Entries in the robot revolution (4)


Asimov by Way of Japan

I recently enjoyed revisiting a favorite anime series, Time of Eve. There are a couple of things that stand out about the series. First, it’s by Yasuhiro Yoshiura, who is a brilliant director of short animated works (like the earlier Aquatic Language). Second, the format was really unusual, it was a series of six fifteen-minute episodes released online, later compiled into an (almost identical) movie. Third, it’s straight-up Asimovian science fiction, Three Laws of Robotics and all.

I really like Asimov stories, in large part because they’re generally stories about friendly AI. Not that I dislike stories about unfriendly AI, but it’s easy for a story about unfriendly AI to fall into the same tropes as other monster or disaster stories. A lot of the Asimov short stories are straightforward mysteries, but there’s also room for telling tales with a lot more ambiguity.

The story is set in a world where robots are at a casual glance indistinguishable from humans, save for their rigid patterns of speech and behavior and the holographic status rings that hover above their heads. A high school student notices an odd entry in the log of his house android, and follows that to a strange cafe, Time of Eve, with a single rule clearly posted at the entrance: “In this cafe, make no distinction between humans and robots.”

Many of Asimov’s stories focus on issues of industrial activity or political struggle. But the Powell and Donovan of this series are not industrial debuggers but high school students. The story has strong themes of conventions of behavior versus a desire to express one’s true feelings and to understand the feelings of others. The cafe of the title is a place where one can enjoy a moment of quiet contemplation, amidst an epochal change in society that has not quite become manifest, not yet.

If you’re a fan of Asimov’s robot stories or would enjoy an interesting take on that sort of setting, I definitely recommend this work. The first episode can be viewed for free on Crunchyroll (though splitting up a 15-minute episode with ads is rather unfortunate), paid members can stream the rest (but there’s a free trial). The movie can be purchased here.


Robot Cars and Shell Games in Florida

It was very interesting to watch this video opposing Jeff Brandes in his bid for the Florida State Senate:

It’s probably the first political attack ad (political ad in general) to focus on driverless vehicles.  And there’s just so much to dig into!  It’s this amazing mix of forward and backwards thinking.

It’s got the designated-old-person narrator pushing the anti-autonomous-vehicles position when autonomous cars are likely to be an incredible boon for the elderly (stuck as they are in a car-dependent society with diminishing sight, hearing, and reaction time).

It’s got the misleading misquote from a Forbes article:  The ad says “Driverless Cars for All: More Dangerous Than Driving - Forbes”, but the actual Forbes article is titled Driverless Cars for All: An Idea More Dangerous Than Driving (emphasis mine), which is not about driverless cars being physically dangerous but the opposite, the “danger” is that manually-piloted cars will be forced off the road in the name of safety.

It quotes the headline of an opinion piece titled Will driverless cars really slow for pedestrians?, but that piece doesn’t imply that driverless cars won’t slow for pedestrians, just that there are complicated tradeoffs involved, and that driverless cars don’t solve that issue by their mere existence.  (Personally, I think autonomous cars will be great for pedestrians, but it’s unreasonable to expect that you can make everywhere safe to cross just by adding more computation and reducing reaction time, all while maintaining fast roads.)

It gets even weirder when you look into who’s funding the ad.  Just who is this Committee to Protect Florida?  Well, a PAC of some kind, they’ve got a hilariously generic description of their purpose.  But they disclose their expenses and contributions.  (Note that the “ecoreport” part of the URL probably has nothing to do with “ECOlogy”, but rather stands for “Electioneering COmmunications”.)

Expenses seem unsurprising, lots of postal spam and media advertising.

Politifact has a page on them (they have not gotten to this ad yet, though):

The Committee to Protect Florida is headed by Rockie Pennington, a political consultant for Richard Corcoran, a Republican candidate for State House District 45.

Corcoran, eh?  What’s he got to do with Brandes?

“I am honored to receive the endorsement of Richard Corcoran,” Jeff Brandes stated. “We worked hard during the 2010-2012 session to address the public’s desire to eliminate wasteful government spending and burdensome regulation. I will continue championing reforms in the State Senate that will boost small business and get Floridians working again.”

A major contributor to the Committee to Protect Florida is the Florida Leadership Fund, which has a very similar website and an even vaguer mission statement.  That gave to Brandes’s State House campaign in 2010, but now seems to be supporting his opponent, James Frishe, in the State Senate race.

Another contribution is Americana Media.  Which contributed web-design services, maybe?  They seem to specialize in blue websites for Florida politicians.

Committee to protect Florida is also supported by MARK PAC, which is where things get a bit weird:

Back in 2007, the Florida Elections Commission fined Democratic operatives Jeffery Ryan and Sara Henning a whopping $209,000 for  illegal financial dealings over several years through a political committee called Florida House Victory that had been set up to support Democratic candidates for the House.

This was all reported at the time. What got lost later was that Democratic Party lawyer Mark Herron—instead of Ryan or Henning—paid off the fine in two installments in Dec. 2007 and June 2008 through another political committee called MARK PAC, which drew its cash during the same periods from two Florida pari-mutuels, the Florida Police Benevolent Association, and health care giant Hospital Corporation of America (HCA). Democrats say there was nothing wrong with the arrangement, and insist the state party had nothing to do with House Victory or paying off the fines.

Anyways, there’s a lot going on here.  It’s amazing just how complicated political campaign funding has become in the US even at the state level.  A good thing to keep in mind as the 2012 presidential race accellerates to full velocity, with no one quite sure who’s behind the wheel.

Full Disclosure: I don’t work on autonomous vehicle technology, but some people at my company do.


The Robot Revolution


Idea #6: The history of the 21st century will be one of technological singularity and collapse.

More accurate:

The history of the 21st century will be shaped by, on the one hand, labor-saving technologies (with vast and unpredictable effects on society), and on the other hand, peaks in resource production and attendent problems in maintaining complex systems in the face of random disasters, demographic shifts, increasing population, and so on.

For now, let’s focus on the former.

The history of capitalism is one of labor displacement and capital accumulation.  Really expensive tools make increased productivity possible.  Only the rich can afford really expensive tools.  The way to get guaranteed access to work is to sell most of the product of your labor in exchange for access to such tools.  Those that don’t make the trade are out-competed.  The rich get richer.  The new unemployed (since productivity increases exceed demand increases (which are at least somewhat constrained by population increases, but that’s a whole other post)) end up in newer, cooler jobs made possible by the same sort of technological development.  Or so the story goes.

The question is what happens when the newly-created labor demand from technological development is less than the labor-displacement from technological development.  A related question:  What happens when labor saving technology just creates demand elsewhere for not labor but more labor saving technology?

Or: What happens when having your job outsourced to Chinese robots just creates jobs for more Chinese robots?  (The robots are also built by Chinese robots.  In China.)

I’d argue that the marginal cost of adding production through labor-saving technology has probably been lower than the marginal cost of labor in many areas of production for a while.  However, there were a few mitigating factors delaying the robot revolution.  Both have to do with “developing markets”.  First, there was the desire to expand quickly into new markets.  If hiring people is quicker than building more-automated factories, it might be better to do the former than let your competitors beat you to the punch.  Second, there was a desire to produce stuff in areas that didn’t have the infrastructure to support highly-automated production (especially since many of those areas have fewer regulations and lower labor costs).

I think that’s no longer the case.  The most promising developing markets are developed, first-to-market incentives are diminished (i.e. the resource grab is over).  Infrastructure development has also come a long way.  Hence stories like this.

I’m not the only one who’s noticed this trend:

A faltering economy explains much of the job shortage in America, but advancing technology has sharply magnified the effect, more so than is generally understood, according to two researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


During the last recession, the authors write, one in 12 people in sales lost their jobs, for example. And the downturn prompted many businesses to look harder at substituting technology for people, if possible. Since the end of the recession in June 2009, they note, corporate spending on equipment and software has increased by 26 percent, while payrolls have been flat.

Corporations are doing fine. The companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index are expected to report record profits this year, a total $927 billion, estimates FactSet Research. And the authors point out that corporate profit as a share of the economy is at a 50-year high.

Productivity growth in the last decade, at more than 2.5 percent, they observe, is higher than the 1970s, 1980s and even edges out the 1990s. Still the economy, they write, did not add to its total job count, the first time that has happened over a decade since the Depression.

They concluded on an optimistic note:

Yet computers, the authors say, tend to be narrow and literal-minded, good at assigned tasks but at a loss when a solution requires intuition and creativity — human traits. A partnership, they assert, is the path to job creation in the future.

But that misses both that many people are not capable of “intuition and creativity” jobs (at a high enough level to make a living at it) and, at any rate, that the demand for such jobs will never equal the previous demand for industrial-labor jobs.  Intuition and creativity don’t scale.

I expect this effect will also have a way of trickling up from industrial workers.  As everyone tries to avoid the industrial-work class if at all possible, the struggle for those “creative” jobs becomes more intense.  This analysis from Robert Cringley is telling:

In the near term how do we creatively respond to jobs going overseas? In the longer term what happens if Ray Kurzweil is correct and the Singularity rolls along in 2029 or so and humans suddenly become little more than parasites on a digital Earth?

The easy answer to this problem has been the same since the 1960s — become Paul McCartney. But how many Beatles can the world sustain?


Where you live counts as much as anything else, too, so position yourself in a city that has high serendipity.  Any kid living with his parents in Palo Alto can get a job today simply because he already has a place to live. No skills required.


Live in the coolest place, I tell Cole and his brothers. Have the coolest friends. Do the coolest things. Learn from everything you do. Be open to new opportunities. And do something your father hasn’t yet figured how to do, which is every few years take off 138 days and just walk the Earth. [emphasis mine]

Cringley takes an optimistic tone, but I find the content of his post rather grim.  He’s right.  Sure, there are some high-paying jobs that the robots can’t do for now, assuming that not too many others are trying to do the same thing.

But if you want to get into / stay in the middle class after the start of the robot revolution, you’d better be cool.  Have the right connections, be in the right place.  Hopefully have parents wealthy enough to facilitate that and smart enough to realize that it’s not about “job skills” anymore. Social skills are the new middle class job skills.  It’s hard to evaluate those “intuitive” and “creative” jobs, so appearances matter.  As the job search becomes more competitive, attributes not related to job performance matter more.

And be lucky (the repeated “serendipity”).  Maximize your opportunities to benefit from luck.  It’s all a gamble, victory goes to those who can roll (or rig) the most dice.

Hard enough for the middle class.  And for those not currently in the middle class, being either “cool” or “lucky” enough is going to be mighty tough.

Though angry may stil be an option.


When Labor is Obsolete

What happens when the entire world’s demand for goods and services can be satisfied by a fraction of the world’s population?

What happens when there are many people who can’t do any job more cheaply than a machine or robot?

Do either of the above questions relate to the concept of a “jobless recovery”?

(Musing mostly based on someone linking back to this post.  The title is an overstatement, obviously.)