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19 July 2018

Serious questions over PwC’s report on the impact of AI on jobs

Filed under: politics, robots, UBI, urgency — Tags: , , , , — David Wood @ 7:47 pm

A report (PDF) issued on Tuesday by consulting giant PwC has received a lot of favourable press coverage.

Here’s PwC’s own headline summary: “AI and related technologies should create as many jobs as they displace”:

AI and related technologies such as robotics, drones and driverless vehicles could displace many jobs formerly done by humans, but will also create many additional jobs as productivity and real incomes rise and new and better products are developed.

We estimate that these countervailing displacement and income effects on employment are likely to broadly balance each other out over the next 20 years in the UK, with the share of existing jobs displaced by AI (c.20%) likely to be approximately equal to the additional jobs that are created…

BBC News picked up the apparent good news: “AI will create as many jobs as it displaces – report”:

A growing body of research claims the impact of AI automation will be less damaging than previously thought.

Forbes chose this headline: “AI Won’t Kill The Job Market But Keep It Steady, PwC Report Says”:

It’s impossible to say precisely how artificial intelligence will disrupt the job market, so researchers at PwC have taken a bird’s-eye view and pointed to the results of sweeping economic changes.

Their prediction, in a new report out Tuesday, is that it will all balance out in the end.

PwC are to be commended for setting out their reasoning clearly, over 16 pages (p36-p51) in their PDF report.

But three major questions need to be raised about their analysis. These questions throw a different light on the conclusions of the report.

This diagram covers the essence of the model used by PwC:

Q1: How will firms handle the “income effect”?

I agree that automation is likely to generate significant amounts of additional profits, as well as market demand for extra goods and services.

But what’s the reason for assuming that firms will “hire more workers” in response to this demand?

Mightn’t it be more financially attractive to these companies to incorporate more automation instead? Mightn’t more robots be a better investment than more human workers?

The justification for thinking that there will be plenty of new jobs for humans in this scenario, is the assumption that many tasks will remain outside the capability of automation. That is, the analysis depends on humans having skills which cannot be duplicated by AIs, software, robots, or other automation. The assumption is true today, but will it remain true over the next two decades?

PwC’s report points to sectors such as healthcare, social work, education, and science, as areas where jobs are likely to grow over the next twenty years. But that takes us to the second major question.

Q2: What prevents acceleration in the capabilities of AI?

PwC’s report, like many others that mainstream consultancies produce, basically assumes that the AI of 10-15 years time will be a simple extension of today’s AI.

Of course, no one knows for sure how AI will develop over the years ahead. But I see it as irresponsible to neglect scenarios in which AI progresses in leaps and bounds.

Just as the whole field of AI was given a huge shot in the arm by unexpected breakthroughs in the performance of deep learning from around 2012 onwards, we should be open to the possibility of additional breakthroughs in the years ahead, enabled by a combination of the following trends:

  • Huge commercial prizes are awaiting the companies that can improve their AI capabilities
  • Huge military prizes are awaiting the countries that can improve their AI capabilities
  • More developers, entrepreneurs, designers, and systems integrators are active in AI than ever before, exploring an incredible variety of different concepts
  • Increased knowledge of how the human brain operates is being fed into ideas for how to improve AI
  • Cheaper hardware, including easy access to vast cloud computing resources, means that investigations of novel AI models can take place more quickly than before
  • AI can be used to improve some of its own capabilities, in positive feedback loops, and in new “generative adversarial” settings
  • Hardware innovations including new chipset designs and quantum computing could turn today’s crazy ideas into tomorrow’s practical realities.

Today’s AI already shows considerable promise in fields such as transfer learning, artificial creativity, the detection and simulation of emotions, and concept formulation. How quickly will progress occur? My view: slowly, and then quickly.

Q3: How might the “displacement effect” be altered?

In parallel with rating the income effect much more highly than I think is prudent, the PwC analysis offers in my view some dubious reasoning for lowering the displacement effect:

Although we estimate that up to 30% of existing UK jobs could be at high risk of being automated, a job being at “high risk” of being automated does not mean that it will definitely be automated, as there could be a range of economic, legal and regulatory and organisational barriers to the adoption of these new technologies…

We think it is reasonable to scale down our estimates by a factor of two thirds to reflect these barriers, so our central estimate of the proportion of existing jobs that will actually be automated over the next 20 years is reduced to 20%.

Yes, a whole panoply of human factors can alter the speed of the take-up of new technology. But such factors aren’t always brakes. In some circumstances – as perceptions change – they can become accelerators.

Consider if companies in one country (e.g. the UK) are slow to adopt some new technology, but rival companies overseas act more quickly. Declining competitiveness will be one reason for the mindset to change.

A different example: attitudes towards interracial marriages, or towards same-sex marriages, changed slowly for a long time, until they started to change faster.

Q4: What are the consequences of negligent forecasting?

Here’s a bonus question. Does it really matter if PwC get these forecasts wrong? Or is it better to err on the conservative side?

I imagine PwC consultants reasoning along the following lines. Let’s avoid panic. Changes in the job market are likely to be slow in at least the shorter term. Provided that remains the case, the primary pieces of policy advice offered in the report make sense:

Government should invest more in ‘STEAM’ skills that will be most useful to people in this increasingly automated world.

Place-based industrial strategy should target job creation.

The report follows up these recommendations with a different kind of policy advice:

Government should strengthen the safety net for those who find it hard to adjust to technological changes.

But the question is: how much attention should be given, in relative terms, to these two different kinds of advice? Should society put more effort into new training programmes, or in redesigning the prevailing social contract?

So long as the impact of automation on the job market is relatively small, perhaps less effort is needed to work on a better social safety net. But if the impact could be significantly higher, well, many people find that too frightening to contemplate. Hence the desire to sweep such ideas under the carpet – similar to how polite society once avoided using the word “cancer”.

My own view is that the balance of emphasis in the PwC report is the wrong way round. Society urgently needs to anticipate new structures (and new philosophies) that cope with large proportions of the workforce no longer being able to earn income from paid employment.

That’s the argument I made in, for example, my opening remarks in the recent London Futurists conference on UBIA (Universal Basic Income and/or Alternatives):

… and I took the time at the end of the event to back up my assertions with a wider analysis:

To be clear, I see many big challenges in working out how a new post-work social contract will operate – and how society can transition from our present system to this new one. But the fact these tasks are hard, is all the more reason to look at them calmly and carefully. Obscuring the need for these tasks, under a flourish of proposals to increase ‘STEAM’ skills and improve apprentice schemes is, sadly, irresponsible.

18 June 2018

Politics for normal people: strongly recommended!

Filed under: politics, UBI — Tags: , , — David Wood @ 9:19 am

The first that I heard about Andrew Yang was something like this: a supporter of universal basic income (UBI) wants to become the President of the United States, and has written a book in favour of the idea.

I confess I was a bit sceptical. Most books written by aspiring politicians are lightweight.

However, it turns out that to describe the book Yang has written as simply a book about UBI, is to vastly understate its scope and the power. I’ve just finished listening to the audio version of it, and I’m very impressed.

Yes, the book says sensible, thoughtful things about the likely advantages of UBI, and how it might be paid for. But it says much more than that.

The title of the book is “The war on normal people”. These “normal people” are ones with statistically median characteristics – median education levels, median income, median family circumstances, and so on. These aren’t the people who tend to congregate in the parts of the USA where the economy is still doing well – such as New York, Boston, Silicon Valley, and Seattle. As Yang highlights in chapter after chapter of grim but compelling reading, the prospects for these normal people are bad – if trends continue on their current trajectories.

Yang has an impressive CV of activities he undertook prior to announcing his interest in becoming President. Here’s an extract from his online biography:

I’m not a career politician—I’m an entrepreneur who understands the economy. It’s clear to me, and to many of the nation’s best job creators, that we need to make an unprecedented change, and we need to make it now. But the establishment isn’t willing to take the necessary bold steps…

I was born in upstate New York in 1975. My parents immigrated from Taiwan in the 1960s and met in grad school. My Dad was a researcher at IBM—he generated 69 patents over his career—and my Mom was the systems administrator at a local university. My brother and I grew up pretty nerdy. We also grew up believing in the American Dream—it’s why my parents came here.

I studied economics and political science at Brown and went to law school at Columbia. After a brief stint as a corporate lawyer, I realized it wasn’t for me. I launched a small company in the early days of the internet that didn’t work out, and then worked for a healthcare startup, where I learned how to build a business from more experienced entrepreneurs. In my thirties, I ran a national education company that grew to become #1 in the country. I also met my wife, Evelyn, and got married. My education company was acquired, and with Evelyn’s support, I decided to take my earnings and committed myself to creating jobs in cities hit hard by the financial crisis. By that time I understood the power of entrepreneurship to generate economic growth, so I founded Venture for America (VFA), an organization that helps entrepreneurs create jobs in cities like Baltimore, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland.

VFA resonates with so many people because it’s clear there’s a growing problem in the U.S.: automation is destroying jobs and entire regions are being left behind. For years I believed new business formation was the answer—if we could train a new generation of entrepreneurs and create the right jobs in the right places, we could stop the downward spiral of growing income inequality, poverty, unemployment, and hopelessness. VFA created jobs by the thousands and continues to do amazing work across the country. But along the way, it became clear to me that job creation will not outpace the massive impending job loss due to automation. Those days are simply over.

Yang draws on many of his personal experiences in the book. He describes how, despite lots of good intentions from existing political and social leaders, much of the interior of the USA has been heading steadily downhill. The fixes that are often proposed, such as retraining people from one career skillset to another – aren’t going to work on the scale needed.

Hence Yang’s summary:

I fear for the future of our country. New technologies – robots, software, artificial intelligence – have already destroyed more than 4 million US jobs, and in the next 5-10 years, they will eliminate millions more. A third of all American workers are at risk of permanent unemployment. And this time, the jobs will not come back.

Despite the depressing analysis in the opening two thirds of the book, the final sections are full of what I see as credible optimism.

Here’s his headline vision:

As president, my first priority will be to implement Universal Basic Income for every American adult between the ages of 18 and 64: $1,000 a month, no strings attached, paid for by a new tax on the companies benefiting most from automation.

However – of key importance – Yang’s book makes clear that he understands that the financial payments are only a small part of the transformation that needs to be taken.

UBI is just the beginning. A crisis is underway—we have to work together to stop it, or risk losing the heart of our country. The stakes have never been higher.

Yang makes lots of interesting proposals about changes to communities (including systems of “digital social credits”), healthcare, and education. These build on his own experiences within the healthcare and education industries, and resonate with my personal observations from my own career. For example, Yang urges that we shouldn’t think of education and being primarily about preparing someone for employment. Instead, it should be about the development of character.

Anyone else considering running for political office would do well to compare their vision with that of Andrew Yang. I wish him the best of success.

24 May 2018

“The People vs. Democracy” – a quick review

Filed under: books, politics, RSA — Tags: , , , , — David Wood @ 1:08 am

If you’re interested in politics, then I recommend the video recording of yesterday’s presentation at London’s RSA by Yascha Mounk.

Mounk is a Lecturer on Government at Harvard University, a Senior Fellow at New America, a columnist at Slate, and the host of The Good Fight podcast. He’s also the author of the book “The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It” which I finished reading yesterday. The RSA presentation provides a good introduction to the ideas in the book.

The book marshals a set of arguments in a compelling way, which I hadn’t seen lined up in that way before. It provides some very useful insight as to the challenges being posed to the world by the growth of “illiberal democracy” (“populism”). It also explains why these challenges might be more dangerous than many commentators have tended to assume.

(“Don’t worry about the rise of strong men like Trump”, these commentators say. “Sure, Trump is obnoxious. But the traditions of liberal democracy are strong. The separation of powers are such that the excesses of any would-be autocrat will surely be tamed”. Alas, there’s no “surely” about it.)

Here’s how Mounk’s book is described on its website:

The world is in turmoil. From India to Turkey and from Poland to the United States, authoritarian populists have seized power. As a result, Yascha Mounk shows, democracy itself may now be at risk.

Two core components of liberal democracy—individual rights and the popular will—are increasingly at war with each other. As the role of money in politics soared and important issues were taken out of public contestation, a system of “rights without democracy” took hold. Populists who rail against this say they want to return power to the people. But in practice they create something just as bad: a system of “democracy without rights.”

The consequence, Mounk shows in The People vs. Democracy, is that trust in politics is dwindling. Citizens are falling out of love with their political system. Democracy is wilting away. Drawing on vivid stories and original research, Mounk identifies three key drivers of voters’ discontent: stagnating living standards, fears of multiethnic democracy, and the rise of social media. To reverse the trend, politicians need to enact radical reforms that benefit the many, not the few.

The People vs. Democracy is the first book to go beyond a mere description of the rise of populism. In plain language, it describes both how we got here and where we need to go. For those unwilling to give up on either individual rights or the popular will, Mounk shows, there is little time to waste: this may be our last chance to save democracy.

I liked the book so much that I’ve modified some of the slides in the presentation I’ll be giving myself this evening (Thursday 24th May), to include ideas from Mounk’s work.

One drawback of the book, however, is that the solutions it offers, although “worthy”, seem unlikely to stir sufficient popular engagement to become turned from idea into reality. I believe something bigger is needed.

14 May 2018

The key questions about UBIA

The first few times I heard about the notion of Universal Basic Income (UBI), I said to myself, that’s a pretty dumb idea.

Paying people without them doing any work is going to cause big problems for society, I thought. It’s going to encourage laziness, and discourage enterprise. Why should people work hard, if the fruits of their endeavour are taken away from them to be redistributed to people who can’t be bothered to work? It’s not fair. And it’s a recipe for social decay.

But since my first encounters with the idea of UBI, my understanding has evolved a long way. I have come to see the idea, not as dumb, but as highly important. Anyone seriously interested in the future of human society ought to keep abreast of the discussion about UBI:

  • What are the strengths and (yes) the weaknesses of UBI?
  • What alternatives could be considered, that have the strengths of UBI but avoid its weaknesses?
  • And, bearing in mind that the most valuable futurist scenarios typically involve the convergence (or clash) of several different trend analyses, what related ideas might transform our understanding of UBI?

For these reasons, I am hosting a day-long London Futurists event at Birkbeck College, Central London, on Saturday 2nd June, with the title “Universal Basic Income and/or Alternatives: 2018 update”.

The event is defined by the question,

What do we know, in June 2018, about Universal Basic Income and its alternatives (UBIA), that wasn’t known, or was less clear, just a few years ago?

The event website highlights various components of that question, which different speakers on the day will address:

  • What are the main risks and issues with the concept of UBIA?
  • How might the ideas of UBIA evolve in the years ahead?
  • If not a UBI, what alternatives might be considered, to meet the underlying requirements which have led many people to propose a UBI?
  • What can we learn from the previous and ongoing experiments in Basic Income?
  • What are the feasible systems (new or increased taxes, or other means) to pay for a UBIA?
  • What steps can be taken to make UBIA politically feasible?
  • What is a credible roadmap for going beyond a “basic” income towards enabling attainment of a “universal prosperity” by everyone?

As you can see from the event website, an impressive list of speakers have kindly agreed to take part. Here’s the schedule for the day:

09:30: Doors open
10:00: Chair’s welcome: The questions that deserve the most attention: David Wood
10:15: Opening keynote: Basic Income – Making it happenProf Guy Standing
11:00: Implications of Information TechnologyProf Joanna Bryson
11:30: Alternatives to UBI – Exploring the PossibilitiesRohit TalwarHelena Calle and Steve Wells
12:15: Q&A involving all morning speakers
12:30: Break for lunch (lunch not provided)

14:00: Basic Income as a policy and a perspective: Barb Jacobson
14:30: Implications of Artificial Intelligence on UBIATony Czarnecki
15:00: Approaching the Economic SingularityCalum Chace
15:30: What have we learned? And what should we do next? David Wood
16:00-16:30: Closing panel involving all speakers
16:30: Event closes. Optional continuation of discussion in nearby pub

A dumb idea?

In the run-up to the UBIA 2018 event, I’ll make a number of blogposts anticipating some of the potential discussion on the day.

First, let me return to the question of whether UBI is a dumb idea. Viewing the topic from the angle of laziness vs. enterprise is only one possible perspective. As is often the case, changing your perspective often provides much needed insight.

Instead, let’s consider the perspective of “social contract”. Reflect on the fact that society already provides money to people who aren’t doing any paid work. There are basic pension payments for everyone (so long as they are old enough), basic educational funding for everyone (so long as they are young enough), and basic healthcare provisions for people when they are ill (in most countries of the world).

These payments are part of what is called a “social contract”. There are two kinds of argument for having a social contract:

  1. Self-interested arguments: as individuals, we might need to take personal benefit of a social contract at some stage in the future, if we unexpectedly fall on hard times. What’s more, if we fail to look after the rest of society, the rest of society might feel aggrieved, and rise up against us, pitchforks (or worse) in hand.
  2. Human appreciation arguments: all people deserve basic stability in their life, and a social contract can play a significant part in providing such stability.

What’s harder, of course, is to agree which kind of social contract should be in place. Whole libraries of books have been written on that question.

UBI can be seen as fitting inside a modification of our social contract. It would be part of what supporters say would be an improved social contract.

Note: although UBI is occasionally suggested as a replacement for the entirety of the current welfare system, it is more commonly (and, in my view, more sensibly) proposed as a replacement for only some of the current programmes.

Proponents of UBI point to two types of reason for including UBI as part of a new social contract:

  1. Timeless arguments – arguments that have been advanced in various ways by people throughout history, such as Thomas More (1516), Montesquieu (1748), Thomas Paine (1795), William Morris (1890), Bertrand Russell (1920), Erich Fromm (1955), Martin Luther King (1967), and Milton Friedman (1969)
  2. Time-linked arguments – arguments that foresee drastically changed circumstances in the relatively near future, which increase the importance of adopting a UBI.

Chief among the time-linked arguments are that the direct and indirect effects of profound technological change is likely to transform the work environment in unprecedented ways. Automation, powered by AI that is increasingly capable, may eat into more and more of the skills that we humans used to think are “uniquely human”. People who expected to earn money by doing various tasks may find themselves unemployable – robots will do these tasks more reliably, more cheaply, and with greater precision. People who spend some time retraining themselves in anticipation of a new occupation may find that, over the same time period, robots have gained the same skills faster than humans.

That’s the argument for growing technological unemployment. It’s trendy to criticise this argument nowadays, but I find the criticisms to be weak. I won’t repeat all the ins and outs of that discussion now, since I’ve covered them at some length in Chapter 4 of my book Transcending Politics. (An audio version of this chapter is currently available to listen to, free of charge, here.)

A related consideration talks, not about technological unemployment, but about technological underemployment. People may be able to find paid work, but that work pays considerably less than they expected. Alternatively, their jobs may have many rubbishy aspects. In the terminology of David Graeber, increasing numbers of jobs are “bullshit jobs”. (Graeber will be speaking on that very topic at the RSA this Thursday. At time of writing, tickets are still available.)

Yet another related concept is that of the precariat – people whose jobs are precarious, since they have no guarantee of the number of hours of work they may receive in any one week. People in these positions would often prefer to be able to leave these jobs and spend a considerable period of time training for a different kind of work – or starting a new business, with all the risks and uncertainties entailed. If a UBI were available to them, it would give them the stability to undertake that personal voyage.

How quickly will technological unemployment and technological underemployment develop? How quickly will the proportion of bullshit jobs increase? How extensive and socially dangerous will the precariat become?

I don’t believe any futurist can provide crisp answers to these questions. There are too many unknowns involved. However, equally, I don’t believe anyone can say categorically that these changes won’t occur (or won’t occur any time soon). My personal recommendation is that society needs to anticipate the serious possibility of relatively rapid acceleration of these trends over the next couple of decades. I’d actually put the probability of a major acceleration in these trends over the next 20 years as greater than 50%. But even if you assess the odds more conservatively, you ought to have some contingency plans in mind, just in case the pace quickens more than you expected.

In other words, the time-linked arguments in favour of exploring a potential UBI have considerable force.

As it happens, the timeless arguments may gain increased force too. If it’s true that the moral arc of history bends upwards – if it’s true that moral sensibilities towards our fellow humans increase over the passage of time – then arguments which at one time fell below society’s moral radar can gain momentum in the light of collective experience and deliberative reflection.

An impractical idea?

Many people who are broadly sympathetic to the principle of UBI nevertheless consider the concept to be deeply impractical. For example, here’s an assessment by veteran economics analyst John Kay, in his recent article “Basic income schemes cannot work and distract from sensible, feasible and necessary welfare reforms”:

The provision of a universal basic income at a level which would provide a serious alternative to low-paid employment is impossibly expensive. Thus, a feasible basic income cannot fulfil the hopes of some of the idea’s promoters: it cannot guarantee households a standard of living acceptable in a modern society, it cannot compensate for the possible disappearance of existing low-skilled employment and it cannot eliminate “bullshit jobs”. Either the level of basic income is unacceptably low, or the cost of providing it is unacceptably high. And, whatever the appeal of the underlying philosophy, that is essentially the end of the matter.

Kay offers this forthright summary:

Attempting to turn basic income into a realistic proposal involves the reintroduction of elements of the benefit system which are dependent on multiple contingencies and also on income and wealth. The outcome is a welfare system which resembles those that already exist. And this is not surprising. The complexity of current arrangements is not the result of bureaucratic perversity. It is the product of attempts to solve the genuinely difficult problem of meeting the variety of needs of low-income households while minimising disincentives to work for households of all income levels – while ensuring that the system established for that purpose is likely to sustain the support of those who are required to pay for it.

I share Piachaud’s conclusion that basic income is a distraction from sensible, feasible and necessary welfare reforms. As in other areas of policy, it is simply not the case that there are simple solutions to apparently difficult issues which policymakers have hitherto been too stupid or corrupt to implement.

Supporters of UBI have rebuttals to this analysis. Some of these rebuttals will no doubt be presented at the UBIA 2018 event on 2nd June.

One rebuttal seeks to rise above “zero sum” considerations. Injecting even a small amount of money into everyone’s hands can have “multiplier” effects, as that new money passes in turn through several people’s hands. One person’s spending is another person’s income, ready for them to spend in turn.

Along similar lines, Professor Guy Standing, who will be delivering the opening keynote at UBIA 2018, urges readers of his book Basic Income: And How We Can Make It Happen to consider positive feedback cycles: “the likely impact of extra spending power on the supply of goods and services”. As he says,

In developing countries, and in low-income communities in richer countries, supply effects could actually lower prices for basic goods and services. In the Indian basic income pilots, villagers’ increased purchasing power led local farmers to plant more rice and wheat, use more fertilizer and cultivate more of their land. Their earnings went up, while the unit price of the food they supplied went down. The same happened with clothes, since several women found it newly worthwhile to buy sewing machines and material. A market was created where there was none before.

A similar response could be expected in any community where there are people who want to earn more and do more, alongside people wanting to acquire more goods and services to improve their living standard.

(I am indebted to Standing’s book for many other insights that have influenced my thinking and, indeed, points raised in this blogpost. It’s well worth reading!)

There’s a broader point that needs to be raised, about the “prices for basic goods and services”. Since a Basic Income needs to cover payments for these goods and services, two approaches are possible:

  1. Seek to raise the level of Basic Income payments
  2. Seek to lower the cost of basic goods and services.

I believe both approaches should be pursued in parallel. The same technologies of automation that pose threats to human employment also hold the promise for creating goods and services at significantly lower costs (and with higher quality). However, any such reduction in cost sits in tension with the prevailing societal focus on boosting economic prices (and increasing GDP). It is for this reason that we need a change of societal values as well as changes in the mechanics of the social contract.

The vision of goods and services having prices approaching zero is, by the way, sometimes called “the Star Trek economy”. Futurist Calum Chace – another of the UBIA 2018 speakers – addresses this topic is his provocatively titled book The Economic Singularity: Artificial intelligence and the death of capitalism. Here’s an extract from one of his blogposts, a “un-forecast” (Chace’s term) for a potential 2050 scenario, “Future Bites 7 – The Star Trek Economy”, featuring Lauren (born 1990):

The race downhill between the incomes of governments and the costs they needed to cover for their citizens was nerve-wracking for a few years, but by the time Lauren hit middle age it was clear the outcome would be good. Most kinds of products had now been converted into services, so cars, houses, and even clothes were almost universally rented rather than bought: Lauren didn’t know anyone who owned a car. The cost of renting a car for a journey was so close to zero that the renting companies – auto manufacturers or AI giants and often both – generally didn’t bother to collect the payment. Money was still in use, but was becoming less and less necessary.

As a result, the prices of most asset classes had crashed. Huge fortunes had been wiped out as property prices collapsed, especially in the hot-spot cities, but few people minded all that much as they could get whatever they needed so easily.

As you may have noticed, the vision of a potential future “Star Trek” economy is part of the graphic design for UBIA 2018.

I’ll share one further comment on the question of the affordability of UBI. Specifically, I’ll quote some comments made by Guardian writer Colin Holtz in the wake of the discovery of the extent of tax evasion revealed by the Panama Papers. The article by Holtz has the title “The Panama Papers prove it: America can afford a universal basic income”. Here’s an extract:

If the super-rich actually paid what they owe in taxes, the US would have loads more money available for public services.

We should all be able to agree: no one should be poor in a nation as wealthy as the US. Yet nearly 15% of Americans live below the poverty line. Perhaps one of the best solutions is also one of the oldest and simplest ideas: everyone should be guaranteed a small income, free from conditions.

Called a universal basic income by supporters, the idea has has attracted support throughout American history, from Thomas Paine to Martin Luther King Jr. But it has also faced unending criticism for one particular reason: the advocates of “austerity” say we simply can’t afford it – or any other dramatic spending on social security.

That argument dissolved this week with the release of the Panama Papers, which reveal the elaborate methods used by the wealthy to avoid paying back the societies that helped them to gain their wealth in the first place…

While working and middle-class families pay their taxes or face consequences, the Panama Papers remind us that the worst of the 1% have, for years, essentially been stealing access to Americans’ common birthright, and to the benefits of our shared endeavors.

Worse, many of those same global elite have argued that we cannot afford to provide education, healthcare or a basic standard of living for all, much less eradicate poverty or dramatically enhance the social safety net by guaranteeing every American a subsistence-level income.

The Tax Justice Network estimates the global elite are sitting on $21–32tn of untaxed assets. Clearly, only a portion of that is owed to the US or any other nation in taxes – the highest tax bracket in the US is 39.6% of income. But consider that a small universal income of $2,000 a year to every adult in the US – enough to keep some people from missing a mortgage payment or skimping on food or medicine – would cost only around $563bn each year.

This takes us from the question of affordability to the question of political feasibility. Read on…

A politically infeasible idea?

A potential large obstacle to adopting UBI is that powerful entities within society will fight hard against it, being opposed to any idea of increased taxation and a decline in their wealth. These entities don’t particularly care that the existing social contract provides a paltry offering to the poor and precarious in society – or to those “inadequates” who happen to lose their jobs and their standing in the economy. The existing social contract provides them personally (and those they consider their peers) with a large piece of the cake. They’d like to keep things that way, thank you very much.

They defend the current setup with ideology. The ideology states that they deserve their current income and wealth, on account of the outstanding contributions they have made to the economy. They have created jobs, or goods, or services of one sort or another, that the marketplace values. And no-one has any right to take their accomplishments away from them.

In other words, they defend the status quo with a theory of value. In order to overcome their resistance to UBIA, I believe we’ll need to tackle this theory of value head on, and provide a better theory in its place. I’ll pick up that thread of thought shortly.

But an implementation of UBI doesn’t need to happen “big bang” style, all at once. It can proceed in stages, starting with a very low level, and (all being well) ramping up from there in phases. The initial payment from UBI could be funded from new types of tax that would, in any case, improve the health of society:

  • A tax on financial transactions (sometimes called a “Tobin tax”) – that will help to put the brakes on accelerated financial services taking place entirely within the financial industry (without directly assisting the real economy)
  • A “Greenhouse gas tax” (such as a “carbon tax”) on activities that generate greenhouse gas pollution.

Continuing the discussion

The #ubia channel in the newly created London Futurists Slack workspace awaits comments on this topic. For a limited time, members and supporters of London Futurists can use this link to join that workspace.

6 March 2018

Transcending left and right?

(The following consists of short extracts from Chapter 1,  “Vision and Roadmap”, of my recent new book Transcending Politics.)

One of the most destructive elements of current politics is its divisiveness. Politicians form into warring parties which then frequently find fault with each other. They seek to damage the reputation of their adversaries, throwing lots of mud in the hope that at least some of it will stick. Whereas disagreement is inherent in political process, what would be far better is if politicians could disagree without being disagreeable.

The division between “left” and “right” is particularly long-established. The pioneering transhumanist philosopher F.M. Esfandiary, who later changed his name to FM-2030, lamented this division in his 1977 book Up-Wingers:

To transcend more rapidly to higher levels of evolution we must begin by breaking out of the confinement of traditional ideologies.

We are at all times slowed down by the narrowness of Right-wing and Left-wing alternatives. If you are not conservative you are liberal. If not right of centre you are left of it or middle of the road.

Our traditions comprise no other alternatives. There is no ideological or conceptual dimension beyond conservative and liberal – beyond Right and Left.

Right and Left – even the extreme Left – are traditional frameworks predicated on traditional premises striving in obsolete ways to attain obsolete goals.

Esfandiary’s answer was a different dimension: “Up” – the optimistic embrace of radical technological possibility for positive human transformation:

How do you identify Space scientists who this very day are working with new sets of premises to establish communities in other worlds? Are they Right-wing or Left? Are they conservative or liberal?…

These and other breakthroughs are outside the range of all the traditional philosophical social economic political frameworks. These new dimensions are nowhere on the Right or on the Left. These new dimensions are Up.

Up is an entirely new framework whose very premises and goals transcend the conventional Right and Left…

The Right/Left establishment wants to maintain an evolutionary status quo. It is resigned to humanity’s basic predicament. It simply strives to make life better within this predicament.

Up-Wingers are resigned to nothing. We accept no human predicament as permanent, no tragedy as irreversible; no goals as unattainable.

The term “Up” dovetails with Esfandiary’s evident interest in the exploration of space. We should raise our thinking upwards – towards the stars – rather than being constrained with small-mindedness.

Professor Steve Fuller of the University of Warwick and legal expert Veronika Lipinska take these ideas further in their 2014 book The Proactionary Imperative: A Foundation for Transhumanism, in which they explore “the rotation of the ideological axis”, from left/right to up/down. Fuller and Lipinska provide some fascinating historical background and provocative speculations about possible futures – including a section on “the four styles of playing God in today’s world”.

I share the view that there are more important questions than the left-right split that has dominated politics for so long. Esfandiary was correct to highlight the question of whether to embrace (“Up”) or to reject (“Down”) the potential of new technology to dramatically enhance human capabilities.

But the “Up” decision to embrace the potential for transhuman enhancements still leaves many other decisions unresolved. People who identify as being up-wing are torn between being “right-leaning upwingers” and being “left-leaning upwingers”:

  • The former admire the capabilities of a free market
  • The latter admire the safety net of a welfare system
  • The former mistrust the potential over-reach of politicians
  • The latter mistrust the actions of profit-seeking corporations
  • The former wish to uphold as much individual freedom as possible
  • The latter wish to uphold as much social solidarity as possible
  • The former are keen to reduce taxation
  • The latter are keen to increase equality of opportunity
  • The former point to the marvels that can be achieved by competitive-minded self-made individuals
  • The latter point to the marvels that can be achieved by collaboration-minded progressive coalitions.

I identify myself as a technoprogressive more than a technolibertarian. Individual freedoms are important, but the best way to ensure these is via wise collective agreement on appropriate constraints. Rather than seeking minimal government and minimal taxation, you’ll see in the pages ahead that I argue for appropriate government and appropriate taxation.

However, I’m emphatically not going to advocate that left-leaning transhumanists should somehow overcome or defeat right-leaning transhumanists. The beliefs I listed as being characteristic of right-leaning transhumanists all contain significant truths – as do the beliefs I listed for left-leaning transhumanists. The task ahead is to pursue policies that respect both sets of insights. That’s what I mean when describing the Transpolitica initiative as “integrative”. Rather than “either-or” it’s “both-and”.

 

9 November 2016

The missing vision

Filed under: politics, vision — Tags: , , , , , — David Wood @ 10:04 am

The United States of America have voted. In large numbers, electors have selected as their next President someone committed to:

  • Making it much harder for many types of people to enter the country
  • Deporting many of the current residents
  • Ramping up anti-Islam hostility
  • Denouncing global warming as a hoax
  • Undoing legislation to protect the environment
  • Reducing US support for countries facing hostile aggression
  • Dismantling the US deal with Iran over nuclear technology
  • Imposing punitive trade tariffs on China, likely triggering a trade war
  • Packing the Supreme Court with conservative judges who are opposed to choice.

Over the past months, I have tried – and usually failed – to persuade many of my online “friends” of the dangers of voting for Donald Trump. Smart people have, it seems, their own reasons for endorsing and welcoming this forthcoming “shock to the system”. People have been left behind by the pace of change, I’ve been told. Who can blame them for reaching for an outsider politician? Who can blame them for ignoring the objections of elites and “experts”?

Because of the pain and alienation being experienced by many electors, it’s no surprise – the argument runs – that they’re willing to try something different. Electors have proven themselves ready to overlook the evident character flaws, flip-flops, egotism, sexism, and indiscipline of Trump. These flaws seem to pale into insignificance beside the hope that a powerful outsider can deliver a hefty whack on the side of a dysfunctional Washington establishment. Their visceral hatred of present-day politics has led them to suspend critical judgement on the Trump juggernaut. That hatred also led them to lap up, unquestioningly, many of the bogus stories circulating on social media, that levelled all kinds on nonsense accusations on the leadership of the Democratic Party.

(For a thoughtful, heartfelt analysis of why so many people leave behind their critical judgement, see this Facebook essay by Eliezer Yudkowsky.)

There are already lots of arguments about who is to blame for this development – about whose shoulders failed to hold the responsibility to uphold sensible rather than fantasist politics. For example, see this Intelligence Squared debate on the motion “Blame the elites for the Trump phenomenon”.

My own analysis is that what was missing was (and is) a credible, compelling vision for how a better society is going to be built.

Electors were unconvinced by what they heard from Hillary Clinton, and (indeed) from the other non-Trump candidates for nomination. What they heard seemed too much of the same. They imagined that any benefits arising from a Clinton presidency would be experienced by the elites of society, rather than by the common citizen.

What’s needed, therefore, is the elaboration of a roadmap for how all members of society can benefit from the fruits of ongoing and forthcoming technological progress.

I call this vision the “Post-scarcity vision”. Because it involves the fundamental adoption of new technology, for progressive social purposes, it can also be called a “Technoprogressive vision”.

I’ve tried to share my thinking about that vision on numerous occasions over the last 5-10 years. Here are some slides taken from a presentation I gave last month to the IC Beyond (Imperial College Beyond) Society in Central London:

slide1

slide2

slide3

slide4

If you want to hear my explanation of these slides in the context of a longer discussion of the impact of automation and technological unemployment on society, here’s a video of the entire meeting (the “vision” slides are in the second half of the presentation):

As this post-scarcity technoprogressive vision evolves and matures, it has the potential to persuade more and more people that it – rather than Trump-style restrictions on movement, choice, and aggregation – represents a better route to a society that it better for everyone.

But beliefs have deep roots, and it’s going to require lots of hard, wise work to undo all kinds of prejudices en route to that better society.

Footnote: I first wrote a formal “Transhumanist Manifesto” in February 2013, here (with, ahem, somewhat flowery language). For other related declarations and manifestos, see this listing on H+Pedia. Out of the growing community of technoprogressives and transhumanists, there’s a lot of potential to turn these visions into practical roadmaps.

8 November 2016

Agile organisations for agile politics

Filed under: Agile, H+Pedia, politics, Transpolitica, Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — David Wood @ 6:23 pm

The pace of change in politics over the last twelve months has been breathtaking. It’s possible the change will accelerate further over the next twelve months:

  • Huge dissatisfaction exists with present-day political parties, candidates, and processes
  • Ideas can spread extremely rapidly, due to extensive usage of social media
  • Although many people feel alienated from mainstream politics, they have a hunger for political change.

Growing awareness of forthcoming technological disruptions heightens the general feeling of angst:

  • Technological unemployment (automation) threatens to eliminate whole swathes of jobs, or to reduce the salaries available to people who continue in their current roles
  • Genetic editing and artificial intelligence have the potential for people living “better than well” and even “more than human”, but it’s unclear how widely these benefits will be shared among all sectors of society
  • Technologies such as blockchain and 3D printing raise the possibility of decentralised coordination – coordination with less need for powerful states or corporations
  • Virtual Reality, along with new types of drug, could lead to large-scale disengagement of citizens from mainstream society – with people “tuning in and dropping out” as never before
  • Breakthroughs in fields of energy, nanotech, the Internet of Things, synthetic biology, and self-learning artificial intelligence could result, intentionally or unintentionally, in extremely chaotic outcomes – with recourse to new types of “weapons of mass destruction” (including cyber-terrorism, nano-terrorism, gene-terrorism, and AI-terrorism)
  • Technologies of surveillance could put more power than ever before in the hands of all-seeing, all-manipulating governments and/or corporations
  • Misguided attempts to “geo-engineer” planetary solutions to potential runaway climate change could have devastating unintended consequences for the environment.

In the light of such uncertainty, two skills are becoming more important than ever:

  • The skill of foresight – the anticipation and evaluation of new scenarios, arising from the convergence of multiple developing trends
  • The skill of agility – the capability to change plans rapidly, as unexpected developments take on a life of their own.

An update on the Transhumanist Party of the UK

This context is the background for a significant change in a political party that was formed nearly two years ago – the Transhumanist Party of the UK (TPUK).

As a reminder, here’s a 90 second promotional video for TPUK from April last year:

.

The messages in that video remain as relevant and important today as when the Party was founded:

The Transhumanist Party – Transcending human limitations

Harnessing accelerating technology:

  • Enabling positive social change and personal freedom,
  • With no-one abandoned,
  • So technology benefits all – not just vested interests.

Sustainable, bright green policies – good for humanity and good for the environment

  • Policies informed by science and evidence,
  • Ideology and divisiveness replaced by rationality and compassion ,
  • Risks managed proactively, enabling innovation to flourish.

Regenerative solutions – for body, mind, education, society, and politics

  • Smart automation and artificial intelligence addressing age-old human burdens,
  • Huge personal and financial benefits from preventive medicine and healthy longevity,
  • Politics transcending past biases and weaknesses.

However, despite this vision, and despite an initial flurry of positive publicity (including the parliamentary candidacy of Alex Karran), the Party has made little progress over the last 6-9 months. And in the last couple of weeks, two key members of the Party’s NEC (National Executive Committee) have resigned from the Party:

These resignations arise from the recognition that there are many drawbacks to creating and developing a new political party in the United Kingdom:

  • The “first past the post” electoral system makes it especially difficult for minority parties to win seats in parliament
  • Political parties need to establish a set of policies on a wide range of issues – issues away from the areas of core agreement among members, and where dissension can easily arise
  • The timescales spoken about for full electoral success – potentially up to 25 years – are far too far into the future, given all the other changes expected in the meantime.

Party executives will each be following their own decisions about the best way to progress the underlying goals of transhumanist politics. Many of us will be redoubling our efforts behind Transpolitica – the think tank which was established at the same time as the Transhumanist Party. The relationship between Transpolitica and TPUK is covered in this FAQ from the Transpolitica website:

Q: What is the relation between Transpolitica and the various Transhumanist Parties?

Transpolitica aims to provide material and services that will be found useful by transhumanist politicians worldwide, including:

  • Transhumanist supporters who form or join parties with the name “Transhumanist Party” in various countries
  • Transhumanist supporters who form other new parties, without using the word “transhumanist” in their party name
  • Transhumanist supporters inside other existing political parties, including mainstream and long-established parties
  • Transhumanist supporters who prefer not to associate closely with any one political party, but who have an interest in political action.

Transpolitica 2016

Transpolitica is hosting a major conference later this year – on 3rd December. It’s a conference with a very practical ambition – to gather and review proposals for “Real world policy changes for a radically better future”. There will be 15 speakers, covering topics in three broad sections:

  • Regulations, health, and transformation
  • Politics, tools, and transformation
  • Society, data, and transformation

Click here for more details, and to register to attend (while tickets are still available).

I’ll be kicking off the proceedings, with a talk entitled “What prospects for better politics?”.

dw-speaker-transpolitica-2016

Watch out for more news about the topics being covered by the other speakers.

Note that a focus on devising practical policies for a radically better future – policies which could become the focus of subsequent cross-party campaigns for legislative changes – resonates with an important evolution taking place within the IEET (the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies). As James Hughes (the IEET Executive Director) writes:

I am proposing that the IEET re-focus in a major way, on our website, with our blog, with our community, and in our work, on the explicit project of building a global technoprogressive ideological tendency to intervene in debates within futurism, academe and public policy. While we will remain a nonpartisan nonprofit organization, and will not be endorsing specific candidates, parties or pieces of legislation, we can focus on the broad parameters of the technoprogressive regulatory and legislative agenda to be pursued globally.

Regarding a first concrete project in this new direction, I have in mind our editing a Technoprogressive Policy Briefing Book, comparable to the briefing books of think tanks like the Brookings Institution, AEI, or Heritage Foundation. This project can collect and collaborate with the excellent work done by Transpolitica and other technoprogressive groups and friends. Each policy briefing would state a general issue in a couple of paragraphs, outline the key technoprogressive policy ideas to address the issue, and then list key publications and links to organizations pursuing those policies.

Next steps with the TPUK

As the official Treasurer of the TPUK, and following (as mentioned above) the resignation of both the leader and deputy leader of the Party, it legally falls to me to manage the evolution of the Party in a way that serves the vision of the remaining members. I’m in discussion with the other remaining representatives on the National Executive Committee, and we’ll be consulting members via the Party’s email conferencing systems. The basic principles I’ll be proposing are as follows:

  1. Times of rapid change demand organisational agility, rather than any heavyweight structures
  2. We will retain our radical purpose – the social changes ahead could (and should) be momentous over the next 5-25 years
  3. We will retain our progressive vision, in which technology benefits all – not just vested interests
  4. We will provide support across the spectrum of existing political parties to sympathisers of transhumanist and technoprogressive changes
  5. We will be ready to play a key positive enabling role as the existing political spectrum undergoes its own changes ahead – including the fragmentation of current parties and the creation of new alliances and new initiatives
  6. We will continue to champion the vision of (a.) Harnessing accelerating technology to enable positive social change and personal freedom; (b.) Sustainable, bright green policies – good for humanity and good for the environment; (c.) Regenerative solutions – for body, mind, education, society, and politics
  7. We will aim to provide actionable, practical analyses – of the sort being presented at Transpolitica 2016 – rather than (just) statements of principle
  8. Rather than maintain an expensive infrastructure of our own, we should feed our work into existing systems – such as H+Pedia, Transpolitica, the IEET, and the Transhuman National Committee of the United States
  9. As far as possible, we will remain collaborative rather than divisive
  10. We will hold onto our domain names
  11. We will retain the option to field our own candidates in future elections, in case that turns out to be the most sensible course of action at that time (this means the Party will remain officially registered with the Electoral Commission – at modest cost)
  12. We will offer our donors and members a refund of the payments they have provided the Party within the last six months, in case they feel they no longer support our vision.

 

26 June 2016

#BRITE – a new start for Britain in Europe

Filed under: politics, Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — David Wood @ 11:12 am

The people have spoken. The status quo is unacceptable. The United Kingdom cannot continue unchanged, muddling through, somehow hanging on to the politics of the past, with minimal changes in its relationship with Europe and the wider world. That option is a non-starter. It would violate the clear result of the national referendum of 23rd June. The people have called for a bold new start.

Nevertheless, as I write these words, nearly three million people have signed the online petition that, in effect, calls for a second referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU.

Referendum picture

That figure of nearly three million signatories (which keeps rising higher every time I look at the website) dwarfs the number of signatories of all the other petitions (more than 10,000 in total) on the UK government website. The second most popular petition received 823,000 signatures.

List of petitions

In short, although the people have spoken – by a majority of 52% to 48% – huge swathes of the British population are deeply dissatisfied by the outcome. To be clear, I count myself among them. The dissatisfaction includes:

  • Wide recognition that the claims of the Leave campaign were full of exaggerations and (to use an unparliamentary word) lies
  • Observation that leaders of the Leave campaign are already vigorously, shamefully, evasively, back-pedalling on the promises they made before the vote – promises such as ring-fencing additional funding for the NHS and on dramatically reducing immigration
  • Realisation that the vote is likely to trigger Scottish independence – the breakup of the United Kingdom.

Even lots of people who voted Leave are now experiencing voter’s regret. For example, see the compilation in the Evening Standard, “‘I really regret my vote now’: The Brexit voters who wish they’d backed remain”.

This dissatisfaction is eloquently, passionately expressed in a remarkable piece of writing by Laurie Penny in the New Statesman, “I want my country back”. If you haven’t read it, you should stop and view it now. I’ll be waiting here when you return.

Also worth pondering is this fine note “The three tragedies” from the Financial Times comments section.

In this context, and with the benefit of some sleep to clear my mind, I offer a proposal. This is not yet a manifesto, but it’s the draft of a potential manifesto.

Tentatively, I label this proposal BRITE – for BRitain In a Transformed Eu. Here goes. There are three parts to it.

1. A different form of second referendum

In the wake of the first referendum, negotiations must proceed on how Britain could leave the EU. These negotiations will flesh out lots of details that have so far been very vague – details where different members of the Leave campaign expressed starkly different opinions. Once the deal is reached, it will make clear features such as:

  • Our new relationship (if any) with the European Economic Area
  • The resulting requirements for payments and for open migration of workers
  • New trading agreements with countries elsewhere in the world
  • What will replace all the EU laws and regulations that currently are taken for granted as parts of British law
  • Impacts on Britain’s financial well-being, house prices, pension funds, etc – impacts on both the rich and the poor throughout the country
  • The likely future of the UK farming industry, fishing industry, the City of London, and so on.

In parallel, it will become clear how the United Kingdom itself would change:

  • Whether Northern Island would leave the United Kingdom and join a United Ireland
  • Whether Scotland would leave the United Kingdom
  • Borders that would need to be put in place.

But before that deal is actioned, with all its momentous consequences, the UK people should be asked whether they agree with it – or whether, instead, they prefer the UK to remain in what might be a seriously transformed EU.

That would be the second referendum.

2. A transformed EU

As I said, the people have spoken. The current status of the EU is unacceptable.

Quite likely, if there were referendums in other European countries, people in several other countries would, at this time, likewise reject ongoing EU membership. So wide is the distrust of existing government systems.

To my mind, the clearest analysis of the drawbacks of the way the EU is functioning is by former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis. See for example his analysis of the potential impending disintegration of the EU. Over the last few weeks, I’ve listened to the entirety of his recent new book “And the weak suffer what they must”. It was gripping listening. The book is full of important back stories to the current EU situation.

Varoufakis has raised a roadmap of proposals for reforming the EU from a democratic perspective. The initial steps are small but significant. Here’s an EU petition for “Transparency in Europe now!”

As Citizens of the European Union we demand, effective immediately,

  • the live-streaming of the entire European Council, Eurogroup, ESM Board of Governors and Ecofin meetings, and the subsequent publication of official transcripts for all such meetings
  • a full set of minutes for each ECB Governing Council meeting to be published three weeks after the conclusion of each regular meeting, and complete transcripts of these meetings to be published within two years
  • an exhaustive list of all Brussels lobbyists and a register of every one of their meetings with elected or unelected EU officials
  • electronic publication of all TTIP negotiating documents and full transparency at every stage of the TTIP negotiations.

So here’s my proposal. In parallel with the Leave negotiations, supporters of EU reform should be doubling down, hard and skillfully, to accelerate groundswell support for democratic transformation of the EU.

Some skeptics say such a transformation can never take place. I believe they’re unduly skeptical. They are under-rating the reforms that have already taken place, over the history of the EU, and they are under-rating the potential for future change.

But we will see. The UK electorate would have the chance to decide, in, say, 18-24 months’ time, which of two parallel processes have heralded the best future for the UK:

  • Brexit – Britain exiting the EU – under the more detailed proposals that have been hammered out by that time (see point 1. above)
  • Brite – Britain in a transformed EU – under any progress that has taken place with EU reforms by that time.

3. An inclusive Britain

The third part of what needs to happen is, perhaps, the most important of all. It is to comprehensively address the growing sense of alienation that is widespread in many parts of Britain – parts that are disadvantaged from an economic or inclusive point of view. With justification, these parts feel that Westminster politicians pay them scant attention.

As a futurist, I have been writing for several years (e.g. here) about the growing inequality arising from rapid technological progress. We’re living in an increasing “winner takes all” environment. Some people do very well. Many others are in jobs with slow-growing salaries, with little prospect for improvement. In some parts of the world, life expectancy is actually declining among whole strata of people, due to growing despair as much as to anything else. (Despair leads to alcoholism and drug addiction.) See for example the article “Middle-Aged Americans are Dying of Despair”:

Even as longevity increases across the rich world, uneducated white Americans are living sicker and dying earlier…

This despair is driving populist, ugly, dangerous politics all around the world. It’s a fast-growing trend. Unless politicians address it, quickly and wisely, all bets are all for the future.

This may well require a new coalition in the UK, of progressive politicians who understand the threat, and who are willing to take the courageous, imaginative steps to address it.

change-948024_1920

11 June 2015

Eating the world – the growing importance of software security

Security is eating the world

In August 2011, Marc Andreessen famously remarked that “software is eating the world”. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Andreessen set out his view that society was “in the middle of a dramatic and broad technological and economic shift in which software companies are poised to take over large swathes of the economy”.

With his background as pioneering web software architect at Netscape, and with a string of successful investments under his belt at venture capital firm Andreessen-Horowitz, Andreessen was well placed to comment on the potency of software. As he observed,

More and more major businesses and industries are being run on software and delivered as online services—from movies to agriculture to national defence. Many of the winners are Silicon Valley-style entrepreneurial technology companies that are invading and overturning established industry structures.

He then made the following prediction:

Over the next 10 years, I expect many more industries to be disrupted by software, with new world-beating Silicon Valley companies doing the disruption in more cases than not.

Industries to be impacted in this way, Andreessen suggested, would include entertainment, communications, recruitment, automotive, retail, energy, agriculture, finance, healthcare, education, and defence.

In the four years since the phrase was coined, “software is eating the world” has shown every sign of being a profound truth. In more and more sectors of industry, companies that lack deep expertise in software have found themselves increasingly by-passed by competitors. Software skills are no longer a “nice-to have” optional extra. They’re core to numerous aspects of product development.

But it’s time to propose a variant to the original phrase. A new set of deep skills are going to prove themselves as indispensable for ever larger numbers of industries. This time, the skills are in security. Before long, security will be eating the world. Companies whose software systems fall short on security will be driven out of business.

Dancing pigs

My claim about the growing importance of security may appear to fly in opposition to a general principle of user behaviour. This principle was described by renowned security writer Bruce Schneier in his 2000 book “Secrets and Lies”:

If J. Random Websurfer clicks on a button that promises dancing pigs on his computer monitor, and instead gets a hortatory message describing the potential dangers of the applet — he’s going to choose dancing pigs over computer security any day. If the computer prompts him with a warning screen like: “The applet DANCING PIGS could contain malicious code that might do permanent damage to your computer, steal your life’s savings, and impair your ability to have children,” he’ll click OK without even reading it. Thirty seconds later he won’t even remember that the warning screen even existed.

In other words, despite whatever users may say about the importance of security when directly asked about that question (“yes, of course I take security seriously”), in practice they put a higher priority on watching animated graphics (of flying pigs, cute kittens, celebrity wardrobe malfunctions, or whatever), and readily accept security risks in pursuit of that goal.

A review paper (PDF) published in 2009 by Cormac Herley of Microsoft Research shared findings that supported this view. Herley reports that, for example, users still typically choose the weakest passwords they can get away with, rather than making greater efforts to keep their passwords unguessable. Users also frequently ignore the advice against re-using the same passwords on different sites (so that, if there’s a security problem with any one of these sites, the user’s data on all other sites becomes vulnerable too).

Herley comments:

There are several ways of viewing this. A traditional view is that users are hopelessly lazy: in the face of dire descriptions of the threat landscape and repeated warnings, they do the minimum possible…

But by the end of his review, he offers a more sympathetic assessment:

“Given a choice between dancing pigs and security, users will pick dancing pigs every time.” While amusing, this is unfair: users are never offered security, either on its own or as an alternative to anything else. They are offered long, complex and growing sets of advice, mandates, policy updates and tips… We have shown that much of this advice does nothing to make users more secure, and some of it is harmful in its own right. Security is not something users are offered and turn down. What they are offered and do turn down is crushingly complex security advice that promises little and delivers less.

Herley’s paper concludes:

How can we help users avoid harm? This begins with a clear understanding of the actual harms they face, and a realistic understanding of their constraints. Without these we are proceeding blindly.

Exponential change

What are the “actual harms” that users face, as a result of insecure software systems or poor personal security habits?

We live in a time of rapid technology change. As software eats the world, it leaves more and more aspects of the world vulnerable to problems in the software – and vulnerable to problems in how that software is used, deployed, and updated.

As a result, the potential harm to users from poor security is constantly increasing. Users are vulnerable in new ways that they had never considered before.

Hacking embedded medical devices

For example, consider one possible unexpected side-effect of being fitted with one of the marvels of modern technology, an implantable heart pacemaker. Security researcher Barnaby Jack of IOActive gave a devastating demo at the Breakpoint conference in October 2012 of how easy it was for an outsider to interfere with the system whereby a pacemaker can be wirelessly recalibrated. The result is summed up in this Computerworld headline, “Pacemaker hack can deliver deadly 830-volt jolt”:

The flaw lies with the programming of the wireless transmitters used to give instructions to pacemakers and implantable cardioverter-defibrillators (ICDs), which detect irregular heart contractions and deliver an electric shock to avert a heart attack.

A successful attack using the flaw “could definitely result in fatalities,” said Jack…

In a video demonstration, Jack showed how he could remotely cause a pacemaker to suddenly deliver an 830-volt shock, which could be heard with a crisp audible pop.

Hacking vehicle control systems

Consider also the predicament that many car owners in Austin, Texas experienced, as a result of the actions of a disgruntled former employee of used car retail firm Texas Auto Center. As Wired reported,

More than 100 drivers in Austin, Texas found their cars disabled or the horns honking out of control, after an intruder ran amok in a web-based vehicle-immobilization system normally used to get the attention of consumers delinquent in their auto payments.

Police with Austin’s High Tech Crime Unit on Wednesday arrested 20-year-old Omar Ramos-Lopez, a former Texas Auto Center employee who was laid off last month, and allegedly sought revenge by bricking the cars sold from the dealership’s four Austin-area lots.

Texas Auto Center had included some innovative new technology in the cars they sold:

The dealership used a system called Webtech Plus as an alternative to repossessing vehicles that haven’t been paid for. Operated by Cleveland-based Pay Technologies, the system lets car dealers install a small black box under vehicle dashboards that responds to commands issued through a central website, and relayed over a wireless pager network. The dealer can disable a car’s ignition system, or trigger the horn to begin honking, as a reminder that a payment is due.

The beauty of the system is that it allows a greater number of customers to purchase cars, even when their credit history looks poor. Rather than extensive up-front tests of the credit-worthiness of a potential purchaser, the system takes advantage of the ability to immobilise a car if repayments should cease. However, as Wired reports,

Texas Auto Center began fielding complaints from baffled customers the last week in February, many of whom wound up missing work, calling tow trucks or disconnecting their batteries to stop the honking. The troubles stopped five days later, when Texas Auto Center reset the Webtech Plus passwords for all its employee accounts… Then police obtained access logs from Pay Technologies, and traced the saboteur’s IP address to Ramos-Lopez’s AT&T internet service, according to a police affidavit filed in the case.

Omar Ramos-Lopez had lost his position at Texas Auto Center the previous month. Following good security practice, his own account on the Webtech Plus system had been disabled. However, it seems he gained access by using an account assigned to a different employee.

At first, the intruder targeted vehicles by searching on the names of specific customers. Then he discovered he could pull up a database of all 1,100 Auto Center customers whose cars were equipped with the device. He started going down the list in alphabetical order, vandalizing the records, disabling the cars and setting off the horns.

His manager ruefully remarked, “Omar was pretty good with computers”.

Hacking thermostats and lightbulbs

Finally, consider a surprise side-effect of attaching a new thermostat to a building. Modern thermostats exchange data with increasingly sophisticated systems that control heating, ventilation, and air conditioning. In turn, these systems can connect into corporate networks, which contain email archives and other confidential documents.

The Washington Chamber of Commerce discovered in 2011 that a thermostat in a townhouse they used was surreptitiously communicating with an Internet address somewhere in China. All the careful precautions of the Chamber’s IT department, including supervision of the computers and memory sticks used by employees, to guard against the possibility of such data seepage, was undone by this unexpected security vulnerability in what seemed to be an ordinary household object. Information that leaked from the Chamber potentially included sensitive information about US policy for trade with China, as well as other key IP (Intellectual Property).

It’s not only thermostats that have much greater network connectivity these days. Toasters, washing machines, and even energy-efficient lightbulbs contain surprising amounts of software, as part of the implementation of the vision of “smart homes”. And in each case, it opens the potential for various forms of espionage and/or extortion. Former CIA Director David Petraeus openly rejoiced in that possibility, in remarks noted in a March 2012 Wired article “We’ll spy on you through your dishwasher”:

Items of interest will be located, identified, monitored, and remotely controlled through technologies such as RFID, sensor networks, tiny embedded servers, and energy harvesters — all connected to the next-generation internet using abundant, low-cost, and high-power computing…

Transformational is an overused word, but I do believe it properly applies to these technologies, particularly to their effect on clandestine tradecraft.

To summarise: smart healthcare, smart cars, and smart homes, all bring new vulnerabilities as well as new benefits. The same is true for other fields of exponentially improving technology, such as 3D printing, unmanned aerial vehicles (“drones”), smart toys, and household robots.

The rise of robots

Sadly, malfunctioning robots have already been involved in a number of tragic fatalities. In May 2009, an Oerlikon MK5 anti-aircraft system was part of the equipment used by 5,000 South African troops in a large-scale military training exercise. On that morning, the controlling software suffered what a subsequent enquiry would call a “glitch”. Writing in the Daily Mail, Gavin Knight recounted what happened:

The MK5 anti-aircraft system, with two huge 35mm cannons, is essentially a vast robotic weapon, controlled by a computer.

While it’s one thing when your laptop freezes up, it’s quite another when it is controlling an auto-loading magazine containing 500 high-explosive rounds…

“There was nowhere to hide,” one witness stated in a report. “The rogue gun began firing wildly, spraying high explosive shells at a rate of 550 a minute, swinging around through 360 degrees like a high-pressure hose.”

By the time the robot has emptied its magazine, nine soldiers lie dead. Another 14 are seriously injured.

Deaths due to accidents involving robots have also occurred throughout the United States. A New York Times article in June 2014 gives the figure of “at least 33 workplace deaths and injuries in the United States in the last 30 years.” For example, in a car factory in December 2001,

An employee was cleaning at the end of his shift and entered a robot’s unlocked cage. The robot grabbed his neck and pinned the employee under a wheel rim. He was asphyxiated.

And in an aluminium factory in February 1996,

Three workers were watching a robot pour molten aluminium when the pouring unexpectedly stopped. One of them left to flip a switch to start the pouring again. The other two were still standing near the pouring operation, and when the robot restarted, its 150-pound ladle pinned one of them against the wall. He was killed.

To be clear, in none of these cases is there any suggestion of foul play. But to the extent that robots can be remotely controlled, the possibility arises for industrial vandalism.

Indeed, one of the most infamous cases of industrial vandalism (if that is the right description in this case) is the way in which the Stuxnet computer worm targeted the operation of fast-spinning centrifuges inside the Iranian programme to enrich uranium. Stuxnet took advantage of at least four so-called “zero-day security vulnerabilities” in Microsoft Windows software – vulnerabilities that Microsoft did not know about, and for which no patches were available. When the worm found itself installed on computers with particular programmable logic controllers (PLCs), it initiated a complex set of monitoring and alteration of the performance of the equipment attached to the PLC. The end result was that the centrifuges tore themselves apart, reportedly setting back the Iranian nuclear programme by a number of years.

Chillingly, what Stuxnet could do to centrifuges, variant software configurations could have similar effects on other industrial infrastructure – including energy and communication grids.

Therefore, whereas there is much to celebrate about the growing connectivity of “the Internet of Things”, there is also much to fear about it.

The scariest book

Many of the examples I’ve briefly covered above – the hacking of embedded medical devices, vehicle control systems, and thermostats and lightbulbs – as well as the upsides and downsides of “the rise of robots” – are covered in greater detail in a book I recently finished reading. The book is “Future Crimes”, by former LAPD police officer Marc Goodman. Goodman has spent the last twenty years working on cyber security risks with organisations such as Interpol, NATO, and the United Nations.

The full title of Goodman’s book is worth savouring: “Future Crimes: Everything is connected, everything is vulnerable, and what we can do about it.” Singularity 1on1 podcast interview Nikola Danaylov recently described Future Crimes as “the scariest book I have ever read in my life”. That’s a sentiment I fully understand. The book has a panoply of “Oh my god” moments.

What the book covers is not only the exponentially growing set of vulnerabilities that our exponentially connected technology brings in its wake, but also the large set of people who may well be motivated to exploit these vulnerabilities. This includes home and overseas government departments, industrial competitors, disgruntled former employees, angry former friends and spouses, ideology-fuelled terrorists, suicidal depressives, and a large subset of big business known as “Crime Inc”. Criminals have regularly been among the very first to adopt new technology – and it will be the same with the exploitation of new generations of security vulnerabilities.

There’s much in Future Crimes that is genuinely frightening. It’s not alone in the valuable task of raising public awareness of increasing security vulnerabilities. I also recommend Kim Zetter’s fine investigative work “Countdown To Zero Day: Stuxnet and the launch of the world’s first digital weapon”. Some of the same examples appear in both books, providing added perspective. In both cases the message is clear – the threats from cybersecurity are likely to mushroom.

On the positive front, technology can devise countermeasures as well as malware. There has long been an arms race between software virus writers and software antivirus writers. This arms race is now expanding into many new areas.

If the race is lost, it means that security will eat the world in a bad way: the horror stories that are told throughout both Future Crimes and Countdown To Zero Day will magnify in both number and scope. In that future scenario, people will look back fondly on the present day as a kind of innocent paradise, in which computers and computer-based systems generally worked reliably (despite occasional glitches). Safe, clean computer technology might become as rare as bottled oxygen in an environment where smog and pollution dominates – something that is only available in small quantities, to the rich and powerful.

If the race is won, there will still be losers. I’m not just referring to Crime Inc, and other would-be exploiters of security vulnerabilities, whose ambitions will be thwarted. I’m referring to all the companies whose software will fall short of the security standards of the new market leaders. These are companies who pay lip service to the importance of robust, secure software, but whose products in practice disappoint customers. By that time, indeed, customers will long have moved on from preferring dancing pigs to good security. The prevalence of bad news stories – in their daily social media traffic – will transform their appreciation of the steps they need to take to remain as safe as possible. Their priorities will have changed. They’ll be eagerly scouring reports as to which companies have world-class software security, and which companies, on the other hand, have products that should be avoided. Companies in the former camp will eat those in the latter camp.

Complications with software updates

As I mentioned above, there can be security vulnerabilities, not only intrinsic in a given piece of software, but also in how that software is used, deployed, and updated. I’ll finish this article by digging more deeply into the question of software updates. These updates have a particularly important role in the arms race between security vulnerabilities and security improvements.

Software updates are a key part of modern technological life. These updates deliver new functionality to users – such as a new version of a favourite app, or an improved user interface for an operating system. They also deliver security fixes, along with other bug fixes. In principle, as soon as possible after a major security vulnerability has been identified and analysed, the vendor will make available a fix to that programming error.

However, updates are something that many users dislike. On the one hand, they like receiving improved functionality. But they fear on the other hand that:

  • The upgrade will be time-consuming, locking them out of their computer systems at a time when they need to press on with urgent work
  • The upgrade will itself introduce new bugs, and break familiar patterns of how they use the software
  • Some of their applications will stop working, or will work in strange ways, after the upgrade.

The principle of “once bitten, twice shy” applies here. One bad experience with upgrade software – such as favourite add-on applications getting lost in the process – may prejudice users against accepting any new upgrades.

My own laptop recently popped up an invitation for me to reserve a free upgrade from its current operating system – Windows 7.1 – to the forthcoming Windows 10. I confess that I have yet to click the “yes, please reserve this upgrade” button. I fear, indeed, that some of the legacy software on my laptop (including apps that are more than ten years old, and whose vendors no longer exist) will become dysfunctional.

The Android operating system for smartphones faces a similar problem. New versions of the operating system, which include fixes to known security problems, often fail to make their way onto users of Android phones. In some cases, this is because the phones are running a reconfigured version of Android, which includes modifications introduced by a phone manufacturer and/or network operator. Any update has to wait until similar reconfigurations have been applied to the new version of the operating system – and that can take a long time, due to reluctance on the part of the phone manufacturer or network operator. In other cases, it’s simply because users decline to accept an Android upgrade when it is offered to them. Once bitten, twice shy.

Accordingly, there’s competitive advantage available, to any company that makes software upgrades as smooth and reliable as possible. This will become even more significant, as users grow in their awareness of the need to have security vulnerabilities in their computer systems fixed speedily.

But there’s a very awkward problem lurking around the upgrade process. Computer systems can sometimes be tricked into installing malicious software, whilst thinking it is a positive upgrade. In other words, the upgrade process can itself be hacked. For example, at the Black Hat conference in July 2009, IOActive security researcher Mike Davis demonstrated a nasty vulnerability in the software update mechanism in the smart electricity meters that were to be installed in homes throughout the Pacific North West of the United States.

For a riveting behind-the-scenes account of this particular research, see the book Countdown To Zero Day. In brief, Davis found a way to persuade a smart meter that it was being offered a software upgrade by a neighbouring, trusted smart meter, whereas it was in fact receiving software from an external source. This subterfuge was accomplished by extracting the same network encryption key that was hard-wired into every smart meter in the collection, and then presenting that encryption key as apparent (but bogus) evidence that the communication could be trusted. Once the meter had installed the upgrade, the new software could disable the meter from responding to any further upgrades. It could also switch off any electricity supply to the home. As a result, the electricity supplier would be obliged to send engineers to visit every single house that had been affected by the malware. In the simulated demo shown by Davis, this was as many as 20,000 separate houses within just a 24 hour period.

Uncharitably, we might think to ourselves that an electricity supplier is probably the kind of company to make mistakes with its software upgrade mechanism. As Mike Davis put it, “the guys that built this meter had a short-term view of how it would work”. We would expect, in contrast, that a company whose core business was software (and which had been one of the world’s leading software companies for several decades) would have no such glitches in its system for software upgrades.

Unexpectedly, one of the exploits utilised by Stuxnet team was a weakness in part of the Microsoft Update system – a part that had remained unchanged for many years. The exploit was actually used by a piece of malware, known as Flame which shared many characteristics with Stuxnet. Mikko Hyppönen, Chief Research Officer of Finnish antivirus firm F-Secure, reported the shocking news as follows in a corporate blogpost tellingly entitled “Microsoft Update and The Nightmare Scenario”:

About 900 million Windows computers get their updates from Microsoft Update. In addition to the DNS root servers, this update system has always been considered one of the weak points of the net. Antivirus people have nightmares about a variant of malware spoofing the update mechanism and replicating via it.

Turns out, it looks like this has now been done. And not by just any malware, but by Flame…

Flame has a module which appears to attempt to do a man-in-the-middle attack on the Microsoft Update or Windows Server Update Services system. If successful, the attack drops a file called WUSETUPV.EXE to the target computer.

This file is signed by Microsoft with a certificate that is chained up to Microsoft root.

Except it isn’t signed really by Microsoft.

Turns out the attackers figured out a way to misuse a mechanism that Microsoft uses to create Terminal Services activation licenses for enterprise customers. Surprisingly, these keys could be used to also sign binaries…

Having a Microsoft code signing certificate is the Holy Grail of malware writers. This has now happened.

Hyppönen’s article ends with some “good news in the bad news” which nevertheless sounds a strong alarm about similar things going wrong (with worse consequences) in the future:

I guess the good news is that this wasn’t done by cyber criminals interested in financial benefit. They could have infected millions of computers. Instead, this technique has been used in targeted attacks, most likely launched by a Western intelligence agency.

How not to be eaten

Despite the threats that I’ve covered above, I’m optimistic that software security and software updates can be significantly improved in the months and years ahead. In other words, there’s plenty of scope for improvements in the quality of software security.

One reason for this optimism is that I know that smart people have been thinking hard about these topics for many years. Good solutions are already available, ready for wider deployment, in response to stronger market readiness for such solutions.

But it will take more than technology to win this arms race. It will take political resolve. For too long, software companies have been able to ship software that has woefully substandard security. For too long, companies have prioritised dancing pigs over rock-hard security. They’ve written into their software licences that they accept no liability for problems arising from bugs in their software. They’ve followed, sometimes passionately, and sometimes half-heartedly, the motto from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg that software developers should “move fast and break things”.

That kind of behaviour may have been appropriate in the infancy of software. No longer.

Move fast and break things

21 May 2015

Anticipating 2040: The triple A, triple h+ vision

Abundance Access Action

The following vision arises from discussions with colleagues in the Transhumanist Party.

TPUK_LOGO3_400pxAbundance

Abundance – sustainable abundance – is just around the corner – provided we humans collectively get our act together.

We have within our grasp a sustainable abundance of renewable energy, material goods, health, longevity, intelligence, creativity, freedom, and positive experience.

This can be attained within one human generation, by wisely accelerating the green technology revolution – including stem cell therapies, 3D printing, prosthetics, robotics, nanotechnology, genetic engineering, synthetic biology, neuro-enhancement, artificial intelligence, and supercomputing.

TPUK_LOGO2_400pxAccess

The rich fruits of technology – abundance – can and should be provided for all, not just for those who manage to rise to the top of the present-day social struggle.

A bold reorganisation of society can and should take place in parallel with the green technology revolution – so that everyone can freely access the education, healthcare, and everything else needed to flourish as a full member of society.

Action

TPUK_LOGO1_400pxTo channel the energies of industry, business, finance, universities, and the media, for a richly positive outcome within the next generation, swift action is needed:

  • Widespread education on the opportunities – and risks – of new technology
  • Regulations and checks to counter short-termist action by incumbent vested interests
  • The celebration and enablement of proactive innovation for the common good
  • The promotion of scientific, rational, evidence-based methods for taking decisions, rather than ideologies
  • Transformation of our democracy so that governance benefits from the wisdom of all of society, and serves the genuine needs of everyone, rather than perpetuating the existing establishment.

Transhumanism 2040

2040Within one generation – 25 years, that is, by 2040 – human society can and should be radically transformed.

This next step of conscious evolution is called transhumanism. Transhumanists see, and welcome, the opportunity to intelligently redesign humanity, drawing wisely on the best resources of existing humanity.

The transhumanist party is the party of abundance, access, and action. It is the party with a programme to transcend (overcome) our ingrained human limitations – limitations of animal biology, primate psychology, antiquated philosophy, and 20th century social structures.

Transhumanism 2020

2020As education spreads about the potential for a transhumanist future of abundance, access, and action – and as tangible transhumanist projects are seen to be having an increasingly positive political impact – more and more people will start to identify themselves as transhumanists.

This growing movement will have consequences around the world. For example, in the general election in 2020 in the UK, there may well be, in every constituency, either a candidate from the Transhumanist Party, or a candidate from one of the other parties who openly and proudly identifies as a transhumanist.

The political landscape will never be the same again.

Call to action

To offer support to the Transhumanist Party in the UK (regardless of where you are based in the world), you can join the party by clicking the following PayPal button:

Join now

Membership costs £25 per annum. Members will be invited to participate in internal party discussions of our roadmap.

For information about the Transhumanist Party in other parts of the world, see http://transhumanistpartyglobal.org/.

For a worldwide transhumanist network without an overt political angle, consider joining Humanity+.

To discuss the politics of the future, without any exclusive link to the Transhumanist Party, consider participating in one of the Transpolitica projects – for example, the project to publish the book “Politics 2.0”.

Anticipating the Transhumanist Party roadmap to 2040

Footnote: Look out for more news of a conference to be held in London during Autumn (*), entitled “Anticipating 2040: The Transhumanist Party roadmap”, featuring speakers, debates, open plenaries, and closed party sessions.

If anyone would like to speak at this event, please get in touch.

Anticipating 2040
(*) Possible date is 3-4 October 2015, though planning is presently at a preliminary stage.

 

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