How Robots & Algorithms Are Taking Over

Summary: Today we have another essay about the 3rd industrial revolution now under way (aka the robot revolution), reviewing another new book preparing us for what is to come. We’ve had 50 years of warnings, all ignored. We’ll have to move soon to avoid severe social turmoil. Let’s not repeat our ugly 19th C history.

“We are being afflicted with a new disease of which some readers may not yet have heard the name, but of which they will hear a great deal in the years to come — namely, technological unemployment. This means unemployment due to our discovery of means of economising the useof labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour. ”

– John Maynard Keynes, “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren“, The Nation and Athenœum, 11 and 18 October 1930.

Cover of <i>Galaxie</i>, 1959
Cover of Galaxie, 1959. CCI/Art Archive.

Excerpt from
How Robots & Algorithms
Are Taking Over

By Sue Halpern.
London Review of Books, 5 March 2015

Halpern reviews: Nicholas Carr’s The Glass Cage: Automation and Us.

Here is what that future — which is to say now — looks like: banking, logistics, surgery, and medical recordkeeping are just a few of the occupations that have already been given over to machines. Manufacturing, which has long been hospitable to mechanization and automation, is becoming more so as the cost of industrial robots drops, especially in relation to the cost of human labor. …

Meanwhile, algorithms are writing most corporate reports, analyzing intelligence data for the NSA and CIA, reading mammograms, grading tests, and sniffing out plagiarism. Computers fly planes — Nicholas Carr points out that the average airline pilot is now at the helm of an airplane for about 3 minutes per flight — and they compose music and pick which pop songs should be recorded based on which chord progressions and riffs were hits in the past. Computers pursue drug development — a robot in the UK named Eve may have just found a new compound to treat malaria — and fill pharmacy vials.

Xerox uses computers — not people — to select which applicants to hire for its call centers. The retail giant Amazon “employs” 15,000 warehouse robots to pull items off the shelf and pack boxes. The self-driving car is being road-tested. A number of hotels are staffed by robotic desk clerks and cleaned by robotic chambermaids. Airports are instituting robotic valet parking. Cynthia Breazeal, the director of MIT’s personal robots group … $25 million in venture capital funding, to bring Jibo, “the world’s first social robot,” to market. …


Eve the scientist
Eve the robot scientist.

To be clear, there are physical robots like Jibo and the machines that assemble our cars, and there are virtual robots, which are the algorithms that undergird the computers that perform countless daily tasks, from driving those cars, to Google searches, to online banking. Both are avatars of automation, and both are altering the nature of work, taking on not only repetitive physical jobs, but intellectual and heretofore exclusively human ones as well. And while both are defining features of what has been called “the second machine age,” what really distinguishes this moment is the speed at which technology is changing and changing society with it.

If the “calamity prophets” are finally right {see this early usage}, and this time the machines really will win out, this is why. It’s not just that computers seem to be infiltrating every aspect of our lives, it’s that they have infiltrated them and are infiltrating them with breathless rapidity. It’s not just that life seems to have sped up, it’s that it has. And that speed, and that infiltration, appear to have a life of their own.

Just as computer hardware follows Moore’s Law, which says that computing power doubles every 18 months, so too does computer capacity and functionality. …

Since replacing human labor with machine labor is not simply the collateral damage of automation but, rather, the point of it, whenever the workforce is subject to automation, technological unemployment, whether short- or long-lived, must follow. …

We live in a technophilic age. We love our digital devices and all that they can do for us. We celebrate our Internet billionaires: they show us the way and deliver us to our destiny. We have President Obama, who established the National Robotics Initiative to develop the “next generation of robotics, to advance the capability and usability of such systems and artifacts, and to encourage existing and new communities to focus on innovative application areas.”

Even so, it is naive to believe that government is competent, let alone in a position, to control the development and deployment of robots, self-generating algorithms, and artificial intelligence. Government has too many constituent parts that have their own, sometimes competing, visions of the technological future. Business, of course, is self-interested and resists regulation. We, the people, are on our own here — though if the AI developers have their way, not for long.

———————–  Read the full article————————

Sue Halpern

About the Author

Sue Halpern is a writer, editor and teacher.  She has written for many magazines, and runs the Narrative Journalism Fellowship as a scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College. She wrote A Dog Walks Into a Nursing Home: Lessons in the Good Life from an Unlikely Teacher (2013).

See her reviews and articles at the New York Review of Books. She her website.

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