Tag Archives: automation

The Robots Are Coming….

I have noted previously that the biggest threat to American workers by far is not outsourcing–it’s automation.

Those of you in my (advanced) age group can attest to the changes we’ve seen: we fill our own gas tanks, computers have decimated the ranks of secretaries, ATM’s and remote deposits via our phones have made visiting the bank unnecessary–and on and on.

Some of the things we’ve automated have actually created new jobs. Most have not, however, and the guy who used to fill your gas tank may not have the skillset needed to service ATM’s.

I wrote a lot about the likely consequences of automation in my last book, and I was prompted to revisit that research when I came across an article in Time Magazine about a robot invented to help us cope with the current pandemic.

Conor McGinn is a roboticist and professor at Trinity College Dublin. McGinn and his colleagues at Trinity’s Robotics and Innovation Lab focus on figuring out how robots can best assist aging individuals in care homes.

The signature product from the lab and its spinoff company, Akara Robotics, is Stevie, a 4-foot 7-inch tall social robot whose primary function is alleviating loneliness. In trials in the U.S., U.K., and elsewhere, the robot has been programmed to tell stories, call bingo numbers, lead sing-alongs, and other morale- and community-building exercises in a group care setting.

Its team of engineers have also worked closely with care home staff to understand what additional functions could be added to the robot to boost patient safety. In July 2019, well before the first reports of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China, the team began exploring whether Stevie might be able to ward off infections too.

After a few false starts–viola!

The team began drawing up plans for a new robot that would combine the navigational features they’d designed for Stevie with a UV-C light. The robot wouldn’t have any anthropomorphic features, but would be designed to work alongside humans. They would call this one Violet…

Violet is one of many robots deployed or soon to be deployed on the front lines of the global outbreak, navigating hospitals and assisting health workers and patients with a very low risk of spreading the infection.

According to the article, new generations of robots are being developed to “navigate high-risk areas and continually work to sterilize all high-touch surfaces.”

Sounds great. But then…..

A study by Ball State University found that just since 2000, nine out of ten manufacturing workers have been replaced by automation.

In 2018, the Pew Research Center asked approximately 1900 experts to opine on the impact of emerging technologies on employment; half of those questioned predicted the displacement of significant numbers of both blue- and white-collar workers by robots and digital agents. Many also expressed concern over the likely consequences of that quantity of job losses, predicting that displacements will lead to even larger increases in income inequality, masses of people who are unemployable, and breakdowns in the social order.

An analysis by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development predicted that ten percent of the jobs in advanced economies will be automated, while scholars at Oxford University forecast that 50% of American jobs are at risk. Obviously, no one can say with confidence how many jobs will be lost, or which workers will sustain those losses, but technologies now in development threaten millions.

Think about this: There are 3.5 million professional truckdrivers in the United States, and another 1.7 million Americans drive taxis, Ubers, buses and delivery vans for a living. Self-driving cars, which are currently being road-tested, could put them all in the ranks of the unemployed.

Think skilled workers are immune? The Brookings Institution’s Tech Tank tells us that between 2011 and 2017, Goldman Sachs replaced 600 desk traders with 200 coding engineers. Even medical professionals are at risk: in 2017, Entilic, a medical start-up, reported that its AI algorithm “outperformed four radiologists in detecting and classifying lung modules as either benign or malignant,”

In 2016, the World Economic Forum projected a total loss of 7.1 million jobs to automation, including jobs in advertising, public relations, broadcasting, law, financial services and health care.

It isn’t just the pandemic that is threatening to upend our world–but among its other consequences,  the pandemic may hasten the process.

 

The Robots Are Coming…

When I opened my email a few days ago, the first thing that popped up was an article from the Brookings Institution titled “The Robots Are Ready as the Covid-19 Recession spreads,” predicting that a coronavirus-related downturn will increase the rate at which American industry invests in labor-replacing automation.

As I have previously argued, jobs don’t matter simply because most of us need to put food on the table. Having a job–even a job we dislike–gives most of us a sense of purpose and identity. (There is a reason so many people die shortly after retiring.)In “The Truly Disadvantaged,” William Julius Wilson noted the significant differences between neighborhoods where residents are poor but employed and neighborhoods where residents are poor and jobless.

The longterm trend was worrisome well before the advent of the Coronavirus: American economic mobility and job creation had already begun to slow, largely as a result of policies favoring larger firms over the entrepreneurial start-ups that were once responsible for the creation of most new jobs. Numerous studies have documented what Brookings calls “a steady and significant increase in consolidation” Thanks to anemic anti-trust enforcement, the number of so-called “mega-mergers” has increased, and as the market power of these huge companies grows, competition decreases. The under-enforcement of anti-trust laws has reduced entrepreneurship, increased predatory pricing practices and economic inequality, and resulted in the concentration of economic growth.

Rather than the vigorous competition that characterizes healthy markets, we have increasingly moved from capitalism to corporatism, or crony capitalism, in which government shields favored industries and companies from competitive pressures rather than acting as the guarantor of a level playing field.

Until recently, people expressing concerns about job losses have focused their criticisms on the outsourcing of manufacturing to low-wage countries, ignoring what is by far the biggest contributor to job loss–  automation, and the replacement of workers by machines.

A 2018  study by Ball State University found that just since 2000, nine out of ten manufacturing workers have been replaced by automation. That same year, the Pew Research Center asked approximately 1900 experts to opine on the impact of emerging technologies on employment; half of those questioned predicted the displacement of significant numbers of both blue- and white-collar workers by robots and digital agents, and predicted that those displacements will lead to serious consequences: larger increases in income inequality, masses of people who are unemployable, and breakdowns in the social order.

Forecasts varied widely. One analysis, by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, predicted that ten percent of the jobs in advanced economies will be automated, while scholars at Oxford University warned that 50% of American jobs are at risk. Obviously, no one can say with confidence how many jobs will be lost, or which workers will sustain those losses, but technologies now in development threaten millions.

Think about the numbers. There are 3.5 million professional truck drivers in the United States, and another 1.7 million Americans drive taxis, Ubers, buses and delivery vans for a living. Self-driving cars, which are already being road-tested, could put them all in the ranks of the unemployed.

Think skilled workers are immune? Think again.  Reports show accelerating automation of jobs held by skilled knowledge workers engaged in data-driven decision-making. Between 2011 and 2017, Goldman Sachs replaced 600 desk traders with 200 coding engineers. Even medical professionals are at risk: in 2017, Entilic, a medical start-up, reported that its AI algorithm “outperformed four radiologists in detecting and classifying lung modules as either benign or malignant.” In 2016, the World Economic Forum projected a total loss of 7.1 million jobs to automation, including jobs in advertising, public relations, broadcasting, law, financial services and health care.

Automation will obviously create jobs as well as destroy them, but that will be cold comfort to that 55-year-old truck driver with a high-school education–he isn’t going to move into a new position in Informatics.

What does the current pandemic have to do with this longterm trend? According to Brookings:

Robots’ infiltration of the workforce doesn’t occur at a steady, gradual pace. Instead, automation happens in bursts, concentrated especially in bad times such as in the wake of economic shocks, when humans become relatively more expensive as firms’ revenues rapidly decline. At these moments, employers shed less-skilled workers and replace them with technology and higher-skilled workers, which increases labor productivity as a recession tapers off.

America wasn’t prepared for a pandemic, and we won’t be prepared for the civic unrest exacerbated by widespread joblessness. We are going to require skilled leadership, and that leadership will not be provided by the Party of the Past, led by a mentally-ill ignoramus.

 

Automation, Anxiety And Anger

The devil, as the saying goes, is always in the details.

It’s easy to point to social change as a reason for the increased anxiety and tribalism of American voters, just as it is easy to insist that we must “resist”/”do something.” It’s a lot harder to specify the nature and consequences of those social changes, or the form that resistance should take.

A lawyer with whom I used to work was fond of saying that there is only one legal question: what should we do? That adage also works pretty well for political action.

One of the drivers of social change is technology–not just the rapid evolution of communication devices and the like, but the truly incredible advances in automation. Robots are assembling cars and refrigerators; three-dimensional printers are beginning to look a lot like Star Trek replicators.

While labor advocates are still fighting the last war–international trade–automation poses a far greater threat to manufacturing jobs. Thomas Edsall recently compared our current dislocations to the Industrial Revolution, and that sounds about right.

We may never stop arguing about which historic currents swept President Trump into the White House.

Klaus Schwab, chairman of the World Economic Forum, is unlikely to have had Trump in mind when he described the fourth industrial revolutionin Davos in January 2016:

We stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another. In its scale, scope, and complexity, the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before.

Compared with previous industrial revolutions, Schwab continued,

the fourth is evolving at an exponential rather than a linear pace. Moreover, it is disrupting almost every industry in every country. And the breadth and depth of these changes herald the transformation of entire systems of production, management, and governance.

Edsall connects the dots between seemingly unrelated phenomena and this fourth industrial revolution. For example, he points out the ways in which technology has facilitated immigration, both legal and illegal. Immigrants fly into the U.S. and overstay their visas, rather than trudging across borders. Innovations in transportation, communication, together with the globalization of politics and culture, have made the international movement of people “cheaper, quicker, and easier.”“

The IT revolution that has occurred in my adult lifetime has improved living standards and consumer convenience; but at substantial social cost. The substitution of machines for human labor is accelerating, and that reality has significant political and social consequences.

According to the International Federation of Robotics, “By regions, the average robot density per 10,000 employees in Europe is 99 units, in the Americas 84 and in Asia 63 units.”

In a March 2018 paper, “We Were The Robots: Automation in Manufacturing and Voting Behavior in Western Europe,” Massimo Anelli, Italo Colantone and Piero Stanig, of Bocconi University in Milan, found that “robot shock increases support for nationalist and radical right parties.”

The authors note that “both technology and trade seem to drive structural changes which are consequential for voting behavior.”

Some scholars even attribute Trump’s victory in the Electoral College to automation.

In their October 2017 paper, “Political Machinery: Did Robots Swing the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election?” the authors demonstrate that

Support for Donald Trump was significantly higher in local labor markets more exposed to the adoption of robots. Other things equal, a counterfactual analysis shows that Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania would have swung in favor of the Hillary Clinton if robot adoption had been two percent lower over the investigated period, leaving the Democrats with a majority in the Electoral College.

An economist at Brookings has estimated that full adoption of driverless vehicles would put two-and-a-half million drivers out of work. Others estimate that the anticipated addition of 105,000 robots to American factories will result in 210,000 fewer assembler and fabricator jobs in 2024 than otherwise would have been the case.

Edsall quotes a number of economists who explain how IT has increased inequality and reduced labor force participation, and will continue to do so. The dislocations of this fourth industrial revolution are a breeding ground for what social scientists call populism–and what most of us call White Nationalism.

The question “What should we do” is getting pretty urgent.

 

Automation And Social Welfare

Last weekend, I read about a robot developed in Japan that can assemble furniture from IKEA.  Over the past couple of years, intermittent reports demonstrating the features of three-dimensional copiers have suggested we may not be that far off from the “replicators” on Star Trek’s Enterprise. And despite some setbacks, self-driving cars and trucks seem all-but-certain to displace drivers in the not very distant future.

Meanwhile, the “gig economy” continues to replace traditional employment arrangements.

While the American public is transfixed–and distracted–by the antics of the self-satirizing buffoon currently occupying the Oval Office, technology marches along, prompting major social challenges that very few people are addressing.

A recent paper from The Brookings Institution focuses upon the effect of these changes for social insurance–the government programs intended to provide a modicum of financial security to the elderly, disabled and/or unemployed.

The nature of work is being increasingly and suddenly altered by technological change, growing cross-border mobility, declining birth rates, and rising life expectancy. A growing share of work is done either under contracts that are shorter-term and less predictable, or without any contracts at all.  Social insurance systems financed by payroll taxes created for times of stable employment with one formal employer and a substantial surplus of contributors over beneficiaries have become fiscally and socially unsustainable. Often, their rules leave the workers of the new economy without even a basic layer of social protection.

The authors suggest three major changes in the way the United States approaches social insurance: decoupling these programs from employment (payroll taxes provide the funding for these programs); for the elderly, establish a general-revenue financed basic pension for all; and set up a complementary pillar of privately-owned accounts for unemployment, health insurance, and old-age pensions, funded by tax-free private contributions.

I am insufficiently informed to weigh in on the latter two proposals, but it has been obvious for a long time that providing health insurance through employers–never optimal–has become increasingly unsustainable. It burdens larger employers, whose HR offices expend enormous time and resources navigating health insurance markets. It disadvantages small businesses and start-ups that cannot afford to offer competitive benefits and thus are less able to compete for quality employees. With the growth of the “gig” economy, increasing numbers of Americans are unable to access affordable plans (something Obamacare would ameliorate if the current Administration wasn’t determinedly sabotaging the program.)

These disadvantages aren’t limited to health insurance. As the Brookings report notes, providing social insurance through employers will only become more unsustainable, as automation displaces more workers and the number of independent contractors grows.

The solution is two-fold. The first is to eliminate the link between social insurance and employment status and provide a basic and affordable layer of social protection to all citizens, financed by general revenues…. The second is to supplement this insurance by a wider set of individually owned and financed insurance offerings.

Whatever the merits of these proposals or others, they are at least addressing important issues–issues with which a competent government would be dealing.

Unfortunately, we don’t have a competent government. We have deranged (and misspelled) tweet-storms from the White House and partisan game-playing from Congress.

Where are the adults when you need them?

Reality Doesn’t Care Whether You Believe It (Part II)

One of the defining features of our time is increasing complexity; the rapid growth and sophistication of technology, the globalization of economics, science and even governance, in short, the accelerating production of vast amounts of knowledge that no one person can hope to master (or even identify).

This complexity requires informed and thoughtful policymaking, an understanding of how the various aspects of our shared environment interact, if we are to avoid unintended and very harmful consequences.

Unfortunately, we have elected a President and numerous lawmakers who are not up to the task, to put it as delicately as possible. They are supported by voters who dismiss people who do have expertise, people who actually know things, as “elitist.”

A couple of examples: a while back, the New York Times ran an article about automation, addressing a number of likely consequences of new AI (Artificial Intelligence) technologies:

A.I. products that now exist are improving faster than most people realize and promise to radically transform our world, not always for the better. They are only tools, not a competing form of intelligence. But they will reshape what work means and how wealth is created, leading to unprecedented economic inequalities and even altering the global balance of power.

It is imperative that we turn our attention to these imminent challenges.

What is artificial intelligence today? Roughly speaking, it’s technology that takes in huge amounts of information from a specific domain (say, loan repayment histories) and uses it to make a decision in a specific case (whether to give an individual a loan) in the service of a specified goal (maximizing profits for the lender). Think of a spreadsheet on steroids, trained on big data. These tools can outperform human beings at a given task.

I have posted previously about the potential consequences of AI and automation generally for job creation. The number of jobs lost to automation already dwarfs those lost to outsourcing and trade–and yet, activists on both the Right and Left continue to focus only on trade policy.

This kind of A.I. is spreading to thousands of domains (not just loans), and as it does, it will eliminate many jobs. Bank tellers, customer service representatives, telemarketers, stock and bond traders, even paralegals and radiologists will gradually be replaced by such software. Over time this technology will come to control semiautonomous and autonomous hardware like self-driving cars and robots, displacing factory workers, construction workers, drivers, delivery workers and many others.

Unlike the Industrial Revolution and the computer revolution, the A.I. revolution is not taking certain jobs (artisans, personal assistants who use paper and typewriters) and replacing them with other jobs (assembly-line workers, personal assistants conversant with computers). Instead, it is poised to bring about a wide-scale decimation of jobs — mostly lower-paying jobs, but some higher-paying ones, too.

If Donald Trump has ever addressed this issue, or suggested that he is even aware of it, it has escaped my notice.

Richard Hofstadter’s book, Anti-intellectualism in American Life is, if anything, more relevant today than when it was written. What Hofstadter and others who have addressed this particular element of American culture failed to foresee, however, was a time in which the federal government (together with a good number of state governments–Texas comes immediately to mind) would be controlled by people who neither understand the world they live in nor know what they don’t know.

Science Magazine  recently reported on the EPA’s dismissal of 38 science advisors.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt continues to clean house at a key advisory committee, signaling plans to drop several dozen current members of the Board of Scientific Counselors (BOSC), according to an email yesterday from a senior agency official.

Unlike most of Trump’s cabinet, Pruitt is proving to be effective. Unfortunately, he is proving effective in his efforts to destroy the EPA–not just by denying the reality of climate change science, but by rolling back regulations that protect air and water quality. He appears to be operating on a theory common to this administration: if a reality is uncongenial, ignore it or deny its existence. If evidence contradicts your worldview, dismiss it.

Yesterday, in a reference to Neil DeGrasse Tyson, I observed that science and reality are true whether or not you believe them.

The worst thing about giving simple and/or corrupt people the power to run a government they do not understand is that complicated realities continue to be realities, and the longer we fail to engage those realities, the worse the consequences.