A BIG idea, a bot idea — How smart policy will advance tech | Albert Wenger | TEDxNewYork

13 min read
Transcript 0:00 Translator: Lei Shi Reviewer: Michele Gianella 0:17 All of our economic theory, 0:19...

Transcript

0:00
Translator: Lei Shi Reviewer: Michele Gianella
0:17
All of our economic theory,
0:19
all of our business practice,
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all of our public policy,
0:24
they were all developed during an era of scarcity.
0:28
Scarcity means that when you want more of something,
0:32
there is an additional cost to be paid.
0:35
And that was always true for physical products,
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but it is no longer true for digital information.
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That extra view of the funny cat video on YouTube,
0:45
it basically costs Google nothing.
0:48
And it is that zero marginal cost of digital information
0:53
that is turning everything upside down.
0:55
It used to be, for instance, that we would select first,
0:58
then edit, and then publish.
1:00
Now we can publish many, many things, select a few, and edit those.
1:05
It used to be that people had to go to investors,
1:08
raise money, then make a product and hope that people would buy it.
1:12
Now you can present your vision for your product to thousands of people,
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have them contribute, use the money
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to make a product that you know people want.
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It used to be that people were very guarded
1:22
about how something worked.
1:24
Now we have open-sourced software, hardware, and even biotech.
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These are all inversions, things that are being turned upside down,
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and they are being turned upside down
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because the zero marginal cost of digital information.
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And we are just at the beginning of these.
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Traditional big publishers still dominate music, movies; crowdfunding is tiny;
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open-sourced biotech is in its infancy.
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But if you take these trends and kind of extrapolate them out a little bit,
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what you’ll get is a kind of digital abundance.
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A world in which we can learn anything we want to online for free.
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A world in which all the world’s medical know-how
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is available to anybody, anywhere in the world for free.
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Where you can listen to music, enjoy art, read books online for free.
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And we can even see how, eventually,
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that digital abundance could help us
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reduce the amount of physical scarcity.
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How? For instance, by 3D printing only products that people actually want.
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Also by taking existing things like cars, buildings, lab equipment
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and sharing them much more efficiently than we’ve ever been able to do.
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So this is a world that I am very, very excited about;
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but we are not going to get to this world simply through more technology.
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We are not going to get to this world simply through some businesses
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doing innovative things online.
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We are also going to need to invert our public policies.
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I am going to speak about two examples of such public policy inversions today.
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The first is a Basic Income Guarantee, or “BIG”;
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and the second is the right to be represented by a bot.
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I’ll explain what those two are.
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And as I talk about them, you may think these are crazy, far-out ideas.
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The goal here isn’t to say,
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“Hey Congress, we need these as national laws in the US tomorrow.”
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The goal is simply to say,
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“These are interesting ideas that we should be discussing.”
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And more importantly, we should be experimenting with them
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to see whether they have merit.
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Let me start with the Basic Income Guarantee.
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Quite a simple idea. The idea that the government should pay everybody
3:42
above a certain age, say 16, some amount of money every month or week.
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It is called basic because it is supposed to cover your basic needs:
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food, clothing, shelter.
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It is called guaranteed because it is supposed to be paid to you
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no matter what, no matter your gender, no matter your marital status,
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no matter your wealth and, most importantly, no matter what you do.
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So whether or not you work.
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And that is the inversion in this idea.
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The inversion is that it used to be that you had to work first
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in order to get paid;
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under Basic Income Guarantee you get paid first
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and then you choose what to work on.
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It doesn’t do away with the labor market at all.
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You can still work in a job where you get paid more.
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It simply puts a floor under everybody’s income.
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Now you might say, “Why would we want that?”
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Well, because it would let us embrace automation instead of being afraid of it.
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I have been around computers for thirty plus years,
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and for many decades we’ve had these promises of artificial intelligence.
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And they have been false promises.
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But we now actually have major breakthroughs.
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And we have machines that can do many of the things
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that humans currently do for work and as a source of income.
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Let me give you two examples.
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About four million people in the US
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make a living driving a truck, a taxi, or a bus.
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But we also know we have self-driving cars now.
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So it is not a question of “if” any more, it is just a question of “when”
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some of these jobs will be replaced by machines.
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On the other hand, we have about
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a million people working in legal professions.
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But we now have machines that can very efficiently read
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through reams and reams of legal documents,
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and even write some of them.
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Again it is not a question of “if” anymore; it is just a question of “when.”
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Now you might say, “Why do we want to embrace automation?”
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And the answer is: Because it gives us time!
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And time is great in the world of digital abundance.
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It is the time you have to watch TED videos.
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It is the time you have to make TED videos.
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So in a world of digital abundance, we want people to have time,
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we want people feel they have the time and the resources to learn new things,
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we want people to have the time and the resources
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to contribute to those things, and make them free.
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And Basic Income Guarantee, BIG, helps with that in a second way.
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It helps with that because it creates a much broader base of people
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who can participate in crowdfunding.
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So instead of saying we need these pay walls around content
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that keep people out,
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we can say no, let’s put out free content
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and then let’s fund it on Kickstarter, Indiegogo, Patreon,
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or Experiment.com for science, or BaconReader for journalism.
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There are many other benefits about basic income
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that I won’t have chance to really go into detail.
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For instance, they deal much better with situations of abuse.
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Whether it is an abusive employer or abusive partner,
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basic income gives you a walkaway option for many different situations.
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There are lots of objections too.
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Before I talk about some of the objections,
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let me point out one more thing, which is,
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this is not a traditionally left or right political idea.
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It is not a traditionally left idea
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because it says, in order to finance this you have to do away with programs
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like food stamps, means tested programs,
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and you have to believe in individual agency.
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It is also not a traditionally right idea
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because it wholeheartedly embraces re-distribution.
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It says, let’s tax people who make a lot of money, let’s tax corporations,
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and then let’s give this basic income to everyone.
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And as a VC, I kind of like the fact that a lot of the political establishment
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is sort of ignoring or dismissing this idea.
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Because what we see in startups
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is that the most powerful, innovative ideas
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are the ones that are truly dismissed by the incumbents.
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So what are some of the objections?
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The first objection that people have is: We simply can’t afford this.
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Some of the proposals that people have floated,
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like paying people several thousand dollars every month,
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in fact do add up to more
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than the federal and the state households combined.
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And we do still want some things from the State, right?
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We want federal defense. We want roads.
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We want water. We want broadband.
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So there are some things that we want the government to do,
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The interesting thing though is, I believe it will take much less money.
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It’ll take much less money because we need to take a dynamic view.
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We don’t need to ask how much money do you need today.
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We need to ask how much money will you need in this world
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of advanced technology and of Basic Income Guarantee.
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When we ask that question, what we see
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is that we already live in a world of technological deflation
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and the Basic Income Guarantee will accelerate that.
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So roughly since the mid-1990’s, in the US,
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the cost of consumer durables has already been declining.
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The things that have been getting more expensive are primarily services,
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and, within that, primarily education and health care.
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Now Basic Income Guarantee will actually help reduce both of those.
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How?
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First, because it lets more people contribute
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to online free education materials, to online free healthcare resources.
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And it also frees people up to teach and to take care of people.
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The second objection that has been raised
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is that people would simply take this money
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and spend it on drugs and alcohol.
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Now, there is no country in the world that has this,
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so we cannot simply point at another country.
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But people have done studies, as far back as the 70’s,
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and there are ongoing studies today
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about cash transfers that are not means-tested.
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And the World Bank has just published a review of these studies
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and what they found in looking at 19 of them
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is that there is simply no evidence that people wind up
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spending this money on drugs and alcohol, any more than they do already.
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The third objection that’s often raised is:
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People are lazy, people are going to stop working.
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Again the good news is, these studies show
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that the so-called income effect is quite small.
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People like to do things. People like to do interesting things.
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And when people were working less in traditional jobs, in these studies,
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what they were largely doing was spending more time with family and friends,
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more time teaching their children, more time taking care of their parents.
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So the very two things, as I said, we want more of
9:57
in order to reduce the cost of education and cost of healthcare.
10:00
It also turns out, people working less is not a bad thing overall.
10:04
If you reduce the supply of labor, you lift wages for everyone.
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Which is also interesting – you might say, well, why not just raise wages?
10:13
Why not just have a higher minimum wage?
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And I am very sympathetic to that idea.
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It will definitely help people who currently have a job.
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But it does not help at all with this concept of digital abundance.
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It does not help people create free online resources.
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It doesn’t give you the time to learn something
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from these free online resources, because you have to have this job
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to just cover your basic needs.
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Same goes for just trying to reduce the work hours.
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So it’s only the Basic Income Guarantee that addresses this digital abundance,
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and basically frees us to participate in it.
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The second inverted idea I want to talk about
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is the idea of the right to be represented by a bot.
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A bot is a piece of software that acts on your behalf.
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Let me make this more concrete.
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I went on Facebook the other day,
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because I remembered that a couple of years ago
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I had written something witty on somebody else’s wall.
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And I was trying to remember who it was.
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Turns out that Facebook makes this quite difficult.
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You can’t actually search your own wall posts.
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Now, Facebook has all these data, but for whatever reason,
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they’ve decided not to make it easily searchable.
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I’m not suggesting anything nefarious here, it’s just how it is.
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So now imagine for a moment if, [in] my relationship to Facebook,
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I was able to use a piece of software.
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I could now instruct this piece of software
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to go through the very cumbersome steps
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that Facebook lays up for finding past wall posts, and do it on my behalf.
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That would be one thing.
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The other thing I could have done is, if I’ve been using this bot all along,
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the bot could have kept my own archive of wall posts in my own data store
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and I could simply instruct it to search my own archive.
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Now you may say, well, that’s a trivial example.
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But actually it is very foundational.
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It completely inverts the power relationship
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between networks and their participants.
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It also inverts the present legal situation.
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There are lots of laws, at the moment,
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that allow networks to restrict
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to what degree you can use a bot to interact with them.
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They basically can restrict you to only use
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the existing application programming interfaces, or API’s,
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and say, only these are legitimate
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and on top of that we can limit how much you can do.
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Now to see that this is a powerful inversion,
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I want to talk for a moment about on-demand car services,
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companies like Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar.
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If you are a driver today, they each have a separate app.
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It makes it very hard for you as a driver
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to participate in more than one network at a time.
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If you had the right to be represented by a bot,
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somebody could write a piece of software that drivers could run
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that would allow them to simultaneously participate
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in all these marketplaces.
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And the drivers could then set their own criteria
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for which rights they want to accept.
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Now clearly those criteria would include, for instance,
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what the commission rate is that the marketplace is charging.
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And drivers would go for marketplaces that charge less of a commission.
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So you can see in this example
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how the right to be represented by a bot is quite powerful.
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It would make it very hard for an Uber, or a Lyft or any one of these companies
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to charge too high a commission, because new networks could come up.
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A cooperatively owned network,
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cooperatively owned by the drivers, for instance,
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and the drivers could participate simultaneously
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in the new network and the old network.
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And it’s the very threat of the creation of these new networks
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that would substantially reduce the power of the existing networks.
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This is important not just for drivers.
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We are all freelance workers
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on Facebook, and on Twitter, and all these big social networks.
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Yes, we in part get paid through free services,
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free image storage, free communication tools,
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but we are also creating value.
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And it’s not just the distribution of value that we are worried about.
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We are also worried about what these companies do.
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We are worried about questions such as censorship.
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We are worried about questions such as:
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Are we being manipulated by what has been shown to us in the fee?
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And at the moment, what regulators are doing is,
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they’re trying to come up with ad hoc regulations
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to regulate each and every one of these aspects.
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And many of these ad hoc regulations
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are going to have completely unintended consequences.
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And often these consequences will be bad.
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Let me just give you one example.
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The European Union has said:
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If you want to have information on people who live in the EU,
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you have to keep it on EU servers.
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That actually makes it harder for new networks to get started, not easier.
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It actually cements the role of the existing networks instead of saying
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we need to create opportunities for competition with existing networks.
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So, I have presented two ideas for fundamental inversions in public policy.
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And you might have a couple of objections to those.
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The first one could be: Let’s just not have any new policy at all.
15:19
Let’s just have more technology. We don’t need any policy.
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And that objection is often motivated
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by the idea that whatever policy will come
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will actually make innovation harder, not better.
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It will make it harder to get to that state of digital abundance
15:33
that I was talking about.
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If you look at the history of innovation, if you take the car for example,
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that’s always true initially.
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The early cars were actually steam engines
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that people were running on the street.
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And the regulators said, “Whoa, that’s dangerous.
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You have to have somebody with a red flag walking in front of it.”
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And then cars got a little better, and they said, “Oh yep,
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still dangerous, it can’t go faster than a horse-drawn carriage.”
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So the early regulation was aimed at slowing down innovation.
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But ultimately, we only got the benefit of individual mobility
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because we embraced public policy.
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Because public policy said, Here are the rules of road.
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And public policy said: Here are roads.
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We are actually going to invest in making roads.
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So we do need public policy.
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It is just we need the right kind of public policy.
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The second overall objection you might have is:
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These ideas are just crazy, how will we know that they can work?
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We can’t just do this.
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And the good news here is that we can run small local experiments.
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We could in fact right now run an experiment with 1,000 people,
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with Basic Income Guarantee, in a city like Detroit.
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Detroit has very cheap housing stock at the moment.
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There are entire buildings in downtown Detroit that are empty.
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So we could run that experiment, and I think we should.
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We could run an experiment
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with the right to be represented by a bot
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in a city like New York.
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New York controls how Lyft, Uber, Sidecar, all these services, operate.
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So New York City could say:
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If you want to operate here, you have to let drivers interact
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with your service programmatically.
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I’m pretty sure, given how big a market New York City is,
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these services would agree.
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So zero marginal cost of digital information gives us a promise.
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A promise of digital abundance, and ultimately physical abundance.
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Whether or not we can realize that promise
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depends on whether we are willing
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to invert our own thinking
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away from scarcity thinking towards abundance thinking.
17:38
Thank you.

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