Sunday, August 17, 2014

Automation: Going Mainstream 3


Good summary of the Pew Report:
The experts on both sides, according to Pew, did agree on several main points. First, our political and educational structures are not equipped to handle the technological shift in employment. They also predicted that a more robotic workforce would redefine what “work” is for humans and what constitutes a “job.”

The future of jobs, however, the experts explained, is not absolute. We humans still have the ability to shape the path of robotics, Artificial Intelligence and employment.

“Increasingly we will see work places, institutions and societies debate the benefits of new technologies and these debates will include the social impacts of adoption,” Ben Fuller from the International University of Management in Windhoek explained. ”The important thing to remember is that we have a choice to adopt one hundred per cent, partially or not at all.”
Are our jobs doomed? Report shows the potentially devastating effects of robots on the job market (Salon). Another summary:
Most frightening to men:

“The biggest exception will be jobs that depend upon empathy as a core capacity — schoolteacher, personal service worker, nurse. These jobs are often those traditionally performed by women. One of the bigger social questions of the mid-late 2020s will be the role of men in this world.”

— Jamais Cascio, technology writer and futurist

Most grim:

“The degree of integration of A.I. into daily life will depend very much, as it does now, on wealth. The people whose personal digital devices are day-trading for them, and doing the grocery shopping and sending greeting cards on their behalf, are people who are living a different life than those who are worried about missing a day at one of their three jobs due to being sick, and losing the job and being unable to feed their children.”

— Bill Woodcock, executive director for the Packet Clearing House, a nonprofit research institute on Internet traffic

Most reassuring:

“The technodeterminist-negative view, that automation means jobs loss, end of story, versus the technodeterminist-positive view, that more and better jobs will result, both seem to me to make the error of confusing potential outcomes with inevitability. A technological advance by itself can either be positive or negative for jobs, depending on the social structure as a whole. This is not a technological consequence; rather, it’s a political choice.”

— Seth Finkelstein, software programmer and consultant

Most utopian:

“How unhappy are you that your dishwasher has replaced washing dishes by hand, your washing machine has displaced washing clothes by hand or your vacuum cleaner has replaced hand cleaning? My guess is this ‘job displacement’ has been very welcome, as will the ‘job displacement’ that will occur over the next 10 years. This is a good thing. Everyone wants more jobs and less work.”

— Hal Varian, chief economist at Google
Will You Lose Your Job to a Robot? Silicon Valley Is Split (The Upshot, NYT) The last two points are facile. I doubt anyone thinks it's a bad thing to automate back-breaking, repetitive labor such as working in a warehouse or cleaning sewers. The question is whether a "work-or-starve" economy consisting of  hundreds of millions of workers is compatible with these concepts. See also Will you lose your job to a robot? (Marginal Revolution)

Failing the Third Machine Age: When Robots Come for Grandma (Medium) Why “caregiver robots” are both inhuman and economically destructive. See also How to annihilate the New York Times’ call for “robot caregivers” (Salon). "Home health aide" is projected to be the fastest-growing job according to government statistics.
Last fall economist Carl Benedikt Frey and information engineer Michael A. Osborne, both at the University of Oxford, published a study estimating the probability that 702 occupations would soon be computerized out of existence. Their findings were startling. Advances in data mining, machine vision, artificial intelligence and other technologies could, they argued, put 47 percent of American jobs at high risk of being automated in the years ahead. Loan officers, tax preparers, cashiers, locomotive engineers, paralegals, roofers, taxi drivers and even animal breeders are all in danger of going the way of the switchboard operator.

Whether or not you buy Frey and Osborne's analysis, it is undeniable that something strange is happening in the U.S. labor market. Since the end of the Great Recession, job creation has not kept up with population growth. Corporate profits have doubled since 2000, yet median household income (adjusted for inflation) dropped from $55,986 to $51,017. At the same time, after-tax corporate profits as a share of gross domestic product increased from around 5 to 11 percent, while compensation of employees as a share of GDP dropped from around 47 to 43 percent. Somehow businesses are making more profit with fewer workers.

The conventional economic wisdom has long been that as long as productivity is increasing, all is well. Technological innovations foster higher productivity, which leads to higher incomes and greater well-being for all. And for most of the 20th century productivity and incomes did rise in parallel. But in recent decades the two began to diverge. Productivity kept increasing while incomes—which is to say, the welfare of individual workers—stagnated or dropped.

Plenty of economists disagree, but it is hard to referee this debate, in part because of a lack of data. Our understanding of the relation between technological advances and employment is limited by outdated metrics. At a roundtable discussion on technology and work convened this year by the European Union, the IRL School at Cornell University and the Conference Board (a business research association), a roomful of economists and financiers repeatedly emphasized how many basic economic variables are measured either poorly or not at all. Is productivity declining? Or are we simply measuring it wrong? Experts differ. What kinds of workers are being sidelined, and why? Could they get new jobs with the right retraining? Again, we do not know...
Will Automation Take Our Jobs? (Scientific American)
Erik Brynjolfsson, Andrew McAfee, and Michael Spence offer some informed speculation on how they see the course of technology evolving in "New World Order: Labor, Capital, and Ideas in the Power Law Economy," which appears in the July/August 2014 issue of Foreign Affairs (available free, although you may need to register).

Up until now, they argue, the main force of information and communications technology has been to tie the global economy together, so that production could be moved to where it was most cost-effective. As they write: "Technology has sped globalization forward, dramatically lowering communication and transaction costs and moving the world much closer to a single, large global market for labor, capital, and other inputs to production. Even though labor is not fully mobile, the other factors increasingly are. As a result, the various components of global supply chains can move to labor’s location with little friction or cost."

But looking ahead, they argue that the next wave of technology will not be about relocating production around the globe, but changing the nature of production--and in particular, automating more and more of it. If the previous wave of technology made workers in high-income countries like the U.S. feel that their jobs were being outsourced to China, the next wave is going to make those low-skill workers in repetitive jobs--whether in China or anywhere else--feel that their jobs are being outsources to robots.
The Next Wave of Technology?  (The Conversible Economist)

Another News Outlet Is Using Robots To Write Stories (HuffPo) AP will use robots to write some business stories (Poynter) Rise of the machine reporters (BBC). Thank goodness investigative reporting is dead.
Momentum Machines was founded four years ago and aside from receiving the occasional libertarian shout-out — “Meet the robot that’s a minimum wage killer” — the company has mostly been low-profile. But at some point in the not too distant past, the website added a kind of disclaimer that aims to nullify criticism that the company might be destroying jobs.

It is encouraging to hear optimism expressed about the possibility of training displaced line cooks to become robot design engineers, although I expect the educational resources necessary to replace entry-level minimum wage jobs with higher-on-the-food-chain, yet-to-be-automated-away engineering design jobs will be considerably greater than any single San Francisco start-up can muster.

But as for the confidence that “technology like ours actually causes an increase in employment”? Certainly that’s been true for a long time, but as the sophistication and pace of technological change continue to accelerate, at least a few economists are now beginning to wonder whether old axioms still hold true. One thing that’s certainly not in doubt — disrupting the fast food industry and erasing countless jobs will provide a direct test of this thesis!
Next up on the Silicon Valley disruption hit list: Fast food (Salon) A test of this thesis, indeed. Low-wage service work basically filled all the jobs that were eliminated since de-industrialization. What's going to replace them?

Technology Displacing Jobs: The European Case (Naked Capitalism)

Australia's middle class is about to get minced (Business Spectator)
So how best to brace ourselves for that hiccup on the road to utopia? Here's where Drum and Andreessen part ways. In Andreessen's vision, we "create and sustain a vigorous social safety net" for the economically stranded. Sounds great, but how do we pay for it? He veers into late-night infomercial territory here: "The loop closes as rapid technological productivity improvement and resulting economic growth make it easy to pay for the safety net." The machine will pay for itself!

In other words, robots make everything faster, easier, and better, so humans will make more money selling goods and services, and we'll all end up with more dimes to spare for those still finding their feet in the robot-powered economy. So we shouldn't listen to the "robot fear-mongering" about machines coming to eat our jobs—the robot revolution is also a personal-tech revolution, and iPhones and tablets are new reins on the global economy:

    "What never gets discussed in all of this robot fear-mongering is that the current technology revolution has put the means of production within everyone's grasp. It comes in the form of the smartphone (and tablet and PC) with a mobile broadband connection to the Internet. Practically everyone on the planet will be equipped with that minimum spec by 2020. What that means is that everyone gets access to unlimited information, communication, and education. At the same time, everyone has access to markets, and everyone has the tools to participate in the global market economy."
Yet plenty of people are less worried about job-stealing robots than the people who will own the robots. As technologist Alex Payne points out, using a smartphone doesn't mean you've got your hands on the "means of production." Using a robot will never be fractionally or profitable as owning a robot, or a robot factory, or the data center that stores the information collected by the robot. "The debate, as ever, is really about power," argues Payne. And it's no secret that a narrow segment of white and Asian males currently occupies nearly all the ergonomic chairs at that table.

Drum has no doubt that robots are in fact coming to eat our jobs, and it's the folks with the social and financial capital to buy robots that will call the shots: "As this happens, those without money—most of us—will live on whatever crumbs the owners of capital allow us." If the robot-owning 1 percent of tomorrow is anything like today's, then there is little indication that they're willing to share their spoils. Take a look at this chart of productivity versus worker wages over the last 60 years. Productivity has been shooting up, helped in no small part by greater efficiencies thanks to technology. But worker pay hasn't been rising alongside these productivity gains...

So where's all the extra money, the "resulting economic growth" from all this "rapid technological productivity improvement" that Andreessen promises? It's parked in the pockets of the 1 percenters. Here's how the share of income is divided between capital owners—the people who own the technology—and labor:...Drum says these metrics are a few of the economic indicators that make up the "horsemen of the robotic apocalypse" in which "capital will become ever more powerful and labor will become ever more worthless." The other indicators are fewer job openings, stagnating middle-class incomes, and corporations stockpiling cash instead of investing it in new goods and factories.
What Marc Andreessen Gets Wrong About Our Future Robot Overlords (Mother Jones) The mega-venture-capitalist says a robotic utopia of leisure and wealth is coming. There’s just one problem for us humans.
Software firm Autodesk, founded in 1982, creates virtual design tools used by millions of architects and designers every day. Last year alone, the company produced revenues of $2.3bn. British vice president Pete Baxter is responsible for its architecture, engineering and construction operations in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

He believes architects have little to fear from artificial intelligence. "Yes, you can automate. But what does a design look like that's fully automated and fully rationalised by a computer program? Probably not the most exciting piece of architecture you've ever seen."

Technology won't destroy the profession, but it will, he says, democratise it. "There's a paradigm shift now: the one-man architect working from home with a bright idea now has access to an infinite amount of computing power in the cloud. That means a one-man designer, a graduate designer, can get access to the same amount of computing power as these big multinational companies. So suddenly there's a different competitive landscape."
Robot doctors, online lawyers and automated architects: the future of the professions? (The Guardian) That must be why 40 percent of us went without work in the last recession.

Could a robot do my job? (The Week)

A Silicon Valley VC Imagines A Future Where Most Of Us (Except Robots) Don't Have Jobs (Fast Company)

Robots Will Take Our Jobs (Slate)

When robots take our jobs, humans will be the new 1%. Here's how to fight back (The Guardian)

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