Book Review: The Economic Singularity by Calum Chace

The Economic Singularity by Calum Chace book cover from Goodreads

The Economic Singularity: Artificial intelligence and the death of capitalismThe Economic Singularity: Artificial intelligence and the death of capitalism by Calum Chace

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Much of The Economic Singularity by Calum Chace is devoted to supporting the argument that machines will take over many and eventually most jobs from humans. In fact, the first 60% of the book steps through this argument, providing definitions, facts, anecdotes, and other carefully footnoted details. After this, the few remaining chapters describe possible consequences of an economic singularity in which the impact of this technological unemployment occurs rapidly and without clear outcomes we can predict right now. Chace writes for an audience of readers likely new to these ideas, and they will likely welcome the clear laying out of his argument that makes up so much of this book. I personally would have preferred the book spend more time on the economic singularity itself, examining scenarios and possible challenges and solutions, but I make certain assumptions about the future that most other readers may not at this stage.

I did learn new things in the first part of the book, including the term “centaurs”, and it was a good refresher about the history of work, jobs, machines, and automation. I enjoyed chapters 4 and 5 the most, however, because they explored possible scenarios and solutions that were frequently new to me. For example, chapter 5.2 explored universal basic income, a topic I only recently started following. Chapter 6 summarizes potential scenarios of an economics singularity.

Like other books on this topic, the possible solutions in chapter 7 are brief and not particularly satisfying. Acknowledging that it’s hard to predict the future, these solutions tend toward measures like monitoring and preparing, in anticipation of great change. I think this suggests that we really cannot do much until we see for sure that there is a problem, and that for now the best we can do is be as educated as possible before we are in a position to do anything. In fact, while I’m not certain this is intentional, the last bit of advice in the book is to the youngest generations, suggesting this is going to be their job to solve any problems: “they have the task of navigating us through the economic singularity of mass unemployment, and then the technological singularity of super-intelligence.” I would have preferred a more forceful admonishment to all living generations. The economic singularity is our possible future collectively, and I for one don’t want to wait around for “The Millennials and Generation Z” to deal with it.

That is all to say that maybe I’m getting a little frustrated with books about emerging technologies that spend a lot of time arguing that these technologies will emerge with potentially negative consequences, and spend relatively little time exploring that future and its challenges. Writers in this genre cannot be blamed for this state of affairs, of course; so few people even think about these issues, and therefore writers must take on the arduous task of educating the readers they anticipate are new to these topics. I’ve immersed myself in related topics for a couple decades now, so I don’t personally need to be convinced. What I’m ready for are solutions and proactive steps we can take right now.

Another thing I would like to see in books of this type (and this is a general critique of the genre, not this book in particular) is participation from people other than white men and a few men of color in academia and industry. Using this book as an example, there are very few references to any female experts on related topics, and no mentions of any women in the acknowledgement page other than the writer’s partner. Again, this is not a critique of this particular book or this particular author, but of this entire genre of technology books, where women and people of color are still far too rare. Some have suggested that this is because experts, writers, and readers of these topics tend to be white males. Even if that is the case, one proactive step we can take now is making emerging technologies, transhumanism, singularitarianism, and related topics more inclusive. This isn’t on Chace to do himself; it’s on all of us to seek out various experts and open up these various topics to people from diverse backgrounds. For example, I’m curious to hear how African nations and experts are confronting the same challenges. When it comes to Universal Basic Income, what are women and people of color saying, especially those the left and right feel will benefit the most? Do they find UBI paternalistic in any way? What solutions do they offer? As for female experts, researchers like Amber Case are well-versed in topics related to technology, design, globalization, and the advent of new media like VR and AR; what does her writing and research suggest about the path toward a possible economic singularity? I hope in coming years to see much more exploratory and prescriptive works about topics like the economic singularity from writers of diverse backgrounds featuring experts from diverse backgrounds.

As for Chace’s book, I think it works well as background, summary and starting point about a fascinating and frightening potential future. His passion for these topics is obvious and it has been great to listen to him speak about them on various recent podcasts. He’s reaching a wide audience and that can only be for the best.

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Udacity Pivots and Education Remains Difficult

Udacity_logo_vert_orange_464x500While tens of thousands of people might sign up for a single massive open online course (MOOC), very few of them complete the course, and very few of those demonstrate competence  with and retain what they have learned.

So Udacity – founded by MOOC proponent Sebastian Thrun – has pivoted, slightly, according to this article from Fast Company. The company’s new focus is on paid tracks of classes in partnership with corporations hoping to train people in positions within emerging fields like “Data Science & Big Data.” These classes come with one-on-one coaching and certificates and will generally be cheaper than universities and technical schools. The idea is if you complete the track successfully, AT&T (or some other corporate sponsor) might very well hire you.

Udacity’s pivot suggests, perhaps, that MOOCs have reached the “Trough of Disillusionment” in Gartner’s “Hype Cycle.” Now that reality has set in, MOOC-related organizations like Udacity will struggle to uncover what actually works. It may turn out, however, that there are better technological solutions. One possibility is the Metaverse. The new medium of the Metaverse will collapse your own local space with a vast and immersive virtual reality, combining the benefits of online learning with those of real-life and hands-on classroom instruction. Another possible solution is self-paced learning led by an artificial intelligence serving as your own personal teacher. The AI teacher might read your emotions and track your progress to tailor an educational track just for you. How these technologies and others might combine into even more comprehensive solutions is already being explored.

One major obstacle remains: these technological solutions – alone or in conjunction with each other – might never become widely used, if people decide they do not want to go back to school. Aside from money, continuing education requires time and effort. For adults long after high school or college, these might be especially hard to come by. Would you be more likely to continue your education just because you could suddenly slip on a head-up display and body-tracking sensors to step into a virtual classroom, or you have your own artificial intelligence teacher? How would this technologically-mediated education compete against other enabled pastimes expected to be popular, such as virtual reality gaming? Even if the obstacles to continuing your education are removed, can you overcome your own inertia to make this lifestyle change?

What Thrun has been seeking through Udacity is not just widespread enrollment in online classes, but high completion rates and content retention. There might be fantastic emerging technological solutions that offer good education cheaply and widely to the world’s population, but there remains the very human problem of convincing people to devote their limited time and effort to the proposition of their continued education.