The central blog for all things John Barnes (science fiction writer, theatre historian, marketing intel math guru, and other stuff) where you can find his musings, maunderings, and misapprehensions. Links and posts here lead to many other areas of Barnesian activity.
Thursday, August 6, 2015
Episode 5 is up, so here's a blog about robocorps, pitchforks, hairy monosyllabists, decision rules, and the tenth heuristic (with a footnote about pistachios)
Explaining first things first: I'm blogging on Tuesdays
and Fridays, lately, because my serial novelet, "Silence Like Diamonds," is running at Light Reading, a tech-news oriented website
covering advanced communications systems. You can browse back through this blog
or just hop over there and start reading, but in any case, Episode 5 (out of
10) is now up and running, or will be by the time you read this, so if you haven't started yet, you have a
bit of catching up to do.
One idea that seems to bother people just a little is that
my fictional NameItCorp, in about 2030, is actually a giant pay-to-access
app, a corporation with no mission (other than "doing things for money") and no workers.It does pretty much anything you
can do on the net: answering questions, locating information, putting together
bids of subcontractors to accomplish purposes, and so forth, all via robots, AI, and subcontractors. And in my imagined
2030, it is a big-as-Google-today-and-just-as-indispensable corporation.
Now, most people don't have that much problem with the
idea on a small scale; after all, what is a sales or catalog website,
especially one selling pure information products, if not a robobusiness? I've known a couple of people who owned a few dozen vending machines and serviced them all themselves; they're in the retail business without any employees, but most people would say they just have a way to sell things that doesn't require them to be there.
Information products are a natural for robobusiness. Already much of sports reporting and financial news is
being written by robots, who take the box scores or the price data and convert
it to a news story. Inference algorithms following web hits could easily figure
out which content was most popular (and which was best at drawing people to
advertising or to other news stories). In fact, they already do, with human beings then deciding overall policy on what to do about what the inference algorithms report. Well, algorithms can also make decisions; aren't the humans only in the loop because the tech isn't quite right yet, or perhaps because the boss's nephew needs a job? Is there any reason why a web-based news
publication would need human employees in another few years?
The often mentioned "analytics revolution" and
the rise of "big data" are yet another example of what's already
possible and will be much more significant soon: more and more business
decisions are being made by processing the corporation's enormous store of data
through analytic algorithms and simply picking the result with the highest
expected value or minimax loss.* At that point, do you really need a management
Furthermore, it can fairly be said that although it's not
legally required by fiduciary duty (despite myth), many corporations have been
moving, as Harold Meyerson puts it very clearly, from a model of duty to all the stakeholders to a narrow duty to only the shareholders. There's a kind of political basis for this to be
found in some capitalists and some extremist libertarians, a position that can
fairly be called agorolatry**, i.e. the belief that markets are not just
efficient or personal-choice-maximizing or fundamentally fair, but actually the
source rather than the expression of moral and ethical judgment. I've noticed
that some younger generation capitalists are beginning to talk more like agorolaters
than their older brethren; this might
end about as the dance around the Golden Calf usually does, or then again it
may herald a rewarding century or two for Golden Calf Corp.
Put all those trends together and you've got Silence Like
Diamonds's NameItCorp: the company that does anything for enough money, just as
your app does whatever it's supposed to when you push its button.
If it makes you a bit nervous, well, it's an idea that
isn't far from Karl Marx's idea of capital as "dead labor" --
the residue of work done by somebody who is now completely cut off from it. For example, you own some product of work, say, a shovel
you bought from Ogg, the shovelsmith in the next hut, who has long since moved
on to making other shovels.You loan the
shovel to Gronk, in exchange for a tenth of his potato crop; you trade the
potatoes for more shovels, which you loan to more hairy people with
monosyllabic names, gaining more potatoes, and eventually you are the Potato
and Shovel Baron of the Hypotheticalithic Age.
But what if the shovel kept getting smarter? At first it
just made it easier for Gronk to dig. But then it started identifying the best
potatoes to dig ... and marking out the garden beds where Gronk should dig ...
and digging in places that Gronk couldn't reach ... and one day, the shovel
just grew potatoes all by itself, and brought them to you.Sorry, Gronk. You're out of the potato
business. But if you need any potatoes, I have them on sale, more of them and cheaper than you could ever produce.
Meanwhile, Ogg's shovelmaking tools have also gotten
smarter. Nowadays the shovels just get up from Ogg's place, walk over to yours,
and get to work. You, of course, faithfully pay Ogg in less and less valuable potatoes, and the day comes when you've got all the shovels you need, and Ogg sits around watching his last generation of shovels dig because that's all there is to do.
Or maybe the unease that the coming of the robocorps gives
me is a more personal than social matter, as expressed by Emerson:
The horseman serves the horse,
The neat-herd serves the neat,
The merchant serves the purse,
The eater serves his meat;
'Tis the day of the chattel,
Web to weave, and corn to grind,
Things are in the saddle,
And ride mankind.
That might make one more heuristic, in addition to the nine I recently listed: if something makes you uneasy today, and you don't see
anything stopping it, tomorrow it will begenuinely scary -- and most people will think it's perfectly normal.
These are both decision rules. Expected value=sum of the products of the values
of the possible outcomes and their probabilities. Minimax loss: theory of games
based choice in which you make the choice where the most you can lose is the
smallest. The expected value of a coin flip where you get paid a dime for heads
and pay a nickel for tails is 2.5¢; in 1000 coin flips you'd make $25. Over the
long run people get rich by maximizing expected value, but it will sometimes
pick a very risky choice if the reward is high enough.Minimax loss says that if you have three
choices, A, B, and C, and the worst thing that could happen under A is losing
$10, the worst under B is losing $8, and the worst under C is losing $6, you
pick C, even if A or B has a higher expected value or a higher maximum
payoff.Minimax loss is the rule people
follow when they "settle" in marriage, but also when they refuse to
accept a ride home with a drunk.Like
expected value, it's a way to play, not necessarily the only or the right way
all the time.
**You're an economist if you think
that the way to handle high pistachio prices is to let them rise until more
people plant pistachio trees, and that this will allocate existing pistachios
to those who want them most and can afford to subsidize future plantings, and
therefore a free market in pistachios is likely to be effective and convenient.
You're a libertarian if you think your freedom to buy and sell pistachios is the
real issue, and that the allocation that produces is just, and therefore a free
market in pistachios is part of a free society. And you're an agorolater if you
think high pistachio prices are the just reward for virtuous pistachio growers
and the well-deserved punishment for undeserving impoverished pistachio lovers,
who should have had the foresight to be able to afford pistachios, and that if
there isn't a free market in pistachios, evil wins.