Monday, April 27, 2015

Saudi Arabia and a warning about post-need societies

Burqa IMG 1127.jpg
A common theme of utopian sci-fi stories is that advanced technology will grant us wealth and freedom. Developments in automation, robotics and artificial intelligence can give an entire society freedom from poverty, freedom from hunger, freedom from needing to work unpleasant jobs, the freedom to allow everyone to only pursue occupations that truly interest them.

However, this freedom that advanced technology will grant us can be a double-edged sword, since there is no inherent reason to believe this freedom will be shared. It will be up to the government to decide who controls this technology and gets part of its dividends.

If the technology is controlled by only a few, it could instead be used to simply give them the freedom to never need to care about others. Right now even the richest person still at least depends on regular people to serve as their drivers, their chefs, their housekeepers, their plumbers, their waiters, their hairdressers, etc. In the future all of these people could theoretically be replaced by machines.

Saudi Arabia is currently our best example that wealth generated by technology won’t inherently make society more equal or better. While not a perfect analogy, the vast oil wealth the small country controls frees them from need in the same way advanced robots may soon be capable of. Saudi Arabia has chosen to use this freedom to keep women as second class citizens.

The advancement of women’s rights in the West was driven often by economic necessity. We needed a more educated population to handle the modern economy. We needed women in factories while the men went to war. We needed more workers in general to compete internationally. It gave women leverage to demand their rights.

Saudi Arabia’s wealth means they really don’t need their women to contribute to the economy. It also gives them freedom not to care what the rest of the world thinks about their policies.

Future advancements in automation could mean the freedom from need for everyone, or it could give a few the freedom to never again need to care about everyone else.

*"Burqa IMG 1127" by Rama - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 fr via Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Big Neighbor

The major privacy issues of the future will be less about Big Brother and more about Big Neighbor.

Almost since the birth of television, there have been concerns about what ever-present cameras could mean for privacy, civil rights and surveillance; but during the 20th Century the concerns were almost always about what the government would do. The focus was on Big Brother, because for decades the government was the only entity than even theoretically would have the huge amounts of money, power and technology necessary to place and actively monitor cameras everywhere.

In just the past decade we have gone through a dramatic shift -- one which we're only beginning to see the ramifications of -- thanks to improvements in cameras, digital storage, and face recognition software. These technologies have been getting better, smaller, and cheaper at an amazing rate. Almost every new car, home security system, tablet, phone, game console are equipped with cameras.

As the technology continues to improve, we will likely see an explosion of cameras in a whole range of personal devices. Cameras in smart watches and smart glasses. Cameras in home/office thermostats which automatically recognize when a person is home to adjust to their individual preference setting. Cameras on your front door that replace your keys with facial recognition. Cameras in your home bathroom mirror that automatically check for unusual mole growths or slight changes that could indicate a health issue. Cameras inside fridges so you can remotely check to see if you still have milk.

There is currently a debate about whether or not police officers should wear body cameras on duty, but as the technology gets smaller and cheaper, we will soon be debating if everyone should wear a body camera at all times for safety. That has the potential to produce a significant drop in violent crime but at great expense to personal privacy.

We are just starting to see the pros and cons of having so many cameras in the hands of individuals. This ubiquitous surveillance equipment has created new accountability for the government -- think of the video of officer Michael Slager shooting a man as he was running away. But it has also led to a massive invasion of privacy of regular individuals by strangers. A few bad decisions at a bar could end up in a video spread over the Internet by strangers. That video could haunt a person for years, both in their personal life or as they try to look for a new job.

In the next decade we are going to have cameras that are always running practically everywhere, but many of them will technically be owned by individuals or small businesses. How we let individuals use their footage, and when we allow companies that make this equipment  or government agencies to access this wealth of footage, could define our society for the next century. It will change how we date, how we party and how we behave at work. No part of our professional or personal lives will go untouched.

Monday, April 13, 2015

California is why you should be pessmistic about addressing climate change

If there's one thing that leaves me truly pessimistic about the United States taking serious steps to address climate change, it is not the climate change denialists within the Republican Party -- it is the political dynamics in California.

Often the focus on the denialists leaves the impression that if you could simply get a majority of people and policy makers to agree that climate change is a real problem, we would see significant action. However, liberal California proves the task is much more difficult. While California has taken some positive steps to address the issue, like enacting their cap and trade program, they could easily do dramatically more at no cost.

Even with California's current water crisis, one of the best things we could do for the environment is to triple the population of the state over the next two decades. We should be building new walkable cities on the California coast and significantly increasing the density of existing ones. Given how little of California’s water that is currently used by cities, there would easily be enough water for the new residents. The state would just need to get serious about a water management policy that doesn’t allow the agricultural industry to waste so much water on farm products that could easily be grown elsewhere.

From a climate change perspective, the California coast is the ideal place to have most of the American population live. Its mild climate means very little energy is needed to heat or cool buildings in the area, a significant source of CO2. The great climate is why California has one of the lowest rates of per capita carbon dioxide emissions of any states.

The nice climate also means it would be easy to convince more people to switch from cars to bikes, walking, or public transit if some new, better-designed urban centers were built in California. Transportation is one of the biggest sources of CO2 production in the country. Walkable neighborhoods combined with public transportation is the best solution. This is why, despite the weather, per capita CO2 emissions in New York City are just 7.1 metric tons compared to a national average of 24.5 metric tons. That is even lower than the 11.1 metric tons of San Diego, which has ideal weather.

One of the best things we could do for the climate is to build cities with the low-transit CO2 emissions of New York City in places with the low heating/cooling emissions of San Diego.

Every American that moves from suburban sprawl in the midwest to one of these new places would see their carbon footprint slashed to a fraction of what it was before.

A focus on dramatically increasing urbanization on the California coast is about as close as you get to a true win-win plan to reduce climate change. People who move to these new urban locations would grow the economy and become healthier as a result of the extra exercise.

Yet despite the overwhelming evidence that a strong push for increased urbanism on the coast would be a great way to help address climate change, California has pushed for the exact opposite. According to the California Legislative Analyst’s Office, “Between 1980 and 2010, construction of new housing units in California’s coastal metros was low by national and historical standards. During this 30–year period, the number of housing units in the typical U.S. metro grew by 54 percent, compared with 32 percent for the state’s coastal metros. Home building was even slower in Los Angeles and San Francisco, where the housing stock grew by only around 20 percent.”

It is a combination of terrible political rules, NIMBYism, reflexive opposition to any change, greed, and pure selfishness that has prevented California from moving this direction. If one of the most liberal and supposedly “environmentally conscious” states in the country isn't willing to embrace a mostly win-win plan for significantly reducing greenhouse gases, what are the chances the rest of the country would embrace proposals that depend on making actual sacrifices?

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The science fiction fashion paradox

A big blockbuster science fiction movie can never accurately predict the fashion of the future.

A movie costume designer could spend years studying every source of data in an attempt to perfectly predict what fashion will be like in 2030, and they could never get it right. That's because fashion designers are often driven by a desire to create something unique and/or something that references previous artistic and fashion trends.

As soon as a movie is widely released, its vision of fashion can no longer be seen as unique. Instead, it would appear old or campy. It can’t been seen as new or modern in 2030 anymore; instead, it would be seen as a vision of what people decades ago thought would be modern. Once a blockbuster costume designer makes a prediction about the direction of fashion, it inherently alters its course.

The only way a big sci fi movie can end up accurately predicting the future of fashion is if the movie is such a cultural phenomena that it ends up creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. We have seen this to a very limited degree with the movie Back to the Future II. Back in 2011, Nike did one limited release of shoes that look just like the shoes Michael J. Fox’s character wore in “2015” for his charity and is planning another release this year. The exception to the rule basically proves the point, though. These shoes aren’t appealing to people because they are seen as modern, they are appealing because they are seen as campy or a special kind of retro.

*Image from Nike press release

Friday, April 3, 2015

Legal Marijuana: regulated like alcohol minus the lobbying power

The buzz phrase in marijuana reform is “regulate it like alcohol,” and to large degree that is basically what is happening in the states that are legalizing it. In Washington State, legal marijuana is even handled by the Washington State Liquor Control Board, and in Oregon it is being regulated by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission. The biggest difference, though, between how legal marijuana and alcohol are going to regulated in the United States in the long-term will come down to the huge disparity in lobbying power.

Contrary to popular opinion, effective corporate lobbying isn’t just throwing piles of money at politicians until they make a corrupt deal. The most effective corporate lobbying is throwing piles of money at politicians, ads, and public campaigns to exploit pre-existing political dynamics to achieve your goals. The alcohol industry has and will always have a dramatically more favorable political position than the marijuana industry.

To understand why, look at this Washington Post article showing the effective tax rate for alcohol and cigarettes over the past several decades. Thanks to inflation, the alcohol tax rate has effectively been steadily shrinking for decades while cigarette taxes have been going up thanks to several tax increases.
The difference in government treatment isn’t really the result of science or logic, since both are responsible for thousands of premature deaths each year. Both also pose a serious public health danger to users and nonusers alike. The source of the difference is political.

Roughly 17.8 percent of American adults smoke cigarettes and they tend to be lower income and less educated than the general public, factors that also tend to correlate with lower voter participation. Increasing taxes on this 18 percent of the public is tough for politicians but clearly doable.

On the other hand, 51.3 percent of Americans are “regular drinkers” and another 12.9 percent are “infrequent drinkers.” Raising taxes on a majority of people is much more politically difficult.

Politicians’ personal connection with the issue is also hugely important. I can’t find any official surveys, but I suspect a majority of federal and local legislators enjoy the occasional drink while only a small minority still smoke tobacco.

Compare this with marijuana use. Depending on which survey you use, only about 12 percent of Americans used marijuana at least once in the past year and probably a bit more than half used it at least once a month. Even if you make a bold prediction that the number will double due to legalization, it would still be only a small fraction of the number of drinkers. In addition, the marijuana user base skews young, which is the age group least likely to vote. Finally, the number of federal or local legislators that currently use marijuana is probably extremely small.
Take it all into consideration, and the political/lobbying power of the marijuana industry is going to be frankly pathetic compared to the alcohol industry. Even though marijuana is objectively less dangerous than alcohol, due to its much weaker political position it will likely end up heavily regulated like how we should treat alcohol, not how we actually treat it.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The incredible freedom of war without boots on the ground

MQ-1 Predator unmanned aircraft

The most significant and disruptive development in foreign policy is going to be the rise of military drones.

Drones of all sizes, styles, and shapes have been steadily taking the place of American service members in the most dangerous military roles. While there will probably be no official moment when we switch to a “robotic army,” we will soon reach a point where that has effectively happened. One thing the military industrial complex is very good at is coming up with new weapons, and no other set of weapons have generated as much interest as drones.

This development won’t simply mean a reduction in American military casualties, but also a radical change in the political and legal dynamics surrounding foreign policy actions.

The biggest political constraint on military action throughout American history has been the massive deployment of troops and news reports of American deaths. It was these two factors which eventually galvanized the nation against the Vietnam war. A mostly robotic military removes these political constraints by keeping American service members out of harm's way. It is simply a fact that the American public doesn’t value the lives of foreigners as much as they do the lives of fellow Americans who may be their friends and family. As we have seen in recent years, even actions that result in significant foreign civilian casualties simply don’t generate the same public backlash as the death of a few Americans.

Perhaps even more significant is the recent precedent set by the Obama administration. President Obama has effectively argued that as long as there are no “boots on the ground,” a military campaign isn’t a “war” and consequently doesn’t require congressional authorization. Imagine the level of freedom this way of thinking will offer presidents in a few decades. At the current rate of technological advancement, in 20 years it might be possible to stage a full scale war and robotic occupation without technically putting a single boot on the ground -- only rubberized treads.

We could be entering an era when the White House’s ability to engage in military campaigns is truly unconstrained. The United States has been accused of acting as the world’s policeman, but our current level of foreign military involvement might eventually seem quaint compared to what we may soon see when our military is mostly automated.  

*By U.S. Air Force photo/Lt Col Leslie Pratt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons