The Singularity — How the American Techno-Oligarchy Will Fail

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Indexes
  1. Capitalism and Innovation in Perspective
  2. Standing Squarely in Their Own Way
  3. How the Oligarchy is Killing Innovation
  4. The Impact of Research Failure
  5. Conclusion
Navajo Nation

Pride is blind. So is arrogance.

The current technocracy in Silicon Valley has been chugging their own Kool-Aid for a while now, and as any binge drinker knows, they will have to deal with the hangover. Our techno-oligarchs believe that the Singularity is coming fast. In a burst of non-linear innovation, the singularity will solve all our problems. Independent of whether this kind of progress in the hands of humans is a good thing, it isn’t going to happen.

There aren’t going to be any meaningful, viable off-world colonies in our lifetimes, “hard AI” is going to take much longer than we currently think, and our work on aging and chronic, degenerative, and infectious diseases will continue to be inhibited for decades, all as a result of privatized, profit-driven research. Age extension isn’t going to happen in our lifetimes. Chronic illness isn’t going to go away, or even shrink in our lifetimes. The American techno-oligarchs will suffer from the same chronic diseases, lose their loved ones in the same pandemics, and die like the rest of us at around the same age. Why? Their own system ensures it.

Capitalism and Innovation in Perspective

The primary problem for oligarchs is that the rich and powerful have no perspective, no way to obtain it, and a high level of greed and arrogance. We see evidence of this every day in the media that they own. Becoming an oligarch is mostly the result of key variables that have nothing at all to do with vision or ability: exploitation of public funding and a highly unjust economic system, being born at the right time in the right place, and a whopping dose of luck.

To put things in perspective, lets start by admitting that Jobs, Gates, Musk, Thiel, Ellison, etc. are not remotely visionaries. They are talented businessmen selling other people’s decades-old visions in a wide range of colors and sizes. The visionaries that actually made their business empires possible are people like Ferraris, von Neumann, Gellius, Engelbart, and Anderson. Poorly-regulated capitalism, greed, corruption, an unreasonable belief in competition, and extreme wealth concentration have hindered the realization of their visions by decades — to the detriment of all.

The electric car was invented almost 200 years ago in the 1830’s. The induction motor that powers present-day Tesla EVs was demonstrated by Galileo Ferraris in 1885 (and was invented independently by Nikola Tesla, two years later). The architecture for modern computers was developed by John von Neumann in the 1940’s utilizing public money. In 1968, Engelbart’s enormous vision for computation as an extension of human capability— expressed in The Mother of All Demos, and still not complete today — provided the roots for most of the IT we use today. Vapor-compression refrigeration was invented in 1805 by Oliver Evans. In 1844, John Gorrie created a primitive air conditioner. Tesla invented the remote control in 1898. The thrust propulsion that launches SpaceX rockets was invented by Gellius in 400 B.C. And of course, space exploration based on the development of thrust propulsion was entirely publicly funded.

All this should lead any rational person to ask: Why didn’t we continue to develop electric cars? If it wasn’t for the destructive nature of competition, we might never have had a climate crisis. Why didn’t we have refrigerators or air conditioning during the Civil War? Why didn’t we have remote controls in the 1900’s? Why didn’t the Mac and the Internet happen in the 1970's? Why is it that we still don’t have faster and more efficient clockless chips? All this was certainly possible. But it didn’t happen. Why? And if the mythology of capitalism as daring and efficient were true, why did it take public money to invent rockets and computers?

More to the point: Why does Capitalism slow down progress so much?

As much as our billionaire oligarchs would like to think of themselves as risk-takers, they are anything but. If there isn’t a business plan for a vision, development of that vision has to wait. And it does.

Standing Squarely in Their Own Way

Given their lack of self-awareness, it should not be surprising that the rich and privileged have always failed to understand their function. They have created a system where they are the bottleneck that limits our ability to realize the work of visionaries. To make obscene profits, it is necessary to force innovation through a capitalist system that is rife with corruption, and driven by destructive competition and economic injustice. This system, which we are expected to revere, values capital more than anything else, including (and sometimes especially) innovation. Our oligarchs rarely understand the value of basic research, or visionary ideas until decades after the fact.

A well-regulated variant of capitalism that serves the public interest could be an engine for certain kinds of innovation. But the idea that it somehow serves as a primary source of innovation is naïve in the extreme. And while Capitalism 2.0 could be useful, the key to breakthrough innovation lies in another direction entirely. The rich may not understand this, but scientists do.

Jonas Salk was an international hero for creating the first polio vaccine, as well as for his refusal to patent it. His work was publicly funded, he wanted to solve a problem, and the result is that we don’t have children in iron lungs anymore. If drug companies did the same work today, we can be fairly sure that we would have a range of expensive treatments for the symptoms of polio, but we would still lack a cure. We can see this playing out with SARS-CoV2 today. We could have shut the virus down with a global, cooperative effort. Instead we have utterly failed at that. The blatant corruption and injustice of medicine-for-profit has created a generation of people who simply don’t trust medicine. But even given a willingness to get vaccinated, the oligarchy prefers to risk a catastrophe that could kill billions to limiting the profits of billionaires.

Cooperation and economic justice have rarely got their due. The golden age of science and medicine peaked during the middle of the twentieth century, and began to decline by the 1980s when Reaganism cut public funding for a spectrum of important work, and allowed privatization of patents developed with public money. The push for privatization predictably caused corruption that blurred the lines between public and private, enslaved free academic inquiry to industry, and ensured that progress would be decelerated.

Peak innovation happened because there was a recognition from publicly funded innovation during the war effort (and later the Apollo program), that academic freedom, and high levels of public funding for basic research would accelerate progress. That cures were a public good to be pursued by the public. Capitalist fundamentalism, privatization, greed and corruption have destroyed all this in the name of profit, even if most capitalists don’t understand what happened, or that they were responsible. Some may understand, but simply don’t care.

How the Oligarchy is Killing Innovation

As Bill Joy noted, “No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else,” or more to the point: “Innovation occurs elsewhere.”

The techno-oligarchy lacks perspective on this, as well as on their own limited contributions. The “elsewhere” we are talking about, where most innovation occurs, is in publicly-funded and often cooperative scientific endeavor. In this context, poorly-regulated capitalism, fueled primarily by greed, is wildly inefficient, and simply ineffective.

Billionaires imagine themselves to be the source of innovation. They use their political clout to deprioritize science and public spending, and to mold discovery to their liking. The crucial problem is that what they prioritize is primarily of immediate use to the market, and gated by market applicability. As a result, the radical visions of professors, researchers and visionaries are starved of cash, suffer years of delays, and sometimes they simply die on the vine.

The Impact of Research Failure

The very system that supports billionaire oligarchs, is fundamentally at odds with research to genuinely advance humanity. It is fundamentally at odds with the singularity.

As ideas pass through the bottleneck of capitalism, ideas that don’t make billionaires richer get filtered out. Opinions that billionaires don’t like are quietly dropped on newsroom floors. Their drug companies spend billions on treatments and vaccines, but rarely on cures. It is possible that the most insightful hypotheses about chronic illness will never be explored, simply because chronic illness is a cash cow. Capitalism can’t see past that.

Conclusion

The ongoing failure of research and innovation that is used to make a small number of people unfathomably rich, will continue to impede humanity’s advancement, and will delay the “singularity” by decades, perhaps indefinitely. Crony capitalism cannot make money on solutions, only on expensive treatments to patch wounds caused by its own failure.