting our public discourse from fake news. It begins, “Democracies face an existential threat: information is being weaponized against them with digital tools…” (Eileen works on global digital policy at Stanford.)
Society does not serve the economy. The economy serves society.
That seems obvious, and yet core to redrawing the maps that guide us toward “prosperity”.
The first Renaissance proved powerfully that society’s progress is a bigger concept than economic progress. Historians look back on the Renaissance century, from 1450 to 1550, as Europe’s break from the medieval ages to the early modern era. In the 1450s, Europe lagged the rest of the world on many measures of civilizational progress (e.g. science, exploration, navigation, iron- and steel-making, weaponry, agriculture, textiles and timekeeping), but by 1550 Europe was leapfrogging every other region, and boasted more organizational and energy resources than any previous civilization on earth.
But look back at the same time period through the lens of economic growth, and, according to economic historians, nothing happened. Western civilization achieved some historic transitions: from local to intercontinental Empire, or from looking for truth in Revelation to finding answers in present-day observation. (That philosophical shift led ultimately to the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment.) But “GDP per capita” barely budged. Economic growth statistics failed to capture these monumental shifts, for the simple reason that the economy is only one dimension of society. Some shifts transcend the economic dimension.
Our notions of “progress” and “prosperity” must do the same.
To that end, Bhutan famously measures national progress according to its Gross National Happiness index. The GNH a home-grown substitute to GDP that combines economic prosperity, social cohesion and environmental sustainability “in search of a more balanced society”. We’ve all heard about Bhutan’s happiness index in the media at one time or another. It’s worth taking two minutes out of our busy lives to browse the specific dimensions that Bhutan’s government measures in its report of public “happiness”, such as: emotional balance, spirituality, “healthy days” (as opposed to sick days), artisan skills (like painting and weaving), hours of sleep, victimhood (by crime, abuse or other), pollution levels and housing quality. Sounds sensible. Every household is classified on a spectrum from “Unhappy” to “Deeply Happy”.
My friends at the Boston Consulting Group, where I once worked, have developed a substitute to GDP called SEDA—the Sustainable Economic Development Assessment—as another way to shift the national goal from “wealth” (i.e., GDP) to “well-being”. It considers a narrower, but perhaps more familiar, set of indicators: economic factors like GDP, unemployment and inequality; public infrastructure, health, education and the like. Like my letter last week, SEDA makes the point that, while tracking economic growth makes sense, focusing on growth alone misses the point. Converting economic growth into general well-being is not automatic, and it occurs very differently from country to country.
In China, the ruling Communist Party, which has made economic growth its main focus for the past 30 years, looks set to reform its Constitution at its once-every-five-years powwow in mid-October to enshrine a winder notion of prosperity. To quote the official translation of the official draft text from the official propaganda bureau: “The people-oriented development thought should be implemented to solve the conspicuous problems faced by the country and…to promote balanced economic, political, cultural, social, and ecological progress.”
The Wake Up Foundation, run by a former chief editor of The Economist, thinks about prosperity less in terms of progress and growth, and more in terms of resilience in a time of flourishing risk. It ranks 35 rich democracies according to how prepared they seem to “deal with the big forces we all know will pummel us over the next decades”. Their ranking considers demography, education, innovation, globalization and institutional strength. They rank Switzerland 1st, my own Canada 12th and the USA 23rd…
Even the pope is taking part in this conversation. In his second encyclical, Laudato Si’ (2015), Pope Francis writes:
A technological and economic development which does not leave in its wake a better world and a higher quality of life cannot be considered progress. Frequently, in fact, people’s quality of life actually diminishes—by the deterioration of the environment, the low quality of food or the depletion of resources—in the midst of economic growth.
From macro to micro
My plan was to switch gears at this point, away from the big-picture macro question of “What does prosperity mean?”, and start exploring the micro question of “What does it look like to pursue something other than growth within the economy?”
I was going to share some of the thinking from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation about shifting from a linear to a circular economy. I was going to share some examples of startup companies that aim for long-term, stable profits rather than short-term, lucrative exits—like Meetup.org or Pando Daily.
But I’ve hit my word limit again, so…tune in next week.
Three more links to help navigate the now:
- Listen to Oxford psychiatrist Ian McGilchrist. In this interview on Australian national radio, he helps us to make better sense of the world by using our left- and right-brain—or, as he calls them, the Master and his Emissary.
- Follow Max Tegmark. He’s a physicist at MIT and tries to make the issues presented by Artificial Intelligence accessible to everyone, so that we can all take part in the conversation about it.
- Watch a clip about Being Abroad in Japan, by my friend and professional YouTuber Chris Broad. We met on a long flight from London to Singapore earlier this year. In one of his latest clips (they’re all short), he lives through the experience of being awoken by a North Korean missile flying overhead. Ah, the times we live in…
This year is the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia, a book that, in the midst of the political, social and technological upheavals of the first Renaissance, imagined a radically different society. “Utopia” literally means “no-place”, and over time the word has come to mean a fantasy land where all our problems have been solved.
I have argued elsewhere that the 21st century can be humanity’s best. This can be the century when we solve poverty and disease, and flip the human condition from scarcity to abundance—for all.
But I doubt that we will reach that utopia by following the same economic map that guides us today. In too many contexts, we concentrate faster than we distribute. We deplete faster than we regenerate. Society serves the economy, when surely it should be the other way around.
A new map is needed to navigate this new economic world of global markets, global finance, digital monopolies, automation and aging workforces. And it begins with rethinking our destination, “growth”.
Economic growth matters
Today’s economic map aims for a place marked “growth”.
As destinations go, economic growth matters. Bigly. If we live in the “developing” world—say, in Nambia—our community has a long list of development needs: physical infrastructure, like roads, water systems, power systems, sewage, telecom and ports; social infrastructure, like schools and hospitals; and government infrastructure like courts, police, statistics agencies, public health bureaus and all the bureaucracies that help hold society together. All these things make life better, all these things cost money, and the faster we grow our economy the faster we can afford to build (and maintain) them.
China is the headline example of how sustained economic growth can end poverty—and, in the space of two generations, transform a society whose main economic output was cheap manufactures into one that is poised to lead the way in new technologies like AI and quantum computing.
Economic growth is an important destination for “developed” countries, too. First, because every developed country has a lot of developing left to do (in my home province of Saskatchewan, Canada, one in four children still live in poverty). Second, because our domestic politics gets uglier and uglier the closer we get to the opposite destination (i.e., economic stagnation).
To see why, look first at a fast-growing country—again, take China. China’s economy is growing at a rate of about 6.5% this year. All else being equal, that means the Chinese government’s total tax revenues will grow about 6.5%, too. That means the government can afford to spend on every stakeholder in society this year the same amount that it spent on them last year, and has a big pot of totally new money to dish out however it wants. No wonder people are happy with their government. No hard choices.
But in a slow-growth country (which is to say, all the world’s advanced economies), if government wants to spend more money somewhere, it either needs to: (a) raise taxes or (b) spend less money somewhere else. Either way, the process creates winners and losers. Hard choices. Bitter politics, and bitter partisan divides. (Sound familiar?)
So economic growth matters. Our problem is: it matters too much to us. The environmental movement has been hammering this point into all of our heads for more than 50 years. Economic growth at the expense of our climate, of fresh water, of fresh air, of nonrenewable resources or of the global commons like oceans and fisheries and forests doesn’t move civilization forward in any long-term sense.
The bad consequences of our growth addiction show up in the short-term, too. We all saw this, spectacularly, in the finance industry during the global financial crisis. An industry pursued growth, but broke the ecosystem upon which growth depends.
We are seeing this addiction again today—this time, in the tech industry. From Facebook to Uber to AirBnb and Amazon, tech businesses are rushing to build “platform monopolies”. They, and the venture capital that funds them, believe that “network effects” within our digital society make these games “winner-take-all”. And so the emphasis across the tech startup sector is almost exclusively on growth. Society can sort out the risks later—whether it’s how to protect domestic political discourse from foreign interference, how to protect workers and consumers in the gig economy, or how to usefully re-employ whole labor markets that have been displaced by AI and automation.
We are naïve if we think that these risks will sort themselves out. They won’t.
There is good evidence, for example, that within developed countries “the economy” is now splitting into two: the one, a “dynamic sector” of high-value industries where AI, robotics and other technologies are creating tremendous gains in wealth and productivity; and the other, a “stagnant sector” of low-value industries with low job security and low pay.
Now, depending on your political stripes, conditions in the stagnant sector are either “deeply worrying” or “the way the world works”.
But what we should all be worried by evidence that these conditions are beginning to drag down the overall economy. (For econ-geeks, here’s the paper. For the rest of us: It’s like we’re all at a house party playing Monopoly. As the game goes on, more and more of us go bankrupt. The crowd sitting bored on the sofa, waiting for the game to end, is getting bigger, while the group still having fun around the table is getting smaller and smaller. The whole party’s getting dull. But then, the rules aren’t designed to keep everyone in play. They’re designed to declare a winner.)
Question our destination
Again and again, we steer for growth with a single-mindedness that would make Ahab proud—and again and again, we risk wrecking our ship en route.
So it’s time to ask ourselves some utopian questions: Is our economy aimed at the right destination? And if that destination’s not “growth”, then where?
Three links to help navigate the now
- Sign up for monthly updates from the Institute for New Economic Thinking. INET was founded by Nobel economists after the financial crisis with a mission is to make economics serve society. The best resource on the web for…yep, you guessed it…new economic thinking.
- Read Douglas Rushkoff’s book, Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus. Doug and I shared the stage at a summit on the “circular economy” this summer. Doug’s the one who coined the phrase “social media”, and his latest book shakes popular faith in today’s tech sector.
- Follow Adair Turner. He’s a former financial regulator (in the UK), and the one banker who just makes sense. His last book, Between Debt and the Devil, is wonkish but…just makes sense.
I hope everyone had a great summer (or winter, depending on your hemisphere). It was a busy few months of writing, researching, travel, reflecting and speaking for me.
A common narrative nowadays is that we are flooded—overwhelmed—with data and information. But this narrative is misleading. Our main challenge does not lie in being bombarded with too much information (our brain is always flooded with more sensory data than it can process). Overwhelm occurs only because we lack an apt framework to make the flood meaningful.
That little insight leads me to define what “failure” and “success” looks like for me—for my next book, and for these letters. If I only add to the flood, that’s failure. But if I can help make the flood meaningful, then I’m succeeding. (Let me know!)
On that note: Last week I was in Houston, to see the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey first-hand and also to attend a meeting of the North American Energy Standards Board.
While there, I told the board members a short story about Christopher Columbus. It’s an important story, because it offers insight into how we can make the present flood meaningful.
It’s also a story about how we should learn from the mistakes of history. Because like Christopher Columbus, we too have set out on bold voyages. Like him, we’re making big new discoveries. But like him, we’re trying to jam them into old (mental) maps.
In 1492, Columbus famously sailed west in search of a shorter route to the spice riches of Asia. He found America. But he was convinced it was Asia. (Some argue that he died still believing that he had in fact found Asia). Why? Because Noah had three sons. And after The Flood, they fathered the three races of Man: Africa, Asia and Europe. That was humanity. That was the world, full stop.
His mental map prevented Columbus from making sense of his own discovery. It’s why “America” isn’t named after Columbus, but after Amerigo Vespucci. Amerigo was the Italian explorer who, some 10 years after Columbus’ voyages, popularized the insight that the lands Columbus had found were, in fact, a mundus novus. A new world. By helping Europeans to make that mental shift, Amerigo unleashed Europe’s capacity to navigate that new world—for good and ill. (From a trade perspective, explorers’ disappointments about the absence of marketable spices and silks turned into excitement about valuable new commodities this new world might reveal: tobacco, sugarcane, corn, potato…unexpected crops that profoundly reshaped Old World diets.)
To make better sense of our present-day voyages of discovery, we need to follow Amerigo’s example: don’t just try to ram all the fresh news of our age into our head (a futile and anxious task). Instead, challenge the maps onto which we are trying to ram them, so that our thinking evolves with our reality. It’s the smarter, wiser approach. Instead of feeling overwhelm, we can adapt our awareness, so that it all makes better sense.
So take politics. We cannot plot Donald Trump onto a traditional linear political map of Left versus Right. But add a second axis—say, Open vs Closed—and suddenly we can (hint: he’s Closed-Right).
Or take China. We cannot understand contemporary China through tired, monochrome clichés like “red” and “dragon”. (There is a “red China”, yes, but my own doctoral work shows that there is also a “blue China”.) Once when we start to see China’s other color(s), the information and behaviors coming out of China make a lot more sense.
Or take AI. Most public discourse looks at artificial intelligence through the lens of automation—a zero-sum game in which the machines replace us humans. But that’s only one role that AI might play in our future. We could also look at AI through the lens of augmentation—a game in which AI helps us to do more with available (human) resources. Given that most advanced countries are aging rapidly, and that workforces are going to start shrinking, that’s a game we want AI to play.
Or take urban planning. Many cities still map their land into discrete zones: commercial here, residential there. But how can that map make any sense today, when every residence is a potential AirBnb business and every private driveway is a rentable parking space?
Map-making is about:
- Becoming aware of the maps that we’re already using…
- Testing their validity in the face of recent events and discoveries…
- Drawing new maps that better describe the new world we’re in…
It’s one way that we can consciously adapt our thinking in a period of rapid change. And those communities, businesses and individuals who see the new maps soonest will, like Amerigo, be the ones that history remembers best, because they set the frame in which all subsequent events happen…
I’ve been in Australia for the past couple weeks to write, to research—and occasionally, to share with other people what I’m writing and researching about. Highlights included a talk at the Committee for Adelaide on June 26 and a keynote at DATA61+LIVE in Melbourne on June 28—that, and celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday Down Under with friends at an ice hockey match (seriously). I wanted to celebrate by taking part in Canada’s other national sport (lacrosse), but it’s winter down here, so…
I’m pretty optimistic about this ‘second Renaissance‘ we’re living through, but I also try to be sober about the case for pessimism. I think, for example, of Montezuma II (1466-1520)—the Aztec emperor who ruled over his civilization’s greatest expansion…and its fall to Hernan Cortez and his Spanish conquistadors. The Franciscan friar, Bernardino de Sahagun, gathered Aztec accounts of their downfall just a few years after the events took place. As he wrote in his chronicle:
The Mexican king Montezuma sent his sorcerers
Who were to cast a spell on the Spanish.
And when they failed, he sent a second group of messengers:
The soothsayers, the magicians and the high priests.
But it was to no avail.
They could not bewitch the people…
Well, of course they couldn’t. Curses aren’t real!
That is exactly how the Spanish reacted, too. Their techno-rational worldview was impervious to magic spells and mythic rituals. But those same spells had always worked before, among us Aztecs. If you were a sorcerer, and you publicly cursed me, that curse became part of our shared reality. You knew you’d cursed me, I knew I’d been cursed, everyone who saw and heard about it believed that I’d been cursed…Your curse was an uncontested fact of our world, as “true” as my public claim that “My name is Chris” is true.
So today, against anti-immigrant commentators in the UK media who point to the welfare burden of migrants, I cast a fact!: Immigrants to the UK pay £15 billion more via taxes than they withdraw via social benefits each year. Or against climate-change denial back home in Canada’s agricultural belt, I cast a fact!: Wheat yields fall 5-10% for every 1-degree rise in global average temperature.
Then my hands fall, helpless. My facts have no power, because they do not cross into this other culture that has invaded. And I am no ordinary fact-caster. I am a high priest of our techno-rational world, anointed at the holy alter of Oxford University itself! (Although I only wear my robes when I’m back in Oxford).
It matters not. My protective magic is failing. And I fear the consequences for all of us. History suggests the stakes are very high…
For months now, I’ve been trading letters with Doug Robertson, author of two impactful books in the philosophy of science: The New Renaissance: Computers and the Next Level of Civilization (1998) and Phase Change: The Computer Revolution in Science and Mathematics (2003).
For Doug, too, the present is a second Renaissance. If we want to appreciate the full significance of the time we’re now living in, we need that historical context. I owe Doug a deep debt for helping me grasp that context, as it pertains to science and innovation.
It is fashionable among economists to argue that innovation is slowing down. (I published an article challenging economists who hold this view a few months ago.) The slow-down argument is only true if one measures innovation as an economist does, using GDP growth statistics. But science itself is flourishing.
As Doug eloquently puts it,
If the print revolution of the Renaissance was the lighting of a single candle in a pitch-black field at midnight, then today’s digital revolution is the sunrise.
Doug’s analogy is not mere poetry; it’s an accurate description of the difference in scale between the impact of print and the impact of digital upon civilization’s information resources.
All big breakthroughs in, say, astronomy over the last few decades were impossible in the pre-digital age. But now we’ve determined the age of the universe. We’ve discovered thousands of planets around other stars. We’ve discovered gravity waves. All pre-digital astronomical findings, from the Mayan calendars to Copernicus’ sun-centric universe, were obvious in comparison. Says Doug: “It is no exaggeration to say that astronomy begins with the invention of the computer.”
The same can be said in almost every branch of science and math. The sun is just now peeking over the eastern horizon. In a very real sense, we are witness to the dawn of civilization.
No wonder we’re unsure about the future.
One of the hottest stories here in China last week received far less coverage outside the country: the Human-vs-Machine Go Showdown, between the world’s top Go player, Ke Jie, and Google’s AlphaGO AI machine.
I’ve met Gary Kasparov a few times, and I’ve heard first-hand his story of facing off across the chess board against IBM’s Deep Blue in 1997. (Short version: it was stressful). This was a rematch of sorts, with different champions on both sides and a new game-board between them: Go, or weiqi as it’s known here. Weiqi (literally, “encirclement chess”) is a simple-looking game in which opponents take turns laying their stones (white or black) on a board comprising 19 horizontal and 19 vertical lines. Whoever encircles more territory, wins. It’s simple to play, but hard to win.
In chess, each game begins with all the pieces in the same position, and each turn offers a handful of legal moves. As the game progresses, pieces are removed and the game’s future simplifies. But in Go, the game begins with an empty board, and each turn presents hundreds of choices. As the game progresses, pieces are added and the endgame becomes increasingly complex.
Deep Blue was able to defeat Kasparov through brute processing strength: by looking at the board and crunching through all possible scenarios, two- or three-dozen moves into the future. But this approach fails with Go. Instead, Google’s AlphaGo applies recent advances in machine learning and neural networks to look at the board less like a computer does, and more like a human would, to evolve its goals and strategies as the game progresses.
In the midst of the three-day Go tournament, I gave an interview to a major Chinese science magazine. Here’s a (lightly edited) excerpt. Hope you find it provocative…
Who is going to win: the human or the machine?
History has shown us that whenever we teach a computer a human skill, it very quickly becomes better at that skill than any human.
The first computers that could do math were slower than a skilled human. It took a long time to program the computer to add, subtract, multiply or divide. The human engineer with his slide rule could do the math much faster. But within a few years, the computer could complete thousands of calculations in the time it took a human to complete one. Today, it can perform billions.
The very first computers had limited memory. And memory was very expensive. Today’s computers can remember everything that all humanity writes, sees and does.
The very first chess computers could play only basic, pre-programmed sequences. By the mid-1990s, IBM’s Deep Blue was able to beat the world champion),
Whenever we teach a computer a human skill, it quickly becomes more skillful at that skill than any human ever was, or ever will be. That is because the computer has almost unlimited time, patience, stamina, and memory. In the time it takes us to play one game, it can play, and learn from, billions. While we are sleeping, it is practicing.
Whether or not AlphaGo wins next week is not the point. The moment we taught it to play Go, we guaranteed its eventual victory. What will we teach the machines to do next?
Should we fear the growing power of AI, or welcome it?
Steve Jobs used to say, “The computer is a bicycle for the brain.” What did he mean by this? If you take all the animals in the animal kingdom and rank them by how efficiently they travel (calories burned per kilometer), then humans rank quite low. All the birds rank first, followed by four-legged animals, and so forth. But a human on a bicycle ranks far ahead of even the most efficient bird.
Just as a bicycle makes human travel more efficient, computers make the mental work that humans do more efficient. They help us to remember, to compute, to do repetitive tasks. AI promises the same benefit, except that it can help us be more efficient at higher-order mental tasks: reasoning, judging, creating, and so on.
In this way, AI will bring great good to humanity. It will help us make better decisions, and start making many decisions for us. One example that’s easy for everyone to understand is driving a car. Human drivers can be impaired, or distracted, or emotional, we can lose focus because the task of driving a car, while complex, can also become monotonous. The AI has better eyesight and reflexes than we possess, and it is always calm, alert and focused on driving the car, while constantly watching out for other cars and accidents. Already, AI has proven to be a much safer driver than humans. In a similar way, AI can help us do a better job flying aircraft, buying and selling investments, or policing public spaces.
These are some of the early, obvious uses. As AI becomes more common and affordable, it may take over many decisions in our daily lives, such as what food to buy this week, or which people to visit and what we should say to them. It may also take over many white-collar jobs (e.g., most corporate research, which is mainly a bunch of decisions about what information is important and what information isn’t).
A bicycle reduces the time and energy we spend traveling, and leaves us more time and energy to do things at our destination. AI will reduce the time and energy we spend making many routine judgments and decisions, and will leave us more time and energy to do meaningful, creative work. That can be a very good thing.
But AI will also create some tough problems. The obvious one is: a lot of people are going to lose their jobs. That will create a lot of stress and anxiety. It will make some rich people even richer, and it will cause some middle-class people to fall into poverty—unless we first figure out how to share these costs and benefits more fairly across society.
The deeper danger is that, if AI takes control over more and more of the decisions in our lives, will we become less free? Already, Google’s search engine decides for me which search results it thinks I, Chris Kutarna, will want to see, and shows me those. But what about the search results that it doesn’t show me? How can I disagree with a decision that gets made without my knowledge? Now, fast forward to the future and imagine a sales AI that knows my personality and can perfectly manipulate me to buy a vacation to, say, Brazil. And I go to Brazil and I do have a great time. I thought that I had made this decision myself; but actually I was manipulated by a travel agency, which profited from my “decision”. Or imagine a political AI that perfectly manipulates people to vote a certain way, or to protest a certain action.
The power to help us make decisions and the power to manipulate us into making certain decisions is the same power. The only difference is who controls the AI. And that’s the danger.
The world always makes sense. But it doesn’t always make sense to us. Shock—a seemingly relentless theme nowadays—is personal proof that whatever lens we’ve been looking through to see the world no longer shows things as they really are. We need to shatter that lens—and with it, the simple dichotomies that dominate, and warp, our sight: globalization versus nationalism; open doors versus xenophobia; populism versus public virtue; information abundance versus fake news; the lifted up versus the left behind.
We need to grind for ourselves a very different way of seeing the world. The sooner we do that, the less time we’ll waste frozen in disbelief, and the more time we’ll spend helping ourselves, our families, our organizations and communities to thrive through the upheavals to come.
My latest book is my lens for making sense of the moment we’re in. The title, Age of Discovery, plays on our misconceptions of both the past and the present. It evokes an optimistic vision of humanity blown by scientific, economic and social winds—zigging and zagging, surely, but always progressing toward a better, New World. In hindsight, is that not how, until recently, so many of us viewed our present moment? We thought we were passengers on a ship at sea, with little control over the weather, yet lulled into complacency by our general heading.
Now, recent reversals have made us wise to our true predicament. In an Age of Discovery, there are no passengers. There is no inevitable path of rational progress. There are only pilots, struggling to steer the ship: between the good and bad consequences of global entanglement; between forces of inclusion and exclusion; between flourishing genius and flourishing risks.
We’re caught in the grip of awesome, paradoxical forces—and we’re no longer sure which direction we’re headed.
But we’ve been here before. And the wisdom of history can be our compass, if we choose to look at it.
Trump’s anti-globalist vision of putting ‘America first’ to ‘Make America great again’ is explicitly outdated. Such a lens is a clear error in political leadership, since even if the Trump administration successfully recreates an era of protectionism, it cannot recreate past conditions under which those policies might once have made sense.
Take demographics. Since the Cold War began, humanity’s population has doubled. Our urban population has quadrupled. Over 90% of humanity now lives within one hour of a major city. This massive, dense urbanity has done far more to open our economies to trade and investment (and amplify financial, security and pandemic risks) than global trade and investment treaties. Trade treaties are only a thin veneer of convenience that governments have laminated over top of this irreversible, tectonic shift in human geography. Cancelling them does not undo that shift. Cancelling them may, however, erode countries’ capacity to shape the consequences and mitigate the risks for their citizens. That’s my fear. (Please point me to evidence that I might be wrong, and that re-raising walls might actually raise aggregate well-being.)
Chinese President Xi’s vision of ‘economic globalization’ is likewise an attempt to re-apply outdated solutions to present-day problems, in defiance of changed circumstances. Fifteen years ago, China joined the WTO. The resulting export boom helped the Party soothe many necessary-but-painful structural adjustments—and lift a billion Chinese people out of poverty. But now it’s clear that, in many industries, China has overshot its growth potential. (I blame official corruption.) Now it is stripping overcapacity from the very same sectors that it has been subsidizing for years: automotive, energy, steel, even graphene.
’Economic globalization’ is Xi’s way of wishing for a fresh kick of free trade and investment to ease the adjustment process again. It worked 15 years ago. But this time the ‘developed world’ sees China with more skepticism. Then, gaining access to China’s vast internal market was the all-important carrot. Now, that allure has faded. The Party has proven unwilling to open many ’strategic’ industries to foreign investment; Chinese regulators are increasingly hostile to foreign businesses; and subsidized industries (think steel) have dumped production onto export markets at prices far below cost—good for propping up bloated industries at home, but a job-killer abroad.
Neither Trump nor Xi has the right vision for now. Each in his own way aims to solve urgent problems at home by simplifying away the problems of the rest of the world. When the next big shock comes (and it is coming), they will both discover their common error: mitigating the risks of the present Age is a cooperative game…
Age of Discovery is a much needed dose of perspective in our increasingly short-term focused world.Dominic Barton