Sunday, December 15, 2019

Liberalism's Swan Song? Not Yet But Soon.

Liberalism is not some immutable natural law. It's an ideology, one of many. It didn't come about by accident. It is a creature of circumstance. It has served us fairly well but times change and so do circumstances. Put bluntly, the changes that are setting in may render liberalism outdated, irrelevant. The changes setting in may usher liberalism out the door.

We know that liberal democracy is in decline in places where we once confidently thought it most secure - Britain and the United States - and even more places where it was always a rocky proposition - Hungary, Poland, Brazil, the Philippines, and so on.

Today it seems we choose our leaders according to their ability to push our buttons (paranoia, xenophobia, racism) or whether they can tell us what we want to hear with no commensurate intention of ever following through. Most of us know they're lying but we just shrug our shoulders, hold our noses, and vote for the swine anyway.

Boris Johnson and Donald Trump got elected on a bed of lies but who's to say the next bunch won't be even worse? What is the structural breaking point of liberal democracy? Stay tuned.

But what about liberalism?  As is my practice, I'll rely on the definition from Wiki:
Liberalism is a political and moral philosophy based on liberty, consent of the governed and equality before the law. Liberals espouse a wide array of views depending on their understanding of these principles, but they generally support limited government, individual rights (including civil rights and human rights), capitalism (free markets), democracy, secularism, gender equality, racial equality, internationalism, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of religion.
It's pretty much Age of Enlightenment stuff. It offered an alternative to hereditary privilege, state religion, absolute monarchy and the divine right of kings.

Israeli historian, Yuval Harari, claims liberalism was kick-started when Europe's monarchs sent armies to crush the French Revolution. The French responded with two measures - drafting everybody - men, women, children, the elderly - into service and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. The Revolution held and the individual was transformed into the Citizen.  Harari contends that liberalism took hold and flourished for the next two centuries because it was thought that the individual as citizen perceived a vested interest in the state and therefore became a better soldier in time of war and a more productive worker in time of peace. It all dovetailed nicely with the Industrial Revolution and the rest, as they say, is history.

So, what has changed? The professor argues that the Second Industrial Revolution, the age of artificial intelligence and algorithms, is causing the mass citizenry to lose both military and economic value.
Aside from their unpredictability and their susceptibility to fear, hunger and fatigue, flesh-and-blood soldiers think and move on an increasingly irrelevant timescale. From the days of Nebuchadnezzar to those of Saddam Hussein, despite myriad technological improvements, war was waged on an organic timetable. Discussions lasted for hours, battles took days, and wars dragged on for years. Cyber-wars, however, may last just a few minutes. When a lieutenant on shift at cyber-command notices something odd is going on, she picks up the phone to call her superior, who immediately alerts the White House. Alas, by the time the president reaches for the red handset, the war has already been lost. Within seconds a sufficiently sophisticated cyber strike might shut down the US power grid, wreck US flight control centres, cause numerous industrial accidents in nuclear plants and chemical installations, disrupt the police, army and intelligence communication networks - and wipe out financial records so that trillions of dollars simply vanish without a trace and nobody knows who owns what. The only thing curbing public hysteria is that, with the Internet, television and radio down, people will not be aware of the full magnitude of the disaster.

On a smaller scale, suppose two drones fight each other in the air. One drone cannot open fire without first receiving the go-ahead from a human operator. The other is fully autonomous. Which drone do you think will prevail?

...In the economic sphere too, the ability to hold a hammer or press a button is becoming less valuable than before, which endangers the critical alliance between liberalism and capitalism. In the 20th century, liberals explained that we don't have to choose between ethics and economics. Protecting human rights and liberties was both a moral imperative and a key to economic growth.

...In the 21st century liberalism will have a much harder time selling itself. As the masses lose their economic importance, will the moral argument alone be enough to protect human rights and liberties? Will elites and governments go on valuing every human being even when it pays no economic dividends? ...However we are on the brink of a momentous revolution. Humans are in danger of losing their economic value, because intelligence is decoupling from consciousness.
Harari argues that, whereas intelligence and consciousness once were considered two sides of the same coin, that symbiosis is now being challenged.
We should remind ourselves of the fate of horses during the Industrial Revolution. An ordinary farm horse can smell, love, recognise faces, jump over fences and do a thousand other things far better than a Model T Ford or a million-dollar Lamborghini. But cars nevertheless replaced horses in the handful of tasks that the system really needed.
The author believes that algorithms render most of humanity redundant, obsolete, unnecessary.
Even doctors are fair game for the algorithms. The first and foremost task of most doctors is to diagnose diseases correctly and then suggest the best available treatment. If I arrive at the clinic complaining of fever and diarrhoea, I might be suffering from food poisoning. Then again, the same symptoms might result from a stomach virus, cholera, dysentery, malaria, cancer or some unknown new disease. My physician has only a few minutes to make a correct diagnosis, because that is all the time my health insurance pays for. This allows for no more than a few questions and perhaps a quick medical examination. The doctor then cross-references this meagre information with my medical history, and with the vast world of human maladies. Alas, not even the most diligent doctor can remember all my previous ailments and check-ups. Similarly, no doctor can be familiar with every illness and drug, or read every new article published in every medical journal. To top it all, the doctor is sometimes tired or hungry or perhaps even sick, which affects her judgment. No wonder that doctors sometimes err in their diagnoses or recommend a less-than-optimal treatment.
Harari admits there are a lot of hurdles that still stand in the way of robotic AI displacing human doctors but he notes that these technical problems, however difficult, need only be solved once.

The training of a human doctor is a complicated and expensive process that lasts years. When the process is complete, after a decade of so of studies and internships, all you get is one doctor. If you want two doctors you have to repeat the entire process from scratch. In contrast, if and when you solve the technical problems hampering [AI medicine], you will get not one, but an infinite number of doctors, available 24/7 in every corner of the world. So even if it costs $100 billion to make it work, in the long run it would be much cheaper than training human doctors.

Harari writes of the "useless class," the massive populations that in the coming century, if not sooner, may become superfluous.  In the context of neoliberal economics and its perpetual exponential growth model, the very idea of a useless class seems heretical. They are the essential consumer class and, without ever more of them, endless growth becomes impossible. In the context of a more grounded reality than neoliberalism permits, I think Harari, not the neoliberals, is right.

The very limited and all too finite capacity of our biosphere, Earth, doesn't need eight billion humans or ten or twelve or even three billion. Eventually humanity, if it is to survive, will have no choice but to find means to live in harmony with our environment. That means growing smaller - much, much smaller. The significance of the individual and all the human rights and freedoms that have propelled our growth to such malignant proportions will be degraded.

The author has a theory of a new human. An elite, genetically-modified super human sufficiently advanced to be compatible with a world run by robotics and artificial intelligence. An elite that has no need for democracy or liberalism or, for that matter, the bulk of humanity. I won't get into that, not now. "Homo Deus" read the book. You're bound to find a good many of Harari's arguments very persuasive.


Trailblazer said...

On a smaller scale, suppose two drones fight each other in the air. One drone cannot open fire without first receiving the go-ahead from a human operator. The other is fully autonomous. Which drone do you think will prevail?

What 'if' the engagement is tied in automatically to production of said weapons?
We have near automatic production of goods why not the 'consumables' of war?
AI is a frighteningly possibility.


The Disaffected Lib said...

I'm not quite following your point, TB. Are you raising a scenario in which robotic AI builds, launches and operates armed drones? If so, that's probably not far off.