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LA Times Op-ed: The robots are coming for your jobs?

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The rise of the robots has been compared to a Fourth Industrial Revolution.  The sophistication of robotic technologies, new materials and breakthrough in Artificial Intelligence (AI) is making this a very serious subject.  Even a few decades ago this material was more for science fiction than grounded fact.  Currently the world seems to be having a great debate about immigration and its limits, along with discussion of fairness and national sovereignty.  This is a big issue with many players dug into entrenched positions.    If you take a second to look over the bluff you will see that what we should be discussing is how more automation, robots and A.I. will affect the employment landscape.  We are already having trouble employing the other 4 billion people on the planet under our current model.   It seems we may have conflicting systems of governance that are now reaching their limits without very public discussions being had to figure out how the world will look after these changes and if we are going to get to the outside without catastrophic disasters, what underlying assumptions are being made that the general public are unaware of?  Immigration is an important issue but it seems like robots offsetting employment in general will be an even bigger issue with more impact because automation and A.I. affect all ethnic and cultural groups universally.

On one hand we have our tradition of free-ish enterprise wrapped up with a republican democracy with the ideas of basic human rights, justice and liberty.   These seem great and would be a great fit for a society that defends the individual with the goal of generational improvements a overall a more educated and objective citizenry.   In practice in contemporary times, what we have is much more collective and centrally planned by nature, with more and more difference to groups, over-ceding the individual persons.    With increasing talk about guaranteed incomes to offset structural changes.   We also can not forget the deafening roar of climate change, resource constraints and population.   Something doesn’t seem to match up.

What I like to think about in these intellectual exercises is what each piece represents in the puzzle.   What do robots represent in this scenario, are they for the good or bad?  What are the goals we are using to even measure good or bad in this situation?  I personally am not a believer is technology improvements just for technology’s sake just like I am not always for productivity improvements for productivity’s sake.   You should looks at the broader picture and see how these changes will affect the people that bare these changes and if on a whole, be able to demonstrate that this is an improvement when weighing all things.  When I look at robotics and AI, it makes me wonder if this is a solution looking for a problem?

When I objectively look on one hand, we still have 4 billion people unemployed and on the other, we need to protect the environment and be much more conscious in our resource usage.    It seems if we are sincere in uplifting the World’s poorest from abject poverty, we need more jobs available, not less.  Robots and A.I. can easily be considered a labor-saving device, not a labor-demand-increasing one.  Conversely, if we are going to slow climate change and bring 4 billion people into modern civilization, maintaining our current consumption habits and giving them a guaranteed income will be counter-productive.

When looking at it from this point of view, it makes me think there may be an unstated assumption for the future.   Will we be brought to this Utopia where work is eliminated for the most part because of our servantian robots and A.I.   A place where we have time for maximum leisure and finally we will have the time to work on the world’s great problems and mysteries?  7-9 billion people that have finally been able to throw off the shackles of labor?   Is all this high technology going to be democratized for the betterment of mankind?   I really hope so.   It worries me that we are throwing ourselves headfirst into this reality without really address these really big questions that it doesn’t seem to take more than a few hours of heavy thinking to see that we have some serious incompatibilities with desired outcomes and human nature.

{LA Times}:

A viral video released in February showed Boston Dynamics’ new bipedal robot, Atlas, performing human-like tasks: opening doors, tromping about in the snow, lifting and stacking boxes. Tech geeks cheered and Silicon Valley investors salivated at the potential end to human manual labor.

Shortly thereafter, White House economists released a forecast that calculated more precisely whom Atlas and other forms of automation are going to put out of work. Most occupations that pay less than $20 an hour are likely to be, in the words of the report, “automated into obsolescence.”

The so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution has found its first victims: blue-collar workers and the poor.
In other words, the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution has found its first victims: blue-collar workers and the poor.

The general response in working America is disbelief or outright denial. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that 80% of Americans think their job will still exist in 50 years, and only 11% of today’s workers were worried about losing their job to automation. Some — like my former colleagues at the CIA – insist that their specialized skills and knowledge can’t be replaced by artificial intelligence. That is, until they see plans for autonomous drones that don’t require a human hand and automated imagery analysis that outperforms human eyes.


Written by Tally Stick

March 29th, 2016 at 12:50 pm