Ilan Gleiser: Predicting a World where Data and Technology Solve Economic Inequality
Will the future be a dystopia? A utopia?
Or maybe a… protopia?
Those are among the fascinating topics I recently discussed with Ilan Gleiser. Gleiser is founder and CEO of Synarchy AI, where he works with businesses to help them benefit from machine learning and natural-language processing (NLP) to drive economic value, automate processes, and generate insights.
Great stuff. But first, back to the future. We can imagine a technological dystopia—it already was captured in the movie Terminator. In that world, machines run everything, and their silicon brains see us primitive bio-forms as competition for scarce resources. Ouch.
As for a utopia, that would be a time when technology leads to limitless abundance. “We would use machines to evolve us to the point we don’t even need technology,” Ilan says. “So instead of the machines getting rid of us, we would get rid of the machines and move on as humans in charge of the planet.” OK. Better.
Ilan does not take credit for the term “protopia”—Wired magazine editor and futurist Kevin Kelly coined it. But he likes it. “It’s a middle ground between utopia and dystopia,” Ilan said to me in a recent “More Intelligent Tomorrow” podcast. “It’s a gradual increase in life quality and a society where economies are distributed by design and regenerative by design. All the existential risks that we have imposed on ourselves by the use of technology will be solved by technology itself.”
Ilan’s career has positioned him well to think about the future and how technology will influence it. In his native Brazil, he got a start in the financial industry as a teenager, and in 1992 built a crude “neural network” with Excel. Since then, he has used his skills in data science and AI (artificial intelligence) in the fields of finance, hedge funds, and robo-advisors. Along the way he wrote three books and founded his latest company.
Ilan is convinced that technology has the power to make our lives better. Take personal finance. Chances are, unless you have $1 million to invest, a financial advisor wants nothing to do with you. But you can invest $50,000 in stocks through an online trader, and because computers now can do 90 percent of the trading, you can develop a strategy that is just as sophisticated as Warren Buffett’s. “That’s a great advance—and it’s all due to the power of automation,” Ilan said.
Not that we aren’t facing serious challenges that any technology will be hard-pressed to help us with. “The next 5 to 10 years are going to be very challenging for us,” Ilan said. “Think about the fact that we have 10 million truck drivers in this country, and pretty soon we’re going to have self-driving trucks. And we have 3 million people working in stores as cashiers, and the stores are going to be automated.
“There will be massive displacements for lower-skill jobs in the economy. And it’s not clear to me how those people are going to be re-skilled. If you’re a 60-year-old Uber driver, what’s going to happen to you? Are you expected to become a data scientist? I don’t think so.”
It is possible, he says, that the truck drivers—or at least some of them—can become truck repair technicians. But will that cover all of them? Doubtful, Gleiser said. It might be that as a society, we will have to consider a universal basic income. Otherwise, the increasing concentration of wealth among the top one percent of the population will be unsustainable.
That scenario in part fuels Gleiser’s passion for “deterministic chaos”: the study of systems that are thrown out of equilibrium, such as what might happen to our economy. He describes schools of fish or ant hills as natural examples. They have stability but can readily adapt to changes in their environment.
Understanding the role of deterministic chaos in financial markets could help explain phenomena that cannot be explained by classical economics, such as stock (or tulip) bubbles.
“Using machine learning, you could create a feedback loop that adapts to changes in the environment,” he said. “Some people even argue that the economy could be controlled by artificial systems like that, and that they could make fair and equitable decisions that benefit humans. We could potentially create a situation where we’re using technology to help us build a better society.”
That is a wonderful thought: building a better society with technology. Here at DataRobot, we sure think that is the case, and it was great to hear Ilan’s insights.
But about that dystopia…