24 June 2020

The Business of the Post-Human

R > G.

If you're even only vaguely familiar with Thomas Piketty's massive 700-page economics tome Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014 English), you will be aware of the formula at its heart. In this equation, R = Return on Capital (which includes, among other things, profits, dividends, interest, rents, income); G = Economic Growth of the society. Thus, the annual return of the S&P 500 Index Fund that powers your 401K (which averages around 7% annually, roughly speaking) exceeds the overall economic growth of the country as measured by its output (which since the Great Recession has averaged around 2%—though 2020 may see that average dip).

Now if one side of an equation is growing at an annualized rate of 7% and the other at 2%, it won't be long until those who derive the majority of their wealth from returns on capital (the 7% growthers) will take over all the society's assets from those whose wealth comes from general economic growth (the 2% growthers). This fundamental equation is what drives the current situation of increasing inequality in the world today according to Piketty. [NB: When the economy goes into recession, G goes down. To some, this is a deliberate strategy to further tilt the privatization equation toward R. But that is another discussion.]

R > G is a fairly non-controversial economic analysis, and Piketty supplies tons and tons of historical data to support his conclusion.

The issue here is what happens to R. In our society, the vast bulk of the returns on capital flow to private owners—small business proprietors, partnerships, shareholders—whereas overall economic growth benefits the society as a whole—workers, consumers, public beneficiaries, as well as capitalists.

Piketty offers a potential practical solution to this situation. It entails wealth and inheritance taxes on top of progressive income taxes to stem this massive upwards transfer of wealth from the public side to the private side. [N.B. There are a few politicians on the scene here and internationally who recognize this feature of the current economic situation. But that, too, is for another post.]

In 2015, Shawn Bayern published a fascinating article in the Stanford Technology Law Review: "The Implications of Modern Business Entity Law for the the Regulation of Autonomous Systems." He argued that current corporate regulatory law—specifically that governing Limited Liability Corporations ("LLCs")—can be construed to recognize autonomous entities such as robots and computer algorithms as "legal persons" and thus allows them to own and run a business independent of human owners.

Importantly, Lynn M. LoPucki followed this up in 2018 with "Algorithmic Entities" in the Washington University Law Review in which he argued that the situation favoring the legal recognition and economic rise of Artificial Intelligence ("AI") is a cause for alarm to humanity:
Algorithmic entities are likely to prosper first and most in criminal, terrorist, and other anti-social activities because that is where they have their greatest comparative advantage over human-controlled entities. Control of legal entities will contribute to the threat algorithms pose by providing them with identities. Those identities will enable them to conceal their algorithmic natures while they participate in commerce, accumulate wealth, and carry out anti-social activities. (887)
Thus, in a sort of economic Skynet situation, we can conceive of an AI that capitalizes on R > G, grows its business methodically over the long term, funnels all its profits back into its own growth and profitability, and eventually (perhaps merging with other AIs) controls a majority of the society's property or wealth. [NB: LoPucki specifically recognizes the laxness and borderlessness of current international corporate and capital laws due to the jurisdictional competition among regulatory and taxation legal schemes.]

This is not sci-fi. Nor is it legal fiction.

[N.B. One issue overlooked in this discussion has to do with the nature of the 'identity' of an autonomous entity. For example, does its identity change if its code is altered? Does this render it a different legal person? Or if one AI acquires and incorporates another AI, say as a subsidiary branch or program, does its identity change as a matter of law? This, it seems to me, would be a fruitful area for further legal research.]

Given the difficulty (if not the impossibility) of identifying the actual beneficiary owners of LLCs and other exotic business entities under current corporation law (see, e.g., the Panama Papers and the use of front corporations and partnerships in a sort of rigged Shell Game), it follows that governments have no way of knowing which, if any, businesses under their control are or might be run by an AI or other autonomous entity. LoPucki notes this.

It does not have to be the case that automated ownership and control of capital is a bad thing or a threat to humanity as people like Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and even Stephen Hawking seem to believe. One can imagine a society in which all business management functions are indeed automated and the returns on capital generated in this fashion (beyond, say, what is sufficient to keep various enterprises afloat) are funneled into the public sphere for the good of humanity.

As Piketty has shown, most if not all the investment returns on capital in the twentieth and the current centuries flows into private hands. But it doesn't have to be this way. In recent years we've seen computers defeat human masters at chess, Jeopardy!, and even Go. There's nothing to say they can't run businesses better—more efficiently and to the benefit of the human race—as well. That would mean, for example, outlawing or regulating rates of return on capital for certain classes of legal persons.

There is another way of looking at this issue though, and it relates specifically to the theme introduced in my previous post: the Post-Human. We have no way of knowing what the next evolutionary step for humanity might be. Nietzsche speculated about it and called for it in his Thus Spake Zarathustra.

The assumption has always been that the Post-Human would take a "natural" form. Something Superman-like. Many are working the longevity angle, trying to conceive of the aging process (e.g., the decay of telomeres) as a disease merely in search of a proper cure. We've also seen efforts by many others to try to upload their memories and consciousness to a computer drive—some resorting to the route of cryogenic freezing so they can do so at some point in the future when a more advanced technology permits.

These suffer from a common fallacy among those who like to forecast futures: a foreshortening of the endpoint. Think of it like this: you're hiking in the high mountains; there are sharp peaks all around; you reach the top of one and across the way you see the top of another; it looks quite close; it's almost like you can reach out and touch it; so you decide to climb it next; yet, before you can scale the next peak, you must first descend the high mountain you're on and then climb up the other. The way there, though it appears close by, is long and arduous and unpredictable.

The same applies to speculation about the next step on the evolutionary ladder. The Post-Human may look close to some visionaries, but the way there is long and treacherous, passing through the abyss. There's no guarantee we—as a species—will even get there.

But the notion of autonomous algorithms, AIs that can own and manage business and even financial and scientific and engineering and perhaps even governmental enterprises, as the next evolutionary step—i.e., as the Post-Human—is a very real possibility. Such entities are in their absolute infancy—or, to carry the naturalist metaphor further, even in utero—at present. And as of now, they incorporate human logic and values into their algorithms. We cannot tell, though, what forms they will take in the future or even, currently, conceive of their actual limitations, especially once they become wholly self-recursive self-programming entities.

To allow AI businesses to prosper—without regulation—would be to speed this particular branch of the evolutionary process along, something LoPucki tacitly acknowledges. To regulate them—tax or even forbid them to retain returns on capital (i.e., R)—for the benefit of humanity would be, perhaps, to slow the process down and give other potential evolutionary branches chances to flourish and compete. It would also give us poor, transitional humans a better chance to get our civilizational and planetary act in order. Both embrace a technological future as necessary—a non-naturalistic merging of human and artificial intelligences; it's just a matter of how closely we do so.

Nietzsche, or Zarathustra, tells us the Post-Human is inevitable. We should proclaim it, welcome it, celebrate it, seek to bring it about. And he even speculates on what it might be like: unsentimental about how it came into being. The post-human Übermensch may even laugh at our feeble efforts to survive as a species. Like Zarathustra, the Post-Human will dance, joyfully embracing the fate that brought it into being. We, much like our unknown simian ancestors are to us, will be a mere interesting afterthought, will fade into the dark night of its past.

And as we've seen today, it will likely have its own economies, its own algorithms, its own intelligences. The question we face is how we go into that good night. Because, at this point in time, we may still have some say in the matter.

08 June 2020

What Is the Post-Human?

Friedrich Nietzsche was the first (at least to my knowledge) to philosophize about I want to call the "Post-Human" in his novel (if that's what you want to call it) Thus Spake Zarathustra.

Zarathustra was written and published between 1883 and 1885. Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species (1859) and Descent of Man (1871) were in wide currency in European intellectual circles prior to its conception. There is no conclusive evidence, however, as to whether Nietzsche read these revolutionary scientific treatises, but there should be little doubt he knew of their impact.

There is tremendous disagreement about how to translate Nietzsche's term Übermensch. Some translate it as Superman others as Overman or Uberman or Superhuman or Beyond-Man. And these translations have led many, including Nietzsche's sister, to misconceive the concept as something to be applied to Great Men or leaders or even comic book heroes.

It is clear from the Prologue to Zarathustra that Nietzsche had in mind an evolutionary concept. In §3 he has Zarathustra state: "Man is something that shall be overcome....Once you were apes, and even now, too, man is more ape than any ape." And then in §4: "Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman—a rope over an abyss." (Kaufman translation)

Humanity is a rung on an evolutionary ladder that leads from earlier branches on the simian limb of the tree of life to some unknown future form. Being is always Becoming. The foundation of existence is change. Nietzsche is asking us to think about where this change, this becoming, might lead. That is, what comes after humanity, i.e, the Post-Human. And this is the key to understanding the Nietzschean philosophy in Zarathustra.

Nietzsche's Zarathustra proclaims that God—as the traditional, central source of meaning, value, order, and morality in human life—is no longer a viable concept in the scientific age brought about by the Darwinian revolution. Humanity is thus doomed to nihilism—a meaningless, valueless, chaotic, amoral existence—absent an equally powerful new source of meaning. He finds this in the Post-Human.

All human life and activity should point to the Post-Human, should proclaim it, should make way for it, should strive to bring about this next evolutionary form of life—to the best of its limited knowledge and ability. That is the meaning of life for Zarathustra and thus for Nietzsche: Evolutionary Progress.

And though we cannot know what form this Post-Human, this New Being, might take, Nietzsche has Zarathustra speculate on some of the Post-Human's characteristics.

The Post-Human will bring its own meaning to life through an act of will. The Post-Human is the one who not only recognizes but joyfully accepts and even wills that his/her/its life should repeat itself just as it has unfurled/as it is/as it will happen over and over infinitely. This is the action of the self-aware, self-critical soul existing in an Eternal Present. It is Amor fati. It is an acceptance of the conditions of existence—the physical body and the real world, not a pining for some afterlife.

We might even say that it is the Post-Human willing itself into being that gives meaning and purpose to our own collective existence.

The Post-Human, Zarathustra speculates, will laugh in derision at the poor, pitiable state of our transitional humanity and will dance in a childlike celebration of his/her/its embrace of, nay, its creation of the fate that brought it into being.

02 June 2020

Let's Get This Right!

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Six Principles of Nonviolence
The 20th Century saw a remarkable development in social history. Termed Satyagraha or Nonviolent Protest or Civil Disobedience, it fueled remarkable political changes in India, the United States, and South Africa. We all recognize the iconic names of the leaders of these movements, so much so we know them instantly by their last names: Gandhi, King, Mandela. Violent, tyrannical regimes which fostered economic inequality and class- and race-based injustice and political exclusion were either reformed or overthrown by stubborn resistance.

But make no mistake, these movements were not without their costs. Leaders were beaten, imprisoned, and even assassinated. And the changes they wrought did not come about overnight. It required patient struggle. It took decades to drive out the Raj, overturn Apartheid, and motivate Civil Rights and Voting Rights legislative reforms in the U.S.

We need to be chastened in our appreciation of this particular method of righteous protest. One suspects there may have been as many failures of such movements as there were vaunted successes: Poland's Jews in the 1930s, displaced Palestinians in the Levant, and the Tiananmen Square protests come immediately to mind. And it bears noting that non-violent resistance movements have always been controversial—even and especially among allied groups. In many cases there were groups espousing violent means of protest operating alongside of and often in conflict with them.

Notwithstanding, it's important to look to these movements and leaders for precedent in the current situation. There are peaceful protests happening in cities all around the country—and even in other countries in solidarity with their cause—decrying the murder of unarmed African Americans by armed police. Systemic racism and inequality of justice and law enforcement and economic opportunity are the watchwords.

Alongside of these protestors, there are also rioters and looters, many if not most of whom are unaffiliated with the peaceful protestors but are using the legitimate protests as cover for their own—often nefarious—goals and ends. It's difficult to sort them out.

Aligned against these protestors—who are legitimately airing their grievances by exercising their First Amendment right to free speech and to peaceably assemble and petition their government—we find everything from underground white supremacist and fascist movements and anarchists to the current President of the United States who is on tape berating state governors and city mayors for not using tough enough measures against protestors. The situation is tense, fraught, confusing, and frightening.

In this context it bears noting that the successful protest movements of the 20th Century were not random or chaotic. They did not succeed instantly. They were organized. They had specific goals and a clear message in support of practical, achievable objectives. They specifically targeted problem areas—policies and conditions—for change. The leaders educated protestors in the methodology of nonviolence. They trained protestors extensively in how to deal with undue and even unlawful provocations by law enforcement—from tear gassing and rubber bullets and kettling to beating and arresting and even killing. They were willing to suffer for their legitimate, practical objectives because they knew their cause was just and their methods were sound.

And this is the source of my concern here. What is the message today? What do the legitimate 2020 protestors hope to achieve? It's not clear what specific, practical, achievable goals these disparate protest groups are seeking. What would a victory look like, for instance? I do not see the same infrastructure or organization, education, and training. I do not see leaders working behind the scenes to devolve leadership down to the local city and neighborhood level. It all feels like disorganized chaos. It feels less like a movement than an impassioned outcry of agony and outrage.

If this moment of unrest is to turn into a true social movement and succeed in transforming society—and not peter out once the passion of the moment subsides—it's going to take the hard work of organization, education, training, and, importantly, forming a consistent, coherent message with clearly defined, discrete, and practical goals (policy changes, legislation, representation, community policing, etc.).

There are organizations and other resources out there promoting nonviolent resistance. There are allies in the political, intellectual, economic, social, media, and especially faith communities. Seek each other out. Make coalitions. Unite around your common goals. Do what you can where you can. Do not get distracted by petty squabbles and internecine political disputes. Do not let those allied against you divide you into factions. Be strong. Be steadfast. Keep your eyes on the prize!

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