Reflections on WWI and artificial intelligence’s takeover

by on August 4, 2017

Frank Hurley’s photo in the Ypres salient towards the end of the Battle of Passchendaele. Australian War Memorial Collection.

THIS week marks the centenary of the beginning of the Battle of Passchendaele in which my grandfather, Hartley Stenning, a British soldier, “won” the Military Medal. I was reminded of this by our family historian, my sister Cordelia. Tens of thousands of men died in the ensuing three months, for virtually no gain other than the greater glory of God, King and Country. The Military Medal was created in World War I for “other ranks” – the cannon fodder.

It was supposed to be “the war to end all wars”. And in some respects it was if you consider World War II as merely an extension of it, as many historians will do so in the future, much as they now regard the separate wars of the 17 th century’s Thirty Years War as one historical event.

In the 20th century humanity had some of the worst wars in history, but in a way the century marked the beginning of the end of war. Yes, of course, there are still wars, but it is now unthinkable that Germany, France, Britain, the US, Japan or Russia would go to total war with mass mobilisation as in World War I and II.

For the 10,000 years since the agricultural revolution until the end of World War II, peace was just a small interlude within a general expectation of war.

The other complete human game changers of the second half of the 20 th century were the end of mass death from infectious diseases and famines which were commonplace for all of humanity through all of its previous history.

Mass deaths from disease stalked everyone and were unavoidable. Mass deaths from starvation stalked all but the very elite and, again, were unavoidable.

As World War I came to an end, a Spanish flu epidemic killed more people than the war itself.

These days deaths from both disease and starvation are limited, though perhaps more tragic because they are generally preventable.

A century ago, men went to war with a sense of purpose and meaning: for God, king and country and were willing to die, or at least risk their lives for them. Officers were willing to send other men to their deaths for the same reasons.

But lives were still valuable, not in the modern sense, but because they were required to serve the needs of war and, of course industry.

As the century wore on and god and ideology fell out of the picture, humans tended to worship humanity and take their sense of direction and meaning from themselves. Every human and every human’s experiences were valuable in their own right.

But now we see that although humans and human life are regarded a sacred, human beings’ value to the military and industry has been dropping since the end of World War II and is about to drop even more dramatically.

More Australians died in World War I than the total size of the present Australian armed forces. The cannon fodder is no longer needed.

Neither is industry’s assembly-line fodder. Fewer, more skilled workers have been needed.

And now we are about to enter a time when even the usefulness of the skilled is under threat. The vast data-amassing computers are making more accurate judgments than humans. Google can predict a flu epidemic days before health authorities by drilling into email content complaining of symptoms and other data about people’s drug-buying habits and so on.

Cars and trucks will drive themselves. Programmed scanners will diagnose tumours more accurately than radiologists. Computers will fill prescriptions more accurately than pharmacists.

So, a century ago on the Western Front when humans seemed to be valued so little and expended so easily they were, in fact, needed most. And now, when human effort and skill is needed, less, if at all, humans are each greatly valued, but for how long if not needed by the military or industry?

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ANOTHER week and another policy rabbit pulled out of the hat by Labor. This time it was taxing trusts. It follows a plebiscite on the republic and fixed four-year terms. They all have merit, but each came out of the hat as a discrete rabbit, without any looking at the broader picture or considering public, party or even partyroom input.

It is not only on the Labor side. Too often policies come out of the hat without any public discussion. The Coalition marriage-equality plebiscite came out of the partyroom with no public input.

The trouble is that the players in our major political parties no longer come from a wide spectrum of experience. Lawyers and political staffers are vastly over-represented in both major parties. Union officials over-represented in Labor and business and farmer over-represented in the Coalition.

So partyroom-only policy-making, or worse, ministry- or cabinet-only policy is bound to be flawed.

My guess is that the Coalition partyroom has little knowledge of, let alone empathy with, LGBTI people and had no idea how fearful they would justifiably be of a divisive, scare-mongering plebiscite.

My guess is that the Labor frontbench does not have a great the depth of experience in high-end business tax arrangements.

Fixing the problem of tax-dodging discretionary trusts is a worthwhile exercise, but even a back-of the envelope exercise reveals a flaw in Labor’s plan. Taxing beneficiary payments at 30 per cent still leaves room for a lot of tax avoidance – about $25,000 on trust funds of around $150,000 split among four.

Sure, it reduces avoidance, but does not eliminate it. Moreover it legitimises the new lower level of avoidance.

The broader questions not tackled are: whether the top marginal rate is too high, or cuts in too early; whether high less-avoidable consumption taxes are too low with too many exemptions, particularly education and health, upon which the wealthy spend quite a lot; and whether the young unemployed, the disabled and aged should get a better deal. The whole tax system should be looked at.

Similarly with the republic and fixed-four year terms. All the outdated symbolic and mechanical parts of the Constitution should be looked at: our foreign head of state; the reserve powers; dual citizens in Parliament; double dissolutions which are no solution, and so on.

But no, let’s wedge the other side with a few snappy things the details of which the community at large and the knowledgeable people in it do not get a look in.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Fairfax Media on 5 August 2017.

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