Monday, March 28, 2011

What Are People Good For?

There is only one condition in which we can imagine managers not needing subordinates, and masters not needing slaves.
This condition would be that each (inanimate) instrument could do its own work, at the word of command or by intelligent anticipation, like the statues of Daedalus or the tripods made by Hephaestus, of which Homer relates that
"Of their own motion they entered the conclave of Gods on Olympus"
as if a shuttle should weave of itself, and a plectrum should do its own harp playing.
-Aristotle, Politics.

Any labor which competes with slave labor must accept the economic conditions of slave labor.
-Norbert Weiner, cybernetics pioneer.

1. I Robot.

Recently my local library installed a series of automatic check-out stations. Instead of handing your books to a circulation aide (that’s what they’re technically called), you scan your card, enter a PIN (personal identification number), scan the items, and print your slip with the due dates. This comes many months after the grocery store I used to go to regularly changed all the express checkout lanes to self scan lanes, where you scan the bar code of items yourself, insert cash into the machine (or more commonly, swipe a card), receive your receipt, and bag your own groceries. Work that used to be done for you was now either done by you or a computer, with the savings from eliminated workers’ wages theoretically passed along to you in the form of lower prices. At this point, it is worth noting that the concept is somewhat self-defeating, as the process is currently so unfamiliar that in each of these situations staff were needed on hand just to walk the customers through the process of successfully checking out. Of course, it would have been simpler for these workers to just check the customers out themselves, not to mention less stressful for the customers. Thus, although it seems like there are no real net savings using these machines for now, the corporations deploying them are betting that after a certain length of time and once they become commonplace enough, customers will no longer need such hand-holding, and these procedures will just become the standard way things are done with no special attention being paid to impersonal, automated check-outs. And they’re probably right; these machines, once rarities, are cropping up everywhere: groceries, hardware stores, libraries, gas stations, etc. ATM machines have been around for decades; you no longer need to interact with a teller to do financial transactions (and you pay extra for the privilege, making banking the only business that charges you more for using automation). When I call customer support, an automated menu with a robotic voice reads me my options and asks me to speak it into the receiver to indicate my choice. You no longer need to interact with an attendant at any of these businesses. At one time, vending machines were an oddity and service over the phone was unthinkable; now they are commonly accepted.

Some of these developments in self-service have been theoretically possible since the barcode was invented, but they have become a lot more visible lately. The Recession has actually spurred the drive for automation; the last recession in 2000-2001 also saw such a wave of automation, and with each new wave, the computers get more sophisticated. There’s been a lot of discussion and hand-wringing over outsourcing, but scant attention had been paid to what is called technological unemployment, another horseman of the labor apocalypse.

But thankfully the discussion is finally starting. The prominent economist and  New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote a column March 7, 2011 entitled Degrees and Dollars. In the column, Krugman noted an earlier story in the Times about new software that allows legal documents to be intelligently perused by a computer program for relevant information, eliminating the need for large teams of junior lawyers and paralegals to sift through copious documents on large, complex cases:

Computers, it turns out, can quickly analyze millions of documents, cheaply performing a task that used to require armies of lawyers and paralegals. In this case, then, technological progress is actually reducing the demand for highly educated workers.

And legal research isn’t an isolated example. As the article points out, software has also been replacing engineers in such tasks as chip design. More broadly, the idea that modern technology eliminates only menial jobs, that well-educated workers are clear winners, may dominate popular discussion, but it’s actually decades out of date.

The fact is that since 1990 or so the U.S. job market has been characterized not by a general rise in the demand for skill, but by “hollowing out”: both high-wage and low-wage employment have grown rapidly, but medium-wage jobs — the kinds of jobs we count on to support a strong middle class — have lagged behind.

In the article, Krugman argues that seeing education as a panacea for falling wages is out of date, as many medium skill jobs are being automated out of existence as fast as low-skilled jobs. Krugman also dealt with the falling demand for brains issue in this blog post. In it he mentions Watson, IBM’s “intelligent” computer that only weeks prior defeated some of the best contestants on the television game show “Jeopardy.” In order to compete on Jeopardy, a computer has to not merely sift through data, but “understand” normal questions, context, relevancy, even puns, slang and wordplay. Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings, one of the contestants who was bested by Watson, wrote a perceptive article for Slate magazine where he said the following:

IBM has bragged to the media that Watson's question-answering skills are good for more than annoying Alex Trebek. The company sees a future in which fields like medical diagnosis, business analytics, and tech support are automated by question-answering software like Watson. Just as factory jobs were eliminated in the 20th century by new assembly-line robots, Brad and I were the first knowledge-industry workers put out of work by the new generation of "thinking" machines. "Quiz show contestant" may be the first job made redundant by Watson, but I'm sure it won't be the last.

Krugman still thinks that many low-wage jobs like janitors are less likely to be automated:

Most of the manual labor still being done in our economy seems to be of the kind that’s hard to automate. Notably, with production workers in manufacturing down to about 6 percent of U.S. employment, there aren’t many assembly-line jobs left to lose. Meanwhile, quite a lot of white-collar work currently carried out by well-educated, relatively well-paid workers may soon be computerized. Roombas are cute, but robot janitors are a long way off; computerized legal research and computer-aided medical diagnosis are already here.

His optimism over the creation of low-wage jobs is probably misplaced; they are not being created either. According to labor statistics, the unemployment rate for those earning over 150,000 a year is 3 percent, while it is 31 percent for county's poorest households. In fact, janitors may not even be safe from self-cleaning automated toilets. Also that same week, Boing Boing posted a video of people riding in one of Google’s experimental self-driving cars navigating through an obstacle course. Goodbye cab and truck drivers. A robot has been invented to fold laundry. Goodbye housekeeping staff. Surely low-paid agricultural work is safe. Think again. The Institute of Agricultural Machinery at Japan’s National Agriculture and Food Research Organization, along with SI Seiko, has developed a robot with stereoscopic vision that can select and harvest strawberries based on their color.  Future developments are predicted for tomatoes, grapes and other plants. Automation is already used extensively in dairy farming (milking machines, etc.), and M.I.T. is working on prototype bots that can monitor, feed and harvest tomato plants. According to one commentator:

“The automation of agriculture could prove to be a pivotal development in the early 21st century, akin to the adoption of combustion engines in the early 20th century. Just as horses were eventually replaced by tractors, humans may find themselves replaced by robots in the remaining realms of agricultural labor in which they still hold sway.”

Construction workers and the trades aren’t immune, either. New housing starts are seen as barometers of economic health, yet there is a drive to construct entire houses in factories via automation, ensuring higher quality and lower costs than building houses ad-hoc outdoors in unpredictable weather conditions. BLDGBlog recently posted an article entitled “The Robot and the Architect are Friends,” exploring using robots to translate building designs into reality without teams of construction workers. The article stated:

"Swiss architects Gramazio & Kohler "have a vision: architecture using robotics to take command of all aspects of construction. Liberated from the sidelines, the profession would be freed to unleash all its creative potential—all thanks to its obedient servants, the robots"

In fact, the New York Times is doing a whole series of reports chronicling the rise of recent artificial intelligence breakthroughs called “Smarter Than You Think.” It is sobering reading. It seems like there is already no task that is beyond being performed by a computer. Even relatively complex tasks are not far out of reach. Having long ago mastered chess, they are even playing poker against human opponents. NASA is already sending robotic astronauts into space. Highly paid television journalists are not immune, either. The Internet blogger Randall Parker at Future Pundit wrote an article based on the same New York Times piece in which he imaginatively describes a legal system almost entirely devoid of people. He goes further than Krugman in describing an automated workforce of the future. His article may seem a bit fanciful, yet decision making software is a reality, and it is getting more sophisticated all the time. There's even a computer that composes beautiful music!  I could go on and on. The sense throughout the last decades of the twentieth century was that automation only affected low-skilled blue-collar factory workers. College-educated workers thought, “if only those losers would simply go to school and hit the books, they wouldn’t have to worry. It’s their own damn fault.” Now we know that even many jobs that require extensive education can be eliminated just as easily.*

So we have a continually growing population thanks to the fruits of industrialization that can feed itself by using a mere 2.7 percent of it's laborers. This continually growing population needs to sell it's labor in return for wages to survive, yet, every business in the economy strives for maximum "efficiency", which is defined by getting the most work done with the lowest amount of inputs possible. Closely related is productivity, which is the amount of work produced per worker. Any economist will tell you that rich societies are the ones with the highest productivity, and businesses are always striving to increase productivity. In the U.S. worker productivity has soared, especially since the advent of the computer (with the resulting gains not shared with the workers). Yet productivity gains also lead to the need for less workers. Every incentive in a money/wage economy is to reduce the amount of human labor! That's why there are so few people involved in agriculture, and why food is so (relatively) cheap. So you have an economy that needs to continually create more jobs for more and more people, yet provides every incentive to produce with less and less workers. And let's not forget, since the 1970's or so, both men and women are expected to work, and in many cases, must work, so now we need to create enough jobs for all of them. The question is not so much, "how can we make this system work?", it's "how has this system worked for so long?" In the past, technology merely allowed workers to work more effectively and efficiently, it did not actually eliminate the needs for workers themselves.

Some have pointed out that automation does not eliminate the need for lawyers - even if legal research is done by computers, you still need lawyers, and even if medical diagnosis is done by computer, you still need doctors. As Krugman noted, computers excel and doing routine tasks, "cognitive and manual tasks that can be accomplished by following explicit rules.” But this misses the point. The fact that we need some doctors and lawyers and janitors doesn’t matter. The economy needs to be continually creating more jobs just to accommodate the people constantly entering the workforce. In fact, the economy needs to add roughly one million jobs every year, just to keep the unemployment rate from increasing!  That's some 120,000 jobs every month, year in and year out. With automation constantly decreasing the need for “cognitive and manual tasks," this becomes more and more of a receding horizon. Even a slight decrease in available jobs adds up after months and months. Every month we miss our jobs target, the amount of unemployed workers is increasing, and making up for it becomes harder and harder. We're fighting a losing battle here.

While we may not like repetitive jobs with clearly defined, rules, the fact is that these jobs provide the majority of employment in our economy. They provide the entry-level jobs that allow one to climb the career ladder. An economy without them amounts to a ladder with no rungs between the bottom and the top. The lawyers doing the grunt work today will be the senior associates in twenty years. The interns doing medical diagnosis now will be the future doctors. The architects building models now will eventually design entire buildings. At least, that’s how it used to work. Once those basic jobs are not there, who will get to be doctors and lawyers of the future, and how will that be decided? The sad fact is, jobs that require true thought and creativity are very limited, and competition for them is intense. It’s always been this way, whether we acknowledge it or not. Such jobs are highly desirable, and thus occupied by those with the requisite money and social connections. Competition for such jobs is getting more and more intense, which is no doubt leading to the stratospheric rise in the cost of education in both time and money. Competition to get into the best schools currently begins before children are even five years old!  In fact, there is so much competition for jobs in the design and entertainment industries that employees need to literally work for free just to get a foot in the door! Similar free internships are required at highly desirable workspaces like investment firms and media companies, where interns hope to make a killing or be discovered as the next new celebrity journalist or on-air personality. Already, highly-paid and creative positions are dominated by the children of the wealthy and privileged. People will simply graduate right to the top. It leads to an even more class-stratified caste system than we have today. Are we heading toward a new aristocracy? We have what I call a creative surplus, a concept I hope to explore in more detail. What it means is that our workforce has far more creative ideas than society has the ability to realistically implement at this time. Even if you are one of those intelligent, creative individuals, don’t count on making any money off of it. There is only a need for so many fashion designers, starchitects, or New York Times columnists. The massive amount of “free” creativity floating around the Internet (including this essay) is testament to that. Our workforce is far more skilled and educated now than in the nineteen fifties, yet unemployment is much higher.

Please read part 2 of this article

Please read part 3 of this article

Please read part 4 of this article

Please read part 5 of this article
Please read part 6 of this article

*Oddly enough, the one place that should have been entirely run by robots, a nuclear facility in Japan, was not.

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