Jun
03

Power in the Age of AI

With all the talk of AI of recent, I picked up "Four Battlegrounds: Power in the Age of Artificial Intelligence" (2023) by Paul Scharre to see where the new changes might fit into courses I have covered of recent (political economy, ethics, evaluation). A complaint to start: many figures in my copy of this book were blank, grey useless boxes. Clearly a printing error on the part of the publisher, but frustrating nonetheless. The book has eight parts. Part 1 is a good summary of the key issues (data, computational power, talent, institutions), which is probably the most useful high-level part of this book. Part 2 begins to cover ethics, introduces a number of stories, and the role of corporate engagement. Parts 3 and 5 are largely anti-China (that is not to defend China; that is only to point out that the negative examples this ex-US army ranger chooses are Chinese ones; when discussing consent, privacy, and monitoring we learn all about Chinese evils, but no mention of the NSA or Snowden, or others – this consistent inclusion/exclusion bias makes the book largely pro-American and anti-Chinese). Part 4 covers the unhealthy information environment we all live within, but is largely outdated (expectedly, books are slow to publish). Part 6 returns to US military projects (a common theme of the book, not surprisingly given the author's background). Part 7 outlines some of the problems with AI: bias, risks, limitations, vulnerabilities. Part 8 concludes with perspectives on the future of war. A few notes:

"AI has many constructive applications. AI will save lives and increase efficiency and productivity. It is also being used as a weapon of repression and to gain military advantage. This book is about the darker side of AI." (p. 4)

"In fact, machine learning systems are often so narrowly constrained by the datasets on which they've been trained that their performance can often drop if they are used for tasks that are not well-represented in the training data. For example, a facial recognition system may perform poorly on people of races or ethnicities that are not adequately represented in its training data. A machine learning algorithm used for predictive maintenance on one aircraft won't work on another aircraft—it would need to be retrained on data for the new aircraft. It may not even be effective at predicting maintenance needs on the same aircraft in a new environment, since maintenance needs may differ based on environmental conditions, such as in a desert where sand can clog parts or in a maritime environment where there is saltwater corrosion." (p. 21)

"Facial recognition systems are being merged with other tools for big data analysis in the Ministry of Public Security's "Police Cloud" system. Police cloud computing data centers, which are being implemented in numerous cities and provinces across China, include not only criminal records, facial recognition, and other biometric data, but also addresses, religious affiliations, medical records, birth control records, travel bookings, online purchases, package deliveries, and social media comments. These databases are not merely repositories of information but are intended to automatically fuse and analyze data for police. They could be used to monitor and track individuals of interest and also connect them to associates." (p. 89) 

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Jun
16

China's Gilded Age

China's Gilded Age (2020) by Yuen Yuen Ang is an accessible read that is well worth reading for multiple reasons. The book advances theoretical understandings on corruption and poverty, it presents creative methodologies that could inspire all sorts of new research, and presents unique findings that explain how China sustained high levels of economic growth alongside pervasive corruption. Ang also wrote the excellent book How China Escaped the Poverty Trap (2016).

A few notes (three long quotes, key arguments from the book):

"The durability and gigantic scale of Chinese economic expansion, juxtaposed with reports of "rising"and "explosive"corruption, cannot simply be brushed away by assertions of imminent collapse, even amid the current slowdown. How China has come this far –from an impoverished communist regime to a capitalist superpower rivaling the United States, despite a crisis of corruption that its leadership sees as "grave"and "shocking"–must be explained. This is the task of my book." (p. 5)

"Through an "unbundled"approach, my study draws a clear distinction between the quantity and quality of corruption. Wealthy economies may have low quantities of aggregate corruption, as measured by standard cross-national indices, but it doesn't mean that they have no corruption; rather, their corruption may be of a different quality –concentrated in access money, which is difficult to capture and not immediately growth-retarding. Contrary to popular beliefs, the rise of capitalism was not accompanied by the eradication of corruption, but rather by the evolution of the quality of corruption from thuggery and theft toward sophisticated exchanges of power and profit. Compared with countries that prospered earlier, China is still a relative newcomer on this evolutionary path... Why has China prospered alongside vast corruption? I offer a four-part explanation. First, the dominant type of corruption in China is access money –elite exchanges of power and wealth –rather than petty bribery or outright theft... access money may actually raise private investment –and even spur over-investment, as seen in China's real estate sector –thereby increasing growth, at least until the onset of a crisis." (p. 14)

"One of the most intractable problems of development is the trap of "corruption-causing-poverty-causing-corruption." In other words, countries are poor because they are corrupt, and they are corrupt because they are poor... The scholarly literature poses two solutions to this problem. The first is to "skip straight to Weber" by replicating the best practices of first-world public administration in developing countries. Pay is too low? Raise it. Bureaucracy is overstaffed? Slash it. Petty corruption is rampant? Vow to punish it. Although these measures appear correct in principle, in practice they routinely fail and may even backfire, raising administrative costs and undermining public sector morale. The second solution, as Fisman and Golden underscore, is to "trigger a change in social norms." Social norms are important, and muck-raking journalism and public protests can help citizens hold corrupt elites accountable. But norms cannot fill empty stomachs. Poorly paid bureaucrats often steal, extort, or moonlight in order to subsist. Reform-era China charted an unusual pathway out of this vicious cycle. Its solution was to allow street-level bureaucrats to extract some payments to top up their paltry formal salaries, while also aligning their financial incentives with long-term economic development objectives. Essentially, the state applied a profit-sharing model to the communist bureaucracy." (p. 85-86) 


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Apr
27

How China Escaped the Poverty Trap

Yuen Yuen Ang's "How China Escaped the Poverty Trap" (2016) is an excellent read and should be essential reading for all development studies students and actors. This book challenges many assumptions that have long been repeated as mantras in research and practice.

The author summarizes the book as one that "investigates how China escaped the poverty trap and made the Great Leap from a barren communist political economy into the middle-income, capitalist dynamo that it is today. More broadly, grounded in my analysis of China's metamorphosis, this is broadly about how development actually happens… My answer begins with a simple observation: development is a coevolutionary process. States and markets interact and adapt to each other, changing mutually over time. Neither economic growth nor good governance comes first in development." (p. 3)

The argument in summary: "Authors are often asked to give a one-line summary of their argument. Here is mine: Poor and weak countries can escape the poverty trap by first building markets with weak institutions and, more fundamentally, by crafting environments that facilitate improvisation among the relevant players… no particular solution is universally effective or ideal. Particular solutions work only when they fit the needs and resources of particular contexts and the success criteria of the players involved." (p. 16-17) Again, later in the text: "Whether it is in Western Europe, the United States, East Asia, China, or Nigeria, particular solutions work only when they fit the particular demands of their environments. Therefore, it is futile and even self-defeating to search for one replicable model believed to work always and everywhere." (p. 223)

On participation: "it must be stressed that the presence of civil society and public participation does not always produce successful collective decision making. Free-for-all participation can easily degenerate into chaos and deadlock. Indeed, Evans acknowledges, "a public administrative apparatus with the capacity necessary to both provide information inputs and implement the decisions that result from the process is a central element in making deliberation possible." Effective public participation requires a blend of top-down authority and bottom-up participation. Bottom-up participation alone does not magically produce adaptive results." (p. 58) Similarly: "It is well known that Chinese leadership makes ample use of experimentation in policy making, what I further emphasize is that effective experimentation has to be bounded. Free-for-all experimentation invites chaos, not adaptability. (p. 241)

On diversity and diversification: "Having too few or too many alternatives both impedes adaptation; effective adaptation requires a right balance of consistency and flexibility. Translated into the context of China's political system, this brings attention to the role of central leadership in setting a national agenda of change and in signalling the amount of discretion that may be exercised in different policy realms." (p. 100) Also: "The Chinese experience suggests that in order to achieve visible and rapid results, start by defining success narrowly. Focusing narrowly on a few goals (i.e. ends) should not be confused with making a few changes (i.e. means)." (p. 242)

On the downsides of the Chinese development model: "there is the problem of environmental degradation, probably the most widely discussed controversy associated with industrial transfer. Some worry that industrial transfer is merely a disguised scheme of 'pollution transfer' to underdeveloped and investment-hungry areas" (p. 214)

On inequality: "Regional inequality as a consequence of market opening and development is well-known among observers of China. It is less noticed and understood, however, that regional inequality is also a strategy of China's national development. As this chapter illuminates, a key element of China's overall development success has been to exploit highly unequal endowments across coastal, central, and western regions" (p. 221)

Ang also concisely states that "no charity could be better than thoughtless charity" (p. 238).

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Apr
22

The Parable of the Pauper

"Imagine a pauper who turns to two finance gurus for advice. Not only is he broke, this pauper is poorly educated and lives in a rough neighborhood. The first guru urges, "Earn your first paycheck. Once you start making money, your circumstances will improve, and you will eventually escape poverty." The second guru counsels differently: "Start by doing as my rich clients do: attend college, move to a safe town, and buy health insurance. You can only escape poverty by first creating the prerequisites for wealth." The two gurus mean well, but the advice of both clearly falls short. The first guru provides no clue as to how the pauper might earn his first paycheck, much less how to sustain a stable income. Conversely, the second guru ignores the realities of poverty. If the pauper could afford to, he would have obtained the prerequisites for a better life long ago. Attaining such prerequisites is not the solution to poverty, the difficulty of attaining them is itself the problem. The parable of the pauper and two gurus reflects a fundamental problem of development in the real world." (p. 1)

  • "no particular solution is universally effective or ideal. Particular solutions work only when they fit the needs and resources of particular contexts and the success criteria of the players involved." (p. 16-17)
  • "Whether it is in Western Europe, the United States, East Asia, China, or Nigeria, particular solutions work only when they fit the particular demands of their environments. Therefore, it is futile and even self-defeating to search for one replicable model believed to work always and everywhere." (p. 223)

- Yuen Yuen Ang (2016) How China Escaped the Poverty Trap

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