The Health of the People is the Highest Law

Death is Option­al is a fas­ci­nat­ing and ter­ri­fy­ing (alter­nate­ly and con­cur­rent­ly) con­ver­sa­tion between his­to­ri­an Yuval Noah Harari and behav­iour­al econ­o­mist Daniel Kah­ne­man, in which Harari uses his knowl­edge of the past to make pre­dic­tions about the future. In one very mem­o­rable exchange he talks about the pre­sump­tion we cur­rent­ly hold, that new advances in med­i­cine will always trick­le down to the gen­er­al pop­u­lace. But that was only true for a very short peri­od of our his­to­ry and, as automa­tion sup­plants the human work­force in the future, won’t nec­es­sar­i­ly always be the case:

In the 21st cen­tu­ry there is a good chance that most humans will lose their mil­i­tary and eco­nom­ic val­ue. And once most peo­ple are no longer real­ly nec­es­sary, the idea that you will con­tin­ue to have mass med­i­cine is not so cer­tain.

Above the door to the for­mer Wal­worth Town Hall, near my home in South Lon­don, there is the promi­nent­ly dis­played edict used in the title of this post:

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This used to mean some­thing.

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That edict was giv­en when the town hall was built at the turn of last cen­tu­ry, because peo­ple were the engine that drove the indus­tri­al rev­o­lu­tion and the empire machine; an ivest­ment was made to keep the peo­ple healthy and edu­cat­ed because it ben­e­fit­ted Britain. But in the 21st cen­tu­ry a healthy and edu­cat­ed pop­u­lace isn’t required, because the heavy indus­try is long gone, and the dwin­dled empire needs no army to retain it.

The Future Is Coming Faster Than We Think

Today I read a fas­ci­nat­ing arti­cle in the Lon­don Review of Books. The Robots Are Com­ing, by John Lan­ches­ter, is about the rise of cheap automa­tion and the effect it’s going to have on the work­force and soci­ety at large. In his intro­duc­tion he talks about the Accel­er­at­ed Strate­gic Com­put­ing Ini­tia­tive’s com­put­er, Red, launched in 1996 and even­tu­al­ly capa­ble of pro­cess­ing 1.8 ter­aflops — that is, 1.8 tril­lion cal­cu­la­tions per sec­ond. It was the most pow­er­ful com­put­er in the world until about 2000. Six years lat­er, the PS3 launched, also capa­ble of pro­cess­ing 1.8 ter­aflops.

Red was only a lit­tle small­er than a ten­nis court, used as much elec­tric­i­ty as eight hun­dred hous­es, and cost $55 mil­lion. The PS3 fits under­neath a tele­vi­sion, runs off a nor­mal pow­er sock­et, and you can buy one for under two hun­dred quid. With­in a decade, a com­put­er able to process 1.8 ter­aflops went from being some­thing that could only be made by the world’s rich­est gov­ern­ment for pur­pos­es at the fur­thest reach­es of com­pu­ta­tion­al pos­si­bil­i­ty, to some­thing a teenag­er could rea­son­ably expect to find under the Christ­mas tree.

This makes me think of IBM’s Wat­son, a deep learn­ing sys­tem, ten years in the mak­ing at a cost in excess of $1 bil­lion, with hard­ware esti­mat­ed at $3 mil­lion pow­er­ing it, and com­ing soon to children’s toys.

Shame and Social Engineering

Just fin­ished read­ing So You’ve Been Pub­licly Shamed, Jon Ronson’s zeit­geisty book about social media pile-ons. There were many, many good points in the book, but I for­got to high­light them as I was enjoy­ing read­ing it so much. One thing that has stuck in my mind, how­ev­er, is an email exchange with the film-mak­er Adam Cur­tis, in which he talks about feed­back loops and the social media echo cham­ber:

Feed­back is an engi­neer­ing prin­ci­ple, and all engi­neer­ing is devot­ed to try­ing to keep the thing you are build­ing sta­ble.

It’s unde­ni­ably true that I now self-cen­­sor a lot more on Twit­ter than I did in the past, for fear of a strong neg­a­tive reac­tion. I don’t think I’m alone in this; anec­do­tal evi­dence sug­gests many peo­ple are also becom­ing more tame to avoid the Twit­ter mobs. The net effect is, as Jon Ron­son him­self says:

We see our­selves as non­con­formist, but I think all of this is cre­at­ing a more con­formist, con­ser­v­a­tive age. ‘Look!’ we’re say­ing. ‘WERE nor­mal! THIS is the aver­age!’

I rec­om­mend you read the book your­self to see all of this in much greater con­text. And I won­der if Twit­ter and Face­book shouldn’t give away a free copy to all their users.