Politics & Policy

Bureaucracies: Dinosaurs Run Amok in Technological Civilization

(Photo Illustration: NRO)

‘Finally, neural networks that actually work.” So reads the headline in Wired, and, really, haven’t we all been waiting? (Yes, we have, even if we do not know it.) The article concerns artificial-intelligence innovator Jeff Dean, who as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota 25 years ago created a rudimentary “neural network” — a computer system sophisticated enough to learn — but was hobbled by the available computing power of the time. Now working at Google, he’s helping to create vastly powerful and subtle networks that recognize faces and spoken language.

A few pages over, there’s a wonderful if unintended counterpoint: a profile of Megan Smith, an ex-Googler whose official title these days is “chief technology officer” . . . of the United States government. She is the third person to hold that post, which was created under the Obama administration. “Why can’t the federal government have websites and digital services that are awesome?” she asks.

Why, indeed?

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She might start by asking what it takes to get fired for incompetence: CGI, the web-design firm in which one of Michelle Obama’s college cronies is a senior executive, was lambasted for the debacle that was the Obamacare rollout, and eventually fired — or as “fired” as the politically connected get in Washington; some months after having its Obamacare contract terminated, CGI was awarded a multimillion-dollar IRS contract to manage . . . Obamacare issues. Mrs. Obama’s friend in the firm, Toni Townes-Whitley, was promoted from senior vice president to chief operating officer.

It’s enough to fry your old-fashioned meat-based neural network.

One of the rarely appreciated aspects of the capitalist model of innovation is that the wealthy subsidize the development of products for everybody else.

These are interesting times, for those with eyes to see. The news is full of economic stagnation, but the suburban Starbucks where I go for my afternoon caffeine jolt apparently generates enough cash to justify a periodic Brinks pickup: That’s a lotta latte. Behind the Brinks truck is a new BMW i3, one of those nifty little electric cars that are slowly displacing their lumbering internal-combustion ancestors. A strange phenomenon: When the first hybrids came out, they were popular among my enviro-lefty friends, who gave up their old FJ Land Cruisers and embraced the Prius as an act of consumer self-mortification. The much more radical full-electric cars, such as the Tesla, are showing up not in the garages of my eco-nut friends, but in the garages of my car-nut friends — indeed, practically all of the Tesla owners I know are full-blown right-wingers. (Okay, selection bias in the sample, admittedly.) Tesla owners are an enthusiastic bunch: Last summer, a man I had known for about 42 seconds handed me the keys to his new $100,000 sedan with a mandate: “You have to try it.” We were in Montana, so there wasn’t much to hit other than the odd stray bison, and it was indeed the sort of thing that makes me feel like I’m living in a William Gibson novel, which is one of my favorite sensations.

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The electric car is a great example of Arthur C. Clarke’s third law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The day before yesterday, the question about electric cars was: “Will they ever be good enough to really compete with gasoline-powered automobiles?” Today, the question is whether makers of traditional internal-combustion engines should even bother trying to catch up or just throw in the sparkplug.

One of the rarely appreciated aspects of the capitalist model of innovation is that the wealthy subsidize the development of products for everybody else: The mobile phone is a case study in that process, as is the electric car, as indeed were ordinary cars. The firm that developed the first automotive air-conditioning and power windows was a high-end marque that despite its landmark innovations is no longer with us: Packard. The Bonfire of the Vanities–era financiers who carried the first mobile phones paid for much of the research and development that made them ordinary products for non-gazillionaires. My own financial means at the moment do not, alas, afford the purchase of the new plug-in hybrid from Porsche — which is a million-dollar supercar — but the technologies developed for the 918 Spyder will make their way through the marketplace the same way that the automatic transmission (Oldsmobile, 1940), the supercharger (Mercedes, 1921), and the independent suspension (Mercedes, 1933) went from being expensive options on cars for the rich to being standard equipment on your Hyundai. We get our futuristic 21st-century cars the same way Johnny Cash got his Cadillac in 1976: One piece at a time.

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F. A. Hayek wisely observed that this sort of experimentation is socially beneficial in no small part because the rich can afford to make mistakes and to follow technological dead ends: The technologies developed for the $100,000 Tesla or the $800,000 Porsche may not end up being the winners in the long run, just as many of the features of the 1983 Motorola DynaTAC were surpassed by those of competitors; but chances are that your high-tech supercar is not your daily driver, much less your only means of conveyance to work or the vehicle you use to get your kids to school, and if you own one, you can probably afford to make a sub-optimal choice. Most of the people facing the Betamax-VHS dilemma in the late 1970s were well off enough that going the wrong route caused no economic hardship.

Nobody missed a meal because his Apple eMate was a bad investment.

The early-adopter process is a way of channeling capital that is beneficial and relatively painless — and even fun, for a certain kind of person.

The early-adopter process is a way of channeling capital that is beneficial and relatively painless — and even fun, for a certain kind of person. (The founder of this magazine so loved WordStar, an early word processor, that he appeared in an advertisement for it and endlessly sang its praises: “I’m told there are better programs,” he told Time, “but I’m also told there are better alphabets.”) That process is also ruthlessly efficient: Packard, Polaroid, Zenith — the corporate graveyard is full of ghost brands, legendary names that have outlived their products.

Technological and economic evolution is like biological evolution in one important aspect: Death is the instrument of life, and the process of innovation is inseparably linked to the process of extinction.

And that, if U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith is actually wondering, is why the federal government can’t have websites and digital services that are awesome. (Awesome is over here.) Non-performing federal agencies do not go bankrupt, federal bureaucracies do not see their shares tank when they do poorly, and government entities do not have their assets acquired by more effective competitors. Political bureaucracies are creatures doing violence to the evolutionary equilibrium — dinosaurs running amok in modern technological civilization, and Jurassic Park taught us how that turns out.

Chief technology officer? Sure, couldn’t hurt to try.

But if anybody knows a really good dinosaur wrangler . . . 

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