Shifting at the Edge: Gandhi, AI, and Beyond
Gandhi predicted that both capitalism and communism would eventually fail. He proposed a third system, called trusteeship, which held tremendous promise. Yet today’s world is much more complex than the one that Gandhi inhabited, and so we need new technologies to navigate the maze of the complex adaptive system that characterizes our cultural, economic, and political reality.
To do so, we must begin by discussing thoughtfully, realistically, and compassionately how we can take responsibility for our children, for our planet, and for ensuring a better human future. This requires us to understand how local actions lead to global effects, and vice versa. The scope of the challenges we face, the shortcomings of current systems, and the unprecedented power of technology require us to examine all alternatives. We will need our best thinking, most advanced tools, and unprecedented levels of cooperation.
Trusteeship, along with the related caring economy movement, may hold solutions for the challenges shared by everyone on our small planet. The tenets of these two movements provide valuable guideposts, and help us avoid what author Riane Eisler calls “the problem of really high technology guided by an ethos of domination,” rather than one of partnership.
Let’s start where seven-and-a-half billion humans generally agree: it is important to provide for our children and to nurture and improve our communities. We want lives that are healthy, productive, and safe.
Yet most humans also share increasing anxiety toward political upheaval, fear of our neighbors, and distrust of institutions. We fear technology’s potential impact on jobs, since machines can progressively replace humans with better efficiency and productivity. Natural, societal, political, familial, technological, and commercial systems are in flux as never before.
Despite these challenges, we stand today at a threshold of possibility as great as our challenges are daunting.
Limits to growth
Around the world, driving economic growth through innovation is a widely accepted mechanism. In its current form, however, there is a self-limiting factor, which Nordfors and Cerf call the “growth-profit” paradox.. The chain of events is as follows: profit maximization in a competitive market typically strives to lower labor costs. This is often accomplished through automation: progressively replacing human work with machines. In the manufacturing sector, for instance, 88 percent of job losses in recent years are due to productivity improvement (which is often driven by automation), as compared to 13.4 percent from changes in net trade.
As a consequence of jobs lost to automation, workers drift to lower-paying jobs, which in turn reduces their spending capacities. This results in reduced profits, which limits growth. So, while higher profits can indeed lead to higher growth in the short run, the long-term reality is that lowering labor costs through increased automation leads to negative growth from diminishing spending capacities of workers as customers.
This is a classic “lobster claw” pattern of cause-and-effect, in which optimizing a short-term goal leads to a long-term net negative impact:
The collateral damage of using technology to replace human labor is not limited to issues of earning and spending. Fred Pierce computes, for example, that data centers (the “factories of the digital age”) eat up two percent of world energy, emit CO2 in amounts that match the airline industry, and require construction costs around $20 billion a year worldwide.
The changes described above reveal a shift in the way wealth is generated, but to date there is no countervailing force; indeed, we see a continual increase in the emphasis on technology and automation, and a decreasing emphasis on people, who are essential cogs in the economic machine.
Should this pattern continue unabated, we will see a vast negative net effect on growth, coupled with intense wealth disparity. As one of many such indicators, CBPP’s analysis (shown below) calculates that the income of the top one percent has grown by 228 percent since 1979. Inequity leads to societal instability, as well as an increased desire for authoritarian leadership, producing a decrease in innovation, which is the exact opposite of the short-term consequences of a purely profit-driven innovation economy.
Arguably, Internet entrepreneurs are becoming the new bourgeoise. So those of us who are lucky enough to occupy this role, and who understand these long-term negative effects, are seeking ways out of the paradox.
The case for a new Ism
It is time to reimagine how we measure and think about wealth, and what it can enable. Today we have the knowledge, tools, and understanding required to build systems that address our challenges and truly make all of humanity wealthy, in a way that modern psychologists understand leads to greater happiness than in systems run by traditional ideas of wealth through the accumulation of capital.
Our dominant economic systems—capitalism and socialism—produce great financial wealth for a few, but leave many behind. Communism, fascism, theocracy, monarchy, democracy: none of these economic and political systems have produced equity. Historically, inequity has been the greatest driver of violence and revolution, and is the source of today’s populist rumblings worldwide. For this reason, even the most financially wealthy rest on tenuous societal stability. And the problem is getting worse.
Gandhi understood that simply redistributing wealth by force would fail. According to Gandhi scholar Rajni Bakshi, Gandhi correctly foresaw that “the takeover of all private property by the State would not necessarily end exploitation or injustice.”
Trusteeship proposes a framework for enabling a sustainable future. It addresses systemic flaws of unfettered but directionless capitalism, which otherwise creates poverty and environmental destruction within the process of creating wealth. Trusteeship also rejects communism by recognizing the need for incentives to encourage and reward hard work.
As Gandhi said in 1942, “We do not want to produce a dead equality where every person becomes or is rendered incapable of using his ability to the utmost possible extent. Such a society must ultimately perish.”
Beyond capitalism, while retaining commerce
Gandhi argued that, by distinguishing commerce from capitalism, we can redefine success based on multi-dimensional values that extend beyond financial accumulation. In addition, trusteeship proposes we foster economic systems that spread financial wealth more widely and more evenly, in part by encouraging stewardship of private wealth for the betterment of all.
Trusteeship underlies the more recent idea of a caring economy, as measured by both traditional economic measures and by Social Wealth Economic Indicators (SWEIs), which includes the value of human capital created from raising and educating healthy children, caring for the shared environment, and bettering communities.
But, asks Bakshi, “Since trusteeship is a set of core values, rather than an ideology or a model, how can it impact deeply entrenched practices which foster vast concentrations of wealth?”
Both trusteeship and the caring economy rest on the knowledge that the ultimate sources of all wealth stem from human capacities for nurturing individual, business, and social advancement, as well as shared natural resources. They acknowledge the vast body of evidence supporting the idea that improving people’s lives provides strong return on investment in accordance with all measures of wealth. As a result, those who choose to embrace trusteeship will dedicate a meaningful proportion of their wealth to endeavors that ultimately improve the greatest number of lives.
For the privileged few, then, the primary impediment to their own happiness and societal stability is rooted in a lack of understanding for long-term causal chains, in which, as it turns out, self-interest and generosity go hand-in-hand. This gap in understanding can be solved.
So what are the best actions? It is not a matter of simply giving money away, but rather requires a shift in mindset and narrative from analyze-think-change to see-feel-change.
Increasing challenges in a complex world
Today’s world is considerably more complex than the one in which Mahatma Gandhi lived. Simple wealth transfers through philanthropy do not necessarily address the underlying causes of inequity, and can result in zero or even negative value. For example, development expert Kevin Watkins explains, “Aid works best when governments put in place sensible economic policies, effective strategies for poverty reduction, budget transparency, and measures for tackling corruption.”
Providing aid to developing countries, and managing systems with multiple outcomes are not easy tasks. This is in contrast to Gandhi’s days, when systems were relatively local and stable. As an illustration, the mathematical model of improving inequity at that time could be equated to climbing up to the top of a wide plateau as illustrated below:
In this diagram, “up” represents a position of relatively greater social stability, health, and happiness. The climb was not easy, but it was easier to understand. It consisted of actions such as wealth redistribution and the creation of social programs.
Today, forces like globalization, automation, and communication create a different landscape. Advanced technology increasingly concentrates power in the hands of a few. Even the benefits provided by technological developments that arose from the open-source movement—including the evolution of the original internet into the more accessible and democratized world wide web—are now mainly captured by just a few large corporate entities and their shareholders.
Navigating this new landscape is a challenge. Today, achieving a stable position depends on vision and agility. As illustrated below, actions are different in different circumstances; the landscape changes more frequently; and positions of equilibrium are more fragile.
To date, these challenges have been addressed within the narrow realm of maximizing the impact of personalized data. To offer personalized content today requires the collection and analysis of substantial amounts of data on interactions between people and systems. The current economic model incentivizes the identification of classes of individuals who could be best served and therefore induced to spend. Yet this is another societal “lobster claw” pattern: the widespread exchange of services for personal data (e.g. cell phones and search engines) is a tradeoff that can have far deeper, and negative, ramifications in terms of social impact.
Classifying people into behavior models reduces them to data points that can be manipulated for corporate gain. Existing metrics for enterprise success incentivize them to build systems that are inviting and sticky, and lead to increasing distraction and isolation. This isolation leads to online echo chambers of personal beliefs that amplify isolation. Although the long-term consequences of these systems on human behavior are still being studied, early indicators are troubling.
Using data, AI, and DI to further Trusteeship
Although, as stated above, technology has exacerbated many of the issues that trusteeship seeks to address, it is also an essential contributor to the solution. Data collection and management act, in a way, as a “seventh sense,” giving behavioral insights that were not previously possible (e.g. we have learned important new facts about health from FitBit health tracker data). And Artificial Intelligence (AI) provides insights into the meaning of this data. Then, completing the picture, Decision Intelligence (DI)  helps us to understand how actions lead to outcomes. These three technologies have matured today to the point where they can now be focused towards solving “wicked” problems, such as for optimizing economic and political systems.
The complexities of incorporating checks and balances against corruption while maintaining the values surrounding enlightened self-interest have, to date, been too difficult to analyze. The temptations for corruption and the opportunity for bad actors to discover and exploit gaps in a system are too great. This effect becomes even stronger in a globally interconnected world.
Data, AI, and DI are powerful weapons against such exploitation because they allow us to, respectively, 1) obtain direct and voluminous empirical evidence regarding human behavior; 2) analyze the data to understand and predict the outcomes of certain events; and 3) choose actions to initiate chains of events that simultaneously achieve desirable individual, organizational, and societal outcomes.
Technology through the lens of Trusteeship
Gandhi proposes three tenets of Trusteeship:
- Purity of means: Wealth generation is talent of entrepreneurship. Through a network, enterprises work with capital and labor to produce goods or services that contribute to economic growth. Maintaining the purity of the network calls for assessing the means of value-generation at each step in the larger process. Trusteeship as conceived by Gandhi allows for no short-cuts to get rich quicker at the cost of social welfare.
- Simple living and high thinking: Every person is a trustee of his/her own talent, of which wealth generation is a consequence. Accrued wealth arises out of talent when the entire network deems it necessary to distribute what has been concentrated in enterprise. The onus of keeping the wealth gap low shifts to the methods of the gifted few, who seek to redistribute wealth generated by pure means back to the society, thereby completing the cycle of generation and distribution.
- People first: Every human being is endowed with unique talent. Finding a job to suit an individual’s unique capabilities is the new way of thinking about people and jobs.
Technology has, to some extent, already provided tools to achieve these goals.
First, data analysis does indeed focus on the People First tenet. Through psychographic profiling and more, microtargeting systems analyze each individual’s unique preferences. This capability has been used primarily for advertising and marketing, but it has potential to go much further. Assuming that proper protections are maintained, this has far-reaching consequences for economics, social welfare, and well-being. Nordfors and Cerf reflect this in their people-centered economy tenet, that ”we need things that make people valuable”.
Purity of purpose provides a lens on the misappropriation of personal data. Trusteeship recommends that networks of people and systems be optimized to generate two-fold impact – economic success and social well-being. For instance, by identifying unique talents that span people across all spectra – economic, social, political, talent, and capabilities, we create a unique opportunity to design jobs for people. Many more individuals can then be matched to socially and economically productive jobs through analysis of their “Coolabilities”.
Simple living and high thinking call for the tempering of wealth generation and distribution. Trusteeship redefines wealth as a combination of monetary and social indicators. While it recognizes the talent of entrepreneurs to uniquely generate monetary wealth from a network of people and systems, Trusteeship also calls for entrepreneurs to willingly accept their role to generate and distribute wealth responsibly. Carbon tax, for example, is a great idea that moves the responsibility of mitigating downstream impact upstream. We need to design similar models that can incentivize inclusion and social welfare.
The time for a new ideology is clear. Adam Grant argues: “We have a Declaration of Independence, but we also need a Declaration of Interdependence: No one succeeds alone, gains freedom alone, or finds joy alone. Our lives, liberties, and happiness are intertwined.” Trusteeship grounds this ambition by illuminating socio-economic changes that are needed to sustain and expand awareness of interdependence, consistent with an incentive model for individuals who have the talent and energy to generate wealth in a deeply connected world.
Simply put: wealth is a bad proxy for happiness. As this becomes increasingly compiled into the cultural mindset, there is an increasing hunger for solutions that achieve outcomes that provide a deeper level of cultural stability and personal satisfaction.
Adam Smith, often seen as the seminal advocate for devil-take-the-hindmost capitalism, also supported a philosophy that is aligned with trusteeship. According to American philosopher Daniel Callahan, Smith believed that, “…markets could not flourish without a strong underlying moral culture. Smith believed that such a culture is animated by empathy and fellow-feeling, by our ability to understand our common bond as human beings and to recognize the needs of others.“
We must finally develop an economic system that goes beyond the relatively simplistic metrics of personal and even national financial gain that have resulted in vast inequities that are now so evident. We must include in our measures of wealth and progress all of the myriad links that make up complex political/social/technical/economic systems. To get there will require equally complex tools that must also be, paradoxically, easy to use.
New AI and DI tools will augment, expand, and apply our human intelligence, just as the industrial revolution magnified muscle power. Combining the most advanced tools of the digital revolution with humans’ immense intelligence and empathy will enable “wisdom enhancement.” What is required of us is a shift in our ability and willingness to frame and address our most pressing modern issues for the benefit of all.
This shift is possible. Indeed, it is essential.
It has been shown that a small group of “relentless” individuals can affect widespread change. Fortunately, says Eisler, “a growing number of people recognize that we stand at a turning point in our human adventure on Earth. They are reexamining not only what was and is, but also what can, and must, be done. They understand that solving our unprecedented problems calls for more than just tinkering at the edges of failing systems—that we need whole systems change, and that this, in turn, requires a fundamental cultural transformation.” 
The way forward is through a deep understanding of modern Trusteeship, with the assistance of data and evidence in support of sophisticated, transparent, and advanced technology models that everyone can understand.
The People Centered Economy, David Nordfors and Vint Cerf, 2018 (in print) ↑
Equality Through Trusteeship, Vadilal Lallubhai Mehta, 1977 ↑
https://youtu.be/BzigRlLAjPE?t=12m34s : an interactive carbon tax decision model demonstration ↑