Sunday, August 26, 2012

Robots and Uemployment

 I am always amazed as to the sudden realization that there has been a systemic change to our workforce. After all it was no surprise. It also is a continuing trend of history. Just go through New England mill towns, and what do you see, old mill factories which 100 years or so ago made fabrics, then became abandoned and then became high tech start-ups and now house health care establishments! The trend is just read by the signs on the buildings (see Lowell, MA for example). But that trend is frightening. 

Robots replace manual labor and for a while entrepreneurs came in, then they left and are replaced by Health Care, namely innovation replaced by overhead! That should be the concern. We are not getting healthier, we are just spending more.

Now Friedman of the NY Times seems always to bring his new insights to the table. Frankly I never seen any true insights but alas he is what the masses of the left have to rely upon. They would be better off driving about I 495 in Boston and reading signs. From Friedman today in the Times we have[1]:

WHEN you hear the insane notion of “legitimate rape” being aired by a Republican congressman — a member of the House science committee no less — it makes you wonder some days how we became the world’s richest, most powerful country, and, more important, how we’re going to stay there. The short answer is that, thank God, there’s still a bunch of people across America — innovators and entrepreneurs — who just didn’t get the word. They didn’t get the word that Germany will eat our breakfast or that China will eat our lunch. They didn’t get the word that we’re in a recession and heading for a fiscal cliff. They’re not interested in politics at all. Instead, they just go out and invent stuff and fix stuff and collaborate on stuff. They are our saving grace, and whenever I need a pick-me-up, I drop in on one of them.

I did just that last week, visiting the design workshop of Rethink Robotics, near Boston’s airport, where I did something I’ve never done before: I programmed a robot to perform the simple task of moving widgets from one place to another. Yup, I trained the robot’s arms using a very friendly screen interface and memory built into its mechanical limbs. …

The Rethink design team includes …, the product manager of the Apple LaserWriter — as well as 75 other experts from Russia, Georgia, Venezuela, Egypt, Australia, India, Israel, Portugal, Britain, Sri Lanka, the United States and China. “It is all made in America,” …, but by “the best talent” gathered “from around the world.”

This is the company of the future. Forget about “outsourcing.” In today’s hyperconnected world, there is no “in” and no “out.” There’s only “good, better and best,” and if you don’t assemble the best team you can from everywhere, your competitor will. …

The Rethink robot will be unveiled in weeks. I was just given a sneak peek — on the condition that I did not mention its “disruptive” price point and some other unique features.

This is the march of progress. It eliminates bad jobs, empowers good jobs, but always demands more skill and creativity and always enables fewer people to do more things. We went through the same megashift when our agricultural economy was replaced by the industrial economy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Therefore, what this election should be about is how we spawn thousands of Rethinks that create new industries, new jobs and productivity tools. Alas, it isn’t. So I’m just grateful these folks here in Boston didn’t get the word.

Sarcasm as required starts his insights but he seems to have not read history and moreover has not truly thought through what he opines upon. Robots replace humans; it is akin to the plow, the tractor, and the changes in farms a hundred or so years ago. But now there are no big cities to go to. Furthermore these robots have been around for ages and there is no secret sauce that gives the US any sustainable advantage.

Now in reality the message was originally sent by Norbert Wiener. In 1947 he wrote his first warnings about this change and in 1961 he repeated it. From Wiener, Cybernetics, 2nd Edition, we have:

Long before Nagasaki and the public awareness of the atomic bomb, it had occurred to me that we were here in the presence of another social potentiality of unheard-of importance for good and for evil. The automatic factory and the assembly line without human agents are only so far ahead of us as is limited by our willingness to put such a degree of effort into their engineering as was spent, for example, in the development of the technique of radar in the Second World War.[2]

I have said that this new development has unbounded possibilities for good and for evil. For one thing, it makes the metaphorical dominance of the machines, as imagined by Samuel Butler, a most immediate and non-metaphorical problem. It gives the human race a new and most effective collection of mechanical slaves to perform its labor. Such mechanical labor has most of the economic properties of slave labor, although, unlike slave labor, it does not involve the direct demoralizing effects of human cruelty. However, any labor that accepts the conditions of competition with slave labor accepts the conditions of slave labor, and is essentially slave labor. The key word of this statement is competition.

It may very well be a good thing for humanity to have the machine remove from it the need of menial and disagreeable tasks, or it may not. I do not know. It cannot be good for these new potentialities to be assessed in the terms of the market, of the money they save; and it is precisely the terms of the open market, the "fifth freedom," that have become the shibboleth of the sector of American opinion represented by the National Association of Manufacturers and the Saturday Evening Post. I say American opinion, for as an American, I know it best, but the hucksters recognize no national boundary.

Perhaps I may clarify the historical background of the present situation if I say that the first industrial revolution, the revolution of the "dark satanic mills," was the devaluation of the human arm by the competition of machinery. There is no rate of pay at which a United States pick-and-shovel laborer can live which is low enough to compete with the work of a steam shovel as an excavator. The modern industrial revolution is similarly bound to devalue the human brain, at least in its simpler and more routine decisions. 

Of course, just as the skilled carpenter, the skilled mechanic, the skilled dressmaker have in some degree survived the first industrial revo­lution, so the skilled scientist and the skilled administrator may survive the second. However, taking the second revolution as accomplished, the average human being of mediocre attainments or less has nothing to sell that it is worth anyone's money to buy.

The answer, of course, is to have a society based on human values other than buying or selling.   To arrive at this society, we need a good deal of planning and a good deal of struggle, which, if the best comes to the best, may be on the plane of ideas, and otherwise—who knows?   I thus felt it my duty to pass on my information and understanding of the position to those who have an active interest in the conditions and the future of labor, that is, to the labor unions. I did manage to make contact with one or two persons high up in the C.I.O., and from them I received a very intelligent and sympathetic hearing.   Further than these individuals, neither I nor any of them was able to go.  

 It was their opinion, as it had been my previous observation and information, both in the United States and in England, that the labor unions and the labor movement are in the hands of a highly limited personnel, thoroughly well trained in the specialized problems of shop stewardship and disputes concerning wages and conditions of work, and totally unprepared to enter into the larger political, technical, sociological, and economic questions which concern the very existence of labor.  

The reasons for this are easy enough to see: the labor union official generally comes from the exacting life of a workman into the exacting life of an administrator without any opportunity for a broader training; and for those who have this training, a union career is not generally inviting; nor, quite naturally, are the unions receptive to such people.

Those of us who have contributed to the new science of cybernetics thus stand in a moral position which is, to say the least, not very comfortable.   We have contributed to the initiation of a new science which, as I have said, embraces technical developments with great possibilities for good and for evil.   We can only hand it over into the world that exists about us, and this is the world of Belsen and Hiroshima.  

We do not even have the choice of suppressing these new technical developments.   They belong to the age, and the most any of us can do by suppression is to put the development of the subject into the hands of the most irresponsible and most venal of our engineers.   The best we can do is to see that a large public under­stands the trend and the bearing of the present work, and to confine our personal efforts to those fields, such as physiology and psychology, most remote from war and exploitation.

Wiener was ages ahead of Friedman. Wiener was not only the visionary but the oracle of what was to happen, and in addition the one who started the whole process. Perhaps Friedman should read more of Wiener and add that to his insight.

[2] Fortune, 32, 139-147 (October); 163-169 (November, 1945).