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Yuval Noah Harari on how the knowledge economy reduces war

In this earlier posting about a book I had been reading, I talked about how reading can turn sort of knowledge into knowledge of a more solid sort. The author says something which you already sort of knew, but as soon as he says it, you know it much better. Often such knowledge consisted of things you already knew about separately, but you hadn’t connected them in your mind.

Recently this happened to me again. Like many others, I have lately been reading Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari. And I soon learned that Harari, like Steven Pinker, has noticed that the world has been becoming a lot less warlike.

I already agree with Harari that a major reason for this reduction in warfare is nuclear weapons. On page 17 of my paperback edition of Home Deus, he says this:

Nuclear weapons have turned war between superpowers into a mad act of collective suicide, and therefore forced the most powerful nations on earth to find alternative and peaceful ways to resolve conflicts. …

Quite so. But next comes this thought, which I had not, until now, put together in my mind:

… Simultaneously, the global economy has been transformed from a material-based economy into a knowledge-based economy. Previously the main sources of wealth were material assets such as gold mines, wheat fields and oil wells. Today the main source of wealth is knowledge. And whereas you can conquer oil fields through war, you cannot acquire knowledge that way. Hence as knowledge became the most important economic resource, the profitability of war declined and war became increasingly restricted to those parts of the world – such as the Middle East and Central Africa – where the economies are still old-fashioned material-based economies.

I knew that war is diminishing, in fact I have written blog postings about what a big change that is for humanity. And I knew that the knowledge economy is now becoming a bigger deal than the mere possession of agricultural or resource-rich land. Who now does not? But call me dumb, as maybe some tactless commenters will, but I had never – or never very clearly (only “sort of”) – made the causal connection between these two things. Taken together, the rise of the knowledge economy and the arrival of nuclear weapons, themselves a consequence of recently acquired knowledge, amount to a transformation in the cost-to-benefit ratio of war. It used to be that war incurred some costs, heavy costs if you did badly, but if you did well, war might yield handsome gains. Not any more, except when it comes to places still stuck in the logic of quarrelling over physical resources.

A more respectable reason, besides me being dumb, why I had not made this rather obvious connection is that there has been another process that has masked the peaceful nature of knowledge-based economies, which is that when “knowledge” first arrives in a society, its first impact is not to cause peace to happen, but rather that particular sort of war that is so misleadingly categorised as “civil”, i.e. war of the worst sort. Look at sixteenth century Germany, seventeenth century Britain, eighteenth century France and twentieth century Russia and China. All were in those times cursed by newly “educated” generations who each fervently believed that they possessed knowledge, of why and how they should rule the world, but who were really themselves possessed by various sorts of ideological frenzy. So maybe I can be forgiven, as can others who took a while to see or who still do not see the connection between knowledge and peace. It’s because the connection between knowledge and peace takes a while to even happen, and at first it goes in the wrong direction rather than the right one. To put it another way, it takes quite a while for “knowledge” to shed its sneer quotes. To put it yet another way, there are experts and there are “experts”.

Vantablack

Finally, all those silly season, slow-news-week fashion commentary pieces, about how this or that colour that isn’t black and never will be is now “the new black”, can cease. Vantablack is the new black.

This new black has been contrived by a bunch of nano-techies working for something called Surrey Nanosystems. The point about Vantablack is that it is really black. They claim that Vantablack absorbs all but 0.036% of the light that strikes it. Normally, if you shine a torch at a black surface, you can see the light from the torch registering on the supposedly black surface, in other words being reflected rather than absorbed. But Vantablack just gobbles up all the light and continues to look totally black. You’ll be double-checking your torch to see if it is working. This is a godsend for space telescopers, and for the makers of very high-end cameras of all kinds.

The original target for Vantablack was the suitably money-no-object space telescope business. Space telescopes need to minimise – really minimise – the number of light particles that bounce about inside them in the wrong places and blur the resulting images, and Vantablack absorbs light particles to a unique degree.

But Vantablack also has potential applications in art and in the world of luxury design, which is why I first heard about Vantablack at Dezeen, the design website that I frequent. And then, quite recently, I encountered mention of Vantablack at David Thompson’s blog, in one of his lists of internetted oddities, and then at Instapundit (who feared it might be an April Fool prank). I imagine it has been much the same for all internetters with any interest in such things, large numbers of whom will by now have heard of this remarkable, newly invented-stroke-discovered material-stroke-paint, which is blacker than the blackest black ever not-seen before. The Vantablack story combines hot button highest-technology issues, like nano-tech (which was how they did it) and space exploration, with a visual outcome which is very bizarre, but the basic nature of which can be understood by almost anybody. An ideal combination for virality.

→ Continue reading: Vantablack

Italy keeps up its traditional ways

…of backwardness, protectionism and cronyism. Sorry, Italy, I love you in so many ways but this is just Third World:

The International Business Times reports, “Italy court bans Uber across the country over unfair competition for traditional taxis”

An Italian court banned the Uber app across the country on Friday ruling that it contributed unfair competition to traditional taxis. In a court ruling, a Rome judge upheld a complaint filed by Italy’s major traditional taxi associations, preventing Uber from using its Black, Lux, Suv, XL, Select and Van services from operating within the country.

Optimistic thoughts about self-driving cars

Self driving cars are coming and they are good.

Safety is an obvious benefit. Some people I have talked to about this talk about overcoming fear to get into a self-driving car. But over a million people per year are killed on the road. It is clearly technically possible to make a car very safe: if some safety problem emerges with the driving software, a fix can be made and the update sent to all cars at once. You can’t do that with people, who make the same mistakes over and over again. Furthermore I don’t anticipate anyone marketing a self-driving car until it is orders of magnitude safer than a human because in the case of an accident the reputational damage to the developer would be so high. I expect self-driving car accidents to be reported in the press even more vigorously than exploding batteries in cellphones are today. And cases of exploding batteries, even in the case of the infamous Samsung Note 7, are vanishingly rare. If car accidents were anywhere near as rare as that we would already be living in a much better world. And that’s just safety.

I think self-driving cars have the capability to completely change the landscape. Charlie Stross talks about what a time traveller from thirty years ago would notice when they visited. Such a traveller might notice different fashions but the urban landscape would be very much the same. To paraphrase Charlie, the most obvious difference would be that people are walking around staring into glowing bits of glass as if they were windows onto the sum-total of human knowledge.

Thirty years from now things could look very different indeed.

No-one will own their own cars any more — at least not as a matter of course. When the only advantage of owning one’s own car is the ability to store one’s own junk in it, it simply won’t be worth the cost. It is already possible to do some short commutes by Uber for a few thousand pounds per year, rivalling private car ownership. A company could operate a fleet of self-driving cars on a very similar model and make big savings on scale. So for any given journey you just tap your destination and select what kind of vehicle you would like, and it would roll up to your door in a few minutes. No paperwork, no maintenance, no re-fuelling, no keeping a big car for the occasional times you need it, and no difficulty moving a large object because hiring a specialist vehicle is equally straightforward.

For that matter, cars can be far more specialised because they don’t need to look like cars any more. No-one has to sit in the driver’s seat looking out and it won’t crash so you don’t have to wear seat-belts. If you need to do some work on the way to your destination, hire an office on wheels. If you want to travel by night, hire a hotel room on wheels. Some journeys don’t need to be made by people at all: to drop off a parcel, hire a self-driving locker. Forget drone deliveries, Amazon will use self-driving delivery vehicles.

There is no longer any need for car parks or cars parked along residential streets. Our time traveller will wonder where all the cars have gone: children will be playing in the streets once more and houses will have gardens where once there were driveways.

I am not sure how busy the roads will look. Automated cars can travel close together and co-ordinate with each other so there will be no traffic lights and no traffic jams. Multi-lane highways will be unnecessary. But as travelling is easier and cheaper people will do it more. People will live further from their place of work because journey times will be shorter and consistent. No more leaving half an hour earlier *in case* of a traffic jam. You will know exactly how long it will take every single day. If people put up with two hour commutes today, there is no reason to think they won’t in future. But that two hours will reliably get them a lot further. So it will be easier to change jobs because a given house will be in range of more jobs, and it will be easy to have offices in different locations because a given office will be in range of more houses. There will still be advantages to working close together, and people often don’t like *living* close together, so perhaps people will continue to work in cities but live in them less.

Towns and cities will look different because much of the land used for roads can be reclaimed for other uses. There is no need for giant roundabouts or other large, complicated junctions that are used today to improve traffic flow. In many cases even roads with two lanes can be converted to narrow, single lanes because bi-directional traffic can pass at specific points. We can finally get rid of the temporary Hogarth Roundabout flyover.

Cars will probably be mostly electric because they can drive off and recharge themselves. I suspect they will travel very fast on highways because there is no safety disadvantage and people will demand shorter journey times.

Today, old people can find themselves immobile. Children have to scrounge lifts. With self-driving cars, anyone can go anywhere. You can send your children to a better school in the next town instead of nearly bankrupting yourself moving into the catchment area.

There are likely to be problems along the way. My vision so far relies somewhat on all vehicles on the road being automated. I think there will be a short time during which automated vehicles will have to co-exist with human-driven ones, but the advantages will be so huge and so immediately apparent that people will switch to exclusively using automated cars faster than they adopted smartphones.

I am not sure how well things will work out for people living in remote areas. Right now I can get an Uber in three minutes. This is because of the population density where I am. People in the sticks will have to wait longer for a ride and costs will be higher. But, then again, population distribution and economics are likely to change.

Some people enjoy driving, or riding motorcycles. Those things can be done on the track. You’ll have to hire a self-driving car to tow your Ferrari or your Ducati to the track.

There will be technical difficulties making the first car that can completely self-drive on any road. There are software, infrastructure and mapping problems to solve. If there were no human driven cars the problem would be easier, but I think there will be a few years when human and automatic cars will have to co-exist. Only a few years: but it is still a hurdle. However, there are people who are working on it and they think it is possible and they are making progress. There is no reason to think it is impossible. And the benefits are so huge and so universal that it is hard to imagine any amount of human effort into this problem that won’t quickly be paid back. We won’t be able to predict the moment of success but when it comes, change will be fast.

There may be computer security challenges, but in an intelligence race between bad guys and good guys I have some confidence that the good guys will ultimately win. Failures here will be as embarrassing as car crashes or exploding batteries to manufacturers.

The government will regulate where you can go and track your every move. This is a problem anyway: self-driving cars don’t fundamentally change it. And people always choose convenience over freedom and privacy so it is going to happen anyway.

How many man-hours are wasted sitting in control of a vehicle or being stuck in traffic? Further economic growth will come from the time and effort freed up. Self-driving cars are coming, and they are good.

A flying car that makes sense

The basic foolishness of flying cars is the idea that it makes sense to fly around with a huge car engine for turning the wheels of a car, as well as with the engine and the wings that do the flying, all in one gigantic and gigantically impractical conglomeration. Car engines are one thing, flying machines are another. You either have two entire engines, one to do each job properly. Or you somehow contrive for one engine to do both jobs, sort of how the Harrier Jump Jet gets the same engines to do both its jumping and its jetting. That works, after a very fuel inefficient fashion, for Harrier jump jets, because jumping and jetting are sufficiently similar for one engine to be able to do both jobs. But car engines and flying engines are very different.

But now here comes this Airbus idea, where, instead of flying the entire car, you fly just the box that the people sit in. When being flown, the box is carried by a flying machine. When being driven, the box is carried by a driving machine. Note that once our container is plucked away from its road-driving engine, that road-driving engine can still then drive itself intelligently, to a park, for instance. Or, it could make itself useful by carrying other human containers. Robots, unlike engines, can be very light, so having several in one contrivance, cooperating as needed, is entirely possible.

I always believed that only when robots fly the cars will flying cars become a real possibility, because only robots can fly well enough and with enough collective discipline. This, it seems to me, is how the robots will do it. This is what they will fly.

Flying cars and robot cars, in other words, are all about human shipping containers.

Once you talk about containers rather than entire machines, you realise that these containers could perhaps also, in addition to being individually flown, be bulk flown in bulk carriers, over vast distances, for a fraction of the cost of driving, and if desired, a fraction of the time. All the nonsense of packing and unpacking, of clambering onto and extricating yourself from an airplane could then be dispensed with, as would all the ridiculousness of airports. All that can be handled by the robots, at their leisure. Also, at your destination, you’d be able to go on living in your own container. Multistory car parks would mutate into cheap hotels.

What all this illustrates, I think, is how very radically the robotising of transport, and of life generally, is going to change transport, and life generally. I don’t say that we will for certain see exactly the sort of human transport system that these Airbus envisagers envisage. Nothing is certain, when it comes to exactly how our new robot overlords will choose to go about their business. But this is the kind of change that the robots will surely bring. You can envisage, for instance, a world where we each own one or two human containers, while merely hiring whichever engines we need at any particular journey.

Might the same or a similar container shape then find itself being used for transporting other things besides humans? The possibilities are endless.

Or, maybe … not. The above ruminations are only that, ruminations. Please sprinkle words like “it seems to me” (there actually was one of those) and “surely” and “presumably” and “maybe” and “my guess would be”, for what you have just read is only me guessing, and what do I know? I am looking forward to the comments on this, because this is the kind of thing our often very tech-savvy commentariat is really good at commenting on.

New materialism, old feudalism

Ruth Potts, writing in the Guardian with a quill pen, says that,

…a deeper understanding of humankind’s place in a living world of materials suggests the need and opportunity for a different kind of love affair with “stuff” – a long-term relationship of appreciation, slow pleasures, care and respect.

Instead of abstinence and austerity, embracing the New Materialism could have profoundly positive effects. Inverting classic expectations of productivity in which fewer people produce more stuff for consumption, the New Materialism points to an economy in which, in effect, more people produce less stuff for consumption.

and

There are other steps we can take to accelerate this healthier relationship with stuff: a minimum 10-year guarantee would help end the scourge of built-in obsolescence. Community Supported Agriculture reconnects communities with the people who grow food. The same approach could be applied to more of the objects we use: Community-supported potteries could deliver tableware, gradually, by subscription. The same could apply to clothing and furniture. A culture of repair and re-imagining would create ample skilled employment; high street making and mending hubs could bring life back to the hearts of our towns and cities.

Speaking as the last woman in England who can properly darn a sock, I know well the pleasure to be had from “make do and mend”. Darning is quite satisfying. By plying my darning needle I have kept going heirloom socks knitted by deceased great aunts. I have been known to darn a hole in a beloved Fair Isle jumper in multiple colours of antique darning wool, which I acquired from an eBay seller in France. Don’t think I don’t see the appeal of caring for a dear old thing rather than buying a rubbishy new thing.

But that appeal is strictly contingent on it being a hobby not a necessity. For generations of women, darning was the most wretched of tasks, ruining their eyes and wasting their lives trying to eke out a little more use from a garment that was certain to “go” again almost on the next wearing. Men had it no better. George Orwell wrote in Homage to Catalonia of seeing the type of tools in use in 1930s Spain:

A broken ploughshare, for instance, was patched, and then patched again, till sometimes it was mainly patches. Rakes and pitchforks were made of wood. Spades, among a people who seldom possessed boots, were unknown; they did their digging with a clumsy hoe like those used in India. There was a kind of harrow that took one straight back to the later Stone Age. It was made of boards joined together, to about the size of a kitchen table; in the boards hundreds of holes were morticed, and into each hole was jammed a piece of flint which had been chipped into shape exactly as men used to chip them ten thousand years ago. I remember my feelings almost of horror when I first came upon one of these things in a derelict hut in no man’s land. I had to puzzle over it for a long while before grasping that it was a harrow. It made me sick to think of the work that must go into the making of such a thing, and the poverty that was obliged to use flint in place of steel. I have felt more kindly towards industrialism ever since

That’s because Orwell, though a Socialist, had trained himself to the habit of opening the door when reality came knocking. Ms Potts has not. Every pretty vision she describes, the minimum ten year guarantee, the “Community supported agriculture”, the idea that “Community-supported potteries could deliver tableware, gradually, by subscription” (sounds lovely, all the family sharing one plate while waiting for the rest to arrive); they all boil down to deliberately making things more expensive and people poorer.

That’s how the cookie warning crumbles

KitGuru reports:

The European Union proposes law to stop browser cookie pop-ups

Back in 2012, the European Union passed a law requiring websites to give visitors a warning regarding browser cookies. These pop-ups or banner warnings are now common place across the web and were initially intended to protect user privacy but for the most part, they are just seen as an annoying box getting in the way of whatever content you are trying to access. It seems the European Union now also agrees with that and has proposed new regulations to do away with cookie pop-up warnings.

We initially saw a drafted version of the proposed law back in December but this week, the European Commission officially unveiled its proposal. The plan is to essentially remove website banners that provide disclaimers on browser cookies. A user’s browser preference in regards to cookies will automatically apply to sites they visit instead.

See, Brexit is doing them good already.

I am not saying it’s Autons but… it’s Autons

From Instapundit (my emboldenings):

The miniature Perdex drones, different from larger, more common remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs) like the well-known Reaper and Predator, operate with a high degree of collective autonomy and reduced dependency on remote flight crews to control them. The large group of more autonomous Perdex drones creates a “swarm” of miniature drones. The swarm shares information across data links during operation, and can make mission-adaptive decisions faster than RPV’s controlled in the more conventional manner.

In a statement released by the U.S. Department of Defense, Strategic Capabilities Office Director William Roper said, “Due to the complex nature of combat, Perdix are not pre-programmed synchronized individuals, they are a collective organism, sharing one distributed brain for decision-making and adapting to each other like swarms in nature,” Director Roper went on to say, “Because every Perdix communicates and collaborates with every other Perdix, the swarm has no leader and can gracefully adapt to drones entering or exiting the team.”

Doctor Who fans will know exactly where this sort of thing leads:

You have been warned.

Is fintech-for-all now saving us?

Yesterday, at my personal blog, I expressed extreme gratitude to Christian Michel for letting me talk last Friday, at his home, on a subject which, when I first floated it to him, must have seemed very vague and vacuous, although judging by what he said about my talk afterwards, he was almost as pleased by it as I was.

Tonight, I will be attending another meeting organised by Christian Michel, partly out of gratitude for last Friday’s meeting. There is a London tube strike happening today, and I am pretty sure that Christian is now feeling a bit nervous about attendance, so I will make a point of being there.

The title of tonight’s talk is “The Collision of Fintech and Traditional Banking”. The speaker will be Sasha Karim. (I’m guessing that this is the Sasha Karim mentioned here.)

I am hoping that what Sasha Karim will say is, among other things, that, by radically lowering transaction costs and thereby making the life of a “financier” (formerly only available to ultra-clever (but not necessarily ultra-wise) people who had access to or who were attached by ultra-rich (but again, not always ultra-wise) employers to expensive machines in expensive buildings) “fintech”, aka the new world of financial transactions on mobile phones, now available to all people who are above dirt poor, is creating a world in which the old dream dreamed by the likes of Friedrich Hayek of denationalised money, can become a reality and rescue us all from the great catastrophe that has been governmentalised fiat paper currencies, of the sort denounced by another friend of mine, Detlev Schlichter. We shall see. But maybe I am being too optimistic, both about the talk and about the world. Concerning the talk, I will report further.

Hayek’s crucial little book on denationalised money has long been available on the www as a free .pdf download, but I only just found out that Detlev Schlichter’s book is now available as a free-to-download .pdf file also. Blog and learn.

Welcome to the new Samizdata server

Enjoy! [edit: Tuesday December 6th, SSL is now enabled.]

hippocannon

Baroness Warsi on what it is we can all convalesce around

Baroness Warsi on Peston on Sunday, talking about “identity”:

Well there’s a big report coming out on Monday actually, a government report on integration, which tries to kind of unpick who it is we are, what it is that we can all convalesce around. …

It sounded as if she thought we had all been suffering from some sort of medical condition. Brexit? Perhaps she does think this, about that. But, she presumably had the word “coalesce” in mind.

At first I tried to type out what she had said from memory. But the only reason I was watching this was that my video machine had switched to it from something else, because it was about to record some rugby. And this machine can play back a recording even as it is still making it.

Impending works – Monday afternoon/evening, London Time!

Samizdata is being moved to a newer, more lush, perhaps more louche server. This will also provide for freshening-up of the blog software, and a gradual migration to HTTPS.

Impact: Samizdata will be irregularly-offline this upcoming Monday, December 5th, starting from an estimated 3pm London time (10am Eastern, 1600h CET) for an estimated 4-to-6 hours, perhaps a little longer depending on how long the DNS bookkeeping takes.

If the migration fails we’ll fall back to the existing machine and continue, but it’s likely to be okay. Assuming that everything goes well, you may still expect a little flakiness when accessing the blog for up to 24 hours afterwards; after that time it’s a “bug”, or else we dropped something in transit.

“Fortune favours the bald!”, or something like that…