Tag Archives: technology

File Under: We Ain’t Seen Nuthin’ Yet…

A business school colleague of mine recently drew my attention to an article predicting how our lives will change in the next twenty years.

The changes that are predicted are all consequences of technology–mostly existing technology– and they are entirely plausible. If even half of them come to pass, however, we are likely to experience an economic and social upheaval that will far surpass the dislocations of the industrial revolution.

A few of those predictions:

  • Software will disrupt most traditional industries within the next 5-10 years. (We already see this with retailing.)
  •  Online legal advice (already widely available on the internet) will reduce the number of lawyers by 90%–only specialists will remain.
  • Self driving cars will be available in 2018;  by 2020, the entire auto industry will begin to be disrupted. People won’t own personal vehicles; they’ll call a car on the phone, it will show up and drive to the specified destination. (“You will not need to park it, you only pay for the driven distance and can be productive while driving. Our kids will never get a driver’s licence and will never own a car.”) The implications are enormous: fewer accidents will reduce the need for insurance–and the companies that sell it; many car companies will go bankrupt, millions of jobs (truck drivers, taxi drivers, etc.) will disappear. Land used for parking will be redeveloped. There’s much more.
  • Electricity will become incredibly cheap and clean: We will see the true impact of solar production, which has “been on an exponential curve for 30 years.”
  • Companies will introduce a medical device (called the “Tricorder” from Star Trek) that works with your phone, takes your retina scan and your blood sample and analyzes your breath.  It will then analyze 54 biomarkers that identify nearly any disease. It will be inexpensive enough to give everyone on the planet access to world-class medical analysis, nearly for free.
  • 3D printing will be ubiquitous. The price of the cheapest 3D printer went from $18,000 to $400 within 10 years, and over that same timeframe it became 100 times faster. Major shoe companies have already started 3D printing shoes; spare airplane parts are already 3D printed in remote airports, and the space station now has a printer that eliminates the need to stockpile large amount of spare parts as before. The Chinese have already 3D printed/built a 6-story office building.  By 2027, 10% of everything that’s being produced will be 3D printed.

These are just a few of the changes the article lists–there are many more.

It is difficult to envision the combined impact of these technologies; the author predicts that 70-80% of today’s jobs will disappear in the next 20 years. There will be new ones, of course, but it is unlikely that there will be enough new jobs to replace those going the way of the dinosaurs.

During my own lifetime, the pace of change has steadily accelerated. Much of the social and economic dysfunction we are currently experiencing is a direct outgrowth of that change–not just the economic stresses involved, but the disorientation people suffer as cultural attitudes shift and expectations about their future lives are upended.

If there is one thing that’s clear, it is that our current political system is not capable of meeting the challenges we will face. How will ideologues like Paul Ryan and those like him–lawmakers who think unemployed folks can just “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps”– react to massive joblessness? What about the “alt-right” bigots who justify their anti-immigrant rhetoric with the claim that the newcomers are taking American jobs? What will those on the left do when they can no longer blame job losses on outsourcing and trade? Where will all these culture warriors turn without their overly-simplified, convenient culprits? And who will they turn on?

And a far, far more important question: how will the fortunate remnant–the still-employed, highly skilled specialists–respond to the needs of the suddenly un- and under-employed? What policy interventions will they support? What sort of social contract will they recognize?

Twenty years isn’t a long time. It’s practically tomorrow.

Brave New World

Okay, I am now officially worried. Really worried.

A few days ago, The Guardian reported on a recent conference of internet hackers, held in Las Vegas. (Yes, even hackers evidently have conferences….)

Using “psychographic” profiles of individual voters generated from publicly stated interests really does work, according to new research presented at the Def Con hacking conference in Las Vegas, Nevada.

The controversial practice allows groups to hone their messages to match the personality types of their targets during political campaigning, and is being used by firms including Cambridge Analytica and AggregateIQ to better target voters with political advertising with so-called “dark ads”.

Most of us don’t consider ourselves targets for “dark ads” aka propaganda. We like to believe that we are different–that we’re thoughtful consumers of information, people who can “smell a rat” or otherwise detect spin and disinformation. We shake our heads over reports like the one about the gullible 28-year-old who shot up a Washington Pizza Parlor because stories on social media and conservative websites had convinced him that Hillary Clinton was operating a Satanic child sex ring out of its (nonexistent) basement.

News flash: we are all more gullible than we like to believe. Confirmation bias is built in to human DNA.

Psychographic profiling classifies people into personality types using data from social networks such as Facebook. Sumner’s research focused on replicating some of the key findings of psychographic research by crafting adverts specifically targeted at certain personality types. Using publicly available data to ensure that the adverts were seen by the right people at the right time, Sumner tested how effective such targeting can be.

The referenced study used information that Facebook already generates about those who use its platform, and created two groups: one composed of “high-authoritarian” conservatives, and a “low-authoritarian” group of liberals.

Knowing the psychographic profiles of the two groups is more useful than simply being able to accurately guess what positions they already hold; it can also be used to craft messages to specifically target those groups, to more effectively shift their opinions. Sumner created four such adverts, two aimed at increasing support for internet surveillance and two aimed at decreasing it, each targeted to a low or high authoritarian group.

For example, the highly authoritarian group’s anti-surveillance advert used the slogan “They fought for your freedom. Don’t give it away!”, over an image of the D-Day landings, while the low authoritarian group’s pro-surveillance message was “Crime doesn’t stop where the internet starts: say YES to state surveillance”.

Sure enough, the targeted adverts did significantly better. The high-authoritarian group was significantly more likely to share a promoted post aimed at them than a similar one aimed at their opposites, while the low authoritarian group ranked the advert aimed at them as considerably more persuasive than the advert that wasn’t.

Think about the implications of this. Political campaigns can now target different messages to different groups far more efficiently and effectively than they could when the only mechanisms available were direct mail campaigns or placement of television ads. As the article noted, this technology allows politicians to appeal to the worst side of voters in an almost undiscoverable manner.

The importance of motivating and turning out your base is a “given” in electoral politics, and these new tools are undoubtedly already in use–further eroding the democratic ideal in which votes are cast after citizens weigh information provided through public policy debates conducted by honorable candidates using verifiable facts.

Thanks to gerrymandering, most of us don’t have genuine choices for Congress or our state legislatures on election day. Now, thanks to technology, we won’t be able to tell the difference between facts and “alternative facts.”

Brave New World

The past few decades have seen massive social changes, and even the most superficial scan of the current state of affairs leads to the inexorable conclusion that we “ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

I don’t think there’s a sufficient appreciation of the economic side of that change. Think, for example, of the imminent phenomenon of self-driving cars, and the ongoing collapse of brick-and-mortar retailing.

Self-driving vehicles will eliminate the jobs of five million people nationwide. These are people who make their living driving taxis, buses, vans, trucks and e-hailing vehicles; according to a Harvard labor economist, those jobs represent 3% of the national workforce, and most of them are held by men without college degrees, a demographic that has already been hit hard by the loss of 5 million manufacturing jobs since 2000.

Then there’s the cratering of traditional retailing.  More and more Americans shop on line, and one result is the proliferation of empty storefronts in the nation’s malls. Those empty shops signal the loss of thousands of clerking and sales positions. Warehouse work and online “customer service” jobs are unlikely to replace them all.

As I have written previously, international trade is not the culprit;  automation is what is relentlessly driving job losses, and automation isn’t confined to robots in coal mines or on the factory floor. We no longer hire people to pump our gas; a single secretary handles jobs that used to require three or four; automated check-outs are everywhere from the drug store to the parking garage. In many cases, these innovations create new jobs— requiring new and more demanding skills—but in many cases, they don’t.

And then there’s climate change. The deniers can stick their fingers in their ears and chant “la la la I can’t hear you” all they want, but ice keeps melting, weather keeps getting more unpredictable, oceans keep warming and rising, hurricanes get more powerful…and barring an unlikely concerted effort, by the end of this century large areas of the planet will become unlivable. One result will be mass migration on an unprecedented scale.

How will we cope with that when we can’t even resettle a comparatively small number of Syrian refugees?

One of the reason people are climate change deniers is the fact that the worst consequences are still some decades off, and they can pretend those consequences aren’t real. The economic threats posed by mass joblessness will be felt a lot sooner. And we are already encountering entirely new challenges posed by the acceleration of technology. One of my students wrote his research paper on –I kid you not–the legal liabilities of artificial intelligence. (It was an A+ paper, too.)

The paper considered the uses (and misuses) of ‘personal assistants” like Siri and Google Assistant. Legitimate concerns go well beyond identification theft through hacking.  If someone tells his personal assistant he intends to do something illegal, does the device (or its programmer) have a responsibility to remind him it’s illegal? To call the cops?  What if you tell your assistant you plan to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge, and it obediently gives you directions to the nearest bridge? What if a crime is committed at your home and the police want to confiscate your personal assistant to determine who was interacting with it and at what time–is the assistant to be treated like the books of a business (discoverable) or is it entitled to protection against self-incrimination?

You may think this is all too fanciful, but Amazon has argued that First Amendment Free Speech rights should be extended to its Alexa assistant in certain circumstances, and a court has ruled that the way Google ranks search results is entitled to First Amendment protection.

Bottom line: humans on this planet are entering a twilight zone in which familiar work is disappearing, new technologies are forcing us to confront unfamiliar questions, the gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” is becoming gargantuan–and all of this is happening in an environment that is drastically changing, both climatically and socially.

It really isn’t a good time to be governed by a clueless buffoon and a Congress filled with third-rate intellects and corrupt panderers.

 

High-Tech Boycotts

Yesterday, I blogged about research on the “Millennials”—the so-called DotCom generation.

I didn’t talk about one really fascinating finding: the tendency of DotCom’s to “vote” with their purchasing power, to boycott products when they disapprove of the company that makes them. As the authors noted, this behavior has not been studied—and it deserves attention.

This is a generation that has grown up in a commercialized environment, so it probably shouldn’t surprise us that so many of them are willing to “vote’ with their dollars. They see corporations as more powerful—and more dangerous—than government, and large numbers of them react by closing their pocketbooks to enterprises they disapprove of.

Now there is evidence that this mechanism for showing disapproval may be going to the next level.

The last couple of weeks, Facebook and other social media have been buzzing with news about a new “app” that will allow your smartphone to identify the company responsible for every item in your grocery basket. If it works, this is huge, because the labyrinthine nature of corporate ownership makes it very difficult to avoid enriching people you don’t like. (Who knew that the Koch brothers own companies that own other companies that produce  Bounce laundry softener sheets?)

File this one under “wait and see.” But it will certainly be interesting!

Sociological Whiplash

Yesterday’s New York Times Magazine was devoted to innovation. It had a story about Craig Ventner, who sequenced the human genome and is working on producing artificial life–including bacteria that will excrete a substitute for oil. It had a story about inventions poised to come on the market–a fabric that can charge your cellphone, a car with cruise control that automatically maintains a set distance between you and the car in front of you, a bike with anti-theft handlebars, synthetic alcohol (on Star Trek, that was called synthahol!), vastly improved resolution for movies,a blood test for depression… My favorite was a breakthrough that would substitute an edible “shell” for food packaging. For example, your yogurt might come in a shell of strawberry you could eat, rather than another carton to clutter our landfills.

The whole issue was a tribute to human ingenuity and smarts–to our ability to understand our world and its building blocks and to confront our challenges big and small.

And then there’s our politics. If America is producing savvy scientists and remarkable technologies–and we are–we are also electing embarrassing buffoons who are doing their best to return us to that state of nature known as “ignorant.”

There are so many examples, choosing one was hard, but let me try. This week, North Carolina lawmakers proposed a new law that would require estimates of sea level rise to be based only on historical data—not on all the evidence that demonstrates that the seas are rising much faster now thanks to global warming. The sea level along the coast of North Carolina is expected to rise about a meter by the end of the century. Business interests in the state are worried that the projected rise will make it harder for them to develop along the coast line. So legislators plan to deal with that issue by writing a law requiring inaccurate projections.

Scott Huler, who works for Scientific American and lives in North Carolina, summed up this brilliant approach thusly:

Which, yes, is exactly like saying, do not predict tomorrow’s weather based on radar images of a hurricane swirling offshore, moving west towards us with 60-mph winds and ten inches of rain. Predict the weather based on the last two weeks of fair weather with gentle breezes towards the east. Don’t use radar and barometers; use the Farmer’s Almanac and what grandpa remembers.

In this corner, the brilliant minds that gave you your computer and IPhone. In that corner, the champions of denial and short-term gratification. The existential questions: can the smart guys save us from the idiots we elect?  And figure out why we elect them?