One Minute Book Reviews — 15

Why You Should Read “The Economic Singularity” by Calum Chace

Artificial Intelligence and the Death of Capitalism

Fahri Karakas
May 4 · 17 min read
Photo by Vu Nguyen on Unsplash

I have recently finished reading “The Economic Singularity” by Calum Chace, a useful overview of the latest developments in artificial intelligence and their economic implications.

Calum Chace has been writing on AI for a long time. His earlier book was titled ‘Surviving AI’. He has also written ‘Pandora’s Brain’, a thriller about the first superintelligence.

As robots and machines are becoming increasingly dextrous, flexible, skilled, and intelligent, we need to better understand the implications for our future. Chace believes most of us will not be able to work for money after a few decades:

“Self-driving cars will probably be the canary in the coal mine, providing a wake-up call for everyone who isn’t yet paying attention. All jobs will be affected, from fast food McJobs to lawyers and journalists. This is the single most important development facing humanity in the first half of the 21st century.”

Chace believes we need to reinvent all the economic systems that we have, although he offers little guidance and sustainable models on how we might design and implement such systems. Chase thinks the Universal Basic Income solution is only a partial answer to the large-scale systemic changes needed. We need to reinvent jobs as we know it, as this will be a world in which machines do all the boring jobs and humans do whatever they wish to do. This includes pursuing our own creativity, arts, passions, hobbies, literature, entrepreneurship, and philosophy.

Chace thinks art will be one of the few realms truly left for human beings:

“There is one profession which can probably never be automated until the arrival of an artificial general intelligence which is also fully conscious. That profession is art, and to understand why, it is important to distinguish between art and creativity. Creativity is the use of imagination to create something original. Imagination is the faculty of having original ideas, and there seems to be no reason why that requires a conscious mind to be at work. Creativity can simply be the act of combining two existing ideas (perhaps from different domains of expertise) in a novel way.”

Chase believes machines can be creative, as they will be randomly combining ideas at a scale that is unprecedented. However, they cannot replace human intuition, art, consciousness, and relationships. So, whatever machines cannot do will be the areas that are left where we can truly exercise our humanity.

Here are some of the insights presented in this book:

  • Intelligent machines will render much of humanity unemployable in the foreseeable future.
  • Machines (AI systems plus robots) will be able to do anything cheaper, faster, and better. And unlike us, their capabilities will be improving all the time. At an exponential rate, if not faster.
  • Machines are now able to recognize and classify faces better than humans. They are catching up in speech recognition and they are making rapid progress with natural language processing.
  • It is possible to automate the cognitive and manual tasks that we carry out to do our jobs.
  • Machine intelligence is approaching or overtaking our ability to ingest, process, and pass on data presented in visual form and in natural language.
  • Machine intelligence is improving at an exponential rate. This rate may or may not slow a little in the coming years, but it will continue to be very fast.
  • Machine intelligence will, over the coming few decades, make it impossible for most people to find paid work.
  • We need to navigate through a dramatic transition: The economic singularity. This signals the end of capitalism as we know it.
  • We will be experiencing unprecedented productivity gains and unlimited leisure. However, we need to evolve an advanced and balanced social system suited to the world of connected intelligent systems.
  • The jobs of the future do not exist today and the jobs of today will not exist in the future.
  • Technological Singularity will change everything, but its first manifestation will come in the shape of technological unemployment.
  • How should we organize society when labor is not necessary to provide for the necessities of life? How will humans find meaning?
  • Earning a living will be an archaic concept, as we are entering a world of abundance. Right now, we look back at slavery and understand how wrong it was to earn freedom. We will similarly look back at poverty and understand how wrong it is to earn a living.
  • You will not need a job to survive or thrive in the future. You will need to find the things that will give you meaning, freedom, and curiosity.
  • Not having to work for long hours might be desirable for humans. We can then better contribute to the arts, the sciences, and the humanities. We can invent new things and ideas. We can create beauty, poetry, and philosophy.
  • Nedd Ludd gave his name to bands of frightened, angry men who smashed machines in England during the early industrial revolution. Luddites were not advancing any sophisticated economic argument — they were simply trying to defend themselves and their families from imminent starvation.
  • Service industries now comprise by far the largest part of most developed economies. They will be outsourced to robots.
  • Almost all manual jobs in factories, warehouses, and elsewhere will be done by machines and robots. If machines do all these things better than humans, how will we all earn a living?
  • We will work more closely with machines, but we will always bring uniquely human things to the party. Those uniquely human things are usually some combination of creativity and empathy.
  • This combination of man and machine is a centaur, a term borrowed from modern chess, and invented by Gary Kasparov. Centaurs will be very critical in value creation in the future.
  • Machines don’t have empathy, and probably won’t unless and until we create artificial general intelligence. Empathy requires consciousness, and machines won’t have it, but they will be able to fake empathy well.
  • We will need to invent new jobs which we cannot currently imagine. Virtual reality landscaper, dream wrangler, avatar designer, storyteller, and content creator will be some of the new jobs we might have in the future.
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I wish this book delved mode deeply into the possible scenarios and emerging models to cope with economic and technological singularity. This book does a good introduction to these topics and covers the challenges we might be faced with. However, it does not cover many details regarding how we might solve these issues, invent new jobs, and transform our economic systems.

Insightful Quotes From This Book:

“Imagine that you are in a football stadium (either soccer or American football will do) which has been sealed to make it water-proof. The referee places a
single drop of water in the middle of the pitch. One minute later she places two drops there. Another minute later, four drops, and so on. How long do you think it would take to fill the stadium with water? The answer is 49 minutes. But what is really surprising — and disturbing — is that after 45 minutes, the stadium is just 7% full. The people in the back seats are looking down and pointing out to each other that something significant is happening. Four minutes later they have drowned.”

“So within a decade, machines are likely to be better than humans at recognising faces and other images, better at understanding and responding to human speech, and may even be possessed of common sense. And they will be getting faster and cheaper all the time. It is hard to believe that this will not have a profound impact on the job market.”

“How much more compelling would it be to learn about Napoleon by experiencing the battle of Waterloo than by reading about it, or listening to a lecturer describe it? How much easier would it be for a teacher to explain the molecular structure of alcohol by escorting her pupils round a VR model of it?”

“Towards the end of 2015, 300 students at Georgia Institute of Technology were, unbeknownst to them, guinea pigs in an experiment to see whether they would notice that one of their nine teaching assistants was a robot. Only ever in contact via email, they would ask questions like “Can I revise my submission to the last assignment?” and receive answers back like “Unfortunately there is not a way to edit submitted feedback.” None of the students noticed that Jill Watson, named after the IBM Watson system “she” ran on, was in fact an AI.”

“Throughout the majority of history, these were mainly the people who either did not have to have a ‘job’ (because they were part of an aristocracy that had a different role to play while being supported by property and subjects), as well as the artists, artisans, philosophers or scientists who were directly supported by those patrons and therefore did not have the need to take a typical ‘job’.”

“It is not the typical jobs that are celebrated as the best of humanity, and therefore it probably should not be our aim to find yet more categories of such jobs. Instead, wouldn’t it be much better if a greater proportion of humanity could find the means to engage in preferred and culture-creating activity? With this in mind, it seems to me that it should be our aim to get rid of the need for jobs and employment just for the purpose of survival. Our strategies for the future should be not about finding new salary jobs, but rather about removing the need for them, and about setting up a better and more advanced social structure. This is where looking at the challenges involved and the path to a successful alternative, as Chace does in chapter 5, is essential. Where ideas such as a universal basic income (UBI) are concerned, it is useful to keep in mind that the world is not the US. Even if there is some initial antipathy in the US, because of associations between UBI and what might naively be labeled as ‘socialist’ thinking, the US will not wish to be left behind if other nations successfully implement the change. The time to dive deeply into the many issues raise in this book, to start a wider conversation about those issues, and to look creatively for the most well-balanced solutions and outcomes, is now.”

“We think the world has changed greatly in the last century, and especially in the last twenty years or so, and indeed it has. But the rate of change is accelerating, and the changes that are coming will dwarf what has happened so far. Forecasting has always been perilous. Throughout history, most long-term forecasts have been wrong, often blind-sided by the arrival of new technology like smartphones. But in the coming decades, the rate and scale of change will be so great that the future will become mysterious in a new way. So much so that people talk about a coming technological singularity. The term “singularity” is borrowed from maths and physics, where it means a point at which a variable becomes infinite. The usual example is the center of a black hole, where matter becomes infinitely dense. When you reach a singularity, the normal rules break down, and the future becomes even harder to predict than usual. In recent years, the term has been applied to the impact of technology on human affairs.”

“As we will see, a lot of people believe that Universal Basic Income (UBI) is a silver bullet that will solve the problem of technological unemployment. UBI is a guaranteed income paid to all citizens simply because they are citizens. It may take some time for the idea of UBI to be accepted, especially in the USA, where resistance to anything that smacks of socialism is often fierce — almost visceral. Martin Ford’s otherwise excellent book “The Rise of the Robots” almost fizzles out at the end because he seems daunted by the scale of the opposition that UBI will face in his home country. But to my mind, UBI is not the real battle. In Europe, we are very comfortable with the idea of a safety
net of welfare programs that prevent the economically unsuccessful from falling into absolute penury. Most American states provide unemployment benefits too, although they usually cease after six months. In fact, the US spends more per capita on welfare ($650 in 2011, according to the OECD) than the UK ($610) or Canada ($550). Unlike some of my American friends, I believe the people of that great country will quickly accept the need for UBI if and when it becomes undeniable that the majority of them are going to be unemployable.”

“The real problem, it seems to me, is that we will need more than just UBI. We may need an entirely new form of economy. I see great danger in a world in which most people rub along on handouts while a minority — perhaps a tiny minority — not only own most of the wealth (that is pretty much true already) but are the only ones actively engaged in any kind of economic activity. Given the advances in all kinds of technology that we can expect in the coming decades, this minority would be under immense temptation to separate themselves off from the rest of us — not just economically, but cognitively and physically too. Yuval Harari, author of the brilliant book “Sapiens”, says that in the coming century or so, humanity will divide into two classes of people. Rather brutally, he calls them the gods and the useless.”

“Mechanisation and automation have displaced workers on a huge scale since the beginning of the industrial revolution. It has imposed considerable suffering on individuals, but has led to greater wealth and higher levels of employment overall. The question today is whether that will always be true. As machines graduate from offering just physical labour to offering cognitive skills as well, will they begin to steal jobs that we cannot replace? If the second half of the 19th century saw “peak horse” in the workplace, will the first half of the 20th century see “peak human”? In other words, is it different this time?”

“The science of artificial intelligence is advancing rapidly, with significant steps announced almost every month. Enormous resources are being devoted to achieving these advances. Some of the cutting-edge work in AI goes on in universities, but much of it happens inside the tech giants on the US West Coast. Four of them — Intel, Microsoft, Google, and Amazon — are among the
world’s top ten R&D (research and development) spenders, with a combined budget in 2015 of $42bn. This equals the entire R&D spend of the UK, both public and private. IBM, Apple, and Facebook are not far behind and are increasing their R&D spend sharply. In addition, there are around 1,000 startup companies basing their products and services on AI. But despite all this, it is still early days for the sector. By one count there were over 300 venture capital deals in AI-based companies during 2015, but 80% of them were for less than $5m, and 75% of them were in the US.”

“Kasparov himself initiated the first high-level centaur chess competition in Leon, in Spain, in 1998, and competitions have been held there regularly ever since… Some people believe this phenomenon of humans teaming up with computers to form centaurs is a metaphor for how we can avoid most jobs being automated by machine intelligence. The computer will take care of those aspects of the job (or task) which are routine, logical, and dull, and the human will be freed up to deploy her intuition and creativity. Engineers didn’t become redundant just because computers replaced slide rules. Kevin Kelly, the founder of Wired magazine, puts it more lyrically: machines are for
answers; humans are for questions.”

“Some observers think that our salvation from machine intelligence automation lies in our very humanity. Our social skills, and our ability to empathize and care mean that we carry out tasks in a different way than machines do… David Deming, a research fellow at the US National Bureau of Economic Research, believes we are already seeing the implications of this. In a report published in 2015, he claimed that the fastest growth in US employment since as long ago as 1980 has been in jobs requiring good social skills. Jobs requiring strong analytical abilities but no social skills have been in decline — with the implication that they are already being automated.”

“Another way that people have suggested the human touch could preserve employment is that we will place a higher value on items manufactured by humans than on items manufactured by machines… There are four reasons why people might prefer products and services made by humans rather than
machines: quality, loyalty and variation, and status... “Buy hand-made, save a human!” sounds like a plausible rallying cry, or at least a marketing slogan.”

“As the person probably most responsible for Google’s self-driving cars, Sebastian Thrun is a man worth listening to on the subject. He is optimistic: “With the advent of new technologies, we’ve always created new jobs. I don’t know what these jobs will be, but I’m confident we will find them.”

“If we were to create a host of new jobs, what might they be? Maybe some of us will become dream wranglers, guiding each other toward fluency in lucid dreaming. Others may become emotion coaches, helping each other to overcome depression, anxiety, and frustration. Maybe there will be jobs for which we have no words today because the technology has not yet evolved to allow them to come into being. It’s not hard to imagine that virtual reality will create a lot of new jobs. If it is addictive as enthusiasts think it will be, many people will spend a great deal of their time — perhaps the majority of it — in VR worlds. In that case, there will be a huge demand for new and better imaginary or simulated worlds to inhabit, and that means jobs.”

“The latest CGI technology also makes it possible for two teenagers with a mobile phone to make a film that gains theatrical distribution. Their increasingly powerful software and hardware allows Hollywood directors to conjure visual worlds of such compelling complexity that their predecessors would rub their eyes in disbelief, but it also allows huge quantities of immersive content to be developed by skeleton crews. There will probably always be an elite of directors who are highly paid to push the boundaries of what can be imagined and what can be created, but software will do more and more of the heavy lifting in VR production. Not for the first time, the games industry shows what is possible. A game called “No Man’s Sky” was announced in 2014 which conjures far more imaginary worlds than you could visit in a lifetime purely by the operation of algorithms and random number generators. You boldly go where no programmer or designer has gone before.”

“Art involves the application of creativity to express something of personal importance to the artist. It might be beauty, an emotion, or a profound insight into what it means to be human. To say something about your own experience clearly requires you to have had some experience, and that requires consciousness. Therefore, until a conscious artificial general intelligence (AGI) arrives, AIs can be creative but not artistic.”

“Set in the 24th century, Star Trek presents a world of immense possibility, of interstellar travel, adventure, and split infinitives. And a world without money or poverty. In the 1996 movie “Star Trek: First Contact”, Captain Jean-Luc Picard explains that “Money doesn’t exist in the 24th century. The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.”Money is not required in Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets because energy has become essentially free, and products can be manufactured in so-called Replicators, devices which create useful (including edible) objects out of whatever matter is available.”

“Thus far in human history, we have had to find our meaning within the constraints of the three-dimensional world we live in, or in our imaginations. Technology is poised to open up a whole new space for us to explore together — the world of virtual reality. We don’t yet know how we will react to this new
universe, how we will behave in it, and what it will mean to us. We can be pretty confident that it will have a big impact. “Diaspora”, Greg Egan’s novel of the far future, features an environment called the Truth Mines. It is a
physical representation of mathematical theorems (albeit in virtual reality) which can seemingly be explored forever without exhausting all the discoveries that can be made. The ability to create virtual worlds that are so convincing to our brains that we almost lose the understanding that they are artificial may well allow us to expand enormously the space within which we find happiness and meaning.”

“The Harvard political philosopher Robert Nozick described a thought experiment back in 1974 featuring an “experience machine” that could recreate any sensation you choose. Your brain is persuaded that the experience is real, which means that you believe it too, but in fact, your body is lying in a flotation tank, deprived of all sensory input while your brain is hooked up to the machine.”

“The author of “Sapiens”, Yuval Harari, makes a seemingly throw-away comment about humanity devolving into two classes: the gods and the useless. The audience laughs at this brutal assessment, but I suspect Harari is deadly serious… Now, in this future world, all members of the species of homo sapiens are changing. They are using new technologies to enhance themselves both cognitively and physically. They use smart drugs, exoskeletons, and genetic technologies, among others. Maybe they have engineered themselves to need less sleep… Everyone has access to these technologies, but the elite has privileged access…Ee mustn’t forget that technology is advancing at an accelerating rate. In the future society, we are
envisioning, important breakthroughs in physical and cognitive enhancement are announced every year, then every month, then every week. As artificial intelligence gets better and better it fuels this improvement — even though it (the AI) is still narrow AI, and far from becoming human-level, artificial
general intelligence, or AGI. It may become hard or even impossible to disseminate these cognitive and physical improvements quickly enough to avoid a profound separation between those with privileged access to them and the rest of us. So the elite will change faster than the rest. As the two groups lead largely separate lives, the widening gap may not be apparent to the majority, but the elite surely will know about it. They will decide that they must draw attention away from the fact, and they will take precautions to prevent attack, in case the majority should become aware of and resentful about what is happening. They will surround their gated communities with discreet machines which possess astonishingly powerful defensive — and
offensive — capabilities. They will keep themselves more and more to themselves, meeting members of the majority less and less often. When they do meet, it will almost always be in virtual reality, where their avatars (their representations in the VR environment) do not betray the widening gulf between the two types of humans. After a while, humans will evolve into two different species: the gods and the useless.”

“Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, IBM and Apple are shaping the new world we are moving into, along with their Chinese counterparts Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent. Their motivation is partly commercial: they understood sooner than anyone else that artificial intelligence and related technologies
will increasingly provide most of the world’s economic value. They are moving aggressively to dominate the AI space, and competing fiercely with each other for talent and market positions.The idea that artificial intelligence is improving quickly is now firmly in the public mind. When self-driving cars become common, smartphones are capable of sensible conversations, and domestic robots can carry out many of our domestic chores, people will increasingly ask where it is all heading. In the absence of optimistic answers, they will gravitate towards the bad ones, and Hollywood has given us plenty of those. We need potent new memes, illustrating the current benefits and the future promise of AI. The tech giants are creating this new world; even if only for their own self-preservation, it would be a good idea for them to explain how it is capable of being a glorious new world.”

“If the rate of technological progress continues to accelerate, the elite may avail themselves of the means of cognitive and physical enhancement to diverge from the majority, both physically and cognitively.”

“Beyond the economic singularity you’re going to want to have as rich an interior life as possible, so give yourself as broad an education as you can. Studying your own and other people’s languages will give you insights into how our minds work. Studying sciences will give you insights into how the world works. And studying the humanities will give you insights into how societies work. All of these should make what could be a very long life an interesting one.”

“The Millennials and Generation Z have been born at the best time ever to be a human, in terms of life expectancy, health, wealth, access to education information and entertainment. They have also been born at the most interesting time, and the most important. Whether they like it or not, they have the task of navigating us through the economic singularity of mass unemployment, and then the technological singularity of super-intelligence. If they succeed, humanity’s future is almost incredibly good. If not, it could be bleak. It will fall largely to them to plot the course, adjust it where necessary, avoid the rocks and the cries of the Sirens, and bring the ship safely home.

— Calum Chace

Fahri Karakas is the author of the Self-making Studio. You can explore more here.

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Fahri Karakas

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Associate Professor in Business & Leadership at University of East Anglia. Passionate about doodling, imagination, and creativity. Author of Self-Making Studio.

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