[This is the addended transcript of my regular KVMR commentary broadcast on 17 December 2014.]
‘Our Best Days Lie Ahead.’ How many times have we heard some politician or public figure repeat those words into a microphone while looking at a sea of bright-eyed upturned faces? This claim is almost never backed up with anything but unwarranted hope that the future will be a reprise of the longed for yesteryear. And the speaker always leaves us with a feeling that such a future is inevitable, regardless of how we educate, employ, or allow ourselves to be governed (more here).
Looking back at the last two centuries, one can almost make the case for such ‘best days’. Two hundred years ago the industrial revolution was in full swing in Europe and America. New ways of doing things were constantly being invented, and technology had finally been set free from the scientist’s laboratory to firmly settle in the arena of business and enterprise. Capital began to displace labor, and new wealth began to be generated, as opposed to old wealth being inherited.
But in the early years of the last century there was a sea change in how new things began to arrive, both in their number and the impacted areas of everyday life. These new technological wonders not only displaced workers, but also replaced them in ways that the more limited intellects often had a harder time learning new skills required to earn enough to maintain their quality of lives. More and more were forced to sell their labor at lower wages or begin accepting government dole to make ends meet.
Capital that purchased and installed technology was replacing labor on all fronts as the 20th century wore on. By the middle of the century computers were invented, and wages started becoming more and more unequal as the smarter workers were able to use smarter machines to produce more and give better services. The fraction of permanently unemployed working age people began to grow along with government and its multiplying programs of wealth redistribution. Economists began advising us that the ‘average was over’, and sociologists observed that, as a society, we were ‘coming apart’. The lower skilled workers were literally being herded into an ever tighter circle of simple jobs that required human vision, speech, and manipulation of things that machines had yet to learn.
And as machines became smarter, they also started replacing many middle and upper level jobs that were the traditional sinecure of the white collar worker (more here). All the while products and services became ever more abundant and less costly as the ranks of the replaced workers in developed countries continue to grow. Governments had no solutions for the un- and underemployed except to increase taxes, print, borrow, and redistribute while income disparities grew and technology continued to accelerate.
Last week a team of research engineers in Norway announced the development of a robot that can autonomously remove the breast fillet from a chicken carcass, and do it faster, more efficiently, and cheaper than a human worker (more here). Automating such a task is earth shaking, and it has been completely missed by the people we still call journalists. The punchline here is that when machines can remove breast fillets, then they can do a million other jobs that are today the shaky employment redoubt of the under-skilled and the untrainable. In sum, one huge and new area of jobs will now be quietly eliminated with a societal impact that we have yet to fathom.
I leave you now to meditate on the nature of the ‘best days’ that we are told are just ahead, and perhaps a few of years from now you might just remember this little commentary.
My name is Rebane, and I also expand on this and related themes on georgerebane.com where an addended transcript of this commentary is posted with relevant links, and where such critical issues are debated extensively. However my views are not necessarily shared by KVMR. Thank you for listening.
[Addendum] More to be said about the portents of the Norwegian chicken fillet robot. To have created such a robot that outperforms a chicken processing plant worker requires the integration of several fields of AI and robotics. A chicken carcass is a complex and gooey object with many hidden and discoverable parts. The robot’s vision system must first be capable not only of advanced image processing, but more importantly of ‘image understanding’ – it must know what it is looking at during the various phases of first being presented with the chicken, to finally having taken it apart and extracted the required breast fillets.
The robot must also have dexterous and capable manipulanda (aka hands) that can handle the chicken in such a way as to excise the needed parts and leave the rest sufficiently intact for subsequent removal and processing of its other parts. Such manipulanda will also require the integration of ‘touch’ (formally called haptics) which involves sophisticated feedback of normal and shear forces, and also surface texture as it handles the chicken.
There is more (e.g. integration/handling of tools), but let’s here jump to the robot’s AI brain. This part consists of sophisticated algorithms (rules for sequentially performing subtasks) and a supervisory part that dynamically learns and adapts the robot’s perceptions and actions as each new chicken is presented to it. This is not the place to go into greater detail on the robot’s cognitive apparatus, but you can be certain that it is very sophisticated. Just attempt to analyze (break apart) all the ‘things’ that a human worker, given a chicken carcass, must be able to quickly do.
So now, dear reader, we can leave behind the slimy chicken carcass rendered of its breast muscles, and contemplate the entire class of tasks/jobs in which such robots will be capable of outperforming human workers. Start with agricultural stoop labor tending and harvesting field crops – an area about which I became intimately familiar during my teen years in Indiana. One of the most demanding of such jobs is ‘cutting’ asparagus that needs to be done with agility, great accuracy, and speed since you are excising today’s harvest of spears from the harvests of the next several days yet to come which you dare not damage. The described robot in an appropriate configuration will easily out cut several human laborers.
From there we may go into areas of precision assembly of things like small appliances still performed by human hands. And from there we can envision all types of food preparation being done by such robots. If that is not enough, imagine the maintenance of automotive engines and equipments. And on and on. These are all jobs accessible to and still in the purview of human hands powered by not the brightest bulbs on the tree.
Of course, we have only been talking about the progress of the pre-Singularity years in which we live. At this point we don’t even have to continue the debate on the Singularity itself, although it is beginning to get more and more traction in the public forum as scientists from various fields start to understand that the probability of peer and super-human machine intelligence is increasing daily. And there the discussion becomes murky because by the definition of a singularity, our fate as a species in the post-Singularity is unknown.
The salutary post-Singularity outcome is that H. Sapiens and machines will in some way meld into a new species of intelligence (more here). Without that, coexistence in such an environment ranges between hard to envisage and unthinkable. More and more internationally recognized people ranging from physicists like Stephen Hawking to philosophers like Nick Bostrom are beginning to contemplate disturbing post-Singularity dystopias as the most likely dark night into which humans will disappear (more here). An illuminating read about pre-Singularity strategies that our species should contemplate is exhaustively delineated in Bostrom’s latest dissertation, Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. (I recommend it only to the most dedicated of students interested in a set of future contingencies that I personally consider moot, and plan to discuss in an upcoming post.)
So there’s a future coming that is NOTHING like the past from which our politicians of all stripe hope to dust off and retrieve policies that will keep a chicken in every pot, a car in every garage, and a living wage job for everyone willing to work. That you can take to the bank in this last great century of Man.