No Pension

Paradigm shifts don’t often happen at great speed—usually, change gathers momentum, circumstances around you begin to diverge from the old norm, and then quite suddenly you realize you’re in a different world.

It happened with electricity, the motor car, and the internet, and it’s in full force with robots.

In The Hourglass, which I’m presently writing in earnest, governments find a new social contract that builds in the workforce paradigm shift (telling you more would spoil things).

Let’s see how many people I put out of work when writing this article.

During the week, a couple of interesting topics for my weekend chronicles invariably pop up. If I’m traveling, it’s easier, sometimes fate intervenes, more often I read or hear something which merits a text and do a screengrab.

This week, out of three or four possibilities, robots back came on the radar with a vengeance, partly because of a newspaper article. I can’t remember the last time I bought a newspaper—analog that is, because I’ve never bought a digital one.

So there’s the vendor out of business, although in the US and elsewhere, the profession died decades ago with the appearance of newspaper vending machines.

I guess the fact I don’t buy papers is not unusual, so there’s another bunch of people out of work—reporters, editors, distribution jobs. News organizations have been slimming for years, in any case. Pieces written on a computer (bye-bye typists), auto-correction for typos and grammar (so long copy editors), digital image libraries (see you illustrators and photographers), automated layouts and printing (ciao typesetters)… the list goes on.

All my research is done online. After this brief intro, I’ll re-read the Elon Musk article, hunt around for other sources, and type up my thoughts. No library, no coffee on the way, no photocopies, no writer’s notebook, no pens, no pencils or erasers, zilch. Add ’em up.

Finally, publication, review, and distribution—Wordpress and I take care of all that. And how about you? We (WordPress and I) only ask for your time. Once in a while WordPress fields you an ad, but that’s fine. So do the papers I read online.

The time I take to research, write, re-read, and publish is my contribution. Since each article takes about four hours all told, and I’ve been publishing weekly for ten years, we’re at about one hundred days and counting—believe me, that’s nothing compared to the number of full-time jobs lost along the way.

Whenever a paradigm shifts, the naysayers come out of the woodwork—when trains appeared, cows would stop giving milk (false); with the advent of calculators, kids would be much worse at arithmetic (true); aquaculture would be the end of fishing (false); computers would replace humans (well…). It’s a long list.

Innovation has always changed the way we do things, and often changed the pace. And society is usually slow to deal with change, as manifest this week by politicians talking about legislation on algorithms. Most people have no idea what an algorithm is—and that includes lawyers and lawmakers. My definition? It’s a quantitative approach to a problem—so good luck with that.

Elon Musk, most famous for the Tesla electric car, considers artificial intelligence (AI) the biggest threat to mankind—he baldly states that ‘robots will be able to do everything better than us.’ Actually, haircuts might be an exception for a while—I can see kids getting teased at school for getting a real robot haircut.

Musk says transport jobs will be the first to go—the US Department of Transportation tells us that’s one in every seven. Unemployment in the US is at 4.3%. Employment is therefore at 95.7%. One seventh of that is 13.5%, so unemployment fairly quickly shifts to 17.8%, which is a three hundred percent increase—and AIV (vehicles) will not spend their time bumping into each other, so panel-beating will become an art form, not a day job.

The mental process I used in the last paragraph is a generic description of an algorithm—I did it in my head, since I pre-date calculators, but you can check it on Excel, or write a two line computer program to do it.

Musk  uses the game of Go as an example of how fast this will all change. If you want to see how much fun lawmakers will have legislating algorithms, read this summary from the scientific journal Nature—it’s a bit long, but humor me.

The game of Go has long been viewed as the most challenging of classic games for artificial intelligence owing to its enormous search space and the difficulty of evaluating board positions and moves. Here we introduce a new approach to computer Go that uses ‘value networks’ to evaluate board positions and ‘policy networks’ to select moves. These deep neural networks are trained by a novel combination of supervised learning from human expert games, and reinforcement learning from games of self-play. Without any lookahead search, the neural networks play Go at the level of state-of-the-art Monte Carlo tree search programs that simulate thousands of random games of self-play. We also introduce a new search algorithm that combines Monte Carlo simulation with value and policy networks. Using this search algorithm, our program AlphaGo achieved a 99.8% winning rate against other Go programs, and defeated the human European Go champion by 5 games to 0. This is the first time that a computer program has defeated a human professional player in the full-sized game of Go, a feat previously thought to be at least a decade away.

A recent study commissioned by the UK Royal Society of Arts suggests four million jobs in the British private sector could shift to AI in the next decade. That’s 15% of the workforce. The current unemployment number is almost identical to the US: 4.5%, and would bump up to 19.5% as machines take over.

A survey of employers shows that three sectors would be hardest hit: finance and accounting, transportation and distribution, and manufacturing. Over twenty percent of employers see more than thirty percent of jobs in those sectors disappearing.

These trends toward automation are much more prevalent in developed countries than in other parts of the world, and are pushing a major change in the way society works.

Job satisfaction, unemployment, trade unions, overtime, workers rights, coffee breaks, vacation, sick leave… all these words fall on a robot’s deaf ears. These days, when you call US airline customer services, you have to say the word agent three times before you get to speak to a human.

Society is globally unconcerned, or else humans blame other humans for their woes. Think Trump trampoline for expelling immigrants, Brexit, and the US job export to humans in third-world countries.

Citizens rally to the call against their fellow man, but no one blames the machines, or those who conceive or build them. I love technology, but I also believe in human employment—just as boundaries are imposed on people, so they must be imposed on machines. After all, we want our kids to grow up to be useful citizens, whose values include a work ethic and an education—if you grow up destined to do nothing, it’s hard to see why you should work hard at school, or even why you should go at all.

Crazy things happen when a paradigm shifts. If in fifty years there’s a scarcity of protein, there will be no more pets, since they compete with humans for food—salmon and trout patê, yum!

And in a world where robots do our jobs, there will be no pension plan.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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