Should We Give Our Jobs to Robots?

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, December 9, 2015

If you use the self-service checkout machines at grocery stores, you have effectively voted to give jobs to robots rather than people. We’ve been slowly passing our livelihoods to machines for decades. Guys used to pump our gas. Computers used to be women working at desks doing calculations. We poke ATM machines rather than chat with bank tellers. Taxes were prepared by accountants and bookkeepers, not programs. We bought music and books from clerks in stores. We used to have repairmen heal our gadgets, now we toss them as soon as they break, and just buy cheaper replacements. We purchase the mass produced rather than the hand-crafted. Our factories used to employ millions, but capital moves manufacturing anywhere in the world where labor is cheapest. Their next step is to automate those factories and get rid of the cheapest workers. Even the fast food worker, the starter job for kids and the fallback for the unemployed, are about to be taken over by robots. Robots have begun to do the work of professionals, like lawyers and doctors, and they are getting smarter every day.

Most of us ignore all these trends because we focus on our personal lives. It would be wise if you are planning your career, or living off retirement savings, to read Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future by Martin Ford. Automation is a disruptive technology that will impact jobs and savings. The book careful details what’s been happening in the past, and warns of what will happen in the near future.

The Rise of the Robots - Martin Ford

Every day we decide to hire robots through our purchases. Every day we choose robots over people when we buy the cheapest products. Every day we side with capital over workers when we attack unions. Real wages have been dropping since the 1970s. Average household income has only keep par with falling middle-class earnings by having two incomes. Many individuals work two jobs to keep up. The biggest employment sector is the service economy, which generally pays close to the minimum wage. There are two movements to watch. One, to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, which benefits labor. The other, is to create robots to do those jobs, that benefits capital. Who will get those jobs in the future: humans or robots? If capital gets its way, it will be machines because you want the cheapest hamburger and fries you can get.

Even though most people in the U.S. are labor, the vast majority sides with capital. For centuries there’s been two forces at play where humans make their living: labor and capital. To understand this read Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty, a very readable history. Anyone who wants to understand money and savings should read this book. There’s always been a balance between workers and investors. Investors can’t create industries without labor, so labor had a leverage in getting a fair share of the wealth. That leverage has weakened since automation. Capital is about to eliminate most labor costs by buying robots. And we’re letting them. Almost all wealth comes from consumers, and that’s a kind of voting block.

We accept automation and robots buy buying goods and services made by machines. We do this because we want everything on the cheap. To understand where our natural drive for cheapness is leading us, read Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell. We’ve been voting to eliminate people from their jobs since the development of the self-service grocery store.

Like climate change, overpopulation, mass extinction, wealth inequality and all the other major problems we face, we are the cause, and have chosen our path even though we refuse to look where we’re going. We are giving our jobs to C-3PO. It’s a decision we’re making, although most people don’t know it.

To better understand what I’m saying, read these three books. All are easy to read, and entertaining in their presentation of history and facts. We need to stop wasting so much time in escapist entertainment and look around to what’s coming. I’m a lifelong science fiction, and was a computer programmer. I love robots and artificial intelligence. I want us to invent far-out robots that do things humans can’t do, but I don’t want robots taking jobs that humans can do, and need to do.

Civilization is breaking down in countries around the world where young people have no jobs and few prospects. It’s the cause of terrorism. A stable society needs to have most people working, even at jobs a machine could do.

Essay #988 –  Table of Contents

Would You Nap in a Self-Driving Car?

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, July 14, 2015

It won’t be long before self-driving cars will be common. First tested in California, they’re now being let loose in Texas. It’s doubtful you’ll see one real soon, but maybe by 2020 or 2025. Since I easily remember a time before smartphones, that will be fast enough. We’ll go through a phase where regular cars will get more and more auto-pilot features, but sooner or later we’ll have cars without steering wheels.

googlecar 

But I’m wondering how many people will feel safe in such cars? It sounds a bit creepy to me. But what if they turn out to be perfectly safe? Would you feel comfortable enough to take a nap while zooming down the expressway? Would you send your kids off to school without going with them? In another twenty years I’ll be reaching an age where I should give up my keys–self-driving cars might extend my years of autonomy.

Will we reach a time where a human driving a car will scare us?

How will you feel seeing cars tooling down the highway with no people in them? It might be practical to go to work and tell the car to go home so another family member could use it. It might be possible to have taxis, Uber and Lyft vehicles roaming the roads without drivers.

I can remember a time before cellphones, personal computers, the internet, and a bunch of other technological marvels. I’m not that old at 63, but I’m reaching an age where so much change is wearisome.  I remember talking to my grandmother, who was born in 1881,  about her life before cars, planes, radios and televisions. I’m sure she met old folks who remember times before telegraphs and steam engines. Before these speeded up centuries our species often went hundreds or thousands of years without much change. Neanderthals went tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of years, without much change.

I wonder why everything has gotten so speeded up lately? Will things ever slow down again?

We need to expect other kinds of changes, more than the constant change of gadgets. Imagine economic and social changes. If cars are smart enough to drive themselves, why should we own them? Why not let them seek their own most efficient utilization? If you combined ride sharing with robotic cars we’ll drastically change the whole economy, and maybe help the environment.

Yet, that will put a lot of people out of work. Are we really sure we want the future we’re rushing into?

JWH

Should Robots Be A Major Political Issue in 2016

By James Wallace Harris, Sunday, July 12, 2015

We need to decide if we really want robots. Why are we working so diligently to build our own replacements? We need to decide before its too late.

humans-amc

As Democrats and Republicans declare themselves candidates for president in 2016, they each scope out issues they hope will define their electability. Donald Trump has gotten massive free PR by making very ugly statements about immigration. Bernie Sanders is staking claims around fair income and wealth inequality. None of the candidates have focused what I consider the defining issue for the next president—climate change. However, I’m also discovering a growing number of reports about automation, robots and artificial intelligence to make me wonder if robots shouldn’t be second to climate change on the 2016 party platforms.

Climate change, automation and wealth inequality are all interrelated. Illegal immigration is a minor issue in comparison. In fact, most of what the current crop of candidates focus on are old-moldy issues that are far from vital to our country. The 2016 election will define our focus until 2020, or even 2024. We’re well into the 21st century, so it’s past time to forgot about 20th century issues.

If you doubt me, read “A World Without Work” from the latest issue of Atlantic Monthly. Derek Thompson does a precise job of stating his case, so I won’t repeat it. Let’s just say, between automation and wealth inequality, there’s going to be a lot of people without jobs, and the middle class will continue to shrink at an even faster rate. Bernie Sanders political sniffer is following the right trail that will impact the most voters. Reporters should trail Sanders and not go panting after Trump. Follow smart people, not fools.

Another way to grasp the impact of the robot revolution is sign up for News360.com and follow the topic robotsmanufacturing automation, machine learning, natural language processing and artificial intelligence. Over a period of time you’ll get my point. Our society is racing to create intelligent machines. I’m all for it, but I’m a science fiction geek. If we don’t want to make ourselves into Neanderthals, we should think seriously about evolving homo roboticus. Being #2 in the IQ rankings will suck. But then if we embrace plutocracy and xenophobia, maybe we deserve to be replaced by AI machines.

If all of this is too much trouble, and you just want learn through the emotional catharsis of fiction, watch the new TV show, Humans on AMC. The show covers all the major robot issues, and sometimes in subtle ways. So spend some time thinking about the individual scenes in this show. Humans is very creative. Then start flipping the channels and pay attention to how often robots and AI come up in other shows. It’s like all the water is rushing away from the shorelines and we need to worry about when the tsunami will hit us.

JWH

By 2020 Robots Will Be Able to Do Most People’s Jobs

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, December 17, 2014

People commonly accept that robots are replacing humans at manual labor, but think they will never replace us at mental labor, believing that our brain power and creativity are exclusive to biological beings. Think again. Watch this video from Jeremy Howard, it will be worth the twenty minutes it will cost you. It’s one of the most impactful TED Talks I’ve seen.

What Howard is reporting on is machine learning, especially Deep Learning. Humans could never program machines to think, but what if machines learn to think through interaction with reality – like we do?

But just before I watched that TED Talk, I came across this article, “It’s Happening: Robots May Be The Creative Artists of the Future” over at MakeUseOf. Brad Merrill reviews robots that write essays, compose music, paints pictures and learning to see. Here’s the thing, up till now, we think of robots as doing physical tasks that are programmed by humans.  We picture humans minds analyzing all the possible steps in the task, and then creating algorithms in a computer language to get the computers to do jobs we don’t want to do. But could we ever tell a computer to, “Compose me a melody!” without defining all the steps?

The example Jeremy Howard gives of machine learning, is Arthur Samuel teaching a computer to play checkers. Instead of programming all the possible moves and game strategy, Samuel programmed the computer to play checkers against itself and to learn the game through experience – he programmed a learning method. That was a long time ago. We’re now teaching computers to see, by giving them millions of photographs to analyze, and then helping them to learn the common names for distinctive objects they detect. Sort of like what we do with kids when they point to a dog.

What has kept robots in factories doing grunt work is they can’t see and hear like we do, or understand language and talk like people. What’s happening in computer science right now is they can get computers to do each of these things separately, and are close to getting machines that can combine all these human like abilities into one system. How many humans will McDonalds hire to take orders when they have a machine that listens and talks to customers and works 24x7x365 with no breaks? As Howard points out, 80% of the workforce in most industrialized countries are service workers.  What happens when machines can do service work cheaper than humans?

Corporations are out to make money. If they can find any way to do something cheaper, they will, and one of the biggest way to eliminate overhead is to get rid of humans. Greed is the driving force of our economy and politics. We will not stop  or outlaw automation. Over at io9, they offer, “12 Reasons Robots Will Always Have An Advantage Over Humans.”

Now, I’m not even saying we should stop all of this. I doubt we could anyway. I’m saying we need to learn to adapt to living with machines. A good example is playing chess. Machines can already beat humans, so why keep playing chess? But what if you combined humans and chess machines, to play as teams against other teams, who will win?  Read “The Chess Master and the Computer” by Garry Kasparov over at The New York Review of Books. In a 2005 free for all match, it wasn’t Grand Masters with supercomputers that won, but two so-so human amateur players using three regular computers. As Howard points out, humans without medical experience are using Deep Learning programs to analyze medical scans and diagnose cancers as well or better than experienced doctors.

harold1

When Jeremy Howard talks about Deep Learning algorithms, I wished I had a machine that could read the internet for me and process thousands of articles to help me write essays. So I could say to my computer, “Find me 12 computer programs that paint artistically and links to their artwork.” That way I wouldn’t have to do all the grunt work with Google myself. For example, it should find Harold Cohen’s AI artist, AARON.  I found that with a little effort, but who else is working in this area around the world? Finding that out would take a good bit of work which I’d like to offload.

Imagine the science fiction novel I could write with the aid of an intelligent machine. I think we’re getting close to when computers can be research assistants, yet in five or ten years, they won’t need us at all, and could write their own science fiction novels. Will computer programs win the Hugo Award for best novel someday? And after that, a human and machine co-authors might write a more thrilling novel of wonder.

JWH

Why Do Millions of Americans Side with Capital Against Labor When It’s Not In Their Best Interest?

By James Wallace Harris, Friday, December 5, 2014

I just finished The Glass Cage by Nicholas Carr, about automation. I had an insight in the middle of the night. We are political polarized by defining everything in terms of Republican and Democrat, or conservative and liberal, but the real division is still between capital and labor. Capital is the population that make their money my manipulating wealth. Labor is the population that make their money by working. There is a gray area, the portion of the population that labor by managing capital’s wealth. Even though we claim to live in a democracy, we actually live in a plutocracy. Most everything in our society is determined by money.

Sometimes I think people pick their political parties like they pick their football teams – emotionally.  They stick by them thick on thin, right or wrong, always the loyal fan. However, politics is more than just one team against another. Politics defines how we live, and it seems strange to me that so many Americans are Republicans even though that party’s goals don’t line up with their economic lifestyles.

We essentially have a strict two party system, even though independent parties show up from time to time. We divide ourselves into conservatives and liberals, but those really aren’t apt descriptions.  It’s really capital versus labor. Economics is  the driving force of our society. There are societies that are shaped by other forces, like religion, but in the 21st century, most societies are shaped by money.

Even before the Industrial Revolution, we had the wealthy, usually the aristocratic, governing the poor, usually peasants. With the coming of machines, we had the rise of the middle class – merchants, skilled trades, academics, clergy, etc.  As industry transformed society it broke down into essentially two driving forces: capital and labor. Some people had the money to do things, and other people had the skills to do things. People with money always assumed they were in charge because they financed the doing of things, but without the skills and labor of workers, nothing would have gotten done.

Because of automation, capital is now in the position of undermining the inherent leverage of labor. Capital is no longer dependent on hiring people to work, they can buy machines instead. Because of this, we’ve been seeing the erosion of labor power.  Politically though, why are we seeing so many millions of people who should be siding with labor siding with capital? I find this psychological conundrum very interesting.

Capital is those who invest. Labor is those who work. Except for their 401k savings, most people in America have little capital to invest. So why do they side with capital politically? Right now capital is on a role to crush labor by lowering wages in every sector it can, and to reduce the size of the government. This adds to capital’s total wealth on two fronts.  It’s understandable why they want to do this, except it’s destroying the middle class, which is the main generator of their capital.

So why are the laborers of America backing capital in their own self destruction? The plutocracy of America actually works through both parties, Republicans and Democrats, but they favor the Republican party as their main tool. However, there’s not enough true capitalists in America to give the Republican party the numbers to survive in the democratic process, so capital started working on coalitions.  Divide and conquer.  They have broken labor up into different social groups and pitted them against each other.

By backing hot button emotional issues like fundamental religion, race, xenophobia, and hatred of freeloading, they have gained millions fans for their team. What makes me wonder is why those people side with capital when it’s obvious they should side with labor. Is it a kind of denial of reality? Or is it a kind of wish, that they hope one day to be rich too, so they side with the rich now?

Capital is working extremely hard to squeeze every last penny from the system. They want workers to earn the bare minimum, and they want to pay the least possible in benefits. Conversely, they don’t want to pay taxes that help labor survive the shortfall. If people can’t make a living from capitalism, and they can’t make a living from socialism, where does capital expect labor to earn its bread?

We have over 330 million people in this country, and the number of jobs is shrinking. Capital is embracing automation with a passion, which means even fewer jobs for the future. Capital is close to destroying all unions and collective bargaining by labor. But they are also working hard to undermine professional workers too. K-12 teachers are on a rout, but capital, through state legislatures are now finding ways to attack higher education. Capital is also trying to find ways to pay professionals in medicine and law less too. And once glamorous high paying jobs like airline pilots are seeing their average salaries in decline because of automation.  If capital could replace all the fast food workers with robots, they would. And if the service economy goes, where will labor be?

Capital is so greedy they ignore the fact that a fat middle class generates the most capital for them, yet their goal is to kill the golden goose.  Nor will they allow socialism to take up the slack. Were will that leave labor?

Thomas Piketty, who wrote Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century suggests there will be social revolution.  That’s a nasty fix to the problem. There is a growing underground economy, but I don’t know if a capital-free economy can ever become large enough to sustain the growing unemployment of labor. The system is self-correcting. If capital gets all the marbles, things will fall apart, and our society will reset like a video game. But who wants that?

I think the solution is limitations on capital, supplemented with limited socialism. That’s what we’ve been doing since the 1930s, but capital has been fighting tooth and claw to undo it.  Capital should allow a higher minimum wage, and support universal health care.  In other words, if capital bought off labor to a degree they could avoid a revolution. I don’t think they will. Capital is too single minded. That’s why they are against immigration reform, Obamacare, social security, Medicare, education, and any other pile of money they can’t control. Capital wants every last penny.

The people behind capital make their living by piling up money – that’s why they resent government handouts and welfare – why should anyone live without capital or laboring? Yet, they are rigging the system so socialism is the only humane solution. If the 1% get all the pennies, the system will collapse. I don’t know why they don’t see that, in the same way I wonder why labor votes with capital.

The 99% need to survive somehow. They have to divvy up a portion of the pie. How small that portion gets before the next American revolution begins is yet to be determined. The last recession got us close enough to see the whites of their eyes. Nations all over the world are coming apart. Capital needs to take notice. Just because you can replace labor with machines doesn’t mean those people go away.

JWH

Faith in Science

I am reading The Innovators by Walter Isaacson, an overview of the men and women who brought about the age of computers. At other times during the day I’m listening to The Glass Cage by Nicholas Carr, a book about how automation is making humans dumber. Isaacson gives the history of computers starting when they were first imagined as mechanical devices, but really came into being as electronic devices using vacuum tubes, and finally evolving into solid state devices we know today after the invention of the transistor.

Here’s my problem. I can sort of visualize how a mechanical calculator works, at least for adding and subtraction, but beyond that my brain explodes. I especially can’t conceive of how vacuum tubes were used to make a digital computer. I started taking computer programming classes in 1971, and even passed two semesters of assembly language. I used to be pretty good at binary and hexadecimal arithmetic.  But it’s extremely hard for me to imagine how a computer actually works. Essentially, it’s all magic, and I just accept that it’s possible to build a computer according to the laws of science – but my acceptance is really faith in science.

Nicholas Carr believes the more work we give to computers the dumber humans will become. Watch these two videos, and tell me if you understand them. The first is from 1943 and is about the basics of a vacuum tube, obviously a device essential to most of industrial progress at the time, but a forgotten tech today.

This is the technology that scientists used to build the first electronic programmable computers. Can you in any way conceive of how they get from vacuum tube to data processing? How much would I have to know to understand how the first computers were assembled? I keep reading about vacuum tubes, and even though I get a slight glimpse into their nature, I cannot for the life of me imagine how they were used to create a machine to do arithmetic, and show the results – much less understand the commands of a programming language, no matter how primitive that language.

I then thought maybe I’d understand vacuum tubes better if I could understand how they were made.  I found this film.

This film makes me mightily impressed with scientists of the late 19th and early 20th century. If civilization collapsed it would be a very long time before we could ever reinvent the vacuum tube, much less a computer.

What these two short films show me is human knowledge is divvied up so everyone learns extremely tiny pieces of total knowledge, but collectively we can create magical machines like an iPhone 6. A smartphone represents countless forms of expertise I will never understand, or even fathom with any kind of analogous modeling. An iPhone 6 probably has the equivalent of billions of vacuum tubes as transistors shrunk down into a solid state that are only individually visible with an electron microscope. It’s fucking magic. There’s no way around it. I know it’s science, but to my mind any mumbo jumbo I come up with to explain the miracle of a smartphone is no better than the incantations in a Harry Potter novel.

Wouldn’t it be great if we all were Renaissance beings that knew everything the entire human race had learned up to this point? Would we all have more respect for science if our K-12 education had been about recreating how we got to our current level of technology? What kind of curriculum would be required so that each graduating class had to build an ENIAC to earn their high school diplomas? That would only put them 70 years behind the times.

I don’t want to live by faith in science, I want my brain to comprehend science.

I think Carr might be right. I think we’re passing our knowledge off to machines and slacking off ourselves. One day we’ll have intelligent machines that can actually do anything any scientist in history has every done. And all we’ll know how to do is double-tap an app icon to get it started.

JWH