AI may rule the world better than humans, claims Google Research
Sixty years ago, conservative provocateur William F. Buckley wrote, “I would rather be ruled by the first 2,000 people in the phone book than by the faculty of Harvard University.
Buckley was a Yale man, but his tip wasn’t meant to compare Harvard to Yale. He later explained:
No, God knows, because I hold lightly the intelligence or the knowledge or the generosity or even the affability of the Harvard faculty: but because I fear intellectual arrogance very much, and that is a distinguishing characteristic of the university which refuses to accept any common premise.
It may be time to update Buckley’s incendiary remarks: I’d rather be ruled by the first 2,000 people in the phone book, than by a black box algorithm.
It has just been reported that Google researchers have shown that AI will do a better job of ruling America than humans. Such implausible AI hype is almost always misleading and, again, it is. The reality is quite different from the headlines.
Google researchers have set up a simple shuffling game in which competitors shuffle imaginary “coins” among themselves. When the game ends, they vote for the redistribution strategy they prefer. The AI algorithm, dubbed “Democratic AI”, was trained on pre-test data from games in which humans played against each other. Not surprisingly, when the algorithm next played against humans, it chose a strategy that humans liked in the pre-test games.
From there, the headlines scream that America would be better governed by AI than by humans! The well-meaning, but naïve and ultimately dangerous presumption is that the sole function of government is to share the economic pie.
Economists and humanitarian societies have long recognized the need and moral obligation to help those who, through no fault of their own, are struggling to lead a decent life. In 1798, Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) wrote: “It appeared that due to the inevitable laws of our nature, certain human beings must suffer from want. These are the unfortunates who, in the great lottery of life, have drawn a blank. However, it is also true that government policies can affect the size of the economic pie.
Arthur M. Okun was a professor at Yale from 1961 to 1969, although he spent six of those eight years on furlough so that he could work in Washington with the Council of Economic Advisors as an economist, board member, then president. Adviser to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson on their economic policies, he is best known for Okun’s Law. The law states that a 1 percentage point reduction in unemployment will increase U.S. output by about 2%, an argument that helped persuade President Kennedy and Congress that using tax cuts to reduce unemployment 7% to 4% would have a huge economic gain. Not only have the unemployed benefited personally, but the nation’s economic pie has increased dramatically.
In his 1975 book Equality and efficiency: the great compromise, Okun fought against the economic distortions and inefficiencies created by governments that taxed income earners in order to support those less well off. He created the memorable image of a leaky bucket:
Money must be transported from the rich to the poor in a leaky bucket. Some of it will simply disappear in transit, so the poor will not get all the money that is taken from the rich. (p.91)
Resources that could be used elsewhere are devoted to the administration of the transfer system. Both rich and poor have less incentive to work. Decisions made to reduce taxes also reduce the economic pie.
The bottomless bucket is Karl Marx’s utopian creed: “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”. In this idyllic world, everyone works for the good of society, the fruits of their labor being distributed freely — everyone taking what they need, and only what they need. We know how it worked. When the rewards aren’t tied to effort, being a slacker is more appealing than being a hard worker. With more idlers than workers, production is far from sufficient to satisfy everyone’s needs. A common joke in the Soviet Union was, “They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work.”
In addition to helping those who in the great lottery of life have drawn whites, governments should enact a myriad of policies that expand the economic pie, including education, infrastructure, and law enforcement and contracts. Public security, national defense, management of externalities are also important. There are many legitimate government activities and there are inevitably trade-offs. Governing a country is completely different from playing a simple rigged distribution game.
I love computers. I use them every day – not just for word processing, but for mathematical calculations, statistical analysis and Monte Carlo simulations that would literally take me several lifetimes to do by hand. Computers have benefited and entertained all of us. However, AI is far from ready to rule the world because computer algorithms lack the intelligence, wisdom or common sense to make rational decisions.
Hannah Arendt, wrote that “If everyone is still lying to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that no one believes anything anymore.
Exaggerations, untruths, over-promises and under-promises, the fake-until-you-make-it mentality can sell products, generate business, and fund startups, but disillusion is ultimately counterproductive. We’ve been through several AI winters and hopefully another isn’t on the way.
You can also read: Can AI really predict crime a week in advance? This is the claim. Data scientists at the University of Chicago claim 90% accuracy for their algorithm using past data – but it’s hard to gauge. The scary part: Smart, well-meaning people believe that bail, sentencing, and parole decisions should be based on what may well be statistical coincidences.