Summary: Slowly people see the robot revolution coming, when automation does to jobs in services what it did to farming and manufacturing. We’re in the first phase, delusional confidence about the effects — so we see not need to prepare. So we idly dream away the time available to prepare. Here we review two new reports with proposals — what we can do manage these inevitable changes.
(1) Some rare good sense about automation
“The Rise of the Machines“, Gavin Mueller, Jacobin, #10 — “Automation isn’t freeing us from work; it’s keeping us under capitalist control.” Excerpt:
I applied to America’s employer of last resort: McDonald’s. I was hired within the week. I’d worked kitchens before, so I figured this would be pretty easy stuff. It was and it wasn’t, and it wasn’t because it was.
… McDonald’s was different from other restaurants, where I had had to learn at least a few cooking basics. At McDonald’s, each station was highly mechanized to minimize the need for employees to know anything. That included counting: the cash register automatically spat out the correct change for me with every transaction. The food prep areas had huge specialized machines to standardize the cooking process. I didn’t even have to pay attention when filling up soft drinks — just hit the button for the appropriate size. Practically every machine was connected to some kind of timer. During busy times, the kitchen became a buzzing, beeping confusion, adding a layer of sonic chaos to an already hectic job.
This is the automated kitchen. At McDonald’s, food preparation is designed to require absolutely no thought or technique at all, deskilled as completely as possible by half a century of industrial management. This standardizes the food, so your McNuggets are the same no matter which McDonald’s fries them. More importantly, it entails minimal training for employees, a good idea since turnover is high (I did a bit over two months before quitting). A deskilled workforce is a precarious workforce.
As it was a generation ago, automation has become a political issue; one Peter Frase, my colleague at Jacobin, has been discussing for some time. Frase has developed a “post-work” argument for understanding the politics of automation. In the short term, the new machines benefit capitalists, who can lay off their expensive, unnecessary workers to fend for themselves in the labor market. But, in the longer view, automation also raises the specter of a world without work, or one with a lot less of it, where there isn’t much for human workers to do. If we didn’t have capitalists sucking up surplus value as profit, we could use that surplus on social welfare to meet people’s needs. Meanwhile, whatever work remains could be split up, so we’d have shorter working days and more time for the things that really matter to us.
Summary: Yesterday we examined the job prospects for journalists when computers do much of their job as well as people. But it might not end there. Computers will become bloggers, either in collaboration with people, or software run by people as a hobby. Here we speculate about what kinds of blogs will be automated first. It’s a window into the coming new world shaped by the next wave of automation.
Evolution of bloggers
- Four Kinds of Blogs
- A different perspective on blogging
- A deeper significance of robot bloggers
- Leave a comment
- More Info about the Robot Revolution
- Soon a computer will scan all this information and write a post better than I can
(1) Four Kinds of Blogs
Many blogs provide information. This includes reporting on people and events, delivery of facts (broadly defined), and how-to advice. Much of the value of these posts comes from framing the issue and selecting what key data to include. Soon computers will be able to do this for many subjects, and can do so today for simple stories in clearly defined subjects (eg, baseball games, financial reports).
A second kind of post provides affirmations of group identity. The other group is bad-ugly-wrong. We are good-pretty-correct. For example, much blogging about climate science consists of this with a thin technical gloss. A computer probably could easily churn out such content. Including the insults and snark. Perhaps eventually even with some humor.
A third kind of post provides insights. I wonder when a computer will be able to do this.
A fourth kind evokes or shares emotions and feelings. I wonder how soon a computer will be able to fake this enough to fool readers (a limited sort of Turing Test).
(2) A different perspective on blogging
Let’s look at the ability of computers to automate blogging in terms of the different types of authors: “7 Different Blogger Types Explained“, Eva Percic, Zemanta, 26 December 2012
- Preachers are about studying content, presenting key viewpoints and opening a platform for further discussion.
- Techies enjoy spreading their word, sharing knowledge and educating.
- Professionals present facts, ideas, and accomplishments, and seek feedback from their followers.
- Beauty hunters create or promote beautiful things, educate others and exchange opinions.
- Life improvers share know-how, give support and instruct people how to improve their life.
- Life stagers search for help, or share their experience and make someone else’s life easier.
- Hedonists promote different lifestyles to enrich people’s daily routines.
The below graph sorts these types in two dimensions. Which of these will computers replace early and well? As a guess, they’ll do those on the bottom half more easily. Or, perhaps they’ll quickly learn to fake the 3 types on the upper half.
Summary: Journalists often have been unsympathetic when reporting past waves of unemployment from automation. Now they have the opportunity to do first person reporting, as computers replace professionals. Like journalists. This is another chapter in a series about the the robot revolution, soon to reshape our world.
“The new reporter on the US media scene takes no coffee breaks, churns out articles at lightning speed, and has no pension plan.”
— Wired, 24 April 2012
Just the beginning. From Pew’s 2012 State of the Media report
Coming to Fox News
- A new technology makes the news
- Realism about jobs
- Assessing the potential of robot journalists
- What should we do about it?
- For More Information about Robot Journalists
- For More Information about the Robot Revolution
(1) A new technology makes the news
“Can the Computers at Narrative Science Replace Paid Writers?“, Joe Fassler, The Atlantic, 12 April 2012:
Now computers have proven competence — no, fluency — in yet another aspect of human life: writing. Narrative Science, a Chicago-based startup, has developed an innovative platform that writes reported articles in eerily humanlike cadence. Their early work focused on niche markets, clients with repetitive storylines and loads of numeric data—sports stories, say, or financial reports. But the underlying logic that drives the process — scan a data set, detect significance, and tell a story based on facts — is powerful and vastly applicable. Wherever there is data, Narrative Science founders say, their software can generate a prose analysis that’s robust, reliable, and readable.
For example: One high-profile client, Forbes magazine, uses the platform to create what Forbes writer Lewis Dvorkin calls “computer-generated company earnings previews.” Each day, the platform sorts through recent stock data to profile a notably performing company. Another client is The Big Ten Network, which uses Narrative Science to create automatic sports recaps based on box scores and player data. … Similarly, the iPhone app Gamechanger, which coaches and parents use to score Little League games, has a “recap” service enabled by Narrative Science. Mark the final out and, kapow, you’ve got a print-ready article about the game.
Narrative Science now has 40 clients.
(2) Realism about jobs (they’re going away)
One constant theme in articles about robot journalism: it will not replace journalists. As in this close to the Atlantic article quoted above, by Stuart Frankel (CEO of Narrative Science):
Summary: Today we have a graphic that tells us much about both the recovery and the trends shaping the New America — growth in food stamps vs. jobs. What forces drive these contrasting trends, and how will they help reshape America?
Below we see the US recovery in one graphic, from the February 4 issue of Bloomberg Briefs. It shows the weakness of the recovery, but has another and deeper lesson for us. The pressure of the Great Recession on business accelerated existing political and economic trends. As a result the New America has an increasing fraction of jobs that are some combination of minimum-wage, temporary, part-time, and with no benefits (Wal-Mart and Amazon have perfected these tactics; see the links below).
Free competition, open borders to immigration, and the destruction of private sector unions all contributed to this situation. Despite what we’re told, this was not inevitable or immutable by public policy. The nations of Northern Europe have shown this by the successful protection of their middle classes.
Bloomberg Briefs, 4 February 2013
Foreshadowing the next wave of automation
This structural change in the bargaining power of management and labor puts us in a weak position to cope with the robot revolution, the next wave automation (see posts below for descriptions and analysis). Employers have learned to structure their workforce to minimize wages — and prevent unionization (including defanging the New Deal’s labor protection laws and agencies). The next wave of automation will further erode away both jobs and skill premiums, pushing more people into the ranks of the marginal workers.
Summary: The FM website strives to show readers visions of the future. Sometimes we succeed, like with the robot revolution. Two years ago we alerted readers of its arrival, reviewing fifty years of warnings. Now its splash has attracted the attention of economists and journalists. Today we look at some analysis about this, probably one of the major economic and political challenges of the 21st century.
“Better than human”. from Wired, 24 December 2012
Experts slowly seeing slivers of this vast restructuring forced on our world: two hor d’oeuvres, a main course, and pointers to more information. Red emphasis added.
- The monsters Scylla and Charybdis of the 21st century economy
- Going to the heart of the problem
- Optimism from faith-based innumeracy
- Detailed analysis: Paul Krugman discovers the problem
- For More Information
(1) The monsters Scylla and Charybdis of the 21st century economy
(a) “Dean Baker, Center for Economic and Policy Research, 10 December 2012 — Excerpt:
If you are concerned that a falling ratio of workers to retirees is going to make us poor then you are not concerned that excessive productivity growth will leave tens of millions without jobs. Let’s try that again. If you are concerned that a falling ratio of workers to retirees is going to make us poor then you are not concerned that excessive productivity growth will leave tens of millions without jobs.
It is possible for too much productivity growth to be a problem, if the gains are not broadly shared. It is also possible for too little productivity growth to be a problem as a growing population of retirees imposes increasing demands on the economy. But, it is not possible for both to simultaneously be problems. (For fans of arithmetic, I just did the numbers on this. It is highly unlikely that lack of productivity growth will be a problem since even very weak rates of growth will swamp the impact of demographics.)
Summary: The productivity of the next industrial revolution — based on semi-intelligent machines, with sensors and manipulators — will create fantastic abundance. Perhaps on a scale and nature we cannot imagine. The question is choice: how we divide the results. Here are two extreme outcomes, with a thousand points between them.
(1) Feudal dystopia
The rich might prefer a form of feudalism: a very hierarchical society, people in the upper layers linked by personal relationships (networked), with massive inequality and limited social mobility, divided into classes. Marx described a version of this.
- the inner party (the haute bourgeoisie) of upper echelon leaders and the wealthy,
- the outer party of middle managers, small business owners, and professionals (the petite bourgeoisie), and
- the remainder of the working class (the proletariat, proles)
- the underclass (the lumpenproletariat) — criminals, poor workers (many in the grey economy), those subsisting on meager fixed incomes (pension, disability, welfare, and social security — plus social services).
Maintaining this will require sophisticated internal intelligence and security services to prevent and suppress insurgencies, and keep social order (low levels of crime at the top, minimal levels at the bottom). The security services and military would recruit strong intelligent people from the lower class — their only path to advancement — which also deprives the lower classes of their natural leaders.
We’re on our way to this future:
Summary: One of the great challenges of the 21st century will be managing the next wave of automation. This rise in productivity can make us richer, create feudal-like inequality, or spark massive social conflict. The result depends on our decisions. The first step, as always is problem recognition. Today we took another small step forward.
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, Notebook IV of A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1857/58)
Slowly more people become aware of the coming Robot Revolution, the next wave of automation. Now it’s Paul Krugman’s turn: “Rise of the Robots“, New York Times, 8 December 2012:
On the other hand, it’s not good news for workers! This is an old concern in economics; it’s “capital-biased technological change”, which tends to shift the distribution of income away from workers to the owners of capital.
Twenty years ago, when I was writing about globalization and inequality, capital bias didn’t look like a big issue; the major changes in income distribution had been among workers (when you include hedge fund managers and CEOs among the workers), rather than between labor and capital. So the academic literature focused almost exclusively on “skill bias”, supposedly explaining the rising college premium.
But the college premium hasn’t risen for a while. What has happened, on the other hand, is a notable shift in income away from labor:
Krugman, NYT, 8 Dec 2012