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My Book of Books

"Wisdom is not the product of schooling, but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it"

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Science

“The Rise of the Robots” Martin Ford

This one’s for you if you want to learn about how increasing automation might change the world as we know it, and what we should do about it.

Being given a book is always interesting- what do your nearest and dearest think you will enjoy/think you’d like or need to learn about? It would seem that, in giving me this book, my brother wanted to give me a serious lesson in economics!! “The Rise of the Robots” can be quite heavy at times if you do not have a background in economics, but I found that the possibility of the predictions in this book coming true made all the theories and statistics seem relevant enough to be interesting! Ford describes a vicious cycle of increasing automation, loss of jobs, lack of wages leading to a lack of consumption and therefore economic growth which will ultimately cause a lack of investment and contraction of the economy, causing businesses to look for further cost reductions, and increasing automation. Overall, the book is incredibly thought provoking, particularly in its discussion of rising inequality, the reasons for it and possible solutions to it.

But surely this topic can be viewed in a different way. Increasing automation, on whatever scale it eventually happens, has the potential to bring about drastic change. And change is one of those funny things that we always fear, but is the root to all good things. Think about the things that make you happy- surely they were all originally brought about by change- new relationships/adventures/a new job/hobby/friend. By reading this book, you’re taking a step towards embracing change and engaging in solutions to problems that are likely to arise (or may have already started to!). So if politicians could think ahead of their 5 year government term, it might all turn out to be rosy. Pigs can fly right?

“it has become clear that the productivity increases that went into worker’s pockets back in the 1950s are now being retained almost entirely by business owners and investors.” xii

On the increased output that machines may achieve, without human assistance “The result would be massive unemployment, soaring inequality, and, ultimately, falling demand for good and services as consumers increasingly lacked the purchasing power necessary to continue driving economic growth.” p30

On the high levels on inequality in the US and the UK “In other words, one of the most fundamental ideas woven into Western capitalism- the belief that anyone can get ahead through hard work and perseverance- really has very little basis in statistical reality.” p47

“Economists who have studied financialization have found a strong correlation between the growth of the financial sector and inequality as well as the decline in labor’s share of national income.” p57

“rather than simply failing to enact policies that might have slowed the forces driving the country toward higher levels of inequality, America very often has made choices that have effectively put a wind at the back of those forces.” p60

Economies need for the mass market: “The presence of that solid middle is one of the primary factors that differentiates an advanced nation from an impoverished on- and its erosion is becoming increasingly evident in the UK and across Europe, but especially in the United States.” p80

Technology firms have a staggeringly small workforce for the profits they make. “WhatsApp had a workforce of fifty-five- giving it a valuation of a staggering $345 million per employee.” p169

“Markets are driven not just by aggregate dollars but also by unit demand. A single very wealthy person may buy a very nice car, or perhaps even a dozen such cars. But he or she is not going to buy thousands of cars.” This also applies to any other consumer good, showing that increasing inequality, and sequestration of money amongst a smaller percentage of the world’s population, will cause economic growth to stagnate. So not only is it immoral, its also economically bad news. p194

“While it’s certainly possible that two scientists may look at the same data and interpret it differently, in the field of economics the opinions all too often break cleanly along predefined political lines. Knowing the ideological predisposition of a particular economist is often a better predictor of what that individual is likely to say than anything contained in the data under examination.” p199

Automation may reduce the cost of manufacturing, and entertainment but “The most important things- food, housing, energy, healthcare, transportation, insurance- are much less likely to see rapid, near- term cost reductions.” p211 So does this mean that those industries are going to be less affected by automation (if so then surely the jobs in these industries will remain?)

“It is not at all clear how the poorest countries in Asia and Africa will manage to dramatically improve their prospects in a world that no longer needs untold millions of low-wage factory workers.” p222

Moving onto possible solutions, the author discusses two options- a guaranteed income for everyone, and changes to taxation.

In the 1970s, Hayek said the following, which may become increasingly relevant if the automation revolution unfolds “The assurance of a minimum income for everyone, or a sort of floor below which nobody need fall even when he is unable to provide for himself, appears not only to be a wholly legitimate protection against a risk common to all, but a necessary part  of the Great Society in which the individual no longer has specific claims on the members of the particular small group into which he was born.” p256. This reminds me of a passage from Sophie’s World about John Rawls, who believed that laws should be made on the basis that you could drop dead and come back not knowing your position in society (otherwise referred to as the veil of ignorance).

“we ought to transition to a form of taxation that asks more from those businesses that rely heavily on technology and employ relatively few workers [i.e whatsapp!]. We eventually will have to move away from the idea that workers support retirees and pay for social programs, and instead adopt the premise that our economies in their entireties support these things.” In other words moving tax “away from labor and toward capital.” p276/7

 

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“The Extended Phenotype” Richard Dawkins

This one’s for you if you’re willing to accept that each page takes at least 10 minutes, and you’re interested in a different approach to how you think about natural selection.

Love him or loathe him, Richard Dawkins has some pretty interesting ideas that are sure to challenge how you think of DNA, natural selection and evolution. I was relieved to read in the epilogue that this is a book aimed at “professional biologists” because there were times when I had to read the sentence/paragraph/page about thirty times! Like most people, I first heard of “survival of the fittest” in a school biology lesson. Since then, years of study have certainly complicated matters, but I had always regarded fitness to mean the organism who has the most young. There is a whole chapter devoted to different definitions of “fitness” used by population geneticists and ecologists, their strengths and weaknesses, and the consequences of using different definitions. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Luckily I found Dawkins’ fabulous put downs broke up the academic text a little. He describes some of his critics’ work as “pernicious rubbish on an almost astrological scale.” p13.

“Thought experiments are not supposed to be realistic. They are supposed to clarify our thinking about reality.” p4

“I am a great believer in saying familiar, well known things backwards and inside out, hoping that from some new vantage point the old facts will take on a deeper significance.” p7

” What is a brain…but a computer and what is education but a form of programming?” p17

” Natural selection blindly meliorizes its way down successive lines of immediately available least resistance. The animal that results…is the product of a historical sequence of changes, each one of which represented…the better of the alternatives that happened to be available at the time.” p46

“If the individual manipulator has more to lose by failing to manipulate than the individual victim has to lose by failing to resist manipulation, we should expect to see successful manipulation in nature.” p67

On the difference between selection at an individual (vehicle) or genetic level: “Replicator selection is the process by which some replicators survive at the expense of other replicators. Vehicle selection is the process by which some vehicles are more successful than other vehicles in ensuring the survival of their replicators.” p82

“meiosis and sexual fusion see to it that not even our genomes are replicators, so we ourselves are not replicators.” p95

“The doctrine of the extended phenotype is that the phenotypic effect of a gene…is best seen as an effect upon the world at large, and only incidentally upon the individual organism” p117

B is not a gene for blackness “unless some of the variation in the population is due to lack of B If all individuals…have B and the only reason individuals are not black is that they have B’ rather than B, we shall say that B’, but not B, is a gene for blackness.” p196

“the common belief that parasitic castration is an adaptation implies that the modified host phenotype is part of the extended phenotype of parasite genes.” p214

“an animal’s behaviour tends to maximize the survival of genes ‘for’ that behaviour, whether or not those genes happen to be in the body of the particular animal performing it.” p233

“Somatic cell divisions are used to make mortal tissues, organs and instruments whose ‘purpose’ is the promoting of germ-line cell divisions” p256

“The fact that each cycle restarts in every generation from a single cell permits mutations to achieve radical evolutionary changes by going ‘back to the drawing board’ of embryological engineering.” p264

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