Monday, September 8, 2014

Our Future: Educated People or Just Educated Robots?

Have you seen the movie “Her”?  The 2013 Oscar nominee from Spike Jonze is a masterfully presented glimpse of a possible future in which our natural human thirst for connectedness is best met by having our own operating system (or OS) with whom to share our joys and sorrows.  More than the central dialog, which comes across like two hours of someone else’s therapy, I enjoyed the backdrop:  the cold, gray, lightly populated, urban landscape; the way in which people made their livings; and, the lifestyle of late 21st Century professionals.

Of late, a lot has been written about the impact of robotics and artificial intelligence on society and the workforce.  Pew Research recently summarized the results of canvassing of over 1800 experts.  Half of their respondents were optimistic about the impact of automation and half were pessimistic.

The optimists suggest that technological advances have always displaced jobs but typically have been net creators of jobs.  How?  Well, we invent new kinds of work.  For example, no one would have predicted that search engine optimization would be a major job category just a few short years ago. 

The pessimists worry that the technology is advancing so rapidly that it will destroy more jobs than it creates in the next decade.  Tom Standage, digital editor of The Economist, points out that previous disruptions provided a longer period of adjustment.  He fears that the rate of change will “displace people into service roles, and the income gap between skilled workers whose jobs cannot be automated and everyone else will widen”.

Hasn’t this been happening for the last 40 years – or 300?

The introduction of Automated Teller Machines (ATM’s) in the 1960’s and 70’s threatened to put bank tellers out of work.  Yet, there are over 800,000 people employed in banking in the U.S. 

I recall using a calculator, a pencil and a thirteen-column spreadsheet to prepare my annual budget when I worked for a bank back then.  I rejoiced at the invention of spreadsheet programs like Lotus 1-2-3 and Excel.  They were supposed to put accountants and bookkeepers out of work.  But they merely positioned accountants to do more value-added analytical work.

More recently, we’ve been adjusting to an automated world at the airport.  We check in at kiosks or with our smartphones.  We carry our own luggage.  We buy tickets from websites. 

Other examples of technology putting people out of work abound -- transcriptionists, letter carriers, factory workers, elevator operators, blacksmiths, the iceman.  Oh, and whatever happened to those guys who used to light the oil burning streetlamps?  Did they find other work after Edison flipped a switch?

In “Her”, the protagonist, Theodore (played by Joaquin Phoenix), is a writer.  In the future digital world in which he lives, there is apparently a consumer demand for someone who is able to write heartfelt letters – love letters, apology letters, condolence letters, etc.  One can imagine this becoming a real job category as we are constantly presented with college graduates whose powers of composition haven’t advanced beyond texting (or sexting). 

However, the pessimists make a strong case of their own in the Pew study.  Slightly more than half (52%) believes that near-term developments will expand job losses from blue collar to white-collar jobs.  While certain, highly qualified individuals will be very successful in this new economic paradigm; others will be “displaced into low paying service jobs at best, or permanent unemployment at worst”.

This isn’t news. We can certainly see signs of this trend already.

Over the three centuries of the industrial revolution, our lifestyles have improved.  We have added more value to the economic progress of society by virtue of the productivity afforded us by every technological advance from the steam engine, airplanes, radio and automatic dishwashers to computers, smartphones and iPads. 

But, the pessimists make one very important observation.  Our education system is not preparing us for the future that technology can afford us.

In Washington, the battle over disparity in incomes has liberal politicians arguing for increasing the minimum wage and transfer payments to the underprivileged.  Meanwhile, conservatives argue for a more Darwinian libertarian system. 

The fight for better education is left to local bureaucrats, the teachers’ unions and proponents of charter schools.  The winners of that skirmish may determine our success as a society in very near future. 



  1. Robotic ships for the Navy! Robotic Carriers with Robotic planes all controlled from shore, they could operate in almost any weather conditions. The controllers could be 14 year old nerds with excellent reflexes and a killer instinct! Not too farcical as they are already deploying robotic drones. I was a controller for a robotic helicopter that could drop torpedoes when I was on a tincan back in the late 60's.

  2. Richard Morris
    Genteel Member of the Idle Poor
    Top Contributor

    The future is the sand box for humans. We get to make it what we want it to be. Therefore I'm not sure that the choice offered in the proposed topic has any more reality than the paperless office we started hearing about in the '70's.

    What we are defines what being human means, IMO.

  3. Rimmer Lankester
    CRM / Operational excellence expert

    One of my all time internet heroes CPG Grey made an excellent movie about it recently:

    His point is that it's not necessarily a bad development, but simply that it's coming and we're not ready for it.

    To me, one obvious development should be universal basic income, as I do believe that millions will be unemployable in the future. Saying "tough luck, you're on your own" might be the liberal response, but I don't think an answer to the problem.

    To me, Ferguson springs to mind as to where it can lead. Us Europeans are not spared of this development either, of course.

    Automation and robotics can make a great future for us, where all the luxury is in reach for everyone. The question is, how are we going to divide that wealth...

    1. Hi, Rimmer. On this side of the Atlantic, "Tough luck..." would be the conservative argument. I lean that way myself and would suggest that the 300 year history of the capitalist revolution should teach us that sharing the wealth is a great way to ensure that we don't have any wealth.

  4. Erik Schwarzkopf
    Staff Engineer at MTS Systems

    I’ve been thinking along similar lines.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that Business practices such as flattened management hierarchies, advances in supply chain management, and simple outsourcing are a new phase of the industrial revolution.

    I’m not sure they are changing society any faster than railroads, looms, or pumps in underground mines, but they are certainly having a disruptive effect on society.

    What I’m currently trying to get my arms around, is “Who are the current Luddites or Neo-Luddites, railing against the inevitable and trying to smash the machines”?

    1. For starters it would be Labor unions and politicians who sow fear to reap votes.

    2. Erik Schwarzkopf
      Staff Engineer at MTS Systems

      I agree, and I'd have to include public employee unions also... but the employers of public employees are not necessarily driven by the same external factors.

      But also interesting is the earnest individuals and groups who are trying to solve the wrong problem...

      As many of us understand, an appropriate problem statement dramatically increases the chance of a successful solution.

      Does raising the minimum wage truly change the issue of income disparity? (I think the French minimum wages corresponds to twice the US minimum in terms of % of GDP per capita, while Norway and Sweden have no government mandated minimum wage.)

      Maybe focusing on income differences is not the way to ameliorate the dislocations caused by the shifting economic landscape.

    3. Raising the minimum wage is a way of transferring some of the burdens of the safety net to business owners. It does nothing to improve social mobility or close the income gap (if that is a desirable goal). I believe the core of the problem is an anti-capital attitude among liberal politicians (including the President), the media and labor.

      The way to boost incomes is to increase the return on invested capital. Capital investment is the only component of GDP that creates jobs. The minimum wage is a sideshow that distracts from the core issues.

  5. Bryan Riddel
    Lead Production Superintendent at US Air Force (transitioning from military service)

    While I agree that minimum wage does not improve social mobility or close income gaps, it may (may) slow the widening of these gaps. The unfortunate reality is that we live in a society where these public social concepts (minimum wage, welfare) have long become deeply ingrained and people have become dependent upon them. I don't think the answer is necessarily capital invest, be it in the social systems or business, but rather a change in mindset. As a society, we don't demand results for the money we spend. Business does, but business is only a part of the equation.

  6. Jeffery Pyle
    Senior Software Developer PAR Springer-Miller Systems

    Bryan, there is little evidence to support that belief on raising the minimum wage and slowing the increasing income gap. In fact, recent history shows the opposite. Confiscation and redistribution of wealth has increased in recent years and the wealth and income gaps have increased. The trend is in the opposite direction.

    You hit the nail in the head about getting results for the money we spend. There is no accountability for government spending. We have duplicate program after duplicate program. We have the VA system allowing veterans to die while waiting for care. We have an education system that is increasingly federalized with no results to show for the additional spending.

  7. Jeffery Pyle
    Senior Software Developer PAR Springer-Miller Systems

    John, I would add that organized labor has always support a high minimum wage for two reasons -- reduce competition by less expensive labor and increasing their own wages by raising the floor.

  8. Bryan Riddel
    Lead Production Superintendent at US Air Force (transitioning from military service)

    Jeffrey, that's why I purposely used the word "may," and twice for that matter! There really is no evidence or strong support either way, nothing but anecdotal observations. I'm not a proponent of minimum wage or welfare, just recognize the fact that this particular can of worms has long been opened, and significantly alters the way our (hybrid) economy actually works in practice, verses ideals.

  9. Bryan Riddel
    Lead Production Superintendent at US Air Force (transitioning from military service)

    We are in a catch-22 with minimum wage due to the welfare system. If the wages aren't high enough, people just don't participate in the labor force, and rely on the social welfare system. The system allows for it, business ultimately pays for it in one way or another. Either they pay a certain minimum to (help) keep people off the social system, or they pay increased taxes, as well as increased wages to those already working who in turn get burdened with the increased taxes.

  10. The title of the blog gives us a choice between educated people or educated robots. I'd love to have either. Today, we have uneducated people (e.g. Congress) and uneducated robots (anyone who reads a script at a call center, or who works a cash register at McDonald's).

    The need for professional writers (e.g. speechwriters) and for ghostwriters has existed since times immemorial (see for example "Cyrano de Bergerac" by Edmond Rostand, 1897). In any case, that's not an effect of technology, it's an effect of human desires, which have always been with us and always will be.

    There have always been optimists and pessimists. The mainstream (2 standard deviations off the mean, give or take) of people (and businesses) will make their future technology decisions based on optimizing their personal productivity and functionality, for better or worse ("With the new Tweetzilla, I can tweet in half the time!"), regardless of what the pundits opine.

    In my experience, people are more flexible that we give them credit for. The blacksmith becomes a skyscraper welder; the guy who lighted oil-based streetlamps becomes a train conductor; icemen become air conditioning repair people (and get a huge jump in pay, especially in Pheonix).

    The current generation grumbles, kicks, and screams about having to retrain and relearn, but they can do it, and they do so. For the next generation it's just what they grew up with.

    Minimum wage and income redistribution are MacGuffins. These are additional taxes on the public. Yes, additional taxes are burdensome, but people don't say "Gee, I'm not going to develop my million-dollar idea because I'm only going to be able to keep $500,000 after taxes instead of $800,000 after taxes". They just do it.

    I recall an article by Herb Caen in the San Francisco Chronicle. In it, he recalled being a young reporter interviewing Humphrey Bogart. At the time (after World War II) marginal tax rates were quite high. Caen recalled Bogart saying to him "I could hire you as my publicist, pay you a nice salary, and since it's deductible, it would cost me practically nothing". Caen regretted that Bogart never followed through. This points out two things: people adapt to their tax burden, and had Boagrt followed through, Herb Caen could have been the Joaquin Phoenix of the 1950s. :-)

    "The fight for better education is left to local bureaucrats, the teachers' unions and proponents of charter schools." The fight for better education is a personal one. Kids and families who value education will pursue it, in spite of what the schools do. See for example I note that the supporters of this event are local community organizations concerned about education, but no education bureaucrats, unions, or schools (charter or otherwise) are listed.