Sunday, October 11, 2015

Automation Roundup

There have been a lot of articles on the automation front lately:

Universal basic income is moving off the drawing board:
The Finnish government is considering a pilot project that would see the state pay people a basic income regardless of whether they work. Prime Minister Juha Sipila has praised the idea. "For me, a basic income means simplifying the social security system," he said.The scheme is of particular interest to people without jobs. In Finland, they now number 280,000 - 10% of the workforce. With unemployment an increasing concern, four out of five Finns now are in favour of a basic income.
Finland considers basic income to reform welfare system (BBC)
Some people in the Dutch city of Utrecht might soon get a windfall of extra cash, as part of a daring new experiment with the idea of “basic income.”...A group of people already receiving welfare will get monthly checks ranging from around €900 ($1,000) for an adult to €1,300 ($1,450) for a couple or family per month. Out of the estimated 300 people participating, a group of at least 50 people will receive the unconditional basic income and won’t be subject to any regulation, so even if they get a job or find another source of income, they will still get their disbursement..There will be three other groups with different levels of rules, and a control group that will follow the current welfare law, with its requirements around job-seeking and qualifying income.
A Dutch city is giving money away to test the “basic income” theory (Quartz)
“The Alaska dividend is pretty much the closest thing the world has to a universal basic income anywhere,” Scott Santens, who is perhaps the web’s most active basic income advocate, told me. Not only that, he says, but a basic income could help citizens fight the impacts of climate change. President Obama’s recent trip to Alaska was focused on highlighting the calamity that human-induced warming is bringing to the region; perhaps we should be paying attention as well to a policy, found only here, that may help keep society stable and more equal in the face of a warmer, job-scarce future.
The Only State Where Everyone Gets Free Money (Vice)

Perspectives on a Universal Basic Income (The Big Picture). Good and detailed slides.
There's a simple way to end poverty: the government just gives everyone enough money, so nobody is poor. No ifs, buts, conditions, or tests. Everyone gets the minimum they need to survive, even if they already have plenty.

This, in essence, is "universal minimum income" or "guaranteed basic income"—where, instead of multiple income assistance programs, we have just one: a single payment to all citizens, regardless of background, gender, or race. It's a policy idea that sounds crazy at first, but actually begins to make sense when you consider some recent trends.

The first is that work isn't what it used to be. Many people now struggle through a 50-hour week and still don't have enough to live on. There are many reasons for this—including the heartlessness of employers and the weakness of unions—but it's a fact. Work no longer pays. The wages of most American workers have stagnated or declined since the 1970s. About 25% of workers (including 40% of those in restaurants and food service) now need public assistance to top up what they earn.

The second: it's likely to get worse. Robots already do many menial tasks. In the future, they'll do more sophisticated jobs as well. A study last year from Carl Frey and Michael Osborne at Oxford University found that 47% of jobs are at risk of computerization over the next two decades. That includes positions in transport and logistics, office and administration, sales and construction, and even law, financial services and medicine. Of course, it's possible that people who lose their jobs will find others. But it's also feasible we're approaching an era when there will simply be less to do.

The third is that traditional welfare is both not what it used to be and not very efficient. The value of welfare for families with children is now well below what it was in the 1990s, for example. The move towards means-testing, workfare—which was signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1996—and other forms of conditionality have killed the universal benefit. And not just in the U.S. It's now rare anywhere in the world that people get a check without having to do something in return. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this, that makes the income assistance system more complicated and expensive to manage. Up to up to 10% of the income assistance budget now goes to administrating its distribution.

For these reasons and others, the idea of a basic income for everyone is becoming increasingly popular. 
A Universal Basic Income Is The Bipartisan Solution To Poverty We've Been Waiting For (Fast Company)
We are not facing a future without work. We are facing a future without jobs.

There is a huge difference between the two, and we must start seeing the difference, and making the difference more clear to each other. A job is what you are paid to do. It can either enable you to do work that you enjoy, or it can compensate you for doing work that you do not at all enjoy. It can also even involve a whole lot of work or a complete lack of any work. The most important thing about a job is that we trade our time for monetary compensation.

Work is different. Work is better defined in the scientific sense, as the application of a force over some distance (W = F d). If we think about it this way, it's easier to see how money has nothing whatsoever to do with work. It's not part of the equation at all. Neither is anything involving value, worth, or meaning. Work can be necessary or entirely unnecessary. Work can be valuable or worthless. Work can be meaningful or empty. But all work is doing something instead of nothing, and no one can say the same thing about jobs.

There are a lot of people out there getting paid to do absolutely nothing.

There are also a lot of people out there getting paid nothing to do everything.
Jobs, Work, and Universal Basic Income (Scott Santens)

Not everyone is so optimistic:
Guaranteed Minimum Income—don’t hold your breath: Guaranteed Minimum Income—paying individuals whether or not they work—is a fascinating concept. But outside its limited use as a small-scale experimental alternative to welfare or development funds, history suggests it is unlikely in the extreme. The technocrats espoused a similar idea in the 1930s, and in the mid-'60s, a group self-identified as the Ad Hoc Committee on the Triple Revolution (cybernation, atomic weaponry, and human rights) proposed that the government “provide every individual and every family with an adequate income as a matter of right.” What we got instead was Reaganomics and, eventually, the One Percent. Particularly in the United States, with its myth of the work ethic and its aversion to “moral hazard,” Guaranteed Minimum Income will be as hard a sell as Leninism.
The Future of Work: We Have Been Here Before (Pacific Standard)

Pacific Standard's The Future of Work Series offers up dozens of stories on this topic.

We need a new version of capitalism for the jobless future (Vivek Wadhwa)

Robots are coming for your job: We must fix income inequality, volatile job markets now — or face sustained turmoil (Salon)

Why haven't robots taken our jobs? The Complementarity Effect (Philosophical Disquisitions)

Automation and Income Inequality: Understanding the Polarisation Effect (Philosophical Disquisitions)

Polanyi's Paradox: Will humans maintain any advantage over machines? (Philosophical Disquisitions)

Why Are There Still Any Jobs Left? (Reason) I suppose it follows that a simplistic, childlike faith in the "Free Market™" leads to arguing that the "Invisible Hand™" will always make everything okay, as long as we keep government from screwing things up. Or, the Koch Brothers mouthpiece wants to make sure the reserve army of workers keeps growing to keep those wages down and those profits high. Read the comments to the article at Disinfo.

The automation myth: Robots aren't taking your jobs— and that's the problem (VOX)

A World Without Work (Atlantic)

Must read: Automation and History (Real World Economics Review). Here's the money part:
...What concerns me, and what I don’t think people like Aziz focus on enough, is that we have run out of sectors we can shift labor about in.

The huge rise in automation in agriculture that drove so many people off the land created waves of discontent and dislocation, but eventually — during the Great Depression here in the US — that surplus agricultural labor was absorbed into the then burgeoning industrial sector. So not only did the economy benefit from rising productivity on its farms, but it produced higher paying jobs that enabled the newer working class to become upwardly mobile and aspire to something we have became to call the new middle class. The new jobs paid well enough to compensate for the dislocation of the prior automation. The economy took a step upwards.

Mind you the entire process of absorption took a full one hundred years if we go back and start the clock running at the start of industrialization. Not only this: along the way there were enormous political and social changes that made the end result — a generally higher level of prosperity — possible. This brighter future was not, contrary to the sunny arguments of the libertarian economists, a result of the magic of the marketplace, but was, rather, the result of generations of activism and social protest that eventually put in place truly democratic institutions to mitigate that more dire consequences of capitalism. It is no accident that modern democracy is a much newer arrival on the scene than is modern capitalism.

As a side note: it was the success of the fight for democracy that forestalled the Marxist historical narrative. It is one of modern history’s great ironies that the only full implementation of Marxist thought took place not in the context of an industrial proletariat, which is where Marx taught it ought to take place, but in the context of a backward agricultural underclass, which is where marx [sic] considered it near impossible. But that’s a different discussion.

What we now need to think about is where the new surplus of labor — those being made redundant by the current wave of automation — will end up. When we look at the American economy the answer is obvious: that labor has to be absorbed in the service sector which currently accounts for about 80% of all employment.

Here’s the issue: the service sector covers a very wide range of activities, from those remaining laundry washers to brain surgeons. Along the way it includes the hairdressers and bartenders that the Deloitte study highlights. It also includes the engineers, designers, and sundry bloggers that Aziz says he would prefer to be rather than those old fashioned laundry washers.

The problem is that many of theses jobs produce lower income than the manufacturing or industrial jobs being displaced by automation. So the new history is radically different from the older history.

Whereas the old displacement eventually created a more prosperous and plentiful middle class, this new displacement may not. Indeed if we take the studies of people like David Autor and his co-authors at MIT seriously, it certainly will not. At least any time soon. Worse as the pace of innovation accelerates automation seems to be working its way up the income scale...
Autor's work, referred to above is described in this article:
Three Important Employment Observations: First, the pace of employment gains in low-wage, manual task-intensive jobs has risen successively across periods...we see growth in jobs with the least skill, increasing decade after decade after decade. As the story goes, technology should have the opposite effect. The simpler a job is, the easier it should be to automate, and yet we're not seeing this at all. Instead we're seeing more and more low-skill jobs being created not destroyed.
Second, the occupations that are losing employment share appear to be increasingly drawn from higher ranks of the occupational distribution. ... Jobs that require what's considered between a low and high amount of skill have been disappearing. This appears to reflect the loss of the middle class. As each decade passes, the jobs that require mostly a medium amount of skill are simply going away, replaced instead with jobs requiring less skill, not more skill, and thus jobs that tend to pay less, not more.
Third, growth of high-skill, high-wage occupations (those associated with abstract work) decelerated markedly in the 2000s, with no relative growth in the top two deciles of the occupational skill distribution during 1999 through 2007, and only a modest recovery between 2007 and 2012. Stated plainly, the growth of occupational employment across skill levels looks U-shaped earlier in the period, with gains at low-skill and high-skill levels. By the 2000s, the pattern of occupational employment across skill levels began to resemble a downward ramp...Between 1979 and 2007, a span of almost 30 years, there was less and less growth in jobs requiring the most skill. Only since 2007 has there been a reversal with a small amount of growth in these jobs. Other than that, as Autor himself describes it, it looks like a "downward ramp", meaning that both middle and high-skill jobs are being steeply replaced with low-skill jobs, and have been since the 1970s.
Everything You Think You Know About the History and Future of Jobs Is Likely Wrong (Medium) It's worth noting that the employment gap by education level is very large. Related: Job Polarization (Stumbling and Mumbling)

Labor-Saving Robots To Cause Mass Unemployment? (Future Pundit)
Some jobs are shrinking because the technology already exists and capital investments are gradually sweeping thru and replacing old equipment with new equipment that does not need humans. But some other occupations are kinda like in a waiting room. The tech to replace them is under development but not yet ready for mass deployment. As examples I think of fast food restaurant cooks and counter help (the Eatsa automat shows the future), commercial drivers (e.g. long haul truck, taxi, bus), and the people who harvest fruits and vegetables. My guess is automated cooking robots start taking over restaurant cooking jobs before autonomous trucks take over long haul trucking jobs. But both will be in the same state as movie projectionists by 2025: the human phase-out will be under way. By 2040? Almost all gone. Human-staffed restaurants for the upper class will survive as a niche market, though perhaps with only a single chef controlling machines and humans as wait staff.

For some types of jobs the only thing left to speculate about is when their phase-out begins. When do the first autonomous taxis hit the road? When do the first autonomous long haul trucks hit the road? Which comes first? When will a tractor sweep around a cauliflower field and pick all the cauliflower with no human involvement? Or when will Wal-Mart or Target (or perhaps a Japanese chain) deploy the first automated shelf-stocking robot? Or how about when will the first robot empty all the trash cans at desks in an office?
Some Jobs Headed For Extinction (Future Pundit)

What's truly strange to me is the enthusiasm for simultaneously robotized everything and ultra-libertarian policies. Huh?

The so-called "recovery" is being sustained by Americans dropping out of the work force.
If you judge by the unemployment rate, America's labor market seems pretty healthy. Today the Labor Department released new statistics showing that just 5.1 percent of Americans are unemployed. That's unchanged from the previous month and down from more than 10 percent in the depths of the last recession.

But the unemployment rate tells an incomplete story about the state of the labor market. It counts the number of people who are out actively looking for work and not finding it. But it does not include people who — for whatever reason — are not looking for work at all.

But another statistic, the labor force participation rate, gives a comprehensive sense for how many people are working. It shows the fraction of the population over age 16 that is working. And today we learned that this statistic fell to 62.4 percent — the lowest level since 1977.

One big factor driving this trend is that the American population is getting older, and older workers are less likely to be in the workforce. At the same time, the share of "prime age" adults — those between 25 and 54 — in the workforce has also been falling since the late 1990s.

The declining labor force participation represents a long-term trend that goes beyond the most recent recession. The LFPR rose in the 1970s and '80s because a lot of women were entering the workforce. But that trend has run its course, and as the US becomes a wealthier and older society, fewer and fewer of us are employed.
The unemployment rate is falling, but the share of Americans working keeps falling too (VOX)

Brad DeLong wonders about Peak Human in response to a Joel Mokyr happy piece:
A standard economists' argument goes roughly like this: Technology is introduced only when it is profitable, and lowers the costs of production. Thus the prices of the goods and services produced must go down, leaving consumers with more money to spend on other products, and this creates demand for any workers who are displaced. Thus there will always be new industries growing up to employ any workers displaced by technological change in existing industries.

But that argument applies just as well to the oats, apples, and grooming needed for horses to subsist as for the wages of humans, no? One could conclude that there will always be things for horses to do that will have them create enough value to earn their keep.

Similarly, one could just as easily have said, a century ago, that: "Fundamental economic principles will continue to operate. Scarcities will still be with us.... Most horses will still have useful tasks to perform, even in an economy where the capacities of power sources and automation have increased considerably..."

Yet demand for the labor of horses today is vastly less than it was a century ago, even though horses are extremely strong, fast, capable and intelligent animals. "Peak horse" in the U.S. came in the 1910s, I believe. After that there was no economic incentive to keep the horse population of America from declining sharply, as at the margin the horse was not worth its feed and care. And in a marginal-cost pricing world, in which humans are no longer the only plausible source of Turing-level cybernetic control mechanisms, what will happen to those who do not own property should the same come to be true, at the margin, of the human? What would "peak human" look like? Or--a related but somewhat different possibility--even "peak male"?
Technological Progress Anxiety: Thinking About "Peak Horse" and the Possibility of "Peak Human"

Robots Lay Three Times as Many Bricks as Construction Workers (MIT Technology Review)

Let The Robots And iPhones Tend The Crops (Popular Science)

Yes, let's just deskill human even more and destroy all the knowledge of building and agriculture humans have accumulated over millennia so we can play more "Call of Duty" and eat Cheez Doodles.

Minimum-wage offensive could speed arrival of robot-powered restaurants (Washington Post)

Outsourced Jobs Are No Longer Cheap, So They're Being Automated (Vice)

2.3 million answer Indian state's post for 368 menial jobs (Yahoo!) Still don't think unemployment' a global crisis?

America's Fantasy of a Four-Day Workweek (Atlantic)

Every weekend could be four days long, if the will was there (The Conversation)


Jeb Bush: Americans 'need to work longer hours' (BBC)

The Real Problem With Asking Americans to Work Longer Hours (Slate)

A 7-Day Workweek Could Soon Be Legal in Wisconsin (Atlantic)

At least we'll still need human hitchhikers. And even ants have it easier than humans: Most worker ants are slackers (AAAS Sicence).


  1. Read up on amplifier technology. Without a negative feedback loop, you go into oscillation, which in an economic system means revolution, and id string up a few bankers and fatcats personally, or cap em, but its very

    However the parasite class is as stupid as it is greedy, so I only see Revolution ahead. Arm up, train, team up, and prepare for a replay of the Paris games of 1788.

    I am happy to give training in precision shooting, field sniper skills. No worry about pay, it would!d be a pleasure.

    I've lived in a southern area is San Jose, California, not far at all from the famed silicon valley, and seen more horse traffic than automobile traffic on any given day. If you have a few acres, you can garden and have Old Paint handy for the weekly drive or ride into Town. No registration, insurance, or gas costs. Much cheaper than a car if you have some pasture. For 99% of Americans, a horse is a deal.

    My internet access and speed has followed an astoundingly accurate and smooth bell curve, with the peak in 2005. Now I am back to 1995 levels of speed and access. I do not expect such a long, 2-decade, trend to suddenly change.

    So: Stay is Wisconsin, give us, your adoring readers, a printed mail address for random cash donations and to subscribe to your Mimeographed newsletter, and learn to brew beer or make cheese!

    1. I'd head up to Napa and take over some vineyards, but that's just me.

      Maybe I can get a regular column in the print version of the Archdruid Report.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. No , you'd not, because we're armed to the teeth here in Cali. I'm a native of here and I'd not take on our rural loonies.

    Better to cultivate crops, fermentable or not, where you are.

    I am not sure how California works for anyone, but it works for me because I have roots here. Frankly I wish I had roots in Wisconsin but here we are.

  4. "Universal basic income is moving off the drawing board" - Well, perhaps in progressive social democracies unburdened by sociopathic CEOs and bought and paid for politicians. But that's not the U.S. No basic income here, not this century. We're generations behind Europe in progressivism.

    Baby boomers are not only the biggest suicide demographic, they're probably going to be the biggest generation to vote with their feet and retire overseas. Social Security + small pension + far better purchasing power in places like Panama City is as close as Americans will get to a basic income, and that's only after turning 66.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.