Publicat în 1 martie 2017, 21:38 / 539 elite & idei

Alexandru Georgescu – The Future Is Already Here. It’s Just Not Evenly Distributed

Alexandru Georgescu – The Future Is Already Here. It’s Just Not Evenly Distributed

by Alexandru GEORGESCU

Science fiction author William Gibson coined the phrase in the title of this article in an interview with The Economist over a decade ago and his observation still stands. Automation and its physical sub-domain, robotization, are taking the world by storm. Automation stands for the reduction of human input in any process, though we will be referring mostly to economic processes. Labor saving devices and processes have been a mainstay of Western economic development since the Industrial Revolution, with their share of detractors, but labor elimination devices are increasingly more capable and more affordable, even for areas previously thought immune to automation. These new avenues for automation include jobs requiring human interaction, clerical work and any other form of labor, even intellectual, that requires a certain degree of repetition. Even where true automation is not possible, the “centaur” option (a chess term, where a human worker is teamed up with a computer) can eliminate plenty of jobs, with the human factor accounting for control and decision making in those instances where the programming is not up to the challenge. In prior economic paradigms, the displaced labor was eventually absorbed into new fields, and the economic gains from new technologies were more evenly distributed within societies, ensuring higher living standards for all. The chance of this happening again has come under scrutiny on account of several structural factors, as they pertain to the economy, the populations that provide the workforce, the global dynamics of commerce and the incentives of decision makers in business and other areas with regards to maximizing profit, minimizing costs and redistributing both the gains and the losses of the new economy.

Looking at history and the general facets of human nature, both for prior leaps in industrialization and with the multi-decade history of the intermediate phases of automation, we can discern several possible patterns which indicate that prudence or at least healthy circumspection might be warranted. There are plenty of evangelists for technology as a cure-all for human needs, both professional and amateurs, but, as British politician Enoch Powell once said:

The supreme function of statesmanship is to provide against preventable evils. In seeking to do so, it encounters obstacles which are deeply rooted in human nature. One is that by the very order of things such evils are not demonstrable until they have occurred: at each stage in their onset there is room for doubt and for dispute whether they be real or imaginary. By the same token, they attract little attention in comparison with current troubles, which are both indisputable and pressing: whence the besetting temptation of all politics to concern itself with the immediate present at the expense of the future. Above all, people are disposed to mistake predicting troubles for causing troubles and even for desiring troubles: „If only,” they love to think, „if only people wouldn’t talk about it, it probably wouldn’t happen.” Perhaps this habit goes back to the primitive belief that the word and the thing, the name and the object, are identical. At all events, the discussion of future grave but, with effort now, avoidable evils is the most unpopular and at the same time the most necessary occupation for the politician. Those who knowingly shirk it deserve, and not infrequently receive, the curses of those who come after.

Thinking on multiple planes

What we consider under the heading of new technologies should rightfully be listed as follows:

  • Physical automation with robots and drones;
  • Automation of cognitive tasks by software – accounting, inventory management, reporting, billing etc;
  • Disintermediation through the digital revolution, creating efficiencies, but also eliminating employment with specialized intermediaries;
  • In addition to these, we have disruptive technologies that may enhance the above – blockchain, biotechnology, nanotechnology, 3D printing.

These were analyzed also during the 2016 World Economic Forum in Davos, which took place under the heading of “The Fourth Industrial Revolution”.

Our awareness of automation can be described as inhabiting multiple planes of thought:

  • The historical level;
  • The concrete, near-future level;
  • The systemic level;
  • And, last but certainly not least, the tertiary level.

Usually, when people consider automation, their train of thought stays at the first two levels. The historical narrative is simple – industrialization displaced certain workers, like those in agriculture, who stirred up trouble for a while and then found new jobs, in manufacturing for instance, and everyone was richer for it. The recent movie, “Hidden Figures”, while mythologizing the contributions of a group of people to appeal to modern sensibilities and prejudice, recounted an interesting facet of Western history. Before there were digital computers, there were human computers (that is where the term comes from) who were paid to crunch endless series of numbers for the burgeoning industry, finance, economy and administration of the modern states. Even after rudimentary computers appeared on the scene, veritable armies of people were employed by places like NASA to hand check or perform routine calculations from the upper level scientific staff, since mistakes could always creep in, with disastrous results.

At the concrete, near-future level, there is a case by case acknowledgement of advances in automation which elicit surprised exclamations from listeners, as well as routine and vaguely optimistic declarations of robots taking all of the jobs. Some of these are fun, others affect only a certain branch of industry, which one can safely discuss without feeling anxious for one’s job:

  • Factory robots are, of course, already a reality in numerous countries, including places like China, which has relied on low cost human labor until now, but are trying to get ahead of the trend to maintain competitiveness and use internal demand to develop national capacities in robotics;
  • Japan has a fully automated hotel, with a robotic velociraptor manning the reception area;
  • There is a pizza making robot being deployed in the US;
  • Robots making hamburgers for fast food restaurants;
  • Even the American cliché about the educated barista with student debt is going to become a thing of the past;
  • Already widespread implementation of automated check-out and ordering systems. ATMs have been replacing bank tellers for a long time and automated service at the airport is becoming increasingly common;
  • Amazon is building warehouse robots for inventory management and also preparing to sell them to others, not to mention its fanciful plans for drone deliveries;
  • Home care is steadily being automated (labor saving devices have been mushrooming for almost a century);
  • Elderly care is being automated as well, especially in Japan;
  • Self-driving cars are on the verge of going mainstream;
  • Even “stoop labor” picking fruit and other dexterous activities that were as amenable to mechanized agriculture like growing crops is being displaced;
  • Automated help systems, through rudimentary, are undergoing rapid improvement. Even telemarketing is now being done by robots, as one Time magazine editor found out to his surprise. Personal assistants like Apple’s Siri and automated concierge and ordering systems are growing rapidly;
  • Even journalism has started being automated, with software writing sport, financial and weather sections, especially ever since competition online drove publishers to be the first on the market to comment on new information.

At the systemic level, we have the first order consequences of such developments. The reduction in need for stoop labor may either close the door for low skilled illegal immigration to the US or simply saddle the welfare system with unemployable people already present there, in addition to the over 90 million Americans who were already outside of the labor force because of very low wages and the presence of a safety net. The former CEO of McDonald’s, Edward Rensi, was adamant about the effect of the new technologies:

“I was at the National Restaurant Show yesterday and if you look at the robotic devices that are coming into the restaurant industry — it’s cheaper to buy a $35,000 robotic arm than it is to hire an employee who’s inefficient making $15 an hour bagging French fries… it’s going to cause a job loss across this country like you’re not going to believe.”

A local report in the state of Idaho in the US on automation in the area listed the areas of maximum displacement – sales and related, office and administration, production, transportation, extraction and construction – and they estimated that half of all jobs will be automated in the next 20 years.

Automated driving may, in the short term, lead to displacement of long haul drivers in trucking (3 million jobs in the US) but, in the long term, will displace every sort of professional driver. Automated trucks do not need to rest, can have fuel and weight savings through better driving techniques and also form platoons for more efficiencies. The absence of the human driver along can double the effectiveness of transport, as driving 11 hours with a mandatory 8 hours rest is replaced by driving for 24 hours.

A forecast from researchers at Oxford highlighted that half of American jobs were vulnerable to automation in the next 20 years. Moshe Vardi, a computer scientist from Rice University, predicts a global unemployment rate of 50% in the next 30 years, leading not to a utopia, but a dystopia.

“We are approaching a time when machines will be able to outperform humans at almost any task. I believe that society needs to confront this question before it is upon us. If machines are capable of doing almost any work humans can do, what will humans do? The question I want to put forward is does the technology we are developing ultimately benefit mankind?”

A consultancy company, Gartner, has predicted that a third of jobs will be automated by 2025. A PBS report quoted Research Director Peter Sondergaard from Gartner regarding automation:

“Gartner predicts one in three jobs will be converted to software, robots and smart machines by 2025. New digital businesses require less labor; machines will make sense of data faster than humans can”.

Not just factories are affected, but also financial analysis, medical diagnostics etc. The same report quoted the authors of “The Second Machine Age”, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, saying:

“We are at an inflection point. The first big inflection point in human history was about 200 years ago, when the steam engine started the industrial revolution. That was a period that saw a whole set of new machines come along that could automate muscle power, physical work. In recent years, we are seeing a wave of technologies that can augment, automate all sorts of cognitive tasks and we think, ultimately, those will have as big, or an even bigger effect on humanity as the first industrial revolution.”

A 2016 report by the consulting firm McKinsey and Company found that 59% of manufacturing work could be automated in the next decade, including 90% of welders, cutters and solderers. 73% of food service work could be automated, 53% of retail work and 43% of finance and insurance work.


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