2020-07-11

Uncommon, worthwhile insights on AI and the climate emergency by Cory Doctorow

Johannes Ernst

https://reb00ted.org/after-covid-19/20200711-doctorow-on-ai-and-climate/

Published in Locus Magazine. Here are some selective quotes with comments.

I am an AI skeptic. I am baffled by anyone who isn’t.

I don’t see any path from continuous improvements to the (admittedly impressive) “machine learning” field that leads to a general AI any more than I can see a path from continuous improvements in horse-breeding that leads to an internal combustion engine.

Yep. Let me add that everybody I have encountered who is hyping a future AI nirvana has something to sell. So let’s treat it like the claims of any salesman who sells miracle cures.

Remediating climate change will involve unimaginably labor-intensive tasks, like relocating every coastal city in the world kilometers inland, building high-speed rail links to replace aviation links, caring for hundreds of millions of traumatized, displaced people, and treating runaway zoontoic and insectborne pandemics.

These tasks will absorb more than 100% of any labor freed up by automation

Putting aside whether we can “remediate climate change” (given where we are, IMHO we can now at best hope to adapt to it somehow), he’s absolutely correct that whatever we attempt to do, is going to be immensely labor-intensive. And because it’s all new and hasn’t been done before, it cannot really be automated, as automation is fundamentlly about having machines repeat the same thing over and over again. (If you agree with him, as I do, that a general AI is a looong time away and certainly will not arrive in time to solve this crisis for us; it should have arrived 30-50 years ago then.)

… the locus of the problem with technological unemployment: it’s not a technological problem at all, it’s an economic one.

Exactly. If technology suddenly took the jobs of gazillions of people, it’s not like there is nothing that the world needs to get done any more. Look around you: there are tons of things that should get done, from sweeping the street you live on more often to spending quality time with foster children or teaching people online the basics of science so they won’t fall for as many hoaxes.

Our current economic system always has had this very baffling feature of sending people home to watch TV when the economy tanks, instead of making us all work much harder to get the economy back out of the hole it is in! It’s the opposite of what should happen!

And as Cory says, the reason why this happens is because private sector employment is correlated with economic success. Not with the number and size of the problems to be solved. This is particularly important because many believe, myself included, that any realistic attempt to deal with the crisis will have to accept some form of economic de-growth, aka shrinkage. While creating a lot of work.

when the pandemic crisis is over, 30% of the world will either be unemployed or working for governments.

Very possibly so. But unlike what Cory implies, there will also be a significant (30%? Similar to the unemployment rate?) downturn in income. That’s because if 30% of people don’t work, or work in jobs for which no business model exists, they don’t produce things that others will pay for, and so we are all commensurately poorer. Money printing may make this effect less visible in prices, but as he says, money printing does not produce the things we need or want.

Here’s the full piece published by Locus Magazine. Unfortunately it also contains a bunch of mistakes, such as about the consequences of money printing. I have chosen to ignore those because the good points are really worthwhile and shouldn’t be obscured.