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20 May 2012


Douglas Keachie

Keep in mind that while math is very useful for inventing, and great deal of it went on and is still going on at the hands of inventors who don't know as much as certain folks here would like them to.


"To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk." ~Thomas Edison~

Of course the more tools you have at hand, the more likely you are to be able to choose the most efficient path:

"He had no hobby, cared for no sort of amusement of any kind and lived in utter disregard of the most elementary rules of hygiene. [...] His method was inefficient in the extreme, for an immense ground had to be covered to get anything at all unless blind chance intervened and, at first, I was almost a sorry witness of his doings, knowing that just a little theory and calculation would have saved him 90% of the labor. But he had a veritable contempt for book learning and mathematical knowledge, trusting himself entirely to his inventor's instinct and practical American sense.[51]
—Nikola Tesla

Douglas Keachie

Dimming the lights brings new meaning to the concept of the cyber-electric chair.

George Rebane

DougK 102pm - actually, today Thomas Edison's observation about what is needed to invent is more than a bit dated. ALMOST ALL intellectual property that is protected by patents today has its underpinnings in the inventor's firm understanding of math.


With Charles Steinmetz and Nicoli Tesla on the payroll, Edison didn't need to know much math.

Ryan Mount

Watson could really help business and the government make better decisions based on evidence and factual data. Also Watson doesn't formulate questions, which a curious human activity.

I think healthcare is a smart fit for this technology to aid doctors. Watson could scan entire studies in seconds. It's like Siri on Apple's iPhone, but more useful and much less vain.

It would also be interesting to point Watson at government bureaucracies.


George Rebane

RyanM 934am - IBM has recently been running full page ads in the WSJ re Watson's successors and their future roles in all areas of human activity. The clear role that they outline is for Watson++ to be the expert in a given knowledge domain, and efficiently provide this expertise to its human counterpart. The broader implication is not covered in these ads for obvious reasons - what are the qualifications required of humans who will work with such machines, and how does this lift the bar for human employment?


Ryan Mount

> what are the qualifications required of humans who will work with such machines, and how does this lift the bar for human employment

The question is broader than that, and answered by Marshal McLuhan 45 years ago. What is the role of technology in the human condition. Mr. McLuhan maintained that they were literally extensions of our bodies and nervous system. A hammer is the extension of the hand*. The light bulb, his most famous target, was an extension of our eyes. Suddenly we could watch baseball at night or operate indoors.

Watson and other related technologies seem no different than that in context. Watson in a medical context is a tool, or extension if you're feeling all fuzzy-McLuhan-ie, that allows doctors to scan thousands of studies, diagnoses, charts, MRIs, etc. in an instant.

So how, pray tel, could that be a bad thing? Watson doesn't kill people, people will kill people. But with Watson around, I'm guessing the long game will mostly benefit us. Does this mean we don't need doctors? Hardly. We might need less of them or fewer specialists maybe. I dunno. I'm just guessing here.

*And yes, McLuhan was kinda spacey. But very interesting in calming our fears (well, at least mine) or an impending invasion from Skynet.

George Rebane

RyanM 1155am - McLuhan was more than "kinda spacey", and totally wrong on the implications of machines like Watson. Yes, they will be, for a while, "extensions of our bodies and nervous systems", but extensions of much fewer bodies and nervous systems. And after that they will be autonomous, even before the Singularity.

Our best efforts in these debates should be directed toward what kind of wealth redistribution policies will be conducive to wealth creation, as the future Watsons disenfranchise more and more Americans in the competitive labor markets. The socialists of today don't have a clue.

Douglas Keachie

Skynet is here already, just under a different name, Facebook:


And in praise of STEM and Mathematics, we have Michael DeGrasse Tyson:

MDeGrasseTyson copy

Douglas Keachie

"The socialists of today don't have a clue." and neither do the capitalists, and unless they work together the whole thing is headed towards the flooded creek in a Hummer that just doesn't have enough clearance to make it all the way across, even on momentum.

Ryan Mount

I'm not sure how Watson and others are any different than the printing press; a printing press that can "think" what we allow/tell it to think. Or think* about the sum total things we've already thought about. Or think about the sum total of all of the things we have thought, remixed into things we should be thinking about.

OMG. My head hurts.

It is certainly can be a disruptive technology, but I see that as a good thing. If it disenfranchises some workers, as the printing press did, as the automobile did, as the robotic arm did, so what? Be must be brave, smart and march forward.

Unless you're worried about having to pay for all of this new "leisure" time created for a new class of unemployed workers. My guess is this plot wouldn't even make it into a Michael Moore film. I mean, who's gonna want to pay to see Sam Worthington as an out of work CT Scan tech waiting the unemployment line? Wait...the ladies will. Scratch that.

However, let me put my money where my mouth is. If I had to choose between a doctor who used Watson and one who didn't, I would choose the Doctor Watson, errrr, doctor without much thought.

* we have no idea what it means to "think" about things. Maybe I should go back to church.

George Rebane

RyanM 1242pm - the big deal about these pre-Singularity years is that they are systemically different from your examples of 'printing press' and the 'automobile'. These and all similar examples of technological advance did not disenfranchise any workers; they simply compelled them to go look for a different job that was compatible with the new technology or its collateral derivatives. This is no longer possible for the growing proportion of workers. Their new jobs (if any) will be of the low skill/low pay kind.

This is not the case with Watson et al. And the fact that intelligent readers like you don't see this makes the coming brave new world even more socially volatile. An indicator that you can monitor to judge the truth of my words is the country's unemployment rate and the rising fraction of age-appropriate people who no longer seek work.

Combine this 'whammy' with that of polarized ideologies - cf DougK's 1230pm - where another large tranche of voters have not even a rudimentary understanding of economics, and we have the makings of a perfect 'double whammy' of a storm.

Your bet on selecting a MAM (machine amplified man) doctor is a correct one (even if the man happens to be a woman).

Douglas Keachie

So basically George, you are saying the economy is an unsolvable problem, from the standpoint of Americans as a whole? You seem to waffle back and forth on this, on the one hand claiming that free markets will solve it all, and on the other making statements like your 1:22.

Obama gave a bean and a football to each of the world leaders in Chicago. There's got to be some humor coming out of that.

Obama stayed in a Chicago hotel, despite being less than 15 minutes from his house, "too much traffic."

Ryan Mount

> they simply compelled them to go look for a different job that was compatible with the new technology or its collateral derivatives.

That's a matter of perspective. Certainly literate Monks in the late middle ages, while not keen on standing in employment lines, certainly grumbled when Gutenberg rolled out his Bible. Not to mention spot welders in Automobile factories.

I do understand this Singularity stuff, but I am not convinced that these super-intelligent technologies are going to be any kind of existential threat to us. Nor am I convinced that this conjecture that machines will pass us is nothing more than Science Fiction. If machines automate (that is, replace) us because we are inefficient, that would result in massive unemployment and decreased demand. That would reduce our incentive to have such machines because they're not good for us. Are microwave ovens better because they're faster? The answer is YES. And NO. Yes for reheating your coffee, but absolutely horrible for pulled pork.

If these Singularity stuff is indeed true, to be blunt, is there much we can do about it anyway other than attending Asilomar conferences and evoking Asimov? Do no harm. Maybe we're doomed. I don't think so.

George Rebane

One more time, "Our best efforts in these debates should be directed toward what kind of wealth redistribution policies will be conducive to wealth creation, as the future Watsons disenfranchise more and more Americans in the competitive labor markets." DougK doesn't seem to understand this path, and RyanM isn't convinced that there will even be a problem.

Perhaps with such priors as DougK's 201pm, again attempting to put words in my mouth, his conclusion then will come true - "... the economy is an unsolvable problem, ...".

Ryan Mount

> RyanM isn't convinced that there will even be a problem.

That's right. Or I'm skeptical which is probably a better way of hedging my position. I think the market will fix it if we don't ruin this crack house we call Earth first.

Douglas Keachie

Did you miss the question mark at the end of:

"So basically George, you are saying the economy is an unsolvable problem, from the standpoint of Americans as a whole?"

Having 275 million unemployed is not particularly conducive to either wealth creation or wealth retention. No tax payers equals infrastructure totally falling apart, including the streets and roads needed to get items to market.

George Rebane

DougK 611pm - I thought I responded to that in my 212pm. Nowhere have I talked about "having 275 million unemployed" which first of all implies that the US population must have a population of at least 550M people. It's hard to take such comments seriously. But today's 40M under/unemployed will definitely grow to 70M by 2020 given the state and direction of our public education system. We been around that barn a hundred times in these pages.

But what you and yours don't seem to grasp is that GDP can continue to grow at around 3% for the next 20 years with fewer and fewer workers. If the feds keep taxing at its historical 18% rate, and the lower jurisdictions follow suit, then the wealth will be there to be taxed and provide the revenues to keep the infrastructure intact. The problem will be 1) more people who need transfer payments, and 2) social unrest because people will not take kindly to sitting on their butts waiting for the monthly check to come rolling in.

Therefore, providing fulfilling work will be the problem. The socialist solution would be for them to do the moral equivalent of digging holes by hand while looking at a backhoe sitting idle (rusting?) nearby. That will not work either - people aren't built like that. But the only ones concerned about this situation is a few of us techie conservetarians. I can guarantee you that Rep McClintock and think-alikes don't even see such a future in the offing.

(Damn, I'm tired of going around this circle over and over again with the same questions asked that were discussed here almost five years ago. Can't we take the next step and someone make a suggestion as to what we can do to provide jobs that don't even have to be wealth generating, only fulfilling enough to keep social order? Instead, we go back to square one. If you don't agree with the prognosis I offer, then offer a more likely one that doesn't involve the effects of accelerating technology.)

Ryan Mount

Those of that are working as knowledge workers are productive. And we are more productive because of technology, notably the gains made in communication infrastructure investments by both the public and private interests since we entered the Information Age.

I'm not convinced that there is going to be a watershed moment when our machines pass us and start working on their own efficiency agenda separate from humanity, but I take your point very seriously that technological advances are disenfranchising the feeble minded.

    “The future masters of technology will have to be light-hearted and intelligent. The machine easily masters the grim and the dumb."- Marshal McLuhan

Again, McLuhan is appropriate here. (BTW, us GenXers invented Marshal McLuhan as our patron saint). Anyhow, what to do with these masses of these growing under-skilled and frankly stubborn workers?

In the 1980s we had to suffer through scores of popular songs mourning the fate of the factory worker. We even had movies like Norma Rae. And as she was holding up her "Union" sign, executives where busy planning their factory moves to Central America.

In the 1990s, we cashed in on our information highway investments, so thankfully no songs or movies. We did have Michael Moore to content who chronicled much of the Heartland outsourcing of commodity labor in his film "The Big One." But no one really noticed or cared becase by the late 90s, we were too busy getting fat and were filled with economic hubris.

Come the 2000s and the automation gains crept into more nominal white collar jobs. That's when the complaining really started to happen. Although factory work had left our shores decades before, now desk jobs could be moved in a few weeks. As I've complained elsewhere, I find the American Left profoundly hypocritical here. They'll march on Washington to get help for third world countries with Rice and George Clooney aid, yet when those countries' middle classes rise and demand an American lifestyle, and then can do our jobs at a lower cost, screw them. There's only one conclusion we can draw: yes feed them, but don't educate them. Let's keep them as pets.

The OWS crowd, IMO is more a complaint about vanishing comfort, privilege and entitlement of the middle class that they enjoyed post WWII. You'll actually hear this in the rhetoric like Ben Emery (whom I admire): return to single parent incomes, more leisure, more social security (used in the abstract, not the actual program), etc. And don't we all want that?

So yeah, Born in the USA was a song we could empathize with in our Blaupunkt stereos installed into our boxy, yet safe Volvos. But it was a distant, liberal worry for many of us on the coasts. Not anymore except for innovation centers of the Bay Area and a few spots around the USA.

Now what does this approaching Singularity mean? As I said above, I'm not convinced that there is going to be such a Skynet event. So it's not an event in my mind, but a trajectory and a process. It represents an evolution rather than a revolution of our tools. And I read it as even more automation, which in turn will lead to even more displacement as we learn to let machine do more of the work for us. And what that means for the labor force? It means, at least in my estimation that people should not get to used to having a career in one place. They need to be super flexible (mobile in the figurative and literal sense of that) and well versed on a broad variety of disciplines. Or, in rare cases, extraordinarily specialized in very specific subject matter areas that can neither be automated, nor readily turned into a commodity.

George Rebane

RyanM 1204pm - Good comment. There's no need to accept the Singularity at all in these discussions; the pre-Singularity effect is already all around us and impacting everything as you indicated. I do have to take another swipe at your patron saint though, the machines now match and exceed 'intelligence' in any knowledge domain you care to mention. Many things have not been done by Man for some years now (e.g. physical design of microchips), and more complex tasks (e.g. medical diagnoses, prognostication on course of diseases, and prescriptions of care) are being delegated to machines with every passing day. And yes, they still do "the grim and the dumb", and also windows(sic).

Douglas Keachie

275,000,000 was poetic exaggeration. 70 million, however, is no laughing matter. That's near one out of every to workers willing to work, no?

Douglas Keachie


Ryan Mount

As an admitted apologist for McLuhan, I take your criticisms of him seriously and with respect. McLuhan had many faults, like most thinkers. Notably, he suffered from reductionism and absolute and circular rhetoric. But it made for great quotes.

I think we are in a quasi-agreement about the outcomes of intelligent machines on some points:

1) it will/can dramatically disenfranchise labor (it already has)

2) the disenfranchisement of the labor force will create some significant social challenges (we're kinda already there, or at least in the dress rehearsal phase of it)

3) the "solutions" to such challenges are varied and depending on one's perspective. Currently we seem to have a couple of ideological camps: one where they believe good work is a collective entitlement/right (I'm choosing my words carefully here), and one who believes that the onus of this falls onto the individual, independent of the collective.

Where we differ I think, or have a gentleman's disagreement is the end game here. I believe market forces will play a huge factor in determining the role of automation in our lives. And I think it's a simple demand equation. If the machines do not increase our productivity and frankly our standard of living, what use are they? And if they impact our lifestyles in such a way as to decrease demand, it seems to me that said automation is harmful to humans, and must be effectively and assertively "turned off."

However our current demand problems are not due to automation in the way we're discussing here. They're multifaceted. Certainly the effects of automation have lowered the standard of living for, um, lower skilled workers. And process automation for the middle classes takes the form of outsourcing. However we have significant capital problems that are not linked to automation. Rather automation is exacerbating these issues, and not causal.

George Rebane

RyanM 110pm - thank you, now we're talking about the real problem of how technology (your 'automation') will be disposed in our society or how it will dispose itself.

We cannot disenfranchise a major segment of humanity just because they have become 'obsolete' to some imposed/exogenous order. They will not tolerate it - I know I wouldn't. One's perceived relevance is perhaps the penultimate dictator of how one's environment is accepted. I believe that a person who finds himself irrelevant to the order of things will seek a new order with his feet or with fire - and the choice here is easy because there is nowhere to go.

Ryan Mount

I choose the word "automation" deliberately because I believe machine real and virtual are supposed to service us and not the other way around.

I prefer to keep my examples as concrete as possible. Do we need bank tellers anymore? The ATM machine is completely capable of managing our banking requirements.

Technology has this way of disintermediating (removing) the middle man. I think it's perfectly appropriate to use this as an analog for our future more aggressive automation.

What do we do with teenagers when we automate McDonalds? Or IBMers like me who are subject to the analysis and productivity of Watson?

Is that what you're asking? And if it is, then I have my answer for you: I'll just farm the land and live off the grid. Which can be done here. Why don't I do that now? My country needs me to pay for that 50% who aren't working. It's my duty.

But what about the family living in the relatively dense suburb of Walnut Creek, CA? Can they sow Victory Gardens in their backyards and power their lights with solar energy? I dunno.

George Rebane

RyanM 243pm - I think we're flying in tight formation as far as our perception of the problem. Your solution of going off the grid is problematic. And that's not because of your ample talents, but because of the people who cannot do so. They will come to share your essentials when you least expect them.

The current solution is for government to act as the employer of last resort. Enough regulatory burdens will be imposed to require legions of unemployables to monitor and enforce and punish the non-compliant ones (cf. Agenda21). And as always, these govt employees will work with great zeal, for they know they have no where else to go. This probably is the worst solution, but that is all that our politicians seem to have in mind for the redundants.

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