April 10, 2023

Sam Altman's disturbing dystopia

You might not know who Sam Altman is, but he's pretty important right now.  He's a genius and he's got a dystopian view of the future.  It doesn't matter if it comes from a place of goodwill, it's the outcome that matters.

Firstly, Sam Altman is the CEO of OpenAI, and has been so since he co-founded it.  OpenAI is the company behind the now-familiar ChatGPT, the artificial intelligence engine that has become the focus of so much speculation about the future of humanity.  It's speculation that's premature in my estimation.  AI is nowhere near sentient it's justs exceptionally good at mimicking human writing, research and other human capacities.  It makes decisions but not based on anything more than predictive statistics. I have worked for years in Analytics with predictive modelling and am not saying this offhandedly.  I believe Sam Altman knows this and part of what he is saying is likely to hype up his companies.  It's smart business.

That is not to say that the discussion is not worth having. At some point true AI may exist and we are certainly not prepared because we have not had truly meaningful discussions about it and the various implications from a broad societal context.  Firstly let's start with a rundown of Sam Altman's thinking on this as summarized by YouTuber AI Explained.

The dystopia here comes from the concept of wealth redistribution in a varied form of Universal Basic Income. I'm not against the notion of everyone having food to eat and a roof over their head.  How could you be against that?  But it's a notion not a societal model.  How you get there is what's really important.  Conservatives argue that you have to give a person a purpose (most often via a job) in order for people to have a positive sense of self-worth.  

If Altman is right about the cost of goods and services falling to near zero, then my first question would be, why is a universal basic income needed at all?  If food and shelter are almost free, why do I need $15 per hour, or $2000 per month? Being out of work is still problematic since near zero is not the same as at zero.  And we still have many issues:
  1. Conservatives' notion of working providing meaning and self worth is a real concern.
  2. Some level of modest income is still going to be necessary at a minimum, for everyone.
  3. Besides those who own companies how is any income going to remain possible?
  4. There will still be a cost if we can get what we want when we want, all the time, but the cost could be environmental (this coming from a staunch global warming skeptic)
  5. UBI rewards the laziest among us and penalizes the most industrious
  6. What alternatives to Universal Basic Income exist?
Beyond that Altman's suggestion of taxing companies based on their valuation is ludicrous.  What if they lost a lot of money in a given year but still have a significant market value?  Are we then not accelerating their decline?  

His notion that society won't tolerate divergent levels of income flies in the face of all of human history. People dislike it, but they have always tolerated it. It also flies in the face of the idea of capitalism; those who want to push society forward, are the ones who make progress, and in the process, become rich. Socialism penalizes them and society suffers as a result. Altman's suggestion is worse; abdicating the pushing of society towards being better into the 'hands' of AI, is abdicating our responsibility as human beings.

Instead of focusing on Universal Basic Income, we should be focusing on Universal Basic Opportunity.  It allows us to continue to be humans and find meaningful ways to provide out individual meaning and sense of self worth. 

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