The AI threat isn't Skynet, it's the death of the middle class
February 11, 2017 3:39 AM   Subscribe

“I am less concerned with Terminator scenarios,” MIT economist Andrew McAfee said on the first day at Asilomar. “If current trends continue, people are going to rise up well before the machines do.” McAfee pointed to newly collected data that shows a sharp decline in middle class job creation since the 1980s. Now, most new jobs are either at the very low end of the pay scale or the very high end. He also argued that these trends are reversible, that improved education and a greater emphasis on entrepreneurship and research can help feed new engines of growth, that economies have overcome the rise of new technologies before. But after his talk, in the hallways at Asilomar, so many of the researchers warned him that the coming revolution in AI would eliminate far more jobs far more quickly than he expected. [Wired]
posted by forza (131 comments total) 53 users marked this as a favorite
 
Don't count on education. Large swathes of the former middle class loathe it either on religious grounds (educated people don't believe what I do...therefore education is bad) or out of spite (college educated people dont know my craft...they're the dumb ones).

Also note that they vote accordingly. I know a fundie who said to me, " I don't want some educated person in the White House, I want a real person." Good luck logic-ing him out of anything.
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 4:40 AM on February 11 [55 favorites]


“A universal basic income doesn’t give people dignity or protect them from boredom and vice,” Etzioni says.
God, I hate this kind of thinking.

I've been trying to get more free time for years so I can spend it on things I enjoy, like scholarship and research. (Admittedly, my research interests are batty, but even so.)

So anytime somebody says freeing that time up would make me a drug addict rather than a hobbyist, I want to hit them with something heavy.
posted by ragtag at 5:01 AM on February 11 [155 favorites]


> like scholarship and research.

That's what he meant by vice, I'm sure.
posted by I-Write-Essays at 5:05 AM on February 11 [40 favorites]


I've been trying to get more free time for years so I can spend it on things I enjoy, like scholarship and research. (Admittedly, my research interests are batty, but even so.)

Oh, well, not you then. You're one of the good ones. Scholarship and research are fine ways of keeping the mind occupied and distracting you from the Devil's temptations of drug use, dancing and fornication.
posted by indubitable at 5:22 AM on February 11 [7 favorites]


What if you want to research drug use, dancing and fornication, though?
posted by Thorzdad at 5:27 AM on February 11 [42 favorites]


Unless there's some special reason why military jobs can't also be automated, I don't see how you would get completely-replacing-humans levels of automation that would induce massive changes in the economy without simultaneously causing Terminator scenarios.

Once there are automated weapons and other military systems that can build a pile of skulls and drive a robot tank over it, it doesn't really matter whether it's a Skynet-like network-that-gained-consciousness or a small group of rich people telling the automated military stuff to do it.
posted by XMLicious at 5:30 AM on February 11 [21 favorites]


I think that this but is many orders of magnitude more stupid:

"But McAfee believes this would only make the problem worse, because it would eliminate the incentive for entrepreneurship and other activity that could create new jobs as the old ones fade away."

Given the good evidence that risk taking, productivity and entrepreneurship are encouraged by a strong social safety net, and the dubious assertion that people are only motivated to build businesses because the alternative is desperate poverty.

But it's important to recognise that, while a UBI of some sort may ultimately be necessary, it's neither a panacea or the only option. Personally, I'd prefer to see initial steps being taken towards a universal jobs guarantee, focusing on the massive infrastructure investment we need in renewable energy and energy efficiency, as well as better social care and payment for currently invisible and/or unremunerated (i.e. coded as female) labour.

I believe that a UBI is probably good policy, but I think that there is a tendency for us to allow its utopian promise blind us to other radical policies that are just as (or more) important and easier to sell to an electorate that is highly sceptical of "hand outs".
posted by howfar at 5:35 AM on February 11 [13 favorites]


Given the good evidence that risk taking, productivity and entrepreneurship are encouraged by a strong social safety net, and the dubious assertion that people are only motivated to build businesses because the alternative is desperate poverty.

I believe that if one can view selling drugs as entrepreneurship one can see that even entrepreneurship is also actively discouraged as a means to escape poverty.
posted by Nanukthedog at 5:42 AM on February 11 [10 favorites]


I believe that if one can view selling drugs as entrepreneurship one can see that even entrepreneurship is also actively discouraged as a means to escape poverty.

You didn't build that street corner.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:45 AM on February 11 [8 favorites]


Am I wrong to remain skeptical that an utterly destabilizing AI revolution is indeed coming? As far as I know there really haven't been any significant conceptual breakthroughs. Just improvements in speed and scale of long understood techniques. Machines are not yet able to replace humans in the corner cases or deal adequately with the unexpected. I think self driving trucks will be the first big move, but even these won't be driverless. An operator will still be necessary and not just by law, but to be there to handle the unpredictable. And in many of the middle class areas that require judgement and insight, line medicine and law, I can see the AI assistants, but not robot nurses, doctors. If we adopt robot lawyers and judges we might as well give up on humanity entirely. Robot surgeons, yes, but with human operators.

The jobs that are both cognitive and require no judgement, like dispatching and cashiering will go, but those aren't middle class jobs anyway and haven't been for a long time.

As society adjusts, we'll welcome the elimination of mindless drudgery. But I just don't see the professional class being automated away without losing a great deal.

In any case, the answer isn't UBI it's socialism of course.
posted by dis_integration at 5:51 AM on February 11 [15 favorites]


But after his talk, in the hallways at Asilomar

This phrasing gives me the impression the author has never actually been to Asilomar.
posted by nickmark at 5:58 AM on February 11 [21 favorites]


I just finished reading The Rise of the Robots by Martin Ford. He makes a really convincing case for exactly this - the automation that's going to make most people's skills obsolete won't be a general AI, or the singularity, but thousands of very specialised intelligent algorithms which will outperform humans in a large range of fields.

The reality is, if your job involves mostly manipulating data, drawing conclusions from that data and then outputting different data, it's already 3/4s of the way to automation. More education isn't really the answer, because at some point fairly soon machines will outperform even the most educated of people at the specific tasks they do. Any job that involves repetition but not much physical manipulation is in the firing line.

The unfortunate thing is that the increased redundancy of people for the work we need to do to stay alive has coincided with an increased rhetoric which rewards hard work and blames our society's ills on people not working hard.
posted by leo_r at 5:59 AM on February 11 [31 favorites]


“A universal basic income doesn’t give people dignity or protect them from boredom and vice,” Etzioni says.

From my experience, neither does amazing wealth.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:05 AM on February 11 [116 favorites]


Is this the same coming revolution in AI that's been coming since the 1960s?

Are we demonstrably closer to an actual AI than we were 30 years ago, as opposed to labelling pattern recognition and the like as AI to create the next big tech hype bullshit avalanche?
posted by GallonOfAlan at 6:06 AM on February 11 [8 favorites]


(Observational experience, of course) I'm exactly on the cusp of working & middle class, and automation has changed my career in a multitude of ways, but I have adapted & survived, so far, by staying on top of technology & learning how to implement it & train people to use it.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:10 AM on February 11 [1 favorite]


I visit a board which attracts a lot of right wingers, and even they are beginning to cave on a universal basic income.
posted by Beholder at 6:11 AM on February 11 [3 favorites]


Hey, Google, print me 5000 SXSW T-shirts by next Tuesday.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:11 AM on February 11 [1 favorite]


If we adopt robot lawyers and judges we might as well give up on humanity entirely

I think this suggests a degree of misunderstanding of the issue. It's not that jobs will be taken over wholesale (just as manufacturing jobs have not just disappeared, but rather got thinner on the ground as productivity has increased), it's that significant time-consuming parts of the jobs, that people currently have to be employed to do, will disappear, with those people who remain being forced to pick up the bits of those jobs that aren't yet susceptible to automation. So less and less people work harder and harder.

An example in law is document disclosure ("discovery" in the US), which frequently takes a huge amount of work, but which is already being automated by electronic systems. It's only part of litigation, but it constitutes enough work to mean that significant efficiency savings would mean job-losses in many firms.
posted by howfar at 6:12 AM on February 11 [10 favorites]


Others question the psychological effects of the idea. “A universal basic income doesn’t give people dignity or protect them from boredom and vice,” Etzioni says.

Know how I know you're a CEO of an artificial intelligence institute and not a salesclerk making eight bucks an hour at Dollar Tree?
posted by Greg Nog at 6:14 AM on February 11 [100 favorites]


With genuine respect to ragtag and the sentiment that 'people would love to have the unencumbered chance to pursue their creative interests,' I do share the concern that UBI for many, many people in the middle of society would lead to its own problems. Most people aren't artists. Being on the dole doesn't lead to an explosion of creativity. Every conversation about UBI should include a careful (re)reading of Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning.
posted by twsf at 6:19 AM on February 11 [11 favorites]


But after his talk, in the hallways at Asilomar

This phrasing gives me the impression the author has never actually been to Asilomar.


On the narrow wooden walkways of Asilomar, tiptoeing to protect the fragile ecosystem, folks turned sideways to catch up with the speaker...
posted by infini at 6:20 AM on February 11 [7 favorites]


The real reason this might happen more rapidly than expected is that decision-makers behind these automation projects, especially in government services, say, often aren't qualified to judge if the automation actually does do a better job than the humans did, and worse, they often don't really seem to care all that much either way as long as there are savings on labor costs. So picture lots of automated systems that are poorly maintained and that nobody understands anymore, just running on autopilot without anybody noticing or caring that they don't function the way they're supposed to. That's the real risk.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:26 AM on February 11 [27 favorites]


twsf To be clear, I'm not disputing the issues of UBI: I agree that it has many potential problems! I'm disputing the puritanical "idle hands make mischief" belief that is both utterly stupid and utterly entrenched.
posted by ragtag at 6:27 AM on February 11 [17 favorites]


> Unless there's some special reason why military jobs can't also be automated...

Human lives can be cheaper than battlefield robots if you don't have to spend public funds on education, health, or welfare.
posted by at by at 6:32 AM on February 11 [5 favorites]


"But after his talk, in the hallways at Asilomar ..."

But after his talk, in the shared toilets of the rustic cabins of Asilomar ...
posted by Chitownfats at 6:50 AM on February 11 [4 favorites]


Is this the same coming revolution in AI that's been coming since the 1960s?

I don't know where I read it, but supposedly there are 3 million Americans whose primary source of income is driving semi trucks. Add in UPS and Fed-Ex drivers, pizza delivery people, taxis/ride-sharing anything that involves driving. Then look at the people trying to get driverless cars on the road by 2020. The reason there's such a push isn't because people think the future is going to be cool, it's because the second dumping drivers you have to pay becomes less cost effective than settling lawsuits over driverless cars causing accidents, they'll make the change, and several million people will be out of work. The second Amazon figures out how to fully automate their warehouses, they'll dump their part time workers as fast as they can. This is coming, and it's coming fast. Say the robot costs the equivalent of three years of human salary. By the fourth year, you're turning a profit. Given how quick shareholders can be to sue companies that don't provide the best possible ROI, even companies that want to keep people employed for moral deceny's sake probably won't be able to without massive investor lawsuits.

For all the people saying "hey, those people had time to change jobs and retrain" the question is, where are the millions of jobs for drivers to retrain into? Who is offering a job to a 50 year old who's been driving a truck for thirty years? We're within spitting distance of having millions of workers out of work, with no work for them to even do, and we're well behind where we need to be in planning for it.
posted by Ghidorah at 6:58 AM on February 11 [88 favorites]


"All the jobs we've created are low-paying jobs" is a policy problem, not an intrinsic problem. Care work could be highly paid. Waiters in union gigs used to make good money - I know someone who retired from a union waiter gig at a fancy hotel with a good pension and a house. What if we had, like, a sufficiency of librarians to assist people when they are confused by systems or read to kids or whatever? What if we had enough teachers and teachers' aids? What if we had enough park rangers? What if we had enough people to take care of the streets and sidewalks when it snows? What if old people could afford to get someone to fix their houses?

Sure, a UBI is fine as part of a social system, but actually paying people living wages to do all the work that still needs doing would also be effective.
posted by Frowner at 6:59 AM on February 11 [133 favorites]


I mean, just walking down my street reveals literally millions of dollars of undone labor - bad streets, bad lights, housing stock in poor repair, soil full of pollutants from local light industry, kids who could use some community centers and guided play, art classes, etc. Robots can't do those things. Policy changes could put actual people to work doing all of them, while the algorithms hum away doing their thing.

Okay, here's the deal: the Democrats need a platform, people need jobs, the machines are coming - what about a fucking new WPA?
posted by Frowner at 7:02 AM on February 11 [102 favorites]


> Okay, here's the deal: the Democrats need a platform, people need jobs, the machines are coming - what about a fucking new WPA?

Worker rights are not a popular idea amongst the people who fund Democratic candidates' reelection campaigns.
posted by I-Write-Essays at 7:06 AM on February 11 [24 favorites]


We're within spitting distance of having millions of workers out of work, with no work for them to even do

...and a culture that blames them for their situation, since, if they were Good People Who Value Dignity, they'd be working
posted by thelonius at 7:16 AM on February 11 [12 favorites]


As far as I know there really haven't been any significant conceptual breakthroughs. Just improvements in speed and scale of long understood techniques.

I think this is a fundamentally misleading way of thinking about computing. The human brain is incomprehensibly more competent at many tasks than computers are and it does it in a few pounds and a ~20W power envelope. There's a lot of room for speed and scale to run between "a warehouse" and "a few lightbulbs".

There's a great documentary on renewable energy that makes a really compelling point: the cost curve of fossil fuels is fundamentally different from that of solar. If you want to double the amount of oil you out of the ground, you probably have to spend more than double the money. Renewables are the opposite, building twice the solar panels probably costs less than double the price.

Hiring for a whole class of jobs feels a lot like drilling for oil: if you want to hire twice the designers/programmers/lawyers it's probably going to cost you more than twice (and take for bloody ever). If you can massage your job requirement into something that can be automated though you can just buy more computers, take delivery immediately and probably get a volume discount.

A corollary of this is that it can make sense to replace humans with computers, even if it's more expensive per unit if you expect to expand or need to be flexible. This set is going to get bigger and bigger of course as computers get cheaper and more capable and closer to being able to work in that 20W envelope.
posted by Skorgu at 7:17 AM on February 11 [12 favorites]


I would underline dis_integration's point. I just rolled off a 80 hour week and a go-live of some NLP + 'AI'-heavy automated processing of data. Some of this work was previously done by people. People with Ph.D's.

You know what? All those people still have jobs. And this general, anonymous client is using the cost saving to hire another Ph.D to do even more 'other stuff' that 'people are good at' and 'computers suck at.'

The narrative 'THE MACHINES ARE RISING' is wrong. It's dead wrong. It's lazy, uninformed journalism by tech press release. The truth is more complex, more difficult to explain, and has a lot of moving parts.

I would say, speaking generally, the demographic I would worry the most about are the kids in the 'just going to school' bucket. I could not imagine what accounting, finance, or G&A tasks are going to look like in ten years. It's going to be a smaller field, most likely. But those jobs will still exist.

The caveat is that there is probably going to be a hell of a lot less of 'General Business Systems Degree'-> $100k job copy-n-pasting stuff in Excel for Zenefits.

But hell, that tide has been coming, and has a lot more to do with 'generalized communications infrastructure' than 'Machine Learning' a la 'Marketo' and 'Salesforce' which has displaced a lot more people so far than 'AI.'

I don't see that as a net loss of the economy as a whole; Nor is it a net gain.
posted by mrdaneri at 7:27 AM on February 11 [13 favorites]


Worker rights are not a popular idea amongst the people who fund Democratic candidates' reelection campaigns.

Yes, and we're also facing a series of crises that are bringing angry people out into the streets, and this is only going to be more of a thing in coming years. If the answer to that is "nothing will ever change because the political system is bad", then we can all stay quietly at home and starve to death. I strongly suspect that the answer to that is actually "we have the Democratic Party, crappy as it is, and it will be changed from within and in response to crisis, also in response to the growth of small socialist parties and organizing".

In terms of UBI: look, without major, major political changes, UBI will just lead us to a Diamond Age-crossed-with-Oryx-and-Crake world, where everywhere except elite compounds will be just like those crumbling towns where half the population is on SSI at fifty and the other half gets twenty hours a week at the Sip-and-Pump. Elites aren't talking up UBI because they want a good life for ordinary people - they want to figure out the minimum they can give us so that we buy stuff and don't rise up. If they can use robot tanks and/or just retreat to utopian domes, that's what they'll do, because they are fundamentally damaged by wealth and privilege.

Equality is good for you; privilege fucks you up - one of the many things I've learned as a white person, for instance, is how whiteness is created by repressing compassion, intuition and polyvocality so that white people can maintain our material privilege while seeing others suffer. It's like how they have to condition soldiers to kill - you have to condition people to ignore the suffering of others. And the very rich and powerful have this conditioning in spades.

Either there's revolutionary change - through a changed Democratic party, through socialism, through aliens, I don't care - or we're headed for, maybe, being bought off by poverty level UBI so we can all go on living in rotting houses on rotting streets until the sky actually falls.
posted by Frowner at 7:30 AM on February 11 [67 favorites]


A universal basic income doesn’t .... protect them from boredom and vice

Because I've never found porn on the work computers, said every IT person everywhere, never.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 7:33 AM on February 11 [18 favorites]


We as a society adapted when first and second sector became mechanized and more efficient by shifting to the third. The problem might be where we go from there, because... yeah. What's left? "Quaternary" is just part of the service economy and sounds a lot like ego-stroking because we're not like those plebs working a till.

“A universal basic income doesn’t give people dignity or protect them from boredom and vice”

Allow me.
Do you know what doesn't give me dignity? having just one pair of pants that is horribly discolored and ripped up in the crotch for years. Not being able to even get a bus fare downtown. Not being able to buy some tools for some (potentially bankable) hobbies I am interested in and have the mind and skillset to put to work. Not being able to find a job because the gig economy is all the rage now and whoever is the most shameless in self-promoting wins. Being so fucking tired of trying everything for the past 15 years I'm to the point on just giving up entirely of accomplishing something. WELCOME TO MY LIFE IN 2016, SO MUCH DIGNITY I CAN'T EVEN.

Also, it seems to me lack of dignity, boredom and vice seem also common with the ultra-rich and their heirs and heiresses. Should we start taxing the living shit out of them and their inheritances just to keep them on their toes, or those are sins only for the poor people? Again.

The UBI is not a magic cure for all societies' problems. It's a patch, part of what needs to be a multiple approach solution for a multitude of situations - my problems wouldn't be solved by a guaranteed job (doing what? working a cable support helpdesk with my fast, muffled voice and short temper with the kind of assholes who "accidentally" subscribed the porn channels and threaten to file a complaint unless the money is returned?) and someone who went to medical school probably wouldn't want to get paid to sit on a chair and look at his 6-year college diploma.
The only magic cure for all that would be a massive asteroid hitting earth and turning this whole planet into dust. That would surely solve every problem.
posted by lmfsilva at 7:37 AM on February 11 [22 favorites]


....People with Ph.D's.

You know what? All those people still have jobs.


Not the middle class truck drivers that the article suggests are getting squeezed out.

Sorry if I took this out of context but there are some pretty strong societal changes coming, but everyone discounts the lowering cost of big screen tv's (50' for $333 and dropping) that will be so much the best opium for the masses. So for get your revolution (except on reality tv with great pratfalls)
posted by sammyo at 7:40 AM on February 11 [4 favorites]


The number of state workers I've seen automated out of jobs to be replaced by undermaintained, buggy systems is staggering. That's the last I'll say.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:43 AM on February 11 [20 favorites]


Frowner, I didn't mean that to say that nothing will ever change. But for things to change without bloodshed, we must understand how corruption stabs at the purse strings of those who we would call allies. A dog will not bite the hand that feeds it, so if you want to avoid killing the dog, you have to change hands.
posted by I-Write-Essays at 7:44 AM on February 11 [3 favorites]


everyone discounts the lowering cost of big screen tv's (50' for $333 and dropping) that will be so much the best opium for the masses. So for get your revolution (except on reality tv with great pratfalls)

Narrator: The #1 movie in America was called "Ass." And that's all it was for 90 minutes. It won eight Oscars that year, including best screenplay.
posted by entropicamericana at 7:47 AM on February 11 [11 favorites]


privilege fucks you up

This is precisely why the US is doomed.
posted by aramaic at 8:09 AM on February 11 [2 favorites]


I am amazed that our elites believe that work brings dignity. The largest blows to my dignity came from having to acknowledge that I was a wage slave. I think it is largely a cover for "If we give people options they will not work for assholes like us".

The economic issue with AI is not that any one job category will become automated. It is that the people displaced by the automation will exert a downward pressure on the marginal wage of jobs they can compete for. So, big races to the bottom in blue collar work and a chunk of white collar work.

Computer scientists working in Machine Learning have a big upside. Others, not so much.

I feel that talk of UBI, social safety nets, socialism and etc. are largely fantastical. I imagine our current rulers will happily ride this train into the ditch.
posted by pdoege at 8:13 AM on February 11 [17 favorites]


What good is everyone being an entrepreneur when there's no middle class to buy stuff, and no capital or credit to start that business? Or is he saying maybe Amway is a good alternative to universal basic income?

Maybe a good trick to backdoor UBI would be gradually making social security and medicaid more generous, and start younger, so that people are more willing to retire, and slowly grow that out to early middle age. Sadly, it seems our corporate overlords already poisoned the public on those programs.
posted by MuppetNavy at 8:13 AM on February 11 [8 favorites]


I think "work brings dignity" is a coping mechanism people when work doesn't bring enough pay or fulfillment, or who feel useless outside their paychecks at home. You don't really hear that kind of rhetoric from people doing what they love.
posted by MuppetNavy at 8:16 AM on February 11 [12 favorites]


I just want a mafia movie that starts where a guy yells, "UGH, I have all the money I want and no need for a job. I'm so BORED. Let's start a syndicate."
posted by MuppetNavy at 8:19 AM on February 11 [4 favorites]


Definitely "work brings dignity" ≠ "work brings satisfaction" or "work brings meaning"
posted by twsf at 8:29 AM on February 11 [2 favorites]


The only magic cure for all that would be a massive asteroid hitting earth and turning this whole planet into dust. That would surely solve every problem.

My ghost, circling the sun alone for millions of years: ugh so dusty
posted by No-sword at 8:31 AM on February 11 [9 favorites]


But after his talk, in the shared toilets of the rustic cabins of Asilomar ...

This is a different sort of thing. Possibly the setting of a high-brow Chuck Tingle novel.
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:31 AM on February 11 [5 favorites]


But after his talk, in the hallways at Asilomar ..."

But after his talk, in the large round tables of the dining hall, the few people who had both seen his talk and were lucky enough to be randomly assigned to his table .... (*)

(*) All joking aside, a conference at Asilomar is awesome. There just aren't hallways.

***

That said, and someone said this in a prior UPI thread, saying "what we need is UPI" right now is like saying "what we need is a deus ex machina." We're not going to get either in this political environment, and I'm not convinced there's any path that gets us there, period.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 8:31 AM on February 11 [8 favorites]


You know, there is a kind of work that brings you dignity. It's the kind that doesn't crush you with doublethink, hypocrisy, and greed. It's the kind where what you produce is acknowledged by everyone involved as necessary to making something that helps everyone, or where what you do helps keep the wheels from falling off.

It doesn't seem like a notion that should be hard to take back.
posted by saysthis at 8:32 AM on February 11 [17 favorites]


It's an ought not an is: work *should* bring dignity, even the grunt work because it's valuable. It benefits other people even if it's crap. Respecting that working people make sacrifices to bring us valuable things is a cultural value you have to choose and reinforce if you want even shit work to actually have dignity. But that requires gratitude and thinking past the end of one's own nose, which aren't growth industries right now.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:34 AM on February 11 [11 favorites]


>privilege fucks you up

This is precisely why the US is doomed.


Indeed, especially if no one ever does anything about it, challenges that privilege, or pushes for change. I mean, in the long view, all societies and empires are doomed, and, in the longer view, humans are doomed, but I don't think that's a very clever retort or useful observation.
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:35 AM on February 11 [8 favorites]


The people who believe in "work brings dignity" aren't referring to work itself as being dignified, but rather to the concept that self-sufficiency, putting in the effort to provide for yourself, etc. creates a free person, who isn't dependent on handouts - and that that is where the dignity derives from.
posted by Spacelegoman at 8:36 AM on February 11 [1 favorite]


And to extend GenjiandProust's point, well, do we want Oryx and Crake as a global outcome? It sure seems to me that we do.
posted by mrdaneri at 8:37 AM on February 11 [1 favorite]


There is simply no way the necessary "pushback" will occur in the US; the society and the people are just too damaged. You're asking for the Titanic to proceed to New York. The damage is done, the ship is going to sink, the only question is how many will die.
posted by aramaic at 8:43 AM on February 11 [5 favorites]


Well, capitalism depends on people buying things as much as making things.
posted by spitbull at 8:45 AM on February 11 [1 favorite]


“A universal basic income doesn’t give people dignity or protect them from boredom and vice,” Etzioni says.


I know I can't think of anything more dignified than starving to death on the street while trying to keep my last pair of shoes held together while the multitudes pass by and sneer.

I clearly remember being a kid in the 1980s and some experts saying a point would come when technological progress would ensure unemployment. That's a big reason why so many people became committed to the Zero Population Growth movement. But then the Eugenics people and racists hijacked it, and the Quiverfull movement and other big-family Fundamentalist movements arose as a backlash, and it somehow all got forgotten.

I guess it didn't work that well in China, but I've always wondered how much of that was due to terrible execution and misunderstanding. I think anything of that kind would have to be done as a slow, culture - and attitude-altering conversation about the future that happens over generations, not an official edict that imposes draconian penalties and rewards on existing families.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:53 AM on February 11 [5 favorites]


Human lives can be cheaper than battlefield robots if you don't have to spend public funds on education, health, or welfare.

Any sort of deployed police robot more complex than a toaster will probably almost immediately be accorded more rights than the average person, so if in some distant future our descendants ever get to the point of making Asimov-type sentient robots, those robots will find it hilarious that we thought robot civil rights wouldn't get resolved until some point after they showed up.
posted by XMLicious at 8:56 AM on February 11 [2 favorites]


The people who believe in "work brings dignity" aren't referring to work itself as being dignified, but rather to the concept that self-sufficiency, putting in the effort to provide for yourself, etc. creates a free person, who isn't dependent on handouts - and that that is where the dignity derives from.

Aren't you just trading one dependency for another? One is no longer dependent on the government for sustenance, but now they are dependent on the vagaries of the labor market. It's not as if, in the United States of 2017, running off to the frontier, massacring the people already living there and starting a subsistence farm is a viable alternative for anyone.
posted by indubitable at 9:07 AM on February 11 [10 favorites]


Most people aren't artists. Being on the dole doesn't lead to an explosion of creativity.

Virtually all children have the potential to be creative. It's just knocked out of most of them by the needs of labour discipline.

We might, at worst, have a generation of whom most never regain their creative potential, and instead spend their non-working lives watching TV, stuffing themselves with junk food and masturbating like caged chimps, out of habit. Then again, when their free time is no longer at the end of a mind-dulling 40-hour week, many of them may find the wherewithal to push their boundaries, and even if they don't paint tableaux or compose operas, find themselves reading up on something they were curious about, or resume learning the language they learned a bit of in high school, or pick up a guitar and try playing it, or something. The next generation, meanwhile, may never lose their sense of creative play.

And then there's the potential of activities that aren't creativity or indulgence but are not exchange labour for money. A population with a lot of free time might find itself enmeshed in webs of social obligation, as in pre-industrial societies. Your neighbour needs some help moving some furniture? Of course, you offer to help; you're not a monster, and s/he would do (and/or has done) similar for you.
posted by acb at 9:09 AM on February 11 [23 favorites]


UBI isn't just about freeing people to become entrepreneurs, hobbyists or artists. The studies done back in the 70s show people were able to take on caregiving for elderly parents or spouses (a demographic that is frequently ignored). It would also provide a chance for anyone in an abusive household to take a concrete step to freedom. Not to mention anyone who currently receives benefits for mental or physician disability would be able to cohabitate with their family or even work as they're able to without losing their security net when they're not as ok.
posted by A hidden well at 9:22 AM on February 11 [49 favorites]


This caught my attention the thread has the source but I can't help agree with the essence of the quote
posted by infini at 9:34 AM on February 11 [2 favorites]


There is simply no way the necessary "pushback" will occur in the US; the society and the people are just too damaged. You're asking for the Titanic to proceed to New York. The damage is done, the ship is going to sink, the only question is how many will die.

I dunno. You might just as well say, in 1600s Europe, that there was no way that Feudalism would fail and that Absolute Monarchy was the way of the world. A closer look, however, shows that Absolute Monarchy was never as absolute as it wished, and that change was indeed possible. Now that change came with enormous dislocations and damage and engendered its own set of problems (because people are people, and it is our nature to fuck things up and leave other things half done). But, as it turned out, change was possible. As a matter of fact, in the Modern period, change seems mostly to have been driven by internal pressures rand the striving of the Body Politic (often in multiple contradictory ways) rather than conquest by external forces, so I would argue that there is no society that is so damaged that it can't change, although the specific damage of any society is going to create preferences to move in one direction or another.

It's possible that we are moving out of the Modern era and into something else, where political and social paradigms will shift again, but that's really hard to see from where we are standing. Ask me again in 200 years, assuming any of us make it that far.

I do know that throwing up one's hands and saying "it's all fucked, why bother?" is not a solution to anything except maybe one's own sense of anxiety.
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:35 AM on February 11 [23 favorites]


Then what we need to do is dig out the writing and narratives and diaries from the eras of inflection and transition between the systems, as you mention above. We would be idiots to simply fall into a Dark Age for no good reason.
posted by infini at 9:36 AM on February 11 [6 favorites]


I'd love to hear Metafilter'd take on Marshall Brain's techno-socialist novella "Manna". I'd love to give it a write-up but its been a while since I read it and I don't hawe time for a re-read today.
posted by The Horse You Rode In On at 9:44 AM on February 11 [6 favorites]


It strikes me that the argument about UBI is pretty gendered: it assumes that people derive dignity and identity from paid labor, which is something that has mostly only been true of men in certain places, and only since the industrial revolution. A whole lot of women, whether they worked for money or not, have derived identity and a sense of purpose from other aspects of their lives. A a lot of the things that women have done, whether for money or not, are things that are particular unsuitable to automation. There's an emotional labor aspect to a lot of those tasks that even the best-programmed computer can't come close to replicating. So maybe, as Frowner sort of alluded to above, the solution here is to value the labor that has traditionally been associated with women, because that stuff has massive actual value, but also because it can't be replaced by machines.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 10:14 AM on February 11 [55 favorites]


I would underline dis_integration's point. I just rolled off a 80 hour week and a go-live of some NLP + 'AI'-heavy automated processing of data. Some of this work was previously done by people. People with Ph.D's.

You know what? All those people still have jobs. And this general, anonymous client is using the cost saving to hire another Ph.D to do even more 'other stuff' that 'people are good at' and 'computers suck at.'

...

I would say, speaking generally, the demographic I would worry the most about are the kids in the 'just going to school' bucket. I could not imagine what accounting, finance, or G&A tasks are going to look like in ten years. It's going to be a smaller field, most likely. But those jobs will still exist.

The caveat is that there is probably going to be a hell of a lot less of 'General Business Systems Degree'-> $100k job copy-n-pasting stuff in Excel for Zenefits.


1.68% of the US population has a Ph.D. Your projection is not comforting.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:15 AM on February 11 [11 favorites]


Forty-two years on, another group of scientists super-rich people and pundit-hucksters gathered at Asilomar to consider a not very similar problem. But this time, the threat wasn’t biological. It was digital. In January, the world’s Silicon Valley and MIT's top artificial intelligence researchers futurist blowhards walked down the same beachside paths
posted by RogerB at 10:46 AM on February 11 [4 favorites]


What 's insane about all of this is that there's more than enough work to do for a new WPA re-tooling our energy infrastructure away from oil and gas, and toward clean energy. It's even non-partisan; democrats have ignored what is happening in the Mississippi Valley, because our states don't count to the national party.

Texas capitalists are even funding clean energy investment, even in Texas, Louisiana workers are machining the offshore wind substructures off Rhode Island. Louisiana capitalists see this as a major threat to their labor pool--if Offshore Wind takes their labor force, who will weld their giant Deepwater Horizons? Who will build Shell's icebreaker drillships to drill the Arctic fields?

One central problem is that there are the super-states, the powerful private interests, like Rosneft, Exxon, whose present-day money ("futures") is tied to a future dependent on increasing oil consumption, even as consumption decreases. These interests are more obvious now in 2017, as they have captured the USA, but they've been there, funding ALEC et al along with smaller, more radical Koch brothers and debt-structured conglomerates like Energy Transfer Partners. They will now use the USA to reduce efficiency and artificially increase consumption (think Bush-era tax credits for Hummers as 'light trucks'). We know Trump has attacked wind power off Scotland.

I imagine that some of the money for automation that comes from the USA will be swiftly removed in the name of white nationalism--how much are these technological changes we are talking about driven by DARPA, by state power, and how much by the capitalists of Silicon Valley, redistributing wealth out of hotels and taxi cab drivers? To the extent that Bannon will want to curry the favor of the truck driving class, i imagine these technologies will be de-funded, and perhaps the capitalists that fund them attacked in the media.

Another twin, central problem seems to be the petrodollar, as it weds the deep state of the USA to oil and gas. This is what I always heard when Bush was talking about as far as "oil addiction." Iran has to sell its oil to Europe in US currency. This means US currency will always float.

What's the quote, '"The treasury is based upon mining, the army upon the treasury; he who has army and treasury may conquer the whole wide earth."

This is what it means for the Keystone pipeline to be a 'national security interest', even though Oil sands costs more to produce than it gives in return. it will end up costing Department of Defense Billions per year to keep picking the Gulf Coast off our rooftops and giving us doctors for all the new diseases that are coming with climate change.

But imagine if the political will existed in the United States to hire enough welders and installers to build out a de-centralized energy grid, re-tool the transmission lines, and remove most of the oil and gas demand for electricity (transportation). To re-build solar power generation?

I know people are cynical about democrats, but this was the vision of the Stimulus. Was it not?
posted by eustatic at 10:47 AM on February 11 [17 favorites]


A specific example of a specific use case, Pope Guilty.

Although there are people using 'AI' to attack certain 'bigger' macroeconomic 'stuff', most of the work that I am aware of, at the actual 'implementation' level-- as of right this second in the industry-- is at the very specific business case level. As always, one person, one person's perspective, and I certainly am just a dude speaking on the internet.
posted by mrdaneri at 10:49 AM on February 11 [1 favorite]


UBI will just lead us to a Diamond Age-crossed-with-Oryx-and-Crake world

I've actually been thinking some of the SF authors I thought were most dystopic may, in fact, have been correct in their projections, to a certain degree.

I predict that as jobs get fewer, having humans perform your jobs is going to be a status marker, and for many the only jobs they can find will be small acts of human service.
posted by corb at 10:51 AM on February 11 [7 favorites]


As a guy who builds and maintains actual complex data driven software, I'm always stunned how ready people outside the field are to insist on how it all works and what it's potential is. Must be sort of like when white dudes get up on a really high horse to make claims about women's feelings about work on their behalf. Most women I know very much consider working connected to having a sense of dignity and independence, and don't carry around some kind of grudge against work because the work of previous generations of women wasn't valued enough. They mostly seem to want us to see their work as having dignity now, not mocking the idea work should be seen that way at all because that's just a scam for the rubes.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:04 AM on February 11 [4 favorites]


This caught my attention the thread has the source but I can't help agree with the essence of the quote

Design For Dasein is one of the best titles I've ever encountered.
posted by thelonius at 11:12 AM on February 11 [3 favorites]


One of the assumptions that people tend to make about why their industry/profession/experience is an exception case is usually along the lines of "yes, I see people doing this in some areas, but my case is different, it is very industry|... dependent and implementations are always full of customization."

Customization for a long time - probably since the 80s - has been a cash cow and a thing that has been in many ways a choice rather than a requirement. One of the side effects of the rise of the SAAS market is that the companies involved want to manage the data and processes in prescriptive, structured ways, which alleviates much of the customization (SalesForce is perhaps the big exception to this and even they are actually faking "customization" with integrations).

Normalization of data *facilitates* automation and that process is well underway.
posted by rr at 11:13 AM on February 11 [2 favorites]


What I picture is a revolution like the one Galileo started when he turned a telescope to the heavens. A thought-reading device breakthrough would inevitably be refined (with AI) to the point where we could create our own animations, films, 3d printing ...whatever.
posted by bonobothegreat at 11:58 AM on February 11 [1 favorite]


You know what? All those people still have jobs. And this general, anonymous client is using the cost saving to hire another Ph.D to do even more 'other stuff' that 'people are good at' and 'computers suck at.'

You know, your math doesn't really work there, and that's the insidious part of the transformation that's happening. Because you think you ended up at +1 job, when actually I'd say you're -3 or so.

In your example, Widget Labs had 3* PhDs working on Project X. The used the AI to take over the work on Project X, put their three PhDs to work on Project Y, and hired a new PhD to do Project Z. Widget Lab headcount=+1.

But prior to the implementation of the AI tech, if Widget Labs had wanted to complete Projects X, Y, and Z, they would have had to hire 3 PhDs for Project X, 3 PhDs for Project Y, and 1 PhD for Project Z. Before this technology, the same amount of work required 7 jobs; now it's 4. -3 jobs.

That's how a lot of this will happen. You're not going to go to see Dr. Robot or Robot Lawyer, esq. But with the help of AI diagnostics, your local clinic may be able to see the same number of patients with only 2 doctors on staff instead of 5. The law firm may have the same number of senior attorney, but instead of each partner having 3 juniors and 10 support staff to help handle their caseload, they'll have 1, and 4.

Being a lawyer is still going to be a thing. But it's not going to be a thing for as many people. And so on, across the board.

The unanswered question is how quickly we can find new things to be instead. Keynes remarked that the market can stay irrational longer than the investor can stay solvent. The economy can remain stagnant longer than you can not starve to death, as the Luddites knew...


*i don't know the actual number here, just plugging something in to make the explanation clearer.
posted by Diablevert at 12:20 PM on February 11 [26 favorites]


Law firms are actually a great example of how technology will and won't change the workforce.

Partners -- whose job is to know unwritten rules as well as written, and predict and influence how other humans will apply that cloudy rule set to partially-known and changing facts -- there are more of them, making more money than ever. Ditto the more gifted and diligent associates.

The less gifted or diligent associates, staff attorneys and paralegals? Struggling, but equivalent in number to 10 years ago, and making between the same and a little more money ... but prognosis grim.

But secretaries and legal assistants? Down between 25% and 80% in headcount. A lot of firms don't even bother giving associates secretaries anymore and have to force young partners to use their secretaries to keep their billing and expense reports in line, and because older clients and opposing counsel still prefer calling to email and would rather talk to a human than voicemail.
posted by MattD at 12:33 PM on February 11 [6 favorites]


Law firms are actually a great example of how technology will and won't change the workforce.

Partners -- whose job is to know unwritten rules as well as written, and predict and influence how other humans will apply that cloudy rule set to partially-known and changing facts -- there are more of them, making more money than ever. Ditto the more gifted and diligent associates.

The less gifted or diligent associates, staff attorneys and paralegals? Struggling, but equivalent in number to 10 years ago, and making between the same and a little more money ... but prognosis grim.

The law industry is a great example but notice carefully the narrative that those who don't get the plum jobs are "less gifted/diligent". That's the narrative those partners would like everyone else to believe. Except it's also an example of the fundamental attribution error in psychology, and so the surface observation that this psychologically incorrect narrative is so easily repeated captures - to me at least - how ideologically tainted and beholden to the status quo discussions still are.
posted by polymodus at 12:51 PM on February 11 [42 favorites]


MattD: That those with capital (human, intellectual, social, etc...) will prosper in the future and everyone else will eat shit and die is exactly the problem that people should be trying to solve.
posted by Grimgrin at 1:13 PM on February 11 [9 favorites]


In the examples of automation I've seen in person, this isn't how it works at all. What happens is some paper process that used to be handled by a staff of 20--30 people gets automated away through an online application process, say. The team of developers who built the software are outside consultants and leave after the system is built, along with the 20--30 workers who lost their jobs, and then if the client is lucky, they'll be allocated some pittance to keep someone on hand to maintain the system, but often, that part never even happens in any systematic way without lots of institutional knowledge loss along the way. Eventually once things get so screwed up due to the lack of ongoing maintenance and support for the system, they hire somebody like me to come in and analyze the system and figure out how it works again so they can keep it hobbling along on BS and duct tape for a few more years. Data rarely ever gets structured or archived properly; the business rules aren't well understood, and no one around can take final responsibility for making the important design decisions about what the business rules should be.

Rinse, lather, repeat, until all the state offices stand as empty monuments to a time of state excess, to paraphrase the man.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:18 PM on February 11 [16 favorites]


It strikes me that the argument about UBI is pretty gendered: it assumes that people derive dignity and identity from paid labor, which is something that has mostly only been true of men in certain places, and only since the industrial revolution. A whole lot of women, whether they worked for money or not, have derived identity and a sense of purpose from other aspects of their lives. A a lot of the things that women have done, whether for money or not, are things that are particular unsuitable to automation. There's an emotional labor aspect to a lot of those tasks that even the best-programmed computer can't come close to replicating. So maybe, as Frowner sort of alluded to above, the solution here is to value the labor that has traditionally been associated with women, because that stuff has massive actual value, but also because it can't be replaced by machines.

In my understanding, Marx's Capital Vol. I had touched on the philosophical case of what happens to affective (a.k.a. emotional) labor and social relations in a future in which technology and automation gets completely "maxed out"; this was one of his thought experiments. And one of my takeaways from that book in general is that we need to be really careful what we mean when we use terms like "value" and "labor".

Second, there are several different arguments about universal basic income and related. A particular argument for UBI can be discriminatory, privileged, gendered, or neocolonial/imperialist. And honestly, I don't even know what the best argument for it is.

It's a simplistic solution to say, let's just pay everyone the "value" of their labor. You get into issues around the definability of labor, around intersubjectivity, and also the problem of social goods--the wrench that says it might be the case that a perfect market solution will never capture and internalize externalities.

An alternative narrative could be that UBI itself may be sensible component of an advanced social democracy. You could flip it around: The market system itself is what's gendered, while UBI exists as the immanent critique/technology against that.
posted by polymodus at 1:23 PM on February 11 [1 favorite]


Polymodus -- somewhat OT but law firms maybe used to be the weekday manifestation of the country club locker room, but they are nerd roosts par excellence these days.

There are zero law firms where an associate recognized as both talented and diligent will not prosper absent some extrinsic blow-up in the economics of his practice area (which will affect its partners even more severely in present-day business models).

Which is not to say there aren't problems.

Recognition of talent and diligence can be imperfect.

Law firms have a structural incentive to make diligent associates believe they are seen as more talented then they are, in order to extract labor until it is convenient to the firm to sideline them for insufficient talent.

The standard for diligence is a cruel one for associates with interests or obligations outside of work, a sprinter-not-marathoner's disposition, and women associates want to have / are having kids.
posted by MattD at 1:25 PM on February 11


The "standard for diligence" is precisely what means the few get richer while the rest get poorer. I know you don't have a problem with that, but I think it is pretty terrible.
posted by howfar at 1:33 PM on February 11 [3 favorites]


The standard for diligence is a cruel one for associates with interests or obligations outside of work,

So it's a system that rewards being unbalanced and not being as invested in other personal and social obligations outside work, basically penalizing people who want to be more grounded and lead better balanced, more socially connected and responsible lives. If that's the personality type the system rewards, but our society actually needs people to be less narrowly career focused to function in a healthy way, then our idea of meritocracy is accelerating the social breakdown, too, as our political classes tend to be products of those kinds of meritocratic systems. If the interests of owners looking for workers who will prioritize their work over everything else in their lives conflict with the interests of the public not to be deprived and penalized for leading balanced, healthy lives, there's a serious conflict of interest between what employers want and what society needs. That's a market failure. So maybe UBI isn't the only approach (I'm skeptical it wouldn't be used as a bait and switch or Trojan horse for eliminating other important public services in the current political environment) but we need some mechanism to correct that selection bias.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:58 PM on February 11 [6 favorites]


Which is not to say there aren't problems.

Recognition of talent and diligence can be imperfect.


Well, as I tend to view things, the problem is how to even contextualize such a philosophical statement/claim. How would you unpack that, and how would you validate it in consideration of all other problems. How do we begin to talk about e.g. ability, and more, potential ability, to echo the Marxian concept of labor power and the varying attempts to describe how it is and can be exploited.

The problem is with the language:

The standard for diligence is a cruel one...

There are two senses of diligence - or discipline, which I'd use from critical theory - the one "inside the box" (emic) used and understood within the industry, and the one you posit as a platonic ideal superior to that one (which is only one particular etic commitment). So the real problem I'd point out is not the imperfect relation between the two, but in your reification of the latter notion in a way that only services the former.
posted by polymodus at 2:02 PM on February 11 [3 favorites]


I suspect that more medical automation will be a very good thing for most people. Medicine is a profession that is perhaps uniquely disproportionately labour intensive for something that is ubiquitously needed. The training is expensive (in terms of both time and money), and the labour of doctors is expensive*. So everybody, at various times in their life, will need to pay for the individual attention of these expensive specialists, in a way that they don't need to pay for the attention of, say, tailors or carpenters; which makes healthcare more expensive (in the US and for those going private elsewhere, to the individual; where there is socialised healthcare, the cost is spread around, but still is sizeable). If the amount of doctor-hours a typical person needs to maintain health can be reduced, healthcare will become a lot cheaper. (Also, the combination of cheaper automated healthcare and the sorts of fine-grained data going beyond occasional medical interviews and pathology tests may allow much quicker diagnoses and more in the way of preventative action.)

* Except in places like Cuba where the state pays for medical training and the doctors earn no more or less than any other comrade, though that may not be possible outside of a totalitarian system.
posted by acb at 2:25 PM on February 11


Automation is a pretty real threat for most anyone whose job involves a computer. Bear in mind that people used to do the work of manually making and calculating spreadsheets, typesetting pages, and delivering memos. Microsoft Office has already eliminated tons of jobs.

More specifically, I work in Japan in the translation industry. AI means that now the agency I work for has to add "explain to the client why Google Translate is not adequate" to their workload, especially given that only a very small portion of the population speaks a foreign language with any degree of proficiency at all. Which is to say, AI and automation are threats to the industry I work in before they even actually become threats to the industry I work in.
posted by DoctorFedora at 2:58 PM on February 11 [6 favorites]


That's how a lot of this will happen. You're not going to go to see Dr. Robot or Robot Lawyer, esq. But with the help of AI diagnostics, your local clinic may be able to see the same number of patients with only 2 doctors on staff instead of 5. The law firm may have the same number of senior attorney, but instead of each partner having 3 juniors and 10 support staff to help handle their caseload, they'll have 1, and 4.

This is going to happen in education within the next ten years, maybe sooner. Instead of having adjuncts teach 101 classes, student work will be submitted to an AI for assessment and adjuncts will be hired to 'monitor ' multiple classes simultaneously. Instead of ten underpaid phds , the department will hire two. Being taught by an actual human will be one of the selling points for elite schools and expensive private schools.
posted by betweenthebars at 3:47 PM on February 11 [1 favorite]


This is going to happen in education within the next ten years, maybe sooner. Instead of having adjuncts teach 101 classes, student work will be submitted to an AI for assessment and adjuncts will be hired to 'monitor ' multiple classes simultaneously.
To some extent, that's already happening in some classes, like lower-level math classes. And a lot of first-year classes are already not very labor-intensive because of much less sophisticated technology, such as scantron machines that quickly grade multiple-choice tests. There are plenty of 101 classes at the university where I work that are basically 500 students in a lecture hall, and then they take bubble tests that are graded by a machine. But I actually think that some college classes, including the ones that are currently the most labor intensive, are going to be pretty resistant to AI, at least until AI gets a lot better. My sense is that AI is nowhere near being able to tell whether an essay makes a coherent argument, for instance, so for now all the jobs for freshman comp instructors are safe.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 4:15 PM on February 11 [3 favorites]


mrdaneri, this has been brought up before, but assuring me that Ph.D.s still have their jobs isn't really helpful when talking about the millions of transportation jobs that are about to be eliminated. And no, it's not that AI is some boogeyman, because as you say, Salesforce and its ilk have already eliminated tons of jobs already. If anything, Salesforce and its implementation + layoffs should be a clear warning sign to how large business are going to deal with full automation. Again, anything that saves the company money, or that reduces costs is going to be implemented, even if not gleefully, then on pain of shareholder lawsuits. As mentioned up thread, Ph.D.s are a tiny fraction of the population. Not everyone can, or should, become incredibly specialized in one facet of education. And fuck, not everyone should *have* to spend ten years after high school to get a job that, like yours, requires 80 work weeks. The people you dismissively point to as people "just going to school" are there because they've been told that's the only way forward, but those ideas are about to become painfully behind the times.

The plans by McDonalds and Hardee's to introduce kiosks to eliminate staff is just the tip of the iceberg. AI isn't the problem, it's the rapid advance in automation and companies that are allowed to believe they don't have any sort of requirement to be a part of society, rather than just leeching from it.

If you want a metaphor, look at meat processing. For years, and still now, the incredibly dangerous labor has largely been done by hand. But look at what happened about five years ago now with the public realization of pink slime, or its proper name, mechanically reclaimed meat. Machines strip every last bit of tissue from the bone. Not a scrap of potential profit is wasted, but the machines were only implemented when they were clearly able to generate profit. Leaving aside people's reaction to the scraps being treated and reconstituted into meat products (I mean, kids gotta have their ChikiNugs) this is an example of what business will do for profit. The second a machine or software becomes an acceptable replacement for a human worker, the human worker is going to be layed off. That some small, science and technology focused sliver of the 1.6% of doctorate holders will keep their jobs is of absolutely no comfort to the rest of society as a whole, and arguing that everyone should become that highly educated is willfully ignoring the staggering inequality already present in educational opportunities, and that's even before DeVos has been the Secretary of Education for a full week.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:07 PM on February 11 [9 favorites]


Must be sort of like when white dudes get up on a really high horse to make claims about women's feelings about work on their behalf.

Which you proceeded to do. Come on, dude.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 5:11 PM on February 11 [4 favorites]


I only spoke on behalf of some women I know, specifically because we've talked about this. I didn't make any claims about "women."
posted by saulgoodman at 5:24 PM on February 11 [1 favorite]


Studying academic philosophy and programming has ruined me because I'm sure that's probably too fine a distinction to make in polite conversation, but it's huge to me.
posted by saulgoodman at 5:30 PM on February 11


The plans by McDonalds and Hardee's to introduce kiosks to eliminate staff is just the tip of the iceberg.

They already have those at a lot of the counter service eateries at Walt Disney World. And now there's at least one where you order your meal online months in advance, and just scan your wristband when you get to the restaurant.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:40 PM on February 11


I think the idea that any work confers "dignity" regardless of the type of work, benefit to society, or amount of remuneration is some Calvinist just-world bullshit designed to enforce complacency with a broken system. The sooner we can take it out behind the woodshed and put it out of its misery, the better. Perhaps we can build a robot for that.

Is it dignified to work for insurance companies denying life-saving treatments to those who need them? To tolerate endless abuse at a customer service job, gritting your teeth into a smile because if you give any emotional response, you'll be out of a job and your kids won't eat tonight? To work in a coal mine until your lungs give out on you? Telemarketing?

A job well done can confer a feeling of self-satisfaction and pride, but the idea that it always does, and that furthermore, that this sense of "dignity" is more important than being able to reasonably provide for your family in a volatile and shrinking labor market, is pretty suspect. "Wow, I sure am glad I had to take that second job! Now I can have twice the dignity!" said nobody ever.

Income inequality is huge, and it's going to get worse before it gets better. More of the "It can't happen to me because I'm not like those craven layabouts" people need to figure out that, yes, it can and will happen to you, before UBI or public works programs will get much traction. In the meantime, the job market will increasingly resemble a game of musical chairs.
posted by Feyala at 6:19 PM on February 11 [31 favorites]


Machines are not yet able to replace humans in the corner cases or deal adequately with the unexpected.

Have you went and HIRED people? There is a whole section of the workforce that can't deal with corner cases or a change from the routine.

An example in law is document disclosure ("discovery" in the US), which frequently takes a huge amount of work, but which is already being automated by electronic systems.

And the Enron corpus (the emails from the Enron case) had a 11% better rate of 'useful discovery' by automated means VS some of the best lawyers - and that was 2+ years ago.

Scoff all you want about "AI is around the corner - per the 1960's" but OBVIOUS things exist NOW, TODAY that did not in the 1970's or 1980's.....self driving cars. And today I can get "AI" for $35 raspberry PI's via the Android Things project.
posted by rough ashlar at 6:32 PM on February 11 [3 favorites]


Am I wrong to remain skeptical that an utterly destabilizing AI revolution is indeed coming? As far as I know there really haven't been any significant conceptual breakthroughs. Just improvements in speed and scale of long understood techniques.

Unfortunately, you are wrong. There has been a major conceptual breakthrough. It happened around 2007 and the consequences of that are now why lots of people in the know are worried about AI replacing humans.

If it helps any, one of the first industries to be profoundly hollowed out by this will be the finance industry so enjoy your schadenfreude while it lasts.
posted by andrewdoull at 7:16 PM on February 11 [3 favorites]


I should point out that I'm no expert in the field but one of my friends heads up an AI lab near where I live and when I last spoke to him at length about this a year ago they had started hiring anthropologists.
posted by andrewdoull at 7:24 PM on February 11 [2 favorites]


Personally, as a real human, I know that when I get AI anxiety, nothing gets me through quite like Doritos (TM). Doritos, the XTreme Coping Mechanism for the Employed Human. Amazon Prime link in profile, click for 30% off new Inhalem (TM) size bags for the super anxious!
posted by saysthis at 7:26 PM on February 11 [1 favorite]


Am I wrong to remain skeptical that an utterly destabilizing AI revolution is indeed coming? As far as I know there really haven't been any significant conceptual breakthroughs.

As others have pointed out, there have been a couple breakthroughs. But even if there hadn't, and/or if there aren't any more, it won't matter. The tipping point is where we are on the FLOPS/$ curve. A few more doublings of FLOPS/$ make it possible for machines to do a lot of the pieces of what humans can do, without any more knowledge.

The AI revolution doesn't require us to create complete artificial people or sentience. It only requires us to cost effectively replace various individual activities performed by humans in the economy.

In fact, it is exactly that it doesn't require huge conceptual breakthroughs that makes it likely to occur rapidly & thus be destabilizing: everyone's going to be able to do it at the same time. Which means everyone will have to do it.
posted by lastobelus at 7:32 PM on February 11 [2 favorites]


...where "it" refers to replacing human labour with machine labour.
posted by lastobelus at 7:33 PM on February 11


If you're anything like me, robots can't replace you, and you know it. Real Humans do Real Work (TM). No algorithm can replace a Real Man (TM). But sometimes the human touch needs a little boost, and that's why when my human brain needs a little human hormones to get the juices flowing, my XTreme BioClaw (TM) reaches for an Inhalem (TM)-size bag of Doritos, the XTreme Coping Mechanism for the Employed Human.

Was this message persuasive? Enter your email to answer a quick survey for a chance to win a Raspberry Pi loaded with the brand-new DoritosOS (TM) and a GoPro so you can share your XTreme Coping with the world!

(FAKE)
posted by saysthis at 7:40 PM on February 11


Andrewdoull, you mean recombinant neural nets? Or something else?

In any case the AI angle is just a part of the problem of tech.We're not ready, technology is evolving faster than ever, and it has reached a point where your job is almost guaranteed to be obsoleted during your life. And switching career when you're older is still really hard. This won't end well, unless we restructure our societies to be about something else than capital and work.

Some jobs will be safer longer because the professional associations control entry and will fight hard to protect their members (physicians come to mind). But ever those... how long can radiologists really justify their expertise when you could input the millions of X-ray done per year + the diagnostic and train a really good neural net. But there so few of those it won't matter.

The thing is all of this is good, less meaningless work, easier life (compare a washing machine VS going to the river and washing your clothes on rocks) but we have to stop the few from gathering all the rewards. And we have to do this while providing people with agency in their lives, which the current capitalist system is good at.

One thing I'm really afraid of, is autonomous vehicles completely disrupting real estate markets. Doesn't matter as much if you live out of the city if you can sleep during the ride or do something else, plus I'm convinced you get 3x the throughput on the same road network when you kick out the human drivers. This would probably crash the economy again if it happened.

Basically the world is changing too fast to make reliable long term decisions anymore, and its not a reality we recognize yet we need to address this.
posted by coust at 7:50 PM on February 11 [9 favorites]


One thing I'm really afraid of, is autonomous vehicles completely disrupting real estate markets.

This is where the old site Oil Drum would point out the oil energy used for moving machines. Under 10% is for getting food from the fields (and to market). 30ish% was for car xport.

The limiting factor is going to be the energy used for the transport. Battery based transport limit the physical distance.
posted by rough ashlar at 8:01 PM on February 11


The limiting factor is going to be the energy used for the transport. Battery based transport limit the physical distance

If your car can drive itself to a charging station you only need battery for a bit more than one leg of the round trip, even with current batteries it seems like pretty good distance. I'm not claiming its going to happen for sure, just that I'm afraid of it.
posted by coust at 8:07 PM on February 11


Is this the same coming revolution in AI that's been coming since the 1960s?

1. At the end of the 60s, a 50MB HDD was about half a cubic meter and cost about $170,000 in today's terms. The 8TB harddrive on my desk that I just bought for time machine cost 1/1000th the price and has 160,000 times the storage. The cost of storage is 1/150,000,000th the cost of storage at the end of of the 60s.

2. The cost of a FLOP/s has decreased by around 6.5 orders of magnitude since the 1960s. The cost of a MIP/s has decreased by nearly 8 orders of magnitude. In general, the cost of raw computing power is about 1/10,000,000th the cost at the end of the 60s.

It's still not quite enough computing power to cost effectively replace swaths of workers. But it's approaching the cusp. In 7-8 years, we'll have 10 times more computing power/$ than we have now. Even if Moore's law is almost over, it won't end before another order of magnitude. Clock speed might not go up much more. But density will. FLOPs/$ will.

We don't need any big conceptual breakthroughs for AI to become (more) significant. We just have to wait for the next order of magnitude increase in computing density to be utilized.

For god's sake, man: Go has fallen!

And, have you been to translate.google.com since December? If you haven't you need to.
posted by lastobelus at 8:08 PM on February 11 [4 favorites]


Also one thing I'm curious about is... let say we pool all our resources (I mean all of them, every country on earth) and dedicate ourselves to providing the best standard of living, what would it look like? How much food and housing can we provide if distributed equally? How does it look if you take money out of the equation and just focus on using the labour/resources?

I know this sounds very communist and is very idealistic, but I can't help but think that it's much more we think is possible.
posted by coust at 8:13 PM on February 11 [1 favorite]


And, have you been to translate.google.com since December? If you haven't you need to.

I have, but can you tell us why we "need to"?
posted by thelonius at 8:25 PM on February 11


I have, but can you tell us why we "need to"?

I was speaking to someone trying to float the "they've been yelling AI since the 60s, what's different now" mantra. The new translate.google.com is AI. It's not perfect, but it can preserve meaning through a round trip. It doesn't do it by being sentient, or by "understanding". It just does it by lots and lots of computing, computing that no human needs to explicitly understand.
posted by lastobelus at 8:50 PM on February 11 [1 favorite]


Here is the result of a round trip (English->French->English) on GallonOfAlan's comment

Is it the same revolution that is coming out in the 1960s?
Are we obviously closer to a real AI than we were 30 years ago as opposed to pattern recognition labeling and similar as AI to create the next big tech hype bullshit avalanche?


Whether you consider the work Google did last year to achieve this to be a "conceptual" breakthrough or not, it is clearly a massive breakthrough in utility.
posted by lastobelus at 9:12 PM on February 11 [5 favorites]


To the extent that AI displaces people, it'll help them realize that capitalism doesn't give a damn about anything but money. It doesn't give a damn about animals, or the trees, or the water ... they're just resources to be taken and used up in service of a very few. Why should 'human resources' (their words) be different?

In 30s film Metropolis, it was humans laboriously serving the machinery. Until the riches of Earth are extended to all living things, the living will become poorer and poorer. All the living.
posted by Twang at 10:26 PM on February 11 [1 favorite]


Anyone who says that money can't give you dignity, or having a "full stomach but an empty soul" sure as hell as never been starving poor.
posted by Alnedra at 11:59 PM on February 11 [17 favorites]


dis_integration: Am I wrong to remain skeptical that an utterly destabilizing AI revolution is indeed coming?

Leaving aside the loaded term "AI" — it's been a movable feast since the 1950s and basically boils down to "anything we don't know how to do on a computer is AI; everything we can do on a computer is just computer science"— I submit that several such destabilizing CS revolutions have already happened and there's no evidence that they're over.

When was the last time you sent a handwritten memo to the typing pool to be typed up?

When was the last time you dialed the (human) telephone operator?

When was the last time you wrote and posted a physical letter instead of an email?

When was the last time you worked for an employer that didn't do all its bookkeeping electronically? Or put money in a bank/financial institution ditto?

The trouble with this stuff is that it's pervasive, and barely noticeable once it arrives until we start to remember how things used to be different.

But a raft of jobs have been rendered completely obsolete or reduced to a rump supervising automated processes. Along the former: copy typist, computer (when it was a job description, not a machine), flight engineer, milkman, draftsman. Among the latter: bookkeeper/accountant, video editor, journalist, technical translator, auto engine mechanic (on the fault diagnosis side).

Now. What is the current trend for virtualization of computing resources and hidden layer neural network data analysis ("big data") going to do next? That's the question — and it looks as if these tools are finally gaining the ability to affect physical activities (such as vehicle operation) as opposed to abstract activities (e.g. vehicle route optimization).

wrt. your closing point about the real solution being socialism, not UBI: I agree, but that's an illegal assertion within the frame of discourse that WIRED tolerates.
posted by cstross at 2:18 AM on February 12 [8 favorites]


Can we all at least agree not to call them "robots"?
Robots will be the things which throw the kids off my lawn.

I feel this is important somehow.
posted by fullerine at 3:24 AM on February 12 [3 favorites]


Here is the result of a round trip (English->French->English) on GallonOfAlan's comment [...] Whether you consider the work Google did last year to achieve this to be a "conceptual" breakthrough or not, it is clearly a massive breakthrough in utility.

Think of all the plagiarism jobs it will create!
posted by XMLicious at 3:39 AM on February 12


Basically the world is changing too fast to make reliable long term decisions anymore, and its not a reality we recognize yet we need to address this.

Yes, exactly this. And it's happening because of deliberate investment choices and other decisions made by the wealthy and politically powerful, but they refuse to take responsibility for the choices, preferring to think and describe them as "inevitable" and driven by vague, market forces beyond human control.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:48 AM on February 12 [5 favorites]


Yes. Exactly so.

Either it's how to hold them accountable or do a #deleteUber on the most egregious. I've seen which works.
posted by infini at 7:12 AM on February 12


If your car can drive itself to a charging station you only need battery for a bit more than one leg of the round trip,

The better plan is to change up the roads. the RUF monorail design becomes an option if "room temp" superconductors make changing out the grid system a design need.

To spitball things - lets say you need 1,000 watts for 1 Horsepower. (744 watts is a common number, but for the ha-ha's lets have some thermal losses and electrical-chemical-electrical losses be enough to get to 1k)

Lets also round down the 200 amp home service to 20kW for ease of spitballing.

What is the horsepower to move your car in a steady-state at the highway speed limit?
If you drive for an hour, somehow that same wattage needs to be added back into the car so it can drive for another hour. Lets just say 20 HP.

If the 'charging station' is going to fill up your 20kW of go-juice you used in an hour that charging station is gonna need a way to get power to it.

Now lets spitball the amps of a high-voltage transmission line - medium duty. Lets say 1000 amps (the numbers are summer daytime normal of 1144 to 1756 winter nighttime dump) 1kV to 69kV is the range for what is a medium duty line. And lets make it a 1kV line.

So 50 cars can be recharged in a hour. Lets just round that to 1 car a min with magic that allows 20kW to be stored in 1 minute. (Most chemical storage tech is long to store, quick to discharge. Hence the use of "magic" to simplify charging otherwise the charging places will need space to store all the cars being charged AND time to keep the drivers occupied. )

What is the cost of a transmission line? A 138kV line is $400K overhead or $2 million below ground based on the 1st google hit I spotted.

Now you should have a sense of the cost for rural VS urban location of people based on transportation costs if the US of A was to follow The Norwegians.

Now go ahead and GENERATE all that go-juice.

2. The cost of a FLOP/s has decreased by around 6.5 orders of magnitude since the 1960s.

The FLOP cost is only one side of the equation. The other side is the cost of your worker.

The hourly rate that goes in the workers pocket is only part of the spending for a worker. Training, unemployment insurance, cost to hire them, friction with others, friction that results in a lawsuit because it turns out they are litigious, health inspection failure due to their inability to do the work properly/them CALLING the health inspector once they were fired, videos they put up on the internet that 'go viral' showing some form of body emission entering the food - the lists go on and on.

The 1960's didn't have rules about sexually harassing like today so that company founder from the 1960's who in the 1970's told employees not to date other employees as this was "his fishing hole" and in the 1980's/1990's paid a few fines to the State for harassment and is still being skeevy in the 2010's (but FAR less effective because while he aged his target o 20 year old women didn't). There were also not rules about hair nets, gloves, the whole OSHA regbook, et al. Robots can't bring (yet) the same level of drama to the workplace that you as an employer has to pay for if you opt to keep the drama-loving employee for. Robots only due what they were coded to do. Not to mention a robot is not late and if they are a no-show you can design the 'bots to be able to be rolled in/out so a replacement to the broken bot can happen quickly.

Go look at the articles about $15 an hour minimum - the threat from the fast food makers is to put in robots. And if you think a robot can't do the job - Eatsa is trying to show that the 'bots ARE up to the task.
posted by rough ashlar at 7:15 AM on February 12 [1 favorite]


Along the former: copy typist, computer (when it was a job description, not a machine), flight engineer, milkman, draftsman. Among the latter: bookkeeper/accountant, video editor, journalist, technical translator, auto engine mechanic (on the fault diagnosis side).

You can also add Goldman Sachs day traders to the list.
posted by Pryde at 9:26 AM on February 12


“A universal basic income doesn’t give people dignity or protect them from boredom and vice,” Etzioni says.

. . .but having newly unemployable people and their children dying of starvation on the streets is ok, yes?

Good thing our welfare system works so well.

Oh wait.
posted by ananci at 11:20 AM on February 12 [1 favorite]


Hey all. (My first post here, wish me luck!)

I prefer UBI because it saves us from the mess of calculating the worth of work. You, human, are inherently worthy of a life with dignity, and making sure you have enough money for food and shelter and clothing and basic entertainment is one way we can do that for each other as a society.

Best case I've ever seen for how to make it happen: Star Trek! Yes, really. :-D
posted by xannifer at 12:43 PM on February 12 [6 favorites]


That said, and someone said this in a prior UPI thread, saying "what we need is UPI" right now is like saying "what we need is a deus ex machina." We're not going to get either in this political environment, and I'm not convinced there's any path that gets us there, period.

One of the things that is appealing in a way about the idea of basic income is that interest in the idea actually seems to cross the political isle somewhat - for example hardcore libertarian types tend to like it, and various Silicon Valley heavy-hitters are interested. On the other hand this is not unrelated to the reasons that some on the traditional Left don't particularly trust that ordinary people would be given more than peanuts.
posted by atoxyl at 6:59 PM on February 12 [1 favorite]


the idea actually seems to cross the political isle somewhat - for example hardcore libertarian types tend to like it, and various Silicon Valley heavy-hitters are interested.

I get that it seems to cross the political isle, but that's irrelevant unless people are widely interested. I suspect ideas which are popular among all Democrats or Republicans are more likely to get implemented than ideas popular among fringe groups on both sides.

Like, I can see the problem and I can see how UPI might be a solution. But that doesn't mean it's going to happen, and I can honestly see far more ways in which it could fail than ways in which it could succeed. (We can't get health care right, for crissakes. And I can see it intersecting with immigration in really messy ways.)
posted by steady-state strawberry at 7:14 PM on February 12


I imagine that some of the money for automation that comes from the USA will be swiftly removed in the name of white nationalism [...] To the extent that Bannon will want to curry the favor of the truck driving class, i imagine these technologies will be de-funded, and perhaps the capitalists that fund them attacked in the media.

You can do a much better job through regulation, and it doesn't require fighting private industry nearly as hard. You just enact protective regulation around the jobs done by people you want to reward (e.g. professional owner-operator OTR truck drivers, if that's your thing) and don't create them around the jobs done by people you don't like (taxi / carshare drivers, pizza delivery people, etc.), and then you let the invisible hand do the dirty work.

The best way to accomplish this, if you were of a mind to be subtle about it (not that the current Administration seems to care), would be to selectively empower or destroy at the regulatory-agency level rather than intervene directly in the regulations themselves. So you let the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration make regulations about vehicle automation within their purview, which happens to cover OTR trucks, but not the NHTSA or DOT or whoever would have authority over the Dominos guy. And the net result ends up being regulation that keep humans in a supervisory role (which does have some edge-case benefits) only where it's considered politically desirable.

Something to keep an eye out for in the near future.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:20 PM on February 12 [1 favorite]


Robots and Automation are not (Necessarily) the problem.
UBI is not (necessarily) the solution.

If your political and economic system views the ability to create / move / supply anything with no human labour as a bad thing then ultimately there is something wrong with that system.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 6:01 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]


Possibly dumb question: can someone explain how SalesForce killed/kills jobs?
posted by zeusianfog at 4:24 PM on February 13


"If your political and economic system views the ability to create / move / supply anything with no human labour as a bad thing then ultimately there is something wrong with that system."

Do you have any examples of a political/economic system in use today that you feel is adequately compatible with this future?
posted by Selena777 at 6:50 PM on February 13




I do not have an example of a replacement system.
I think historically anyone who suggested a system whereby all the surplus value created was spread around equitably has not been well treated by the people who currently get most of that surplus value.
But if, theoretically, someone invented star trek replicators* and everyone could create, on request any food or tool they needed how would capitalism react?
Pretty badly I'd expect. It's the same thing, here is something that is demonstrably beneficial to humans and human society, but a serious problem to capitalism.
So, to get back to earth a bit, if you can automate a process (building, driving, etc) such that it can be done at massively reduced cost, greatly improved efficiency, environmental impact etc, but it doesn't require a human to do it, that's the same problem. Great for humanity, terrible for humans. Purely because of the way resources are distributed.

I'd recommend reading Bertrand Russell's in praise of idleness. The classic example is that of the pin factory:
"Let us take an illustration. Suppose that, at a given moment, a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins as before. But the world does not need twice as many pins: pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacture of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralizing. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still overworked. In this way, it is insured that the unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all round instead of being a universal source of happiness.
Can anything more insane be imagined?"


*yes, this is a reductio ad replicators argument.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 4:49 AM on February 14 [2 favorites]


>>“A universal basic income doesn’t give people dignity or protect them from boredom and vice,” Etzioni says.

>From my experience, neither does amazing wealth.


From my experience, neither does a food service job, retail job, or cube-farm job.
posted by entropicamericana at 6:19 AM on February 14 [5 favorites]


Do you have any examples of a political/economic system in use today that you feel is adequately compatible with this future?

Have you looked into the almost 100 year history of Technocracy?
posted by rough ashlar at 8:28 AM on February 14 [1 favorite]


So, don't call it a UBI, and don't make it "universal;" call it a gov't sponsorship of community-oriented labor, for the purpose of Making Strong American Families and Cultivating Community Values, and pay everyone who does housework, childcare, eldercare, and/or attends any school that receives gov't funding.

... If some bright folks noticed that that's pretty much everyone, let them. Point out that the big problems with recessions and the scrambled economy are caused by vast amounts of undervalued, unpaid labor (usually done by women, but don't mention that part or they'll scream at you for being a feminist, which somehow will disqualify you from having an opinion about economics), and that The Solution is obviously to arrange for the labor that supports the country to be paid.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 4:36 PM on February 14 [3 favorites]


« Older Meatspace   |   Enjoy dessert. Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments