Monday, September 26, 2011

Slate Magazine Wonders What People Are Good For

Not long after I wrote "What Are People Good For?" Farhaad Manjoo, who is a technology writer at Slate Magazine online began soliciting for stories about workplace automation. In other words, he was pondering exactly what I was pondering when my local library became automated.. At the time, he announced that he was going to write a series detailing exactly how computers were taking over jobs from human beings. In this vein, he was following in the footsteps of Marshall Brain, Martin Ford, The New York Times, David Autor, and Paul Krugman.

Well, the wait is over. Slate is publishing his series this week. Hopefully this will add to the discussion, and we'll start to see a new interest in dealing with this. Remember the headlines from a short while ago: no new jobs were created in the month of August. From the article:

This is not a new story. People have been fretting about the rise of the machines since Ned Ludd took a hammer to his knitting frames, and probably before. In general, these fears have been unfounded. Yes, better technology sometimes replaces workers in the short run, but over the long march of history, technological improvements have been a key to economic growth, and economic growth improves prospects for workers across a range of industries. Indeed, economists have a name for the popular but misguided notion that technology will displace human workers: They call it the Luddite fallacy, after old Ned himself. To many in the academy, it's an iron-clad law of how economies work.

But this time could be different. Artificial intelligence machines are getting so good, so quickly, that they're poised to replace humans across a wide range of industries. In the next decade, we'll see machines barge into areas of the economy that we'd never suspected possible—they'll be diagnosing your diseases, dispensing your medicine, handling your lawsuits, making fundamental scientific discoveries, and even writing stories just like this one. Economic theory holds that as these industries are revolutionized by technology, prices for their services will decline, and society as a whole will benefit. As I conducted my research, I found this argument convincing—robotic lawyers, for instance, will bring cheap legal services to the masses who can't afford lawyers today. But there's a dark side, too: Imagine you've spent three years in law school, two more years clerking, and the last decade trying to make partner—and now here comes a machine that can do much of your $400-per-hour job faster, and for a fraction of the cost. What do you do now?
Manjoo is specifically dealing with higher-skilled jobs; that automation has already eliminated lower-skilled jobs he treats as a fait accompli. That's old news, he says; now we can start looking at all the college-educated professional carrers that are going to be eliminated. His first entry - pharmacists, which happens to be his father's proefession (he takes a look at his own later in the week). He quotes MIT economist David Autor, one of the few economists to even consider the question of automation (emphasis mine):

Autor argues that middle-skilled jobs tend to have two factors in common—they are composed of lots of tasks that are both routine and geographically portable. What does a secretary do all day? He files, sorts, organizes, watches for calendar conflicts, and in other ways manipulates information. What does a tax preparer do? He asks you a series of questions, and performs some calculations based on your answers. These are all tasks that can be written in software—and, once there, they can be done faster, and more cheaply, by machines. And even when a computer can't completely replace these middle-skilled jobs, it can make them easier to transfer to lower-wage humans—you still need a human being to answer tech support questions, but now you can hire someone in Andra Pradesh rather than Alabama. This decimation of middle-skilled work explains another unsettling trend in American business. New companies today are starting up with far fewer workers than in the past, and they're staying smaller as they grow.
Manjoo quotes Martin Ford in the intro to the piece (emphasis mine):

When I spoke to him recently, I asked Ford about economists' standard rebuttal to fears of automation—the story of the decline of agricultural jobs in the United States. In 1900, 41 percent of the American workforce was employed in agriculture. Over the next 100 years, the technological revolution in farming dramatically increased productivity, enabling fewer and fewer people to produce more and more food. By 2000, just 2 percent of the workforce was employed in agriculture. Yet this shift, which required millions of people to move off farms and acquire new skills, didn't ruin the economy. Instead, by reducing food prices and freeing up people to do more profitable things with their time, it contributed to massive growth. Why won't that happen again with information technology—why won't we all just learn new skills and find other jobs?

"There's no question that there will be new things in the future," Ford says. "But the assumption that economists are making is that those industries are going to be labor-intensive, that there are going to be lots of jobs there. But the fact is we don't see that anymore. Think of all the high-profile companies we've seen over the past 10 years—Google, Facebook, Netflix, Twitter. None of them have very many employees, because technology is ubiquitous—it gets applied everywhere, to new jobs and old jobs. Whatever appears in the future, whatever pops up, we can be certain that IT will get applied right away, and all but the most non-routine-type jobs won't be there anymore."
And we all know how rare non-routine jobs are. We all want them, but they are reserved for the well-heeled and well-connected. What will the rest of us do?

Martin Ford himself has written a piece for the Washington Post about how IBM's Watson supercomputer is being applied to medicine:
Dr. Watson: How IBM’s supercomputer could improve health care

Here is another view:
Doc in a Box

Go back and reread my post entitled "Our Jobless Future" to see where this is all heading. You can be sure our leaders do not care; they will just invest their taxpayer-funded millions in the companies making the robots. The pain and suffering this will unleash will not matter one whit to those on the top who will be doing the firing. Essentially all upper-level business leaders and management are sociopaths who care only about themselves and their immediate blood relatives, not about their country or their fellow citizens (look at the tax debate). They will just lay us all off, high-five one another, and reread their copies of Atlas Shrugged.

It strikes me that what we're now seeing is the plutocracy's version of the Final Solution. Just like that atrocity, if you are not directly affected, and still have a job, you will not notice what's going on until it is too late. That is, if you even notice what is happening around you at all. The best part is that the victims will be blamed for their own misfortune by those fortunate enough to have the resources to escape - "they should have gotten more education, worked harder, etc." is what the survivors will say. Indeed, we've already seen that attitude for years as manufacturing and labor were hollowed out. Rather than herding people into poison gas showers, the plutocracy will just deny you the opportunity to earn wages, depriving you of the basic necessities for life. Prisons will begin to overflow with people, and all sorts of social dysfunction will take over in the desperate pools of surplus workers as the rich lounge comfortably in their high-rise condos and gated suburbs, robots slaving away ceaselessly making their profits. No wonder in a time of unparalleled technological sophistication and scientific knowledge, Americans are living in their cars and learning to grow their own food.

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