Tag Archive for innovation

Robots Will Waste You

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I couldn’t really run a blog called Future Economy if I didn’t love talking about robots. Well, over the last several days, my RSS feed was like Shark Week for radical econ geeks.

Humans as Wasted Capital

First up, Frances Coppola with an interesting commentary on “The Wastefulness of Automation”. If it’s just dawning on you that the perpetual automation game is rigged against working people, you can go through some of the phases of grief with Coppola (though, to her credit, I think she doesn’t make it past “bargaining” here).

It starts out on an odd note for someone as highly schooled in economics as Coppola:

But what if capitalists DON’T want a large labour supply? What if automation means that what capitalists really want is a very small, highly skilled workforce to control the robots that do all the work? What if paying people enough to live on simply is not cost-effective compared to the running costs of robots?

First thing’s first. A large labor supply means lots of people willing and able to work. The more of them available, the cheaper they’ll sell their hours. Of course capitalists want a large labor supply — they get to pick and choose from that supply which ones can come off the 95% unemployment list.

But Coppola struck on the core conundrum — the contradiction hopefully keeping the worst-conceivable future off the table. Do capitalists want a large, active workforce?

If only a small number of people can afford to buy the products produced by all these robots, then unless there is a vibrant export market for those products – which requires the majority of people in other countries to be doing rather better than merely surviving on a basic subsistence income – producers have a real problem.

Okay, well, phew — capitalists will always need us workers. Problem averted, right?

Coppola notes the current trend of automation happening in middle-skilled office jobs, where labor is costly enough that automation is most attractive, while automating the lowest-skilled jobs is of lesser priority to the cost-cutting capitalist happy to pay slave wages for picking and skinning, maybe even lifting and sorting.

But we can’t lose sight of the reason “white collar” jobs pay more; it is because the people in the market for those jobs have comparative bargaining power. It is not because the jobs themselves are more valuable, or have a marginal advantage to the purchase of labor, compared to lower-paying jobs. They’re just more costly due to irrational market forces.

Therefore, such jobs are worth spending more to eliminate.

If the future is that the majority of people will do unskilled, insecure jobs for very low wages, then this amounts to a shocking waste of human capital. And if the more distant future is that even these jobs will eventually be automated, and working for a living will become the privilege of a few, then it is an even bigger waste.

Well, no. Under capitalism, human resources are only “wasted” if they could otherwise be put to better use. There has to be an opportunity cost to their disuse. In the dread scenario Coppola lays out, it’s not clear all this excess potential could do anything the capitalists would value. And since capitalists in the scenario have nearly all the demand power (not just an insanely disproportionate share, as now), who else would capitalism dictate has the prerogative to be valued? Who would a skilled worker be to argue that her talents and passion are being “wasted”?

In these conditions, a “waste of human capital” would be someone who could outwork a robot for wages amounting to less than the cost of the droid’s inputs but who, by some accident, doesn’t get put on the assembly line working shoulder-to-shoulder with X9-5R112. What a shame, the capitalist would think if he ever learned of the case. But someone who can make great art or engineer a way to feed the poor is of no value in this scenario if they can’t do it in a way that makes money for capitalists.

That skilled worker withering away in a tomato patch is only a “problem” if you’re unfortunate enough to possess morals that suggest human suffering is somehow wrong, per se. It is demonstrably not something markets can be bothered by.

Crucially, this isn’t some “Egads! There’s a flaw!” aberration of capitalism. This is one of the market’s more elegant features, if you set aside the hardship blah blah blah. It’s what you get when you put your faith in a system that values people precisely for their ability to (1) invest capital, (2) consume products, or (3) produce valuable goods and services at market rate. What else would you expect?

If you have no money and can’t compete with robots, according to capitalism you’re not a “waste of human capital”; you’re a waste of carbon and water. Coppola can’t seem to get over this shocking notion that capitalism has this built-in anti-sanity attribute:

A labour market that is skewed towards unskilled jobs when the workforce is more highly skilled and educated is malfunctioning. People who are in the wrong jobs are less productive than they should be: therefore, when most of the workforce is in the wrong job, we inevitably have an economy that is less productive than it should be.

No. What you’re actually seeing is that markets don’t care about your skills. And they’re not supposed to. That’s not their job! You either outwork a robot while matching its obedience and loyalty, all while asking for less… or you can go rot in a gutter. At best, you can go do something that’s not yet cost-effective to automate. Oh, and don’t forget, the capitalist gets to keep the robot’s wages; you’ll probably get all selfish and only give your wages back to him in exchange for some kind of commodity or service.

Now, the quote above about the labor market “malfunctioning” if it is “skewed towards unskilled jobs when the workforce is more highly skilled and educated” is true about an economy if and only if you believe an economy’s mandate is to take care of human needs. But it is not true of a market, which has the mandate of moving products to sources of demand. You ask for an invisible hand, you don’t get to whine or call it a “malfunction” when it predictably turns into a fist and squashes you and everyone you love the way it’s been abusing so many for so long.

Robots don’t eliminate jobs; markets do.

Cartoon by Carol Simpson - Robots gather for employee empowerment seminar

Coppola’s revelations continue:

Looking ahead, the only way in which such extensive outright subsidy of wages can be sustained in the longer term is through heavy taxation of profits and wealth – which rather undermines the purpose of forcing down labour costs, from capitalists’ point of view.

Exactly. The capitalists’ only choice would be to pay people just to buy stuff. As neat as that might be for a dystopian novel setting, there’s a flaw in the concept: it would be way more sensible for them to pay robots to buy stuff. Why bother with consumer markets when you can program demand? (Everywhere you look, those damn robots…)

Anyway, we know this isn’t a practical scenario. So Coppola tries to bring us back to reality:

It seems to me that providing people with a reasonable income while they find or create for themselves the right job (not just any job), or to enable them to do creative and/or socially useful things that are currently unpaid, or to study and develop new skills, might be a good investment for the future, improving the productivity of human capital which over the longer term benefits the economy.

This is certainly the right general attitude to have about the future. But then you have to stop using the term “human capital”. As long as humans are capital, their “productivity” will be measured by the value of their output in the market. Only sounds about two-thirds insane… until you remember: robots. And then continuing to advocate markets sounds three-thirds insane.

You also have to rethink what it means to serve an economy. If the mandate of the economy is to produce goods and services for anything with demand power, there’s no way that “benefiting the economy” means “benefiting society”.

How They’ll Do it to Us

Martin Ford of EconoFuture blog is on a similar tip, but he’s been thinking hard about this issue for a very long time, and is probably the leading harbinger of the very real possibility that hyper-automation will create structural unemployment, with predictable shock waves throughout economies. Ford’s latest contribution is a primer on just how contemporary automation may encroach more permanently on the workforce.

Of course, people have cried wolf about technological developments throughout the modern era, yet from prior periods of egg-cracking disruption, omelets have usually emerged. So what’s different now?

Well, what if innovations started targeting more and more costly lines of work, as Ms. Coppola noted above? What if they started doing creative work? What if they start innovating, even upgrading themselves? Would that be fundamentally different from the steam engine? (Yes. Yes it would.)

Ford notes that the trend of automation is to replace routine functions carried out by workers. We see this everywhere. Workers welcome it when it means making their job a little easier — sometimes to their own peril down the line. Now innovators are seeking to automate more complex forms of routines.

Our definition of what constitutes a “routine” job is by no means static. At one time, the jobs at risk from automation were largely confined to the assembly line. … Machine learning … is in essence a way to use statistical analysis of historical data to transform seemingly non-routine tasks into routine operations that can be computerized. As progress continues, it seems certain that more and more jobs and tasks will move from the “non-routine” column to the “routine” column, and as a result, an ever-increasing share of work will become susceptible to automation.

So what are the implications for you and me?

Rather than simply acquiring new skills and moving to another routine job, workers will have to instead migrate to an occupation that is genuinely non-routine and therefore protected from automation—and they may have to do this rapidly and repeatedly in order to remain ahead of the advancing frontier.

Okay, but my job can’t be automated, you say… Well,

Lawyers and paralegals have been displaced by e-discovery software that can rapidly determine which electronic documents are relevant to court cases. More routine forms of journalism—such as basic sports and business writing—have been successfully automated.

If you’re starting to wonder if anybody is safe from the rise of the robots…

Not Brain Surgery, Right?

I imagine if I were a brain surgeon, I’d have trouble believing I could be replaced by a machine, even as I bragged about the jaw-dropping technological innovations being made in my field.

So I’m going to excuse the limits of Dr. Garnette Sutherland’s inability to see the writing on the wall as he regales us with stories of new and near-future technologies that are revolutionizing neurosurgery.

My favorite line is this:

What robots lack is the human brain’s executive capacity. Given that comprehending – and reacting appropriately to – the immense number of variables that can arise during surgery would require enormous computing power, surgical robots aim to integrate human experience and decision-making ability with mechanized accuracy.

Yeah, good luck with that, Doc. Neurosurgery will be a prime target for automation. Of course computers have an executive capacity; try playing one in Backgammon, Chess, or Texas Hold’em. If in the middle of a surgery, a not-yet-programmed decision needs to get made, the on-call surgeon will be able to cover several robot surgeries at once. Maybe several hundred. From across the Internet.

And talk about high-cost routines! Before the good doctor knows it, robots will be explaining how the human brain utterly lacks the capacity to aggregate the compound experiences of multiple units (in real time, no less!), and how its error rate is N times that of robots, and how it can only perform one surgery at a time, and how it needs to sleep and play golf, and go to conferences, and… you get the point.

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Capitalism Makes Us Sick

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I often enjoy reading Harvard economist Kenneth Rogoff’s commentaries. He strikes me as someone who kind of “gets it” about capitalism but who is unable, for whatever reason, to draw the logical conclusions. The final paragraphs of his column entries that point to some serious flaw in capitalist economic arrangements are almost always anticlimactic disappointments.

His latest piece, a brief exposé of how capitalist forces contribute to bad diets and poor health titled “Coronary Capitalism”, serves as a great example of his unsatisfying lessons. The piece starts off digging into an important economic matter. After noting that decreased life expectancy is bad for economic growth, he explains that making people fat and sick is probably a net boon to the economy, all aspects considered. Here’s the nut:

Highly processed corn-based food products, with lots of chemical additives, are well known to be a major driver of weight gain, but, from a conventional growth-accounting perspective, they are great stuff. Big agriculture gets paid for growing the corn (often subsidized by the government), and the food processors get paid for adding tons of chemicals to create a habit-forming – and thus irresistible – product. Along the way, scientists get paid for finding just the right mix of salt, sugar, and chemicals to make the latest instant food maximally addictive; advertisers get paid for peddling it; and, in the end, the health-care industry makes a fortune treating the disease that inevitably results.

Coronary capitalism is fantastic for the stock market, which includes companies in all of these industries. Highly processed food is also good for jobs, including high-end employment in research, advertising, and health care.

So, who could complain? Certainly not politicians, who get re-elected when jobs are plentiful and stock prices are up – and get donations from all of the industries that participate in the production of processed food. Indeed, in the US, politicians who dared to talk about the health, environmental, or sustainability implications of processed food would in many cases find themselves starved of campaign funds.

Okay, all of this rings true. But doesn’t it sound like the problem is pretty deep? Doesn’t the problem even seem inherent to capitalism?

Not for an economist steeped in the religion of markets — “free” or otherwise. For these cats, the market — regulated or not — has to form the basis of any solution to an economic problem… even when the market causes the problem in the first place. Rogoff is so conventional in his mindset, he seems to think market forces are actually an excuse for problems, rather than ever being able to draw the conclusion that markets are the problem. Look at the way he almost gives food pricing a pass:

True, market forces have spurred innovation, which has continually driven down the price of processed food, even as the price of plain old fruits and vegetables has gone up. That is a fair point, but it overlooks the huge market failure here.

[emphasis added]

Let’s explore the first sentence, which is so strangely structured as to imply that lowering food prices through subsidies, monocropping, and over-processing is a positive in any way — like, cheap food = good, so it counts for something. But let’s give Rogoff the benefit of the doubt. I think it’s fair to define “innovation” as developments that make something more economically efficient or profitable but not necessarily “better”. Still, I’d bet most people think of innovation as inherently “good”. It would make sense to take pause here and consider that in capitalism, innovation is something that helps capitalists. It may incidentally help workers, but usually it does not. And it doesn’t necessarily help consumers at all; it might even harm them. So finding cheaper ways to get junk food out to people is an innovation — one that is killing us.

But Rogoff acknowledges the “market failure” — so why am I picking on him for allegedly not recognizing that markets are the failure? Am I just nit-picking? Rogoff goes on:

… [P]roducers have few incentives to internalize the costs of the environmental damage that they cause. Likewise, consumers have little incentive to internalize the health-care costs of their food choices.

As far as I can discern, producers have no incentives to internalize the costs of environmental damage of their economic activity. I would love to see Rogoff’s list of the few incentives he thinks they do have. But where is this division coming from, concerning who has what incentives to internalize “externality” costs? This divide between producer and consumer is very real in our society, but how unimaginitive does an economist have to be — or how logically manipulative — to divvy up who bears what costs of bad economic behavior? Rogoff seems to be suggesting, by implication, that producers should have to internalize environmental costs and consumers should have to internalize health care costs of bad agricultural, food-processing, and dietary practices. Consumers somehow aren’t responsible for the production of their food, and producers aren’t responsible for the consumption of their goods (even though previously he notes that advertising is a significant force in the equation). This is the best analysis a conventionally “progressive” orientation on economics produces: bizarre, irrational surface conclusions drawn about a system that is fundamentally flawed at its core.

So what are Rogoff’s disappointing, vague, intangible suggestions for addressing the latest problem he has rightfully (if not rightly) exposed? Well, you can bet he will suggest reforming the “pathological regulatory-political-economic dynamic that characterizes” the food industry, for starters. It isn’t the market, you see; it’s our failure to regulate that pesky rascal. Indeed, Rogoff insists,

We need to develop new and much better institutions to protect society’s long-run interests.

That’s the only sentence we get on the matter, so we’re left to presume he’s talking about regulating bodies of some sort, to rein in the market, or manipulate it so that it works the way centuries-old magic-imbued dogmas suggest it should… you know, intervene to make markets do what they’re supposed to do precisely as long as we don’t intervene.

But even this cop-out directive comes with a familiar warning.

Of course, the balance between consumer sovereignty and paternalism is always delicate. But we could certainly begin to strike a healthier balance than the one we have by giving the public far better information across a range of platforms, so that people could begin to make more informed consumption choices and political decisions.

And that’s it. It’s all he offers. I don’t know Rogoff so I won’t presume to know what goes on in his mind, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the constraints of a neoclassical economics education, a current gig at Harvard, and a couple of stints at the IMF, have limited Rogoff’s imagination so that he can’t fathom there might be another way to manage production, consumption, and allocation in a modern society. Standard forms of centrally planning are too “paternal” to consider; I’d agree with that. And I’d even suggest that having a thoroughly undemocratic government like the United States republic intervene to coerce policy in a major sector of the economy would be rashly paternalistic, with mixed and confusing impact.

So what does that leave us with? Oh, if only there was a way to plan production, consumption, and allocation in a democratic manner, averting the paternalism problem altogether. Information for consumers is indeed a good start. But short of people actually organizing in their dual capacities as consumers and producers, let’s not pretend we can change much just by making smarter purchases. The idea of using the blunt instrument that is “voting with our dollars” to affect the agricultural and manufacturing policies of the handful of conglomerates that dominate our food supply is just plain ridiculous. Change will require collective action to tear down existing institutions and replace them with a foundation of alternatives.

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The Robot Invasion

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Okay, I know I like to talk about robots, especially to ask where the innovation/productivity dividend is for the workforce. While we’re waiting for that to pay off, check out this infographic from the Singularity Hub.

the rise of robotic labor in the workforce

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Bring on the Robots; Death to the Robots

Terminator Robot
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The subject of automation and innovation — especially their effects on labor and productivity — is one I’ve spent a lot of time pondering and researching. The issue is gaining renewed, much-deserved traction lately.

The matter boils down to productivity increases, and why in a sane economy they would be good for workers writ large, but in market capitalism they are not. As economist Tim Jackson (Prosperity Without Growth) put it recently:

We are caught in a productivity trap. While it generates wealth, productivity also generates unemployment.

We’ll hear more of Jackson’s critical ideas in the future, but for now I want to implore you to check out a piece called “Debtmaggedon vs. the Robot Utopia” from Caleb Crain’s blog Steamboats Are Ruining Everything. A taste of the brilliance:

You remember the robot utopia. You imagined it when you were in fifth grade, and your juvenile mind first seized with rapture upon the idea of intelligent machines that would perform dull, repetitive tasks yet demand nothing for themselves. In the future, you foresaw, robots would do more and more, and humans less and less. There would be no need for humans to endanger themselves in coal mines or bore themselves on assembly lines. A few people would always be needed to repair and build the robots, and this drudgery of robot supervision would have to be rewarded somehow, but someday robots would surely make wealth so abundant that most people wouldn’t need to work and would be free merely to enjoy and cultivate themselves—by, say, hunting in the morning, fishing in the afternoon, and doing literary criticism after dinner.

Your fifth-grade self was wrong, of course. Robots aren’t altruistic beings; they’re capital investments; and though robots may not ask to be paid, their owners demand a return on their investment. We now live in the robot utopia, which isn’t one.

Thanks in large part to computerized mechanization, manufacturing productivity in the past century has increased many times over. Standards of living are higher than they ever were, but we no longer need as many humans to work as we once did. Perhaps not coincidentally, human wages, in America at least, have stagnated since the 1970s. If humans made no more money in the past four decades, where did the wealth created by the higher productivity go? Toward robot wages, as it were. The owners of the robots took the money—that is, the capitalists.

Any fifth-grader can see where this leads. At some point society has to choose. Either society accepts the robots’ gift as a general one, and redistributes the wealth that the robots inadvertently concentrate, or society allows the robots to become the exclusive tools of an ever-shrinking elite, increasingly resented, in confused fashion, by the people whom the robots have displaced.

[paragraphing added]

The idea of “robot wages” collected by capitalists is brilliant, and I’m disappointed I’d never thought of it quite that way.

This is all similar to something I went around saying for a couple of years. “You know what’s wrong with capitalism? Robots, that’s what.” Why aren’t robots making our lives easier? The typical pro-capitalist response would be something about productivity increases — we’re getting more stuff. Much more. It’s everywhere. Between cheap labor and automated labor, those in privileged societies/classes are veritably are piled with crap. But “more stuff” isn’t making our lives significantly better in the short term, and it’s killing our habitat.

A sane economy would take benefits accrued from productivity increases of all kinds and parlay them into generalized gains.

I don’t know why we’d expect capitalism not to disappoint in this regard. After all, we were also promised jet packs.

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