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Moment of Truth - September 16 2017

The Futurologist's Problem

Welcome to the Moment of Truth: the thirst that is the drink.

I got together with my friend Professor Wadwa the other night for drinks. Let me explain, first of all, that this is not Professor Vivek Wadhwa, the noted academic, entrepreneur, and advocate for decency in immigration law. This is Professor Manish Wadwa, the noted futurologist, wannabe thought leader and tax consultant.

He has money, and when he's in town he treats me to drinks. He earned his money the old-fashioned way: slipping on the ice in front of Neiman-Marcus. But he's very generous because, although he considers himself a rugged individualist and a self-made man, he freely admits luck has had a lot to do with his current financial well-being.

After an evening's conversation with the professor, I'm usually left inspired and confused. Let me see if I can organize my thoughts enough to describe what we discussed.

I believe Wadwa had an idea, which can be summed up thus: what if there were a computer job exchange to divide up the jobs no one wanted to do, so everyone could do them for a little bit a week instead of some unlucky slobs having to do them all day every day for their entire lives?

Wadwa has a keen mind, but most of his brilliant ideas leave a lot of unanswered questions. "What," I asked him, "would be the incentive for the rich to do their part? They could just pay the poor people to do their share of the lousy jobs, and we'd be back where we started.

"What if it was more than a lousy-job exchange?" I went on. "What if it was a global database of everything everyone needed to have someone else do, or to have help doing? And these jobs, tasks, help on a project, they'd be divorced from money."

"Why would someone do something for no money?" Wadwa asked.

"I don't know, why did people do things before there was money? Mutual community welfare and gratitude, prestige, affection."

"But those things are impossible to measure," Wadwa countered, "that's why money's superior. Anyway, a lot of people would show their gratitude and affection with gifts, which the wealthy have more power to give."

"All right, how about this," I probed. "What if robots did everything? Our system is already computerized, we just network all the things, like an internet of things, the whole thing, and robots do everything."

"What about brain surgery?"

"A robot can do brain surgery! It's not – it's just brain surgery."

"What about art?"

"Jesus, are you kidding, an elephant can do art. A robot elephant even better, probably."

"Well," said Wadwa, "and this is why I'm the idea man, what about when the computer sees no reason to do things for people anymore, or no reason for people to even exist, since they just consume energy and don't produce anything?"

"Oh! We give the computer an incentive. Every time its robot homunculi do something for us, we give it something. Something we've programmed it to get satisfaction from. Like, likes or stars or glowing reviews. When we eat the food it's grown, it gets appreciation. And we've programmed it to live on appreciation."

"I forgot what the point of all this was," Wadwa said.

"I think you started out trying to dole out the onerous tasks so that a caste of unlucky people didn't get stuck in lives of miserable drudgery."

"Oh, misery, right. Human misery is largely avoidable, but not entirely." "True. And fairness goes a long way toward preventing avoidable misery." "Fairness," said Wadwa. "Hmm."

I could tell he was trying to figure out a way to avoid fairness. In our discussions, fairness always ended up leading to radical wealth-redistribution, and Wadwa was never in favor of that. First of all, it was never going to happen. Second, it was a blunt instrument. He wanted a way to trick the uber-wealthy into letting their wealth leak away and bleed into equilibrium through economic osmosis.

"Look," I said, anticipating several steps in the conversation and leaping over them to the chase, "there is no system of misery-alleviation that someone with excess wealth can't use that wealth to pervert. As long as we value wealth—"

"Well, wealth is valuable, by definition," he insisted.

"And yet you and I know many many people who value many many things more than they value wealth," I insisted back at him.

"Uch," he moaned. "Why does it always come down to this? Why does wealth bring out the worst in people?"

"Because no one ever went broke expecting the worst of people, which makes them behave accordingly. Most such people die lonely or spiritually destroyed, but not broke. And as you say, you can measure wealth. You can't measure companionship. You can't measure peace of mind. You can't measure affection. You can't measure satisfaction or contentment. So the people who like to get the highest score, who are usually pushy assholes, are the ones who also measure their lives in cash, or assets that can be converted to cash in a pinch."

"What if we could measure all those things," Wadwa asked, perking up noticeably. In fact he was sparkling. "There's a misery index."

"There is?" But he was off and running without explaining to me what a misery index was, and we were back in the thick of imagining.

"So why not a contentment index? Those discontented uber-wealthy would certainly be embarrassed when they saw they had a lower contentment index than a garbage man!"

"But if a garbage man is content, doesn't that mean he's not miserable?"

"Yes, but he's still more prone to avoidable misery! Anyway, if I may continue, eventually, given continuous updates on their contentment, on their Fit Bit perhaps, yes, the uber-wealthy would first try to spend their discontent away, but when they'd finally come to realize the misery they were causing themselves and others by hogging wealth, they'd ... uh..."

"But wouldn't that just be turning people into organisms programmed to get satisfaction from those numbers? Like our computer?"

"I'm not sure that's a bad thing," Wadwa said. "At least, it's not bad in theory."

"Economic theory would love it if people behaved like robots," I said. "That's a well- known issue with economic theory."

"So really, all we're satisfying here is economic theory's desire for people to be more rational. Why do you always do that?" Wadwa whined.

"I'm just one of those people," I said contritely. "I ruin everything." And then we talked about movies.

This has been the Moment of Truth. Good day!

Moment of Truth


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