Black America’s wrong approach to STEM

Black America needs more engineers but not for the reasons we typically hear on the panel discussion stump. On the panel discussion stump, you typically find well dressed and articulate black men and women speaking on the importance of going to college and picking up degrees in science, technology, engineering, or math in order to get a job with a corporation and make six-figures. Going into six-figure debt to get a six-figure job. Where did this school of thought come from?

Black America’s approach to learning about technology favors consumption of the applications that run over broadband networks. That is what I see particularly among poor blacks here in the West End and the Old Fourth Ward. We are using broadband voice applications to share the latest gossip or evangelizing on life. We are keeping occupied reading news items, watching sports highlights, or playing video games as we pass time on MARTA heading to work. Just about everyone has a cellphone and if you don’t, worry not. If you meet income eligibility requirements, you can buy one from a vendor at the corner of York Avenue and Lee Highway.

This propensity to consume technology is not relegated to the Black American poor. According to a 2016 report released by Nielsen,  Black Millennials are expected to help drive the leveraging of $1.2 billion in Black American buying power. With a cellphone ownership penetration rate of 91%, Nielsen sees Black Americans continuing to use the technology to extend black cultural identity and, with Millennials leading the way, continue efforts at civic or institutional change in America. Black America is also expected to buy more beauty and hair care products versus their white counterparts.

Millennials are expected to take their higher incomes into supermarkets as well. Black Americans demonstrate a propensity for cooking from scratch, planning meals ahead, and using fresh ingredients.

In short, the Nielsen report paints a picture of a Black America that furthers consumer centrism. Since release from their status as chattel slaves, blacks in America have slowly become a population over-indexed on consumption. And to further fuel its $1.2 billion in buying power, Black America has embarked on a campaign to get more of its young people into STEM jobs.

STEM employment pays well, according to a report written by the U.S. Department of Education. The average STEM employee pulls in approximately $65,000 a year. Those specializing in engineering or engineering technology average $73,700 a year. Great incomes for hair and makeup and cultural expression. But what is more important, in my view, is STEM driven creation of resources placed in black communities for blacks.

We don’t hear enough about the entrepreneurial side of STEM although we have examples out there. Firms such as Logistics Systems Incorporated and ATS-Chester Engineers have been providing engineering services for decades. They are demonstrating that blacks can do more than consume technology but design technology solutions as well. Production and ownership of technology assets lie at the heart of wealth creation for blacks and if properly deployed can be the basis for the creation of real black communities in the United States.

Unfortunately for current black communities, their leadership is tainted. Legacy black civil rights organizations that have a leadership class still living in 1968 are still focusing on how best to break into corporate America, or in the case of establishing minority-owned firms, maintaining affirmative action programs that provide set asides from government contracts. To paraphrase Yuval Noah Harari, they do not even have realistic ideas of what the job market looks like in two decades because they cannot see. Black leadership is still nostalgic about the civil rights battles of the 1960s when the focus should be on the resource and capital battles of the 21st century.

One example of a leadership not understanding STEM’s practical use is the lack of solar in the West End. I have yet to see a community solar farm. I see more historic district designations on houses than I see solar panels or wind turbines. Finding low cost energy solutions by pooling more STEM talent into black owned firms is a start. Current legacy black-owned engineering firms should consider investing in new black-owned start-ups that are committed to serving distressed communities. No community should be without its own locally owned energy source and this is one approach toward developing one.

Black America’s one-prong approach to STEM needs an upgrade and new leadership.

What happens when the State abandons black Americans?

In their book, The Sovereign Individual: Mastering the Transition to the Information Age, James Dale Davidson and Lord William Rees-Mogg describe the demise of the welfare state with the political changes the information age will bring about. Those who can garner, manipulate, organize, distribute, and monetize information and use today’s digital technology to deploy this new capital from anywhere in the world will be able to achieve a level of individual sovereignty such that the protection services of the old nation-state will no longer be needed. The internet, cyberspace, will be their new jurisdiction, and with capital in the form of information, they will be able to carve out a minimized or tax-free environment in whatever physical jurisdiction they choose.

Information losers, according to Davidson and Rees-Mogg, won’t like this new world. This information-based economy will challenge their welfare state “employee” status. It is a welfare state employee status because in exchange for the “work” that they do at the polls i.e. their vote, information losers are awarded with transfer payments such as Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps, and low-income housing. As the hoarders of the new capital, information, choose lower tax jurisdictions, information losers are left holding the bag containing reduced benefits, the result of a lowered tax base.

The recent tax reform legislation passed by a GOP-led Congress and signed by President Donald Trump is a small indicator of the leverage the wealthy have, especially those who make their income as sole proprietors or partners in a business where they are now beneficiaries of a 20% reduction in the taxes they would normally pay on pass-through income. Congress and the President will now have to reduce or eliminate programs made infeasible by a $1.5 billion tax cut.

There is no guarantee that tax cut goody bags will be continually given out in the future. If the GOP loses both chambers of Congress in this year’s midterms, then Democrats will pursue a rewrite of the tax reform, or at least put on a good show effort.  I say a good show effort because the response by the wealthy will be, “Remember the two trillion dollars we have stashed overseas? How about we keep it there?”

Black Americans are not in the information age game even though blacks over-index on social media sites and, as a proportion of their population, own as many smartphones as whites and Latinos. Black Americans are under-indexed when it comes to employment in information technology. In an article for The Huffington Post, Jamal Simmons noted that black women may be able to scrape up $36,000 for a tech start-up, but white males scrape up on average $1.3 million in start-up funds.

And while blacks and Latinos continue to represent low single-digit proportions of actual STEM employees (technologists, mathematicians, engineers), there are plenty of black consumers of entertainment content on Facebook and Instagram. This content is low value. It differs from information which can be used as an input for production.

You may ask, “Don’t blacks have a right to consume entertainment?” My answer would be, “It’s not about rights to consumer content. It’s about channeling as much time and energy into mining and distributing information that creates knowledge that solves the deep well of problems in the black community.

Meanwhile, the State apparatus that blacks have disproportionately relied on for economic support and political protection is becoming bankrupt. Based on this recent tax reform, one would not sound too cynical in concluding that the GOP was in cahoots with the plot to blow it all up.  The information winners will not think twice about leaving information losers behind.

Senator Markey conflates net neutrality and artificial intelligence

The U.S. Senate’s commerce committee held a hearing on how artificial intelligence and machine learning could impact economic growth and American consumers. The panel did their best to assure the committee that Kristanna Loken would not be busting through walls terminating humans on her way to activating Skynet.

Senator Brian Schatz, Democrat of Hawaii, made the audience aware that he was sponsoring a bill that would create a commission that would ask the tough questions about AI (excluding Texas senator Ted Cruz‘s reference to the aforementioned Skynet.)

The committee’s walk through geek and nerd park was pretty much uneventful. From a regulatory perspective, the panelists did not seem gung-ho about the introduction of burdensome regulations at this stage of AI’s development. While the concept of AI has been around since the mid 1950s, the advent of machine learning has raised the level of awareness and in some cases concern about AI. Instead of new rules, it was suggested that current rules we adjusted to address concerns about AI. Also, government could afford to do some learning on its own, gathering the expertise necessary for how best to integrate AI into society.

Also, the panel seemed to downplay concerns about AI displacing workers. It was argued that the technology would create other jobs directly needed by the technology sector, and work spawned by the demand the newly employed in the technology industry would create.

One panelist also tried to mitigate the “Skynet” concern by informing the committee about where actual AI work was being focused. AI is not concerned at this time with creating a general intelligence, that super, global brain depicted in movies. Rather, AI currently has a narrow focus on developing something more akin to an alien intelligence, creating a need for humans to communicate with AI-based technology on another level.

Unfortunately for my eardrums I had to suffer through Senator Ed Markey’s near enthusiastic willingness to conflate net neutrality and artificial intelligence. The Massachusetts Democrat asked one of the panelist, Dr Edward Felten, whether the expected vote by the Republican membership of the Federal Communications Commission to repeal net neutrality rules would negatively impact the development of artificial intelligence. To summarize Dr Felten’s answer: No, repeal of the rules would not.

How Markey or any of his net neutrality posse could confuse equal and transparent exchange of data between networks with the ability of computers to perform tasks usually performed by humans is a leap. Besides, given the billions of dollars invested in AI, would you really want any data generated by machines using artificial intelligence to have its traffic exchanged at an equal or lower priority than a cat video that took two hours and a couple hundred dollars to make?