Rise of the robots is crap

From the Introduction to “Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future” by Martin Ford:

Beyond the potentially devastating impact of long-term unemployment and underemployment on individual lives and on the fabric of society, there will also be a significant economic price. The virtuous feedback loop between productivity, rising wages, and increasing consumer spending will collapse. That positive feedback effect is already seriously diminished: we face soaring inequality not just in income but also in consumption. The top 5 percent of households are currently responsible for nearly 40 percent of spending, and that trend toward increased concentration at the top seems almost certain to continue. Jobs remain the primary mechanism by which purchasing power gets into the hands of consumers. If that mechanism continues to erode, we will face the prospect of having too few viable consumers to continue driving economic growth in our mass-market economy.

The author of this book thinks that businessmen will pay a lot for robots when nobody will buy what the robots make.

Who will voluntarily make that investment?

This book is full of blank statements like the one above. Questions like the one I asked aren’t raised or answered.

The author is very lefty. A typical extract from Chapter 2:

The precipitous decline in the power of organized labor is one of the most visible developments associated with the rightward drift that has characterized American economic policy over the past three decades. In their 2010 book Winner Take All Politics, political scientists Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson make a compelling case for politics as the primary driver of inequality in the United States. Hacker and Pierson point to 1978 as the pivotal year when the American political landscape began to shift under a sustained and organized assault from conservative business interests. In the decades that followed, industries were deregulated, top marginal tax rates on the wealthy and on corporations were cut to historic lows, and workplaces were made increasingly inhospitable to union organization. Much of this was driven not by electoral politics but, rather, by continuous lobbying on the part of business interests. As the power of organized labor withered, and as the number of lobbyists in Washington exploded, the day-to-day political warfare in the capital became increasingly asymmetric.

So businessmen asking not to have their money taxed away and their property controlled through regulation are assaulting the American political system? If you decline to pay taxes the govt uses force against you. If you don’t agree with a regulation and disobey it, the government may use force against you. Asking people not to use force against you isn’t assault.

“Rise of the robots” is a very bad book.

Abduction: a philosophical scam

A philosopher will often fool himself into believing he had made a valuable contribution to knowledge by making up a fancy word. In many cases, the word conceals confusion and gets in the way of simply rejecting a bad idea and moving on. Abduction is one of those words.

The Stanford Encyclopedia on abduction, linked above, sez:

Abduction or, as it is also often called, Inference to the Best Explanation is a type of inference that assigns special status to explanatory considerations. Most philosophers agree that this type of inference is frequently employed, in some form or other, both in everyday and in scientific reasoning.

The entry then gives an example:

One morning you enter the kitchen to find a plate and cup on the table, with breadcrumbs and a pat of butter on it, and surrounded by a jar of jam, a pack of sugar, and an empty carton of milk. You conclude that one of your house-mates got up at night to make him- or herself a midnight snack and was too tired to clear the table. This, you think, best explains the scene you are facing. To be sure, it might be that someone burgled the house and took the time to have a bite while on the job, or a house-mate might have arranged the things on the table without having a midnight snack but just to make you believe that someone had a midnight snack. But these hypotheses strike you as providing much more contrived explanations of the data than the one you infer to.

This sort of thing is not inference. It’s called guessing and criticism. You notice the stuff on the table. You guess that your housemate might have made a snack and not cleared the table. You guess that a burglar might have broken in and made a snack. But the burglar would have done other stuff like ransacking the house and stealing. If the house hasn’t been ransacked and nothing is missing, then the burglar guess doesn’t explain what happened at all. The burglar guess is ruled out by criticism. If you found out that your housemate interrupted a burglar having a snack you might reconsider since that would explain the lack of ransacking. This process of guessing and criticism is concealed by the term abduction.

Abduction also smuggles in the idea that ideas can be confirmed or justified. From the start of section 2 of the encyclopedia entry:

Precise statements of what abduction amounts to are rare in the literature on abduction. (Peirce did propose an at least fairly precise statement; but, as explained in the supplement to this entry, it does not capture what most nowadays understand by abduction.) Its core idea is often said to be that explanatory considerations have confirmation-theoretic import, or that explanatory success is a (not necessarily unfailing) mark of truth.

An idea is either true or false. You can use an argument to point out a problem for an idea. In the example of the snack stuff on the table, the lack of ransacking for the burglar theory. But the argument doesn’t show that anything is true or make truth of some particular idea more probable, or make it better in any way. It just creates a problem for an alternative idea.

Some people complain that this is too restrictive. They might think you can apply an idea without it being true. For example, there is no theory of gravity compatible with quantum mechanics. So QM has a problem. Should we never use it?  But QM is used in the semiconductor industry to help design computer chips. So then the rejecting stuff that is criticised idea seems too rigid. But we can explain why QM should work for chips even though there is no QM theory of gravity. Gravity interacts very weakly with the chips compared to other forces. So you would have to put the chip in a very strong gravitational field before a quantum theory of gravity would be relevant to its performance. So the criticism of using QM on computer chips has been answered and we can keep doing it. More generally, the solution to alleged strict restrictions imposed by criticism is to look at the criticism as an explanation and consider the relevance of that explanation to the problem you are trying to solve. If the explanation behind the criticism is irrelevant then the criticism has been answered.

Anyway, abduction is a scam. Philosophers use it to fool themselves into thinking they understand knowledge and have good ideas about it when they don’t.

The Gettier paper is rubbish

In 1963 Edmund Gettier wrote a philosophy paper called Is justified true belief knowledge? In this paper, Gettier comes up with an example that supposedly criticises the justified true belief theory. Smith has been told by the company president that Jones will get a job. Smith also thinks that Jones has ten coins in his pocket because he counted the coins. So Smith thinks the man who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket. Gettier claims that Smith’s claims are justified. But actually Smith is going to get the job. Smith has ten coins in his pocket, so it happens to be true that a man with ten coins in his pocket will get the job. So Smith has a justified true belief. But Gettier claims this justified true belief isn’t knowledge.

Philosophers love the Gettier paper, but the paper is stupid. No ideas are ever justified, in the sense of being shown to be true or more probable or better. Argument doesn’t work like that. The premises of any given argument may be wrong. Its rules of inference may be wrong. So the argument may be wrong. You can’t eliminate the possibility of error. There is no magical way of conferring truth or partial truth or higher status on some conclusion. It’s either right or wrong and you can’t prove whether it is right or wrong or assign probability to it being right or wrong in any sensible way. The Gettier argument requires that justification is possible, but it’s not so the whole argument is sunk before it gets started.

Popper had refuted the JTB theory in 1961 in his paper On The Sources Of Knowledge And Of Ignorance and he clarified further in “Realism and the Aim of Science”. So there is no reason to fawn over the Gettier paper. The paper is just wrong.

There is another problem with the Gettier paper. You can’t really learn anything useful from it. Popper’s knowledge and ignorance paper explains that there are no privileged sources of knowledge and so that you should be critical about all your ideas:

The question of the sources of our knowledge like so many authori­tarian questions, is a genetic one. It asks for the origin of our knowledge, in the belief that knowledge may legitimize itself by its pedigree. The nobility of the racially pure knowledge, the untainted knowledge, the knowledge which derives from the highest authority, if possible from God: these are the (often unconscious) metaphysical ideas behind the question. My modified question, ‘How can we hope to detect error?’ may be said to derive from the view that such pure, untainted and certain sources do not exist, and that questions of origin or of purity should not be confounded with questions of validity, or of truth.

Gettier claims Smith counted the coins in someone else’s pocket, and that this justifies claiming there are ten coins in somebody’s pocket. The authoritative source of the count is Smith. But this is incredibly dumb. Did Smith see Jones take coins out of his pocket and ask if those were all the coins? If so, perhaps Jones thought “this guy’s a bit fucking weird asking how many coins I have in my pocket, I better lie in case he’s going to mug me.” Or did Smith stick his hands in Jones’ pockets and root around in them? There is a lot of potential for error in this example.

The president of the company says Jones will be hired. So what? Maybe he will discuss Jones with other people and change his mind. The hiring may not be his decision at all. the president of a corporation has powers described by the bylaws of the company in question and may not give him control over hiring decisions. Again, there is a lot of potential for error here.

There really isn’t anything good about the Gettier paper. The fact that philosophers like it reflects poorly on philosophers and should not be regarded as a reason to read the paper.

Division of Labour

This is my answer to a Philosophy Stack Exchange question about the division of labour. I’ve put the text below in case it gets deleted or something.

The division of labour is a “micro-level” as well as a societal phenomenon.

It means that different individuals are “coerced” into doing different parts of larger projects and that the labour is divided rather than produced by any single or by the preferences of a single individual only.

This of course has numerous implications for e.g. the working lives of individuals. Some are coerced into different jobs than others. Some are coerced into unfun or unfulfilling jobs. Some are expressing other than their genuine interests. But some things still need to be done.

The division of labour is just another name for people specialising on stuff they are good at.

It is true that some things need to be done. Sometimes they are done as a result of people doing stuff that is boring. For example, working on an assembly line may be boring if the worker has to do the same task over and over again. But why should a boring task should have to be done by a person? If a person can do X, then why doesn’t he write down an explanation of how to do X and construct a machine to do it? The answer is that he doesn’t know how to do this, and he doesn’t want to learn.

A machine to do the assembly worker’s task would be an improvement in the vast bulk of cases. Machines don’t need to go to the toilet or to lunch. They don’t make mistakes through boredom or carelessness. So there need not be any downside.

Sometimes an employer would not welcome such an innovation and wouldn’t know how to evaluate it. But in that case, there is nothing to stop the worker from solving the problem in his spare time and starting his own business, other than lack of inclination to do what is required.

You might say that this amounts to coercing the assembly line worker. But what has happened is that the worker has been offered a range of options for how to live his life, and has picked one of the options. He could have decided not to take the options on offer but create his own opportunity. As long as other people will voluntarily provide resources, he can do whatever he wants on the free market. There are people who play video games professionally. There are people who have sex professionally.

The only alternative to people voluntarily providing resources is to use or threaten physical violence against them. This is a bad idea partly because it will prevent people from acting on objections to the plan being imposed by force. If another person objects to some idea and declines to provide resources, you should be interested in understanding his objection. You might be able to answer the objection. And if you can’t meet the objection, you may have a bad idea and you should want to replace that bad idea. If you don’t want to replace your bad ideas, that’s your fault: you suck.

“Oh, Alan,” I hear you cry. “You’ve got me all wrong. I don’t want to use force. I just want the workplace to be democratic. Everybody will help make the decisions about what to do.” But this does not address the actual problem that leads to people doing stuff they don’t want. The problem is that some people don’t want to create new knowledge and take real responsibility for their lives. Such a person prefers to do a shitty job he hates instead of taking responsibility. If you want such people to take responsibility, you will have to coerce them unless you first come up with an argument to change their minds.

There is a further problem. Democracy doesn’t fit this situation. Democracy is an attempt to solve the following problem. A society with millions of people needs laws but not everybody is inclined to help write them. So then you have some people who specialise in doing that sort of thing: politicians. Voting is a mechanism to throw out incompetent or malicious politicians. If enough people vote for some other candidate, the politician loses his job if people don’t like the results he produced. They don’t have to argue with him about it, they can just remove him from office. But if you are in a small group at work, you need not vote. You can discuss a topic until you all reach a position you find unproblematic. If you adopt voting instead, then you won’t reach such a position and some people won’t like the position that was adopted as a result of the vote. You will just recreate the problem you wanted to solve.

If you want to understand more see


and ask questions at the associated discussion group:


Why we should brexit 2

On June 23 2016, there will be a referendum on whether the UK should stay in the EU.

In a previous post I pointed out that the EU is not accountable in the sense that there is no way to get rid of specific policies or leaders. I’m going to point out another problem with the EU that is not clearly discussed.

In the European parliament, parties from different countries commonly enter into coalitions with one another. Political speeches, policies and platforms are usually as clear as mud when you read them in your native language. And a lot of your judgement of policies and parties takes advantage of common cultural knowledge in your country. For example, the right wing in the US is recognisably different from the right in the UK. The right wing in the UK consists of people who support the welfare state unambiguously and boast that they can fund it more efficiently than the left wing. The whole political difference between the left and the right in Britain is about how efficiently the welfare state can work for some vague notion of efficiency. In the US by contrast, there are at least some right wing politicians who are willing to say that at least some parts of the welfare state are a terrible idea, e.g. – government healthcare provision. So right wing means something different in the UK (no difference in principle at all from the left) and in the US (at least some difference in principle according to some people). Since people voting in the European elections can’t know enough to make a reasonable judgement about coalition partners, they can’t know enough to change or remove policies or leaders.This makes the EU unaccountable by any reasonable standard.

Another issue with this referendum is the predictions made by both sides about what will happen if we leave or stay. Nobody knows what will happen. If we leave, what will happen will depend on negotiations made after we leave. Nobody can predict the content of these negotiations. New knowledge will be created during the negotiations and we can’t foresee its content since if we could foresee its content we would already have that knowledge. So nobody knows what will happen. The remain side in particular seem keen to say stuff like we won’t be able to trade with Europe, or that Europe will go to war (over what?) and holidays will be more expensive and all sorts of other stuff that they can’t possibly know. The people saying such things are stupid or lying or both.

Animals shouldn’t have rights

Many people take for granted the claim that animals should have some rights. Exactly what rights animals should have varies from one claimant to another. Some people might say animals should have a right not to have pain inflicted on them, but not the right to vote. This idea is based on misunderstandings of rights and of human beings and animals.

One problem is that many people seem to think that rights are a sort of social nicety, but they are wrong. A right is an enforceable claim to something. For example, if I have a right to own some piece of property, then if somebody takes the property, I have a claim to get the property back. And it’s not just the case that I can say ‘pretty please, give me the property back’. I can call the police and they may use force to get the property back and detain the person who took it. A right is not a polite request for something, or indeed a request of any kind. When you say ‘animals should have rights’, you’re not saying that it would be a good idea for people to treat dogs well. Rather, you’re saying that if a person doesn’t treat a dog well, then people can and should use force directly or indirectly to stop him from treating the dog badly. If you wouldn’t be willing to say that a person should be thrown in jail for violating the alleged right, then you shouldn’t call it a right.

Under what circumstances should a particular thing be granted rights? I don’t think anyone would say that a lump of concrete should have rights. There are a couple of reasons for this. The concrete itself does not ask for rights. In addition, the concrete will not act very differently if  we say it has rights and treat it accordingly. By contrast, if you beat a person up, he will claim that what you’re doing is wrong and that you should be held accountable for your actions. He will also not be inclined to deal with you after you have beaten him up. So it makes a difference whether you treat other people according to their rights or not, both to them and to you. But it is not enough for there be a difference of some kind depending on how you treat an object. If that were the case, then my computer should have rights since it will stop working if I hit it with a sledgehammer.

If I respect a person’s rights, he can go off and do things independently of me that may benefit me, directly or indirectly. He could become a computer programer and help write a great game. He could compose some music. He could become a doctor or nurse, and help save people who can produce goods from which I can benefit, or his medical treatment might save my life or relieve some pain or something like that. My computer doesn’t act the same way. the only way we know of to get a computer to do something is to give it suitable instructions. Those instructions may be written by me or by other people, but there is always a person giving the orders. Nothing useful happens without those orders. The person can produce a potentially open ended stream of benefits for me and for others. The computer can’t do this.

Why can a person do this, but not a computer? The person is capable of creating new explanatory knowledge. A person can create knowledge about music, or physics, or how to lay out a retail store, or how to cut hair, or anything else. Computers can’t create new explanatory knowledge. This is a qualitative difference, not a quantitative difference. The idea that it is possible for us to understand anything about how the world works is required to make the rational, scientific worldview work. If there is a restriction on what sort of things it is possible for people to explain, then this fundamentally means we can’t explain anything. If there was such a limitation on being able to explain parsnips, say, then it would be impossible for us to understand things that interact with parsnips. And we would then be unable to understand things that interact with things that interact with parsnips and so on. So there is a qualitative difference between people, who can understand how the world works arbitrarily well, and computers as they are currently programmed.

There would be another problem with granting a computer rights. The computer can’t give or withhold consent to be treated in a certain way. If I have a right to control a piece of property, that means I can consent to give it up if I want to. If I have a right to control what substances I put in my body, I have the right to consent to put something in my body or not.

The question of whether animals should have rights has a lot to do with whether an animal is more similar to a person or a computer in the respects I explained above. It might appear obvious to you that the animal is more like a person. If you try to torture or kill an animal it will fight back, as a person would. The animal will make noises that sound a lot like the noises that a person makes when he is angry or in pain. And animals are made out of the same kinds of material as humans, muscle, bone, brain, nerves and so on. And an animal’s nervous system is, in many respects, similar to a person’s. So you may think that what is going on inside a screaming animal is the same as what is going on inside a screaming person. So then it makes a difference to the animal how you treat the animal.

If you made this argument, you would be wrong. The problem is that when a person feels pain, his interpretation of that experience is part of what makes it bad. The person understands that he might die, or be unable to perform certain tasks, or it might change his view of the world and make him less inclined to go out, or whatever. Such interpretations depend on his ability to understand the world. Without that ability, no such interpretation would exist. And other animals lack that ability. Dogs don’t write plays, or songs, or come up with scientific theories. It’s not that some dogs do those things, and others don’t. Not a single dog in the whole of history has ever done any of those things.

You might think that some species are smarter than dogs in some way. For example, bonobos have used sign language. But as recorded in Kanzi: The Ape on the Brink of the Human Mind by Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and Roger Lewin, bonobos never managed to understand a sentence as simple as ‘put the coke can in the trash can.’ What was going on in the bonobos was something very different from what happens when a person learns. An animal has some finite set of behaviours it can enact, determined by its genes. It has some set of features of the world that it can discriminate, again, determined by its genes. And the animal can try out combinations of the set of behaviours until the results meet some criteria encoded in its brain by its genes. See R. W. Byrne’s paper ‘Imitation as behaviour parsing’ and ‘The Beginning of Infinity’ Chapter 16, Section ‘How do you replicate a meaning?’ starting around p. 401.

Some people might say that we evolved from animals so we can’t be qualitatively different. But evolution has give rise to qualitative differences, e.g. – differences between multicellular organisms and single celled organisms. Differences between animals that perceive light and those that are blind. And since humans are qualitatively different, there pretty much had to be other species that were similar to us in many respects, except in their ability to understand the world.

Since animals can’t understand the world, an animal does not have the potential to produce an open-ended stream of benefits in the same way a person can. We gain nothing by granting them rights. Administering any rights granted to animals would also be a problem since the animals can’t give or withhold consent. A person can consent to eat spicy food, even if it makes him have an experience in which his mouth feels like it is burning and tears are running down his cheeks. But we know he wants this because he can tell us. So how are we to decide whether an animal wants spicy food: the animal can’t tell us.

Granting animals rights is a mistake. We are throwing out the actual interests of people for something that doesn’t benefit us and can’t benefit animals. We may wish to treat animals well for a variety of reasons. Some animals look cute and we don’t want to hurt them. Some animals produce better meat or eggs or milk or whatever if treated in specific ways. This does not require giving animals rights. We have nothing to gain and a lot to lose by trying to grant rights to animals.

EU vs the internet

A European Commission (EC) document called Online platforms and the digital single market has been leaked. It has content that has been described as a link tax, but the article doesn’t provide page references or long quotes for most of its claims. I think the policy described as a link tax is a bad idea, but I wouldn’t describe it as a tax. It’s more like just breaking contracts when the EC happens to feel like it.

On page 9 of the document the problem the EC wants to address is described as follows:

New forms of online content distribution have emerged which may involve several actors, and where, for instance, content is distributed through platforms which make available copyright protected content uploaded by end-users. While these services attract a growing audience and gain economic benefits from the content distribution, there is a growing concern as to whether the value generated by some of these forms of online content distribution is shared in a fair manner between distributors and right holders. In reply to the public consultation, right holders across several content sectors reported that their content is increasingly used without authorisation or through licencing agreements, which, in their view, contain unfair terms.

The emphasis and wrong spelling of “licensing” are in the original.

On p.10, the EC describes what it intends to do about this problem:

in the next copyright package, to be adopted in autumn 2016, the Commission will aim at ensuring fair allocation of the value generated from the online distribution of copyright-protected content by online platforms whose businesses are based on the provision of access to copyright-protected material.

The emphasis in the quote is the same as in the original.

The first problem with this “solution” is that the EC openly states that some of the content is shared under license agreements. This means that the EC will be in the position of breaking the terms of contracts. Defenders of the EC might say they are going to decide on the basis of a “fair allocation”, but there is no such standard of fairness. If you make a contract, you should either stick to the terms or negotiate a new agreement both parties can accept. Otherwise, the other party to the contract just gets shafted and has no recourse. There is no fair way to fuck somebody over like that.

The second problem is that as anyone knows who has followed what has happened on YouTube over the past few years, the copyright as it stands has some major problems. It is already difficult to quote material produced by somebody else, even for the purposes of commentary. Those concerns don’t matter to the EC. They are accountable to nobody. Voters can’t vote them out. Nor can anyone else. So how are they supposed to decide what to do? The EC have to get their information about problems to address from somebody, so they get it from whoever can afford to lobby them.

This document is an example of why the UK should leave the EU. In its current state, the EU can’t be reformed or saved because it has no means of error correction. Sticking around in the hope that maybe the EU will learn a lesson that it has failed to learn over the past several decades, and which it has no means to learn, would be a bad idea.