Steve Jobs has a famous quote that he used to convince the then CEO of Pepsi to join Apple: “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?”
Jobs revealed a profound truth that exists in many of today’s enterprises. Their main purpose is to drive up the demand for an abundant resource by making it scarce. This is known as the “Economics of Scarcity”, a business strategy to identify how to create artificial scarcity out of abundance.
One example of creating artificial scarcity is “planned obsolescence”. Coincidentally, Apple is a master at this. Do you know that Apple doesn’t sell parts so you can fix a broken device? Do you know that since 2012, Apple has used glue (instead of screws) to assemble their computers to make it impossible to repair? Do you know that Apple deliberately degrades iPhone performance as the battery life degrades?
The laptop I use today is a 2011 Macbook Pro. It is the last Apple laptop that you can upgrade yourself. I’ve got an i7 with 16GB of RAM and 1TB for SSD, that’s double what brand new laptops have today. It’s more than adequate for most tasks and works comparably to the latest laptops. A ton of RAM truly helps because I’ve got this bad habit of having too many browser tabs open.
Bitcoin is another example of artificial scarcity. Bitcoin is designed to limit the number of coins created to 21 million. Bitcoin cannot be printed like national currencies (i.e. USD), it can only be ‘mined’ (solving a computationally exhaustive cryptographic problem) and thus energy is expended in the process of creation. There’s so much energy spent on Bitcoin mining that over half of Iceland’s energy generation is spent on cryptocurrency mining! Bitcoin mining gets more difficult over time, and every four years the number of coins that can be mined (every 10 minutes) gets cut in half. So if you every wonder why Bitcoin is scarcer (and move expensive) than gold, then the reason is artificial scarcity. It’s just like De Beer’s diamonds or paintings of dead artists. Price goes through the roof when scarcity is created. It doesn’t have to be real, it only needs to be imagined!
So let’s examine the biggest AI companies in the world, Google and Facebook. How do they make their money? Both companies are primarily in the advertising business. Advertising is in the business of monetizing eyeballs. If you can’t sell content to your customers, you might as well sell your customers to advertisers! Both companies are leading the Deep Learning AI revolution. But for what purpose exactly? To allow advertisers to sell sugar water to their customers? Through advanced AI technologies, they are becoming more sophisticated in predicting your behavior and therefore manipulating your behavior.
I’ve written earlier that there are at least three dimensions of intelligence being developed. These are Computational, Autonomous and Social Intelligences. The first kind can be used for discovering the nature of the universe or drug discovery. The second kind is useful for automation that can act and decide without human intervention. The last kind, the one everyone wants to have because they are money printing machines, are the kind that predicts human behavior.
So if we can predict human behavior then shouldn’t we now use it for good? A recent research study performed by 25 technical and policy researchers showed how AI can be misused. The research is titled “The Malicious Use of Artificial Intelligence: Forecasting, Prevention, and Mitigation”. The 100 page paper is a treasure chest of ways AI technology can inflict harm. The paper’s framework revolves around identifying AI characteristics that are “security-relevant”, specifically:
Efficient and Scalable
Exceed Human Capabilities
Increase Anonymity and Psychological Distance
The same characteristics that make AI dangerous are the same characteristics that make it valuable for selling sugar water. Basically, we want customers to believe that the sugar water we sell is valuable and that we aren’t held accountable for the consequences of that sale. We convince the world of the ruggedness of owning a SUV or Truck, but don’t want to be accountable for its environmental footprint. We want to convince the world that guns keep us safe but we don’t want to be accountable for the destruction it creates. We want to convince people suffering from pain that opioids are one’s best pain relief but we don’t want to be accountable for the addiction. It is all the same moral bankruptcy that a majority of the population makes a daily living out of. Money is made out of scarcity and it has got nothing to do if that scarcity is beneficial to humans or not.
We all would like to believe that our work in AI leads to human good. As Jobs has said we all want to “change the world” for the greater good. But what is that greater good? Is happiness the greater good? If that is so, perhaps we might as well shoot ourselves up with psychedelics and permanently hook up to virtual reality.
Here’s what I propose instead, perhaps we look at what people who have uncharacteristically long lives do. The Blue Zone identifies the lifestyles and environments of the longest lived people. What they have found is that the people of Okinawa, Japan have this concept called Ikigai (生き甲斐):
The reason we get ourselves up every morning should be driven by our need for the doing (1) what we love, (2) what we are good at, (3) that the world needs and (4) provides income.
The big problem here is the last one. Most stuff that we are paid to do, the stuff with scarcity, misses out in any one of the other things. Only the very few are lucky enough to have all four in their life (I guess those are the people with University tenure). A majority of us waste our lives holding ‘BullShit Jobs’. Perhaps this should be the real goal of AI. To change the world so that we all can have “a reason for being”.
See my other post on the “Economics of Abundance”.
Is the Purpose of Artificial Intelligence to Sell Sugar Water? was originally published in Intuition Machine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
Gurupriyan is a Software Engineer and a technology enthusiast, he’s been working on the field for the last 6 years. Currently focusing on mobile app development and IoT.