Sunday, April 15, 2018

"Cognitive Scarcity and Artificial Intelligence: How Assistive AI Could Alleviate Inequality"

As with so many things, Kurt Vonnegut was onto this stuff years ago.

From Philosophical Disquisitions:
By Miles Brundage (FHI, Oxford University) and John Danaher (NUI Galway)
(Be sure to check out Miles's other work on his website and over at the Future of Humanity Institute, where he is currently a research fellow. You can also follow him on twitter @Miles_Brundage)
The rise of the robots and the end of work. The superintelligence control problem and the end of humanity. The headlines seem to write themselves. The growth of artificial intelligence undoubtedly brings with it many perils. But it also brings many promises. In this article, we focus on the promise of widely distributed assistive artificial intelligences (i.e. AI assistants). We argue that the wide availability of such AI assistants could help to address one aspect of our growing inequality problem. We make this argument by adopting Mullainathan and Shafir’s framework for thinking about the psychological effects of scarcity. We offer our argument as a counterbalance to the many claims made about the inequality-boosting powers of automation and AI.

1. The Double Effect of Income Scarcity
Achieving some degree of distributive justice is a central goal of contemporary societies. In very abstract terms, this requires a just distribution of the benefits and burdens of social life. If some people earn a lot of money, we might argue that they should be taxed at a higher rate to ensure that the less well off receive some compensating measure of well-being. Tax revenues could then be used to provide social benefits to those who lack them through no fault of their own. Admittedly, some societies pay little more than lip service to the ideals of distributive justice; but in many cases it is a genuine, if elusive, goal. When pressed, many would say that they are committed to the idea that there should be equal opportunities and a fair distribution of benefits and burdens for all. They simply differ in their understanding of equality and fairness.

Various forms of inequality impact on our ability to achieve distributive justice. Income inequality is one of them. Income inequality is a major concern right now. The gap between the rich and the poor seems to be growing (Atkinson 2015; Piketty 2014). And this is, in part, exacerbated by advances in automation. Whether automation is causing long-term structural unemployment is a matter of some controversy. Several authors have argued that it is or that it soon will (Brynjolfsson and McAfee 2014; Ford 2015; Chace 2016). Others are more sceptical. But they sometimes agree that it is having a polarising effect on the job market and the income associated with jobs that are still available to humans. For example, David Autor argues that advances in automation are having a disproportionate impact on routine work (typically middle-income middle-skill work): the routine nature of such work makes it amenable to computer programs (using traditional 'top down' methods or programming or bottom up machine learning methods) performing the associated tasks. This forces workers into two other categories of work: non-routine abstract work and and non-routine manual work. Abstract work is creative, problem-solving work which requires high levels of education and is usually well-rewarded. Manual work is skilled dexterous physical work. It usually does not require high levels of education and is typically poorly-paid and highly-precarious (i.e. short-term, contract-based work). The problem is that there are fewer jobs available at the abstract (and high-paid) end of the jobs-spectrum. The result is that workers displaced by advances in automation tend to be pushed into the manual (and lower-paid) end.

If these polarising trends continue, more and more people will suffer from income-related scarcity. They will find it harder to get work that pays well; and the work they do get will tend to be precarious and insecure. This should be troubling to anyone who cares about distributive justice. The critical question becomes: how can we address the problems caused by income-related scarcity in such a way that there is a just distribution of the benefits and burdens of social life?

What is often neglected in debates about this question is the double effect of income-related scarcity. Research suggests that the poor don’t just suffer from all the problems we might expect to ensue from a lack of income (inability to pay bills, shortage of material resources, reduced ability to plan for the future), they also suffer a dramatic cognitive impact. The work of Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir is clear on this point (2014a; 2014b; 2012). To put it bluntly, they argue that having an insufficient income doesn’t just make you poor, it makes you stupid, too.

That’s a loaded way of putting it, of course. Their, more nuanced, view is that income-scarcity puts a tax on your cognitive bandwidth. ‘Bandwidth’ is general term they use to describe your ability to focus on tasks, solve problems, exercise control, pay attention, remember, plan and so forth. It comes in two main flavours:
Bandwidth1- Fluid intelligence, i.e. the ability to use working memory to engage in problem-solving behaviour. This is the kind of cognitive ability that is measured by standard psychological tests like Raven’s Progressive Matrices.
Bandwidth2 - Executive control, i.e. the ability to pay attention, manage cognitive resources, initiate and inhibit action. This is the kind of ability that is often tested by getting people to delay gratification (e.g. the infamous Marshmallow test).
Mullainathan and Shafir’s main contention, backed up by a series of experimental and field studies, is that being poor detrimentally narrows both kinds of cognitive bandwidth. If you have less money, you tend to be uniquely sensitive to stimuli relating to price. This leads to a cognitive tunnelling effect. This means that you are very good at paying attention to anything relating to money in your environment. But this tunnelling effect means that you have reduced sensitivity to everything else. This results in less fluid intelligence and less executive control. The effects can be quite dramatic. In one study, performed in a busy shopping mall in New Jersey, low-income and high-income subjects were primed with a vignette that made them think about raising different sums of money ($150 and $1500) and were then tested on fluid intelligence and executive control. While higher-income subjects performed equally well in both instances, those with lower incomes did not. They performed significantly worse when primed to think about raising $1500. Indeed, the impact on fluid intelligence was as high as 13-14 IQ points....

And here's Vonnegut's 1961 short story "HARRISON BERGERON" via the Internet Archive:
THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren't only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

Some things about living still weren't quite right, though. April for instance, still drove people crazy by not being springtime. And it was in that clammy month that the H-G men took George and Hazel Bergeron's fourteen-year-old son, Harrison, away.

It was tragic, all right, but George and Hazel couldn't think about it very hard. Hazel had a perfectly average intelligence, which meant she couldn't think about anything except in short bursts. And George, while his intelligence was way above normal, had a little mental handicap radio in his ear. He was required by law to wear it at all times. It was tuned to a government transmitter. Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.

George and Hazel were watching television. There were tears on Hazel's cheeks, but she'd forgotten for the moment what they were about.

On the television screen were ballerinas.
A buzzer sounded in George's head. His thoughts fled in panic, like bandits from a burglar alarm.
"That was a real pretty dance, that dance they just did," said Hazel.
"Huh" said George.
"That dance-it was nice," said Hazel.

"Yup," said George. He tried to think a little about the ballerinas. They weren't really very good-no better than anybody else would have been, anyway. They were burdened with sashweights and bags of birdshot, and their faces were masked, so that no one, seeing a free and graceful gesture or a pretty face, would feel like something the cat drug in. George was toying with the vague notion that maybe dancers shouldn't be handicapped. But he didn't get very far with it before another noise in his ear radio scattered his thoughts.

George winced. So did two out of the eight ballerinas.

Hazel saw him wince. Having no mental handicap herself, she had to ask George what the latest sound had been....MORE
Okay, maybe a slightly different approach, what with the Handicapper General and the weights and all but same goal.