August 19, 2014

Automation: "So it goes with autos, so it goes for everything"

So says CGP Grey about the impact of automation on employment in “Humans Need Not Apply – a discussion not of the desirability of automation but its inevitability.



NPR’s On the Media explores the same subject here:

People often object to the idea that the minds of machines can ever replicate the minds of humans. But for engineers, the proof is in the processing. Stanford lecturer and entrepreneur Jerry Kaplan (talks) about how the people who make robots view the field of artificial intelligence.

Kaplan demolishes the cliché that “Computers can only do what they are programmed to do.”  And the real nature of the ‘robot threat:’

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  You also sort of hinted that it might be a threat, but I guess you’re talking about to people’s jobs, potentially, not to their actual lives or autonomy.
JERRY KAPLAN:  Well, the impacts on the job market are going to be extreme. There’s a study that estimated that 47% of the US working population, that their jobs will, in the next five to ten years, come under potential threat of being completely automated.
The people who are building these systems are going to have a unique advantage, in terms of skimming off the increased economic value that they’ll be providing to society. So it’s going to have a significant impact, and already is having a significant impact, on income inequality.
Transcript here.

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  1. If the horse can’t work to pay for its housing and hay, make the housing and hay cheaper.
    The robots make the hay cheaper, no trouble there.
    The robots can also make the shelter/building part of the housing cheaper.
    The land part then becomes the issue. The capital glut from our highly efficient techno-economic system ultimately finds its way into the few remaining scarcities, most significantly the land that is the one property right every state will protect (unlike, say, intellectual property rights).
    Two solutions to that: tax it (LVT) and take the price signal to build more great walkable places.

  2. There’s nothing much new, really, about automation taking over jobs. As someone said, if you want to eliminate unemployment, simply ban the tractor. Yes, food prices will go up, but vast armies of people will be needed on farms.
    What is new is the nature of the job that might disappear — middle class, middle management, information-handling, and so on.

    1. Yes, like Kaplan, my main concern is that the benefits of automation accrue very disproportionately to those who already own the means of production. Overall GDP may not suffer much (perhaps even increase) but if we get this shift wrong, inequality among people could be huge.

  3. “So it goes with autos, so it goes with everything.”
    No, hope not. Humans run on starch, sugar, carbohydrates, protein, water, fresh air, sunshine and good times. Not so for automation, robots and artificial intelligence; these cyborg like things run on electrons generated in the main by cheap oil and they have a way of becoming obsolete owing to the whims of humans. They contribute greatly to the pollution of the biosphere and ultimately they have the potential to exterminate their creators for this very reason. Unemployment is probably the least of our worries.

    1. “run on electrons generated in the main by cheap oil”
      Mmm, oil is used largely for transportation, not electricity generation. Apart from a few diesel generators on remote sites, I’m not aware of any power plants in North America or Western Europe that run on oil.
      On an equivalent BTU or kWh basis, electricity is much cheaper than oil. It costs roughly $5 to fully charge a Tesla, whereas it would probably cost around $70-80 to fuel up an equivalent sized gasoline powered car.
      With wind and solar becoming ever cheaper as sources of power, and already grid-competitive in most of the southern US (solar is already the No. 1 source of new generating capacity across the southern US), the environmental costs of powering robots will not be the major issue that you think it will.

      1. Pacpost, I agree with your point overall, that electricity is not mainly generated from oil these days in North America. In Canada specifically, the dominant “fuel” for electricity generation is water, in the form of hydro. As well, the industry is moving away from petroleum as a fuel in general.
        However, there are some sizable generating stations using fuel oil and diesel in the Maritimes, most notably in New Brunswick.
        To J Olson’s point: just because we pollute a lot to generate electricity today, doesn’t mean we have to tomorrow. There are a whole lot of people working to reduce the pollution from electricity creation in this country and around the world.
        The good news is that as battery technology improves and there are more electric vehicles replacing internal combustion vehicles, the grid is better able to take on more renewable energy sources. In fact, it’s a double-win because the improved, cheaper battery technology can also be used outside the vehicles to store energy from intermittent sources like wind and solar.

  4. Let me rephrase that cheap oil remark; the entire global industrial economy is founded for the most part on the combustion of fossil fuels in various forms. Yes we are making some progress with renewables and storage systems, and yes here in BC we are blessed with an abundance of hydro generated electricity. But global CO2 emissions are still rising faster than technology is evolving.
    My main point is that automation is perhaps a false promise of prosperity because the environmental load it creates does not appear to be sustainable.

    1. As energy (such as gasoline) gets more expensive other more efficient options emerge.
      Humans require energy. Humans in an industrialized and growing / affluent society require more energy than tribal groups with low living standards. Developing nations, be they in S-America, Asia or Africa require far more energy than before. One of my interests always has been energy, the price of energy, renewable energy, nuclear energy, energy conservation but especially solar energy. Continued article here:

  5. I’m always a little skeptical of anything containing a “this time it’s different” thesis. But let’s accept the thesis, and a large portion of the population will be unemployable in the future.
    If this future comes around, this should grow the leisure opportunities for people. Sometimes it’s really messy, but shutting out a large portion of the population from economic opportunities begets significant political and social change. The New Deal is the tidy way of doing this. The French Revolution is the messy way (or almost any other revolution, really). Ultimately, a new normal emerges that works for a large enough segment of the population that things quiet down. In this case, it might be a world where a decent baseline lifestyle is provided to everyone, but you can still live better if you can find something productive to do.
    Big changes suck, and I hope that CGP Grey’s time horizons are sufficiently optimistic that I’ll be ready to retire before the robots come for my job, but I’m sure we’ll move past it and into an exciting new era beyond.

  6. If a large portion of the population is unemployed then who will be buying the products of automation? Employment is a social contract: a widget for this and a widget for that. If the robots have all the widgets then people better start planting their own vegetable gardens because they won’t have money for grocery store items.

    1. I heard this same argument in high school in the 1970’s about automation, alongside the “Club of Rome” theories that we will run out of resources shortly and oil in the 1990’s .. kind of like all the global warming alarmists today.
      Yes, many things will be automated, but other things will emerge, otherwise we would all be employed connecting telephones calls manually as 100 or so years ago …

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