Transcript of Extra: On Post COVID-19 Impacts with Ben Goertzel

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Jim: This is another of our special extra episodes around Coronavirus 19 and the social, political and other economic implications of that shock to our system. Today’s guest is Ben Goertzel who’s been on the show before and he’s put out some interesting tweets focusing on some of the not so good things to expect on the other side of the C19 outbreak. I think that’s important for us to start thinking about right now, because whether the peaks going to be in late April, May, June, it’s not far off. Unfortunately what I’m seeing even from the best state and national leaders is very understandable. Focus on trying to flatten the curve and dealing with the shitstorm we have from the rising curve. But interestingly, managing the backside of the curve is going to be every bit as important. In fact, maybe more important to the longterm social and economic health of our country. So with that, let’s jump in. Ben, one of the things you talk about is, we’re already seeing it. My daughter who’s 31 a lot of her friends working in entry level positions, they’re all getting laid off. Many of them are going to be rehired, the economy’s going to restructure itself. What are some of your thoughts about that?

Ben: I think there’s going to be a lot of changes in the economy and structure of society that have been sort of poison waiting to happen, but held back by a sort of- Then the disruption of COVID-19 it triggers some changes that were sort of in the structure of society. It’s hard to focus one’s attention on these medium term economic and social issues when you are worried about, am I going to die next week or is my grandma going to die tomorrow? But on the other hand, we’re going to get through the COVID-19 pandemic. I mean, it’s bad and people will die who I would much rather than die, but we’re going to get through it. We’re going to create vaccines, we’re going to find antiviral cocktails. At the end of it, society is going to be a little bit different than before, in ways are going to be significant for many people and in many ways not good for a lot of people.

Ben: You can see this in a bunch of different ways. I mean one of them, as you say, Jim, is a lot of service employees are being laid off now and there’s an obvious pattern who’s going to get laid off and who isn’t. I mean, if you’re a knowledge employee or if that term still is used. If you’re white collar and you’re working at your laptop all day or at your desk writing documents and managing spreadsheets, pretty much you can still do that at home. You can convert your meetings to Zoom calls. There’s a bit of loss of efficiency due to the toddler flinging mark in your head while you work at home, but you’re still operational. But if you’re flipping burgers at McDonald’s or greeting people at the department store or carrying out various jobs that are just face to face human interaction, then there’s really no reason for your employer to keep you employed during this sort of flashed depression we’re seeing due to the COVID.

Ben: And indeed your employer probably can’t afford to. But then once the COVID flash depression is over, then what happens? In some cases you’ll just get hired back. But in other cases your employer will take a fresh look at the situation and think like, well, maybe we can do more online ongoingly even after coconut is gone. Maybe now is the time to invest in some automation technology, you’d outsource this or that. So I think not all the service employees laid off are going to be rehired. Then at the same time, smart investors, funds with piles of money, they’re going to be looking around now and saying more like, hey, what can I buy up at a discount price during this depression? Because the owners don’t have the money to sustain for six months without revenue.

Ben: Or what competitors can I put out of business, because they can’t survive on their cash stockpile, but I can? You’re going to see major consolidation in a variety of industries. So in short, increasing wealth in the hands of the wealthy and more unemployed people becoming poorer and poorer. At the same time, as more power is going to the hands of big tech companies and big government. Because the techlash is fading now everyone loves Amazon, everyone loves Google, Zoom and whatever tools give them their lifeline in connection… Facebook. Give their lifeline in connection to the outside world while they’re stuck at home, dealing with their suddenly much more knowing family members. So techlash is gone. Big banks and PE funds are only more and more, working class people put out of work. Then government will slowly put in better and better surveillance mechanisms sucking data from big tech.

Ben: So as to better monitor the pandemic, but then whatever monitoring they put in place for the pandemic is going to keep going. So we’re looking toward more and more of a sort of a fascist oligopoly and over-darky, which is kind of what we already had. But we’re nudging further and further in that direction once this pandemic is gone. At least none of us knows what the hell is going to happen. But that seems like sort of the most likely course, unless something even worse happens or unless some of us crazy hackers freaks manage to get some alternative systems rolling.

Jim: Yeah, I think those are all spot on analysis. I use a framing for what comes after, I say that we’ll see a mix of homeostasis and historisis. Homeostasis being a biological… Mostly biological or rather chemical origin for systems that tend to converge back to the way they were. Historisis being a physics term for systems that basically are influenced by recent events and move off into new directions and don’t return. An example I like to give is business travel. My firm prediction, I’ve made some adjustments in my portfolio to represent this. That business travel will never return, as you were saying things that could happen but hadn’t happened because of inertia. There was sort of this game theoretic I have to show you respect by flying to Hong Kong for a one hour meeting. A waste of time and money at [inaudible 00:08:04].

Ben: I think you’re wrong on that one, but we can place a bet on it. Because I think for psychological reasons you’re wrong. I think a lot of people are going to get sick of hang out with their husband and kids or wife and kids, that they will be very eager to resume business travel just for personal reasons. [crosstalk 00:00:08:27].

Jim: I think you’d want to go back. I’ll bet you. Let’s phrase the bet. I’ll bet you any reasonable stake. Because I do believe people do need to get back to work, for most people working for home is not sustainable. But flying halfway across the world for a one hour business meeting, absurd when you could do three, one hour Zooms and get much more work done.

Ben: I think, as often it will probably be a bit of each.

Jim: That’s why I said, it’s a mix of historisis and homeostasis.

Ben: No, but I mean regarding business travel in particular, which may not be the best thing for us to dig into in great depth. I think you’re right that like if VCs get used to closing investment deals via a conference call, then they’re going to know like, yeah I can close investment deals via a conference call. So we don’t always need to wait in order for someone to meet face to face in order to do it. I think that could be a genuine acceleration and efficiency improvement. Because now you have VCs in Silicon Valley vine to close the deal with some hot startup in the known New York or Atlanta or somewhere. But they still wait to close until people can fly around and meet face to face. So if they get in their head that they don’t need to do that, then the competition will happen in a bunch of video calls and things will happen even faster.

Ben: I think, yeah, there definitely will be cases like that. On the other hand, as someone who speaks at a bunch of events, I can see that the sort of connections you make at conferences and events isn’t happening now. The kind of networking one can do now is great for those of us who are old and who can already know a lot of people. But in the current scheme of things in this COVID period, there’s no way for new people just entering an industry or an area of research to build their social network. Online conferences really don’t try to… Second life doesn’t cut it. If the- clears up I think in the summer, there’s a shitstorm of events that are postponed till September and October. One test will be, how much are these events that were supposed to be in spring postponed till September and October… How much are they flooded with people? I think assuming COVID clears up in the summer, they’ll be astoundingly flooded with people.

Jim: I think that’s a good distinction between conferences and just routine business travel, which there is some God damn much. So it won’t be binary. But let’s move on to the bigger questions. The point-

Ben: Yeah.

Jim: The point that you make I think is the overriding one, is that unfortunately and without some interventions or revolt of the masses, this is a step function event of the big getting bigger and the rich getting richer. For instance, my wife and I have talked about, oh yeah, we should sign up for the Kroger, order online, pick it up grocery thing. But we never did. We continue to hit various small specialty stores, the local hippie co-op, et cetera. Well guess what, in the age of the plague, we quickly mastered all three of the major grocery chain order in advance and have it delivered into back of your car services. I can tell you that we’re going to continue to use those things. The percentage of our wallet share that goes to the hippie co-op and to the little funky small grocery store is going to go down. We’ll try to resist that, because [crosstalk 00:12:07].

Ben: Yeah. Here now I’m on Vashon Island near Seattle right now. An awful lot of vibe music clubs in Seattle where I know the musicians who play there are the proprietors, they’re shutting down now. Because there is no gigs, no audiences. But most of these guys aren’t going to start new live music clubs, it was pretty marginal in the first place. So you could see a whole new crop of little live music venues pop up, but I’m kind of doubting it actually. Yeah, there’s a lot of things that were waiting to happen and kept back by inertia, they’re given a nudge here.

Jim: There’s an example where things may reconfigure. I happen to know some people in the kind of grass roots music business and they’ve been telling me for years that the business has been moving from the clubs to what were called home concerts. Where a musician and a homeowner who’s a fan will get together and offer a concert, charge 10 bucks or 20 bucks. Three quarters of it or 90% of it will go to the musician, 10% will go to the homeowner to cover the cost of chips and water. The musician will make a lot more money than they were making in the clubs, the homeowner had this very cool experience of one of their favorite niche musicians actually doing a concert in their home. So maybe we’ll see a reconfiguration more strongly to those home concerts.

Ben: There’s a lot of ways things could happen. You can play outdoors in a public park where the climate is warm, you can play in a restaurant. But I guess the common trend will be, the shift will be toward things that are lower costs to operate and involve less working class, human labor. That’s going to be, I would say, common denominator among these things. Shifting to home concerts then again it’s a shift toward the gig economy. The guy whose house it is, is temporarily playing the role that would be played by the club owner. But probably making less money than the club owner does.

Jim: On the other hand there’s no cost, there’s no variable cost. He has the house. So it actually may end up being more profitable, but just reconfigures how assets are used and this is the shock will cause a lot of that. I’m suggesting to people who really want to think about the backside of the curve, which is coming very rapidly. I have to keep reminding people of that. This peak will be late April, May, June maybe and managing the backside of the curve is going to be a much bigger and more important task for society than trying to flatten the curve is. Because we’re very much [crosstalk 00:15:06]. Go ahead.

Ben: The case of music concerts is one where it may all be fine anyway, we’ve already gotten rid of tower records and so on. You can distribute your music through the internet and you can play locally in somebody’s backyard. Now the case of like retail supply chains and of retail being reduced to only like Walmart, [inaudible 00:15:36] and Target or something. I mean, this comes down to a corporate hegemony thing, where then if you’re selling a product that none of these outlets want to sell, there’s no way to get it to anyone. In a lot of domains you’re seeing things now focused to just a few outlets. It almost becomes like a variant of the dreaded old communist system where you just have to buy everything online from the government’s retail outlet or something.

Ben: Of course, these big tech companies that are monopolizing, think of large retailers, they are in fact mostly tied with the government for better or worse. Like I’m an Amazon and Microsoft putting huge news server farms and bodies of staff right next to the Pentagon. I mean, we’re moving through the combination of social factors like this COVID pandemic, then just economies of scale in technology. We’re moving toward a oligopoly that is hard to break without busting out of the traditional ways of doing things. That’s something that’s been frustrating to me as someone who has been participating in the blockchain and crypto ecosystem through SingularityNET. Which is the blockchain based AI marketplace I’ve been working on for the last couple of years. Crypto and blockchain were supposed to be forming alternatives to all these centralized, hegemonic methods.

Ben: When there was a global financial crisis, it’s supposed to be Bitcoin that comes out as the new gold or the new global reserve currency or something. Then instead of Amazon we were supposed to have some decentralized, token based system for small sellers to sell things to customers with a smart decentralized reputation system. As it is happening, when the world is in a situation where this sort of thing would really be useful, it’s not ready for prime time. I mean the US dollar is Supreme again with their flight to quality, like always in a financial crunch. Decentralized marketplaces are either very specialized or just too crude to do anything. Ultimately if you need to order a bunch of stuff, you got to go Amazon. The question is, by the next big crisis, be it a pandemic or a global rash of cyber attacks bringing down the power grid, or whatever the big next crisis is and there probably will be one. Then will alternative mechanisms be there yet to even be part of the story, because now in the current crisis they’re not really part of the story.

Jim: Yeah, unfortunately that is true. I’ve been working on this thing with some friends called, Game B, which is a still fairly sketchy, a vague, I should say, new social operating system. That is operating with much more localism, much more ability to sever the networks without bad things happening, et cetera. But we’re still years away from being ready to be an alternative social operating system. Though I am taking this as a wake up call, rather than saying we have 30 or 40 years to figure it out. I’m at least taking it as a personal mission. So we’ve got to figure this thing out before the next one. So I think your point is well taken. None of the alternatives-

Ben: So that’s the question. How many people will take this as a wake up call in various ways? And that’s a not entirely clear. You know, of course what happened [Taskovski 00:19:32] the Russian writer, he was put in front of the firing squad, garrison to his head. Then they fired, it turns out to be blanks. After coming back close to death, after that he was like wow, every minute I breathe is amazing. Life is wonderful, I will cherish each moment. That lasted like six months or something for him, then he went back to grumbling about how annoying life is. That’s the homeostasis. The question is, how many people that are getting a wake up call now we’ll get a go to sleep call six months [inaudible 00:20:10] when things seem to be back to normal. That what happens after every financial bubble and financial crash. After another six months or a year people start thinking again that another crash can never happen again.

Jim: Here’s my view on this, I’ve been thinking about this hard. Which is I do not believe this is the revolutionary time for the reasons I try to… That the infrastructure just isn’t there yet. However, a lot of people are being woken up, I’m talking to a bunch of them. So I believe this epoch post the backside of the curve and the next six months that’s a good, this is the time to build the cadre. We may be able to build the cadre by a factor of 10 or 20, people whose ears have been opened by this big basically for supply to them. They’ve been forced to think about life and death for the first time ever in their life, for a lot of middle class Americans.

Ben: That’s correct.

Jim: Many more ears will be open. So I personally, and people I know are going to be putting forth a blitz to try to recruit, grow our cadre, which we might call our Game B space 10,000 people. Let’s see if we can grow it to a quarter million by the end of the year, then from that basis there’ll be enough skillsets and there’ll be enough leaders that perhaps we can build a faster route to spin up. So that when the next crisis comes and it is coming, whether it’s climate related, a food pandemic-

Ben: You might be right. I mean, I think people have been woken up to some extent to the fact that things aren’t quite as stable, predictable and necessary as they had thought. To some of us that’s always been obvious, that the status quo is kind of fragile and you could ever massive disruption at anytime, but most people don’t think that way. Their minds are blown that, oh, what the fuck? I can’t go eat at a restaurant now, what the hell is going on? Airfare from Seattle to Boston is $10 each way, how can this be? So people who really weren’t thinking that things could be so radically disrupted, now they’ve got that in their head and that does give an opening. This is part of our thinking with this COVID-19 Decentralized AI Hackathon, the COVIDathon thumb that we’ve organized in The SingularityNET, together with the Ocean Protocol and Decentralized AI Alliance.

Ben: The proximal goal, which is a real one. It’s like, let’s get hackers, AI and blockchain who are finding themselves perhaps with an unusual amount of free time now. Let’s get them working, creating code that can be useful to help with the COVID-19 situation. Maybe some code that allows decentralized mechanisms to serve some useful functions now. On the other hand, we’re also looking at this as an opportunity to aggregate together a whole bunch of hackers with an enthusiasm that hasn’t been there before using AI to combat global social issues. So maybe in the optimal case- is something useful for COVID-19, then we keep going with the group afterwards. You will have a more integrated network of decentralized AI hackers, building the infrastructure that will let us deal better with the next crisis when it comes.

Ben: Of course the next crisis is going to come. Look at the whole world infrastructure, I mean the major nations of the world are run by what kinds of people. How stable is the banking system? It’s every major system that regulates life on the planet has some extreme corruption or degeneration in it. It’s amazing that things even operate as well as they do on an everyday basis. But they are certainly not robust enough to keep going to the technological singularity without a series of further crises. Probably some much worse than the COVID-19 crisis.

Jim: Exactly. I’ve been calling this the mini apocalypse. Unlikely that the basic infrastructure goes down, electricity and water, things like that. I would not make that next same guarantee about the next one. You have to go and so do I. So let’s spend the next five minutes on a little bit of a counter trend to what we’ve been talking about. One of my takeaways, when I think about our Game B movement in particular is, I’ll confess it has sort of a hippie dippie flavor, decentralized, building prodo bees that communicate with each other through protocols that we all agree upon in advance, an emergent justice system, et cetera. All sounds like a right great way to live, but unfortunately it doesn’t necessarily sound like a great way to be able to respond in real-time decisively against the crisis. So I think a challenge to all of us who are thinking about decentralized social operating systems, need now to use this event. And I would also postulate a more severe version. Essentially say, our decentralized social operating system needs to be able to have the near real-time command and control capabilities [crosstalk 00:25:41] system like this.

Ben: I think the current US response to COVID-19 illustrates very well the weakness of centralized control systems. Because you have a buffoon in chief in charge of the US, who is the centerpiece of the centralized control system. Because that one component is cognitively and emotionally faulty, then the response of the whole US system was slower than it should have been. China’s response demonstrated the same thing. I mean, at the top they had a system for suppressing freedom of press and freedom of information. The top level of the centralized control system caused the initial response to be too slow. Even though the response of China a little afterwards became highly efficient and in many ways.

Ben: Yeah, I think it’s clear that a well crafted, decentralized response system can be much better than the centralized systems we have now. For the exact reason that the centralized system is too susceptible to failing in the weaknesses at the center, which is exactly what we’ve seen. But you need a effective, well-designed, decentralized system. Not as well designed, but fully implemented and tested. Unfortunately we don’t have that yet. Not because it’s not possible technologically or conceptually, just because insanely much more resources have gone into creating and maintaining the centralized systems. Because the resources are controlled by the people in power of the centralized systems.

Jim: Exactly. How we get the decentral… I agree with you, I absolutely agree with you that this is a demonstration of the failure of Game A and it’s over-reliance on a single faulty part. Of course it’s not just in the US, most of the West has also failed. Italy and Spain, it looks like England and France are also going to suffer hard, Sweden’s not doing well. So it’s not just our own faulty part-

Ben: Sure.

Jim: … there’s a-

Ben: You’re right. Trump is just an especially colorful example, but it’s a systemic phenomenon.

Jim: Yeah. I do agree that decentralized systems ought to do better, but we have to start thinking about them in terms of dealing with problems of this magnitude, not just in a hippie dippie way, how we live our life in a better way. I think that’s one of my big takeaways, and one of my communications obligations going forward is to make sure that we’re thinking about these protocols. I know you guys have been doing that with your SingularityNET. How do we deal with the biggest problem aliens invade the earth or a true-

Ben: You’re right. I mean, we want to appear to all the reptile emotions. So we want to appeal to loss, but also to fear. I think people sort of… They need to understand all the dimensions of the situation in order to respond appropriately. Understanding, not only how wonderful an anarchist utopia we can create with decentralized tools and methods, but also how scary the world can be if we don’t have those decentralized methods to protect us from a bunch of shit. All these aspects are important to appealing to human motivational systems, which is what needs to be done if we’re going to leverage human energy. Because it’s towards building an alternative to the centralized systems that control the world now. It’s very possible to create decentralized networks that work much more efficiently, then the centralized systems controlling the world now.

Ben: But it is hard. I mean it’s not even something as simple as a decentralized efficient payment system, which the crypto world is working on for a long time. It’s clear that’s possible, but there’s just a lot of algorithm and implementation work to be done there. To make a whole decentralized operating system for the world, there’s a whole lot of pieces like that, that all have to work together. We certainly have the technology and the brain power on the planet to do it, but people need to be energized and motivated in that direction. So yeah, if this pandemic serves to wake up enough people with relevant skills and resources to the need for building an alternative decentralized infrastructure. I mean, then the pandemic in hindsight will appear like an extremely positive thing to the evolution of humanity.

Jim: Let’s end it right there. We both got to go. Thank you, Ben for a very interesting perspective as always.

Ben: Thanks for the good questions and looking forward to the next time.

Jim: Very good. Talk to you soon, bye-bye.

Ben: Bye-bye.

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