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Nit-Pikettying Leads to Inspiration

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Capitalism or some form of socialism–which is best? Or should our economy be governed by a hybrid concept designed by artificial intelligence?

 

An emailed critique of the book by French economist Thomas Piketty brought up the capitalism vs. socialism debate once again.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which I have not read, makes the case that capitalism tends to create and expand wealth inequality worldwide. American critics have issues with some of the author’s statistics. Piketty has responded that, whatever the “typos,” his conclusion stands: Wealth inequality is on the rise in the United States.

How would I know? As a liberal arts person, I need to rely in these matters on some source of absolute objectivity, and that is very hard to come by in our ideologically polarized world. However, I had just read an article in Harper’s that seemed to pose a solution.

Come with Us If You Want to Live” was written by Sam Frank, a brilliant young man who is an acute observer of developments in the tech world. I guess we should all pay more attention to the ideas of the youthful tide programming change at warp speed.

Frank has attended some of their national meetings and is familiar with sites that these young geniuses frequent. A survey of one such revealed an average age of about 27 and an IQ of over 138. Imagination also seems to be off the charts.

These young nerds are fascinated by the idea of writing programs for artificial intelligence (AI) that can actually remake society itself. Machines can be coded to self-improve over time, eventually outstripping human intelligence by many orders of magnitude.

Artificial Intelligence

Artificial Intelligence

 As I read about the techies dreams and theories, I began to half-wonder if their world is populated by aliens.

In the new reality the nerds would like to create, politics would be an “engineering problem” that could be solved by assembling mathematicians, philosophers, programmers, and ethicists to define specific ideals and objectives for government.

The AI programmers believe that we are standing on the threshold of an “intelligence explosion.” Full-blown by century’s end, it could produce visible transformations in culture over the next decade.

Presumably the transforming AI would be “friendly,” but it could become so superior that humans become kind of a nuisance factor. Sounds like science fiction as in “The Terminator,” which I never saw, but this is a real possibility in the minds of programmers.

But back to a friendly AI. For it to rationalize federal government, everyone would need to be connected. This was where I began to get uneasy. Mark Zuckerberg has announced that he intends to get the entire world connected within the next few years. This looks like empire building to me. In fact, it is assumed that all of humanity will soon be governed by “technocracies.”

I’m very old-fashioned in some respects, and I wonder, “Wouldn’t it be polite to ask if everyone wants this?” Do we all want to be connected? Do we all want smartphones? Is every culture willing to sacrifice its way of life to this vision of a world optimized by artificial intelligence?

Now back to the claim of incorrect statistics in the Piketty book. It is clear from the Frank article that a computer program could improve on Piketty’s research by accurately collecting all the world’s statistics on the flow of wealth and then rationalizing distribution for the benefit of humanity. That would be a version of socialism, right?

And the irony is that capitalism would produce this. The tech geniuses are driven by the profit motive as well as idealism. One man interviewed by Frank hopes eventually to have a “pi billion-dollar valuation” on a company designed to identify, synthesize, and rationalize all the world’s medical information.

The mind reels over the potential these geniuses envision. And although I agree with them about the dysfunctional, “tribal and viscerally upsetting,” political system we have, I’m inclined to prefer that we improve it in the old-fashioned way, like learning how to collaborate in problem-solving.

And as a person who neither has nor wants a smartphone, even though I could get an app to monitor the temperature in my composting worm bin, I often wonder if the digital world is a blessing or has become kind of a curse that moment by moment is driving us a little crazy. Will we keep consuming this gadgetry like addicts or will we just plain burn out at some point? Would that save us from some menacing mechanism?

At the very least, the rise of the technocracies over the next few years will be interesting as well as possibly extremely stressful. We may really need that “brain dashboard” currently under development that one could play to instantaneously achieve different states of consciousness. Maybe one of them would be peace.

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