Monday, October 18, 2010

Automation and Social Change

I haven't posted in quite a while. Life is busy and I didn't feel I had all that much to say. However, some things have come into my mind that I thought might be worth putting up here.
This is an article that I shared on Facebook. This is something that I had thought about a fair bit, but this opened my eyes a little because I had made a few mistakes in my assumptions. The article focuses on how robots are replacing middle-class jobs. I have been thinking for a few years about the fact that robots will be replacing jobs and the impact that would have on society. I made a mistake in my thinking though in that I was considering the most vulnerable jobs to be at the low end of the pay scale. The idea being that those are low skill and easy to replace. I hadn't seen that happening so I thought this was just something for the future.

In reality low-skill jobs often require things that are hard to make robots do. What is more, they don't pay much so the robots will have to be really cheap before they can replace humans. The mid-level jobs are much more vulnerable because if they are repetitive, the pay scale is high enough to validate using robots instead. So automation eats away starting at the middle, not the bottom. That makes slight alterations to the social implications, though the fall out in the end is similar.

Something else happened recently that brought this topic up to the front of my thinking.


This is further ahead than I thought things were. Not in a bad way. I really want my car to drive itself. I don't care a bit if it flies. I just don't want to have to drive so I can be productive on the way to work or anywhere else.

The reality is that computers are going to eat out larger and larger fractions of the job market in the coming years. When they can drive, transportation and warehouses will be completely run by machines. Humans will just get in the way or only come into play for oversight. As time goes on the amount of oversight will drop. Once the robots are cheap enough, they will flip your burgers and make your fries. You will only be served by a human if you want to pay for the "personal" aspect of such service.

This will have a huge impact on society. Yes, the automation improves efficiency and reduces the cost of everything, but what happens when unemployment soars because there simply aren't enough lower level jobs to put people in? Today's unemployment numbers of ~10% are a significant concern. What happens when that goes to 30-40% because so many jobs are automated? It will then continue to grow, assuming society doesn't fall apart. How far it goes depends a lot on ones beliefs about the limits of computing power and AI. It also depends on the rate of development of wetware. Here are some different options:
  • Societal collapse - modern society is rather delicate in that we all need a lot of infrastructure to do things. Anti-automation mobs could push things over the edge and send us into a modern version of the Dark Ages.
  • Human Utopia - This could happen with either a high level of weak AI or a well behaved strong AI. Automation takes over everything and humans just sit back and enjoy it doing whatever they want. Think Wall-E here. However, the implications of this aren't all that clear. What happens to humans who don't have any motivation to do much of anything? The first generation probably behaves much like their parents, but I could see this going in odd directions after a few generations.
  • Singularity - This is Ray Kurzweil's prediction. This requires strong AI and that wetware keep up enough so that humans can integrate themselves ever more tightly with the growing capabilities of the AI. A more negative view of this might be the Borg from Star Trek Next Generation.
  • Human Eradication - What happens if you have strong AI that has a will of its own and wetware doesn't keep up? Think Terminator or the Matrix except remove the plot line because humans don't stand a chance. The computers become self-sustaining and increase in efficiency and capabilities exponentially. We become insignificant and if we are lucky they just ignore us. If we aren't luck they see us as competition for resources and eradicate us.
  • Elite Workforce - This is one that occurred to me yesterday that I haven't heard anyone discuss before. What happens if you get really weak AI? It isn't just inferior to humans, it never manages to be capable of some of the top level activities we need in society. Then 90+% of jobs get automated, but you still need smart humans in the remaining 10% to keep things running. What world does that leave us with? It probably depends on how the 10% of employable humans treat the rest of humanity.
There are probably cases I'm not thinking of. Feel free to comment on those. So what is the time line for these things? I think that in 10-15 years we will start seeing the impact of the social squeeze of more things being automated. However, things won't really blow up until the 20-30 year time frame. That is when we will find out if AI can be strong or if it will always remain weak. We'll also see how well wetware does in keeping up the pace with normal hardware. One way or the other, I fully expect to see a very different society before I die.

Additional note: A few years back I saw a Microsoft presentation on the Virtual Receptionist technology. Here's a link. Just another segment of jobs that can disappear in a few years.