Sunday, August 17, 2014

Automation: Going Mainstream 2

 What jobs will robots take over? (BBC)
It’s a question that economists and workers have been asking since at least the Industrial Revolution. And in the past, the answer has generally been a straightforward “no.” Automation makes certain low-skill human jobs obsolete, sure, but it also ushers in new categories of high-skill employment, from engineering and equipment operation to banking and blogging. Its greatest effect is to increase productivity, which should raise incomes and stimulate demand for new products and services.

Yet the current jobless recovery, along with a longer-term trend toward income and wealth inequality, has some thinkers wondering whether the latest wave of automation is different from those that preceded it.

Replacing manual labor with machines on farms and in factories was one thing, the worriers say. Those machines were dumb and highly specialized, requiring humans to oversee them at every stage. But the 21st century is witnessing the rise of far smarter machines that can perform tasks previously thought to be immune to automation.

Today’s software can answer your calls, organize your calendar, sell you shoes, recommend your next movie, and target you with advertisements. Tomorrow’s software will diagnose your diseases, write your news stories, and even drive your car. When even high-skill “knowledge workers” are at risk of being replaced by machines, what human jobs will be left? Politics, perhaps—and, of course, entrepreneurship and management. The rich will get richer, in other words, and the rest of us will be left behind.
About that Pew study:
The results of the survey were fascinating. Almost exactly half of the respondents (48 percent) predicted that intelligent software will disrupt more jobs than it can replace. The other half predicted the opposite. The lack of expert consensus on such a crucial and seemingly straightforward question is startling...
The New Luddites (Slate) What if technological innovation is a job-killer after all?

Meet "McCashier" Your $15.00 Per Hour McDonald's Worker Replacement (Mish's Economic Analysis). So will this alter Mish's hard-core Libertarianism? Apparently not:
The solution is not higher minimum wages. The solution is not a tax on robots like Paul Krugman wants. The solution is not a guaranteed income.

The solution is to eliminate the Fed, eliminate fractional reserve lending, and give the free market a chance to create jobs at its own pace, without all this government and central bank interference.

The alternative "solution" and not one I support, is to kill off a lot of needless people by starting WWIII.
So eliminate the Fed and all our problems are solved? Why no mention of the gold standard? Why does anyone listen to these idiots? I guess we know the Libertarian view. WWIII here we come.
 Robots are taking all the jobs. But are we, the average, moderately skilled humans, screwed, or aren't we? Let me just get it out of the way now: We are, unless there are drastic, immediate changes to education and economic systems around the world.

The dominant narrative going around today about Pew Research's new report on artificial intelligence and the future of jobs is that experts can't really decide whether automation is going to make working obsolete, that it's really a toss up whether robots will simply create new jobs in other sectors as they destroy ones in other.

That's true, in one sense: The 1,896 futurists, CEOs, journalists, and university professors questioned for the report were split in half over robots will "displace significant numbers of both blue- and white-collar workers," with 52 percent of respondents agreeing that "human ingenuity will create new jobs, industries, and ways to make a living, just as it has been doing since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution."

But there's one major caveat: The respondents overwhelmingly agree that this lovely future where robots do the work and humans design the robots and everyone has leisure time and lots of money only exists in a fantasy future where the school systems pump out a shitload of Elon Musks and Sergey Brins—or, at the very least, people who can reliably work at the companies those guys own.
If the education system doesn't change to start pumping out technologically savvy, creative people as the rule, not the exception, the rise of robot workers is "certain to lead 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 Pew report concludes.

Yes, historically, technology has killed certain types of jobs while creating others. But what we're seeing happen right now isn't merely a redistribution of unskilled jobs to other sectors over the course of a couple decades, or the outsourcing of factory workers to other countries or cities with better tax breaks.

Instead, it's wiping out entire industries, entire swaths of the economy, in years, not decades. And it's killing white collar jobs as frequently as it's killing blue collar ones.
If Schools Don't Change, Robots Will Bring On a 'Permanent Underclass': Report (Vice)
Two hugely important statistics concerning the future of employment as we know it made waves recently:

1. 85 people alone command as much wealth as the poorest half of the world.

2. 47 percent of the world's currently existing jobs are likely to be automated over the next two decades.

Combined, those two stats portend a quickly-exacerbating dystopia. As more and more automated machinery (robots, if you like) are brought in to generate efficiency gains for companies, more and more jobs will be displaced, and more and more income will accumulate higher up the corporate ladder. The inequality gulf will widen as jobs grow permanently scarce—there are only so many service sector jobs to replace manufacturing ones as it is—and the latest wave of automation will hijack not just factory workers but accountants, telemarketers, and real estate agents.

That's according to a 2013 Oxford study, which was highlighted in this week's Economist cover story. That study attempted to tally up the number of jobs that were susceptible to automization, and, surprise, a huge number were. Creative and skilled jobs done by humans were the most secure—think pastors, editors, and dentists—but just about any rote task at all is now up for automation. Machinists, typists, even retail jobs, are predicted to disappear.

And, as is historically the case, the capitalists eat the benefits. The Economist explains:

"The prosperity unleashed by the digital revolution has gone overwhelmingly to the owners of capital and the highest-skilled workers. Over the past three decades, labour’s share of output has shrunk globally from 64% to 59%. Meanwhile, the share of income going to the top 1% in America has risen from around 9% in the 1970s to 22% today. Unemployment is at alarming levels in much of the rich world, and not just for cyclical reasons. In 2000, 65% of working-age Americans were in work; since then the proportion has fallen, during good years as well as bad, to the current level of 59%."

Those trends aren't just occurring in the US, either. That second stat up there is from an Oxfam report entitled Working for the Few, just out this week. It was launched in tandem with the beginning of the World Economic Forum in Davos, in an effort to get the gazillionaires attending it to consider the gravity of their wealth. It finds that "those richest 85 people across the globe share a combined wealth of £1 [trillion], as much as the poorest 3.5 billion of the world's population." Yes, you read that correctly: The 85 richest people have $1.64 trillion between them, the same amount of money as 3.5 billion of the world's less fortunate souls. The trend extends beyond a few handfuls of the planet's most mega-tycoons, of course: "The wealth of the 1% richest people in the world amounts to $110tn (£60.88tn), or 65 times as much as the poorest half of the world." And they and their corporations are building robots that will have the net effect of letting them keep even more of that capital concentrated in their hands.
The Rich and Their Robots Are About to Make Half the World's Jobs Disappear (Vice)
...[I]f robotics companies play a direct role in rapidly rendering entire types of professions obsolete, will both government and society expect them to take more responsibility for helping those who have been displaced?

One example of where this is already happening is in San Francisco, where the company Momentum Machines has been working for several years to develop a robotic system that can make the perfect custom hamburger (below)—cooking the burger, slicing and placing the toppings, even, eventually, grinding meat to order—at the rate of 360 burgers an hour.

The company's aim is to replace the line cook at fast food restaurants. Initially, it plans to set up its own chain of restaurants; eventually, it expects to sell its burger-robot to competitors.

The company recognizes that when a restaurant brings in its system, jobs will be eliminated; it wants the men and women who lose their jobs to become engineers and work to design more automated systems. On the website, the company states: "We want to help the people who may transition to a new job as a result of our technology the best way we know how: education. Our goal is to offer discounted technical training to any former line cook of a restaurant that uses our device. We will certainly need more engineers to design new devices and technicians to service a growing line of automated restaurant solutions. These are the minds that can do this job."

It also is asking for ideas about other ways it can "help with the transition" as robots replace workers.
Should Robotics Companies Help The Workers They Displace? (io9) Who's going to make them? The government they own outright? Notice "job training" as an answer. For what jobs? Maybe this is why the cost to go to college to get a non-automated job is now six-figures.
There appears to be a new economic order on its way. It goes by the emoticon-friendly name of the “sharing economy,” and its golden promises are legion. Sharing one set of power tools among neighbors sounds upbeat and sensible. And defraying some of your enormous rent by periodically letting strangers review your hospitality and the fluffiness of your towels is most enticing. To teachers without tenure or retirees without pensions, supplementary income might be a lifesaver.

But in some ways, that new order is crueler than even the dreariest cubicle farm. Corporate America has viewed labor as its biggest liability for decades now, and data-driven CEOs are sharpening the spear. Former GE Chairman Jack Welch once said the ideal business would involve placing every factory on a barge so that it could be towed to wherever the law was most hospitable to capital. Venture capitalist Peter Thiel is actually trying to implement this. Less fantastically, so is Uber’s Travis Kalanick. His hostility towards human drivers, whose contractual employment is but an expendable waystation on the way to a post-human transportation grid, is well-documented. Kalanick breezily told an audience at the CODE Conference in May that as self-driving cars become a possibility, yes, Uber’s workforce will be history: “I would say to them this is the way the world is going. We have to find a way to change with the world.”

Let’s be clear: the sharing economy isn’t exactly the same thing as artisanal guilds. And the potential phase-out of part-time Uber drivers won’t be like the disappearance of centuries-old trades, neither for its overall economic importance nor the more romantic reason of seeing age-old skills die off. Almost nobody becomes an Uber driver unless they have to—and that goes double for TaskRabbits. These are shitty jobs that college-educated people are forced into because their professions have been gutted, and any job stability they might once have enjoyed has been eviscerated. What’s being destroyed here might have little sentimental value, but it’s the type of contingent, piecemeal, on-call or freelance income people turn to when traditional means of employment have failed them. And even its days are numbered.

 You don’t even have to be replaced by an actual robot to feel the heat. The New York Times’s Jodi Kantor had an superb article on how major retailers use advanced software to schedule employees based on a number of factors, keeping those companies “nimble” (to use a favored buzzword) but all but guaranteeing that workers’ schedules are capricious, erratic and outright destructive of their personal lives. Such invisible automation choreographs workers in precise, intricate ballets, using sales patterns and other data to determine which of [Starbucks’] 130,000 baristas are needed in its thousands of locations and exactly when. Big-box retailers or mall clothing chains are now capable of bringing in more hands in anticipation of a delivery truck pulling in or the weather changing, and sending workers home when real-time analyses show sales are slowing. Managers are often compensated based on the efficiency of their staffing.

In other words, the better you are at messing with your underlings’ lives, the bigger your bonus. Flexibility, the article notes, is usually considered a boon by professionals with office jobs; for some, the right to telecommute once each week is practically expected in the terms of their employment. But as it’s frequently a tool for maximization of profit at the expense of workers’ income stability, its disruptive side may not appear in economic statistics. No jobs are created or destroyed if a store’s employees are ordered to work 35 hours one week and 20 the next, even if the actual employees are barely hanging on. Unemployment statistics look to become even more hollowed-out and skewed than they already are.

Techno-utopians aren’t confronting their immiserating dystopia very honestly. If anything, disruption is celebrated to a fault, and if Airbnb quietly tosses hotel chambermaids to the wolves, well, that’s unappealing grunt work, anyway. The Pew Internet study’s most pessimistic forecasters have lots of fascinating tidbits to chew on, but they essentially agree that every job that can be automated will be, a trend that will go far beyond peripheral or admin or “pink-collar” positions such as X-ray technician or paralegal—something tech’s cheerleaders are reluctant to broadcast, for obvious reasons.
The Coming Robot Apocalypse Looks Like a Bunch of Spreadsheets, Not Killer Drones (Vice)
In general, McAfee says, Uber is amazing. But the experience of his driver shows we have entered a mostly uncharted phase of economic history:

My driver said he’d been with Uber ever since he’d graduated from his master’s program in IT project management last year. This profession was, according to him, going through hard times. In the wake of the great recession steady jobs had been replaced by short-term contracts, and there weren’t even a lot of these to be had. As a result he was now competing against much more experienced people for each new gig that came up, and he hadn’t had a lot of success since graduating.

So to cover his monthly fixed costs of student loan payments (on more than $100k in debt), rent, and healthcare he was driving for Uber. A lot. He estimated that he spent more than 60 hours a week behind the wheel. This allowed him to pay his bills, but not to build up any real savings.

To which I say good for him, and for Uber. This is a guy who could be sitting around waiting for the dream job he’d gone to school for, collecting unemployment, defaulting on his loans, and/or dropping out of the labor force for good. Instead, he was working hard at a job that was available.

He goes on to recount a subsequent conversation with futurist Ray Kurzweil on the subject of what the rise of Uber will mean for everyone else:

As far as I can tell [Kurzweil] thinks that there are no real challenges accompanying today’s rapid tech progress. He predicted that there will be plenty of jobs, and that they’ll be fulfilling ones that allow people to pursue their passions. Well, my driver couldn’t find work doing what he went to school for, and he didn’t describe driving people around as his passion. My read of the evidence is that good, secure, fulfilling jobs are declining as we head deeper into the second machine age, not spreading throughout the economy.
MIT Researcher: My Uber Driver Was Proof That 'Good, Secure, Fulfilling Jobs Are Declining'
(Business Insider)

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