The Monstrous Regiment of Corporations

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Issue 306
January/February 2018
The Way of the Garden

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The Monstrous Regiment of Corporations

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Cover: Bloom Day Scan © Craig Cramer,

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We need a new system to save humanity from this dangerous form of Artificial Intelligence, argues Richard Forsyth.

A monster is eating Europe – the monster of corporatism. And it isn't just eating Europe; it has already devoured the United States, and is busy swallowing Asia, Africa, Oceania and the rest of the Americas. It is even nibbling at Antarctica. And it isn't just one monster; it's a whole tribe of them.

A little more than four centuries ago, the burghers of Amsterdam brought forth a novel organism whose kind had never before been seen on this planet. They called it Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie, the United East India Company. This was the first, fragile specimen of a predatory creature whose descendants would one day take control not only of Amsterdam, but the whole human world. Yes, I'm talking about the joint-stock corporation.

In recent years, public figures such as Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have begun to warn that efforts to create intelligent systems by workers in Artificial Intelligence (AI) may do more harm by succeeding than by failing. They believe that we humans have only a few years to prepare to deal with the disruption caused by the advent of super-intelligent machines.

But in fact, intelligent artificial systems have been in existence for centuries, hiding in plain sight. We think of them as part of the natural order of things, like gravity or growing old. We fail to see them as what they are, artificial contrivances. A mistake made by those who rightly warn us of dangers to come from intelligent systems is that they assume that the successors of the human race must be bizarre novelties. But that isn't how Nature works. The major breakthroughs in biological complexity tend to be symbiotic organisms that incorporate previously independent entities.

Animal cells, for example, contain mitochondria as power units. This symbiosis began a couple of billion years ago when a primitive eukaryote swallowed a bacterium, but didn't digest it. Another similar great engulfment is now well under way. In effect, we are becoming the gut bacteria of a particular kind of complex system to which we gave birth. Organic evolution has always been opportunistic, and here again we find a new level of complexity emerging by yoking together components already existing at a "lower" level - in this case us.

The giant corporations that determine how we live our lives are highly complex composite entities. Legally speaking, they are variations on the theme of the limited-liability joint-stock company, a kind of entity that can trace its origin back to the United East India Company, founded in 1602. Most accounts of the joint-stock company treat it as a legal fiction. It is that, but it has become much more than that. Once a company is created, a new person -- in law -- has come into being. A notable difference from persons born to human mothers, however, is that this legal person can own other companies, i.e. other persons, something which would be outlawed as slavery if owner and owned were human beings.

A vital point about corporations is that they are active agents. They have aims and objectives and they use people as means of achieving their ends. They don't literally metabolize, and they don't literally reproduce -- at least, not in the ways that plants and animals do. But they have goals, they perform actions that align the physical world with their objectives and they certainly take in and process energy and resources, extruding waste products as a result. Crucially, from a human viewpoint, they have rights. Our laws grant these beings rights that are only otherwise given to people. In many modern jurisdictions, they possess more legal rights than human beings.

Big Data + Big Business = Big Trouble

It is within this context that Artificial Intelligence (AI) presents a threat. Having objectives, exercising legal rights, storing and processing information to guide their decisions -- all these functions have been going on for centuries, with companies' "thought processes" emerging as the consequences of coordinated actions by staff and other stakeholders. Ruthless exploitation of people and natural resources to achieve corporate objectives is nothing new either. Both the Dutch and British East India Companies were notorious for such practices, which continue worldwide today. All this has been achieved by co-opting humans to serve corporate purposes.

Until quite recently, corporations needed some people (not very many) to formulate their plans and take decisions as well as other people (a considerably larger number) to execute them. Genuine machine intelligence would radically change that situation.

Modern corporations need three main types of gut bacteria: (1) a small cadre of directors and higher executives; (2) a somewhat larger group of staff or workers; (3) as many customers, "consumers", as possible.

The first group have been handsomely rewarded. They doubtless see themselves as indispensable. They are wrong to be complacent. It would be surprising if beings with a superhuman level of ingenuity couldn't find a way to render these people superfluous too.

As for the second group, firms are finding ever more ingenious ways to do without them. It is hardly far-fetched to envisage this category being eliminated altogether. That is the end towards which automation is tending.

That leaves group 3. Surely corporations will always need consumers? Even Henry Ford knew his company needed customers. However, we're not talking about Henry Ford. We're talking about superhuman intelligences. By definition they will be able to outwit us.

The crash of 2008 made plain the fact that the trillions upon trillions of dollars traded in the world economy were largely imaginary. In effect, the great bulk of the world economy is a gigantic computer game. Who better to win a computer game than a computer?

The biggest and most profitable part of the global economy is already almost entirely divorced from what ordinary folk would think of as reality. It would be most unwise to assume that it isn't possible to uncouple this casino in the cloud, where extreme profits are made, from the kind of mundane objects that matter to humans and other living beings. An inhuman but hyperintelligent system might consider that more profitable, more efficient and thus more desirable.

We may not be smart enough to work out how to achieve such a state, but we ought to be smart enough not to rule it out -- and to take steps to prevent it from happening.

What needs to be done

Many people over many years have raised concerns about the environmental, financial and social crises that face human civilization in the 21st century, largely driven by a financial/economic system with huge corporations at its heart. Activists protest against corporate power; commentators recommend better codes of "corporate governance". Some of the latter seem to think that giant corporations can become more socially responsible or more environmentally conscious, and thus that human well-being can be secured within the current economic model. I believe this is a delusion. In my view, the only way to create a civilization on a global scale that promotes human welfare will be to curb the power of giant corporations and eventually render them extinct.

Exterminating these apex predators will be a daunting task. The forces ranged against such a change are simply overwhelming. My guess is that we won't manage it. Maybe that is why virtually nobody is seriously suggesting it. But if we don't even try, we're sure to fail; and it is possible to imagine roughly how it might be done.

Firstly it should be stated that people have always traded and if civilization survives will want to carry on trading. We will still need to do business, we just need a very different framework within which to conduct it. It isn't as if the joint-stock corporation is the only way for people to combine to achieve common objectives. Many kinds of association have prospered in the past, and still do. Thus it should not be beyond the wit of humankind to devise a vehicle for collaboratively pursuing our economic aims which does not suffer the pathologies of the modern transnational corporation. The tricky part will be ensuring that it replaces that structure.

What is needed is a task force with heavyweight intellectual resources, comparable with those available to the wartime Manhattan Project. This task force will be charged with the following objectives, listed in order of increasing difficulty: spreading public awareness of the menace of transnational corporations; conceiving a safe form of economic combination to replace them; devising a way of replacing them, worldwide, without lethal violence.

Such a task force will be expensive, but it would only require a couple of renegade billionaires to have a quasi-Pauline conversion to ensure adequate funding.

Who should be recruited into this task force? I suggest a motley collection including mathematicians, musicians, military strategists and natural scientists. A few wayward entrepreneurs and hotshot traders, provided that they sincerely repent their lucrative misdeeds, might not go amiss. In any case, movers and shakers from the current world of economics, finance and politics should be eschewed. The people needed will have to be persuaded that it is their civic duty to take years away from what they really want to do in order to solve a problem facing the whole of humanity.

Funding, recruiting and motivating the right sort of people will be major challenges. But they will be the least of the problems facing the task force.

Towards convivial collectives

Most people simply do not realize the grave danger we're in. Moreover, the minority who have serious concerns don't seem to recognize the primary culprit. They protest about environmental degradation, global warming, huge disparities in wealth and so forth, but propose solutions that leave our economic structures essentially intact.

The downfall of humanity is being engineered with our complicity. It will surpass even the most successful advertising campaign to generate the worldwide groundswell of opinion that will be a necessary prelude to overthrowing the hegemony of corporate power; but that just takes us to base camp. Convincing people that there is something dangerously wrong with global corporate rule won't suffice unless we have a realistic alternative to put in its place.

My guess is that something like a mutual society or a workers' co-operative would be a good starting point. But such things, I suspect, are only prototypes. Company law will have to be comprehensively rewritten; for instance, to outlaw tangled webs of inter-corporate ownership. Imagine the virulence of the fight-back by wealthy vested interests that would be provoked by the mere hint that such ideas were being taken seriously.

This is where the real life-or-death struggle begins. Our band of innovators would have already excelled themselves by devising a fresh framework for commercial collaboration, immune to being hijacked by special interests or artificial intelligences. Then they would have to excel themselves again. They would have to come up with a workable implementation plan. Legions of powerful people -- the sort who turn up to forums in Davos in private jets -- will have to assent to a process by which the basis of their power will be undermined. It will have to happen by consent, without warfare, within decades. Can you work out how that could be done? Me neither. But if it isn't, we're doomed.

WANTED: highly intelligent individuals prepared to devote themselves for at least 10 years to a near-impossible set of tasks, beginning by acquiring funds enabling them to devise a framework for completely replacing our economic system with something altogether less destructive, and then performing the virtuoso communicative ju-jitsu necessary to convince the holders of economic and political power to make the changes necessary to bring this about without violence. Not forgetting the need to establish robust institutional safeguards against later back-sliding, should these momentous changes ever be achieved.

This endeavour is arguably more difficult than anything ever achieved by any group of humans.

What are you waiting for? Your planet needs you!

Richard S. Forsyth is a lapsed Artificial Intelligence researcher who describes himself as attempting to atone for a misspent middle-age. An extended version of this article can be found here:

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