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Technologists Need to Consider the Political Disruptions Ahead

Technologists celebrate accelerating change.   For much of human history, it would have been impossible even to notice technical innovation in the course of a lifetime. But today technological change is a yearly event. This trend is not only or mainly a matter of ever smaller and faster gadgets. More profoundly, more spheres of social and economic life come to rely on the platform of interconnected computation, which itself becomes ever more powerful.  Law itself is on the cusp of computational envelopment.

But technologists rarely reflect on the kinds of political institutions we need to govern a world of faster change.  Flexible institutions and policies must not only respond to the rate of technological change but also incorporate it. Consider the latest predictions of even more dramatic change by Ray Kurzweil, Google’s AI chief:

“By the late 2010s, glasses will beam images directly onto the retina. Ten terabytes of computing power (roughly the same as the human brain) will cost about $1,000.

By the 2020s, most diseases will go away as nanobots become smarter than current medical technology. The Turing test begins to be passable. Self-driving cars begin to take over the roads, and people won’t be allowed to drive on highways.

By the 2030s, virtual reality will begin to feel 100% real. We will be able to upload our mind/consciousness by the end of that decade.

By the 2040s, non-biological intelligence will be a billion times more capable than biological intelligence (a.k.a. us).”

I am not endorsing these predictions, although Kurzweil has a decent track record as futurologist. But even if these events take two or three times as long as Kurzweil has predicted, it will be a bumpy ride.

The potential disruptions can be divided into three types. First, there is danger from the technological innovation itself. Bill Gates recently added his voice to those who are worried about strong AI getting out of control. Second, there is disruption of domestic social life.  For example, self-driving cars may rapidly displace three million people who drive for a living. Or substantially longer life expectancies would put intense pressure on  Social Security. Finally, there is disruption abroad, as the wave of acceleration engulfs societies, like many in the Islamic world, that have not come to terms with the social demands of industrialization, let alone the computational age. The result may be more disorientation and terrorism with the added danger that groups will have access to new kinds of weapons of mass destruction, made possible by biotechnology or nanotechnology.

As Kurzweil’s predictions come to pass, societies will become wealthier. But that does not mean politics—often defined as the process of who gets what, when and how—will end. As wealth grows, people may be increasingly tempted to take it though political means, perhaps all the more so as some people are left on the sidelines by the changes.

A blog post is not the place to offer quick solutions to a profound problem. I have tried to do so elsewhere. But any solution must take advantage of accelerating technology to govern this age of acceleration. For instance, the very information technology that is at the root of technological acceleration can help us improve policy responses to these disruptions.   Forms of politically predictive information technology could include everything from prediction markets to multiplayer games in which players would simulate the results of policy before it was actually implemented. Would that technologists turn their minds to helping make our politics more information rich and evidence based.

Reader Discussion

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on February 02, 2015 at 12:02:33 pm

You continue to astound me (almost as much as Pete Carroll's play calling):

"Forms of politically predictive information technology could include everything from prediction markets to multiplayer games in which players would simulate the results of policy before it was actually implemented."

So why would *faster* simulations be markedly better than the simulations (such as they are) currently performed by policymakers. Speed itself is no answer to the fundamental "knowledge problem mentioned by Hayek and Hazlitt. You also concede that politics may continue to play a role. Gee, what a surprise! Politics is policy - always was and always will be. so what will assure us that these new policies will be any better than the existing pablum advanced by current political actors.

Perhaps, you should take a look at Ken Masugi's post today and recognize that, unlike your assertion that "Flexible institutions and policies must not only respond to the rate of technological change but also incorporate it," it may be better to rely upon that which is best suited for ongoing civic interaction and liberty.

You know, both the wheel and fire were invented some time ago. They still seem to work. Not all that is old is "not gold."

BTW: We already have "flexible" institutions - it is called the "Living Constitution." I'd just as soon have a *dead one* - oh wait, isn't that what the Living Constitutionalists have done to our old one.

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gabe
on February 02, 2015 at 22:23:40 pm

… those who are worried about strong AI getting out of control….

I think they’re just expressing concern about Gore’s next movie.

[S]ocieties will become wealthier. But that does not mean politics—often defined as the process of who gets what, when and how—will end. As wealth grows, people may be increasingly tempted to take it though political means, perhaps all the more so as some people are left on the sidelines by the changes.

Well, that’s not much of prediction. If society were to get wealthier, progressive taxation would result in higher government receipts. And if some people were left on the sidelines, they’d qualify for unemployment insurance and eventually Social Security Disability Insurance. (Disability is not so much a physical status but an economic one.) Voila: greater wealth transfers.

Would this be a bad thing? That is, should we give everyone an incentive to lobby for the status quo and put up protectionist measures, lest their jobs become redundant? Or should we give everyone the confidence that as society changes and grows wealthier, they’ll get a slice of the pie? You can have one outcome or the other, but don’t fool yourself into thinking that you can have growth and disruption, yet provoke no democratic response.

Bottom line: Historically we’ve looked to capitalism not only to drive productivity, but to distribute the benefits of productivity. But we’ve also always had massive programs to redistribute wealth down the income ladder. As technology lets us produce ever more with ever less, mass unemployment will become the norm – and we’ll need new mechanisms for distributing the wealth. This is not something to decry; it's something to celebrate -- I think.

Yes, as society grows wealthier, material scarcity will become a thing of the past. But we don’t crave material things merely as a hedge against scarcity. We also crave status. But if everyone can get just about any material thing he wants, how can we achieve/express status? This may provoke some major antisocial behavior among people who are VERY well stocked with material resources.

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nobody.really
on February 03, 2015 at 11:12:27 am

Rather timely comments coming as they do on the 102nd anniversary of the ratification of the 16th Amendment.
Have no fear, Nobody, the MECHANISM is already in place and has been for over a century.

Do we really crave status; and is this the motivation behind the accumulation of great wealth? That is open to debate - relying upon the words of some of these "accumulators" may tend to open up a wider range of motivational preconditions, would it not? surely, one does enjoy status and recognition along with the accompanying wealth, but is it fair to say that someone such as Edison was *motivated* by status? Gates? Harry Jaffa? Perhaps, there is something more, would you admit?

It is also questionable if "everyone can get just about any material thing he wants" - goodness who will build ALL the custom made Boeing 777 - 900's that we can take to the shore for our weekend getaways. some poor dope will still have to be on the assembly line or at least maintain the robots that McGinnis sees in our future.
Even more importantly, and problematically for those who support high levels of government planning / intervention, who wants to waste their time in some cubbyhole in a government bureaucracy overseeing the *safe* production of all these 777's?

This democratic response (sarcastic sense, I am sure) was perhaps best described by Machiavelli as *idleness* which is corrosive of social virtue. I suspect that this would be the result. I would be troubled by this were it not for the fact that such talk seems rather utopian and unattainable. Tyler Cowen where are you? (even if we neither need nor want you).

Just saying!
Anyway, let us all take a moment to remember the anniversary of the 16th Amendment and how successful it has been as a redistributive tool - Oops, maybe it hasn't ended our social woes. But what the heck, let's try a few more of these tactics. Now where the hell is my H&R Block CD so I can send in my taxes? Where......?

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gabe
on February 03, 2015 at 12:54:04 pm

or in other words: everything seems to be going along fine, and then some damn fool calls for a slant play - who can predict this stuff?

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gabe
on February 03, 2015 at 20:29:51 pm

My three main concerns are 1) The loss of privacy. 2) The easy expansion of government laws, enabled by technology. 3) Hackers.

Hackers I don't need to explain.

The loss of privacy doesn't need much explaining. As technology is used to communicate and collect information and as it becomes more pervasive, privacy will become less.

The expansion of government laws needs a little explanation, but it is easy to understand by using tax rules as an example.

Tax rules are so complex you need a computer to figure out your taxes if you have much complexity in your investing. If you took away all of the tax software today there would be a riot in DC tomorrow when people had to actually work through the tax code and manually calculate their taxes. This is a case of technology enabling the expansion of rules.

By the same token, if technology gives great assistance in making laws easier to create and follow, technology will become a powerful enabler of the expansion of laws into our everyday lives. The ongoing decrease of privacy is something that cannot really be avoided. But if you see law software similar to tax code software becoming commonly used by the general public, be afraid. Be very afraid. The ability of government to easily monitor rule breaking, and easily make laws, and easily expect everyone to have no excuse for not knowing the laws, along with an ability to selectively police those laws, is a dangerous mixture.

This website is a great example of technology being used in a healthy and positive way. Rare websites, like this one that discuss the meaning of law, are very useful, but most people don't care to take advantage of them. Its much easier and enjoyable to go to a political website and read other people's whinings about how bad things are and how stupid and corrupt those people over are, and maybe take a few seconds to make comments of a similar character, than it is to actually try to understand government and maybe find ways to apply a little elbow grease to improve it.

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Scott Amorian
on February 12, 2015 at 09:37:55 am

Do we really crave status; and is this the motivation behind the accumulation of great wealth? ….
It is also questionable if “everyone can get just about any material thing he wants”….

You just need to watch more Star Trek.

But the challenge of too much idle time is real. Libertarians value maximizing discretion -- and the more resources you have, the greater discretion you have. So rich people are happy people, right? Mostly. But there may be limits. Work has been the conventional way by which we structure not only our days, but our identities. The adage "idle hands are the devil's workshop" comes from somewhere....

Or, as someone suggested to me, "Joy does not come from having nothing to do. Joy comes from having things to do -- and not doing them.

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nobody.really
on December 28, 2016 at 07:48:22 am

No bother Laura. Pleased to unfold a Gaelic love that is little around. Desire the tracks are currently coming along nicely.

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Watch Al jababira ( 1990 ) Online HDQ

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.