Tuesday, September 17, 2013

What I've Been Reading

Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation Hardcover by Tyler Cowen. I have lost count how much I have learned from Tyler ; he has been one of my most important virtual gurus. So when his new book comes out, it's a quite celebration. Like all of his writings, this book also has full of surprising insights.

Likely Winners of the New Machine Age:
  • Humans with strong math and analytic skills, humans who are comfortable working with computers because they understand their operation, and humans who intuitively grasp how computers can be used for marketing and for other non-techie tasks. It’s not just about programming skills; it is also often about developing the hardware connected with software, understanding what kind of internet ads connect with their human viewers, or understanding what shape and color makes an iPhone attractive in a given market. Computer nerds will indeed do well, but not everyone will have to become a computer nerd.
  • The ability to mix technical knowledge with solving real-world problems is the key, not sheer number-crunching or programming for its own sake. Number-crunching skills will be turned over to the machines sooner or later.
  • Despite all the talk about STEM fields, I see marketing as the seminal sector for our future economy.
  • It sounds a little silly, but making high earners feel better in just about every part of their lives will be a major source of job growth in the future. At some point it is hard to sell more physical stuff to high earners, yet there is usually just a bit more room to make them feel better. Better about the world. Better about themselves. Better about what they have achieved.
  • Labor markets are tough, and not always fair, but intelligence will be rewarded for a long time to come. So will the right skills in STEM fields, finance, management, and marketing, all of which meld together the strengths of diverse intelligences, whether those intelligences are human or not.
  • In any case, rather than converging, man and machine are likely to become more different in some ways, including cognitively. Most of this book is about the evolution of the machines, but people will change too. I’m not talking about longer-run changes in the genetic code, but rather more simple changes in how we live our lives and which skills we decide to acquire or not. To put it bluntly, we are outsourcing some parts of our brain to mechanical devices and indeed we have been doing that for millennia, whether it be to writing implements, books, the abacus, or a modern supercomputer. In response to all of these developments we have focused more on the skills that the machines can’t bring us.
  • Personal qualities of character such as self-motivation and conscientiousness will reap a lot of gains in the new world to come. We can already see this in the numbers. The individuals falling out of the middle class are more likely to be divorced, to have low levels of formal education, to have low test scores, and to have a history of drug use.
On Human-Machine pairs and Freestyle chess:
  • The top games of Freestyle chess probably are the greatest heights chess has reached, though who actually is to judge? The human– machine pair is better than any human— or any machine— can readily evaluate. No search engine will recognize the paired efforts as being the best available, because the paired strategies are deeper than what the machine alone can properly evaluate.
Our innate limitations:
  • At the cognitive level, this unexpected depth is also a disturbing result. It shows that we humans— even at the highest levels of intellect and competition— like to oversimplify matters. We boil things down to our “intuitions” too much. We like pat answers and we take too much care to avoid intellectual chaos. Even if you don’t think those flaws apply to everybody, they seem to apply to some of the most intelligent and analytic people in the human race, especially good chess players. 
  • What does all this mean for our decisions. especially in the workplace? - 
    Human– computer teams are the best teams, 
    The person working the smart machine doesn’t have to be expert in the task at hand, Below some critical level of skill, adding a man to the machine will make the team less effective than the machine working alone and Knowing one’s own limits is more important than it used to be.
Advantages of Machine Age:
  • In our pursuit of romance and long-term partnership we humans tend to avoid unfamiliar complications. We often celebrate our commonalities and avoid the complications that come from dwelling on our differences. This is one place machine intelligence can help. Machines have no fear of the unfamiliar.
A Simple Fact:
  • One theme of this book is that the advances of genius machines come in an uneven and staggered fashion. Just as Cox will get easier to deal with, intelligent machines, and the costs of coping with them, will become more prominent in other areas, such as our cars or our home appliances. For the foreseeable future, you’ll always have to be learning something, reprogramming something, downloading new software, and pushing some buttons, all to have the sometimes dubious privilege of working with these new technological wonders.

Future of US Politics:
  • In the wake of Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party movement, and growing income inequality, a lot of commentators are predicting an America torn by protest and maybe political violence. I do think we’ll see some outbursts of trouble, but the longer-run picture will be fairly calm and indeed downright orderly. I expect a society that will be more conservative, both politically and in the more literal sense of that term. For all the prognostications about the American future, the most important single fact, and the easiest to predict, is simply that we will be a lot older. That will make us more conservative, in this case referring to the literal rather than political sense of that term. Revolutions and protests are the endeavors of young hotheads, not sage (or tired) sixty-four-year-olds. The societies with lots of unmarried young men are the most vulnerable to sudden revolutions and major political changes. Large parts of the Arab world fit this designation, and thus we have seen the Arab Spring, but we Americans are moving along a different path.
  • Whatever you may think of this future from your 2013 vantage point, people will look around and still see that America is one of the nicest places in the world. That’s hardly a recipe for revolutionary fervor.
  • My skepticism toward these hypotheses of disorder is not just driven by my recognition of the general aging of the population or the falling crime rates. There are many other historical periods, including medieval times, where inequality is high, upward mobility is fairly low, and the social order is fairly stable, even if we as moderns find some aspects of that order objectionable.
  • The American polity is unlikely to collapse, but we’ll all look back on the immediate postwar era as a very special time. Our future will bring more wealthy people than ever before, but also more poor people, including people who do not always have access to basic public services. Rather than balancing our budget with higher taxes or lower benefits, we will allow the real wages of many workers to fall and thus we will allow the creation of a new underclass. We won’t really see how we could stop that. Yet it will be an oddly peaceful time, with the general aging of American society and the proliferation of many sources of cheap fun. We might even look ahead to a time when the cheap or free fun is so plentiful that it will feel a bit like Karl Marx’s communist utopia, albeit brought on by capitalism.

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