Race against the machine meets radical transparency

In the book Race against the machine, written by the MIT-researchers Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, one of the examples of the exponential technological development is the self-driving Google car. Google claims to have safely completed over 200,000 miles of computer-led driving, even though there is some discussion about this.

Of course there is scepticism about the self-driving car (read also the post on TPM Idealab). Who is ultimately responsible if anything goes wrong? There must be some human to blame, no?

In Race Against the Machine  the vision is optimistic. It is told how in 2004 the first DARPA Grand Challenge (in an unpopulated desert) ended miserably. In 2010 Google could announce that it had modified Toyota Priuses into fully autonomous cars. In only a few years time something seemingly impossible became possible.

So maybe that in a not too distant future we’ll consider automated truck driving normal while we will deem the practice of humans driving dangerous trucks as foolishly dangerous. But then again, isn’t driving a car or a truck a most passionate act, and can we even imagine to make computer driving the default option?

Information technology could change other things as well on our roads, even without self-driving cars. When the Internet of Things turns objects into endless streams of communication, it would be very odd to continue with weird interventions such as random speed limit controls – and even weirder, the announcement and localization of those controls by the authorities themselves.  What we can expect are cars which constantly send out streams of information, triggering alerts when speed limits and other regulations are being violated. Those alerts could be easily communicated and the offending drivers would pay the consequences or would at least have to justify their driving behavior.

But do we actually want this to happen? Of course we can locate almost each and every one of us by way of smartphone signals, but monitoring this information and sending it to authorities seems unacceptable – except for very specific situations. Once again there is this notion of freedom and something “typically human” which seems to be challenged. Even though one could argue that hundreds of thousands of tragic traffic accidents could be avoided by combinations of computer driven cars and real-time monitoring, one can be sure that there will be stiff resistance by those claiming that fundamental privacy rights and other freedoms are being sacrificed in a kind of Big Brother system.

The wider discussion is about “radical transparency“, which not only demands that corporations and authorities are transparent, but that transparence would be the “normal” situation for every citizen. It seems to be the underlying philosophy of Facebook for instance. The idea is that such transparency would make the diversity of lifestyles obvious and as such increase tolerance. Media expert danah boyd discusses this for instance on her blog apophenia, discussing these quotes from Facebook-founder Zuckerberg:

“We always thought people would share more if we didn’t let them do whatever they wanted, because it gave them some order.” – Zuckerberg, 2004
“You have one identity… The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly… Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity” – Zuckerberg, 2009

 

She explains her position also in this recent video:

Webstock ’12: danah boyd – Culture of Fear + Attention Economy = ?!?! from Webstock on Vimeo.

What is fascinating is that these discussions are not about some distant future. All these things, the ubiquitous social networks, the internet of things, self-driving cars, the demand for radical transparency, the viral spreading of fear are realities – sometimes in very early phases, but realities nevertheless.

The real book is a virtual book | Race against the machine

Earlier this year we discussed professor’s Tayler Cowen’s book The Great Stagnation. He claims that the innovation in our day and age is less impressive than it seems, compared to the automobile, electricity etc. You could walk around in a house of the year 1953 and find that it is not that fundamentally different from what we are used to now  (at least not in the affluent West). Of course the internet is the big innovation of our time, but then again it does not generate the profits, revenues and employment like the emergent mass production of automobiles did.

Now I’ve been reading Race against the machine, an ebook by the MIT-researchers Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. They seem to have a different vision:

We’re entering unknown territory in the quest to reduce labor costs. The AI revolution is doing to white collar jobs what robotics did to blue collar jobs. Race Against the Machine is a bold effort to make sense of the future of work. No one else is doing serious thinking about a force that will lead to a restructuring of the economy that is more profound and far-reaching than the transition from the agricultural to the industrial age.

However, I think that Cowen as well as the MIT-experts are all worried about jobs and are all advocating more science, research and clever innovation. As Brynjolfsson and McAfee explain, the digital development is exponential, meaning that what at first seems like a relatively slow start evolves to a more impressive pace and ends up leaving us all behind, in shock. So yes, maybe what we’ve seen as to now is just rather impressive but not completely disruptive, but the self-driving Google-car and the IBM-computer Watson (winner of Jeopardy!) point into the direction of such a disruptive change.

Here is a must-see video, featuring Erik Brynjolfsson, presenting a sheet depicting the book cover, but telling the audience that the real book is a virtual book.

Race Against the Machine from Compass Summit on FORA.tv

 

And here is Tyler Cowen, giving his take on these questions:

 

Here are a number of bookmarks I’m curating via Pearltrees, about the deep structural changes in technology and the economy:
deep change in tech and economy in Roland Legrand (bearbull)
So, in which vision do you believe? The idea that innovation is slowing down, or on the contrary, that it’s accelerating and creating very challenging issues for education, the labor market, politics, the economy?