Will a robot take my job?

As was pointed out to me on Twitter recently Betteridge’s law of headlines states that “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.” That’s not entirely correct, I think. In many cases, the answer is “wrong question”. At any rate, that’s how I treat it in my recent Inside Story review article, where the headline[1] is followed by the standfirst text “Three new books challenge lazy thinking about job-stealing robots and infallible algorithms”. I talked about Ellen Broad and algorithms last time. Now for Tim Dunlop and robots.

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Presidents, Prime Ministers and parties

The discussion of my Queen’s Birthday showed that at least some readers have problems thinking about how an elected presidency would work, what powers the president should have and so on. There are many different models out there, but my idea is that the president would acquire the current powers of the Governor-General (dissolving parliaments, including double dissolutions; resolving disputes between the Houses; and initiating the formation of governments after elections) but with less deference to the wishes of Prime Ministers than in the past. For example, the President could reject the shenanigans with absurdly drawn out election timetables that we saw in 2016, and saw proposed in 2013, and could refuse a snap election called to take advantage of a favorable climate.

Assuming this role, the President’s views on policy issues wouldn’t matter much; rather we would be looking for personal characteristics such independent mindedness and capacity for good judgement in a crisis. A possible side benefit would be that parliamentary elections would be more about policy and less about the personality of the party leaders.

Under the current system, we are called on to vote on a presidential basis, but with no guarantee that the elected leader will see out a term. Even if the rules were tightened to make spills more difficult, we would still have the problem of a successful leader voluntarily retiring mid-term, as Menzies did and as both Hawke and Howard promised to do.

Happy Birthday, Mrs Windsor

It’s the Queen’s birthday here in Queensland, having been moved by the Labor government to separate it from May Day, which they already moved from October, reversing a decision of the Newman LNP government. Apart from reports on what is open today, I couldn’t find any reference to this event in the media, even from notional monarchists.

That pretty much sums up the irrelevance of the British monarchy in Australia. So, this seems like a good time to think about when we should become a republic, and what kind of republic we want.

Our last attempt was run by the unlamented Malcolm Turnbull who assumed that what everyone wanted was a change of figurehead that left the reality of the system unchanged. That reality is a Prime Ministerial dictatorship, constrained only by elections, obstreporous Senators and the ever-present possibility of a party-room coup. Looking at our system over recent years, I don’t think it’s performed very well, and I suspect that Turnbull might now agree.

Another important change is that outright Lower House majorities are no longer assured and may soon become the exception rather than the rule. The role of the Head of State in deciding who should be invited to form a government is now increasingly important. These decisions ought to be made by a President with the independent legitimacy that comes from an election.

Obviously, this isn’t the most important issue facing the nation. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t discuss it and get moving on the issue. As usual, Bill Shorten (despite his unalterable image as a cautious timeserver) has taken the lead. I hope he will get the chance to act on this after the next election, and that he will take it.

Monday Message Board

Another Monday Message Board. Post comments on any topic. Civil discussion and no coarse language please. Side discussions and idees fixes to the sandpits, please.

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Algorithms

This is an extract from my recent review article in Inside Story, focusing on Ellen Broad’s Made by Humans

For the last thousand years or so, an algorithm (derived from the name of an Arab a Persian mathematician, al-Khwarizmi) has had a pretty clear meaning — namely, it is a well-defined formal procedure for deriving a verifiable solution to a mathematical problem. The standard example, Euclid’s algorithm for finding the greatest common divisor of two numbers, goes back to 300 BCE. There are algorithms for sorting lists, for maximising the value of a function, and so on.

As their long history indicates, algorithms can be applied by humans. But humans can only handle algorithmic processes up to a certain scale. The invention of computers made human limits irrelevant; indeed, the mechanical nature of the task made solving algorithms an ideal task for computers. On the other hand, the hope of many early AI researchers that computers would be able to develop and improve their own algorithms has so far proved almost entirely illusory.

Why, then, are we suddenly hearing so much about “AI algorithms”? The answer is that the meaning of the term “algorithm” has changed.
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Will a robot take my job? Wrong question!

I’ve just done a review article for Inside Story. The headline is Will a robot take my job? but the central point is that this is the wrong question to ask. While technology has a logic of its own, what really matters is our current set of economic and social structures, the financialised version of capitalism commonly called “neoliberalism“.

The article is a review of three excellent books:
2062 by Toby Walsh;
Made by Humans by Ellen Broad; and
The Future of Everything by Tim Dunlop

Read my review and buy the books!