Category Archives: General

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Systematized instrumental rationality

So AI and capitalism are merely two offshoots of something more basic, let՚s call it systematized instrumental rationality, and are now starting to reconverge. Maybe capitalism with AI is going to be far more powerful and dangerous than earlier forms – that՚s certainly a possibility. My only suggestion is that instead of viewing superempowered AIs as some new totally new thing that we can՚t possibly understand (which is what the term “AI singularity” implies), we view it as a next-level extension of processes that are already underway.

This may be getting too abstract and precious, so let me restate the point more bluntly: instead of worrying about hypothetical paperclip maximizers, we should worry about the all too real money and power maximizers that already exist and are going to be the main forces behind further development of AI technologies. That’s where the real risks lie, and so any hope of containing the risks will require grappling with real human institutions.

Mike Travers. Reading this rather wonderfully reframes Elon the Martian’s latest calls for the regulation of artificial intelligence… you’re so right, Elon, but not in quite the way you think you’re right.

Of course, Musk also says the first step in regulating AI is learning as much about it as possible… which seems pretty convenient, given how AI is pretty much the only thing anyone’s spending R&D money on right now. Almost like that thing where you tell someone what they want to hear in a way that convinces them to let you carry on exactly as you are, innit?

Mark my words: the obfuscatory conflation of “artificial intelligence” and algorithmic data manipulation at scale is not accidental. It is in fact very deliberate, and that Musk story shows us its utility: we think we’re letting the experts help us avoid the Terminator future, when in fact we’re green-lighting the further marketisation of absolutely everything.

Consider the possibility

I’ve spent more time than I’d like to admit hanging around the online communities of the kind of people we are worried about reaching here, and I am here to tell you: They are using their critical thinking skills.

They are fully literate in concepts like bias and in the importance of interrogating sources. They believe very much in the power of persuasion and the dangers in propaganda and a great many of them believe that we are the ones who have been behaving uncritically and who have been duped. They think that we are the unbelieving victims of fraud.

Which is not to set up some kind of false equivalency between sides. But I do want us to consider the possibility that we don’t need to talk across that barrier, and that it might not be possible to talk across it. That we need to consider that if it’s true that vast swaths of the voting populace are unbelieving victims of fraud, that there’s not much we can do for them. That we may need instead to work to invigorate our allies, discourage our enemies, and save the persuasion for people right on the edge.

But, again, I’m saying all of this to you as someone who has not figured this out.

Tim Maly.


Glad to see the debate on UBI is starting to get beyond the surface gosh-wow. From a bit at Teh Graun:

In their incendiary book Inventing the Future, the authors Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek argue for UBI but link it to three other demands: collectively controlled automation, a reduction in the working week, and a diminution of the work ethic. Williams and Srnicek believe that without these other provisions, UBI could essentially act as an excuse to get rid of the welfare state.

W & S are smart to suggest those provisions, but I’d suggest there are a few others necessary to avoid the trap that the aspiring nosferatu of the Adam Smith Institute are so keen to spring.

So, look: the state sets a standard rate of UBI, presumably on the basis of some basic standard of living; perhaps they even put it on an inflationary ramp so it increases over time. Lovely: everyone can afford the basics, and you can work to level up from there is you want to.

However, if housing provision is still predominantly handled by the private sector, rents would rapidly raise to the highest point that the UBI would bear, coz rentiers gonna extract rents. Ditto privatised medicine. Ditto food production. Ditto infrastructural provision. In an unreformed market economy, whatever the set rate of UBI was would be inadequate very quickly — like, a matter of years rather than decades, if not faster. Because when we talk about markets being efficient, that’s what we really mean: their rapid maxing out of all possible rent extraction in any given system. (Yeah, you though efficiency was all about using less, didn’t you? That’s a useful illusion, which is why you’re encouraged to keep it. But no: market efficiency is exactly the opposite, in that the efficient market leaves nothing unused.)  In a nation of legitimised thievery and tollbooth economics, putting money in the poor man’s pocket serves only to enrich the thieves over the long run; hence the poorly-disguised boners around the C-suite table at the ASI, no doubt.

This is not to dismiss UBI, to be clear; it’s a rational and achievable reform of state welfare systems. But in the absence of land reform, significant regulation of businesses, and the partial or total renationalisation of infrastructure and housing, it will fail, and fail fast. If you want to provide the basics to everyone, you’re going to have to intervene in the systems of provision… and you can bet your bottom dollar that the ASI won’t be genuflecting to that idea any time before the heat-death of the universe.

A kind of asynchronic overlay

I try to undo the distinction that’s usually made between “fiction” and “reality,” as though “fiction” were synonymous with fakery. I don’t think that’s the right layout to work with; I think there’s something else going on. […] I try to argue that “fiction” is best understood in terms of a gap or interim, a delay or décalage — what Hamlet calls an out-of-jointness. Another way of thinking about this would be […] as a kind of asynchronic overlay. And vitally, what this overlay gives rise to, in its collisions and its recesses, is a possibility — and an ethics — of witnessing. Tell him we were here, says Vladimir to the boy-angel amid all the replays and repetition loops and waiting periods of Godot: Don’t turn up here tomorrow and deny you ever saw me. Then, watching Estragon sleeping, he asks himself, “Was I sleeping, while the others suffered?”; and he muses that someone is also watching over him (Vladimir) and thinking: “He is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on.” Now, of course someone is watching him — it’s a play! But beyond that, I think Beckett is invoking the notion of literature as a shared or consensual hallucination in which the act of witnessing, of affirming the existence of “the others,” becomes possible. This is not a journalistic or “scientific” act; it’s ultimately an imaginative one, an act of the imagination.

Tom McCarthy