Thursday, 3 April 2014

Automation Will Change the World Sooner Than You Think

The Lights in the Tunnel by Martin Ford explores the implications of the increasing automation of labor. It begins by visualizing the world economy, and how it will change as automation increasingly eliminates labor. Many commonly held beliefs are dispelled throughout the book with convincing logic and some unquestionable evidence. This is not something we can afford to ignore. Even without the current rapid advances in technology or full artificial general intelligence, automation is going to have some significant effects on society, and it is going to happen sooner than you think.

The Reality of Automation

No More VacanciesThis is not science fiction. Far-off notions of intelligent androids performing our every wish are the least of our worries. Automation is set to displace workers in many areas with little advance in technology. Much of this displacement is simply a question of design. With profit as the incentive, it is only a matter of time.
You might also be reassured by the belief that "Robots can't do everything", and that until the day they take all the jobs, or perhaps just your job, you don't have to worry about it.
Wrong.
The entire system of consumerism depends on the majority having jobs. There is in fact a tipping point, a point where there are not enough people earning an income to sustain our current system.

The Tipping Point

With no buyers, there can be no sellers. The lack of consumer confidence will result in less demand and businesses will be less likely to take on more staff. The economy will embark on a downward spiral of unemployment.
This, of course, is not just a problem for the average worker, but for the rich elite, who will no longer have a market from which to make their fortune. Not only will fewer workers be bad for the economy, but with the massive drop in income tax revenues, even public services are set to be hit hard by the coming unemployment tsunami.
Nobody will be safe. Even cheap labor jobs in countries such as India and China cannot sustain their level of growth once automation hits critical mass, partly because they rely on Western prosperity in the first place, but also because their jobs will also be subject to automation, both at home and back in developed countries.
Then there is the misconception of the "Luddite Fallacy", the belief that the economy will always create new jobs, and advancing technology will continue to create new industries for displaced workers.
Martin Ford's argument is that accelerating automation technology will ultimately invade many of the industries that have traditionally been labor intensive. He also argues that any new industries that are created by these advances are unlikely to be labor intensive, focusing more on capital and expensive equipment - take Google's extremely low staff number compared with its income as a prime example.
Therefore, our fate is sealed - and the idea that every person must "earn their living by the sweat of their brow" is all but obsolete. Ironically, it is capitalism that has led us to this transition.

$lavery

There was an interesting point made in the book: This concept of "free labor" has happened before.
The slave trade in America was active for over 200 years. It made slave owners rich beyond their dreams, while poorer whites, unable to compete against free labor, lived in abject poverty. So how did it continue for 200 years, with so much poverty? Well, the slave colonies relied on exports. There was a constant flow of new money from overseas.
A system that depends on external resources can only increase its prosperity as long as the external resources continue. Today, we function under the illusion of separate countries trading with each other, but in essence, the whole world is the market, so really there is nobody to export to. Growth in this case can only come from inside the system - from more of the Earth's limited resources, including labor.
Today, we are the slaves. Although we are paid, our money is simply to drive the system of consumption. It is what allows the producers to grow. At first, this sounds like a good thing. Essentially, the corporations provide us with value.
The problem becomes apparent when we realize that the system relies on us as much as we rely on it.
The labor of the working classes feeds this system. This is why we are, in effect, forced to work.
We need to consume to live, but to consume, we must work. This system, where producers are also the consumers, relies on itself to function. Production drives consumption and consumption drives production. Break this cycle and the system cannot continue.

A World Without Jobs

Our automated future will decouple production from consumption. Things can still be produced, but there will be no way of affording it, because we won't have jobs.
How can we have production if there is nobody to consume?
While Martin Ford does a great job of identifying the problems of automation in the current economy, most of his solutions are fundamentally flawed. One suggestion is an overwhelming "Robin Hood" style government welfare system that taxes producers to allow the consumers to continue consuming. He says that even the most hardcore libertarian will have to agree to this, as without it, there will be no market to which any business can sell its goods.
He explains that in this system, there would still be incentives for people to do good for society for example, and capitalism would still reward those who become the best producers.
However, it soon becomes clear that many of the problems of capitalism (relentless growth, inherently aberrant behavior, destructive affluence etc) are still not addressed in his suggested solutions.
Additionally, his argument is based on the assumptions that consumption is necessary for growth, and that growth is necessary for progress. This is a very narrow view. To believe that consumption is a necessary factor in progress is an assumption with little grounding, and as we all know, growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of cancer.
Regardless of Martin Ford's suggestions, we cannot ignore the most pressing implication of the decoupling of labor from the production/consumption cycle. That is, the elimination of the assumption that everyone must work.
This is a profound concept that will have significant implications on society. Without a job, how can one survive? If not everyone has to work, why should anyone? It wouldn't be fair if some people went to work and some didn't.
What do we do when the lack of employment combines with technology and actually removes our requirement to work? For example, when our essential amenities are provided for free by renewable-energy-powered, fully automated farms, house building machines, and more, and the masses suddenly realize that work is no longer obligatory - we will see a near instantaneous collapse of the labor based economy.
These imminent tipping points will force us to rethink the roles of humans in the economy. This is perhaps the most pressing issue in our transition to a new kind of economy.
Changes ComingLuckily, the world is changing, and changing fast. We are seeing more and more possibilities, game changers, emerging ideas. The Internet is opening up entirely new landscapes of economic paradigms. Movements are forming that no longer participate in the current economic system. Technology is enabling people to manipulate the system to their own ends. 
The movement towards a new system, a system where producers and consumers are no longer the same thing, where jobs are no longer obligatory, is already in progress.
As our very survival depends on our employment, it is critical that this transition happens from the ground up.


Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Guns Might Be the Least of Our Worries


Whatever side of the gun debate you sit, it's important to remember why this is such a potent issue.

It's not so much that guns kill, it's that they empower. Weapons have always elevated humans above other species and their peers, but none quite so much as the gun. And the ability to instantly kill without fail has been a game changer in our social order.

This empowerment goes a long way in shaping our entire civilisation. In some countries, it is used to completely control the population in fear, in others, the same idea but a more subtle effect, we are forced to pay taxes and obey the law for threat of arrest at gunpoint.

Guns tip the balance of power because of the ability they afford us. That it's the ability to kill is in no way insignificant, but the ability could be anything.

They are an enabling technology.

Enabling technology elevates individuals and shifts society's order. In the past, this has been fairly limited to weapons; guns, nuclear missiles, military hardware. But access to life sustaining knowledge and technology such as drugs and agriculture have also driven global politics and had significant impact on the lives of many.

Now, as we hit the knee of technology's exponential curve, we are likely to encounter an increasing number of new enabling technologies. What will this mean for society?

Given their empowering nature, we would do well to be vigilant about who has access to certain technologies. Elites will likely work to prevent or restrict general population access (after dropping the ball with the internet) as much as possible. They will also attempt to commandeer certain technologies for their own purposes, surveillance, resource acquisition, health (immortality?) benefits or other, not-thought-of powers. This already happens, but its effects will become much more significant.

Imagine soldiers upgraded to be bullet proof, or have the ability to heal themselves. Arial drones are already causing havoc for the United States. It won't be long before we have robots everywhere, monitoring us, or even preventing us from performing certain actions - which might be unjustly deemed crimes. What if a bird was not a bird but a bomb? What if a tiny fly flew into your ear and injected you with an RFID chip? These technologies are extremely close - and most are already here.

There is of course the threat of these technologies falling into the hands of terrorists, murderers and psychopaths. We can go a certain way to preventing this with controls (like gun control), but what's stopping a criminal getting hold of a black market 3D printed gun? When the empowering nature of the technology can itself enable the undermining of such controls - what good are they?

Albert Einstein said: It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.”

As the creation of enabling technology escalates, it seems our humanity is simultaneously declining.

Thursday, 31 May 2012

The Ethical Implications of Dismantling the Planet Mercury


George Dvorsky's article about How to Build a Dyson Sphere was absolutely fascinating and I feel the concept deserves much further exploration.

"By enveloping the sun with a massive array of solar panels, humanity would graduate to a Type 2 Kardashev civilization capable of utilising nearly 100% of the sun's energy output. A Dyson sphere would provide us with more energy than we would ever know what to do with"

Now, this is the kind of ridiculous, overambitious idea that that really captures my imagination. It would be a hyper structure, like the Hoover dam but on steroids, where we would create unfathomable devastation, calling on the skills and labour of thousands, enduring the harshest that nature can throw at us in order to tame it - all in the name of energy. Where the Hoover dam transformed a country, this would transform our entire solar system. But it's not without cost. And that's what I want to discuss.

In order to get the materials to build this monolith of human achievement, we're going to have to make some sacrifices. Namely, the planet Mercury.

But what are the ethical implications of dismantling an entire planet for our own purposes?

One might argue that it's an otherwise useless planet, a burning chunk of iron and rock with no desirable real estate or even aesthetic value. But does that make it Ok to take it apart for spares?

What will future generations think about dismantling the planet Mercury? They will probably be a lot more conscious about the implications of such vast resource exploitation, given that they will be growing up in a world full of pollution and big empty holes where coal and precious metals used to be.

In today's world, these kinds of concerns are rarely considered, or if they are, they are still ignored if there is money to be made or amenities are required. But the people of the future will have their say, either way. This will bring the debate into the the public arena, allowing countless others to raise topics and concerns that may never have been thought about - issues that could have untold implications on the project.

Legalities


Mercury of course raises another issue that may throw a spanner in the works, that of legal rights. Who owns Mercury? Does anyone? Even if someone did own it - this might not stop someone who has the facilities to get there from taking it from someone who can't. 

We could put it to a democratic vote, involving the whole world, but could you imagine the political nightmare a worldwide vote would be? Coordinating the political process across different cultures, legal systems, technology levels, ideologies, and population sizes would be a logistical task comparable to dismantling a planet.

How Decisions are Made in the Real World


At the end of the day whether or not something is ethical has very little bearing on whether it goes ahead. What matters is the decision making mechanism of the time.

Right now, our decisions are based on finances. What is wrong or right is always superseded by the potential to make money, save money, or the liability to cost money. If it would be profitable to dismantle the planet Mercury, all it takes is someone with enough power to get the idea into their head and it will happen. I'm not sure that currently, there is any business or government in the world with enough money or resources to put this idea into practise yet, but that may change in the future.

Perhaps by the time a Dyson sphere becomes feasible, society will be running on a different modus operandi. Perhaps there will be a different currency other than money, something else that holds value but is traded in a similar way. If this currency was directly related to the Dyson sphere, for example, if it was energy, then this might also drive the Dyson sphere's production and supersede any moral concerns about dismantling planets. If the currency was something else, such as art or community help, then production might not be pursued as the need for the Dyson sphere wouldn't be reconciled by the needs of the people. But the project will always remain a possibility as long as energy holds value, and it probably always will, the question would be how much.

Practical Implications


As well as the ethical and legal implications, we would also have to consider the practical ones, as these may also have ethical implications of their own. For example, what about the effect on the gravity of the whole solar system? If something went wrong, the Earth could end up falling into the sun or flying off into space - these are pretty serious ethical concerns! Of course there would need to be some extremely accurate calculations before we attempted to commence resource extraction of this scale.

A Responsibility

After all the negative ethical dilemmas brought about when deciding whether or not to dismantle Mercury, It could very well be argued that it is actually our responsibility to uplift humanity, to alleviate suffering. That it's humanity's purpose to advance our technology, our civilisation, our place in the universe. To do this, we need to use all the resources we have available to us. It would be unethical not to.

The question would then be, what will be the return on this mother of all investments?

Monday, 21 May 2012

Corrolation, Causation, and Prediction in a World of Data


 As image memes gain popularity on social networks and forums, they are fast securing their place as a defining cultural aspect of the early tweenies...(unlike the word "tweenies", thankfully).

Most of these images are humourous, as this is great for virality, many are profound, some just witty nuggets of wisdom.

And then there is the propaganda. Intended to illicit an emotional response to a political idea, propaganda memes are used to affirm or reaffirm a political bias or dogma. They are often aimed at a very particular niche. If you have any particular political or activist persuasion, you will no doubt have seens endless streams of these one-sided affirmations.

At best, they are intellectual masturbation. At worst, it's pseudo-scientific social engineering.

The worst form of this that I have seen is data correlation inferences. Just because something happened on a certain date does not mean it caused something else that happened around the same time. It is completely irrational to infer causation from a correlation, and most people are subconciously aware of this, they will just choose to ignore it if the correlation fits in with their beliefs. So this form of non-sequitur is becoming an increasingly utilised mechanism for these pieces.

It is a shame that this kind of irrationality is being entertained, not least because data correlations can be valuable analysis tools. Correlations can be useful indicators for understanding social dynamics, as long as it is acknowledged that this evidence is purely circumstantial.

Alone, correlations are not proof , but they can reveal vital clues about possible causation.

They can also be powerful in assisting predictions. The more we know, the more correlations we will uncover, and the more we can use the circumstantial correlations of the past to make reasonable conjectures about the future.

As Twitter and Google and other web-enabled data collectors increase both the range and volume of their publically available data, the more correlations become available to anyone with the inclination to look for them. Using tools like PowerPivot, our prediction capabilities become ever more reliable, and with them, the possibilities of social engineering reach new and increasingly influential heights.






Monday, 13 June 2011

The Key to Automation

Every day seems to see new reports about incredible robots being developed. Robots that carry stuff for soldiers, robots that perform surgery, and robots that play football. It's all very exciting, but what we really need are robots to make our lives easier. To give us more time to do what we want. To do the mundane jobs and free us up to take on more creative work that robots can't do.

But how do we go about this? How do we bring robots and automation into our everyday lives, unless robot intelligence is significantly improved? Well, while this intelligence is improving at a rapidly accelerating pace, there is a huge potential for solving problems using simple, task repeating, programmable robotics.

The key is to standardize everything. We have to "put it on rails".

As an example, let's look at making an automated dish washing system.

We have dishwashers, but we still need to load and unload them. We need to develop 2 things. Firstly, we need a robot that can safely sort dishes no matter how randomly they're piled up, and insert them into their relevant areas of the dishwasher. Secondly, and this wouldn't be so difficult once the first stage was completed, is a mechanism for unloading the dishes and putting them away.

The important thing to note is that the kitchen would need to be designed with this in mind. In many solutions, we may need to consider our existing infrastructure. This needn't be as complex as it's made out to be, and would always pay off once a working automated system was integrated.

So you would need containers either side of the dishwasher, one for humans to pile up the dirty dishes, and one where the clean dishes would be stored permanently. This would make it easier than if the storage cupboard was, say, on the other side of the room to the dishwasher.

The next step, we could consider 2 options. The first is to standardize all our plates, cups, dishes, pots, pans, and cutlery, so that the loading robot would "recognize" them all. Alternatively, we may be able to develop robots that can recognize new items and program themselves "on the fly" to deal with them effectively. This would obviously be a little harder. To achieve the first step, all the dishes we use in a house could be embedded with RFID. The robot could also have powerful sensors similar to face recognition software many cameras currently have.

Within the dishwasher, every item would have a specified place. The robot would simply grab each item and move it to its "cleaning slot". Any odd items could occupy a separate platform within the dishwasher.

You get the idea. While it still has some creases to iron out, the point is that there is plenty that can be achieved with a minimal level of robot intelligence, if we standardize our practices and the environments that automation functions in. The same theory could be applied to transportation. It's baffling why trains are still driven by human beings, when a computer could control them perfectly.

If you think that giving computers so much responsibility is dangerous, it's because you've been conditioned to seeing machines that have been challenged by real life scenarios. The point is, these machines have been limited by the programming of humans. They have been put in situations where they have not been designed to cope with all possible scenarios. They were expected to work like humans, yet they were limited in the number of possible actions. Automation system designers need to limit the scenario to a set routine, as well as limiting the influence of external factors.

To put it another way, they need to simplify what a robot has to do, and design its environment to confine it, protecting it from the need to make decisions. We can do this by standardizing its interactions. This will allow us to bring automation into our lives in more ways than we ever thought possible, even at current technology levels.