26 Dec 2014

Why we have to change the system

My obsession with the economy started just over four years ago, and my hundreds of pages of blog posts (771 pages by last August!) have all essentially been generated in my spare time. My day job is doing research on the Brain and Cognition - I'm currently the director of the Brain and Cognition Research Center in Toulouse, France - a lab with about 80 members. I also founded a company called SpikeNet Technology in 1999, a company that sells bio-inspired image recognition software.

I've generally thought that my work on the Brain and Brain-style computing and my interest in the need to reform the economy as being very separate things. But, after watching a recent TED talk by a Jeremy Howard on "The wonderful and terrigfying implications of computers that can learn" I've just realized that the two areas are very much linked.

I've been following the rapid progress in Computing, and our increasingly impressive ability to develop machines that can see, listen, read and write. In 2012, I was at a major Conference on Computer Vision where everyone was talking about how how a relatively simple feed-forward convolutional neural network had been trained to recognize and label millions of images. The team that won the "ImageNet" competition that year had set up a company called DNNresearch which has since been bought up by Google. And in the last couple of years, similar technology has been shown to exceed the performance of humans in a wide range of highly skilled tasks.

As Jeremy Howard points out, this amazing progress has great potential. For example, it will be possible to provide intelligent medical diagnostic systems that will provide the skills needed to treat the billions of humans living in countries without sophisticated medical support.

But, at the same time, Howard points out that "Computers have just now... this month, become capable of replacing more than 80% of the worlds intellectual jobs."

Yes, you read that correctly. Any hope that the majority of people will be able to earn enough money by getting an employer to pay them to do something is now almost completely finished.

It was already the case the cashiers at supermarket checkouts were becoming a thing of the past - being replaced by automatic checkouts. And McDonalds will no doubt be able to buy machines capable of flipping hamburgers too.

Sure, there will still be a few paid jobs around for the lucky few. But now, even skilled jobs like medical diagnostics, airport security and taxidriving will soon be done by machines for a fraction of the cost of employing real people to do things. Even simultaneous translation from English to Chinese can now be done without paying anyone to do it.

We have to start thinking hard about how we can organise the world in the future - a world where there only enough paid jobs for a minority to survive. How are all the other people supposed to live?

For me, the solution is clear. We need to introduce a Unconditional Basic Income for all. People should not be required to work as slaves to an insane financial system simply to be able to feed their families. There is plenty enough money in the system to finance such a scheme. Just impose a 0.1% Financial Transaction Tax on the tens of quadrillions of transactions going on every year, and you would have a fair way to redistribute money to ordinary citizens.

And, when people are no longer slaves to the debt based money system, they will be free to do all the things that are really worth doing - creating worthwhile things, caring for each other, caring for our planet....

Maybe 2015 is not going to be such a bad year after all.

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