Bowling Alone with Robots


Technological innovation has made life safer and easier, raising living standards as well as life expectancy for the mass of humanity. Yet, these improvements have always come coupled with what economists Joel Mokyr, Chris Vickers, and Nicolas L. Ziebarth fear: “technology as alien, incomprehensible, increasingly powerful and threatening, and possibly uncontrollable.” The advent of artificial intelligence – algorithmic decision rules that draw on huge aggregations of data – has raised once again to fever pitch the specter of economic and social displacement. The novel coronavirus pandemic and its economic effects are accelerating the pace of incorporation “from novelty to essential.” However, artificial intelligence isn’t a pandemic implacably creating a dystopian future; rather, policy decisions will determine both its role and its value. The present challenge has less to do with the long-term future of robots trained to assess huge data troves paired with human judgment than it does the short-term management of this technology’s social and economic consequences.

Artificial intelligence stokes a general concern about rapid technological innovation outpacing our human ability to understand and adapt, leading to both political incapacity and psychological enervation. It has accelerated the demise of unskilled labor and is already encroaching on white-collar professions. Moreover, we have not yet come to terms with the social and emotional challenges of leisure that John Maynard Keynes projected in 1930:

The strenuous purposeful money-makers may carry all of us along with them into the lap of economic abundance. But it will be those peoples, who can keep alive, and cultivate into a fuller perfection, the art of life itself and do not sell themselves for the means of life, who will be able to enjoy the abundance … It is a fearful problem for the ordinary person, with no special talents, to occupy himself, especially if he no longer has roots in the soil or in custom or in the beloved conventions of a traditional society.



The historical progression of major technological disruptions is that hard, dangerous activities are supplanted by technology, some worry that jobs will disappear or become stultifying, and then a new ecosystem develops with jobs not previously imagined that are more creative, more lucrative, and less dangerous. For example, Uber invalidates the deep knowledge of London cab drivers but creates opportunities for other economic activities such as rapid restaurant food delivery. Such is the progression of the industrial revolution of the 19th century, the transportation revolution of the 20th century, and even the communications and information revolution of our own time — but that’s in the long run.

As Keynes also famously said, “in the long run, we’re all dead.” The real problem with rapid technological change is not eventually reaching equilibrium; instead, it is the difficulty of near-term adaptation. Wages tend to take more than a working lifetime to reflect the rise in productivity. Among the more difficult elements to address is the loss of stature associated with the loss of labor or wages.

One of the most controversial efforts to make sense of such displacement is Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 study entitled The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. In it, Moynihan argued that disparities between white and black Americans were widening, and that civil rights advances would be hollow if not accompanied by economic opportunities. Specifically, he argued that black male unemployment was destroying marriages and, thereby, perpetuating black poverty as single mothers struggled to support and educate children. Moynihan advocated for a national effort to “strengthen the Negro family so as to enable it to raise and support its members as do other families.”

While the Moynihan report is a difficult read, it also fails to account for important factors like the ways in which persistent racism in the criminal justice system disproportionately impedes economic and social opportunities for black men. On the other hand, the report’s concern about the familial and societal effects of economic exclusion remains relevant – and those effects are now prevalent across all races in the United States.

These familial and societal themes are at the core of August Cole and P.W. Singer’s novel Burn-In. While masquerading as a techno-thriller about domestic terrorism in a dystopian American future, Burn-In explores the weighty occupational and social consequences of technological advance. To great advantage, it shows artificial intelligence partnering with human contextual understanding. However, its fundamental premise is pessimistic: The new jobs that come out of the technological ecosystem in Burn-In are degrading; the American political system is incapable of policies to assist those injured or in transition; and the enervation has evaporated religious and other civic organizations that care for and provide meaning in society.

The story follows an agent assigned to train the artificially intelligent robot for a pilot project that Congress forced on an unwilling Federal Bureau of Investigation. It’s a fraught assignment since the agent’s Yale-educated husband previously did the same for his law firm, assisting in the destruction of his profession and their marriage. The husband represents the difficulty of short-term adaptation, having made a huge investment in acquiring a status profession that has disappeared and struggling with the consequences of gig work as a long-distance elder companion. The agent and her husband live in an America brought to the brink of revolution by its inability to manage the consequences of technologies that mine data handed over to businesses for use. Those businesses “celebrated the idea of ‘disruption,’ because they didn’t see themselves as actually being responsible for the consequences of their actions,” politicians pander and exploit, and everyone’s armed with gear that used to be the exclusive province of military special forces. As a villainous coder with a grudge unleashes waves of destruction, the agent has to hunt him down with little more than assistance from the robot she’s training.

Since Cole and Singer specialize in snazzy emergent technologies, they don’t disappoint in Burn-In. They deliver insect-sized surveillance cameras, nanoplastic film with gold unidirectional filaments, real-time acoustic profiling of tunneling, and pyrophoric chemistry. But, it is because of their earlier success with Ghost Fleet that we take for granted their dazzling us with future technologies.

What Burn-In misses, though, is deep human and social connectedness. Sociologist Robert Putnam worried as early as 1995 in Bowling Alone that America’s social atomization was corroding the civil and political bonds that unite its people. Burn-In takes such atomization to the extreme: People don’t find new ways to connect other than in dangerous rejectionist communities. The heroine loves her daughter and — evidently — her husband, but her only friends are those with whom she served in the Marine Corps. She neither texts anyone except her husband nor complains about her marriage to girlfriends. There are no play dates for her daughter, no condo board or parent-teacher association meetings. No one provides daycare or cleans their house. Then, at the end of the book as the heroine is the main breadwinner for her family, she has no compunction about going after the next big career victory even when it risks her family’s economic solvency. Even though Burn-In makes a big statement about whether a robot could become a good partner for a human, the human heroine isn’t even a good partner for a human.

Cole and Singer’s novel suffers both from too little and too much sentimentality. It suffers from too little sentimentality in that the only person of integrity other than the heroine is a District of Columbia police officer with a cameo in the opening scenes who plays no role in the plot. On the other hand, it suffers from too much sentimentality in that it idolizes the “Lone Genius” in both the heroine and the villains. The heroine figures everything out herself while a single villain conducts massive coding projects to create multiple interconnected disasters. It’s entirely orchestrated by a distant mastermind with an insatiable desire for power. At no point are interest groups, civil society, community leaders, mayors, investigative journalists, or religious orders involved in either the evil or the good. There are no Bill Gates or Chef José Andrés figures in Burn-In’s America, which is what’s ultimately both unsatisfying and unrealistic about the book.

As Ghost Fleet did, Burn-In will do more for defense experts’ understanding of this brave new world with literature than a thousand non-fiction assessments would have. However, the trust that the authors consider essential to teaming human contextualization with machine learning is nowhere in evidence in the society they anticipate.



Kori Schake leads the foreign and defense policy team at the American Enterprise Institute. She is the author of Safe Passage: The Transition from British to American Hegemony.

Image: LibreShot Public Domain

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