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Foreign Policy Analysis
A BIG idea, a bot idea — How smart policy will advance tech | Albert Wenger | TEDxNewYork

A BIG idea, a bot idea — How smart policy will advance tech | Albert Wenger | TEDxNewYork

Translator: Lei Shi
Reviewer: Michele Gianella All of our economic theory, all of our business practice, all of our public policy, they were all developed
during an era of scarcity. Scarcity means that when
you want more of something, there is an additional cost to be paid. And that was always true
for physical products, but it is no longer true
for digital information. That extra view
of the funny cat video on YouTube, it basically costs Google nothing. And it is that zero marginal cost
of digital information that is turning everything upside down. It used to be, for instance,
that we would select first, then edit, and then publish. Now we can publish many, many things,
select a few, and edit those. It used to be that people
had to go to investors, raise money, then make a product
and hope that people would buy it. Now you can present your vision
for your product to thousands of people, have them contribute, use the money to make a product
that you know people want. It used to be that people
were very guarded about how something worked. Now we have open-sourced software,
hardware, and even biotech. These are all inversions, things
that are being turned upside down, and they are being turned upside down because the zero marginal cost
of digital information. And we are just at the beginning of these. Traditional big publishers still dominate
music, movies; crowdfunding is tiny; open-sourced biotech is in its infancy. But if you take these trends and
kind of extrapolate them out a little bit, what you’ll get is a kind
of digital abundance. A world in which we can learn anything
we want to online for free. A world in which all
the world’s medical know-how is available to anybody,
anywhere in the world for free. Where you can listen to music,
enjoy art, read books online for free. And we can even see
how, eventually, that digital abundance could help us reduce the amount of physical scarcity. How? For instance, by 3D printing
only products that people actually want. Also by taking existing things
like cars, buildings, lab equipment and sharing them much more efficiently
than we’ve ever been able to do. So this is a world that I am
very, very excited about; but we are not going to get to this world
simply through more technology. We are not going to get to this world
simply through some businesses doing innovative things online. We are also going to need to
invert our public policies. I am going to speak about two examples
of such public policy inversions today. The first is a Basic Income
Guarantee, or “BIG”; and the second is the right
to be represented by a bot. I’ll explain what those two are. And as I talk about them, you may think
these are crazy, far-out ideas. The goal here isn’t to say, “Hey Congress, we need these
as national laws in the US tomorrow.” The goal is simply to say, “These are interesting ideas
that we should be discussing.” And more importantly, we should be
experimenting with them to see whether they have merit. Let me start with the
Basic Income Guarantee. Quite a simple idea. The idea that
the government should pay everybody above a certain age, say 16, some amount
of money every month or week. It is called basic because it is supposed
to cover your basic needs: food, clothing, shelter. It is called guaranteed because
it is supposed to be paid to you no matter what, no matter your gender,
no matter your marital status, no matter your wealth and,
most importantly, no matter what you do. So whether or not you work. And that is the inversion in this idea. The inversion is that it used to be
that you had to work first in order to get paid; under Basic Income Guarantee
you get paid first and then you choose what to work on. It doesn’t do away with
the labor market at all. You can still work in a job
where you get paid more. It simply puts a floor
under everybody’s income. Now you might say,
“Why would we want that?” Well, because it would let us embrace
automation instead of being afraid of it. I have been around computers
for thirty plus years, and for many decades we’ve had
these promises of artificial intelligence. And they have been false promises. But we now actually have
major breakthroughs. And we have machines that can
do many of the things that humans currently do for work
and as a source of income. Let me give you two examples. About four million people in the US make a living driving a truck,
a taxi, or a bus. But we also know
we have self-driving cars now. So it is not a question of “if” any more,
it is just a question of “when” some of these jobs will be
replaced by machines. On the other hand, we have about a million people working
in legal professions. But we now have machines
that can very efficiently read through reams and reams
of legal documents, and even write some of them. Again it is not a question of “if”
anymore; it is just a question of “when.” Now you might say, “Why do we want
to embrace automation?” And the answer is:
Because it gives us time! And time is great in the world
of digital abundance. It is the time you have
to watch TED videos. It is the time you have
to make TED videos. So in a world of digital abundance,
we want people to have time, we want people feel they have the time
and the resources to learn new things, we want people to have
the time and the resources to contribute to those things,
and make them free. And Basic Income Guarantee, BIG,
helps with that in a second way. It helps with that because it creates
a much broader base of people who can participate in crowdfunding. So instead of saying we need
these pay walls around content that keep people out, we can say no, let’s put out free content and then let’s fund it
on Kickstarter, Indiegogo, Patreon, or for science,
or BaconReader for journalism. There are many other benefits
about basic income that I won’t have chance
to really go into detail. For instance, they deal much better
with situations of abuse. Whether it is an abusive employer
or abusive partner, basic income gives you a walkaway
option for many different situations. There are lots of objections too. Before I talk about
some of the objections, let me point out
one more thing, which is, this is not a traditionally left
or right political idea. It is not a traditionally left idea because it says, in order to finance this
you have to do away with programs like food stamps,
means tested programs, and you have to believe
in individual agency. It is also not a traditionally right idea because it wholeheartedly
embraces re-distribution. It says, let’s tax people who make a lot
of money, let’s tax corporations, and then let’s give
this basic income to everyone. And as a VC, I kind of like the fact
that a lot of the political establishment is sort of ignoring
or dismissing this idea. Because what we see in startups is that the most powerful,
innovative ideas are the ones that are truly
dismissed by the incumbents. So what are some of the objections? The first objection that people have is:
We simply can’t afford this. Some of the proposals
that people have floated, like paying people several
thousand dollars every month, in fact do add up to more than the federal and the
state households combined. And we do still want some things
from the State, right? We want federal defense.
We want roads. We want water.
We want broadband. So there are some things that we want
the government to do, The interesting thing though is,
I believe it will take much less money. It’ll take much less money because
we need to take a dynamic view. We don’t need to ask how much money
do you need today. We need to ask how much money
will you need in this world of advanced technology
and of Basic Income Guarantee. When we ask that question,
what we see is that we already live in a world
of technological deflation and the Basic Income Guarantee
will accelerate that. So roughly since the mid-1990’s,
in the US, the cost of consumer durables
has already been declining. The things that have been getting more
expensive are primarily services, and, within that, primarily education
and health care. Now Basic Income Guarantee will
actually help reduce both of those. How? First, because it lets
more people contribute to online free education materials,
to online free healthcare resources. And it also frees people up
to teach and to take care of people. The second objection
that has been raised is that people would simply
take this money and spend it on drugs and alcohol. Now, there is no country
in the world that has this, so we cannot simply
point at another country. But people have done studies,
as far back as the 70’s, and there are ongoing studies today about cash transfers
that are not means-tested. And the World Bank has just published
a review of these studies and what they found
in looking at 19 of them is that there is simply no evidence
that people wind up spending this money on drugs and
alcohol, any more than they do already. The third objection
that’s often raised is: People are lazy,
people are going to stop working. Again the good news is,
these studies show that the so-called income effect
is quite small. People like to do things.
People like to do interesting things. And when people were working less
in traditional jobs, in these studies, what they were largely doing was spending
more time with family and friends, more time teaching their children,
more time taking care of their parents. So the very two things,
as I said, we want more of in order to reduce the cost
of education and cost of healthcare. It also turns out, people working less
is not a bad thing overall. If you reduce the supply of labor,
you lift wages for everyone. Which is also interesting – you might say,
well, why not just raise wages? Why not just have
a higher minimum wage? And I am very sympathetic to that idea. It will definitely help people who
currently have a job. But it does not help at all
with this concept of digital abundance. It does not help people
create free online resources. It doesn’t give you the time
to learn something from these free online resources,
because you have to have this job to just cover your basic needs. Same goes for just trying
to reduce the work hours. So it’s only the Basic Income Guarantee
that addresses this digital abundance, and basically frees us
to participate in it. The second inverted idea
I want to talk about is the idea of the right
to be represented by a bot. A bot is a piece of software
that acts on your behalf. Let me make this more concrete. I went on Facebook the other day, because I remembered
that a couple of years ago I had written something witty
on somebody else’s wall. And I was trying
to remember who it was. Turns out that Facebook
makes this quite difficult. You can’t actually search
your own wall posts. Now, Facebook has all these data,
but for whatever reason, they’ve decided not to
make it easily searchable. I’m not suggesting anything
nefarious here, it’s just how it is. So now imagine for a moment if,
[in] my relationship to Facebook, I was able to use a piece of software. I could now instruct
this piece of software to go through the very
cumbersome steps that Facebook lays up for finding past
wall posts, and do it on my behalf. That would be one thing. The other thing I could have done is,
if I’ve been using this bot all along, the bot could have kept my own archive
of wall posts in my own data store and I could simply instruct it
to search my own archive. Now you may say, well,
that’s a trivial example. But actually it is very foundational. It completely inverts
the power relationship between networks
and their participants. It also inverts
the present legal situation. There are lots of laws,
at the moment, that allow networks to restrict to what degree you can use a bot
to interact with them. They basically can restrict you
to only use the existing application
programming interfaces, or API’s, and say, only these are legitimate and on top of that we can limit
how much you can do. Now to see that this
is a powerful inversion, I want to talk for a moment
about on-demand car services, companies like Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar. If you are a driver today,
they each have a separate app. It makes it very hard
for you as a driver to participate in more
than one network at a time. If you had the right to be
represented by a bot, somebody could write a piece
of software that drivers could run that would allow them
to simultaneously participate in all these marketplaces. And the drivers could then
set their own criteria for which rights
they want to accept. Now clearly those criteria
would include, for instance, what the commission rate is
that the marketplace is charging. And drivers would go for marketplaces
that charge less of a commission. So you can see in this example how the right to be represented
by a bot is quite powerful. It would make it very hard for an Uber,
or a Lyft or any one of these companies to charge too high a commission,
because new networks could come up. A cooperatively owned network, cooperatively owned
by the drivers, for instance, and the drivers could
participate simultaneously in the new network
and the old network. And it’s the very threat of the creation
of these new networks that would substantially reduce
the power of the existing networks. This is important not just for drivers. We are all
freelance workers on Facebook, and on Twitter,
and all these big social networks. Yes, we in part get paid
through free services, free image storage,
free communication tools, but we are also creating value. And it’s not just the distribution
of value that we are worried about. We are also worried about
what these companies do. We are worried about questions
such as censorship. We are worried about questions such as: Are we being manipulated by
what has been shown to us in the fee? And at the moment,
what regulators are doing is, they’re trying to come up
with ad hoc regulations to regulate each and every one
of these aspects. And many of these ad hoc regulations are going to have completely
unintended consequences. And often these consequences
will be bad. Let me just give you
one example. The European Union has said: If you want to have information
on people who live in the EU, you have to keep it
on EU servers. That actually makes it harder for
new networks to get started, not easier. It actually cements the role of the
existing networks instead of saying we need to create opportunities
for competition with existing networks. So, I have presented two ideas for
fundamental inversions in public policy. And you might have a couple
of objections to those. The first one could be:
Let’s just not have any new policy at all. Let’s just have more technology.
We don’t need any policy. And that objection is often motivated by the idea that
whatever policy will come will actually make innovation
harder, not better. It will make it harder to get
to that state of digital abundance that I was talking about. If you look at the history of innovation,
if you take the car for example, that’s always true initially. The early cars
were actually steam engines that people were
running on the street. And the regulators said,
“Whoa, that’s dangerous. You have to have somebody with
a red flag walking in front of it.” And then cars got a little
better, and they said, “Oh yep, still dangerous, it can’t go faster
than a horse-drawn carriage.” So the early regulation was aimed
at slowing down innovation. But ultimately, we only got
the benefit of individual mobility because we embraced public policy. Because public policy said,
Here are the rules of road. And public policy said: Here are roads. We are actually going
to invest in making roads. So we do need public policy. It is just we need the right kind
of public policy. The second overall objection
you might have is: These ideas are just crazy,
how will we know that they can work? We can’t just do this. And the good news here is that
we can run small local experiments. We could in fact right now run
an experiment with 1,000 people, with Basic Income Guarantee,
in a city like Detroit. Detroit has very cheap
housing stock at the moment. There are entire buildings in
downtown Detroit that are empty. So we could run that experiment,
and I think we should. We could run an experiment with the right to be
represented by a bot in a city like New York. New York controls how Lyft, Uber,
Sidecar, all these services, operate. So New York City could say: If you want to operate here,
you have to let drivers interact with your service programmatically. I’m pretty sure, given
how big a market New York City is, these services would agree. So zero marginal cost of digital
information gives us a promise. A promise of digital abundance,
and ultimately physical abundance. Whether or not we can
realize that promise depends on whether we are willing to invert our own thinking away from scarcity thinking
towards abundance thinking. Thank you.

9 comments on “A BIG idea, a bot idea — How smart policy will advance tech | Albert Wenger | TEDxNewYork

  1. This is genius. If you read "The second machine age", the 2 MIT professors spent the entire second half of the book on what to do with people once they (we?) are replaced by machines (or just software), without reaching a clear conclusion. Here it is.

  2. "Belief in individual agency"…??? LOL That is the same delusional logic used by those who support the "free-market" of Capitialism, believing that the "invisible hand of the market" will somehow (magically) efficiently manage society and our finite planetary resources. Not every single person has an ideal set of values, a high level of education, proper critical thinking skills and a perfect moral compass; especially not in our corrupt world of social manipulation and poor educational systems.

    I'm all for a UBI, especially a NLRBE, but not without intelligent design and management. If every is given a UBI, there should be built-in redundant regulations so the money is used primarily for the necessities of life, especially if removing poverty is what we are trying to achieve here. Not malevolent regulations put in place by nefarious corporate organizations; rather, benevolent regulations put in place by a universal understanding of what we the goals are: payment of rent; payment of water, electric and heating utilities for the home; natural and organic foods, whether from grocery stores or farmers markets; quality drinking water; educational costs; water purification products; quality seeds and supplies for home food cultivation; sustainable energy devices such as solar panels and/or wind turbines; etc; etc; etc. Just a rough layout of the train of thought I'm attempting to convey here.

    Please, if interested in the idea of a UBI, I highly recommend people look into pro-social organizations such the Zeitgeist Movement, the Venus Project, Prosocial Progress Foundation, Humanity Plus, Singularity U, Copiosis, Positive Money, Free World Charter, Ubuntu Community, Institute for the Future, etc!

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