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Who authors the automation?

Posted By Tim Morgan, Thursday, June 20, 2019

Tim Morgan published his sixth blog post in our Emerging Fellows program by checking the possibility of building intended and unintended governance into automation. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

 

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who watches the watchers? This question penned by the ancient poet Juvenal may have more urgency in the current automation age than it did two thousand years ago in the palaces of Rome.

 

Our money is stored as data and flows digitally at the speed of light. We socialize online. We play online games and stream movies. Apps record our exercise, sleep, and heartbeats. News comes via feeds customized based on our observed interests. Search engines return ranked results based on more than just the keywords. All of it is done via algorithms written by someone for a specific reason. Even self-learning AIs are ultimately built to fulfill a human desire or need. Automations are systems which embody someone’s values.

 

What values are being intentionally and unintentionally encoded into the automated backbone of current society? What intended and unintended governance is being built into automation? As automation advances and becomes ubiquitous, what we develop and how we apply it becomes critical.

 

Most automation is developed to meet specific requirements. Quality Assurance professionals analyze and validate software via requirements-based testing and analysis. Automations are systems, be they games or banking apps or robots.

 

Complex systems have complex behaviors. Complex systems create and reinforce values consistent with that system. Systems promote the values embedded into the software, whether or not the developer intended to embed them. Testing rarely goes beyond the mere functional requirements to measure the systemic impacts of automation against the larger world. The current Institutional and Market watchers are insufficient to that task.

 

Proactive policing software promotes racially biased patrolling patterns when systemic biases have been unintentionally embedded into data and code based on existing policing practices. Voting rolls are purged of legal voters because of erroneous, and sometimes intentional, partial name matches with convicted criminals. Traffic light cameras are used more for automated revenue enhancement than for protecting public safety. Social media and news media both use dynamic consumer metrics to automatically amplify attention-getting divisive stories ahead of socially uplifting ones. Successful games exploit known psychological triggers to promote compulsive game-play, even when embedding those triggers were not a conscious programming choice. Successful games, news, and social media have quickly evolved into attention predators via market selection. Automation is evolving, but market and institutional selection mechanisms are not necessarily socially benign.

 

The future holds some interesting values questions around advanced automation. Could we go beyond normal Don’t-Hit-A-Pedestrian safety programming in self-driving cars, adding in Good Samaritan assistance behaviors for the roadside stranded or injured? Will consumers ever get a Make-My-Life-Better setting on their social media? Will we find ways to create new Social Awareness algorithms and new Social Quality Assurance testing standards for commercial and institutional automation?

 

Failure to anticipate the untested social impacts of new automation before it is deployed turns the entire world into an increasingly bug-filled, chaotic, free-for-all of externalized impacts and socialized costs. How technology is applied is a choice. How to encourage development of future automation which balances profit or control with social good is an epic challenge of our current era for both developers and users alike.  Who authors the automation? Who watches the watchers? Ultimately, we all do if we want a better world.

 

© Tim Morgan 2019

Tags:  automation  governance  technology 

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Will automation do away with markets?

Posted By Tim Morgan, Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Tim Morgan devotes his fifth blog post in our Emerging Fellows program to the role of automation in new dynamic systems of social self-governance. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

 

Markets are social systems which facilitate transactional exchanges of property, goods, services, and information. Markets reallocate resources and enable distribution. Exchanges within and between markets broadly establish the expected value of subsequent transactions. Markets can span the globe or a single neighborhood. Markets have created widespread material wealth by spurring economic growth via productivity. Markets are the social structures which define the modern industrial era.

 

Markets in toto form the social system known as the Private Sector. The Private Sector defines a sphere of control over a vast section of human affairs, one that frequently jousts with the older Public Sector of government institutions.

 

Markets benefit society by creating more prosperity for more people than is possible by the Public Sector alone.  However, the Private Sector’s flaws are now obvious. Markets have no inherent systemic mechanism for mitigating the problems they cause, such as environmental harm or social divisiveness. Markets cannot price or own non-market externalities, so they try to ignore them. Markets simply want to do Market things and consider anything else to be a distraction or interference.

 

Markets only price in externalities when they are forced to via constraints like taxation, regulation, legal liability, or mass social pressure. The strength of the Private Sector lies in its ability to create economic value for individuals via Markets. Its weakness is that it is systemically blind to non-economic value.

 

The Public Sector is failing to moderate the externalised damage created by Markets. Luckily the same information technologies which accelerate Markets are also enabling the emergence of a new sector centered around non-economic value. Digital networks and automation are allowing people to connect in new ways towards common interests. What is emerging is a new Social Commons Sector. Shared information is their resource, automation is their tool, and enhancing common social value is their primary concern.

 

This new Social Commons is forming because networks and automation can connect anyone into new dynamic systems of social self-governance. It has been increasingly disruptive to business-as-usual for years. The Arab Spring, #MeToo, and recent schoolchildren climate change walkouts are just a few examples of its ad-hoc social organizing power. Networked social power is also influencing how Private Sector market entities work. Social enterprises like Benefit corporations measure themselves by both fiscal and social bottom-lines. Publicly held corporations are increasingly being held to diversity and sustainability standards by their shareholders and customers.

 

Other groups are automating acts of public good. Custom smartphone apps schedule free pickup and delivery of excess restaurant food for the homeless, coordinate community composting, report pollution, or alert virtual guardians to watch your GPS-tracked walk home. The Social Commons is an automation-enabled sector which is filling-in the small gaps and beginning to take big swings at big problems. This nascent sector is poised to interpenetrate and rewire the other sectors to solve the wicked problems they have created.

 

Markets are not going away any more than Institutions went away when Markets bloomed into power two centuries ago. Both the Public and Private Sectors are necessary and are here to stay. But both will have to reckon with the rising influence and power of a new networked Social Commons.

 

© Tim Morgan 2019

Tags:  automation  society  technology 

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Is Use More Important than Ownership?

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, January 29, 2019
Updated: Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Tim Morgan publishes his second blog post in our Emerging Fellows program by comparing the concept of ‘use’ against the ‘ownership’ notion. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members. 


When artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky was a graduate student in 1952, he constructed a simple machine which he kept on his desk. Acclaimed scientist and writer Arthur C. Clarke once saw the device, finding it both sinister and fascinating. The machine had a single switch. When activated, the device did one thing: it would raise a small arm and flip the switch back to the OFF position. This “Useless Machine” is an automation with only a single use: it turns itself off.

Minsky understood a fundamental aspect of automation: use is inextricably bound up with the structure, operating rules, and intent of the automation. His Useless Machine was a minimalist example of that active fusion of intent and capability. No matter who owned the machine or operated it, it would always lead to the same result. It would turn itself off.

We appear to see two contradictory trends at work with automation and capital. There is a long history of owners ceding use of their capital to intermediaries like banks, managers, and companies. Automation is clearly amplifying that trend via everything from programmatically traded stocks and commodities to “lights-out” automation of shipment planning and warehouse management. Even hobbyist gardeners can now buy an autonomous gardening robot like FarmBot to seed, weed, and feed their backyard garden based on the bot’s sophisticated algorithms and design.

Conversely, we also see automation pushing direct control back to the owners. That same FarmBot gives its owner the tools to plan the garden they want, schedule watering that adapts to local weather, and alert them to problems. The average owner has far more sophisticated control over the quality of their home-grown food than if they had bought it from intermediaries like local farmers, a local supermarket, or grown it the old fashioned way.

Can we reconcile automation simultaneously degrading ownership and amplifying it? We can if we consider how use plays out via the automation. Owners get more control over the use of their capital by embedding rules and algorithms into the capital itself. A factory produces goods. A fully automated factory would produce goods exactly the way the owner wants. The automation allows the owner to use the capital the way they see fit, restoring more direct control. The flip side is that automation is increasingly dependent on outside integration. The automated control is spreading out into the vast network of supporting services like cloud storage, software tools, and data services like weather reporting or goods pricing.

The resolution to the contradiction is that Ownership and Use are fusing together via dependence on a vast network of embedded, actively changing automation infrastructure. With each piece of capital automation, we add its capabilities to the networks of the world. This amplifies the capabilities of other items, creating new opportunities and synergies across the network.

Automation is creating a new world of Networkable Capital that is both amplifying control and spreading out the benefits to others in a seemingly magical halo of interdependent capabilities. That bodes well for bringing the benefits of Networked Capitalism to everyone in the future.

Now if we can only keep it from shutting itself off.

© Tim Morgan 2019

Tags:  automation  machine  network 

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Do We Need to Own Things?

Posted By Administration, Friday, January 11, 2019
Updated: Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Tim Morgan publishes his first blog post in our Emerging Fellows program by revisiting the concept of ownership. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

Immediately after the painting “Girl with Balloon” sold at auction for $1.4 million, the painting began slowly destroying itself. A malfunction caused it to stop half-way.

The anonymous artist known only as Banksy had secretly hidden an automated shredder inside the frame. The half-destroyed work is now considered a new piece of art, valued much higher than the original painting. The event is an unlikely but apt metaphor for how automation is redefining ownership.

The Eighteenth Century philosopher Adam Smith described capital as owned property used to produce an economic return. Capitalism’s central feature is that owned things are used to produce exchangeable value, be they a farmer’s vegetables or self-sabotaging paintings. Ownership from a capitalist perspective is control of something used to create enhanced value. In turn, exchanges of ownership are synonymous with exchanges of value. Each side gets something they value more than what they are willing to give in exchange. Centuries of worldwide progress and prosperity rest on ownership as capitalism’s bedrock social organizing principle.

Control determines who can create value from property. Capitalism assumes that control and ownership are inextricably intertwined. Yet Banksy’s auction stunt illustrates how automation is changing the current relationship between ownership and control. Traditionally if you own capital then you also directly or indirectly control it. Banksy subverted that control by using automation to go beyond “I don’t want my art sold” to embedded enforcement of “You can’t sell my art, even if you own it”. Automation enables embedding active governance rules into owned items themselves. Legal scholar Lawrence Lessig describes this as “Code is Law”. Banksy’s embedded painting shredder is analogous to copy protection of digital movies and music files. You own the ability to experience, but not the thing itself.

These embedded automation rules constitute an increasing level of external control over owned things. If ownership equals control, then those who are implementing the automation are increasingly the owners, no matter who holds the receipt. Existing legal frameworks have always considered use as a legal component of ownership, but those institutional frameworks are lagging the breakneck pace of automation. A user can own an AI-enabled smart-speaker appliance like Amazon Echo or Google Home, but those same items become expensive plastic bricks without their backend automated services.

But does this loss of control due to automation extend to productive capital? History shows a progression of ever more abstract relationships between owners and control of productive capital. We went from the concrete control of simple property such as farms and animals, to abstract control via corporate shares and investment funds. Even in the past few decades innovations like millisecond flash-trades and complex financial derivatives make it unclear who owns what at any given time. At each stage the use of capital to create value appears to become more tied to its control than to its ownership.

It is ironic that Banksy’s automated assertion of control over “Girl with Balloon” increased the piece’s value, rather than destroying it as intended. The work has been appropriately renamed “Love Is in the Bin”. The new owner adapted to Banksy’s attempt at automated control. By inadvertently relinquishing a bit of control to unknown automation, the new owner gained more value than they originally purchased.

Love may be in the bin, but for now capital still hangs on the wall.

© Tim Morgan 2019

Tags:  automation  capitalism  value 

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What would a Post-Automation Bangladesh look like?

Posted By Administration, Thursday, February 8, 2018
Updated: Sunday, February 24, 2019

Daniel Riveong is one of our Emerging Fellows. He and our other Emerging Fellows will be posting throughout the year. His first article discusses the potential opportunities and risks that Bangladesh may face in a post-automation world.

The global textile industry is a lifeline for many of its 60 million workers throughout the world, especially in developing countries such as Bangladesh, and others like Vietnam and Cambodia. The optimistic capitalists among us see these factories as part of the age-old story of economic progress. They are the ladder of development. From Manchester during the Industrial Revolution to South Korea in the 1960s, their start in low-skilled textile manufacturing has been the gateway to greater economic development and prosperity. But will Bangladesh have a chance to climb up the same economic ladder?

Industry 4.0, which brings together AI and robotics, threaten to wipe away this very economic ladder. Already, the effects are being felt. According to the Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies, “automation is mainly responsible for the shedding of workers” of over 800,000 garment-related jobs since 2013. Such job losses may only continue as China pursues greater automation, as evidenced by Guangdong province’s allotment of $150 billion USD to automate its manufacturing base.

The immediate risk is Bangladesh’s 3.8 million fabric workers (mostly women) and 80% of its annual exports. At stake is Bangladesh’s future: how else can it easy bring millions of jobs to its low-skilled workers? How else may it pursue more sophisticated industrialization and climb the economic ladder? What is the future of post-automation Bangladesh?

The competition of automation is not the only threat that Global South countries like Bangladesh face. There are secondary effects of automation, such decentralization, and shifts in consumer behaviors like the slow fashion movement. These trends will impact its economic options and ability to develop:

Decentralization. Automation will enable greater decentralization and flexibility in global manufacturing. Addida’s first factory in Germany in over 20 years, called the Speedfactory, creates customized on-demand shoes using computerized knitting and high-tech additive manufacturing. It signals potential job losses for textile hubs like Bangladesh due to “insourcing” to advanced economic countries.


Slow Fashion. How people view fashion has begun to change. Trends such as fair trade, eco fashion and most recently “slow fashion” have become more prevalent. Slow fashion advocates buying less, buying quality over quantity, and eschewing fast fashion by brands such as Zara. For export-focused industries, declining consumption – while beneficial for the environment – hampers economic productivity.
Sajeeb Wazed Joy, ICT Affairs Adviser to Bangladesh’s Prime Minister, has called for the country to meet the threat of automation by growing the ICT industry. While ICT-related skillsets are a sine qua non for the future, ICT alone is not a panacea to counter the impact that automation, decentralization, and slow fashion brings. Automation makes it difficult to produce jobs at scale, as witnessed in India, and can eliminate ICT-related jobs too. Decentralization challenges the need for specialized export-based hubs. Slow fashion is part of a larger trend of shifting away consumerism, lowering the demand for physical goods.

Yet, the challenge of automation is a profound opportunity. By taking away the “default” path of development – industrialization – the Global South has both the urgency and need to re-examine the most basic questions to reimagine our future:

  • What is the economy for? How might we increase living standards without growing GDP?
  • How might we provide jobs – or ways to improve people’s lives – at scale?
  • How might we economically empower women? What readily-available jobs exist for women outside of textiles?
  • And last, but not least: How can we better help the 800,000 displaced garment workers today?
  • How will we help prepare the next 3,000,000 workers, when they become displaced?

 

The post-automation economy is already here and will impact the Global South the hardest. The Global South is both the most populous and vulnerable region, yet it is here that the future of capitalism and post-automation economics will be most urgent to explore and define. This is the world’s moment to redefine progress and economics in human-centric terms appropriate for each society.


© Daniel Riveong 2018

Tags:  automation  economics  technology 

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