Sunday, August 17, 2014

Automation: Going Mainstream

Those of you who've been reading this blog for a while (and thanks to those who have) know that the replacement of the workforce with machines has been a theme since nearly the very first post.  Over the years, I've tried to bust the silly myths surrounding this - that new jobs will magically appear even though de-industrialization has turned vast swaths of the country into depopulated dystopias, that automation consists of walking, talking robots rather than algorithms, that creativity is irreplaceable even though the vast majority of jobs are rote and repetitive and always have been since the Neolithic revolution.

I've seen this topic get much more attention. Over the past week, it's gotten a lot more attention thanks to a recent Pew Report looking at the future of automation. Like most discussions of the topic, it comes up with no definite conclusions. It seems the "experts" once again have no idea what they are talking about ("give me a one-handed economist!"). I would hazard that the experts arguing that new jobs will magically appear are applying the economists' standard logic of "X has always happened before, therefore it will always happen." By contrast, the economists predicting something else have actually spent time and effort studying the machines they are taking about!

Now comes this excellent explanatory video that you may have already seen (it seems to have gone viral). It does such a good job in 15 minutes that hardly anything more need be said:

I've been collecting links for months now, so I think it's time to dribble these out.About the video above:
While the first wave of automation took the form of mechanical muscle, says Grey, the next generation is about artificial intelligence, “mechanical minds,” and smart bots that can teach themselves things they aren't pre-programmed to do. That type of vitality will kick the robot economy into high gear.

"General purpose" robots, like Baxter, Rethink Robotics’ adaptive industrial robot, cost less than the average human salary and have a nearly endlessly versatile skillset, Grey says. "Baxter today is the computer of the 1980s," says the video. "He's not the apex, but the beginning."

In other words, as robots get more useful, demand goes up, prices go down, and they get smaller, more user-friendly and start to proliferate, just like computers have over the last 30 years.

The rather depressing video makes a strong case for why just about zero jobs are safe, and it's high time we wise up to that fact. But the general population is still split on the idea. A recent Pew Research report found that experts are split 50/50 as to whether artificial intelligence will create or destroy jobs. It also, more frighteningly, found that unless our current education system drastically changes, the rise of robot workers is certain to lead not to a post-scarcity age of mass leisure, but "to an increase in income inequality, a continued hollowing out of the middle class, and even riots, social unrest, and/or the creation of a permanent, unemployable 'underclass.'"

The Reddit discussion thread about Grey's explainer video was similarly divided between dystopian and utopian future-predictors. But the video didn't bother to speculate as to whether we should welcome or dread automation, only that it's inevitable, and indeed is already here in nearly every sector of the economy.

"This is an economic revolution," it says. "You may think we've been here before, but we haven't. This time is different."
Why Automation Today Is Like Computers in the 1980s (Vice)

This commentary from Digitoply is full of errors and contradictions:
While the video may make you feel sad for the horses, you have to remember that there are just fewer of them. This is because horses were not labour but, in fact, capital. So when they were replaced by oil and stream powered capital, it was a substitution of capital goods or, more to the point, fuel. So for the bourgeoisie who were invested in horses, that substitution was bad news for them. For the bourgeoisie invested in wheels, it was another matter.
Labor is also capital - has he never heard the term "human capital?" Really?
But it is instructive to consider how that substitution arose. Basically, for horses to compete, their ‘rental cost’ to productivity ratio had to be sufficiently low that they could be employed in competition with other capital that had their own ‘rental cost’ to productivity ratio (usually worse than horses) plus a quality advantage. So as the lot of other capital improved (both in productivity and quality), horses ‘rental cost’ had to drop. There came a point, however, where the rental cost couldn’t drop far enough to make horses competitive and that was it for them.
Economist technobabble meaning machines became cheaper and more efficient to use than horses.
So let’s now translate this for the robots versus humans equation. There are lots of differences but let’s start with the humans as horses point. For a human to be displaced by a robot in a job the robot (a) has to have a quality advantage and (b) the human productivity must be so low that even if the wage drops to minimum (by law or subsistence or opportunity cost), they will be uncompetitive. What that means is that the routine jobs listed in the CGP Grey video are vulnerable (as they have been to capital substitution in the past) but the other jobs (including journalism and actually being a lawyer) are less so. To think that they are means you have to have a robot technology that is actually higher quality in doing those jobs. The video points to certain tasks being vulnerable but, at the moment, it does not look like the higher cognitive bits (such as they are) are in trouble. But I’m a technology optimist, so who knows? I’m just saying that the quality advantage needs to appear.
Not sure I get this. Robots are already replacing journalists and lawyers as the video aptly demonstrates. As the video points out, drivers are one of the largest employment sectors.
But what of the humans that have no quality advantage with respect to robots for what they are currently skilled at? The Brynjolfsson-McAfee line is that they will need to acquire other skills and, more to the point, it is not clear the market can work (or at least work fast enough for our liking) to make that happen. So there is a danger of the humans going down the lot of horses there.
What skills are those? The idea that people are not "creative" enough is ludicrous - many of us already have no outlet for our creativity (please talk to your local frustrated architecture school grad. Or music, or art or litrature or...). As the video points out, we can't have an economy based on painting and poetry as currently constituted.
There are, however, two important differences. First, unlike the horses, the humans are also useful as consumers. They are the people who will value the products the robots (and other humans) produce. Think about that for a moment. For each person who is disengaged from society because of a robot, if you cut them off from consumption as well (by say not giving them any money), that is a unit of demand gone. So this pool of unemployed are left outside the system and do not interact in any way with the robot-employed economy.
So? We've already been doing that for decades. Has he been to Appalachia? Any inner-city slum? Whatever remains of the middle class will sell to each other, and the temporarily increasing middle classes overseas. The rest can go to hell, since not having a job will be spun as individual fault, and people will believe it.
If that sounds unsustainable, it is. There is a contradiction in the story. You have a person who values the product produced by robots by more than the ‘total cost’ in terms of resources to supply them with that product. You have to feel pretty ill about the prospects of capitalism to suppose that such an opportunity (certainly at scale) will go unexploited.
I do feel so ill about the prospects of Capitalism. See above. Has he been to Detroit? And since when has "sustainability" had anything to do with capitalism?
How will this happen? The most obvious way is that a collective agency will step in to ensure those people can pay for the product so that normal market based prices will be formed and transactions will take place. That agency is obvious in democratic society: the government. And before you think that this is some leftist notion (not that there’s anything wrong with that), I’m not theorising that here: I have faith that if it is in the interests of both business and consumers that money go from the employed to unemployed, it will. It will happen. So there may be unemployment but that does not mean that the humans adversely affected will become horse meat.
Would that be the same government that is increasingly staffed with Tea Party members (social insurance is a hammock! Dependence on government!! Self-reliance!!!), where food stamps are curtailed, unemployment extensions vetoed, taxes are cut on the rich, and health care expansions for the poor refused? The same government that is dysfunctional and been de-funded for decades (the national debt!!)? The same government where campaigns are sponsored exclusively by the wealthy ownership class? The same government where even "leftists" constantly offer paeans to the untrammeled "free" market? That government??
But there is another mechanism which goes back to the title of this post. The presumption is always that the bourgeoisie rather than the proletariat owns the machines. But why should that be the case?
Because that is the very definition of capitalism you bloody idiot! Just because communism failed does not mean you need to disregard even common-sense observations about our economy because they were made first by Marx. If the means of production were common-pool we would not be living under capitalism. The problem is, ownership has consistently become more, not less concentrated over the last several decades. Why would that change? If anything, automation will increase profits to those who can afford to purchase them first, leading to even more concentrated ownership through mergers and acquisitions. Indeed, this is already happening.

The ownership of the machines (Digitopoly)

I could go on, but this should give you some idea of the lack of intelligent commentary on the subject. More later.

Stop predicting the future. Leave that to the robot who's going to steal your job (The Guardian)


  1. spot on. The "massive underclass" you mention already exists.

  2. "Robots are already replacing journalists" link isn't there.

  3. You're the one who lacks intelligence. If there is egalitarianism, problem solved. Everyone gets free money to buy the products made by the robots. If there is no egalitarianism, then problem also solved. The top 1% have jobs controlling the robots and otherwise running things, the top 9% below that 1% have jobs keeping the bottom 90% under control, the bottom 90% have jobs begging for scraps, working as prostitutes or offering to lick the boots of the rich clean in exchange for enough food to keep from starving. Those jobs of the bottom 90% may not be nice, but they are jobs. Economists who say a free market always generates full employment are indeed speaking the truth.

  4. Horses have been unemployable for most of 50 million years. Heaven knows they're miserable now.

    1. Horses have never been stupid enough to force each other to work.


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