This week’s selection involves research into demographics, cities, social services, and “raising” better bots
I dedicated this week’s issue of my newsletter, Exponential View, to the ongoing and necessary conversations about inequality and bias in automation processes. Here are five pieces I recommend you read on the topic this week:
1. Research on demographics, automation & inequality
Bain, a consultancy, published results of their research into demographics, automation and inequality, warning of increasing volatility. Interesting and challenging times ahead: “faced with market imbalances and growth-stifling levels of inequality, many societies may reset the government’s role in the marketplace.” EXCELLENT
“The global population is skyrocketing, the climate is changing, and diets are shifting. So how do you tackle the problem of feeding 9 billion people by 2050? Assemble an elite team of scientists for a year-long brainstorming session… What’s needed is akin to a moonshot. Or as committee co-chair John D. Floros put it, a “green revolution 2.0.””
This is from a month-old article in the Washington Post entitled “This quiet agricultural ‘moonshot’ could change the future of food.’ They are some of the scariest words I’ve seen put together in quite some time.
When we try to fathom inequality and how it affects our society, we usually turn to graphs and data. But people’s stories help, too. This week Jane Mayer’s New Yorker profile of Robert Mercer, “The Reclusive Hedge Fund Tycoon Behind the Trump Presidency,” provides a different path towards understanding the sociopolitical dysfunction that extreme inequality can cause.
Mercer is a taciturn libertarian hedge fund leader who loves guns and model trains, doesn’t believe in climate change but does believe in the gold standard, and backs crackpot research into human life extension, along with Breitbart News, in which he’s a key investor. But unlike so many others of his ilk, such as the Koch brothers, he’s not an oil man. A data scientist and expert in computational linguistics, he turned his experience in pattern-finding from language translation to equities trading in the ’90s. He’s a geek who hates the government — even though it backed some of his early research.
The healthcare debate had its Marie Antoinette moment yesterday, as GOP Rep. Jason Chaffetz told Americans to stop buying smartphones so they could afford health insurance under the new Republican proposal. “Rather than getting that new iPhone, that they just love and want to go spend hundreds of dollars on that, maybe they should invest in their own health care,” Chaffetz said.
The race was on for pundits and publications to calculate just how many iPhones one would need to forego in order to pay your insurer. For most of us, you’d have to be getting a fancy new phone every month or so to even come close (Lifehacker). But Chaffetz’s comment didn’t only prove his ignorance of the basics of both healthcare and telecommunications economics. It suggested he was fundamentally unaware of how essential a working smartphone — i- or otherwise — is for navigating everyday life and work in America 2017 (Brian Fung in The Washington Post).
“I believe that this instinct to perpetuate useless work is, at bottom, simply fear of the mob. The mob (the thought runs) are such low animals that they would be dangerous if they had leisure; it is safer to keep them too busy to think.” George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London, p. 119
In the extraordinary memoir Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell masterly describes what it is like to be poor. He tells us how he came to be in a situation of extreme poverty; he is living in Paris teaching English and is suddenly left without students. By a series of steps, he describes how he gradually becomes penniless and hungry, and the different feelings experienced through this new reality that takes over all aspects of his life.
LATELY there’s been renewed discussion of universal income: regular cash payments to everyone, regardless of race, gender or need. Past proponents of the idea have included the essayist Thomas Paine, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., free-market economist Milton Friedman and President Richard Nixon. Today’s interest has been sparked by the income stagnation experienced by America’s middle class and working poor, and by the persistent slow growth experienced by our economy.
The idea finds support across America’s ideological spectrum in an era when hardly anything else does. Liberals, or at least some of them, like it as a way to preserve our middle class when jobs no longer pay enough. Conservatives, or at least some of them, like it as a way to reduce dependence on a byzantine maze of welfare programs.
The mood in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley since the election has been dejected, writes Om Malik (The New Yorker). That’s less about fear of specific changes the new administration will introduce and more a coming to terms with a collective failure in empathy. The inventors of the future — some of them, anyway — are realizing they’ve become seriously disconnected from the occupiers of the present.
Technologists must “try to understand the impact of whiplashing change on a generation of our fellow-citizens who feel hopeless and left behind,” Malik writes. Our “data-driven oligarchies” — Facebook, Google, Amazon, et a. — are creating wonders of technological efficiency. But these engines of change enrich only a tiny sliver of society and actively threaten the livelihoods of a much broader population. And they’re only beginning to wake up to this dilemma.
Companies that realize they’re too homogeneous often complain that the pipeline is empty or the talent pool is depleted — or they find some other metaphor to excuse their inaction. In the end, if you want to diversify your team, you just have to start hiring people who are different from you, whoever you are.
Meetup’s founder Scott Heiferman realized this a few years ago and started taking steps to bring more women into the company’s top ranks. As Jessi Hempel lays out the story (Backchannel), there’s no magic formula or shortcut to achieving such a goal, though there are specific measures that seem to help — like promoting from within and reaching out to candidates who aren’t actively job-hunting.
By Bill Below, OECD Directorate for Public Governance and Territorial Development (GOV)
At the end of the first millennium, the only city that came close to reaching one million inhabitants was Baghdad — an incredible feat considering the total world population was estimated to be about 230 million. Fast-forward one thousand years to 1950. With the world population at 2.5 billion, the planet witnessed the rise of its first megacities — urban conglomerations of more than ten million inhabitants. The first of these colossi were Tokyo and the New York/Newark urban region. Today, there are 29 megacities, the majority in the developing world. By 2030, this number is expected to rise to 41. But, urbanisation isn’t just producing megacities. More than 50% of the world’s population now lives in cities of all sizes, with the figure projected to reach 85% by 2100. Within 150 years, the urban population will have increased from less than 1 billion in 1950 to 9 billion by 2100.