Friday, April 30, 2010

The Importance of Making vs Selling Stuff - sidebar on Goldman Sachs

Much discussion is being focused in Congress, recent books, articles, and in the media, on the financial crisis and the contributing factors to that crisis.  Omitting until the end the role of Goldman Sachs, one important factor about the crisis must not be overlooked said James Kwak of The Baseline Scenario:
Remember that financial services are an intermediate product -- that is, we don't eat them, or live in them, or put them on in the morning.  They are supposed to enable a more efficient allocation of capital, so that the non-financial economy is more productive. But what we saw since the 1980s was the unmooring of the financial sector from the rest of the economy.  
Financial services are supposed to serve our economy; not be the economy.  Yet the trend is otherwise... over 40% of the profits of the entire US corporate sector went to the financial industry.  As a reference, in 1970 it was 4%!

Paul Krugman wrote:
A growing body of analysis suggests that an oversized financial industry is hurting the broader economy.  Shrinking the oversized industry won't make Wall Street happy, but what's bad for Wall Street would be good for America.
Martin Wolf, of the Financial Times, wrote:
...the financial sector seems to be a machine to transfer income and wealth from outsiders to insiders, while increasing the fragility of the economy as a whole."
Even the ethic has changed.  Doing things with ones hands - the pride in the skill and craft of so doing - used to be our ethic; now it's who can earn the most money.

The real issue is that America has changed from a hands-on country to one that sells the products of others. As more and more production and service jobs go off-shore, only financial services are staying behind.  And as Andrew Sorkin said on the Charlie Rose show last week: many of these instruments on Wall Street, it's really just a casino, there is no underlying assets, they don't actually own these devices; people aren't getting mortgages because of this... What is the social utility of that?
All of this can be seen in the difference between the growth of the robotics industries in America and everywhere else.  America used to develop, design and manufacture their robots.  Then they only developed and designed them - the products were built off-shore.  Now much of the non-defense design is being done elsewhere and manufactured off shore without America having a piece of the pie.  Most of the iRobot products sold to the DoD are manufactured offshore!

Sidebar about Goldman Sachs

From a blog entry in The Huffington Post by Senator Carl Levin:
Most investors make the assumption that people selling them securities want those securities to succeed. That's how our markets ought to work, but they don't always. The Senators who in the 1930s investigated the causes of the Great Depression stated the principle clearly:
[Investors] must believe that their investment banker would not offer them the bonds unless the banker believed them to be safe. This throws a heavy responsibility upon the banker. He may and does make mistakes. There is no way that he can avoid making mistakes because he is human and because in this world, things are only relatively secure. There is no such thing as absolute security. But while the banker may make mistakes, he must never make the mistake of offering investments to his clients which he does not believe to be good.
Goldman documents make clear that in 2007 it was betting heavily against the housing market while it was selling investments in that market to its clients. It sold those clients high-risk mortgage-backed securities and CDOs that it wanted to get off its books in transactions that created a conflict of interest between Goldman's bottom line and its clients' interests.
These findings are deeply troubling. They show a Wall Street culture that, while it may once have focused on serving clients and promoting commerce, is now all too often simply self-serving. The ultimate harm here is not just to clients poorly served by their investment bank. It's to all of us. The toxic mortgages and related instruments that these firms injected into our financial system have done incalculable harm to people who had never heard of a mortgage-backed security or a CDO, and who have no defenses against the harm such exotic Wall Street creations can cause.
Levin went on to say that: 
Running through our findings and these hearings is a thread that connects the reckless actions of mortgage brokers at WaMu with market-driven credit rating agencies and the Wall Street executives designing the next synthetic. That thread is unbridled greed, and the absence of a cop on the beat to control it.
I couldn't agree more.  I'm pained to see this happening during my lifetime.  

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Rethinking Singularity

I have concerns about Ray Kurzweil's Singularity.  The following three stories will show you where I'm coming from and give some background to what I want to say:

(1) In the '80s, Tom Axworthy, then Principal Secretary to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (and now with the Center for the Study of Democracy at Queens U in Kingston, Canada and the Gordon Foundation), spoke before my group, the American Association of Political Consultants, and told why Canadians and other countries distinguished themselves from Americans and American political campaign technology.  He said that Americans pursue life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as a national credo whereas most other societies have as their goals peace, order, liberty and fraternity.  Fraternity being the sharing in the well-being of all of society.  Big difference between the individual pursuit of happiness to the altruistic sharing of the well-being of everyone.  And that difference translates into political orientation, campaign practices and social ethic.  In America elected officials have star status whereas most members of parliaments worldwide are part of the party and not well known.  They are often elected as the x-party member for the y area.  Hence there's less personality and more issue orientation.  Not Barney Frank versus Earl Sholley but instead Liberal versus Tory.  Axworthy's talk has stuck with me to this day because I strongly believe in his version of Fraternity and what it means for society and the future.  Also it was one of the many reasons I chose to sell off and quit my activities in politics.

(2) Ray Kurzweil's projections of logarithmic (exponentially accelerating) technological progress - particularly in the fields of robotics, biotechnology and nanotechnology - leading to a "singularity" or merging of these super-intelligent sciences sometime between 2040 and 2045, a merging where differentiating between a human with consciousness and a robot-like device acting as if it had consciousness, has been fascinating to me because I'm a technology enthusiast, particularly in the areas of computers, AI and robotics. I see it happening just as he says. In robots, genetics, longevity, artificial intelligence, aging, stem cells, and many more sciences, my vision of the future is similar to Kurtzweil's. And this is disturbing because his projections are leading to a conclusion that I don't want for society.

(3) While driving to and from Lake Tahoe last weekend, some friends and I listened to an audiobook entitled Death Match. Although it was a mystery, it was really about artificial intelligence. It involved a computer dating service that went beyond simple questionnaires and instead merged psychological, medical and financial data along with social data such as travel, movie and book preferences, phone call records, traffic tickets, etc. into a massive database which was then sliced and diced to provide information about the candidates well-beyond what they entered on their initial survey forms. Armed with all that data, the computer did it's match and was quite successful. A discussion occurred about individual boundaries, and computer capabilities. Coincidentally, I had recently listened to a podcast of an AI expert discussing how things were presently done (constructivist) and how they will be done shortly (software developing software). This shed light on what was fictional in the story. The discussion continued to include the fact that the story's software and manipulation of massive databases was available today but that it wasn't going to get too much better until more capable and extensive software could be developed and that was precluded because the present state of the art was constructivist (done by human programmers and limited by their time and capacity). Although software is used to create new computer chips, humans are still cranking out AI software. When AI software becomes self-generating, that's when robotics and other embedded sciences will grow - and the dangers I foresee begin.
    This brings me to a long and old (2000) Wired Magazine article written by Bill Joy, co-founder and network computer scientist of Sun Microsystems, a VC at Kleiner Perkins Greentech and FOO (Friend of Obama).  In the article, Joy worked his way through his own history of thoughts about technology to an evening when he spent some time with Ray Kurzweil and learned, first-hand, what Kurzweil foresaw.
    Ray was saying that the rate of improvement of technology was going to accelerate and that we were going to become robots or fuse with robots or something like that and John [Searle, also at the meeting] countering that this couldn't happen because the robots couldn't be conscious.
    I had always felt sentient robots were in the realm of science fiction.  But now, from someone I respected, I was hearing a strong argument that they were a near-term possibility.  I was taken aback, especially given Ray's proven ability to imagine and create the future.  I already knew that new technologies like genetic engineering and nanotechnology were giving us the power to remake the world, but a realistic and imminent scenario for intelligent robots surprised me.
    Joy wrote pages of his history in thought from then until he met scholar and author Jacques Attali who described his interpretation of Fraternity.
    Jacques helped me understand... Fraternity, whose foundation is altruism. Fraternity alone associates individual happiness with the happiness of others, affording the promise of self-sustainment.
    This crystallized for me my problem with Kurzweil's dream. A technological approach to Eternity - near immortality through robotics - may not be the most desirable utopia, and its pursuit brings clear dangers. Maybe we should rethink our utopian choices.
    I believe we must find alternative outlets for our creative forces, beyond the culture of perpetual economic growth; this growth has largely been a blessing for several hundred years, but it has not brought us unalloyed happiness, and we must now choose between the pursuit of unrestricted and undirected growth through science and technology and the clear accompanying dangers.
    We are getting a belated start on seriously addressing the issues around 21st-century technologies - the prevention of knowledge-enabled mass destruction - and further delay seems unacceptable. 
    It seems to me that Joy's seriousness and concern is well-deserved and appropriate.  I share his concerns fully.  What do you think?