Tag Archives: automation

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.

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.


Beyond the Factory Floor

The other day, I looked into a mirror and suddenly realized that my mother was looking back.

It sneaks up on you.

Most of us don’t notice the day-to-day changes in ourselves, or our environments, unless something triggers that recognition. That is especially true of the inexorable increase in automation–and it matters, because it is automation, far more than trade, that has eliminated so many American jobs. And that automation isn’t limited to spiffy robots on a factory floor; it is all around us.

When I first started to drive, gas station attendants pumped my gas and cleaned my windshield. These days, I pump my own gas, and the windshield gets cleaned when I go through the automated carwash. When I first practiced law, one legal secretary worked for two lawyers at most;  partners in the larger firms usually had their own secretary (and still dictated directly to her as she sat, steno pad in hand). Today, even in the “silk stocking” firms, lawyers type their own letters, emails and documents on their computers. Wealthier families often had maids and cooks; ever-improving home appliances have reduced the jobs available for such domestic help.

Old movies will sometimes feature the banks of telephone operators who used to direct calls, handle switching equipment and place “person to person” long-distance calls. My IPhone doesn’t require those switchboard operators. Speaking of telephones, those ubiquitous “telephone trees” are a decidedly mixed blessing, but most businesses use them rather than the human employees who used to answer the phones.

Remember the rows of bank tellers with eyeshades, who kept account ledgers by hand? Computers have replaced them.

I don’t know how much snail-mail has been replaced by email, but my guess is that we aren’t running short of postal workers.

As we anticipate an era of self-driving cars, we might consider the trade-off to come: greater safety and cost-effectiveness for individuals against eventual loss of employment for literally millions of truck, delivery van, taxi and Uber drivers.

Technological innovations make our lives more satisfying, our work more productive and our daily tasks more efficient–but they also take their toll on the workforce, and not just numerically. It’s true that many of these modern conveniences create new jobs, but rarely in the numbers they replace, and usually requiring a different and more demanding set of skills.

We are going to need some creative policies to deal with the accelerating and inevitable changes in the job market. Retraining–while undoubtedly a critical component–will not address the plight of the high-school dropout who lacks the capacity to learn more demanding skills, or the older displaced worker who cannot cope with radical change.

I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know we will continue to see machines displace human employees, and I’m pretty sure that bribing Carrier to delay moving 700 or so workers to Mexico is neither an answer nor a policy.