This economist has a plan to fix capitalism / The myth of inevitable tech progress / Addicted to screens? / AIs that understand the ‘why’ — No.98

This week: This economist has a plan to fix capitalism. It’s time we all listened / The myth of inevitable technological progress / Addicted to screens? That’s really a you problem / An AI pioneer wants his algorithms to understand the ‘why’ / This is why California will keep burning

A year ago: Exploring the Future Beyond Cyberpunk’s Neon and Noir.


This economist has a plan to fix capitalism

Longread about Mariana Mazzucato and her work on publicly supported innovation, and some of the projects she has participated in, including Ocasio-Cortez’ Green New Deal, which was news to me. I’ve linked to Mazzucato’s thinking before but it’s very much worth a read for a more detailed look at her vision for “mission-oriented organisations” and how this has brought about new programs in the UK and Europe. (Read this approach of publicly minded missions in parallel (opposition even) with the techno determinism below and the irresponsible creation of addictive software after that.)

If it was the state, not the private sector, which had traditionally assumed the risks of uncertain technological enterprises that led to the development of aviation, nuclear energy, computers, nanotechnology, biotechnology and the internet, how were we going to find the next wave of technologies to tackle urgent challenges such as catastrophic climate change, the epidemic of antibiotic resistance, the rise of dementia? […]

“The reason progressives often lose the argument is that they focus too much on wealth redistribution and not enough on wealth creation,” she says. “We need a progressive narrative that’s not only about spending, but investing in smarter ways.” […]

“When I use the word ‘state’ I am talking about a decentralised network of different state agencies,” she says. When such agencies are mission-oriented to solve problems and structured to take risks, they can be an engine of innovation.” […]

“Get the language right,” Mazzucato told Ocasio-Cortez. “Otherwise, you’re just going to be a nice social democratic, boring lefty politician.” […]

In May, the European Parliament voted and approved Mazzucato’s mission-oriented proposal for the Horizon Europe programme. After a lengthy consultation period, five mission areas were chosen: adaptation to climate change; cancer; healthy oceans, seas, coastal and inland waters; climate-neutral and smart cities; and soil health and food.

The myth of inevitable technological progress

Rose Eveleth at Vox with a pretty well argued case against Silicon Valley’s all too common stance claiming that technological advancement is like evolution and will happen whatever they do. It’s not the case, each decision and reflection matters, and evolution isn’t even a good metaphor for technological change. This unstoppable view also connects / has fed from America’s colonisation of the west (always forward, no looking back), and is part of a loop with consumerism.

In fact, our world is shaped by humans who make decisions, and technology companies are no different. […]

While these “innovations” range from the dangerous to the silly, they share a common thread: Nothing about them is “natural.” No natural process is creating a “smart” hairbrush or a “smart” flip flop or a “smart” condom. Or a Bluetooth-enabled toaster, a cryptocurrency from a photography company, or an internet-connected air freshener. […]

Technologists’ desire to make a parallel to evolution is flawed at its very foundation. Evolution is driven by random mutation — mistakes, not plans. […]

“It’s really tied to the whole American manifest destiny and the broader history of American settler colonialism.” The attitude is that we must march on, forward, westward, no matter what stands in our way. Going back is simply not an option.

Addicted to Screens? That’s Really a You Problem

We can also connect the previous article with the ideas here of Nir Eyal and his “disciples” about how to hook people to apps and services. The first views advancements as inevitable and the others view their work as independent of the consequences, other than engagement and revenue. Now Eyal is flipping the table and placing the onus of “getting clean” on individuals, instead of addressing the behaviour of tech companies (and his own impact).

“If “Hooked” was a how-to, this is a how-to-undo.” […]

“Nir Eyal’s trying to flip,” said Richard Freed, a child psychologist who supports less screen time. “These people who’ve done this are all trying to come back selling the cure. But they’re the ones who’ve been selling the drugs in the first place.” […]

“Books advocating for better self-control distract the public from the truly alarming issues created by technology at a time when we need urgent change.”

An AI Pioneer Wants His Algos to Understand the ‘Why’

A quick look at a new direction AI pioneer Yoshua Bengio is working on; bringing more contextual and causal understanding to Artificial Intelligence.

Now, Bengio says deep learning needs to be fixed. He believes it won’t realize its full potential, and won’t deliver a true AI revolution, until it can go beyond pattern recognition and learn more about cause and effect. In other words, he says, deep learning needs to start asking why things happen. […]

The algorithm in the paper essentially forms a hypothesis about which variables are causally related, and then tests how changes to different variables fit the theory. The fact that smoking is not only related to cancer but actually causes it, for instance, should still be apparent even if cancer is correlated with other factors, such as hospital visits. […]

Marcus adds that the lesson from human experience is obvious. “When children ask ‘why?’ they are asking about causality,” he says. “When machines start asking why, they will be a lot smarter.”

This Is Why California Will Keep Burning

From back in April, excellent piece on energy companies in California, un-maintained infrastructures, resulting fires, and how microgrids could potentially overlap with the “big grid.” Very timely because of the power cuts by PG&E over the last few days. Also useful as an early example of some of the impacts of climate change, as well as the pricing loop brought about by home solar systems.

And now, more frequently, fires are the result of an old, frail electric grid, failing under the pressure of a growing society and more extreme, climate-changed weather. […]

If the largest utility with some of the highest energy prices in the country isn’t working, as a utility, a profitable business, or even just an entity that doesn’t kill people, it might mean utilities that sustain modern society shouldn’t be operating as for-profit companies. And that’s just in terms of doing the bare minimum, the maintenance we’ve long ignored. Building the green grid that would move us beyond a sketchy status quo is yet another problem. […]

Most advocates of resilient microgrids aren’t suggesting the state tear out all the existing transformers and power lines, but make them redundant over time with the installation of these networked little grids. The prospect of a distributed grid is less infrastructure anarchy than making the old monopoly system more environmentally responsible, more efficient, and more resilient.

Miscellany

Header image: Beautiful Drone-Lit Landscapes by Reuben Wu.