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Chatbots at the End of the World

Silicon Valley proves useless in a crisis

Two weeks ago, a man launched a rocket into outer space: a historical feat, as his was the first private company to send humans into space; a symbol of a future, in the form of a (possible) step toward commercial space travel and Mars; a childhood dream. To someone like Elon Musk, whose company SpaceX was behind the rocket, space travel represents the ultimate in futuristic progress. But the endeavor has an undeniably nostalgic quality to it, too. Grainy footage of the moon landing remains the dominant cultural association with the concept: a spaceship hurtling off into the stratosphere is what the future looked like in the late 1960s. Still, retro overtones notwithstanding, Musk managed to sell his vision of the future effectively enough. Since 2011, NASA has awarded SpaceX more than $3 billion dollars in contracts to help get the rocket off the ground.

I don’t need to explain what has been happening here on Earth in the months preceding the launch: everyone is well aware that we are still in the midst of a global pandemic that has killed more than 100,000 people in the United States alone. Public health experts had warned of the increased likelihood of another pandemic, but still, even most wealthy countries did little to prepare for one. This resulted in a well-documented shortage of almost everything needed to cope with Covid-19: protective clothing for medical staff; advanced medical equipment like ventilators; basic medical equipment like cotton swabs; masks; materials to make testing kits; ICU beds; doctors; nurses; and, of course, a well-functioning social safety net. Yet, over the past decade, there was $3 billion worth of government money available for Elon Musk’s dreams of space travel. 

Increasingly, it seems as though the direction Silicon Valley has taken does not line up with the future most of us are anticipating.

These days, flashy Silicon Valley technology developments often seem completely at odds with what is going on in the world. A rocket launch in the middle of a pandemic and nationwide uprising against police brutality might be the most recent example, but there is a version of this dissonance happening all the time. In late April, there was Blender, a new chatbot released by Facebook. The press release described it as “the culmination of years of research” and said that Blender can communicate in a more realistic way than previous chatbots—but still not so realistic that it would be mistaken for a human. It can maintain a reasonably convincing (although simple) conversation—if it does not go on for much longer than fourteen turns. Facebook stressed that they were still a long way from achieving human-level intelligence in communication, but they hope Blender will be a step toward a chatbot capable of that. Apparently, chatbots could be more widely used in an online customer service setting if they worked better. Revolutionary!

Shortly after this press release came out, I read a study about global heating that predicted within fifty years, more than a billion people will be living in a climate that is insufferably hot, meaning many will be displaced. I wondered how much longer it would take Facebook to get their chatbot ready for its rarefied role as a human-like customer service operative, and what the world would look like by that time. It is true that progress is not necessarily linear, and that all kinds of research can lead to unexpected discoveries and inventions, but still, there is a general direction of travel. And increasingly, it seems as though the direction Silicon Valley has taken does not line up with the future most of us are anticipating. Reading articles about a new app that makes the process of doing laundry more convenient (or a new form of personal data collection with negative implications for privacy and positive ones for advertising), set against the backdrop of constant reports that elements of the natural world are heating, melting, or becoming extinct, can feel like watching two Earths operating in separate realities, moving away from each other on irreconcilable paths.

In April, the venture capitalist and Silicon Valley  “guru” Marc Andreessen wrote a blog post in which he bemoaned both his country’s and his industry’s “failure of imagination.” He did not say that he finds it unsettling or infuriating to see the small group of people who command much of the money that goes toward technology development waste it on designing another “smart home” branded contraption, or on the platformification, and thus hollowing out, of another working-class job. He did not say he feels like this money would be better spent, say, addressing the increasing frequency of natural disasters caused by global heating, in whatever way is possible. Of course he didn’t. But he did describe how “every Western institution was unprepared for the coronavirus pandemic, despite prior warnings” and lamented the collective failure to “build” any infrastructure capable of dealing with the current situation—or to build things in general.

“Is the problem capitalism?” he asked, only to dismiss the possibility. Instead, Andreessen pinned the blame on “regulatory capture” and “inertia,” writing that “the problem is desire. We need to *want* these things”—meaning more housing, schools, skyscrapers, drones, flying cars. “Solve the climate crisis by building,” he said, stipulating that this could begin with the construction of ten nuclear reactors. He included a call to arms: “Every step of the way, to everyone around us, we should be asking the question, what are you building? What are you building directly, or helping other people to build, or teaching other people to build, or taking care of people who are building?” And then, as the New York Times reported, off Andreessen went to invest $10 million (along with an extra $2 million to buy shares from existing shareholders) of his fund’s capital in Clubhouse, an invite-only networking app. Clubhouse simulates real-life networking by letting people join audio group chats with other users who are on the app at the same time, allowing them to meet strangers from the pool of those who have been vetted as appropriate participants in this exclusive setting. The investment from Andreessen’s fund valued the company, which was started this year and has two employees, at $100 million.  

His use of “we” throughout the blog post is telling. Most people do not have a Venture Capital fund at their disposal; their say in what gets “built,” especially by private companies, is comparatively minimal. But since the coronavirus triggered mass unemployment, forcing over forty million Americans to file for unemployment benefits since the crisis began, many of those with scarce resources have reacted by building mutual aid networks to assist others in their community. Nurses have been forced to build their own PPE out of garbage bags. While Andreessen decided he would help build yet another networking app, other Silicon Valley figureheads have not attempted much better. Aside from his rocket launch, Elon Musk declared in a company conference call that the lockdowns instituted to stop the virus’s spread were “fascist” and “not freedom”; he reopened Tesla’s Fremont manufacturing plant, which employs more than ten thousand people, despite local government orders not to do so.

Other tech companies have demonstrated that, even if they do channel their energy into public health, this will likely have unpleasant consequences. To aid with contact tracing and resource allocation in the UK, the likes of Palantir, Amazon, and Google have formed partnerships with the NHS which will allow them access to health data, with obvious implications for privacy and surveillance; in March, it was reported that the U.S. government was in talks with Facebook and Google, among other tech companies, about using their location data for similar ends. Naomi Klein described how these partnerships could allow tech companies to maneuver themselves into an even more opportunistic and profitable position than the one they already occupy—taking public funds at a time of crisis, but ceding none of the control over how these funds are spent. Similarly, Bill Gates has tried to persuade his wealthy friends to give extra coronavirus donations through his foundation which is, on the face of it, laudable. But this still leaves a large amount of money, and decision-making responsibility, in the hands of people who likely have no experience in frontline services, and who regularly shudder at the idea of simply paying higher taxes.

One of the Gates Foundation’s proposals, as reported by Recode, is to create a “marketplace” of donors, where they can pitch each other on ideas for how best to spend their pooled money during the pandemic and its fallout. The exclusivity and obscene wealth of this cohort shapes their perception of what the public good looks like, which may not align with the opinions of, say, a medical professional or a public school teacher. Already, education experts have put out statements arguing against Governor Andrew Cuomo’s plan to work with the Gates Foundation to “reimagine education” in New York City in the wake of coronavirus, a phrase redolent of the public-private partnerships that have characterized Gates’s previous abandoned experiments in education. “Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation have promoted one failed educational initiative after another, causing huge disaffection in districts throughout the state,” reads a letter signed by a coalition of advocacy groups. The letter went on to argue against an expansion of education technology, which it said could not act as a replacement for teaching, and suggested addressing instead the need for more social workers, mental health counselors, school nurses, and working toward a goal of smaller class sizes.

Other tech companies have demonstrated that, even if they do channel their energy into public health, this will likely have unpleasant consequences.

Gates’s fellow Silicon Valley billionaire (and world’s richest man) Jeff Bezos had largely eschewed philanthropy until recently, when he announced the Bezos Earth Fund in February. As the name suggests, the fund is dedicated to people and initiatives working to mitigate climate change, which Bezos described in his Instagram announcement as the “biggest threat to our planet.” He pledged $10 billion of his own money “to start” and said he would begin issuing grants over this summer. The recipients haven’t been announced yet—if they will be at all; since he’s using his own money, he is not under any obligation to disclose this—but let’s not forget that Amazon is a significant component in the machine that keeps the earth heating. In 2018, the company’s carbon emissions were about equal to all of Norway’s.

Bezos has already refused two Amazon Employees for Climate Justice demands: to stop working with oil and gas companies to optimize fossil fuel extraction, and to achieve zero carbon emissions by 2030. (The company has instead committed to achieving net zero by 2040, which allows it to continue burning fossil fuels if it participates in measures to “offset” this.) Whatever the fund does end up going toward, it will shape the direction of climate research and activism. It is a sad quirk of our dysfunctional society that, while $10 billion is a small amount in the context of Bezos’s $150 billion fortune (around 6.5 percent), it is enormous in the context of climate action: more than twice the investment of $4 billion made by a group of charities in 2018, which was described as the largest of its kind.     

In Mark O’Connell’s recent book, Notes From An Apocalypse, he addresses his growing anxiety about the climate crisis by exploring several apocalyptic themes, meeting doomsday preppers and visiting places that have some kind of apocalyptic significance. One chapter sees him attend a convention on travel to Mars; he describes how many attendees, along with Elon Musk—an inspirational figure in those circles for obvious reasons—see “colonizing” Mars as a solution to climate change; they plan to escape this planet and start afresh on a new one. The ridiculousness of pitching the solution to one planet becoming uninhabitable as moving to another, probably more uninhabitable planet, is obvious, but it fits into a pernicious historical narrative about how progress has been achieved. As O’Connell observes, moving to new lands and colonizing them has always been beneficial to the advancement of people of a certain class and race. It’s a very old solution to a new problem; he terms the project an “exercise in future-nostalgia.”

Criticism of the way that private tech companies swallow up money and resources while encroaching into ever more facets of public (and private) life often frames this as a planned dystopia. The owners of these companies might be referred to as “our tech overlords”; their schemes for the future described as “dark.” This is certainly an accurate representation of, say, the ominous and lucrative relationship between immigration authorities and the likes of Amazon and Palantir, whose data processing capabilities have added a new dimension to ICE surveillance; or Uber’s persistent battle to keep its atomized workforce’s rights to a minimum. But there is also a strange sort of optimism in viewing the entire situation in these terms, a way of assigning structure and meaning to decisions that may not have any: something which is done for a malicious purpose is, after all, still done for a quantifiable purpose.

Maybe, though, “innovations” like the executive networking app, Musk’s rocket, or Blender the chatbot, are just pointless vanity projects for wealthy narcissists. Maybe these things seem at odds with what is going on in the world now because the people who decided they wanted them decided this a little while ago, when everything seemed different—or because enormous wealth is, currently, an effective insulator against almost any imaginable disaster, and it’s hard to conceive of a future when this won’t be the case. The motivation to work toward mitigating disaster is minimal for those with the most power to do so. Of course, this situation might be defined as a dystopia too—just a more chaotic one.