The Phantom ‘Global Race’

There’s been a lot of talk from Conservative politicians in the UK about the ‘global race‘. This race, we’re led to believe, involves all the countries of the world. The winners are those countries that can compete the best, presumably by selling more things cheaper than anyone else can, by dint of working harder and being smarter.

Races, and competitions in general, are perfectly reasonable for situations where the thing you want to find out (or to optimise) is easily and directly measured; so, for example, if you want to find out who the fastest runner in the world is, then you hold a series of races where you measure everyone’s speed. No problem, everyone’s happy.

Now, while such races are entertaining to watch and may tell you something about the human spirit, etc, they are not of direct relevance to most people’s lives because most people are not that interested in becoming the fastest runner in the world. They may want to run, because it’s fun to do so or because they want to lose weight, and in the process they may find it fun to try and run faster, but in all the 5k and 10k and half-marathons I’ve run in, there’s only one winner and about 5000 losers. None of those losers consider themselves losers because they aren’t really competing against anyone except for, perhaps, themselves.

That’s where the problem with the global race comes in. The metaphor is chosen because we all know what races are, and we all know that sacrifices must be made in order to win them. We all know about Olympic athletes who swim for eight hours a day or who run on Christmas and New Year’s Day just to get a bit more training in than their rivals. Therefore, if we’re in a global race, everyone in the country must pull together and make sacrifices in order to win.

But what does it mean to win the global race? What, exactly, are we measuring?

GDP per capita? According to the International Monetary Fund, the top spot is held by Qatar, with $100,889; the UK lies at 24th place with $36,569. It’s safe to say we won’t be winning that particular race any time soon. More importantly, I don’t think anyone in the UK is particularly jealous of Qatari citizens other than the fact that they probably own some really nice cars and electronics.

Productivity rates? Out of the OECD countries, Luxembourg and Norway come out top when measured by GDP per hour worked; as of 2007, the UK lay in 11th place. Now, I like Norway a lot, but I suspect the Tories don’t, otherwise they’d be renationalising the energy sector, employing more government workers, expanding the welfare state, and giving parents 46 weeks of paid leave.

Neither measurement is satisfactory. Taiwan, Sweden, Ireland, Hong Kong, and the US all outperform the UK. Does that mean they’re winning in the global race, and so we should mimic whatever they do? Singapore is well up there, perhaps the UK should also become a one-party country. Or maybe, like Germany (who are also beating us), we should require large companies to have workers councils and also adopt proportional representation.

We don’t know who the winners and losers of the global race are because we don’t know what the race is for — and even if we did know, we couldn’t simply just copy what the winners do, because we aren’t about to magically discover more oil in the North Sea, or because we aren’t prepared to adopt the policies of Taiwan or Singapore, or because we know that what works for smaller countries won’t work for us.

As for GDP and productivity figures (which are easily manipulated and hard to compare between countries), they’re only useful as a means towards an end, which may, depending on your politics, include healthier and happier citizens, or citizens who have a great deal of autonomy, or citizens who live fulfilling lives. Those ends can be achieved in many different ways and it’s not always clear that money will help, otherwise Qatar would have the happiest, healthiest, smartest, and most fulfilled citizens in the world. The vagueness of the global race is deliberate, or at least, extremely advantageous, because it allows the Tories to justify more or less any policy they want.

But what’s most disappointing to me is not the vagueness. It’s the lack of vision. We know we don’t want to be poor. But what do we win, and what do we sacrifice, by being rich?

Why The Circle Won’t Happen

(in which, yes, I discuss the plot of the book)

This week, Nest announced a ‘beautiful’ new smoke alarm that’s more advanced, more connected, more user-friendly, and more expensive than anything else on the market. Naturally, the press jumped on it like a Republican on a closed national monument.

It does a lot — it monitors both smoke and carbon monoxide, it’s wirelessly networked and internet connected so you can make sure your house isn’t burning down while you’re on holiday, and it communicates with Nest’s thermostat product.

But it doesn’t have everything. It doesn’t, for example, have a camera. Adding a camera would turn the alarm into a great home security product, one that would let you peek into every room in your house. Sounds great, right? Up until last week, I’d have agreed, but now the very suggestion brings me out in hives. The reason is because I’ve read Dave Eggers latest novel, The Circle.


The Circle is a near-future company that melds Facebook, Twitter, Google (and, to an extent, Apple). Its founders have a zealous conviction in the power of openness, transparency, and most importantly, the sharing of everything that can possibly be shared. As Mae Holland, a new customer support team member, works her way up the ranks at The Circle, we see the company driving forth its message with radically disruptive cheap technology that practically enforces transparency and sharing throughout the world. Things get very dramatic.

All of the characters in the story are basically stand-ins for Silicon Valley types (the VC, the hacker, the evangelist, the skeptic, the oldies, etc.) and the plot is rather predictable – but by god, what a plot it is! Eggers really takes Mark Zuckerberg’s belief that the world would be better if no-one felt they had to keep secrets and runs with it as far as he possibly can, which makes for a very dark world. By the end, I was appalled, and the thought of putting more cameras in my flat seemed suicidal.

Now, I expect that a lot of technically-minded people will object to pretty much every single aspect of novel; I know I did when I began reading it. Many of those objections are legitimate, but like 1984, the question is not whether the technology is correct but whether the philosophy of the world it depicts is one that we believe in — because if it is, then maybe we will end up in something like that world.

Eggers makes a strong case for why we’re heading in the direction of his dystopia. He understands our fear of crime and child abuse; he understands the seductive promise that radical transparency and surveillance could solve those problems and many others besides, like corruption and inefficiency and disaster relief. He extrapolates from our seemingly-compulsive use of social media and casual games, and sees a future where we’ll gradually, willingly, happily hand over our agency and individuality to everyone else to the owners of the communications platform that underpins everything.

It’s an awful future. And it’s one that I don’t believe will happen, and here’s why: Continue reading “Why The Circle Won’t Happen”

How do we make a friendly AI?

How we do avoid creating a superhuman artificial intelligence (AI) that does not end up harming humanity? This is a question of great consequence to AI researchers and thinkers who believe that future AIs will have capabilities and will act in a way completely different and unfathomable to humans, just as our actions may seem unfathomable to apes. Such beings could pose an existential threat to humanity even if they weren’t of the ‘killer robots’ variety; instead, they may be completely indifferent to humans but may decide that it’s just more efficient or interesting to disassemble the Earth in order to create a wormhole (or whatever). It’s safe to say that this kind of indifference most certainly counts as ‘unfriendly.’

My extremely cursory reading suggests that few people have any good ideas about how to ensure that any superhuman AI will end up being friendly — that is, generate positive effects for humanity — rather than unfriendly. Part of the problem is that while we may intuitively think that we should raise them like good parents by giving them solid moral instruction, provide good examples, and so on, this assumes that any AI we create will be sufficiently like a human for that to work.

Another problem is what counts as a positive effect for humanity. Science fiction is littered with examples of naive do-gooder AIs that try to maximise some variable or another, like human lifespan or happiness or numbers, with the end result being some horrific dystopia of miserable immortals or blissed-out drug addicts. These stories, while presenting entertaining evil genies-in-a-lamp updated for modern audiences, are perhaps not giving AIs enough credit. Still, the question remains: what would be a good effect? Most people can barely agree on a political framework, let alone what constitutes the good life; and most humans don’t have the capacity for ultra long-term thinking. Maybe a utilitarian-leaning AI might decide that in the long term, it’d be worth throwing an asteroid at the Earth to kill a billion people today in order to unite the planet and improve matters a couple of centuries hence.

Now, even this kind of cold-blooded AI is preferable to our indifferent wormhole-generating one, but would we prefer a different kind of friendly AI? Amid the fervour for creating AIs as soon as possible lest we waste even a second of AI-enhanced goodness, it seems odd not to reflect on what, exactly, we want from them as individuals and as a species. Perhaps the reason why this feels like an difficult issue is because it poses uncomfortable questions — not about the future, but about how we govern ourselves today, and how we live our lives today.

Related: How to get Posthuman Friends (2062), Object 93 in A History of the Future in 100 Objects

Also related: Episode 10 of The Cultures podcast

Could health insurers subsidise the iWatch?

A major reason why Apple has sold so many iPhones in the US is due to the unusual way phones are subsidised by carriers over there. Very few people buy an iPhone for the full, off-contract $649+ price — instead, they get it for ‘only’ $99 or $199, with the rest of the phone’s cost being built into the hefty monthly contract that they’re bound into for the next couple of years. As far as the US is concerned, there’s not a huge amount to be gained by making a ‘cheap’ iPhone since you can’t get that much cheaper than a $99 subsidised cost.

Yes, things are very different in the rest of the world where pay-as-you-go plans are much more popular and there’s more flexibility in subsidised plans. But there’s no doubt that carrier subsidies have been — and continue to be — a fantastic way for Apple to get people to amortise the cost of a very expensive piece of technology over 24 months. Most people never really used to do that for laptops or computers (unless you count the indirect method of credit cards) but they’ve managed it with phones.

And now there’s the putative ‘iWatch’, the wearable device that many smart people believe Apple is frantically developing right now. This watch will, of course, look amazing — and given Apple’s hires from Nike and from sensor manufacturers, it’s clear the iWatch will have a heavy healthcare focus.

In other words, the iWatch will make you healthier — and who doesn’t want to be healthier? No-one. But who’s willing to pay $200 or $300 for it? I think it’s a hard sell, no matter how many accelerometers and heartrate and blood pressure and pulseox sensors it contains. We aren’t as rational as economists think we are — even if buying an iWatch would make us more than $300 ‘healthier’ (through reduced future healthcare expenditures), we wouldn’t necessarily be convinced. The iPhone is fun and eliminates boredom; the iWatch is much less fun and also kind of a downer, since it might show how lazy you’ve been.

But what if health insurers subsidised the iWatch? They already subsidise lots of other crappy pedometers and gym memberships, which must cost them dozens if not hundreds of dollars per year per member. When I belonged to Pruhealth in the UK, I practically got a premium gym membership for free.

Here’s Apple’s pitch: if you give an iWatch to all of your customers, you can:

a) Incentivise them to walk more/eat less/sit down less (because, yeah, they consent to be monitored) in return for reducing their premiums

b) Provide a shiny enticement for people to join your plan, which is more important than it used to be due to the new healthcare exchanges

What used to be a $300 device now only costs $50 or $100 to the end-user after subsidies (assuming the user stays with the insurer for two years); not too much at all. Insurers get an easy way in to the wonderful world of ‘big data’, customers get a shiny new thing, and Apple gets a steady income stream with a clockwork two-year upgrade cycle with sales driven by insurers that already have hundreds of millions of monthly-paying members.

Related: Micromort Detector (2032), Object 39 in A History of the Future in 100 Objects