"In Europa ci sono già i presupposti per l'esplosione di un conflitto sociale. Questo è il seme del malcontento, dell'egoismo e della disperazione che la classe politica e la classe dirigente hanno sparso. Questo è terreno fertile per la xenofobia, la violenza, il terrorismo interno, il successo del populismo e dell'estremismo politico."

giovedì 17 agosto 2017

Artificial Intelligenece posti di lavoro: tra ottimismo e illusione (parte II)

Secrets of Silicon Valley — A two-part documentary by Jamie Bartlett (part 2: The Persuasion Machine)

Medium.com, Mark Storm, Aug 17, 2017 · 14 min read
In Secrets of Silicon Valley, a two-part documentary series for the BBC, tech writer Jamie Bartlett tries to uncover the dark reality behind Silicon Valley’s glittering promise to build a better world.
In The Persuasion Machine, the second part of Secrets of Silicon Valley, Jamie Bartlett tells the story of how Silicon Valley’s mission to connect all of us is plunging us into a world of political turbulence that no-one can control.
Like Y Combinator’s President Sam Altman in last week’s episode, Alexander Nix, CEO of Cambridge Analytica, seems to have a similar unshakeable faith in the inevatibility of the future: “It’s going to be a revolution, and that is the way the world is moving. And, you know, I think, whether you like it or not, it is an inevitable fact.” In an ‘Etonesque’ way he repeats what Altman said last week: “I think if you continue this thrust of, shouldn’t we stop progress, no-one’s going to take you seriously […].”
Both episodes are available on BBC iPlayer. My ‘transcript’ of part 1, The Disruptors, can be found here.

Secrets of Silicon Valley (part 2) — The Persuasion Machine
“The tech gods believe the election of Donald Trump threatens their vision of a globalised world. But in a cruel twist, is it possible their mission to connect the world actually helped Trump to power?,” Jamie Bartlett wonders in part two of Secrets of Silicon ValleyThe Persuasion Machine.
To answer that question, you need to understand how Silicon Valley’s tech industry rose to power. And for that, you have to go back 20 years to a time when the online world was still in its infancy. A time when people feared the new internet was like the Wild West, anarchic and potentially harmful.
The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was designed to civilise the internet, including protecting children from pornography. But hidden within the act, was a secret whose impact no-one foresaw, Bartlett tells us. Section 230 as it is known, says, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” It holds the key to the internet’s freedom and has been an enabler for Silicon Valley’s accelerated growth.
Jeremy Malcolm, an analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group for the digital age, believes that without Section 230, “We probably wouldn’t have the same kind of social media companies that we have today. They wouldn’t be willing to take on the risk of having so much unfettered discussion.”
Section 230 “allowed a new kind of business to spring up — online platforms that became the internet giants of today,” Bartlett tells. “Facebook, Google, YouTube […] encouraged users to upload content, often things about their lives or moments that mattered to them, onto their sites for free. And in exchange, they got to hoard all of that data but without a real responsibility for the effects of the content that people were posting. […] At first, the tech firms couldn’t figure out how to turn that data into big money.”
But that changed when a secret within that data was unlocked. Allowing Facebook users to be targeted using data about what they do on the rest of the internet, opened up vast profits and has propelled Silicon Valley to the pinnacle of the global economy. “The secret of targeting us with adverts is keeping us online for as long as possible. […] Our time is the Holy Grail of Silicon Valley,” Bartlett tells us. So what is it that is keeping us hooked to Silicon Valley’s global network?
Bartlett is off to Seattle to meet Nathan Myhrvold, who saw first-hand how the tech industry embraced new psychological insights into how we all make decisions. A decade ago, Myhrvold “brought together Daniel Kahneman, the pioneer of the new science of behavioural economics [and author Thinking Fast and Slow], and Silicon Valley’s leaders for a series of meetings.”
“A lot of advertising is about trying to hook people in these type-one things to get interested one way or the other,” Myhrvold explains. “You’re putting a set of triggers out there that make me want to click on it.” He adds, “Tech companies both try to understand our behaviour by having smart humans think about it and increasingly also having machines think about it.”
Of course, trying to grab the consumer’s attention is nothing new. It is essentially what advertising is all about. But insights into how we make decisions have helped Silicon Valley to shape the online world. And little wonder, their success depends on keeping us engaged.
As Silicon Valley became more influential, it also started to attract powerful friends in politics, starting with Barack Obama, who was regarded by people in Silicon Valley as a kindred spirit. Just like them, Obama believed that “we can solve problems if we would work together and take advantage of these new capabilities that are coming online,” tells Aneesh Chopra, Obama’s first Chief Technology Officer. And by the time he won his second term, Obama was was feted for his mastery of social media’s persuasive power.
“Facebook’s mission to connect the world went hand-in-hand with Obama’s policies promoting globalisation and free markets. And Facebook was seen to be improving the political process itself,” according to Bartlett. “But across the political spectrum, the race to find new ways to gain a digital edge was on. The world was about to change for Facebook.”
“That data-driven decisionmaking played a huge role in creating a second term for the 44th President and will be one of the more closely studied elements of the 2012 cycle. It’s another sign that the role of the campaign pros in Washington who make decisions on hunches and experience is rapidly dwindling, being replaced by the work of quants and computer coders who can crack massive data sets for insight. As one official put it, the time of ‘guys sitting in a back room smoking cigars, saying We always buy 60 Minutes’ is over. In politics, the era of big data has arrived.” — Michael Sherer in How Obama’s data crunchers helped him win
He subsequently takes us to the heart of Silicon Valley, Stanford University, where he meets Michal Kosinski, a psychologist specialised in psychometrics (the science of predicting psychological traits, such as personality) who is investigating just how revealing Facebook’s hoard of information about each of us could really be.
Kosinski explains how you can measure psychological traits using the digital footprints we leave behind on the internet. “An algorithm that can look at millions of people and […] hundreds of thousands […] of your likes can extract and utilise even those little pieces of information and combine it to a very accurate profile,” he tells Bartlett. “It can also use your digital footprint and turn it into a very accurate prediction of your intimate traits, like religiosity, political views, personality, intelligence, sexual orientation and a bunch of other psychological traits.”
This algorithm can also predict people’s political persuasions. People who score high on ‘openness to experience’ tend to be liberal; those who score low, more conservative. If you would then use another algorithm to adjust the messages those people will receive, this “obviously gives you a lot of power,” according to Kowinski.
It’s powerful way of understanding people, but Bartlett “can’t help fearing that there is that potential, whoever has that power, whoever can control that model will have sort of unprecedented possibilities of manipulating what people think, how they behave, what they see, whether that’s selling things to people or how people vote, and that’s pretty scary too.”
Next, Bartlett tries to uncover how the expertise of Cambridge Analytica in personality prediction played a part in Donald Trump’s presidential win, and how his campaign exploited Silicon Valley’s social networks. In San Antonio, Texas, he meets Theresa Hong, Trump’s former Digital Content Director, to get an understanding of what they actually did — “who they were working with, who was helping them, what techniques they used.”
“Cambridge Analytica were using data on around 220 million Americans to target potential donors and voters. Armed with Cambridge Analytica’s revolutionary insights, the next step in the battle to win over millions of Americans was to shape the online messages they would see. Adverts were tailored to particular audiences, defined by data. Now the voters Cambridge Analytica had targeted, were bombarded with adverts” delivered through Silicon Valley’s vast social networks, Bartlett tells us.
People from Facebook, YouTube and Google, who were working alongside Donald Trump’s digital campaign team, were “basically our kind of hands-on partners as far as being able to utilise the platform as effectively as possible,” Hong tells Bartlett. “When you’re pumping in millions and millions of dollars in these social platforms [The Trump campaign spent the lion share of its advertising budget, around 85 million, on Facebook], you’re going to get white-glove treatment, so they would send people […] to ensure that all our needs were being met.” Adding, “Without Facebook, we wouldn’t have won. I mean, Facebook really and truly put us over the edge. Facebook was the medium that proves most successful for this campaign.”
Trump’s digital strategy was built on Facebook’s effectiveness as advertising medium. “It’s become a powerful political tool that’s largely unregulated.” Facebook didn’t want to meet him but “made it clear that, like all advertisers on Facebook, also political campaigns must ensure their ads comply with all applicable laws and regulations,” Bartlett tells us. “The company also said that no personally identifiable information can be shared with advertising, measurement or analytics partners unless people give permission.”
Off to London, where Bartlett meets Alexander Nix, Cambridge Analytica’s CEO, to find out how the company used psychographics to target voters for the Trump campaign.
When he asks Nix if he can understand why some people might find using big data and psychographics “a little bit creepy,” Nix replies, “No, I can’t. Quite possibly the opposite. I think the move away from blanket advertising towards ever more personalised communication, is a natural progression. I think it is only going to increase.” People should “understand the reciprocity that is going on here — you get points [in case of a supermarket loyalty card], and in return, they gather your data on your consumer behaviour.”
But Bartlett wonders whether shopping or politics are really the same thing.
“The technology is the same,” according to Nix. “In the next ten years, the sheer volumes of data that are going to be available, that are going to be driving all sorts of things, including marketing and communications, is going to be a paradigm shift from where we are now. It’s going to be a revolution, and that is the way the world is moving. And, you know, I think, whether you like it or not, it is an inevitable fact.”
“Cambridge Analytica’s rise has rattled some of President Trump’s critics and privacy advocates, who warn of a blizzard of high-tech, Facebook-optimized propaganda aimed at the American public, controlled by the people behind the alt-right hub Breitbart News. Cambridge is principally owned by the billionaire Robert Mercer, a Trump backer and investor in Breitbart. Stephen K. Bannon, the former Breitbart chairman who is Mr. Trump’s senior White House counselor, served until last summer as vice president of Cambridge’s board. But a dozen Republican consultants and former Trump campaign aides, along with current and former Cambridge employees, say the company’s ability to exploit personality profiles — ‘our secret sauce,’ Mr. Nix once called it — is exaggerated.” — Nicholas Confessore and Danny Hakim in Data Firm Says ‘Secret Sauce’ Aided Trump; Many Scoff
“The election of Donald Trump was greeted with barely concealed fury in Silicon Valley. But Facebook and other tech companies had made millions of dollars by helping to make it happen. Their power as advertising platforms had been exploited by a politician with a very different view of the world. But Facebook’s problems were only just beginning. Another phenomenon of the election was plunging the tech titan into crisis,” says Bartlett.
“Fake news had provoked a storm of criticism over Facebook’s impact on democracy. [Mark Zuckerberg], claimed it was extremely unlikely fake new had changed the election’s outcome. But he didn’t address why it had spread like wildfire across the platform. Meet Jeff Hancock, a psychologist who has investigated a hidden aspect of Facebook that helps explain how the platform became weaponised in this way. It turns out the power of Facebook to affect our emotions is key, something that had been uncovered in an experiment the company itself had run in 2012. The news feeds of nearly 700,000 users were secretly manipulated so they would see fewer positive of negative posts.”
Hancock, who helped interpret these results, found that people who were seeing less negative emotion words in their posts, would write with less negative and more positive emotion in their own posts, and vice versa. “This is consistent with the emotional contagion theory,” he adds. “Basically, we were showing that people were writing in a way that was matching the emotion that they were seeing in the Facebook news feed.” Furthermore, “The more intense the emotion in content, the more likely it is to spread, to go viral. And it doesn’t matter whether it is sad or happy, like negative or positive, the more important thing is how intense the emotion is.”
“The process of emotional contagion helps explain why fake news has spread so far across social media,” Bartlett tell us. The problem with social networks however, is that all information is treated equally. “[Y]ou have good, honest, accurate information sitting alongside and treated equally to lies and propaganda. And the difficulty for citizens is that it can be very hard to tell the difference between the two,” as also Barack Obama pointed out during a press conference with Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel.
“In an age where there is so much active misinformation, and it’s packaged very well, and it looks the same when you see it on a Facebook page or you turn on your television, if everything seems to be the same and no distinctions are made, the we won’t know what to protect. We won’t know what to fight for.” — Barack Obama
But data scientist Simon Hegelich has discovered an even darker side to the way Facebook is being manipulated. Hegelich has found evidence the debate about refugees on Facebook is being skewed by anonymous political forces. “One statistic among many used by Facebook to rank stories in your news feed is the number of likes they get.” In the example Hegelich gives, only a handful of people, 25 to be precise, each liked more than 30,000 comments over six months. These hyperactive accounts could be run by real people, or software.
“This is evidence that the number of likes on Facebook can be easily gamed as part of an effort to try to influence the prominence of anti-refugee content on the site,” says Bartlett.
When asked if this worries him, Hegelich answers, “It’s definitely changing [the] structure of public opinion. Democracy is built on public opinion, so such a change definitely has to change the way democracy works.”
According to Facebook, “they are working to disrupt the economic incentives behind false news, removing tens of thousands of fake accounts, and building new products to identify and limit the spread of false news.” But it is still trying to hold the line, based on Section 230, that it isn’t a publisher.
“Facebook now connects more than two billion people around the world, including more and more voters in the West,” Bartlett tells us. “In less than a decade, it has become a platform that has dramatic implications for how our democracy works.”
“Old structures of power are falling away. Social media is giving ordinary people access to huge audiences. And politics is changing as a result” across the entire spectrum as shown by The Canary, an online political news outlet that supported Labour candidate Jeremy Corbyn during the 2017 elections. “During the campaign, their stories got more than 25 million hits on a tiny budget.” About 80 percent of its readership comes through Facebook, says Kerry-Anne Mendoza, The Canary’s Editor in Chief.
Using emotions, its presentation of its pro-Corbyn news is tailored to social media. “We’re trying to have a conversation with a lot of people, so it is on us to be compelling,” Mendoza tells. “Human beings work on facts, but they also work on gut-instincts. They work on emotions, feelings and fidelity and community. All of these issues.” When Bartlett points out that The Canary’s headlines are very “clickbait-y,” she says, “Of course [the headlines] are there to get clicks. We don’t want to have a conversation with ten people. You can’t change the world talking to ten people.”
Bartlett’s finishing words to an unraveling series …
“The tech gods are giving all of us the power to influence the world. Social media’s unparalleled power to persuade, first developed for advertisers, is now being exploited by political forces of all kinds. Grassroots movements are regaining their power, challenging political elites. Extremists are discovering new ways to stoke hatred and spread lies. And wealthy political parties are developing the ability to manipulate our thoughts and feelings using powerful psychological tools, which is leading to a world of unexpected political opportunity and turbulence.
I think the people that connected the world really believed that somehow, just by us being connected, our politics would be better. But the world is changing in ways that they never imagined and they are probably not happy about anymore. But in truth, they are no more in charge of this technology than any of us are now.
Silicon Valley’s philosophy is called disruption. Breaking down the way we do things and using technology to improve the world. In this series, I have seen how sharing platforms like Uber and Airbnb are transforming our cities. And how automation and artificial intelligence threaten to destroy millions of jobs. Now, the technology to connect the world unleashed by a few billionaire entrepreneurs is having a dramatic influence on our politics.
The people who are responsible for building this technology, for unleashing this disruption onto all of us, don’t ever feel like they are responsible for the consequences of any of that. They retain this absolute religious faith that technology and connectivity is always going to make things turn out for the best. And it doesn’t matter what happens, it doesn’t matter how much that’s proven not to be the case, they still believe.”

“In the next ten years, the sheer volumes of data that are going to be available, that are going to be driving all sorts of things, including marketing and communications, is going to be a paradigm shift from where we are now. It’s going to be a revolution, and that is the way the world is moving. And, you know, I think, whether you like it or not, it is an inevitable fact.” — Alexander Nix, CEO of Cambridge Analytica

Link originale: https://medium.com/@marksstorm/secrets-of-silicon-valley-a-two-part-documentary-by-jamie-bartlett-part-2-the-persuasion-fa8b832a2aa2

domenica 13 agosto 2017

Artificial Intelligence e nuovi posti di lavoro: tra ottimismo e illusione (Parte I)

Secrets of Silicon Valley — A two-part documentary by Jamie Bartlett (part 1: The Disruptors)

Medium. com, Mark Storm, Aug 13, 2017 · 15 min read
In Secrets of Silicon Valley, a two-part documentary series for the BBC, tech writer Jamie Bartlett tries to uncover the dark reality behind Silicon Valley’s glittering promise to build a better world. Part 1, The Disruptors, contains a poignant interview Sam Altman, who runs Y Combinator. He tells Bartlett that anyone who questions the wisdom of where we are heading is “anti-progress,” and finishes this nonsense with a long and chilling stare. Part 2, The Persuasion Machine, will be aired Sunday, August 13th at 8 p.m. (BBC Two, also available on BBC iPlayer).

Secrets of Silicon Valley (part 1) — The Disruptors
The tech gods in Silicon Valley are selling us all a brighter future, but could the disruptive forces they are unleashing actually herald a much darker future?, tech writer Jamie Bartlett wonders in The Disruptors, the first of a two-part BBC series in which he explores what makes Silicon Valley such a force for change in all our lives.
His search for answers starts with a visit to Rainbow Mansion. Home to “a bunch of global nomads who have come to Silicon Valley to pursue their dreams,” it calls itself “an intentional community of people working to optimise the galaxy.”
“Every Sunday night the Mansion hosts experts speakers. People come from all over Silicon Valley to share ideas. You can’t move without falling over a plan to solve one of the world’s pressing problems. Among this slightly cultish crowd, I found a man who scaled the heights of Silicon Valley. Bill Hunt created five start-ups he sold for half a billion dollars.” When asked what Hunt thinks is Silicon Valley’s attitude towards change — towards changing things, changing how industries work, changing how society works — he says, “There is a mind-set here that’s very focused on disruption. What can you do such that you’re not just talking about how we can make money, but how can we do things in a new way, in a better way, that makes the world better, both financially and socially? It’s thinking about, like, how do we get rid of this previous industry, this previous architecture, this previous system, and find a new way to do it, a way that’s better?”
“Rainbow Mansion represents what the dream of Silicon Valley is,” Bartlett tells us. “The idea that, just armed with a bit of technology and a thought about how to change the world, you can actually make it happen. That you can completely transform the way in which things are done, and that you can use technology in a way that will radically improve the lives of millions of people.”
The same fervour can be heard from the tech gods too. According to Airbnb CEO and co-founder Brian Chesky, “To be disruptive means you’re changing the world.”
“It all sounds so hopeful, but behind Silicon Valley’s ideals of disruption is a more traditional business reality. Cold, hard cash. Start-ups are drawn to Silicon Valley because of another vast industry, venture capital. Financiers who gamble billions of dollars on young companies in the hope of finding another Facebook or Google. But investment has a consequence. The founders of the two most valuable start-ups here, Airbnb and Uber, have attracted billions of dollars of venture capital. Even though Airbnb has only just begun to turn a profit, and Uber has been losing billions.
Maybe more than profit, venture capitalists want to see the potential for profit, and that creates a huge pressure on these companies to show that they’re always growing. Increasing the number of customers as quickly as possible — ‘killing it,’ as they say here — is the start-up mantra. But was does it mean for Silicon Valley’s mission to build a better world?”
Bartlett takes us to San Francisco, home to Uber and Airbnb, to meet Uber’s Head of Transportation Policy, Andrew Salzberg.
Uber’s vision is “getting away from everybody needing to drive their own car everywhere they go,” Salzberg explains. This, he believes, will have positive consequences for how cities are designed and laid out, “from the amount of parking that we have, to the amount of fatalities on the road, as well as the environmental impact.” Does this make Uber a social mission or is it a profit-making company?, Bartlett wonders.
Uber is here “to make money as a private business,” Salzberg answers. “But as you start to get into different places, and you change how people use vehicles, then you have all these other effects that you start to open up.”
It seems there is no contradiction between chasing profit and claiming to be working for the good of humanity. “But disruption means what is says,” tells Bartlett. “Around the world, traditional taxi drivers have taken to the streets in protest of Uber undercutting their prices. It’s a classic example of Silicon Valley disruption — destroying old industries by providing a popular, cheap alternative. But the social cost of this disruption goes much further.”
Bartlett takes us to India, home to more than a billion people and Uber’s top target for global growth. In Hyderabad, he explores the reality behind Uber’s promise to a new kind of flexible job, empowering its drivers, and sees for himself the human consequences of Uber’s utopian vision.
“With no profits and under huge pressure to grow against a strong local rival, Uber ran adverts on billboards and in the press, promising drivers up to £1,100 a month, around four times what these drivers had been earning.”
But as car ownership in India is low, especially among those likely to drive for Uber, the company helped drivers borrow money to buy brand new cars. However, “[a]s the numbers of Uber drivers rose, the number of customers didn’t keep up, so earnings fell. With a ready supply of drivers, the company cut incentives too,” leaving many drivers with huge debts and no prospect of a substantial enough income to pay these off.
When Bartlett asked a former executive if Uber should have been more open with the drivers about how their salaries or incentives might change in the future, he answers, “Obviously, yes. Drivers were misled.”
“The mantra of Silicon Valley is that disruption is always good. And through smartphones and digital technology, we can create more efficient, more convenient, faster services. And everyone wins from that. But behind that beautifully designed app or that slick platform, there’s a quite brutal form of capitalism unfolding, and it’s leaving some of the poorest people in society behind.”
Back In Silicon Valley, Bartlett realises how much energy these tech titans devote to presenting themselves as the heroes of the people, taking on all kinds of vested interests.
“One of the most remarkable branding tricks of the 21st century has been the way that Silicon Valley has managed to persuade us that they’re not like other companies. I mean, when you think about banks, or big pharma, oil, you imagine them as driven only by profit. And yet Silicon Valley, we imagine, is different. They are puffed up with social purpose to improve the world, that they’re the good guys. The founders of Airbnb for example, are connecting the world, not simply allowing people to advertise holiday lets.”
In San Francisco, Bartlett visits Airbnb’s HQ, where he meets with its Head of Global Policy, Chris Lehane, who, as Bill Clinton’s spin doctor, managed the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Bartlett wonders if Airbnb sees itself as ‘a big business.’ But despite being a global tech giant valued at around 31 billion, Lehane says, “We do like to think of ourselves as a different type of company. The founders’ initial ideas was make money off of what is typically your greatest expense, which is your housing, […] and that still remains true today. You know, over half the people who are on the platform are low to moderate income people, regular people. They use it to cover basic expenses, including the cost of their housing.”
He adds, “Our founders, they came u with a real vision here, and the vision was to be able to use the platform to connect people to people. We like to say, we are of the people, by the people, for the people, but really the use the platform so that people can spend time with one another. You think about what’s going on in the world today, and people are talking about building walls, closing doors, putting up barriers. A real question of whether we are going to have an open society or a closed society, and this is a place that is really focused on using technology to help create an open society.”
According to Bartlett, “Airbnb claims to be on the side of the little people, and the only losers from their disruption are traditional hotel owners. But that’s not how it feels in Barcelona” where a growing number of residents are protesting against the influx of visitors, which they believe is damaging the integrity of their city.
When asked for a reaction, Lehane explains that regulators and governments will have to catch up and change their policies to take account of this new reality. Bartlett sees this as “a classic argument from the disruptors. In fact, Silicon Valley seems to have a pretty dim view of governments in general. That is most evident when it comes to tax. You can get an idea of Silicon Valley’s attitude to tax by looking at how the companies behave in their own back yard.”
Lawrence ‘Larry’ E. Stone is Assessor for Santa Clara County, home to almost all the major corporations in Silicon Valley. These corporations pay a local property tax at a rate of one percent of the value of all their buildings and equipment. It’s the job of Stone and his team to work out the value of this property. As is turns out, most major corporations dispute the value of their property. Santa Clara County has about 70 billion dollars of assessed ‘value at risk’ that is being appealed or disputed, mostly by major corporations, says Stone. Apple alone disputes the 6.8 billion dollar assessment, claiming it’s only worth 57 million. “They are disputing 99 percent of their value,” according to Stone. If Apple’s appeal succeeds, 68 million of tax would be slashed to just over 0.5 million. And Apple isn’t the only tech titan filing local property tax appeals.
“Around the world, tech giants have been accused of aggressively minimising their tax bills. The EU is demanding Apple pay up to £11 billion of tax it says is owed to Ireland. But how they deal locally with these issues […] says something about the culture of these places, the general approach of always trying to minimise the tax they pay or trying to work around governments. It makes a lot more sense when you come here and you see how a company like Apple behaves in its own back yard.”
“In the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, Detroit was the envy of the world. Today, Detroit is in bankruptcy. We could go the same way if we don’t solve our public education and if we don’t resolve the commitment to the community as a people, as citizens and corporations.” — Lawrence ‘Larry’ E. Stone, Santa Clara County Assessor
“Of course, there’s nothing new about technological disruption. Steam power, electricity, production lines destroyed the industries that existed before them and forced governments to change. The world survived, life got better.” The question now is whether the Silicon Valley revolution will be different. The next wave of disruption could tear apart the way capitalism works, and, as a result, the way we live our lives could be utterly transformed.
Next stop, early morning Orlando, Florida. Here, Bartlett meets with Stefan Seltz-Axmacher, CEO and founder of Starsky Robotics which raised 5 million dollars to solve the primary logistical challenge for the trucking industry by taking drivers off the road and putting them in an office. Riding shotgun in a self-driving truck for more than a hundred miles on a highway, Bartlett asks what the next wave of Silicon Valley’s global disruption — the automation of millions of jobs — will mean for all of us. Does Seltz-Axmacher worry about the possible downsides of automation? But Seltz-Axmacher is confident that “we will inevitably find more things to do as jobs.”
Stopping en route to solve a technical problem, Bartlett contemplates, “That’s exactly what Silicon Valley is about. One you are out there doing it and you’re dealing with real-life problems, things going slightly wrong and fixing them up, you ca them demonstrate to the world that we have made this thing work. We’re not going to wait around for all the regulations. And then, almost by virtue of demonstrating its power, it forces the world to change around it. And I think that’s what happens when you take this kind of disruption philosophy, this idea of Silicon Valley, getting out there, changing things and the making the world catch up with them. That’s why they have conquered the world.”
But history may not be a good guide to the consequences of the next wave of disruption. The difference is that Silicon Valley is using data and software so machines can learn how to do things better than humans. “So, how far is this going?,” Bartlett wonders.
To answer that question, Bartlett is meeting the Australian data scientist and entrepreneur Jeremy Howard, the founder at Enlitic, an advanced machine learning company that helps combat the shortage of doctors and radiologists in the developing world.
“It turns out that figuring out what’s wrong with you and figuring out how to make you better is just a data problem,” he says. Howard uses deep learning software to diagnose cancer from medical images. “The software learns from examples to identify patterns, like we do. It spots problems by inferring from what it has learned, becoming evermore accurate. […] The software that I built takes about 0.02 seconds to look at a CT scan [it takes us, humans, 10 to 15 minutes],” Howard says. “So we can look at a million CT scan like that, and because we’re using neural networks, deep learning, to do it, it can literally develop the same kind of intuition a radiologist has. Within two months, we had something that beat [a panel of] the world’s best radiologist to diagnose lung cancer.”
According to Howard, the next wave of technology could make work more efficient by removing us humans altogether. “People aren’t scared enough, you know,” Howard adds. “Far too many [smart] people are sounding like climate change denialists. They’re saying, ‘Don’t worry about it, there will always be more jobs.’ And it’s founded on this purely historical thing of like, ‘Oh, there’s been a revolution before. It was called the Industrial Revolution, and after it there was still enough jobs. Therefore, this new, totally different, totally unrelated revolution will also have enough jobs.’ But it’s a ludicrously short-sighted and meaningless argument, which incredibly smart people are making. The totally utopian and dystopian futures are like very clearly in front of us. And very clearly we could head down to either. Honestly, the status quo — do nothing and we end up there — will definitely be a dystopia, which is a tiny class of society owns all of the capital and all of the data, and everybody else has no economic value, is despised by the class that has things because they’re worthless, and massive social unrest.”
Howard is the first person who is “very, very plain about what’s happening. This technology is exponentially improving, it’s going to change everything and we ought to be pretty afraid about that,” Bartlett says. He now wants to find out how far those at the top of Silicon Valley are really thinking about how automation will change all our lives
So, he heads for Y Combinator which provides early stage funding for start-ups. There, Bartlett meets Sam Altman, Y Combinator’s President. More than anybody else in Silicon Valley, Altman is considered to be able to predict the future. “He’s like a kingmaker of Silicon Valley. He gets to choose what the big companies of tomorrow will be,” Bartlett tells us.
[JB] You’re considered, I think, in Silicon Valley as one of the people that sees the future better than most. So, what are you seeing?”
[SA] A friend of mine says the best way to predict the future is to invent it. And that is a thought that was always stuck with me.
Thinking about what the future could be like after automation takes away the jobs of millions of us, Altman says …
[SA] We’re going to need to have new redistribution, we’re going to need to have new social safety nets. One thing, one product that I’m funding that we’re doing at Y Combinator is to study basic income, and what happens if you just give people money to live on. Because we have this world, we have huge wealth, but it’s very concentrated. What happens if you just give people money and say, you know, here’s enough money to have a house and eat, and to have fun?
[JB] But do you think people would find fulfilment and all the other things, dignity in work for example, under a system where there’s a small number of very rich people, and they’re being given money to find things to do with their time? I mean, it sounds pretty terrible, pretty terrifying to me.
[SA] You have a very pessimistic view of the future. I hope you’re wrong. I believe that someone, you know, doing mechanical labour is not the best fulfilment of their dreams and aspirations.
[JB] But the problem, I think, or the thing that makes me pessimistic or nervous, is that society will have to change dramatically, and that’s quite worrying.
[SA] Look, I believe society will have to change dramatically. I think we’ve been through many of these changes before, and, look, I understand that people have this spirit of, ‘I’m going to hang onto the past at all costs, I hate progress and I hate change.’ And I hear that from you, I get it.”
[JB] It’s not that. It’s not hating progress. What if the progress that you’re, not just you, but the community here’s creating, is not what other people want?
[SA] There are 40 million people in the US that live in poverty. If technology can eliminate human suffering, we should do that. If technology can generate more wealth and we can figure out how to distribute that better, we should do that.
[JB] I think it’s an important job for journalists to try to ask about the negative possibilities of this stuff.
[SA] I think if you continue this thrust of, shouldn’t we stop progress, no-one’s going to take you seriously, because people want this stuff, and people don’t think we should still have people in poverty. People don’t think that we should take away our iPhones and take away Facebook. So I think you can add a really important voice, but I worry you’re going in the wrong direction with this, like, anti-progress angle.
For now, Bartlett’s journey ends in the remote hideout of former Facebook executive Antonio Garcia Martinez who has literally armed himself with a gun because he fears this new industrial revolution could lead to social breakdown and the collapse of capitalism. Garcia Martinez believes not enough technologists are speaking out and informing the general public. “You don’t realise, we are in a race between technology and politics, and the technologist are winning, they are way ahead. They will destroy jobs and disrupt economies way before we even react to them. And what we really should be thinking is about that.”
Bartlett ends The Disruptors by saying, “Preparing a survival plan is extreme. The coming wave of disruption could bring great benefits. But there’s a risk Silicon Valley’s promise to build a better world could inflict a nightmare future on millions of us. Politics, in the end, has to be able to take control of this technology, regulate it somehow, slow it down if that’s what people want, but make sure that the technology is being built for people, in a way that people want, in a way that society wants, and not just in the interests of a tiny number of incredibly rich people from the West Coast of America.”

“I think if you continue this thrust of, shouldn’t we stop progress, no-one’s going to take you seriously, because people want this stuff, and people don’t think we should still have people in poverty. People don’t think that we should take away our iPhones and take away Facebook. So I think you can add a really important voice, but I worry you’re going in the wrong direction with this, like, anti-progress angle.” — Sam Altman, the President of Y Combinator