Tuesday, June 20, 2017

A strange discussion: Part two

[Part one is here]

Have you ever said, "I wish I had a clone I could send to work while I stayed home with the family?" That's exactly what happened to the character played by Michael Keaton in the 1996 movie comedy Multiplicity. Well, not "exactly" what happened, as Mr. Keaton's character ended up making many copies of himself, and not "exact" copies, leading to the hilarious situations depicted.

If a robot could be trained to do my job, it would easily replace me 5 times over, even if it worked at my slow pace. It would work 24 hours a day, rather than 8 of a full-time job (I am actually only employed for less than 6 hours a day). In addition, I have weekends off, have a few holiday and vacation and sick days and mandated break periods. Oh, and lunch. An automaton would hit the ground running on Monday morning, wouldn't daydream and make weekend plans on Friday, gossip around the water cooler, take bathroom breaks, surf the web and answer personal emails, make doctor and car repair appointments, sulk about an argument with the boss or spouse, worry about the health of the children, or any of the hundreds of distractions that people go through at work every day. Did I say 5 times? If a robot could do my job, it could replace 10 of me!

Do you see that if my job is automated, a single robot doesn't replace just me, but many of me? Or put another way, a single robot could produce 10 times the output (goods, services, and profit) that I do. The total gross national product of today could be supplied by highly-efficient and profitable robots with only 10% of the equivalent human workforce of today.

In my previous article I recounted that my wife and I discussed changes to society by self-driving cars and who that might put out of work. Some have posited that if robots take over just 20% of all jobs the increase in goods produced would create a "post-scarcity economy." That is, there would no longer be a supply-and-demand economy created by a scarcity of some material (food, housing) for which we would work and pay money. The supply of life's necessities would be available to all at a cost so low that most people would not have to work. An "infinite" supply, like air and sunshine. But in order to keep businesses profitable and producing, the government would provide the non-working majority a basic living income so that they could still be productive consumers. This is called Universal Basic Income.

Of course, some people could work, if they had the temperament to hold down a job, and the aptitude to deserve government paid training for the few positions necessary.

Does this sound crazy enough for you? It could never happen, right? Well, it is already happening with experiments in universal basic income now underway in Finland, Kenya, and Oakland, California. There are plans in Canada to start an experiment there. A referendum to implement this nationwide in Switzerland was just rejected by voters, this time.

A cultural change to society

Obviously, anything like universal basic income would significantly alter our culture. Many people define themselves by their job. And many people put many more than 40 hours per week into it. What would you do if you didn't need to work for money?

I, for one, have no desire to be a "gentleman of leisure" such as existed in the Victorian era England. Pride and Prejudice, anyone? No thank you. I would still work, but do something I enjoyed more. Volunteer work, arts and crafts, travel. There are several jobs now I'd like to do, but don't pay enough to live, and are mostly performed by volunteer retired persons: campground host, volunteers at nature centers, natural history interpreters, tour guides. I could be a tinkerer and inventor. I'd learn more, teach more. This inspirational quote takes on more meaning: "What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?"

My Grandfather did, indeed live through a great period of change during the 20th century. Is it possible there's even a bigger technological and cultural change ahead?

Who says?

Information in this post is primarily from these sources:

"Elon Musk: Automation will force universal basic income," 5/29/2017 by Daniel Starkey, Geek.com.
This article introduces the "post-scarcity economy" whereby "in the not-too-distant future, money won't matter and all of our economies will totally collapse." Self-driving cars will take away 20% of all labor jobs from the transportation industry alone.

"More robots, fewer jobs," 5/8/2017 Mira Rojanasakul and Peter Coy, Bloomberg.com. Analyzes the impact of robots and automation on jobs, based on "Robots and Jobs: Evidence from US Labor Markets," March 2017 a white paper by Daron Acemoglu of MIT and Pascual Restropo of Boston University, National Bureau of Economic Research. Research confirms that robots and automation do replace workers, and increase production. Additionally, wages fall for workers who remain employed. Industries that don't automate lose jobs anyway due to higher costs, and customers go to lower-priced--and often automated--competitors.

"When Robots Take All the Work, What'll Be Left for Us to Do?" 8/8/2014 by Marcus Wohlsen, Wired.com. Although this article is a bit older than the current glut of Artificial Intelligence and self-driving car infatuation, it argues that humans may still be employed where empathy, creativity, judgement, and critical thinking are needed. Health care, education, and care of children and the elderly are likely to remain in human hands. More about post-scarcity here, where robots efficiently and profitably produce far more than can be consumed. Jobs are optional and money has no meaning, as in the Star Trek universe. A change to society and what it means to be human.

Monday, June 19, 2017

A strange discussion: Part one


My grandfather used to say that he lived through the greatest technological changes in human history. He had a point. As a child he observed coal delivery by horse and wagon to each home. By the time he was an older man the atom had been split with horrifying results, man had walked on the moon, and personal computers were infiltrating homes.

Technological changes have been two-headed. One can almost see the race between communication and transportation during my grandfather's life: trains versus telephones, automobile versus radio, aircraft versus television, rockets versus computers. Each technology changed the world. One by physically moving us faster and allowing us to be there more quickly, the other by allowing us to talk and see each other instantaneously. Walking versus talking.

The Internet. Smartphones. These latest technologies are communications-based. What is the corresponding transportation technology? Assuming that teleportation is a ways off yet, the next step is obvious, the merging of communication and transportation technologies. Machines that walk and talk. Self-driving cars and robots that replace our jobs are just the start of a technological change that will fundamentally change how we view ourselves--as individuals and as a culture. Cultural changes have always been more difficult for society than technological changes.

A strange discussion

A couple of weeks ago Marlene and I had a 20-minute discussion on societal impacts of emerging technology. That discussion led to this two-part post. The fact we had such an engaging discussion on this topic is noteworthy in itself. Now I'd discuss this topic for hours on end had I an associate interested in such (which partially explains why I don't get invited to parties much), but it isn't a topic that Marlene would normally choose. That we were discussing technology change as a family says something about the interesting times in which we live. In a way, it reminded me of discussions I remember as a child, when my parents would get together with aunts and uncles and the discussion would naturally turn to the impending moon landings. What would they find? What does it mean?

In fact, Marlene and I discussed only one question: "If cars become mostly self-driving, how does that affect society?"

Our discussion was by no means thorough, but we hit on many concerns and possible outcomes popular in the media. These included vehicle sharing rather than ownership, fewer parking lots, homes without garages or driveways, fewer automobile accident deaths (1 million deaths per year worldwide now, 50% involving alcohol, according to some factoid I acquired without remembering the attribution), insurance rates skyrocketing for those sticking with human-driven vehicles, perhaps renting a human-driven car for vacation wilderness destinations ("dirt road travel"). Finally the discussion turned to loss of jobs in the transportation industry, first long haul truckers and taxi drivers.

A continuation

Our conversation on this topic soon ended. But that didn't mean my brain wasn't still occupied with it. It had turned to job loss by automation. In fact, I see automation easily taking over cashiers and even fast-food establishments. Can you imagine? What would it be like to enter such an establishment without the undertone of hostility created by hormonal youths trying to function in their first job, all under the direction of a harried assistant manager trying to upsell to everyone. You want fries with that? (Sorry, cultural reference from 1992 that no one but me remembers.)

I was thinking that automation would slowly take over jobs, one after another--perhaps entry level first. But then an article appeared that made it seem possible that there was a tipping point, much earlier than I imagined, when work as we know it might change.

My grandfather may indeed have lived through an unprecedented series of technological changes. But there may be something on the horizon that will more profoundly impact society.

Continue to Part Two...

Monday, June 5, 2017

Nesting Western Grebes

When I first moved to San Diego I was surprised to find Western Grebe chicks in December. Evidently winter nesting is not too unheard of here. However, a recent visit to Lake Hodges this spring revealed much nesting activity at what I consider a more appropriate time of year.

Lake Hodges, April 26, 2017.

Western Grebe with chicks
Western Grebe with chicks.
Western Grebe with chicks
In 45 years of birding I had actually never seen the well-known phenomenon of grebe chicks riding upon their parent's backs!
Western Grebes on nests
Western Grebes on nests.
Clark's Grebe
Clark's Grebe.