In the latest ‘Geeks’ Guide to the Galaxy’ podcast, Simone Caroti discusses his critical survey of the Culture series by sci-fi author Iain Banks.
Tagged with “economics” (51)
Our increasingly smart machines aren’t just changing the workforce; they’re changing us. Already, algorithms are directing human activity in all sorts of ways, from choosing what news people see to highlighting new gigs for workers in the gig economy. What will human life look like as machine learning overtakes more aspects of our society?
Alexis Madrigal, who covers technology for The Atlantic, shares what he’s learned from his reporting on the past, present, and future of automation with our Radio Atlantic co-hosts, Jeffrey Goldberg (editor in chief), Alex Wagner (contributing editor and CBS anchor), and Matt Thompson (executive editor).
Why cities live forever
West focussed on cities in his discussion of the newly discovered exponential scaling laws that govern everything alive.
“We live,” he said, “in an exponentially expanding socio-economic universe.”
Global urbanization has reached the point that there are a million new people arriving in cities every week, and that rate is expected to continue to midcentury.
What is the attraction?
One reason for constant urban growth is that the bigger the city, the more efficient it is, because of economies of scale.
With each doubling of a city’s size, the numbers of gas stations and power lines and water lines, etc. increase at a rate a little less than double.
In other words, with every size increase there is a 15% improvement in energy efficiency.
“That‘s why New York is the greenest city in America,” West said.
The same dynamics of networks explain how what is called “power-law scaling“ works in biology.
The bigger the animal, the slower and more efficient its metabolism is, at a rate lower than 1-to-1 (“sublinear” in West’s terminology).
This leads to some remarkable constants.
Shrews weigh 2 grams, and in their 14-month life their heart beats a billion times.
Blue whales weigh 200 million grams, and in their 100-year life, their heart beats the same billion times.
Ditto for all mammals (except humans, who have achieved a lifetime average of 2 billion heartbeats, presumably for cultural reasons.)
In physical terms, cities are like organisms, enjoying sublinear economies of scale with each increase in size.
But when you look at cities in terms of their social-economic networks, an astonishing finding emerges. Once again there is power-law scaling if you count patents, wages, tax receipts, crimes, restaurants, even the pace of walking, but instead of slowing down with increasing size, cities speed up with increasing size.
Their increase is greater that 1:1.
It is superlinear.
“Bigger cities are better,” said West.
Each time they increase in size, they are 15% more innovative socio-economically at the same time they are 15% more efficient in terms of energy and materials.
Furthermore, they apparently live forever.
They create most of civilization’s problems, but they are capable of solving problems even faster than they create them.
However, when you compare companies with cities, companies have similar metabolic efficiencies of scale as they grow, but their innovation rate, instead of increasing with size,
slows down as they get ever bigger. And they are mortal.
The average lifespan of a publicly traded companies is 10 years.
They can grow prodigiously, but their net income, sales, profits, and assets can’t quite keep up—they are sublinear.
Successful new companies start off like cities, full of innovation, but over time the nature of corporate growth leads them to focus ever more solely on exploiting their success, and eventually they taper off and die like animals.
The city feeds on their corpses and creates new companies.
How much might global economic output rise if anyone could work anywhere? Some economists have calculated it would double. By the turn of the 20th century only a handful of countries were still insisting on passports to enter or leave. Today, migrant controls are back in fashion. It can seem like a natural fact of life that the name of the country on our passport determines where you can travel and work – legally, at least.
But it’s a relatively recent historical development – and, from a certain angle, an odd one. Many countries take pride in banning employers from discriminating against characteristics we can’t change: whether we’re male or female, young or old, gay or straight, black or white.
It’s not entirely true that we can’t change our passport: if you’ve got $250,000, for example, you can buy one from St Kitts and Nevis. But mostly our passport depends on the identity of our parents and location of our birth. And nobody chooses those.
The Egyptians thought literacy was divine; a benefaction which came from the baboon-faced god Thoth. In fact the earliest known script – “cuneiform” – came from Uruk, a Mesopotamian settlement on the banks of the Euphrates in what is now Iraq. What did it say? As Tim Harford describes, cuneiform wasn’t being used for poetry, or to send messages to far-off lands. It was used to create the world’s first accounts. And the world’s first written contracts, too.
From Spacewar to Pokemon Go, video games – aside from becoming a large industry in their own right – have influenced the modern economy in some surprising ways. Here’s one. In 2016, four economists presented research into a puzzling fact about the US labour market. The economy was growing, unemployment rates were low, and yet a surprisingly large number of able-bodied young men were either working part-time or not working at all. More puzzling still, while most studies of unemployment find that it makes people thoroughly miserable, the happiness of these young men was rising. The researchers concluded that the explanation was simply that this cohort of young men were living at home, sponging off their parents and playing videogames. They were deciding, in the other words, not to join the modern economy in some low-paid job, because being a starship captain at home is far more appealing.
The words ‘clever’ and ‘death’ crop up less often than ‘Google’ in conversation. That’s according to researchers at the University of Lancaster in the UK. It took just two decades for Google to reach this cultural ubiquity. Larry Page and Sergey Brin – Google’s founders – were not, initially, interested in designing a better way to search. Their Stanford University project had a more academic motivation. Tim Harford tells the extraordinary story of a technology which might shape our access to knowledge for generations to come.
Installing Windows might take 5,000 years without the compiler, a remarkable innovation which made modern computing possible. Tim Harford tells a compelling story which has at its heart a pioneering woman called Grace Hopper who – along the way – single-handedly invented the idea of open source software too.
The compiler evolved into COBOL – one of the first computer languages – and led to the distinction between hardware and software.
Transferring money by text message is far safer and more convenient than cash. M-Pesa, as it is known, first took off in Kenya. The idea was to make it easier for small businesses to repay micro-finance loans. But, almost immediately, M-Pesa exploded into something far bigger - there are now 100 times more M-Pesa kiosks than ATMs in Kenya – and with far-reaching consequences, in many developing economies. Tim Harford describes how money transferred this way is easy to trace, which is bad news for the corrupt. And good news for tax authorities.
How vast mega-stores emerged with the help of a design originally drawn in the sand in 1948 by Joseph Woodland as he sat on a Florida beach, observing the furrows left behind, an idea came to him which would – eventually – become the barcode. This now ubiquitous stamp, found on virtually every product, was designed to make it easier for retailers to automate the process of recording sales. But, as Tim Harford explains, its impact would prove to be far greater than that. The barcode changed the balance of power between large and small retailers.
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