Monday, August 18, 2014

When Human Labor becomes Obsolete

An automation engineer might be one of the safest jobs of the future — designing software for robots with artificial intelligence and bots — to put everyone else out of work.

In a 2013 study by Carl Frey and Michael Osborne of the University of Oxford, they looked at 702 types of jobs in the United States and made judgments about whether there was a low, medium, or high risk that technology would displace workers in those jobs over the next 10 to 20 years. Their startling conclusions: 47 percent of total U.S. employees have a high risk of being displaced by technology, and 19 percent have a medium risk. That means that 66 percent of the U.S. workforce has a medium to high risk of job destruction. If they are only half right, the numbers are staggering.

Apple’s contract manufacturer (Foxconn) is reported to be replacing up to one million workers with robots in order to meet expected demand for the iPhone 6. Amazon already deploys an army of robots to fetch items in its warehouses. Machines powered by artificial intelligence (AI) are now reading MRIs, sorting through thousands of legal cases to identify pertinent information, and writing news articles.

The best case that anyone could ever make for a Guaranteed Basic Income can be found in this new 15-minute documentary (posted at YouTube). It's about robots and "bots" eventually replacing most of our jobs (and not just low-skilled labor jobs). It may sound like some story plot from the Twilight Zone, but it's not — it's very real. In the not-too-distant future, most of us humans may very well be "unemployable" through no fault of our own. As a matter of fact, it's inevitable. Watch one of the most fascinating videos you'll ever see on this subject. (Edited text is below.)

Humans Need not Apply

Every human used to have to hunt or gather to survive. But humans are "smartly lazy" — so we made tools to make our work easier. From sticks, to plows, to tractors — we’ve gone from everyone needing to make food, to modern agriculture, with almost no one needing to make food — and yet we still have abundance.

Of course, it’s not just farming, it’s everything. We’ve spent the last several thousand years building tools to reduce physical labor of all kinds. These are mechanical muscles — stronger, more reliable, and more tireless than human muscles could ever be.

And that's a good thing. Replacing human labor with mechanical muscles frees people to specialize — and that leaves everyone better off, even though still doing physical labor. This is how economies grow and standards of living rise.

Some people have specialized to be programmers and engineers, whose job it is to build mechanical minds. Just as mechanical muscles made human labor less in demand, so are mechanical minds making human brain-labor less in demand.

This is an economic revolution. And you may think we've been here before, but we haven't. This time is different.

When you think of automation, you probably think of a giant, custom-built, expensive, efficient (but really dumb) robot that's blind to the world and their own work. They would be a scary kind of automation, but they haven't taken over the world yet — because they're only cost effective in narrow situations.

But they are the old kind of automation, now there's a new kind.

Meet "Baxter".

Unlike these things which require skilled operators and technicians (and millions of dollars), Baxter has vision; and can learn what you want him to do by watching you do it. And he costs less than the average annual salary of a human worker. Unlike his older brothers, he isn't pre-programmed for one specific job — he can do whatever work is within the reach of his arms. Baxter is what might be thought of as a "general-purpose" robot, and general purpose is a big deal.

Think of computers: they too started out as highly customized and very expensive; but when cheapish general-purpose computers later appeared, they quickly became vital to everything. A general-purpose computer can just as easily calculate change or assign seats on an airplane — or play a game — or do anything else, just by just swapping its software. And this huge demand for computers of all kinds is what makes them both more powerful and cheaper every year.

Baxter today is what the computer was in the 1980s. He’s not the apex, but the beginning. Even if Baxter is slow, his hourly cost is only pennies worth of electricity — while his meat-based competition (humans) costs at least the federal mandated minimum wage. Even a tenth of Baxter's speed is still cost effective when it's a hundred times cheaper than "people". And while Baxter isn't as smart as some of the other things we'll discuss in this post, he's smart enough today to take over many of our current low-skilled jobs.

And we've already seen how robots dumber than Baxter can replace jobs. In new supermarkets, what used to be 30 humans will now be one human overseeing 30 cashier robots.

Or what about hundreds of thousands baristas who are employed world-wide? There’s a barista robot coming for them too. Sure, maybe your guy makes your double-mocha-whatever just perfect — and you’d never trust anyone else to so it — but millions of people don’t care, and just want a decent cup of coffee. Oh, and by the way — this robot is actually a giant network of robots that remembers who you are and how you like your coffee — no matter where you are in the world. Pretty convenient.

We think of technological change as fancy, new, and expensive stuff — but the real change comes from the last decade's stuff getting cheaper and faster. That's what's happening to robots now. And because their mechanical minds are capable of decision-making, they are out-competing humans for jobs in a way that no pure mechanical muscle ever could.

Imagine a pair of horses in the early 1900s, and they were talking about technology. One worries that all these new mechanical muscles will make horses unnecessary. The other horse reminds him that everything so far has made their lives easier — remember all that farm work they used to do? Remember running coast-to-coast delivering mail? Remember riding into battle? All terrible stuff.. Whereas, these city jobs are pretty cushy — and with so many humans in the cities, there are more jobs for horses than ever before. And if ever this "car thingy" takes off, you might say, there will be other new jobs for horses that we can't even imagine today.

But you dear viewer, from beyond 2000, know what has happened — there are still working horses, but nothing like before. The horse population peaked in 1915, and from that point on it was nothing but down.

There isn’t a rule of economics that says better technology makes more and/or better jobs for horses. It sounds shockingly dumb to even say that out loud. But swap "horses" for "humans" and suddenly people think it sounds about right.

As mechanical muscles pushed horses out of the economy, mechanical minds will do the same to humans. Not immediately, not everywhere, but in large enough numbers — and soon enough that it's going to be a huge problem if we are not prepared. And guess what? We are NOT prepared.

You (as one horse), like the second horse, may look at the state of technology now and think it can’t possibly replace your job. But technology gets better, cheaper, and faster at a rate that biology can’t match. Just as the automobile was the beginning of the end for the horse, so now does the modern car show us the shape of things to come.

Self-driving cars aren't the future: they're already here — AND they work. Self-driving cars have traveled hundreds of thousands of miles up and down the California coast and through cities — all without any human intervention. The question is not "if" they'll replaces cars, but "how quickly". They don’t need to be perfect, they just need to be better than us humans.

Humans drivers, by the way, kill 40,000 people a year with cars — just in the United States. Given that self-driving cars don’t blink, don’t text while driving, don’t get sleepy or stupid, or drink-and-drive, it easy to see them being better than humans because they already are.

Now, to describe self-driving cars as "cars" at all is like calling the first cars "mechanical horses". Cars, in all their forms, are so much more than horses — that using the name "car" limits your thinking about what they can even do. Lets call self-driving cars what they really are: Autos...the solution to the transport-objects-from-point-A-to-point-B problem.

Traditional cars happen to be human-sized to transport humans, but tiny autos can work in warehouses and gigantic autos can work in pit mines. Moving stuff around is, who knows how many jobs, but the transportation industry in the United States employs about three million people. Extrapolating world-wide, that’s something like 70 million jobs at a minimum.

Those jobs are over. The usual argument is that unions will prevent it. But history is filled with workers who fought technology that would replace them — and the workers always loose. Economics always wins and there are huge incentives across wildly diverse industries to adopt autos.

For many transportation companies, humans are about a third of their total operating costs. That's just the straight salary costs. Humans sleeping in their long-haul trucks also costs time and money. Accidents cost money. Carelessness costs money. If you think insurance companies will be against it, guess what? Their perfect driver is one who pays their smallest premium, but never gets into an accident.

The self-driving autos are coming, and they're the first place where most people will really see the robots changing society. But there are many other places in the economy where the same thing is happening, just less visibly. So it goes with autos, so it goes for everything else.

It's easy to look at Autos and Baxters and think: technology has always gotten rid of the low-skill jobs that we don't want people doing anyway. They'll get more skilled and do better educated jobs — like they've always done.

Even if we ignored the problem of pushing a hundred-million additional people through ever expensive higher education, white-collar work is no safe haven either. If your job is sitting in front of a screen and typing and clicking — like maybe you're supposed to be doing right now — the "bots" are coming for you too buddy.

Software bots are both intangible and a lot faster and cheaper than physical robots. Given what white collar workers are (from a companies perspective), both more expensive and more numerous — and the incentive to automate their work is now greater today than low skilled work. And that's just what automation engineers are for. These are skilled programmers whose entire job is to replace your
job with a software bot.

You may think even the world's smartest automation engineer could never make a bot that could do your job — and you may be right — but the cutting edge of programming isn't just super-smart programmers writing bots — it's super-smart programmers writing bots that can teach themselves how to do things that the programmer could never teach them to do. Got that?

How that works is well beyond the scope of this post (and video), but the bottom line is — there are limited ways to show a bot a bunch of stuff to do, show the bot a bunch of correctly done stuff, and it can figure out how to do the job to be done. Even with just a goal, and no example of how to do it, the bots can still learn.

Take the stock market, which in many ways, is no longer a human endeavor. It's mostly bots that taught themselves to trade stocks — and trading stocks with other bots that taught themselves. Again: it's not bots that are executing orders based on what their human controllers want, it's bots making the decisions of what to buy and sell on their own. As a result, the floor of the New York Stock exchange isn't filled with traders doing their day jobs anymore, it's largely a TV set.

So as bots have learned the stock market, bots have also learned to write. If you've picked up a newspaper lately you've probably already read a story written by a bot. There are companies that are teaching bots to write anything: Sports stories, TPS reports, even say, those quarterly reports that you might write at work. Paper work, decision making, writing (and a lot of other human work), all falls into that category — and the demand for human metal labor is these areas is on the way down.

But surely "the professions" are safe from bots? Yes?

When you think of a "lawyer" it's easy to think of "trials". But the bulk of lawyering is actually drafting legal documents predicting the likely outcome and impact of lawsuits — and something called "discovery", which is where boxes of paperwork gets dumped on the lawyers — and they need to find the pattern, or the one out-of-place transaction among it all. This can all be done by bot work. 

Discovery, in particular, is already not a human job in many firms. Not because there isn't paperwork to go through, there's more of it than ever. But because clever research bots sift through millions of emails and memos and accounts in hours, not weeks, crushing human researchers in terms of — not just cost and time, but most importantly — accuracy. Bots don't get sleepy reading through a million emails.

But that's only the simple stuff. IBM has a bot named "Watson". You may have seen him on TV destroying humans on the TV game show Jeopardy — but that was just a fun side project for him. Watson's real day-job is to be the best doctor in the world: to understand what people say in their own words, and to give back an accurate diagnoses. And he's already doing that at Slone-Kettering, giving guidance on lung cancer treatments.

Just as autos don’t need to be perfect (they just need to make fewer mistakes than humans), the same goes for doctor bots. Human doctors are by no means perfect. The frequency and severity of a misdiagnosis is terrifying — and human doctors are severely limited in dealing with a human's complicated medical history. Understanding every drug and every drug's interaction with every other drug is beyond the scope of a human's knowability. Especially when there are research robots, whose whole job it is to test thousands of new drugs at a time.

Human doctors can only improve through their own experiences. But doctor bots can learn from the experiences of every doctor bot. They can read the latest in medical research, and keep track of everything that happens to all his patients world-wide, and make correlations that would be impossible to find otherwise.

But not all doctors will go away, although, when doctor bots are comparable to humans — and they're only as far away as your phone — then the need for general doctors will be far less. So everyone — professionals, white-collar workers and low-skill workers — all have something to worry about (becoming totally obsolete and permanently unemployed).

But perhaps you're still not worried because you're "a special creative snowflake". Well guess what? You're not that special. Creativity may feel like magic, but it isn't. The brain is a complicated machine — perhaps the most complicated machine in the whole universe; but that hasn't stopped us from trying to simulate it. There is this notion that, just as mechanical muscles allowed us to move into thinking jobs, that mechanical minds will allow us all to move into creative work. But even if we assume the human mind is magically creative — it's not. 

But just for the sake of argument: artistic creativity isn't what the majority of jobs depend on. The number of writers and poets and directors and actors and artists (who actually make a living doing this type of work) is a tiny, tiny portion of the labor force. And given that these are professions that are dependent on popularity, they will always be a small part of the population. And there's no such thing as an oil painting or poem-based economy.

Oh, and by the way — the music in the background of the video embedded in this page? It was written by a bot. Her name is Emily Howel, and she can write an infinite amount of new music all day long for free. And people can't tell the difference between her and human composers when put to a blind test.

Talking about "artificial creativity" gets weird fast — what does that even mean? But it's nonetheless a developing field. People used to think that playing chess was a uniquely creative human skill that machines could never do...right up until the time they beat the best of us.

And so it goes for all human talent.

This might have been a lot to take in, and you might want to reject it. It's easy to be cynical of the endless and idiotic predictions of those futures that never were. So that's why it's important to emphasize once again — this stuff is NOT science fiction. The robots are here, right now. There is a terrifying amount of working automation already in the labs and warehouses that is proof of the concept.

We have been through economic revolutions before, but the robot revolution is different.

Horses aren't unemployed now because they got lazy as a species. They became "unemployable". There's little work that a horse can do that pays for its housing and hay. And many bright, perfectly capable humans will find themselves as the modern horse: unemployable, through no fault of their own.

But if you still think new types of jobs will save us, here is one final point to consider. The US census in 1776 tracked only a few kinds of jobs. Now there are hundreds of kinds of jobs, but the new ones that technology have recently created are not a significant part of the labor force. But don't think that every barista and office worker will have to lose their job before things become a problem. The unemployment rate during the great depression was 25%.

This post (and video) isn't about how automation is "bad" — but rather that automation is inevitable. It's a tool to produce abundance for little cost and effort. We need to start thinking about that now — about what to do when large sections of the population are unemployable (through no fault of their own). We need to plan for what we will need to do in a future where, for most jobs, humans need not apply.

* Editors Note: I transposed the text of the video below from the original text that was provided for the video (seen here at the producer's website). After reading their text, I noticed subtle variations in the text that led me to believe that the text itself was transcribed by a robot/bot as well. To me, not only did the voice in the video not sound human, but neither did the words in their text read like it was written by a human either. But in the end, I am more convinced than ever that, eventually millions of us will need a Basic Income — because there simply won't be enough jobs available for everyone to earn a living wage.

* Further Reading:


  1. Literally trillions of dollars are currently being hoarded by corporations and the top 0.01% --- the money supply (M-1) is neither being reinvested nor is it being spent on consumption (recirculating throughout the economy, but instead, remaining stagnant). Money must be spent to generate economic activity (even if it's only changing hands from one person to other for goods or services). Instead of giving "free money" (at zero percent interest) to commercial banks (who will only buy treasury bonds if they see that as the best current return on their investment), inject the cash directly into the economy via consumer spending. The bottom 80% quintile will not mostly "save" (hoard), but they will "buy" (consume/demand) and create the need for more "supply". Of course, all this breaks down if all the goods and services being purchased comes from foreign destinations (think on US dollars paid to military personnel stationed abroad and then spending their paychecks in those local economies). And this theory also further breaks down when more and more jobs are lost to technology (here, and around the world) --- in which case, a Basic Income will be needed (which will be another form of "cash transfer") --- but instead of transferring money from the banks to the consumers, it will be in the form of taxation on those who are hoarding the wealth to those whose labor will made permanently obsolete by robots.

  2. Update: March 2015 ----///

    Robert Reich Nails It with "iEverything"

    Imagine a small box – let’s call it an “iEverything” – capable of producing everything you could possibly desire, a modern day Aladdin’s lamp. You simply tell it what you want, and – presto – the object of your desire arrives at your feet. The iEverything also does whatever you want. It gives you a massage, fetches you your slippers, does your laundry and folds and irons it. The iEverything will be the best machine ever invented. The only problem is, no one will be able to buy it. That’s because no one will have any means of earning money, since the iEverything will do it all.

    It’s now possible to sell a new product to hundreds of millions of people without needing many, if any, workers to produce or distribute it ... The ratio of producers to customers continues to plummet ... New technologies aren’t just labor-replacing, they’re also knowledge-replacing ... When more and more can be done by fewer and fewer people, the profits go to an ever-smaller circle of executives and owner-investors ... That means most of us will have less and less money to buy the dazzling array of products and services spawned by blockbuster technologies – because those same technologies will be supplanting our jobs and driving down our pay ... A future of almost unlimited production by a handful, for consumption by whoever can afford it, is a recipe for economic and social collapse.

  3. Stephen Hawking Says We Should Really Be Scared Of Capitalism, Not Robots:

    Machines won't bring about the economic robot apocalypse -- but greedy humans will, according to physicist Stephen Hawking.

    "If machines produce everything we need, the outcome will depend on how things are distributed."

  4. UPDATE Dec. 28, 2015

    The A.I. anxiety

    "We live in an age in which machine intelligence has become a part of daily life. Computers fly planes and soon will drive cars. Computer algorithms anticipate our needs and decide which advertisements to show us. Machines create news stories without human intervention. Machines can recognize your face in a crowd. We don’t know how this will play out, but some of the most serious thinkers on Earth worry about potential hazards — and wonder whether we remain fully in control of our inventions.”

  5. UPDATED DEC.31, 2015

    Beating a Dead Robotic Horse -- by Dietz Vollrath:

    "If there is one distinct difference between the robo-pessimist and robo-optimist view, it is almost exclusively down to timing. The pessimists are worried that the rapid decline of human labor is occurring now, and in many cases has been occurring for a while already. The optimists believe that we have time in front of us to sort things out before human labor is replaced en masse ... I, like Brynjolfsson and McAfee, completely agree that robots/AI [artifical intelligence] will create a drag on the demand for human labor, and in particular unskilled labor ... "

    One comments was ...

    "Having to work less for the same or a better standard of living would be a nice thing if we figure out how to spread the benefits to everyone. It seems over the past 35 years or so, however, we have only figured out how the benefits accrue to those who created the new technology."

    [There's quite a bit more in the post.]