Reprint: Robots, Robots Everywhere

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Robots, robots everywhere

by Jay Nelson
February 2013 issue of SWCP Portal
(reprinted with the kind permission of the author)

What follows is a reprint of an article by Jay Nelson that appeared in the February 2013 issue of Southwest Cyberport Portal Newsletter. Southwest Cyberport is the FHL Foundation’s IP or Internet provider. Their newsletter appears in our invoice statement each month. Given that SWCP is very much a digital technology company, I am impressed by how much they regularly write on such issues as how technology affects us not only as individuals but also as a society. The following article is just one example. I asked for (and received) permission to reprint this particular article because I myself have written extensively on what automation is doing to our society, especially our economy. In short, pundits (like economist Jeremy Rifkin, more on Rifkin below) regularly point to automation as a chief cause of our high levels of un- or underemployment. I am always heartened to see that others are also looking at this issue. When I called Jay, he told me that the TV news program 60 Minutes ran a piece on automation back in January, 2013. I did a Google search and, indeed, the title of the piece is, Are Robots Hurting Job Growth? Jay told me that the 60 Minutes piece offers up a more gloomy picture than the one he paints in his article. I’ll offer up a few additional gloomy observations of my own following this reprint of Jay’s article. For now, enjoy this reprint of Robots, Robots Everywhere. And thanks Jay. (My editorial comments will be in brackets.)

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Robots, robots everywhere

by Jay Nelson

There’s something disturbingly different about the Great Recession. The current economic recovery, such as it is, is not bringing back jobs. And that’s just the start of what could be not very good news for the foreseeable future.

Most of these jobs haven’t been lost to foreign workers but to others that also work long hours, get no benefits, and pay no taxes – robots. A recent analysis by the Associated Press concludes that the future that science fiction long foretold “when we would be architects of our own obsolescence, replaced by our machines … has arrived.”

The numbers are indeed grim. In the US, half of the 7.5 million people who lost their jobs made from $38-68,000, but only 2% of the 3.5 million jobs that have come back pay as well. The trends, even worse in Europe, are clear: most of the jobs lost are never coming back, and surprisingly, they’re not just in manufacturing but also in the service sector, where two-thirds of all workers are now employed.

Economic downturns have always resulted in new, more efficient technologies being adopted. But always before they have led not just to more productively and efficiency, but entirely new businesses. Yet it seems only software developers are now thriving. Technology is eliminating far more jobs far faster than it can create them. Entire categories such as secretaries and travel agents are disappearing.

Experts say this is just the beginning. AP has found that the efficiencies mechanization has brought to manufacturing for the last three decades are now being increasingly unleashed on all kinds of office work and retail sales.

The most vulnerable citizens of this brave new world are anyone doing repetitive tasks. Accountants, office managers, even sports writers and paralegals are already being replaced, and as software becomes more sophisticated, those who supervise and juggle things will be also.

It’s happening everywhere, too: big corporations, small businesses, schools, medical facilities, non-profits [my emphasis], the military. It seems that no one is safe. Jobs based on programmable tasks will last only as long as human workers remain cheaper than machine replacements.

There will be fewer of those every day. But it means that workers who can use machines to be more productive but can’t be replaced by them, such as artists, may prosper. Ironically, the lowest-paying jobs will also linger. Hotel maids may keep their jobs long after managers lose theirs.

Economics of obsolence

Back in the 1930s, John Maynard Keynes pointed out a “new disease” he called “technological unemployment.” This means not only the replacement of human labor but that technological progess would outrun how quickly new uses for old workers could be found. But he was generally optimistic, predicting that by 2030 there would be only a 15-hour work week. The problem of economic scarcity would be replaced by one of filling all that leisure time.

The revolution began quietly by putting machines in dangerous or mind-numbing situations and that is still going on. The Air Force may lose three times as many drones as planes carrying pilots, but the savings of cheaper aircraft and not risking human crews are irresistable.

Unmanned trains are already here, and Google and Toyota are working on cars that can drive themselves. Experts predict delivery drivers, cabbies, and truckers will be obsolete in a few decades. Even staid libraries turn to “bookbots” to shelve paper instead of librarians just as hospitals are looking to robots and not nurses to deliver medicines.

What makes this possible is not just making individual things smart but linking them. Google’s self-driving cars depend not just on its sensors but on constant connections to Google’s online maps. And the sensors feed their information back into the system making it ever smarter. [editor’s note: This is an example of a cybernetic feedback loop.]

The Internet, and especially cloud computing, have drastically sped up these developments. Computer analysis of huge volumes of data, much too complex for any human to comprehend, allow organizations to not only understand their customers but the operations of their own employees. This allows them to get more out of workers, whether it’s planning more efficient school bus routes despite driver layoffs, or using time-saving software that allows cops to file crime reports directly from their cars.

That leader in innovation, Amazon, recently bought Kiva Systems, a company that makes automatic inventory movers for warehouses, allowing same or next day order fulfillment. Other tech leaders are even more automated. Google’s new half a billion dollar data center employs less than 200 people, Facebook’s only 55. [editor’s note: See my December 1st, 2011, blog post for more on how Apple’s new huge data center in North Carolina only employs 50 people.]

Indeed, the giants of high technology today are not like the economic powerhouses of old. Apple, Google, and Facebook combined have 64,000 fewer employees than General Motors – and GM has less than a quarter of those it had in the 1970s, while making more cars than ever.

Software is getting smarter all the time. New industries will not be labor-intensive but digital. It may not be possible for many workers to develop the skills necessary to stay ahead of this overwhelming tsunami of change.

Tools that think

Looking back over the history of humanity, the rise of the robots seems as inevitable as it is unstoppable. Perhaps, as in 2001: A Space Odysssey, it was somehow inherent in the first ape’s discovery of the power of tools.

Though there is no hard and fast definition of just what constitutes a robot, there is a general consensus. A robot replaces human labor, so many are based on human forms and functions, but it does not have to be humanoid.

In fact, just as not all machines are robots, not all robots are even mechanical. Much software, especially self-regulating stand-alone programs, can be considered robotic.

While most machines that mimic people in activity or shape are recognized as robots, what is more crucial is agency. A robot must have some ability to perceive data or objects in its environment, and process that in response to stimuli. A device as simple as an automatic door could be considered a robot, but a 787 jet, despite its onboard computers would not be, as long as it’s flown by pilots.

Thus there is something resembling a human being in a robot, either physically or mentally. And that is what gives them both their great potential and fills us with unease.

Welcome to the machine

Mechanical servants have been imagined for thousands of years. Possibly the first were the bronze handmaidens that assisted the lame Vulcan, god of the forge, while the first actual designs were dreamed up by Leonardo da Vinci for a mechanical knight, and may have actually been built.

The word “robot”, from a Czech term for a coerced worker [my emphasis] implying drudgery, first appeared in a play by Karel Capek in 1920. R.U.R, for “Rossum’s Universal Robots,” the company that manufactures them, is a very strange play, notable not only for the term but the first prediction that the masses of slaves would one day inevitably rise against us.

In this drama, mankind first stops reproducing even before the revolt because people are no longer needed. Then governments turn the robots, here biological androids, into soldiers to put down human resistance. They rebel and kill all. Thus the earliest speculation about robots shows several ways they could lead to humanity’s demise.

Perhaps the historical experience of slavery is what has so soured modern expectations. Even the Romans realized that slavery not only degrades the slave but the master as well. Robot slavery, however, does not have to be brutal. It may be possible to program the machines to prefer their servitude. The result might not be much better. Instead of being hunted, humanity could be loved to death.

Are the Terminator or Wall-E the only alternatives available? Of course not. The experts AP consulted did not even consider those, though they could not come to a consensus whether the robot revolution would lead to an age of bounty for all, for a tiny elite like in Metropolis that run everything, or massive, persistent unemployment. The latter possibility at the moment seems all too likely, because nobody has come up with a workable solution.

Industry leaders, however, remain optimistic, one manufacturer’s group claiming factory automation will create millions of high-skilled, higher-paying positions in the near future. Perhaps, but a bold new vision is still needed for long term prosperity, a new economic model beyond old ideas of scarcity and even the value of labor. One that would be geared to free all humanity from tedium for genuine creativity and greater living. We’re not there yet, and the road may be rough. But everyone at least agrees on one thing: There’s no profit in making endless cheap goods if no one can buy them.

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Rick’s editorial comments:

Let me start by saying that this is a great piece. Kudos to Jay.

I’d just like to add an excerpt from my executive summary of Jeremy Rifkin’s book The End of Work—The Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era (1995, Tarcher Penguin). I wrote this summary back in November of 2008. I think my observations dovetail nicely with the one’s that Jay presents above. Contact us if you would like a copy of my Rifkin summary. Today when I’m asked what the top three issues are facing philanthropists, I often list them as follows: automation, automation, and automation. Again, my editorial comments are in brackets.

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  • Here’s a startling statement by Rifkin: “Permanent joblessness [brought on in large part by automation and mechanization] has led to an escalating crime wave in the streets of America’s cities and the wholesale disintegration of black family life.” At this point in his book, Rifkin briefly talks about Norbert Wiener, arguably the father of cybernetics or the study and development of mechanical feedback and self-regulating systems (like those used to guide missiles). According to Rifkin’s research, Wiener predicted that “the automatic machine … is the precise economic equivalent of slave labor” (quoting Wiener here). Wiener continues his thought thus: “Any labor which competes with slave labor must accept the economic consequences of slave labor.” Rifkin chimes in by pointing out that, “not surprisingly, the first community to be devastated by the cybernetics revolution [ushered in by Wiener and his colleagues] was black America.” Here’s Rifkin’s “bottom line” on cybernetics: “The cybernation revolution has been brought about by the combination of the computer and the automated self-regulating machine.” I’d be remiss if I did not point out that John Bowlby, arguably the father of attachment theory, was very much aware of cybernetics and its focus on mechanical feedback and self-regulating systems, but consciously decided to use an organismic approach to living open systems as a backdrop to his attachment theory. (In contrast, cybernetic systems, by design, are closed and externally determined.) Rifkin notes that even Robert Oppenheimer, arguably the father of the atomic bomb, worried that the opening of the atomic age could spell the end of human labor as we know it.
  • Rifkin allows that “America’s underclass, which is still largely black and urban, is likely to become increasingly white and suburban as the new thinking machines relentlessly make their way up the economic pyramid, absorbing more and more skilled jobs and tasks along the way.” Rifkin continues, “A near-workless world is fast approaching and may arrive well before society has sufficient time to either debate its broad implications or prepare for its full impact.” Even Wiener (as mentioned above, a central architect of cybernetics) worried that his brainchild might turn out to be a monster. Wiener writes: “If these changes in the demand for labor [e.g., a decrease in demand brought on by automation] come upon us in a haphazard and ill-organized way, we may well be in for the greatest period of unemployment we have yet seen.”

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PS – Back in November of 2009, the FHL Foundation was instrumental in bringing author Jeremy Rifkin to New Mexico. Rifkin spoke at the annual conference of the New Mexico Association of Grantmakers. Our Foundation made a grant to NMAG to cover the cost of bringing Jeremy to New Mexico to talk about his (at that time) new book Empathic Civilization. As you would expect, Rifkin also spoke about his book End of Work. It was this experience that led us to create the Foundation’s RYOL Lecture Series. Click on the link above for more information on the RYOL Lecture Series.

PSS – I think you can draw a straight line between the largely failed Occupy Movement and Rifkin’s statement: “America’s underclass, which is still largely black and urban, is likely to become increasingly white and suburban as the new thinking machines relentlessly make their way up the economic pyramid, absorbing more and more skilled jobs and tasks along the way.” In my November 15th, 2011, blog post on Frankenstein’s Monster, I make the point that even though banks are being cast in the role of the imagined monster, the real monster is in fact automation. One reason the Occupy Movement largely died out is because the movement failed to identify and draw attention to the real monster. As I stated back in November of 2011: “Bottom line: people are attacking the nerd, the monster, the brainworker because they themselves are worried—with good reason—that they will not be able to make the jump to an economy focused on information processing.”

Moving from an analog to a digital environment is certainly a paradigm shift not unlike moving from a flat world to a round world. With any paradigm shift, there is great social, economic, and political upheaval. Welcome to the Shift. I call on funders and service groups alike to take the time to understand and addresses the myriad issues that are arising (and will certainly continue to arise) from the Shift. Jay’s article is a great resource. I’d also recommend Rifkin’s book End of Work, which scarily predicted this Shift way back in the mid-1990s (executive summary available). And don’t forget Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows—What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (which I have blogged about extensively). Two other resources: The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You by Eli Pariser, and The Digital Pandemic: Reestablishing Face-to-Face Contact in the Electronic Age by Mack Hicks. Oh yeah, William Powers’ book Hamlet’s BlackBerry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age (which I summarized in a multi-part blog series). Hopefully that should get you started. Leave a comment if you know of a good resource on the Shift.