Thursday, 25 June 2015

Automation and its Impacts on the Labour Economy

Automated Job Hunter

The Lights in the Tunnel” by Martin Ford explores the implications of the increasing automation of labour. It begins by visualizing the world economy, and how it will change as automation increasingly eliminates labour. 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

This 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. With profit as the incentive, it is only a matter of time.

Much of this displacement is simply a question of design. For example, automated checkouts are not intelligent, they’re just interfaces. Many jobs can be replaced by pre-programmed interfaces. The service industry is already seeing this happen. Other industries can be replaced by large databases (specifically knowledge based work such as General Practice and Law).

You might 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.

As the video “Humans need not apply”  points out, robots don’t need to be perfect, they just need to be better than us. Human drivers kill 40,000 people a year in the United States alone, automated vehicles will be much safer. Your robot vacuum cleaner might miss the skirting boards, but it doesn’t matter, it saves hours of work and goes over the same spot dozens of times leaving it cleaner than you would have.

Also, automation requires software, and software is built from libraries of other software. Once developers have built software to perform a task, that software is then available to other developers to build on. Once a problem has been solved, it’s solved forever. The solution can be improved but you never need to go back.

So with automation being even better than perceived, and problems being continuously solved, it’s only a matter of time before automated solutions take a large proportion of jobs.

This becomes a problem, not just for the individual, but our entire economy. 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 less 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 labour 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 in the west and 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 labour intensive. He also argues that any new industries that are created by these advances are unlikely to be labour 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 individual 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 labour” 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 labour, 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 labour.

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 labour of the working classes feeds this system. This is why we are, essentially, 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

The reason this could be so disruptive, is that 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 labour 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 realise that work is no longer obligatory – we will see a near instantaneous collapse of the labour 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.

Luckily, the world is changing, and changing fast. We are seeing more and more possibilities, game changers, emerging ideas. The Internet is opening up new landscapes of economic paradigms (AirBnb, Netflix, Uber). Movements are forming that no longer participate in the current economic system, such as collaborative consumption and peer to peer systems. Technology is enabling people to manipulate the system to their own ends. Some have suggested the eradication of money altogether.

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.

With the very survival of the working and middle classes at stake, the question is whether a new system can be built in time.



Monday, 18 August 2014

R18 certificates are not an excuse for being a bad member of society

I've been a gamer for 3 decades, seeing the games industry mature from dots on a screen into a prolific mainstream industry. I'm not afraid of controversy in games. I want to make it abundantly clear: I'm not advocating banning anything. 

I've seen many disturbing titles, far worse than Grand Theft Auto. But this was when games were a cult market, and the technology was so basic, it was easy to dismiss the phenomenon.

Now, games have matured. They can do more and they reach more people. Like movies and other entertainment, they have the power to influence society. With this influence comes some level of responsibility. It's not an obligation - games are art and should be able to push boundaries - but rape in a video game is not art. It's gratuitous indulgence in a sickness, a sickness that hides behind freedom of expression.

If we're going to get philosophical about it (and I guarantee the proponents will) you could ask “where does it end? Should we ban all violence in games?"

There wouldn't be many games left. Maybe we should address the high level of violence in gaming. At least it's a conversation we should be able to have without all the "freedom of speech" bullshit. For now, we can at least draw the line at what is acceptable behaviour.

Would we allow child abuse in a video game? The creators would be locked up just for suggesting it and rightly so.

So why do we allow rape? It's even banned in porn, and used sparingly in movies and books when the story requires it. Gaming, putting the player in control, has a different context. Because of this it plays a different role in popular culture and should be assessed differently.

Killing might not be particularly healthy content, but at least it can be justified to a certain extent in games, and is; demons, war, self defence, etc. Many games (Batman: Arkham series, Deus ex) actively avoid it. It's rarely gratuitous - a game where you could shoot up a school should offend even the most hardcore gamers.

What kind of moral integrity do you have if you're actively campaigning to include abuse in entertainment? What does it say about our culture when people lobby in favour of sexual violence?

This isn't about the freedom of adults. It's about the freedom of assholes.

Despite what proponents might say, there is a link between gaming and real life - it's called culture. Entertainment shapes it and it shapes what people find acceptable. Abusing the vulnerable is not something we want in our culture.

Yes, the world is a violent place. Our popular culture doesn't need to hide us from this. But it really doesn't need to encourage it.


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 may be growing up in a world devastated by it.

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 and Memes


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 increasingly advanced data analytics tools, our prediction capabilities become ever more reliable, and with them, the possibilities of social engineering reach new and increasingly influential heights.






Monday, 8 August 2011

Distributed or Centralised Infrastructure?


Distributed infrastructure, such as that provided by the internet, allows for more reliability - if one node is damaged, it barely affects the rest of the network. It affords more freedom - less reliance on a centralised 'grid' controlled and manipulated by the elite. It is more in-line with nature, creating a symbiotic entity where the sum is greater than its parts, and each participant compliments the rest with cooperation but doesn't burden the whole either.

However, the centralised systems we are used to, those which provide our public infrastructure, still have a place, because they can often be more efficient than a distributed system. For example, it would be difficult to run a train system with solar panels on the station roof, so the train taps into the main grid.

When assessing and managing the Earth's resources, a global inventory would be important. We would need to decide on the most efficient solution between distributed and centralised infrastructure, and having access to all resources would allow us to choose the most efficient solution. If one country has more resources than another and it does not share them, this will burden the world system as a whole. If, for example, a hot country like Egypt built solar panels across the desert but didn't share this energy, it could hold back the whole planet, because this energy could be used to run a factory supplying the whole of Africa, or even the world, with food.

On the other hand, building an infrastructure to share this energy and the productions it facilitates could be impractical and not the best use of resources. Although sharing resources could contribute to society, the cost of the infrastructure required to share these resources would be prohibitive. In these situations, a localised solution might be a more efficient use of resources.

Should we be building Smart Grids, or developing self sufficient houses? Or what about a middle ground of self sufficient communities?

It is likely that both ideas will have to develop in parallel. There is no escaping the growth of distributed systems, their dropping cost and increasing accessibility. Home manufacture, decentralised production, home automation, home agriculture, home energy and more are making it easier to separate ourselves from the mainstream infrastructure and increase our self sufficiency.


Similarly, sharing and pooling resources has its benefits. It gives us more possibilities, allows us to combine systems, and develop simplified and more efficient solutions. So we should be looking at the best way to combine the two techniques.