Thursday, February 4, 2016

Symbols and their Consequences in the Sex Robot Debate



I am currently editing a book with Neil McArthur on the social, legal and ethical implications of sex robots. As part of that effort, I’m trying to develop a clearer understanding of the typical objections to the creation of sex robots. I have something of a history on this topic. I’ve developed objections to (certain types of) sex robots in my own previous work; and critiqued the objections of others, such as the Campaign Against Sex Robots, on this blog. But I have yet to step back and consider the structural properties these objections might share.

So that’s what I’m going to try to do in this post. I was inspired to do this by my recent re-reading of Sinziana Gutiu’s paper ‘Sex Robots and the Roboticization of Consent’. In the paper, Gutiu objects to the creation of sex robots on several grounds. As I read through her objections I began to spot some obvious structural similarities between what she had to say and what I and others have said. I think identifying these structural similarities allows one to see more clearly the strengths and weaknesses of these objections.

So here’s my plan of action. I’ll start by outlining what I take to be the core logical structure of these objections to sex robots. Then I’ll consider how Gutiu fleshes out this logical structure in her paper, and close with some general reflections on the value of this style of objection. Bear in mind, my goal here is not to critique or defend any particular set of views but rather to achieve greater analytical clarity. The hope is that this clarity could, in turn, be used to craft better critiques and defences. So, if you are looking for a very clear take on the merits or demerits of sex robots, you won’t find that in this post.


1. The Basic Logical Structure: Symbols and their Consequences
Assuming one does not adopt a natural law-type attitude toward sex — according to which any non-procreative sexual act would be ethically questionable — the main concern with the creation of sex robots seems to be with the symbolism and consequences of their creation and use. This dual concern is shared by the objections in Gutiu’s paper, my previous paper on robotic rape and robotic child sexual abuse, and the arguments put forward by the campaign against sex robots. As a result, I believe the following schematic argument can capture these concerns:

  • (1) Sex robots do/will symbolically represent ethically problematic sexual norms. (Symbolic Claim)
  • (2) If sex robots have ethically problematic symbolic properties, then their development and/or use will have negative consequences. (Consequential Claim)
  • (3) Therefore, the development and/or use of sex robots will have negative consequences and we should probably do something about this. (Warning Call Conclusion)

Some comments about this abstract formulation are in order.

First, the ethically problematic symbolism of sex robots could take many forms. It could be that the physical representation of the robots embodies negative sexual stereotypes. People are particularly concerned about this since the sex robots that are currently in development seem to be targeted primarily towards heterosexual men and tend to represent a certain style of woman (some liken it to a ‘pornstar’-esque style). The behaviour or movement of these sex robots may be problematic as well, e.g. they may behave in an overly deferential, coquettish manner. It could also be that the act of having sex with a robot is symbolically problematic, perhaps they are designed to resist the user’s advances, thereby concocting a rape fantasy; or perhaps they are designed to be completely passive, ever-willing participants in sexual acts (something Gutiu worries about in her analysis). Perhaps even more symbolically worrying is the possibility of having sex robots that are designed to look and act like children, something I discuss in my article on robotic rape and robotic child sexual abuse, and has been mooted by others. Whatever the problematic symbolism may be, it is deemed important in this debate because most people presume that sex robots themselves will not be persons and so will not be harmed by interactions with human users. If the robots cannot be moral victims, their symbolism is all that is left.

Second, the negative consequences of the symbolism could also take many forms, some more immediate and direct than others. It could be that the user is directly and immediately harmed by the interaction with the robot. This is something I raised in my article on the topic, suggesting that anyone who had sex with a child sex robot or a rape fantasy robot may demonstrate a disturbing insensitivity to the social meaning of their act. It could be that the development and use of the robots sends a negative signal to the rest of society, perhaps reinforcing a culture of sexism, misogyny and/or sexual objectification. The interaction with the robot could also have downstream effects on the user, changing his/her interactions with other human beings and thereby having a harmful impact on them as well. All of these possibilities have been mooted in the literature to date. The negative consequences need not be a dead cert; they could have varying degrees of probability attached to them. This is normal enough in a debate about a nascent, emerging technology (heck, it’s normal enough in any debate about the consequences of technological usage). But the uncertainties may make it difficult to draw firm normative conclusions.

Third, the conclusion is something of a non-sequitur in its current form. The first part does follow logically from the premises; the second part does not. Nevertheless, I have tacked on this ‘warning call’ because I think it is common in the debate: most purveyors of these arguments think we ought to do something to minimise the potential negative consequences. What this ‘something’ is is another matter. Some people favour organised campaigns against the development of such devices; others favour strong to weak forms of regulation.

Anyway, that’s what I think the common abstract structure of these objections looks like. Let’s now consider a concrete version of this objection.



2. Gutiu’s Objections to Sex Robots
The version I am going to consider comes, of course, from Gutiu’s paper. I’ll start with her discussion of the symbolism of sex robots. The guiding assumption in her article is that the majority of sex robots will be targeted at heterosexual males and will depict a stereotypical ‘ideal’ woman. She defends this assumption by reference to literature (e.g. the long-standing trope of male protagonists constructing ideal female partners, present for instance in the Adam and Eve myth) and current examples of robotic technology. Some of these examples do not involve actual sexbots (i.e. robots designed for sexual use) but do involve gynoid robots (robots designed to look and act like women) that are highly sexualised:

Aiko, Actroid DER and F, as well as Repliee Q2 are representations of young, thin, attractive oriental women, with high-pitched, feminine voices and movements. Actroid DER has been demoed wearing either a tight hello kitty shirt with a short jean skirt, and Repliee Q2 has been displayed wearing blue and white short leather dress and high-heeled boots.
(Gutiu 2012, 5)
 
There are many other examples of this too. Thus, the physical structure of female robots alone serves to replicate arguably problematic norms of body shape, dress, and movement. If you add to this the idea that the robots are designed for sexual use, you compound the problematic symbolism. As Gutiu puts it:

To the user, the sex robot looks and feels like a real woman who is programmed into submission and which functions as a tool for sexual purposes. The sex robot is an ever-consenting sexual partner and the user has full control of the robot and the sexual interaction. By circumventing any need for consent, sex robots eliminate the need for communication, mutual respect and compromise in the sexual relationship. The use of sex robots results in the dehumanization of sex and intimacy by allowing users to physically act out rape fantasies and confirm rape myths.
(Gutiu 2012, 2)

She repeats this concern several times during the paper.

It seems, then, that Gutiu fleshes out the first premise of the argument in the following manner:

  • (1*) Sex robots will symbolically represent ethically problematic sexual norms because (a) the majority will adopt gendered norms of body shape, dress, voice and movement (e.g. they will be thin, large-breasted, provocatively clad, coquettish in behaviour and so on - this could vary from society to society); and (b) they will function as ever-consenting sexual tools, allowing users to act out rape fantasies and confirm rape myths.

Some people might find this symbolism disturbing by itself, but consequences are important in this debate. It is, after all, possible that symbolically problematic practices have beneficial consequences. Someone could argue that allowing someone to act out a rape fantasy with a sex robot is better than having them actually rape a real human being. The robot could, thus, have a beneficial preventative effect. I’m not sure how likely that is, but Gutiu is clear in her paper that the creation and use of sex robots will have negative consequences.

First, there are the obvious social harms, and harms to others, arising from the symbolism. If the robots replicate gendered norms of sexualised appearance and sexual compliance, they will contribute to and reinforce a patriarchal social order that is harmful to women. In particular, Gutiu worries that the symbolism will further distort our understanding of sexual consent. Campaigners have been fighting hard to make changes to the law surrounding rape and sexual assault. The changes made to date try to combat rape myths by clarifying the nature of sexual consent and assigning appropriate weight to the testimony of victims. Sex robots would represent a step back in this fight because:

They embed the idea that women are passive, ever-consenting sex objects, and teach users that when getting consent from a woman, “only no means no”.
(Gutiu 2012, 15)

In other words, they would go against the recent demand for positive affirmative signals of sexual consent. This could obviously have an impact on real women, who become victims of actual sexual assault and rape if users act out in the real world.

Second, in addition to the social harms and harms to others, there are the harms to the users themselves. For one thing, they could internalise the problematic sexual norms through repeated use of the robots, which could alter their moral character and the nature of their interactions with real people. Also, and somewhat in tension with this idea, the robots could reinforce antisocial tendencies among users, encouraging them to withdraw more from social interactions, and avoid the need for mutuality and compromise in their sexual lives.

This latter notion was contradicted in the film Lars and the Real Girl. There, the use of a sex doll was therapeutic and enabled an introverted man to reintegrate with society. But Gutiu dismisses this:

Although it was an effective approach to a Hollywood film, sex robots are unlikely to help antisocial users better interact with women. It is doubtful that an individual who does not feel accepted in society, and who finds an alternative way to meet their exact needs for companionship will, for some reason, want to integrate back into society, where they can risk rejection and face social discomfort.
(Gutiu 2012, 17)

This suggests to me that Gutiu fleshes out the second premise of the argument in the following manner:

  • (2*) If sex robots adopt gendered norms of body shape, dress, behaviour (etc), and function as ever-consenting sexual tools, their creation and use will: (a) reinforce patriarchal social norms and distort our understanding of sexual consent, which will ultimately harm women; and (b) will harm the users by encouraging them to internalise problematic sexual norms and, for some, exacerbate their antisocial tendencies.

This, in turn, leads to the ‘warning call’ conclusion. Gutiu thinks that something should be done to combat the problematic symbolism and likely negative consequences. She does not favour prohibition of sex robots. Instead, she favours various regulatory interventions. These could include, in particular, the demand that creators design robots in a certain way. They could also include the creative use of legal mechanisms to allow potential victims of harm arising from the use of sex robots to sue for damages. As an example, she suggests that a person whose marriage dissolves after their partner starts using a sex robot be allowed to sue the manufacturer. This might seem unusual, but there are legal mechanisms (so-called ‘heart balm torts’) that allow people to sue others for interfering with a legally protected relationship.


3. Concluding Thoughts
Hopefully, you can now see how the abstract argument scheme can be developed into something more concrete. I think there are several ways in which to challenge and support the argument developed by Gutiu. But I won’t say too much about them in this post. That wasn’t my intention. I’ll just close with three general comments. These flag-up issues I think are important or worthy of further consideration.

First, on the symbolic claim, I think it is generally true that sex robots appeal to stereotypical gendered norms of appearance and behaviour. You see this all the time in fictional depictions of sex robots (I think, in particular, of the robots in the TV series Humans and the movie Ex Machina which were used for sexual purposes, though not limited to sexual functionality). You also see it in Roxxy, the sex robot developed by TrueCompanion, and the prototypes being developed by RealDoll (LINKs). But I also think that the problematic symbolism could be addressed. The robots don’t have to adopt stereotypical appearances and behaviours. You could, for instance, design robots to give active, affirmative signals of consent. This may be an appropriate target for regulatory intervention or mass social pressure.

Second, despite what I just said, there is an interesting idea in Gutiu’s paper which suggests that there may be something inherent (or, at least, very strongly embedded) in the idea of a sex robot that makes it symbolically problematic. When you think about it, people are probably drawn to the creation and use such devices because they want an ultimately compliant and ever-willing sexual outlet. There wouldn’t be much point in them creating a sex robot that acted exactly like a human being — and could, therefore, avoid, resist or otherwise not reciprocate their sexual desires — since there are plenty of them around anyway. But this very thing that makes sex robots an attractive proposition, in and of itself, symbolically problematic. It represents sexual interactions as devoid of mutuality. Now, of course, people already engage in many solo sexual acts that are devoid of mutuality. And most would agree that there is nothing problematic (symbolic or otherwise) about those acts. But they are symbolically different: they do not involve embodied sexual contact with something that looks and acts (sorta) like a real human being. I don’t know what to make of this right now, but I think the notion that problematic symbolism is strongly embedded in sex robots is interesting. It means it may not be easy to address the symbolism through regulatory intervention or reform.

Third, and finally, the consequential claims that permeate this debate always strike me as being problematic. In many cases, the consequences appealed to are speculative (since the technology is not in widespread use) and indirect. As Anders Sandberg has argued elsewhere, it may indeed be true that the use of sex robots contributes to more harmful social environments and interactions with real human beings, but how tight is that causal connection likely to be? Is intervention into the development and use of sex robots likely to be the most effective way to combat these problems? Or could other policy levers be pulled to the same or better effect? These are all important questions when it comes to assessing the consequential claims and the warning calls that are issued in this debate.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Podcast Interview - Is High Tech Turning Turning Us Into the Borg?



I recently had the privilege of being a guest on the Social Network Show podcast. The show is hosted by Dr Jane Karwoski and deals with the impact of technology, particularly social networking technology, on society. Dr Karwoski invited me on to talk about the Borg-likeness of the modern world. Regular readers of the blog will know that this is a topic I am quite interested in, having written a couple of posts about it, and I was pleased to be given the opportunity to talk about it on the podcast.

In the show, I distinguish between two different senses of 'Borg-likeness':

Borg-likeness1 We are increasingly becoming fused with technology (in a physical and metaphorical sense), i.e. we are becoming literal cyborgs.
Borg-likeness2 We are increasingly interconnected with one another and this may be suppressing our individuality and limiting our autonomy, i.e. we are moving towards a collective organism like the Borg on Star Trek.

Then myself and Dr. Karwoski consider the technological and ideological forces that may be driving us toward Borg-likeness (in both senses) and whether this is something we should worry about. You can listen here.


Monday, January 25, 2016

The Value of Deep Work and How to Prioritise It





(Trigger Warning: This post is a bit self-helpy)

My life is filled with trivial, time-wasting tasks. As an academic, teaching and research are the most valuable* activities I perform. And yet as I progress in my career I find myself constantly drawn away from these two things to focus on administrative tasks. While efficient administration is important in large organisations (like universities), it feels like a major time-sink to someone like me because (a) I am not ultimately rewarded for being good at it (career progression depends far more research and, to a lesser extent, teaching) and (b) I don’t have any aptitude for or interest in it.

But the time-wasting and triviality doesn’t stem entirely from administrative pressures. It also stems from my own wanton behaviour. I can go for long stretches every day, when I have the time to be working on the more important things, doing everything but. Instead, I end up in a ‘technology loop’, flitting back and forth between email, facebook, twitter, and various other distraction sites, all part of an endless search for new updates and entertainments. The result is that the day ends and I feel anxious and unsatisfied by my failure to do anything productive.

I say this as someone who is a big fan of periodic laziness. I dislike the notion that productivity is the be all and end all of life. I think we should spend some of our time in self-indulgent, non-productive states. Nevertheless, a life without some deep, meaningful and productive work would be bad too. I derive tremendous personal satisfaction from my creative and productive acts, both on this blog and elsewhere in my professional life. The question is how can I set up my life so that I achieve this balance? How can I avoid the days of anxiety-inducing time-wasting, without falling into the productivity trap?

This is what Cal Newport’s recent book Deep Work is all about. The book is about the distinction between two types of work:

Deep Work: “Professional [note: this seems unnecessary to me] activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capacities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill and are hard to replicate.”

Shallow Work: “Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate

Newport’s central thesis is that the former is (for most people) more valuable and more meaningful than the latter (an inevitable conclusion given the definitions), and yet modern workplaces and network tools are set-up so as to make the latter more common. He tries to provide the reader with various strategies for prioritising deep work in their everyday life.

Now, I’m incapable of reading anything uncritically. It’s a consequence of my academic training. So although I like a lot of what Newport has to say, I also find myself in disagreement with some of his claims. But I don’t want to dwell on those disagreements here (if you’re interested, some of them are addressed on this Chronicle of Higher Education review of the book). Instead, I want to share some of the tips and tricks. In particular the six strategies that Newport presents for prioritising deep work in your life. These are summarised in the image below; I expand on them in the remainder of the post.



Strategy 1 - Develop Your Depth Philosophy
If you are going to make deep work an important part of your life, you need to figure out the basis on which you are going to do this. Are you going to commit fully or periodically oscillate back-and-forth between deep and shallow work? Newport identifies four different depth philosophies that have been adopted by different deep workers:

The Monastic Philosophy: This involves total commitment to deep work. You cut yourself off from the world as much as possible in order to avoid the distraction-rich environment that encourages shallow work. You focus purely on the deep stuff. Newport cites the computer scientist Donald Knuth and the science fiction author Neal Stephenson as two prominent proponents of the monastic philosophy. To these, he could probably add the film director Christopher Nolan. All three of these individuals are famously dismissive of email and others forms of correspondence that distract them from what they really want to do. This monastic style of existence is probably only accessible to the privileged few. Most people have to do some shallow work (and I suspect not even Knuth, Stephenson and Nolan are able to completely avoid it).

The Bimodal Philosophy: This involves oscillating back-and-forth between periods of monastery-like commitment and periods of shallow work. Newport’s go-to example is Carl Jung, who used to divide his time between a busy psychotherapy practice and social scene in Zurich and a rustic stone house in the woods near Bollingen. It was in the latter that he engaged in the deep work that formed the backbone of his famous theories. Another example is Bill Gates who used to have ‘think weeks’ while the CEO of Microsoft. During these think weeks he would cut himself off from distraction and focus on reading and thinking big thoughts. The key feature of the bimodal philosophy — and what separates it from the next two philosophies — is that the periods of time spent in deep work are relatively long and uninterrupted. Bimodal workers spend at least one day committed to deep work, possibly more.

The Rhythmic Philosophy: This also involves oscillation but on a more habitual basis. The idea is that you make deep work part of your daily routine. This probably best sums up my own attitude to deep work. I try to start each (work!) day with a writing session. I don’t check work emails until after this session is completed. I find this rhythmic approach is common among many writers. I remember reading Stephen King’s book On Writing years ago, and as I recall he described his own daily routine of writing 2,000 words a day. Usually he would complete this in the morning and spend the afternoon running errands, though he admitted that some days it was harder to reach the 2,000 word target. I usually set myself a minimum target of 1,000 words and find that I can easily meet this in a couple of hours (this is down to the nature of the writing I do, which is relatively untaxing; if I was writing a novel I’m sure it would be more difficult).

The Journalistic Philosophy: This involves grabbing any moment you can for engaging in deep work. It has the name it has because Newport bases it on the experiences of the journalist Walter Isaacson. Isaacson is now famous for writing big biographies of historical and intellectual figures (Benjamin Franklin; Albert Einstein; Steve Jobs). When writing his first book, Isaacson had to balance the demands of his work as a busy journalist with the deep work necessary for writing the book. He did this by grabbing any spare moment he could, in the interstices of his daily life, to work on the book. I have gravitated towards this philosophy at times in my life, particularly when working to deadline, but I don’t really enjoy it. Newport isn’t a huge fan either, arguing that it would be particularly difficult for someone who is unused to deep work to adopt this philosophy at the outset.

One thing I like about these four philosophies is their diversity. In the past, I have been a proponent of the rhythmic philosophy, often advocating it to my colleagues and insisting that with as a little as half an hour a day dedicated to deep work they could accomplish far more than they ever expected. I now realise that this may be overly prescriptive. Some people need more extended periods of focus; some people can work with less routinised schedules.


Strategy 2 - Ritualise the Process
I have semi-famous namesake. This other John Danaher is a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu master who has trained some of the top UFC fighters. His most famous student is probably the Canadian fighter Georges St. Pierre. Interestingly, this other John Danaher was doing a PhD in philosophy in Columbia University New York before he quit to take up his current career. Sometimes I get confused for him on social media sites though people usually quickly realise their mistake (sadly my proficiency at BJJ is noticeably less impressive than his). Anyway, in St. Pierre’s book The Way of the Fight, the other John Danaher says something interesting about the relationship between excellence and routine:

I have a belief that all human greatness is founded on routine, that truly great human behaviour is impossible without this central part of your life being set up and governed by routine. All greatness comes out of an investment in time and the perfection of skills that render you great. And so, show me almost any truly great person in the world who exhibits some kind of extraordinary skills, and I'll show you a person who's life is governed by routine.

The thought resonates. In order to engage in deep creative work, you need to cut out some of the background noise. By keeping other parts of your life reasonably constant and rule-governed, you can dedicate your creative energies to that which is most important. This is the power of routine, or as Newport prefers to call it ritual.

To consistently engage in deep work, Newport recommends that you ritualise your process. There will be diversity in these rituals — you have to experiment and find out what works best for you — but a good routine should address three questions:

(a) Where will you work and for how long? - Do you have a favourite desk, cafe, corner of the library, park bench (etc) where you like to work? For deep work, the location should be relatively isolated (i.e. free from shallow work distractions). You may be able to achieve this in your normal workspace (for instance, I use an app called ‘Freedom’ to block internet access for certain periods of time) or you may need to have two separate workspaces (e.g. home and the office).

(b) How will you work once you start to work? - You need to develop some structure that will concentrate your mind so that the time is used effectively. For instance, if you are into writing you might set yourself a target number of words.

(c) How will you support your work? - i.e. what will you do to ensure you have the energy and motivation you need to sustain the work. Food, coffee, exercise and the like are all common support mechanisms.


Strategy 3 - Make Grand Gestures
Sometimes people have trouble escaping from shallow work. Their homes and offices are filled with distractions that constantly tempt them away from the sustained focus required for deep work. When this happens, it can help to make a grand gesture. This is a costly commitment that effectively shocks or forces you into a deep work mode.

Newport provides several examples of authors doing this (it’s telling that so many of the examples involve writing). Perhaps the most famous is JK Rowling, who was struggling to write the final volume of the Harry Potter series. Although she had a home office, she found her home too distracting to allow her to shift into the headspace needed to finish the series (particularly given the weight of readers’ expectations). So she checked into suite in the five star Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh. Initially she was just going to do this for a day, but she found that the suite enabled her to focus. She continued to use the suite until the book was finished.

Of course, it’s easy for JK Rowling (a billionaire author) to make such a grand gesture. But similar solutions can work at a smaller scale. You could build your own workspace in a garden shed, or furnish a new home office, or rent a cottage for a couple of weeks. Anything that takes you out of the shallow work mode and encourages you to commit to the process.


Strategy 4 - Don’t Work Alone
This is a tricky one. Some modern workplaces over-emphasise the value of collaboration and community. Newport criticises Facebook’s plans to create the largest open office space for this reason. The reality is that such workspaces are often incredibly distracting (and competitive) and can compromise the focus requires for deep work.

Still, there is some rationale behind them. The belief of people like Mark Zuckerberg is that the open spaces will encourage people to communicate and will lead to serendipitous creativity. Two (or more) people with distinct ideas will combine their efforts to produce something new, interesting and valuable. Newport accepts that this may be true, but argues that serendipitous creativity is not best facilitated by a massively open office.

Instead, he argues for a ‘hub-and-spoke’ model. He uses the example of MIT’s famous Building 20 (now demolished) to illustrate the idea. Building 20 was a temporary shelter constructed during WWII. It was used as an overflow space for academics and researchers from different disciplines. The mismatch of academics and disciplines led to interesting and productive collaborations. This was helped by the haphazard design of the building. Many of the internal walls and floors could be rearranged, and new equipment could be added as the researchers saw fit.

Newport argues that the creativity that arose in Building 20 was made possible by a hub-and-spoke model of design. Researchers had their own workspaces (the spokes), which they could redesign as they saw fit, and then they had common spaces (the hub) where they could encounter and share ideas with diverse others. It was this ability to collaborate and interact in the hub and then retreat to the spoke when the deep work needed to be done, that enabled the serendipitous creativity. Newport suggests that we adopt a similar ‘hub-and-spoke’ model for our work lives.

Just to be clear, this doesn’t rule out the possibility of collaborative deep work. Two or more people who meet in one of the ‘hubs’ could find a project on which they can collaborate. This may lead to joint deep work. The point is simply that constant exposure to others who may not share anything with you is more likely to compromise deep work than assist.


Strategy 5 - Execute Effectively
Newport refers to this strategy as ‘Execute like a business’, but I just can’t bring myself to accept that title. There’s a serious reason for this: I don’t think there’s anything about the strategy that is essentially businesslike. And that’s kind of Newport’s point. There’s a less serious reason for it too: Newport seems way more inclined to businessy, self-helpy linguistic constructions than I am. They always raise my sceptical hackles and make me more resistant to advice than I might otherwise be. So I’ve dropped the reference to ‘businesslike’ execution.

The gist of this strategy is that you must appreciate the difference between what you are trying to do and how you are going to do it. You know that are trying to work deeply, but how will you know whether you are working deeply? The products of deep work are the result of many hours of sustained effort. And the time from production to feedback can often be slow. How can you ensure that you are on the right track?

Newport offers four bits of advice for effective execution (borrowed from another business book but applied to his own work as an academic computer scientist):

A. Focus on the ‘wildly important’: i.e. don’t waste effort on work that doesn’t have value. The idea here is akin to the (in)famous 80/20 heuristic. According to this heuristic (derived from the work of the economist Vilfredo Pareto) approximately 80% of the value you produce will come from 20% of the work that you do. So you should prioritise that 20% over everything else. I have my problems with this. I think it may hold true in retrospect (e.g. it may well be true that 80% of the pageviews on this blog come from 20% of the posts) but I think it is difficult to know in advance what will prove to be most valuable. Some things have highly unexpected payoffs. Still, I think the heuristic has some utility: there are probably a lot of things that we could exclude that are relatively valueless.

B. Act on Lead Measures not on Lag Measures: A lag measure is an ‘after the fact’ measure of success. For an academics it it might be the number of peer-reviewed publications in top-ranked journal’. These are useful for assessing your overall level of performance or success. A lead measure is something that can help to predict whether you will achieve the desired lag measure. For an academic this might be the number of words written for a proposed journal article per day. The idea is that you should focus on lead measures when working deeply. They are within your immediate control and can chart your progress to your desired goal.

C. Keep a Compelling Scoreboard: This builds on the previous bit of advice. The idea is that you should keep a visible record of how well you are doing at achieving your lead measures. This could be something as simple as a wall-calendar on which you mark your daily attainment of some relevant lead measure. To stick with the academic example, the calendar might record total number of words written per day, or numbers of hours spent working on research and so on. By making it visually appealing you can help to further focus your mind on how you will get to where you want to be.

D. Create a Cadence of Accountability: When working as part of a team, it is important to create a regular schedule of meetings during which team members will account for their progress on relevant project goals. This ensures everyone is keeping pace and that the goal is within sight. Newport argues that you can incorporate regular accountability into solo work as well. For instance, he has a weekly review during which he checks to see how well he is progressing on his lead measures. If he has fallen short of a target, he tries to figure out why and adjust his schedule for the following week accordingly.

The advantage of this advice is that, if effective, it enables you to have more free time. If you are focusing on what matters most in your line of deep work, and not getting drowned in the shallow tasks that fill out most working days, you have more time for family, friends, leisure and relaxation. Which brings me to my favourite piece of advice…


Strategy 6 - Be Lazy
You can’t spend all of your time engaged in deep work. You need to switch off every now and then. There should be no endless checking of work emails or attending to other administrative tasks. Do these things at specific times; process them in a methodical way; and don’t allow them to invade your downtime. Newports gives three main reasons for favouring this kind of laziness. The first is that not consciously attending to some facet of deep work can enable unconscious insight. I agree with this. I know that when I am out taking a long walk or bike ride my mind often stumbles upon ideas for articles I would like to write. The second is simply that switching off allows you to recharge your mental faculties. And the third is that the kind of work that fills your downtime tends to be of low value anyway. You would be better off leaving it out.

To facilitate regular bouts of laziness, Newport recommends a daily shutdown ritual. This ritual serves as a clear signal to yourself that it is okay to switch off and prevents incomplete tasks from dominating your attention during your downtime. The precise details of the ritual can vary, but Newports suggests that, at a minimum, (i) it includes drawing up a clear plan for the next working day and (ii) this plan is captured somewhere where it can be revisited when needed.

His own shutdown ritual involves a review of the day’s accomplishments, a final email check, and drawing up a task list for the next day. I have started doing this recently and I find it quite beneficial. It really does help me to switch off and separate myself from my working life. It also allows me to be far more focused when I need to be and, ultimately, content in what I am doing. I suspect this is the sign of maturing relationship with work, something that most people go through once they have settled into their working lives.

Anyway, those are the six strategies for prioritising deep work. There’s a lot more in Newport’s book. Despite my occasional misgivings, I definitely recommend checking it out.


* To be clear, I am not claiming that I am valuable to the world. I have no idea whether I am or not. I’m simply suggesting that the generally accepted view is that this is where the value of academics lies.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Reality Transducer or Omniscience Engine? Five Metaphors for the Internet of Things





I think metaphors are important. They can help to organise the way we think about something, highlighting its unappreciated features, and allowing us to identify possibilities that were previously hidden from view. They can also be problematic, biasing our thought in unproductive ways, and obscuring things that should be in plain view. Good metaphors are key.

With that in mind, in this post I want introduce five different metaphors for thinking about the internet of things (IOT). These metaphors were inspired by my recent reading of Samuel Greengard’s book The Internet of Things (MIT Press 2015). I think they provide interesting insights into the potentialities of the IOT, though they may also skew our thinking in misleading ways. I want to explore the positive and negative features of these metaphors in what follows.

Before I do that, however, I want to consider more deeply the value of metaphors by using a case study from the work of the philosopher Daniel Dennett.


1. The Value of Metaphors: Dennett’s ‘Universal Acid’
Dennett’s 1995 book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea is an extended meditation on the meaning of Darwin’s theory of evolution for our understanding of ourselves. The book is replete with clever metaphors and thought experiments. Indeed, Dennett is something of a master of the art, recently collecting his greatest hits in a book entitled Intuition Pumps and other Tools for Thinking.

Given this, it’s hard to pick just one metaphor from Darwin’s Dangerous Idea to foreground my discussion of the IOT. But I’ll settle on one of the simplest and most arresting: the metaphor of universal acid. Dennett describes it like this:

Did you ever hear of universal acid? This fantasy used to amuse me and some of my schoolboy friends — I have no idea whether we invented or inherited it, along with Spanish fly and saltpeter, as a part of underground youth culture. Universal acid is a liquid so corrosive that it will eat through anything! The problem is: what do you keep it in? It dissolves glass bottles and stainless-steel canisters as readily as paper bags. What would happen if you somehow came upon or created a dollop of universal acid? Would the whole planet eventually be destroyed? What would it leave in its wake?
(Dennett 1995, 63)

Universal acid doesn’t really exist, of course. But the fiction is both provocative and evocative. Through the simplicity of the original idea (“a liquid so corrosive that it will eat through anything!”) and the well-time rhetorical questions (“what would happen if…?”), Dennett quickly has us imagining its reality.

The payoff comes later. Dennett uses this provocative fiction as a symbolic representation (i.e. a metaphor) for Darwin’s theory of evolution. As he puts it:

Little did I realize that in a few years I would encounter an idea— Darwin’s idea— bearing an unmistakable likeness to universal acid: it eats through just about every traditional concept, and leaves in its wake a revolutionized world-view, with most of the old landscape still recognizable, but transformed in fundamental ways.
(Dennett 1995, 63)

In fact, this is the central thesis of Dennett’s book — one he develops over the next 500 or so pages. Evolution really is somewhat akin to a universal acid. Once you understand that we are ourselves products of the evolutionary forces that Darwin describes — in both our bodies and our minds — nothing is ever quite the same again. Your entire worldview is dissolved and reconstituted by the process. There's some exaggeration in the metaphor, to be sure, but that's part of its charm.

I think this example reveals the power of metaphor. When you use a symbolic representation as a framework for understanding another important concept or idea, you can cast that concept or idea in a new light, appreciating both its virtues and dangers in a heightened way. Can we do this for the IOT?


2. Five Metaphors for the Internet of Things
Let’s start by asking a question: What is the internet of things? To some extent the ‘IOT’ has become a buzzword, often bandied about by people who don’t really know what it is but recognise that it is important. The gist of the IOT is relatively easy to grasp. We are all now used to the idea that computers can ‘talk’ to each other: sharing data and information through the internet. We are also all now used to the idea that other devices can connect to one another using the same infrastructure (e.g. smartphones, tablets and wearables). What we may not realise is how many ‘things’ are (and can be) imbued with similar degrees of connectivity.

This is what the concept of the IOT enables us to see. Indeed, the takeoff in terms of the number of objects and devices that can now connect via the internet is truly astonishing. Cars, buildings, warehouses, thermostats, clothes, shoes, traffic lights, cameras, watches, flasks, and eyeglasses are just some of the things that have now been tagged and imbued with internet connectivity in the past few years. This trend can be expected to continue. Greengard cites some figures from Cisco Systems that illustrate the potentialities:

[A]pproximately 12.1 billion Internet connected devices were in use in April 2014, and the figure is expected to zoom to above 50 billion by 2020. In fact the networking firm [i.e. Cisco systems] says that about 100 “things” currently connect to the Internet every second but the number will reach 250 per second by 2020. Overall, the Internet Business Solutions Group at Cisco Systems estimates that more than 1.5 trillion “things” exist in the physical world and 99 percent of physical objects will eventually become part of a network.
(Greengard 2015, 13)

This may be an over-estimate, but it gives a sense of the eventual scope of IOT. And connectivity is just a small part of it. The real impetus for this is to collect data from the things imbued with internet connectivity, mine this data for useful information, and then use it for making better decisions through both human and automated decision makers.

How can we make sense of the IOT? This is where the metaphors come in. One thing that struck me while reading Greengard’s book was the different ways in which he described the infrastructure of the IOT and its various possible uses. Although he never explicitly labelled these descriptions, or referred to them as metaphors, I think it is worth doing so for the reasons stated above. So, without further ado (further? hasn’t there been plenty already?) here are five metaphors for thinking about the IOT:

The IOT as the Apotheosis of Connectivity: Dali’s famous painting “The Apotheosis of Homer” depicts the epic poet’s ascension to the divine. It was a common scene in classical art. This reflects the original theological meaning of the word ‘apotheosis’, which is to elevate something to a divine or holy status. I use the term deliberately (if advisedly) here. The suggestion behind this first metaphor is that the IOT represents an elevation of connectivity to a sacred status. This is perhaps the most basic metaphor for the IOT. As Greengard puts it, the IOT “extends connectedness far beyond computers and into all the nooks and crannies of the world” (Greengard 2015, 16). Optimistically, this augurs an end to loneliness and isolation; more pessimistically, it augurs a struggle (which many already experience) to maintain privacy, solitude and disconnection.

The IOT as a Reality Transducer: ‘Transduction’ is a term used in many fields. It refers, roughly to the process of converting one thing into another. In biophysics, for example, it refers to the conveyance of energy from one electron to another by changing the class or type of energy. And a ‘transducer’ is a device for converting one kind of quantity (e.g. pressure) into another type of signal (electrical). I use the term loosely here to refer to the potential for the IOT to convert physical reality (“real” reality) into digital or virtual reality. If everything is tagged and imbued with digital technology then it can become part of the digital world. If the tagging incorporates control technologies (e.g. robotic systems) then the physical reality can be manipulated using the same tools as the digital world. Greengard says this represents an ‘advanced state where physical and digital worlds are blended into a single space’ (Greengard 2015, 18). This opens up many interesting, and possibly disturbing scenarios. It may deconstruct our concept of reality (remove ontological distinctions between the virtual and the real), and lead to the programmability of the world (through advances in nanotechnology).

The IOT as an Omniscience Engine: This is another quasi-theological metaphor. In orthodox monotheism, God is supposed to be an omniscient (“all-knowing”) being. I have my doubts whether such a being is possible, and I’m not even sure that the concept of ‘omniscience’ is coherent, but nevertheless I think there is something about the IOT that warrants the metaphor of the omniscience engine. Kevin Ashton, coiner of the term ‘internet of things’, wrote an article in 2009 lamenting the fact that ‘people have limited time, attention and accuracy — all of which means they are not very good at capturing data about things in the real world’ (quote from Greengard 2015, 20). In other words, he was lamenting the epistemological limits of humans beings. The hope was that the technology behind the IOT would be better at capturing data about reality. This suggests to me that the IOT can be viewed as a way to make the world more knowable. In the limit, this implies that the IOT could know everything about everything. But ‘knowledge’ is a tricky concept. Mass data collection is not knowledge: making sense of the information collected by the machinery of the IOT will be key.

The IOT as a Global Neural Network: This is an obvious metaphor. It moves us beyond the IOT as a tool for connectivity and data collection, and focuses on its other capacities for data mining/processing, and physical action in the world (through human or robotic agents). When you include those capacities, you see the potential for the IOT to form a global neural network. Neural systems in humans and other animals perform three basic functions: they collect sensory data; they process this data; and they initiate actions in the world. The infrastructure for the IOT can perform the same basic functions. This is interesting in its own right: a single or multipolar agency could emerge from the architecture of the IOT, which raises many fears and hopes (cf Bostrom Superintelligence). But it also enables us to appreciate the next metaphor.

The IOT as a Hivemind Platform: This metaphor appeals to the concept of a superorganism or hivemind, i.e. something akin to a bee colony or, to use a fictional analogy, the Borg of Star Trek. The idea is that the IOT is potentially all-encompassing. We might think that there is some hard and fast distinction between us (human beings) and other ‘things’ in the world. But there isn’t. There is no reason why we cannot be among the things that are incorporated into the infrastructure of the IOT. In many ways we already are. Wearable tech and prosthetic implants can be imbued with internet connectivity: they can be controlled and updated from the ‘cloud’. In the near future, we will be able to use these implants and devices to connect with one another on a brain-to-brain basis. Indeed, there are already some examples of experiments doing exactly this. As the potential for this kind of connectivity grows, we could transition to a something like a hivemind society. I’ve explored some of the issues arising from this in my previous posts about the Borg-like society.



So there you have it. Five metaphors for thinking about the IOT. I think these metaphors enable us to see potentialities within the technology that may previously have been hidden from view. But I also accept that they may be hyperbolic and overblown. Are there better metaphors to be adopted? I’m curious to know what you think.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Powerful Nonsense Ep 95 - Finding meaning in an automated world




I had a flurry of podcast interviews to start the new year. One of them was an interview on Powerful Nonsense. This is a very interesting podcast hosted by Cem Yildiz and Wayne Ingram which gives advice to young people about work and fulfillment in the new economy. They invited me on to talk about meaning in an age of automation. The conversation ended up being quite wide-ranging. Here's a small sample of the topics we covered:

  • Am I a technophile or a technophobe? (Answer: Neither)
  • What role does science fiction play in shaping the future?
  • Is the labour market undergoing a polarisation effect?
  • Are we entering an age of material abundance?
  • The rise of the basic income guarantee
  • Self-driving cars and the uberisation of the economy
  • Status quo bias in work and philosophy


And more. This was a fun and challenging interview. You can listen to it here.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Justice-Related Objections to Effective Altruism

 


(Taxonomy of Objections)

This post is the first substantive entry in my series about effective altruism. In a previous post, I offered a general introduction to the topic of effective altruism (EA) and sketched out a taxonomy of the main objections to the practice. In that post, I adopted a ‘thick’ definition of EA, which holds that one ought to do the most good one can do, assuming a welfarist and consequentialist approach to ethics, and favouring evidentially robust policy interventions. I identified nine major objections to this form of thick effective altruism, divided into three main families. The diagram above depicts all of this.

In today’s post, I want to take a more detailed look at the first family of objections: the justice family. The gist of the justice objection is that thick EA fails to appropriately weigh justice-relevant conditions when assessing the policies that ought to be favoured by its adherents. This objection takes three forms: (i) the equality version; (ii) the priority version; and (iii) the rights version. Let’s look at each objection and the possible responses from the proponents of EA.

As with all the entries in this series, what follows is based closely on Iason Gabriel’s excellent article ‘What’s wrong with effective altruism?’. I will add some commentary of my own along the way, but I can’t claim any originality for the main points.


1. The Equality Objection
Gabriel notes that most EAs appreciate the instrumental value of equality (understood broadly here to include equality of outcome and opportunity). Inequality of outcomes can often be an impediment to securing other goods and can give rise to ‘resentment, domination and the erosion of public goods’ (Gabriel 2015, 4). Furthermore, the welfarist philosophy underlying EA is committed to the concept of marginal utility. This concept implies that more good can be done by giving something to the poor than by giving the same thing to the relatively wealthy. This is heavily emphasised in all the EA literature I have come across.

Nevertheless, despite this instrumental appreciation of equality, critics charge that adherents of EA do not appreciate the intrinsic good of equality. Gabriel makes the point using a thought experiment.

Two Villages: There are two villages in two different countries, both in need of assistance. There are two possible policy interventions which could be funded (the funding being the same for both). The first intervention would allocate money equally between the two villages, supporting the same projects in both and achieving a substantial overall benefit. The second intervention gives all the money to one of the villages. By doing so, the second intervention achieves a marginally greater overall gain in welfare. Which intervention should you favour?

To be consistent with their welfarist and consequentialist philosophy, the proponent of EA would have to favour the second intervention, even though it pays no heed to the intrinsic value of equality. This is a problem according to the critic.

Let’s formalise this into an argument objecting to EA:

  • (1) Equality is an important intrinsic moral good — an essential part of any theory of justice.

  • (2) Thick EA is insensitive to the intrinsic value of equality (support: Two Villages thought experiment) 

  • (3) Therefore, thick EA fails to be just.

Is this a serious objection? Gabriel is non-committal in his analysis, but notes that there are several plausible lines of response available to the proponent of EA. The first is simply to reject the guiding normative premise, i.e. reject the notion that equality is an intrinsic moral good and an essential part of any theory of justice. This might seem unpalatable at first glance, but there are several philosophers who defend the notion that equality is not an intrinsic good. For example, Harry Frankfurt has recently penned a short book defending this proposition, and libertarians like Michael Huemer have offered sustained objections to it in the past. The advantage of this response is that EA is still perfectly well able to address the instrumental value of equality in its assessments. This, in turn, mitigates the initially negative reaction to dropping the intrinsic value of equality.

Maybe that’s a step too far for some people. If so, there are other ways to reconcile EA and equality. One is to broaden one’s conception of the good so that equity becomes part of the welfarist system of values. Welfarism, as it is typically conceived, focuses on a narrow set of well-being metrics, including things like absence of pain, lifespan, improved educational attainment and so forth (more on these metrics in a future entry in this series). This set of metrics could potentially be expanded to include equality of outcomes. Gabriel channels Samuel Scheffler on this point, noting that one could adopt a ‘distribution-sensitive conception of the overall good’. The problem with this is figuring out the weight that should be attached to equitable distributions in the assessment of outcomes.

Another possibility would be to allow equality to be used as a tie-breaker when other welfare-based comparisons are indeterminate. This would accommodate some of the intuition behind the equality objection, albeit not all of it.

In sum, it’s not clear how serious the equality objection is to the EA project.





2. The Priority Objection
The second variant on the justice objection focuses on the concept of priority. This features in many accounts of distributive justice. A pure form of distributive egalitarianism would treat everybody equally. So if there was $1,000,000 to be divided up between a population of 1,000, everybody would get an equal share of $1,000. This pure egalitarianism does not sit well with many people. The problem is that in a population of 1,000 there are likely to be important differences when it comes to how much some people deserve to receive. For example, some people might be independently wealthy and so not in need of $1,000. Some people might have been wealthy before, but gambled away all their money on speculative investments. Such people would be less deserving of the money than someone who was deprived through no fault of their own. The concept of priority is introduced so as to pay heed to these differences in deservingness.

What this means in practice is that distributions should usually favour the worst off. In other words, they should get priority when it comes to divvying up things like social spending or charitable giving. Ostensibly, thick EA pays heed to this prioritarian vision of justice. If you read books like MacAskill’s Doing Good Better, the message clearly seems to be that we should donate to the ultra poor. The critic argues that thick EAs are not true prioritarians in practice. They favour interventions that are cost-effective and result in the greatest marginal gains in welfare. The problem is that interventions favouring the poorest of the poor are unlikely to be both cost-effective and result in the greatest marginal gains in welfare. The poorest of the poor suffer from complex, multidimensional forms of deprivation that are difficult to overcome via any one policy intervention.

Once again Gabriel makes the point using a thought experiment:

Ultrapoverty: In a developing country, many people are living in extreme poverty. Some of those people are worse off than others. As an EA you have to choose between two possible policy interventions. The first focuses on those who can benefit the most: urban literate men. The policy is very successful in lifting them out of poverty. The second program focuses on those who are worst off: illiterate widows and disabled persons living in rural areas. It has some success, but less than the first program.

The claim is that the thick EA would have to favour the first policy in order to be consistent with their welfarist and consequentialist philosophy. This means they are not truly sensitive to the prioritarian vision of justice.

To formalise this, we can say:

  • (4) Any complete vision of justice ought to include a prioritarian condition when it comes to distributions of benefits and burdens, i.e. it ought to favour those most in need. 

  • (5) Thick EAs are insensitive to the prioritarian condition (support: Ultrapoverty thought experiment) 

  • (6) Therefore, thick EA fails to be just.

What can be said in response? Gabriel suggests four possible replies.

The first is to bite the bullet and reject the prioritarian condition. Again, this might seem like an unpalatable thing to do. The prioritarian view has a certain intuitive appeal. But there are philosophers who reject it. For instance, Huemer, in the paper linked to previously, critiques the prioritarian view. But this critique has limited scope, applying only when certain other conditions are met. Furthermore, even with this limited scope, Huemer’s view is not beyond criticism and has, indeed, been recently challenged by Pierre Cloarec. Still, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility to reject prioritarianism.

A second response is to incorporate the prioritarian condition into their welfarist calculus, possibly on a defeasible basis. Gabriel notes that some large charitable foundations, such as the Gates Foundation, already incorporate priority rankings into their decision-making. This suggests that this particular criticism of EA may be more theoretical than practical. A third response would be to use priority as a tie-breaker in cases where the welfarist calculation is indeterminate or equivalent between two policy interventions.

The final response is slightly more theoretical. One justification of the prioritarian view holds that it is important because it legitimises the state’s actions. That is to say, in order for the state to legitimately hold coercive power over its citizens, its institutions must be justified to the worst-off in society. This is one of the ideas in Rawls’s A Theory of Justice. Given this theoretical grounding, a proponent of EA may be able to step around the prioritarian critique by arguing that they are focusing on private donations. The claim would be that private donations are not subject to the same need for legitimation and hence the priority condition can be ignored. The problem with this is that it feels like the EA gets off on a technicality, and I’m not sure how defensible it is in a world in which private interests hold considerable state-like power (this being one of the critiques of large philanthropic donations like those emanating from Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg).




3. The Rights Objection
The final justice-related objection focuses on rights. Most people know what rights are. They are those somewhat elusive moral-legal entities that entitle you to make claims on others and impose duties upon them. They could include things like the right to bodily integrity, freedom of conscience, property, education and so on. Following Dworkin’s classic metaphor, rights are sometimes said to operate as ‘trumps’ in political and legal decision-making. You cannot sacrifice someone’s rights to the greater good.

The critic of EA worries that it is not sensitive to the trump-like quality of rights. EA’s may be able to respect rights in a defeasible manner, perhaps by accepting that respecting rights is a decent heuristic to follow when trying to secure the optimum marginal welfare gains. But such defeasible support for rights is insufficient for the critic. Another thought experiment can be used to make the point:

Sweatshop: You are working in a developing country that has seen a remarkable growth in dangerous and poorly regulated factory labour (‘sweatshop labour’). This has lifted many people out of poverty, but led to an increase in workplace fatalities. Some NGOs want to campaign for better working conditions (‘workers’ rights’). They ask you for money. You have reason to believe that your donation would enable them to persuade the government to introduce a workers’ rights charter. But the effect of this would be to reduce the number of employment opportunities in the country, thereby preventing many people from escaping poverty. What do you do?

This thought experiment is a little less hypothetical than the preceding ones. If you read MacAskill’s Doing Good Better you will find a robust defence of sweatshop labour on the grounds that it is undoubtedly good for the poor. But the rights theorist may balk at this. They would argue that favouring sweatshop labour involves an impermissible tradeoff between the rights of the workers and the greater good.

To put this formally:

  • (7) Any complete theory of justice must include respect for individual rights as trumps, i.e. rights cannot be traded off for the greater good. 

  • (8) Thick EAs do not treat rights as trumps (support: Sweatshop thought experiment) 

  • (9) Therefore, thick EA fails to be just.

This objection mimics the standard deontological objection to consequentialist ethical theories. According to the critic, rights operate as deontological side constraints to decision-making. Can the proponent of EA address this problem? Gabriel identifies three responses.

The first is to try to incorporate rights into the overall conception of the good that motivates the EA position. This is not as unusual as it might first sound. Amartya Sen has argued (LINK) that respect for rights should be included as an additional factor in the overall assessment of the good. They would be included alongside the welfare assessments that are common to EA; they would not be reducible to such welfare assessments. In other words, when assessing the merits of some policy intervention, EAs should try to include respect for rights and gains in welfare in their assessments. This might lead them to conclude that the welfare gains from sweatshop labour are offset by the rights violations.

The second response is to hang tough and insist upon the consequentialist analysis. In other words, to insist that in at least some cases gains in welfare trump rights. I tend to find this appealing for reasons discussed elsewhere on this blog. I am broadly in favour of consequentialist approaches to ethics and find many standard deontological objections unpersuasive. For instance, the most common objection to consequentialism is that if you follow its advice to the hilt you will end up doing some seemingly bad things. But as Pettit points out, in most such cases, following the deontologist’s advice also requires some bad things. This is because most such objections to consequentialism involve dilemmatic decision problems in which no course of action is 100% desirable. Thus, in these cases it still seems like assessing the overall outcomes is the best way to go. That’s not to say it’s easy to assess those outcomes and to figure out what should and should not go into our assessment of the good; but it is to say that insisting on deontological constraints is not as compelling as some seem to believe.

The third response would be to develop rights-based defences of things like sweatshop labour to back up the initial welfarist assessment. Gabriel briefly alludes to this possibility. He suggests that the sweatshop labour example involves a tradeoff between a right to subsistence and a right to reasonable working conditions. In this case, the right to subsistence might win out. However, Gabriel reneges on this position because he accepts an argument made by Henry Shue which claims that subsistence includes security in the possession of what one needs to get by. The concern then is that sweatshop labour wouldn’t include that security.




4. Conclusion
To briefly recap, the three justice objections all claim that EA is deficient because it fails to incorporate some justice-relevant condition. As outlined above, there are various ways that the proponent of EA can respond. These typically reduce to either hanging tough with their welfarist-consequentialist approach to assessing policies; or modifying their view to incorporate the relevant conditions.

Although I have covered these objections in quite some detail, I have to say that I find these to be the least interesting objections to EA. It’s not that the points raised are unimportant. It’s just that they are all really about the moral theory underlying the EA position. It’s always possible for the proponent of EA to amend their moral theory so as to align more closely with our moral intuitions. The real issue is whether those amendments undermine other aspects of EA, such as its insistence on useful objective metrics for assessing policy interventions. That’s what the next set of objections will deal with. Stay tuned.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Robot Overlordz: Ep 237 The Sofalarity and the Future of Work





I had the good fortune of being invited back onto the Robot Overlordz podcast for a third time. On this occasion, I was talking about the future of work. Several topics were discussed over the course of the podcast, including:

  • What is work and what might a world without it look like?
  • Depictions of a postwork future in science fiction, including Star Trek and Wall E (and the idea of the 'sofalarity')
  • The polarisation effect and its impact on the future of work
  • The politics of the basic income guarantee

And more. Check it out. I recommend listening the higher quality recording, which is available here.