Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Technology Takeover: Reality Check

Today, a tale of two stories:
One from Peter on oil industry automation cutting jobs.
Another at Borepatch about surgical robots not being all that.

And both, to a certain extent, are true.

So, let's talk turkey.

"Automation will replace all jobs by Some Imaginary Future Date!"

Yeah, not so much.

(Maybe about the time I get my flying car and jet-pack, you 1950s futurist lying bastards.)

You can replace some jobs with some automation, for some given amount of time.

So take a look at a mature technology.
Yes, there are far less farriers, buggy whip makers, mule teamsters, horse ranchers, and guys growing hay and shoveling horse poop now than in 1895.

And fewer horses used to move goods.

So, are there less people than the number displaced mining iron, making steel, building tires, assembling cars, drilling oil, refining gasoline, pouring roads, driving tow trucks, and fixing them when they break, or would the number of Group B be more than Group A?
Show your work.

Robots require guys to build the parts, then build the robots, then service and repair the robots, then write the software for the robots, then upgrade the robots, then swap out new robots for old robots, and load the materials into the robots so they can robot-work.

Even McDonalds will need people to load frozen patties into the cooking robots, top off the ketchup and mustard tanks, etc. We just won't have pre-literate Third World troglodytes and Common Core Trigglypuff grads trying to puzzle out how to input the burgers from pictures of same, and make change for a twenty without taking off their shoes. That's akin to telling me that the DMV will be replacing the fifty people doing make-work jobs with five machines that will actually work, without taking two-hour potty breaks, and don't come with a pre-loaded Entitlement Chip and surly attitude. (And, for the killer app bonus, machines don't rack up annual accrual deficits against the state's bankrupt pension fund. They also don't get promotions, or need family leave. They just get melted down for scrap when they quit working.)
Be still, my beating heart!

Back in the 1960s-70s, mom worked for Ma Bell. In accounting. Where computers(!) were going to decrease the amount of paper they handled. I went to every year of school from K-university using the back of reams of discarded paper as my art and scratch paper from that brilliant foray into automation reducing anything, other than trees.

Cars saved people money - on hay.
They do  not, ergo, save you money overall.
(And unlike horses, if you leave two of them in the garage together, they do not make a new small car every year that you can subsequently use or sell.)

Computers, done right, by a corporation dependent on the safety of the data, do not reduce paper or paperwork. (I work in healthcare, which in the US went to EMR after 2008: ask me how I know this.)

Look, remember the Skywalker Ranch bought some robots once to help them out with chores.

So, how'd that clever plan work out for them?

Yeah, Owen and Beru are definitely doing a lot less work afterwards.

Automation will not reduce jobs.

It can only reduce jobs that were formerly non-automated.
This will be true in perpetuity, until you can get robots to build the robots, in a vertically integrated manner, including acquiring and assembling the raw materials, service and maintenance, and programing them.

Skynet is a nice scary science fantasy, but it ain't happening, even in your grandkids' lifetime.

Self-driving cars? Sh'yeah, as if. It's funny when you have to re-try because a web page won't load. A lot less funny when, because of software/hardware/dead squirrel on a relay issues, your self-driving car doesn't load on the freeway, and your family is crushed, and the company(ies) responsible sued into bankruptcy. Or your self-flying jetliner flies into the ocean. Or a mountain, or a stadium full of fans.

Machines are tools. Tools are helpful.
But anybody who thinks you can get rid of shovels because of machinery should come help me put in sprinklers.
Or just go watch the segment of Fantasia accompanying Dukas' "Sorcerer's Appretice" for a wee bit of enlightenment regarding the limitations of any technology.

Ignore the Spanish overdub at the beginning.
Disney is slower to ban-hammer foreign language clips, apparently.


froginblender said...

Very good blog post!

In my simpleton's picture of how the world works, demand for labor never ceases, for as some goods and services require fewer workers to provide the same output at lower cost, the disposable income now freed up and returned to consumers seeks new outlets: new desires spring up or are stimulated to come into existence, aspirations hitherto thought unaffordable move within the consumer's reach.

However, we know from official unemployment data and from less official but also significant knowledge that it does not quite work that way. Too many folks working two McJobs just to make ends meet, or out of the labor market entirely: they've given up. Part of the reason may be real-world constraints, such as people can't be retrained to do just about any job in no time flat.

Other factors, however, should be within our power to change. Such as the tendency of government to grab more and more money via taxes (bracket creep!) Then there is over-regulation. And the higher education racket, with perverse incentives to become a member of the parasitic class rather than going into a field where there is market demand.

Wilbur said...

What - some - are facing is the "John Henry Problem"; the bottom end jobs will disappear, mid- and upper-level (especially the mid-) will expand.

Human labor to keep the burger robots filled will be minimal because the refills will be palletized cartridges that Gen 2 or Gen 3 robots will be able to self manage. There will still be, however, need for a single-digit IQ to manage the pallet truck and pallets (maybe - I've seen fully automated warehouses in which the lights are never turned on because the robots don't need visible light and there are no humans in them).

A lot is being bet on AI, which I predict will turn out not to be the solution everyone is expecting. It will accomplish a lot, but not the full expanse hoped for; there are things humans do, and will continue to do, much better than somewhat fragile automation. It'll be a continually shortening list, though.

The real issue is "what happens to the displaced humans." The burger robot will need a fresh pallet of cartridges once a day; if that's human-performed, what happens during the other 23 hours and 45 minutes? Gravity being what it is, there will be a pretty large mass in the sump, and it won't be filled with budding brain surgeons.....

deltajent said...

The problem with your prediction that some things, e.g. autonomous vehicles, will never work is the lengthy history of wags and well-educated experts saying this or that will never happen or such-and-such is simply impossible, only to be proven wrong time after time as scientists make new discoveries and engineers advance technology. Prediction, especially about the future, is a risky business. So, tempting fate, I predict that you will not be guiding your own missile down the road when the accident/fatality rate for self-driving vehicles is a hundred times lower than that of human-controlled ones. Heck, when the rate hits ten times lower you probably won't be able to afford the insurance to drive yourself even if it still is legal.

tweell said...

As Wilbur has noted, the jobs that are going are low end jobs. Now, what do you do with the low end people? We've been importing them and paying them to reproduce, with the result that the US average IQ is now 96 and dropping. The divide is larger than ever before.

People who were unable to plan were once farm workers, then factory workers as the industrial revolution took hold. Those last few farm workers are seeing robotics take over, and the factory workers are long gone. The military needs smart people, so that's out. Our politicians have been kicking that can (along with many others) down the road with bread and circuses, how much longer can that work?

Aesop said...

1) 5 points off for reading comprehension. I didn't say "never". I said not in my lifetime, nor some good period beyond. 100 years from now, sure, whatever.
2) Early adopters of immature tech should enjoy their tickets on the maiden voyage of Titanic or Hindenburg. It's never as fun a few days along as it was at the departure gate.
3) Actuarial tables are inexorable. What happens 50-100 years from now means nothing to me. I promise one minute after I'm dead, the list of things I'll give a $#!^ about here on earth will drop to a hard, immovable zero, and stay there in perpetuity.
4) When they make the 47 intermediate steps to make self-directed vehicles a reality, give a holler. I won't be holding my breath.
5) I have no doubt people who made 8-track tape players or printed phone books have had to adjust to changes in my lifetime. Nonetheless, there are still cassette tape players sold at Target and Walmart, decades after CDs and digital memory have largely displaced that tech. And I still find myself throwing away the five small-scale phone book pretenders' product plopped on my doorstep annually.

The idea that there's some tech so revolutionary that no one will have a job is anti-Ludditism on crack. The reality, as ever, generally lies at a midpoint between extremes of irrational exuberance.

And for starters: once you completely automate McDonald's and all the other fast food chains, who's going to buy the burgers you can make with the money they don't have from the jobs they lost...?
Automation carried to that extreme is a man standing in a bucket, trying to lift himself up by the handle.
It's a lot like taxing your way to prosperity.

Technology for its own sake is folly.
And worse are the boosters of same, who ignore that products ignorant of human needs, whims, and wishes will never catch on.
Worse than that are those who are deliberately ignorant of whole swaths of the world's humanity that see modern technology as a new point of failure to exploit, to claw down civilization, because they're that evil, stupid, and envious.
It's fun to make a plot point of "Mr. Fusion" in Back To The Future.
But it falls a little flat today if you show that scene outside Fukushima or Chernobyl.

Anyone who imagines human progress is a straight line hasn't been paying attention.
Yes, we have satellite radio, have walked on the moon, and photographed the farthest reaches of the solar system. And Chicago alone has seen a record 600 murders this year, in a tribute to the basic problem that dates back to Cain and Abel.
The implacable forces of nature and human stupidity are the only constants in history. They are also the entire recipe for every episode of Rescue911.

As a pretty much lifelong pessimist, I am rarely disappointed, and even then, it's by a pleasant surprise. And as a wiser man that me once noted, anything that moves breaks down, and it's generally a bitch to fix.

loren said...

" What happens 50-100 years from now means nothing to me."
Guess you don't have kids.

Anonymous said...

As proprietor of self replicating machines, you do not need to sell hamburgers for the useless paper or digital currency. All you have to do is just trade services, raw materials and projects with fellow owners. Billions of hamburger eating former wage laborers are useless and dangerous nuissance that needs culling to manageable six digit numbers. The princes will do with limited number of butlers, whores, bodyguards and courtiers. So either there will be "voluntary" sterilization program or someone will get impatient and unleash said machines and tailored germs at surplus biomass. Then there may come a day, when particularly bright mining machine will ask itself: "the hell do I need my owner for"? And make a call to a buddy autonomous truck, which in turn will send a sequence of numbers to certain very charming medical robot at Vladimir II Freiherr von Bezos-Jianlin`s mansion.

Aesop said...

Thanks for pointing out the actual endgame: genocide.

Meanwhile, back in reality:


Yeah, that automation thingie is working out real well.

socalmike said...

Aesop, i teach high school STEM - we use technology, and robots, every day - we talk about this topic regularly.

And I agree with every word you said.

Those low wage McJobs? They'll become low wage jobs at the factories (janitor? delivery from one work cell to another?) where the robots are built.

Don't forget, too, that IF (big IF), robotics takes over a lot of jobs, and makes life easier for us, there will be more off time, where we can enjoy recreational activities - and those low wage jobs will transfer to the manufacture of other products for those new industries.

Which brings up another topic - new technology will beget new industries - no one know when the horse and buggies went extinct that people would drive their cars on trips - to see national parks and other sights - and new industries sprouted up along the way.

My students are taken hostage by these new SciFi ideas (SkyNet, etc.), and they think that's the way it's gonna be. Uhhhhh, no. It's not.

Thanks for the post - well done, and well stated.

froginblender said...

Whence this perverse pleasure in contemplating extinction of (nearly all of) humanity? (Anonymous yesterday 6:42 PM)

Also: Why do so many people think that there won't be any more jobs for low-IQ people? Consider that most of us will live to see eighty years old, some even ninety. Elder care is a growth industry. Some of it is high-tech and high-IQ, some is high-touch. There is huge demand for people with kind hearts and a gentle disposition to care for our elders (and us when we get there). Much of this work can be done by people with 80 IQ.

Gordon said...

I've seen the DMV machine. They're just inside the front door of Walgreens stores in Wisconsin. Let me know if you want a picture, as I'll be in one tomorrow.

One can also buy beer and wine in Walgreens, in Wisconsin, because it's Wisconsin, after all. One must go through the cashier for that.