Random finds (2017, week 34) — On the ‘robots are taking over’ rhetoric, the new urban crisis, and Silicon Valley’s new oil
“I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.” — Michel de Montaigne
Random finds is a weekly curation of my tweets, and reflection of my curiosity. With this week …
Even if the robots won’t take over our jobs, and there’s very good reason to believe they won’t, at least not anytime soon, there are still things to worry about. “The central phenomenon is not net job loss. It’s the shift in the kinds of jobs that are available,” as Andrew McAfee points out.
For years, Richard Florida, one of the most influential thinkers about cities in postwar America, preached the gospel of the ‘creative classes.’ But now, he recognizes he was wrong. In his new book, The New Urban Crisis, Florida looks back, and explores how our cities are increasing inequality, deepening segregation, and failing the middle class. It can be read as a mea culpa.
And this … The world’s most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data; why we still prefer human fallibility, even when algorithms outdo us; three magazine covers dedicated to recent political events with illustrations that reference Donald Trump, the Nazi Party and the KKK; and some beautiful architecture by the Canadian architect Paul Bernier.
The ‘robots are taking over’ rhetoric
“Over the past few years, it has become conventional wisdom that dramatic advances in robotics and artificial intelligence have put us on the path to a jobless future. We are living in the midst of a ‘second machine age,’ to quote the title of the influential book by MIT researchers Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, in which routine work of all kinds — in manufacturing, sales, bookkeeping, food prep — is being automated at a steady clip, and even complex analytical jobs will be superseded before long. A widely cited 2013 study by researchers at the University of Oxford, for instance, found that nearly half of all jobs in the US were at risk of being fully automated over the next 20 years. The endgame, we’re told, is inevitable: The robots are on the march, and human labor is in retreat,” writes James Surowiecki.
In Chill: Robots Won’t Take All Our Jobs, he explores whether there is any real evidence for this “tale about automation and permanent unemployment.” He concludes, there isn’t. Now, even Andrew McAfee says he regrets the stress he placed on the impact of automation on overall employment. “If I had to do it over again, I would put more emphasis on the way technology leads to structural changes in the economy, and less on jobs, jobs, jobs. The central phenomenon is not net job loss. It’s the shift in the kinds of jobs that are available.”
Nicholas Carr thinks McAfee is right. More pressing, according to Carr, will be the impact of automation on the structure of jobs themselves. “Humans beings and computers are going to be working together, more closely than ever, and we need to get the division of labor right. The ‘robots are taking over’ rhetoric is a distraction from what’s most important about the second machine age,” he writes in The robot paradox, continued.
“You can see the robot age everywhere but in the labor statistics, I wrote a few months ago, channeling Robert Solow. The popular and often alarming predictions of a looming unemployment crisis, one that would stem from rapid advances in robotics, artificial intelligence, and other computer automation technologies, have become increasingly hard to square with the economy’s rebound to near full employment. If computers were going to devastate jobs on a broad scale, one would think there’d be signs of it by now. We have, after all, been seeing remarkable gains in computing and software for many decades, while the broadband internet has been working its putative magic for more than twenty years. And it’s not like a shortage of corporate cash is curtailing investment in technology. Profits have been robust and capital cheap,” Carr argues.
Also Tim O’Reilly writes about robots and the jobless future. According to him, robots will only take our jobs if we ask them to do. “Technology is the solution to human problems, and we won’t run out of work till we run out of problems,” he says in Do More! What Amazon Teaches Us About Robots and the ‘Jobless Future.’ “Entrepreneurs need to set their sights on how we can use big data, sensors, and AI to create amazing human experiences and the economy of the future, making us all richer in the same way the tools of the first industrial revolution did.”
“Amazon reminds us again and again that it isn’t technology that eliminates jobs, it is the short-sighted business decisions that use technology simply to cut costs and fatten corporate profits.” — Tim O’Reilly in Do More! What Amazon Teaches Us About Robots and the ‘Jobless Future.’
According to O’Reilly, “There is an enormous failure of imagination among those who think that we face a jobless future. The weavers of the 1811 Luddite rebellion […] couldn’t imagine that their descendants would have more clothing than the kings and queens of Europe. Machines expanded the demand for the labor of weavers, augmented by machines, because it lowered the cost of fabric, and human creativity found new uses for that cheaper fabric, including decorating it with a constantly changing palette of color, cut, and design but also inventing entirely new kinds of uses, from surgical meshes to spacesuits.”
O’Reilly argues that, whenever one thing becomes commoditized, something else becomes valuable. But if we use the productivity gains from technology to create value for society, and make sure that this value is widely shared, he is convinced we will find new ways to put people to work.
Also The Guardian’s economics editor, Larry Elliot believes new technology won’t cause mass unemployment. “The rural workers described by Thomas Hardy in Tess of the D’Urbervilles found work in factories and offices. What’s more, it was better-paid work, and so the upshot was an increase in living standards. […] Similarly, the age of robots will lead to more jobs. Kallum Pickering, analyst with Berenberg, says there is a big hole in the argument that artificial intelligence (AI) will lead to vast numbers of workers joining the dole queue.”
But this isn’t the end of the story, Elliot writes. What if these newly created jobs are less good and less well paid than the one’s automation kills off? He believes the weak wage growth of recent years is telling us that technology is hollowing out the middle class and creating an economy in which a small number of very rich people employ armies of poor people to cater to their every whim. This scenario isn’t only more likely, it also fits with the history of the recent past, the theory of automation, and recent trends in the labour market.
But is there any hard evidence for this?
The economist Dhaval Joshi, who believes Moravec’s paradox, a discovery by AI experts in the 1980s that robots find the difficult things easy and the easy things difficult, will have a big impact on the labour market, says it is worth looking at the employment data for the US, which tends to be more granular than in Europe. For many years in America, the fastest-growing employment subsector has been food services and drinking places — in job terms: waiters and bar tenders.
According to Joshi, “[T]he jobs that AI can easily replicate and replace are those that require recently evolved skills like logic and algebra. They tend to be middle-income jobs. Conversely, the jobs that AI cannot easily replicate are those that rely on the deeply evolved skills like mobility and perception. They tend to be lower-income jobs. Hence, the current wave of technological progress is hollowing out middle-income jobs and creating lots of lower-income jobs.”
Recent developments in both Britain and the US, suggest this process is well under way. Elliot: “[E]conomists have been trying to explain why it has been possible for jobs to be created without wage inflation picking up. Britain has an unemployment rate of 4.4% but average earnings are rising by just 2.1%. Something similar has happened in the US.” It appears that the relationship between unemployment and pay — the Phillips curve — has broken down.
So, even if the future won’t be jobless, there are still quite a few things to be concerned about. As McAfee points out, “The central phenomenon is not net job loss. It’s the shift in the kinds of jobs that are available.” This will be felt especially by the middle classes. “Inequality, without a sustained attempt at the redistribution of income, wealth and opportunity, will increase. And so will social tension and political discontent,” Elliot warns.
Also recommended: The optimist’s guide to the robot apocalypse, by Sarah Kessler.
The new urban crisis
“When Richard Florida coined the term ‘creative class’ in 2002, he painted a very clear picture for urban revitalization. His book The Rise Of The Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community And Everyday Life, almost reads like a textbook for mayors. All cities had to do was lure a few artists into live-work lofts in an old warehouse district, maybe convince a startup — they weren’t even called startups then, were they? — to set up shop in a post-industrial neighborhood. Voila! Florida’s prescription for city success,” says Alissa Walker in Richard Florida’s ‘The New Urban Crisis’ looks at where cities went wrong.
In his latest book, The New Urban Crisis, Florida looks at how the decisions of that creative class ended up affecting everyone else — especially people who were forced out of those cities. According to Sam Wetherell in Richard Florida Is Sorry, it can be seen as a mea culpa. He admits right away that he has been “overly optimistic,” encouraging a particular paradigm without anticipating the consequences of his ideas. But it turns out that looking at what happened to the creative class after they urbanized is actually a good way to roadmap rising inequality.
“[Florida] argued that an influx of what he called the ‘creative classes’ — artists, hipsters, tech workers — were sparking economic growth in places like the Bay Area. Their tolerance, flexibility, and eccentricity dissolved the rigid structures of industrial production and replaced them with the kinds of workplaces and neighborhoods that attracted more young people and, importantly, more investment.” But “[t]he rise of the creative class in places like New York, London, and San Francisco created economic growth only for the already rich, displacing the poor and working classes. The problems that once plagued inner cities have moved to the suburbs,” says Wetherell.
“Setting aside the rhetoric of innovation, entrepreneurship, and economic growth, we can locate something ironically Marxist about Florida’s ideas: human beings are fundamentally creative, which is the source of economic value, and people become alienated when they cannot control the fruits of their creativity. […] But Florida’s writing narrows human potential. His theory of art and creativity only acknowledges its contribution to economic growth. The insistence on tolerance’s benefits has a similarly utilitarian purpose: we should celebrate diverse communities, not for their own sake but because they spur innovation.”
“[In his new book] even the traditional idea of ‘city’ is being replaced — by a new structure that Florida dubs the ‘patchwork metropolis.’ This acknowledges the regional distribution of Americans to the ‘urban burbs’ and beyond. Just after his book came out, in an attempt to prove his allegiance to this New Regionalism, Florida penned an op-ed with Joel Kotkin, a writer with whom Florida has been at odds in the past (you might call Kotkin a suburbanist). Florida and Kotkin argue that a nationwide movement for local engagement would be better for the residents of both cities and suburbs — and for diffusing the growing red-blue divide. (Although Kotkin more recently wrote his own op-ed accusing city-dwellers of ‘blue snobbery,’ which forces their way of life upon the rest of a country that doesn’t want anything to do with them.)” — Alissa Walker in Richard Florida’s ‘The New Urban Crisis’ looks at where cities went wrong
Now, after a decade and a half of development plans tailored to the creative classes, Florida surveys an urban landscape in ruins. “When the rich, the young, and the (mostly) white rediscovered the city, they created rampant property speculation, soaring home prices, and mass displacement. The ‘creative class’ were just the rich all along, or at least the college-educated children of the rich,” Wetherell writes.
Yet he believes, “Florida was right when he said the ‘creative economy’ is the new way of the world. But its development didn’t happen how he imagined. Rather than launching humanity into a new phase of prosperity, the new economy simply holds the different elements of late capitalism together — making it palatable for some but deepening its crises and contradictions for others.”
And this …
Personal data is to the tech world what oil is to the fossil fuel industry. That’s why companies like Amazon and Facebook plan to dig deeper than we ever imagined.
“Silicon Valley is an extractive industry. Its resource isn’t oil or copper, but data,” Ben Tarnoff writes in Silicon Valley siphons our data like oil. But the deepest drilling has just begun. “Companies harvest this data by observing as much of our online activity as they can. This activity might take the form of a Facebook like, a Google search, or even how long your mouse hovers in a particular part of your screen. Alone, these traces may not be particularly meaningful. By pairing them with those of millions of others, however, companies can discover patterns that help determine what kind of person you are — and what kind of things you might buy. These patterns are highly profitable. Silicon Valley uses them to sell you products or to sell you to advertisers. But feeding the algorithms that produce these patterns requires a steady stream of data. And while that data is certainly abundant, it’s not infinite.”
“To increase profits, Silicon Valley must extract more data. One method is to get people to spend more time online: build new apps, and make them as addictive as possible. Another is to get more people online. […] But these approaches leave large reservoirs of data untapped. After all, we can only spend so much time online. […] For Silicon Valley, however, anything less than total knowledge of its users represents lost revenue. Any unmonitored moment is a missed opportunity.”
Now, Amazon is going to show the industry how to monitor people offline.
“It’s easy to picture how this will work, because the technology already exists. Last year, Amazon built a ‘smart’ grocery store in Seattle. You don’t have to wait in a checkout line to buy something — you just grab it and walk out of the store. Sensors detect what items you pick up, and you’re charged when you leave. Amazon is keen to emphasize the customer benefits, [b]ut the same technology that automates away the checkout line will enable Amazon to track every move a customer makes.”
Of course, supermarkets aren’t the only places these ideas will be put into practice. “Surveillance can transform any physical space into a data mine. And the most data-rich environment, the one that contains the densest concentration of insights into who you are, is your home,” Tarnoff writes. “That’s why Amazon has aggressively promoted the Echo, a small speaker that offers a Siri-like voice-activated assistant called Alexa. Alexa can tell you the weather, read you the news, make you a to-do list, and perform any number of other tasks. It is a very good listener. It faithfully records your interactions and transmits them back to Amazon for analysis. In fact, it may be recording not only your interactions, but absolutely everything.”
“Rebooting antitrust for the information age will not be easy. It will entail new risks: more data sharing, for instance, could threaten privacy. But if governments don’t want a data economy dominated by a few giants, they will need to act soon.” — From: The world’s most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data, The Economist
Although Amazon might face some resistance, Tarnoff believes we should never underestimate how rapidly norms can be readjusted when capital requires it. Not long ago, something like tracking your location would be seen as a breach of privacy by many. Now, it feels normal. Even though you can always opt out, consumer choice is a meaningless concept in our new era of monopoly capitalism. You simply can’t escape from companies like Google and Facebook and Amazon.
“The only solution is political. As consumers, we’re nearly powerless, but as citizens, we can demand more democratic control of our data,” Tarnoff says. “No reasonable person would let the mining industry unilaterally decide how to extract and refine a resource, or where to build its mines. Yet somehow we let the tech industry make all these decisions and more, with practically no public oversight. A company that yanks copper out of an earth that belongs to everyone should be governed in everyone’s interest. So should a company that yanks data out of every crevice of our collective lives.”
“This abundance of data changes the nature of competition. Technology giants have always benefited from network effects: the more users Facebook signs up, the more attractive signing up becomes for others. With data there are extra network effects. By collecting more data, a firm has more scope to improve its products, which attracts more users, generating even more data, and so on. The more data Tesla gathers from its self-driving cars, the better it can make them at driving themselves — part of the reason the firm, which sold only 25,000 cars in the first quarter, is now worth more than GM, which sold 2.3m. Vast pools of data can thus act as protective moats.” — From: The world’s most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data, The Economist
Diagnostic software already routinely beats doctors at mapping symptoms to ailments. But when the contest between technology and humanity isn’t even close, will we insist on a manual override to spare Homo sapiens’ blushes?
Rafael Behr is ready to bet that, when the choice comes, fallibility will be cherished over mechanical consistency.
“The challenge is not new,” Behr writes in Algorithms outdo us. But we still prefer human fallibility. Already, Fyodor Dostoevsky pondered it in his 1864 novella Notes from Underground. “The narrator berates theories of utopian materialism that reduce the universe to an elaborate operation of cogs moving in obedience to verifiable physical laws. He concludes that people embrace irrationality — going against their ostensible self-interest — as the price of salvaging the idea of the soul: ‘Twice two makes four is an excellent thing, but if we are to give everything its due, twice two makes five is sometimes a very charming thing too.’”
“The Underground Man is not real, but that makes his argument stronger. He speaks to us from the depths of a tortured imagination — a realm that is still far beyond the capacity of Google’s algorithms. It is the zone of ambiguity and imprecision […]. It often feels as if the subtlety of analogue experience is being pulverised into platitude by the digital machine. It is easy to conjure fear of enslavement to robots, and maybe resistance is futile Luddism. But maybe also we underestimate [Ned Ludd]. As testimony to the power of the imagination, he is stubbornly, reassuringly immortal.”
“President Trump’s weak pushback to hate groups — as if he was trying not to alienate them as voters — compelled me to take up my pen,” David Plunkert said. “A picture does a better job showing my thoughts than words do; it can have a light touch on a subject that’s extremely scary.”
House on Lac Charlebois (2015) by architect Paul Bernier is a beautiful home clad in blackened timber and weathering steel on the shores of a lake just north of Montreal.
“These are volatile and challenging times. We live in an era when public and business policy is often driven by profit and greed instead of the health of individuals, the communities we live in, and our planet — leading to one economic and environmental crisis after the other. Though we are rightly compelled to resist, we must also work to harness our creativity to imagine new paths forward and build a future that is equitable, inclusive, sustainable and artistic.” — Robert Ransick in Enough With Problem Solving, Let’s Start Creating