Monday, February 20, 2017

The Danger of Tyranny in the Age of Software

If you have been following this blog on softwarephysics, then you know that I contend that it is all about self-replicating information struggling to survive in a highly nonlinear Universe, subject to the second law of thermodynamics, and that one of my major concerns has always been why we seem to be the only form of Intelligence to be found within our Milky Way galaxy after nearly 10 billion years of galactic stellar evolution. Now software is just currently the fifth wave of self-replicating information to sweep across the surface of the planet and totally rework its surface - see A Brief History of Self-Replicating Information for more on that. But more importantly, software is the first form of self-replicating information to appear on the Earth that can already travel at the speed of light, and software never dies, so it is superbly preadapted for interstellar space travel. Since we now know that nearly all of the 400 billion stars within our galaxy have planets, then for all intents and purposes, we should now find ourselves knee-deep in von Neumann probes, self-replicating robotic probes stuffed with alien software that travel from star system to star system building copies along the way, as they seek out additional resources and safety from potential threats, but that is clearly not the case. So what gives? Clearly, something must be very wrong with my current thinking.

One of my assumptions all along has been that, capitalism, and the free markets that it naturally enables, would necessarily, bring software to predominance as the dominant form of self-replicating information on the planet, as the Powers that Be who currently rule the Earth try to reduce the costs of production. But now I have my doubts. As an 18th century liberal, and a 20th century conservative, I have always been a strong proponent of the 17th century Scientific Revolution, which brought forth the heretical proposition that rational thought, combined with evidence-based reasoning, could reveal the absolute truth, and allow individuals to actually govern themselves, without the need for an authoritarian monarchy. This change in thinking led to the 18th century Enlightenment and brought forth the United States of America as a self-governing political entity. But unfortunately, the United States of America has always been a very dangerous experiment in human nature to see if the masses could truly govern themselves, without succumbing to the passions of the mob, and up until now, I have always maintained that we could, but now I am not so sure.

In my last posting The Continuing Adventures of Mr. Tompkins in the Software Universe I highlighted some of the recent political absurdities on the Internet that seem to call into question the very nature of reality in the modern world, and consequently, threaten the very foundations of the 18th century Enlightenment that made the United States of America possible. But the recent arrival of this fact-free virtual cyber-reality is just one element of a much more disturbing rise of Alt-Right movements throughout the world. Many contend that this resurgence of nationalistic authoritarianism is a rejection of the economic globalization that has occurred over the past 30 years or so and the resulting economic displacement of the middle classes. But my contention is that these Alt-Right movements in such places as the United States, the UK, Germany, France and other western democracies throughout the world, are just another sign of software rapidly becoming the dominant form of self-replicating information on the planet. As software comes to predominance it has caused a great deal of social, political and economic unrest as discussed in The Economics of the Coming Software Singularity, The Enduring Effects of the Obvious Hiding in Plain Sight and Machine Learning and the Ascendance of the Fifth Wave. Basically, the arrival of software in the 1950s slowly began to automate middle-class clerical and manufacturing jobs. The evaporation of middle-class clerical jobs really began to accelerate in the 1960s, with the arrival of mainframe computers in the business world, and the evaporation of manufacturing jobs picked up considerably in the 1980s, with the arrival of small microprocessors that could be embedded into the machining and assembly machines found on the factory floors. In addition, the creation of worldwide high-speed fiber-optic networks in the 1990s to support the arrival of the Internet explosion in 1995, led to software that allowed managers in modern economies to move manual and low-skilled work to the emerging economies of the world where wage scales were substantially lower, because it was now possible to remotely manage such operations using software. But as the capabilities of software continue to progress and general purpose androids begin to appear later in the century there will come a point when even the highly reduced labor costs of the emerging economies will become too dear. At that point, the top 1% ruling class may not have much need for the remaining 99% of us, especially if the androids start building the androids. This will naturally cause some stresses within the current oligarchical structure of societies, as their middle classes continue to evaporate and more and more wealth continues to concentrate into the top 1%.

Figure 1 - Above is a typical office full of clerks in the 1950s. Just try to imagine how many clerks were required in a world without software to simply process all of the bank transactions, insurance premiums and claims, stock purchases and sales and all of the other business transactions in a single day.

Figure 2 - Similarly, the Industrial Revolution brought the assembly line and created huge numbers of middle-class manufacturing jobs.

Figure 3 - But the arrival of automation software on the factory floor displaced many middle-class manufacturing jobs, and will ultimately displace all middle-class manufacturing jobs sometime in the future.

Figure 4 - Manufacturing jobs in the United States have been on the decline since the 1960s as software has automated many manufacturing processes.

Figure 5 - Contrary to popular public opinion, the actual manufacturing output of the United States has dramatically increased over the years, while at the same time, the percentage of the workforce in manufacturing has steadily decreased. This was due to the dramatic increases in worker productivity that were made possible by the introduction of automation software.

Figure 6 - Self-driving trucks and cars will be the next advance of software to eliminate a large segment of middle-class jobs.

So the real culprit that caused the great loss of middle-class jobs in the western democracies over the past 40 years was really the vast expansion of automation software at home, and less so the offshoring of jobs. True, currently a substantial amount of job loss can also be attributed to the offshoring of jobs to lower wage scale economies, but that really is just a temporary transient effect. Those offshored jobs will evaporate even faster as software continues on to predominance. Let's face it, with the rapidly advancing capabilities of AI software, all human labor will be reduced to a value of zero over the next 10 - 100 years, and that raises an interesting possible solution for my concerns about not being knee-deep in von Neumann probes.

The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism
Now I am not about to compare the bizarre social media behaviors of the new Administration of the United States of America to something out of Nineteen Eighty-Four, written by George Orwell in 1949, and the ability of its infamous Ministry of Truth to distort reality, but I must admit that the numerous Tweets from the new Administration have jogged my memory a bit. I first read Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1964 as a high school freshman at the tender age of 13. At the time, I thought that the book was a very fascinating science fiction story describing a very distant possible future, but given the very anemic IT technology of the day, it seemed much more like a very entertaining political fantasy than something I should really worry much about actually coming true. However, in 2014 I decided to read the book again to see if 50 years of IT progress had made much of a difference to my initial childhood impressions. It should come as no surprise, that in 2014, I now found that the book was now totally doable from a modern IT perspective. Indeed, I now found that, with a few tweaks, a modern oligarchical state run by 2% of the population at the very top, could now easily monitor and control the remaining 98% of the population with ease, given the vast IT infrastructure we already had in place.

But in recent days I have had even more disturbing thoughts. Recall that The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism is the book-within-a-book of Nineteen Eighty-Four that describes what is actually going on in the lives of the main characters of the book. The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism explains that, ever since we first invented civilization, all civilizations have adopted a hierarchy of the High, the Middle and the Low, no matter what economic system may have been adopted at the time. The High constitute about 2% of the population, and the High run all things within the society. The Middle constitute about 13% of the population and work for the High to make sure that the Low get things properly done. The Low constitute about 85% of the population, and the Low do all of the non-administrative work to make it all happen. The Low are so busy just trying to survive that they present little danger to the High. The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism explains that, throughout history, the Middle has always tried to overthrow the High with the aid of the Low, to establish themselves as the new High. So the Middle must always be viewed as a constant threat to the High. The solution to this problem in Nineteen Eighty-Four was for the High to constantly terrorize the Middle with thugs from the Ministry of Love and other psychological manipulations like doublethink, thoughtcrimes and newspeak, to deny the Middle of even the concept of an existence of a physical reality beyond the fabricated reality created by the Party.

Granted, this was not an ideal solution because it required a great deal of diligence and effort on the part of the High, but it was seen as a necessary evil because the Middle was always needed to perform all of the administrative functions to keep the High in their elevated positions. But what if there were no need for a Middle? Suppose there came a day when AI software could perform all of the necessary functions of a Middle, without the threat of the Middle overthrowing the High? That would be an even better solution. Indeed, advanced AI software could allow for a 2% High to rule a 98% Low, with no need of a Middle whatsoever. Since the High had absolute control over all of society in The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, it also controlled all scientific advancement of society and chose to eliminate any scientific advancements that might put the current social order in jeopardy. Such an oligarchical society could then prevent any AI software from advancing beyond the narrow AI technological levels needed to completely monitor and control society with 100% efficiency. That could lead to a society of eternal stasis that would certainly put an end to my von Neumann probes exploring the galaxy.

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Steve Johnston