Tag Archives: automation

The robots are coming, bringing hope of a better future.

Summary:  Slowly the outlines of the 3rd industrial revolution becomes clear, and with it the only path to a better future for humanity. Today we have an excerpt from a brilliant article about this by British journalist and novelist John Lanchester.

That means the role of humans as the most important factor of production is bound to diminish in the same way that the role of horses in agricultural production was first diminished and then eliminated by the introduction of tractors. The general theoretical proposition that the worker who loses his job in one industry will necessarily be able to find employment, possibly after appropriate retraining, in some other industry is as invalid as would be the assertion that horses who lost their jobs in transportation and agriculture could necessarily have been put to another economically productive use.

— Wassily Leontief ( Nobel laureate in economics), The Future Impact of Automation on Workers (1986).

A woman in the robot office

Excerpt from “The Robots Are Coming

John Lanchester
London Review of Books, 5 March 2015

Lanchester reviews these books:

We are, Brynjolfsson and McAfee argue, on the verge of a new industrial revolution, one which will have as much impact on the world as the first one. Whole categories of work will be transformed by the power of computing, and in particular by the impact of robots.

… We are used to the thought that the kind of work done by assembly-line workers in a factory will be automated. We’re less used to the thought that the kinds of work done by clerks, or lawyers, or financial analysts, or journalists, or librarians, can be automated. The fact is that it can be, and will be, and in many cases already is. Tyler Cowen’s Average Is Over points towards a future in which all the rewards are likely to be captured by people at the top of the income distribution, especially those who become most adept at working with smart machines.

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Steps to make the tech revolution boost America, not just the 1%.

Summary: We’re repeating the mistakes of the first 2 industrial revolutions as the wonders of increased productivity go to the 1%, while families in the middle class race like rats to preserve their way of life. Solutions require the same kind of collective political action we’ve successful accomplished before. We’ll get there. We choose how much unnecessary suffering (& perhaps violence) America experiences before then. Our grandchildren will wonder why we found the obvious so difficult to do.  This is the last in this series about the 3rd industrial revolution.  {!st of 2 posts today.}

Well, in OUR country,’ said Alice, still panting a little, ‘you’d generally get to somewhere else — if you ran very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.’

‘A slow sort of country!’ said the Queen. ‘Now, HERE, you see, it takes all the running YOU can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!’

Red Queen Running with Alice.

Colorized image from John Tenniel’s illustration from “Through the Looking Glass (1871).

We all see the new industrial revolution.

Although controversial a few years ago, now almost everybody sees that another industrial revolution has begun. Economists debate its effects to date (some say almost nil; others see larger impacts), but all agree big changes lie ahead. The debate has shifted to the appropriate public policy approach.

Techno-optimists like Marc Andreessen advocate a faith-based approach, which they call libertarianism. It requires amnesia about the first 2 industrial revolutions, a total FAILure to learn. That suits members of the 1% like Andreessen, who benefit from growing inequality — and who would have to pay for any new public programs or income redistribution. They’re foghorns, endlessly repeating that all is for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds (until it’s ruined by “socialism”).

So far we have taken that advice. What is the result?

We race for prosperity, like Alice with the Red Queen.

Reacting to a social force like automation as individuals means playing a game we cannot win. It casts American society as a race like that of the Red Queen, where families must run as fast as we can to stay in place. Many fall out exhausted, losers in our New America.

The remaining jobs that employ large numbers of people at high salaries offer larger returns for tools that increase their productivity. While that does not necessarily reduce the demand for these services (e.g., there’s an almost unlimited demand for health care services or butlers), the first round effect is fewer workers as corporations seek higher profits by fulfilling the existing demand more cheaply.

As a second order effect, wages of those using the new tech tend to fall, as the new tools often require less skill. Part 3 showed these effects have already hit attorneys, optometrists, and pilots. They’re just the first affected from the coming wave.

The net effect is probably a lower national income, so we have less leisure time, more stress, and an inability to buy the goods and services our new machines can produce. As described in part 4, more education does not help — any more than frogs can crawl over each other to get out of a pot.

From the film "Wargames"

From the film WarGames (1983).

Let’s play a different game — and win.

We need not participate in this mad race with the Red Queen, as the increased productivity of new tech can easily benefit all of us. Channeling the benefits of technology is a political problem of distribution. We can start with the most successful tools that worked before, and use our experience (and that of other nations) to improve them.

Unions worked for America by partially equalizing the negotiating strength of workers and corporations, and they still do in Germany and other successful nations. Their implementation in America was flawed; they developed near-terminal weaknesses under pressure from corporations and criminal cartels (requiring government protection, which Hoover refused to provide). We can do better today.

Higher minimum wages have proven effective in America and in other developed nations (their ill effects when used sensibly are largely conservatives’ fantasies). Another way to encourage entrepreneurship and provide an easy form of redistribution is free or low-cost health care — like that provided by almost all other developed nations.

We abandoned the powerful tool of steep marginal taxes, like those the US had during its high-growth decades after WWII — before we listened to supply-side fantasies and moved to the present flat tax system (on total taxes), which also gave us massive fiscal deficits. These tax cuts produced little for Reagan, nothing for Bush Jr, and nothing today for the people of Arizona and Wisconsin (but has forced a debt restructuring).

These and other measures can mitigate the ill effects of the new industrial revolution, spreading its benefits to all Americans. As we learned from the first two, the result would be less social conflict and a stronger nation. Let’s not repeat history.

Technophobia

Presentation by Damian Gordon, Lecturer at Dublin Institute of Technology (2010).

Other posts in this series

  1. A graph showing the end of America as we know it. – The gap between growth in wages & GDP.
  2. At last economists see the robot revolution. Here’s why they worry.
  3. Automation hits the professions. Most remain delusionally confident, so far.
  4. Education, the glittering but fake solution.
  5. How we can learn from previous industrial revolutions and so enjoy the 3rd.

For More Information

I recommend these books about the new industrial revolution: Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future (2015) and The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies (2014) by Eric and Andrew McAfee.
Our world in their hands.
See all posts about these topics: The 3rd Industrial Revolution has begun. and About inequality & social mobility.  Posts of special interest:

  1. Krugman discovers the Robot Revolution!.
  2. How do we respond to the Robot Revolution?
  3. 2012: the year people realized the robots are coming.
  4. Journalists warn us about the coming revolution, but we don’t listen.
  5. The next industrial revolution starts. Beware the Pied Pipers who lull us into passivity.
  6. A graph showing the end of America as we know it. – The gap between growth in wages & GDP.
  7. At last economists see the robot revolution. Here’s why they worry.

Education is not a solution to automation.

Summary: We’re on course to repeat the mistakes of the first 2 industrial revolutions in the 3rd. The wonders of increased productivity benefit the 1%, while the middle class seeks easy but chimerical ways to preserve their way of life. Anything but the work and risk of collective political action. Today we examine the favorite recommended cure to automation: more education. It works as well as frogs climbing over each other to escape a pot.  {1st of 2 posts today.}

Frog Pile

Without growth, education doesn’t help the group. Just a lucky few.

More education is the most common response to the job losses and wage stagnation caused by automation. People, young and old, frantically train and retrain themselves for jobs in the ever-shrinking pool of jobs supporting a middle class lifestyle. Only lately has the futility of this become obvious, as experience shows its flaws.

Nick Bunker (Washington Center for Equitable Growth) gives a summary of the fallacies: “Is higher education the answer to reducing income inequality?” — The money paragraph, undercutting the key assumption of more education as a solution:

Intuitively, then, increasing the supply of educated workers should reduce inequality as it would increase wages among a broader supply of more educated workers. But that assumes the demand for educated workers will continue to rise. Problem is, recent research finds that the demand for skilled labor appears to be on the decline.

See this article for more about this, and links to research. It’s true even for advanced STEM degrees. That’s the bad news. Now for the worse news.

Education puts workers on a new kind of boom-bust cycle.

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Automation hits the professions. Most remain delusionally confident, so far.

Summary: This chapter about the new wave of automation examines its effects on professionals. They’ve complacently smiled as previous waves trashed the lives of blue collar workers, seeing that as a just and proper fate for proles. Now it’s their turn. But it need not work out so painfully. There is a better path. But it’s difficult for us to see.  {1st of 2 posts today.}

A Better World

Pilots show what lies ahead for many of us.

Carr argues that as professional jobs grow increasingly automated, “more and more, we’re all kind of turning into variations on computer operators.” He uses pilots as a prime example of what can happen when a professional role is transformed into that of a button pusher.  Autopilot has increased aviation safety, but pilots typically spend under five minutes manually controlling the plane during a flight.
Interview with Nicholas Carr, author of The Glass Cage: Automation and Us.

Commercial pilots were an enviable lot in the post-WWII era, with travel, status, security, and high pay. Now they’ve been crushed by mergers of their employers (less bargaining power) and increased tech (fewer jobs per plane with less value-added). Ahead lies still more automation and a massive rise in foreign competition — doing to them what it did to American merchantmen (now existing only in small numbers as a government-protected species.

See The Truth About the Profession, What Can New Pilots Make? Near Minimum Wage. There’s a Pilot Shortage: Salaries Start at $21,000. Note the economics, something still not understood by most economists. Corporations run wages down to the point where there is a shortage of workers willing to train themselves for those jobs. Profits are maximized at this magic point of a slight shortage, where increasing wages would supply but reduce profits.

The Third Industrial Revolution begins, but remains mysterious.

The articles that describe the emerging industrial revolution mix fact and fancy, as does this in the NYT.

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At last economists see the robot revolution. Here’s why they worry.

Summary:  When I first warned about the “robot revolution” (the 3rd industrial revolution) 3 years ago, I was one of a minority. Experts assured us it would produce quick benefits without much disruption (unlike the previous 2). Time has brought new evidence, and now concern has replaced confidence. Today we review the problem. The next few posts will consider solutions. {1st of 2 posts today.}

“An increase in the productivity of labour means nothing more than that the same capital creates the same value with less labour, or that less labour creates the same product with more capital.”

— Karl Marx’s “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy” (1857/58).

Robot Evolution

Matthew Yglesias gave a strong rebuttal to people blaming automation for the slow growth in jobs and wages since the recession ended. But it’s happening nonetheless, slowly but accelerating. People tend to underestimate short-term change, and over estimate it over the long term. But now people are noticing the drumbeat of announcements, as automation affects more jobs of all kinds. Even economists are doubting their easy confidence that the future must be like the past.

Previous posts list scores of examples. Every month brings more, such as …”The computer will see you now. A virtual shrink may sometimes be better than the real thing.” “Here come the autonomous robot security guards.”  Robots help deliver meals for patients.  “Eerily lifelike androids join staff at Tokyo tech museum.Journalists reporting the end of journalism as a profession,  “Watch out, coders — a robot may take your job, too.

The problem is structural on three levels, and just beginning. First there is the shift of rewards from labor to capital (those who own the machine), as we see in the workers’ falling share of GDP, and the rise in corporate profits as a percent of GDP.

The second structure factor: technology changes the distribution of income in many fields. We’re shifting to a winner-take-all economy, as explained in “Welcome To Extremistan! Please Check Your Career At The Door.” Excerpt:

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The promise and peril of automation: now everyone sees the challenge

Summary: It was long denied,  but now everybody sees the coming of the next industrial revolution. We enter the next phase, when experts assure us that the obvious will not happen, that the dynamics of past industrial revolutions would not repeat (although they don’t explain why). Today we look at experts grappling with these issues, and see some simple truths.

Robot-human partnership

Don Klumpp | Photographer’s Choice | Getty Images

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Now that the 3rd industrial revolution has appeared on the front pages, Pew Research polls experts to learn its consequence: “AI, Robotics, and the Future of Jobs“, Aaron Smith and Janna Anderson, 6 August 2014 — Excerpt:

The vast majority of respondents to the 2014 Future of the Internet canvassing anticipate that robotics and artificial intelligence will permeate wide segments of daily life by 2025, with huge implications for a range of industries such as health care, transport and logistics, customer service, and home maintenance. But even as they are largely consistent in their predictions for the evolution of technology itself, they are deeply divided on how advances in AI and robotics will impact the economic and employment picture over the next decade.

… Some 1,896 experts responded to the following question: Will networked, automated, artificial intelligence (AI) applications and robotic devices have displaced more jobs than they have created by 2025?

Half of these experts (48%) envision a future in which robots and digital agents have displaced significant numbers of both blue- and white-collar workers — with many expressing concern that this will lead to vast increases in income inequality, masses of people who are effectively unemployable, and breakdowns in the social order.

The other half of the experts who responded to this survey (52%) expect that technology will not displace more jobs than it creates by 2025. To be sure, this group anticipates that many jobs currently performed by humans will be substantially taken over by robots or digital agents by 2025. But they have faith 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.

Most of the answers are exercises in making stuff up, just faith-based guessing (see examples here). Which is sad, as they disregard the painfully gained knowledge from previous industrial revolutions. History, economics, political science, and sociology give insights as to what we can expect from the massive increase in productivity that might loom ahead. But using our imagination is more fun.

There are others with a more scholarly approach, such as the study described by Matthew Yglesias in “Robots won’t destroy jobs, but they may destroy the middle class“, VOX, 23 August 2014 — Excerpt:

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Journalists warn us about the coming revolution, but we don’t listen

Summary: We have little confidence in journalists, although they have warned us well of past perils. Now a new challenge arrives, the 3rd industrial revolution. We refuse to prepare for its dangers. Here we review some of the many news articles about what’s happening, so we cannot say we weren’t warned.

A woman in the robot office

The last office worker

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Contents

  1. Journalists report, but we don’t listen
  2. Journalists report: long-form analysis
  3. The daily news tells the story, in chapters
  4. For More Information
  5. The Robot bedmate is coming

(1) Journalists report, but we don’t listen

We have low confidence in the news media (see Gallup’s Confidence in Institutions Poll), but perhaps the fault lies in the audience as much as the journalists. Nothing demonstrates our broken OODA loop (observation-orientation-decision-action process) as vividly as our inability to see what journalists tell us.

Our invasion and occupation of Iraq began with lies; it ended with our ignominious eviction — having accomplished nothing of value to the US. Journalists reported each step of our folly (amidst much chaff from the hawks). Yet three years later many American remain unaware of these — often belligerently holding to their lies and myths.

So it also goes with climate change. The pause in warming of the atmosphere since roughly 2000 has been reported by journalists (fitfully, amidst much chaff from alarmists), telling us about its recognition by climate scientists (followed by their research into its causes and likely duration).

In both cases journalists reported both the key information, and the chaff by activists seeking to conceal this information. As citizens, consumers of news, we have a responsibility to sort the news to see the facts, not just whine that we were misled. Now this information cycle begins again with the start of a third industrial, widespread automation of white-collar jobs.

(2) Journalists report: long-form analysis

Here are articles about the great changes about to come, reshaping America. Everybody will be affected, even professionals who smirk at job losses in the lower class. Astonishing changes. But not so amazing as our blindness to them, even as the clock already runs.

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