Optimizing luck

Each week on the NPR podcast How I Built This, host Guy Raz interviews a founder of a successful enterprise like James Dyson or Ben and Jerry. At the end of most segments, he’ll ask the founder how much of their success do they attribute to luck and how much to talent. In most cases, the founder will modestly say that luck played a major role but some will add that they did take advantage of the luck when it came. One common thread for these successful people is that they are extremely resilient and aren’t afraid to try something new when things don’t work at first.

There are two ways to look at this. On the one hand there is certainly some selection bias. For each one of these success stories there are probably hundreds of others who were equally persistent and worked equally hard but did not achieve the same success. It is like the infamous con where you send 1024 people a two outcome prediction about a stock.  The prediction will be correct in 512 of them so the next week you send those people another prediction and so on. After 10 weeks, one person will have received the correct prediction 10 times in a row and will think you are infallible. You then charge them a King’s ransom for the next one.

Yet, it may be possible to optimize luck and you can see this with Jensen’s inequality. Suppose x represents some combination of your strategy and effort level and \phi(x) is your outcome function.  Jensen’s inequality states that the average or expectation value of a convex function (e.g. a function that bends upwards) is greater than (or equal to) the function of the expectation value. Thus, E(\phi(x)) \ge \phi(E(x)). In other words, if your outcome function is convex then your average outcome will be larger just by acting in a random fashion. During “convex” times, the people who just keep trying different things will invariably be more successful than those who do nothing. They were lucky (or they recognized) that their outcome was convex but their persistence and willingness to try anything was instrumental in their success. The flip side is that if they were in a nonconvex era, their random actions would have led to a much worse outcome. So, do you feel lucky?

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AI and authoritarianism

Much of the discourse on the future of AI , such as this one, has focused on people being displaced by machines. While this is certainly a worthy concern, these analyses sometimes fall into the trap of linear thinking because the displaced workers are also customers. The revenues of companies like Google and Facebook depend almost entirely on selling advertisements to a consumer base that has disposable income to spend. What happens when this base dwindles to a tiny fraction of the world’s population? The progression forward will also most likely not be monotonic because as people initially start to be replaced by machines, those left with jobs may actually get increased compensation and thus drive more consumerism. The only thing that is certain is that the end point of a world where no one has work is one where capitalism as we know it will no longer exist.

Historian and author Yuval Harari argues that in the pre-industrial world, to have power is to have land (I would add slaves and I strongly recommend visiting the National Museum of African American History and Culture for a sobering look at how America became so powerful). In the industrial world, the power shifted to those who own the machines (although land won’t hurt) while in the post-industrial world, power falls to those with the data. Harari was extrapolating our current world where large corporations can track us continually and use machine learning to monopolize our attention and get us to do what they desire. However, data on people is only useful as long as they have resources you want. If people truly become irrelevant then their data is also irrelevant.

It’s anyone’s guess as to what will happen in the future. I proposed an optimistic scenario here but here is a darker one. Henry Ford supposedly wanted to pay his employees a decent wage because he realized that they were also the customers for his product. In the early twentieth century, the factory workers formed the core of the burgeoning middle class that would drive demand for consumer products made in the very factories where they toiled. It was in the interest of industrialists that the general populace be well educated and healthy because they were the source of their wealth. This link began to fray at the end of the twentieth century with the rise of the service economy, globalisation, and automation. After the second World War, post-secondary education became available to a much larger fraction of the population. These college educated people did not go to work on the factory floor but fed the expanding ranks of middle management and professionals. They became managers and accountants and dentists and lawyers and writers and consultants and doctors and educators and scientists and engineers and administrators. They started new businesses and new industries and helped drive the economy to greater prosperity. They formed an upper middle class that slowly separated from the working class and the rest of the middle class. They also started to become a self-sustaining entity that did not rely so much on the rest of the population. Globalisation and automation made labor plentiful and cheap so there was less of an incentive to have a healthy educated populace. The wealth of the elite no longer depended on the working class and thus their desire to invest in them declined. I agree with the thesis that the abandonment of the working class in Western liberal democracies is the main driver of the recent rise of authoritarianism and isolationism around the world.

However, authoritarian populist regimes, such as those in Venezuela and Hungary, stay in power because the disgruntled class that supports them is a larger fraction of the population than the opposing educated upper middle class that are the winners in a contemporary liberal democracy. In the US, the disgruntled class is still a minority so thus far it seems like authoritarianism will be held at bay by the majority coalition of immigrants, minorities, and costal liberals. However, this coalition could be short lived. Up to now, AI and machine learning has not been taking jobs away from the managerial and professional classes. But as I wrote about before, the people most at risk for losing jobs to machines may not be those doing jobs that are simple for humans to master but those that are difficult. It may take awhile before professionals start to be replaced but once it starts it could go swiftly. Once a machine learning algorithm is trained, it can be deployed everywhere instantly. As the ranks of the upper middle class dwindle, support for a liberal democracy could weaken and a new authoritarian regime could rise.

Ironically, a transition to a consumer authoritarianism would be smoothed and possibly quickened by a stronger welfare state. A possible jobless economy would be one where the state provides a universal basic income that is funded by taxation on existing corporations, which would then compete for those very same dollars. Basically, the future incarnations of Apple, Netflix, Facebook, Amazon, and Google would give money to an idle population and then try to win it back. Although, this is not a world I would choose to live in, it would be preferable to a socialistic model where the state would decide on what goods and services to provide. It would actually be in the interest of the corporations and their elite owners to lobby for high taxes and to not form monopolies and allow for competition to provide better goods and services. The tax rate would not matter much because in a steady state loop, any wealth inequality is stable regardless of the flux. It is definitely in their interest to keep the idle population happy.

The wealth threshold

The explanation for growing wealth inequality proposed by Thomas Piketty in his iconic book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, is that the rate of growth from capital exceeds that of the entire economy in general. Thus, the wealth of owners of capital (i.e. investors) will increase faster than everyone else. However, even if the rate of growth were equal, any difference in initial conditions or savings rate, would also amplify exponentially. This can be seen in this simple model. Suppose w is the total amount of money you have, I is your annual income, E is your annual expense rate, and r is the annual rate of growth of investments or interest rate. The rate of change in your wealth is given by the simple formula

\frac{dw}{dt} = I(t) - E(t)+ r w,

where we have assumed that the interest rate is constant but it can be easily modified to be time dependent. This is a first order linear differential equation, which  can be solved to yield

w = w_0 e^{r t} + \int_{0}^t (I-E) e^{r(t-s)} ds,

where w_0 is your initial wealth at time 0. If we further assume that income and expenses are constant then we have w = w_0 e^{r t} +  (I-E)( e^{rt} -1)/r. Over time, any difference in initial wealth will diverge exponentially and there is a sharp threshold for wealth accumulation. Thus the difference between building versus not building wealth could amount to a few hundred dollars in positive cash flow per month. This threshold is a nonlinear effect that shows how small changes in income or expenses that would be unnoticeable to a wealthy person could make an immense difference for someone near the bottom. Just saving a thousand dollars per year, less than a hundred per month, would give one almost a hundred and fifty thousand dollars after forty years.

Equifax vs Cassini

The tired trope from free market exponents is that private enterprise is agile, efficient, and competent, while government is prodding, incompetent, and wasteful. The argument is that because companies must survive in a competitive environment they are always striving to improve and gain an edge against their competitors. Yet history and recent events seem to indicate otherwise. The best strategy in capitalism seems to be to gain monopoly power and extract rent. While Equifax was busy covering up their malfeasance instead of trying to fix things for everyone they harmed, Cassini ended a brilliantly successful mission to explore Saturn. The contrast couldn’t have been greater if it was staged. The so-called incompetent government has given us moon landings, the internet, and built two Voyager spacecraft that have lasted 40 years and have now exited the Solar system into interstellar space. There is no better run organization than JPL. Each day at NIH, a government facility, I get to interact with effective and competent people who are trying to do good in the world. I think it’s time to update the government is the problem meme.

The robot human equilibrium

There has been some push back in the media against the notion that we will “soon” be replaced by robots, e.g. see here. But absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Just because there seem to be very few machine induced job losses today doesn’t mean it won’t happen tomorrow or in ten years. In fact, when it does happen it probably will happen suddenly as have many recent technological changes. The obvious examples are the internet and smartphones but there are many others. We forget that the transition from vinyl records to CDs was extremely fast; then iPods and YouTube killed CDs. Video rentals became ubiquitous from nothing in just a few years and died just as fast when Netflix came along, which was then completely replaced a few years later by streaming video. It took Amazon a little longer to become dominant but the retail model that had existed for centuries has been completely upended in a decade. The same could happen with AI and robots. Unless you believe that human thought is not computable, then in principle there is nothing a human can do that a machine can’t. It could take time to set up the necessary social institutions and infrastructure for an AI takeover but once it is established the transition could be abrupt.

Even so that doesn’t mean all or even most humans will be replaced. The irony of AI, known as Moravec’s Paradox (e.g. here), is that things that are hard for humans to do, like play chess or read X-rays, are easy for machines to do and vice versa. Although drivers and warehouse workers are destined to be the first to be replaced, the next set of jobs will likely be highly paid professionals like stock brokers, accountants, doctors, and lawyers. But as the ranks of the employed start to shrink, the economy will also shrink and wages will go down (even if the displaced do eventually move on to other jobs it will take time). At some point, particularly for jobs that are easy for humans but harder for machines, humans could be cheaper than machines.  So while we can train a machine to be a house cleaner, it may be more cost effective to simply hire a person to change sheets and dust shelves. The premium on a university education will drop. The ability to sit still for long periods of time and acquire arcane specialized knowledge will simply not be that useful anymore. Centers for higher learning will become retreats for the small set of scholarly minded people who simply enjoy it.

As the economy shrinks, land prices in some areas should drop too and thus people could still eke out a living. Some or perhaps many people will opt or be pushed out of the mainstream economy altogether and retire to quasi-pre-industrial lives. I wrote about this in quasi-utopian terms in my AlphaGo post but a dystopian version is equally probable. In the dystopia, the gap between the rich and poor could make today look like an egalitarian paradise. However, unlike the usual dystopian nightmare like the Hunger Games where the rich exploit the poor, the rich will simply ignore the poor. But it is not clear what the elite will do with all that wealth. Will they wall themselves off from the rest of society and then what, engage in endless genetic enhancements or immerse themselves in a virtual reality world? I think I’d rather raise pigs and make candles out of lard.

 

 

 

 

Trade and income inequality

The conventional wisdom in economics is that trade is mutually beneficial to all parties and the freer the trade the better. However, as David Autor and collaborators have empirically shown, the benefits of trade can be unevenly distributed. A simple way to think about this is to consider a simple model of a nation’s income (I) as a function of socio-economic status (S), I = \alpha +\beta S. Here, S can be distributed in anyway but has zero mean. The mean income of the nation is \alpha while \beta is a measure of inequality (i.e. proportional to standard deviation). Generally, it was presumed that trade increases \alpha. However, as Autor finds, trade can also increase \beta and then it becomes a quantitative game as to whether you personally will do better or worse with trade. Your change in income will be \Delta I = \Delta \alpha +\Delta\beta S. Thus, if you are above the mean S then trade is always beneficial and increasing \beta helps you even more.  However, where the mean is with respect to the median is strongly dependent on the tails of the distribution of S. So if people with high S are very far away from the median, then the mean could also be high with respect to the median. If you are below the mean then gains from \Delta \alpha are offset by decreases in \Delta \beta S and if you’re S is more negative than -\Delta \alpha/\Delta\beta then you will do worse in absolute terms. This could explain what has been happening in the US. The nation benefits from trade by having cheaper goods but some sectors like manufacturing and textiles are greatly hurt and the cheaper goods cannot make up for the decrease in income. Those above the mean are benefitting from a mean shift in income due to trade as well as any increases in inequality. Those below the mean are getting smaller gains and in some cases doing worse as a result of trade. Thus, it may not be surprising that there are divergent views on the benefits of trade.

The demise of Barnes and Noble

Near the end of the twentieth century, there was a battle between small bookstores and the big chains like Barnes and Noble and Borders, typified in the film You’ve Got Mail.  The chains won because they had lower prices, larger stocks, and served as mini-community centers where people liked to hang out. It was sad to see the independent bookstores die but the replacement was actually a nice addition to the neighborhood. The Barnes and Noble business model was to create attractive places to spend time, with play areas for children, a cafe with ample seating, and racks and racks of magazines. The idea was that the more time you spent there the more money you would spend and it worked for at least ten years. Yet, at the height of their dominance, the seeds of their destruction could be plainly seen. Amazon was growing even faster and a new shopping model was invented. People would spend time and browse in B and N and then go home to order the books on Amazon. The advent of the smartphone only quickened the demise because people could order directly from the store. The large and welcoming B and N store was a free sample service for Amazon. Borders is already gone and Barnes and Noble is on its last legs. The one I frequent will be closing this summer.

The loss of B and N will be a blow to many communities. It’s a particular favorite locale for retirees to congregate. I think this is a perfect example of a market failure. There is a clear demand for the product but no viable way to monetize it. However, there already is a model for providing the same service as B and N that has worked for a century and that is called a library. Libraries are still extremely popular and provide essential services to people, and particularly low income people. The Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore has a line every morning before it opens for people scrambling to use the computers and access the internet. While libraries have been rapidly modernizing, with a relaxation of behavior rules and adding cafes, they still have short hours and do not provide the comforting atmosphere of B and N.

I see multiple paths forward. The first is that B and N goes under and maybe someone invents a new private model to replace it. Amazon may create book stores in its place that act more like showrooms for their products rather than profit making entities. The second is that a philanthropist will buy it and endow it as a nonprofit entity for the community much like Carnegie and other robber barons of the nineteenth century did with libraries. The third is that communities will start to take over the spaces and create a new type of library that is subsidized by tax payers and has the same hours and ambience of B and N.