Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Review/Analysis of "The Lights in the Tunnel"

I recently bought and read "The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future". You can get a copy here: http://www.thelightsinthetunnel.com/. That includes the option of a PDF that you pay what you want for. The book isn't that long. I thought it was well written and an easy read so neither time nor cost are real excuses for not reading it.


The short review is that I thought this was a great book and I think everyone should read it. When I read the introduction I literally felt like I was reading my own thoughts. The main premise of the book is that exponential improvements in technology are going to lead to automation taking over a lot of jobs and creating a situation where the average person in the US can't find jobs. If you go through this blog you'll see I've been saying similar things. The author, Martin Ford, said it before I was really thinking about it though. This book was published in 2009, probably around the time I really started considering the topic.

While I tend to focus on technology and society, this book brings in a lot more economics. What happens when a large fraction of people are out of work? They have no income and stop buying things. That leads to a downward spiral. The author is a big supporter of the free market. However, he makes it clear that our economy is driven by the mass market and that for the mass market to work, you have to have money in the hands of the masses. The success of our economy isn't driven so much by supply as it is by demand. Robots and computer programs don't buy things. If automation makes enough industries capital intensive instead of labor intensive, you don't have enough people with money to spend and things go downhill.

One of the big differences between this book and what I have written about on this blog is that Mr. Ford isn't even pushing things hard on the technology side. He isn't looking at strong AI. He isn't going into the things that sound more Sci-Fi. I think that is a great strength of the book because even people who don't believe in strong AI or who question things like the Singularity can't deny that robotics can do things like Soap.com (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6zXOW6v0c8s) or many other examples of places where automation is making industries that had been labor intensive much less so.

This book also presents some solutions. However, I'm not going to repeat all of his arguments or his solutions. The reason is that I think Mr. Ford has done a great job of doing that in a very crisp and succinct manner. Attempting to paraphrase would only screw things up. Instead I simply suggest you read his words for yourself.


Of course, this doesn't mean I agree with everything in the book. So here are a few things I disagree with. You might consider coming back to this after reading it. I would argue that these are details. They don't impact the main conclusions of the book. However, I think they could impact people's choices and perhaps policy decisions so it is worth bringing them up. The book shows that without changes we will go from point A to point B. Nothing I say here will change that. All that changes in my view is a few wiggles in the road. I also present one other suggestion for how to make things work better on his suggestions to help us get to point C (which is a much better place than point B).

My only significant disagreement with Mr. Ford is that I disagree with his analysis of which jobs will be automated early and which ones will stick around. He expresses repeatedly that anything that is easily outsourced will be automated and that things that don't outsource are "safer". It seems to me that he is basically saying that software AI is a lot easier than robotic AI.  I agree that robotic AI is hard, but I think he is too broad in his conclusion that software AI can take over all knowledge jobs. This leads him to a number of other conclusions that I disagree with, but I think it is worth explaining why I disagree.

In the book, an example of a "safe" job that he gives in a truck driver. In 2008-2009 I can see how some people might have thought that. In late 2011 no one should believe that. The Google car should have made that clear. That is only a normal car, but there is work happening in the EU that is specifically aimed at long-haul trucks. Truck driving seems to me to be one of the most unsafe jobs you could train for today. Other examples in the book are house keeper, car mechanic, and plumber. I don't see house keeper as safe either. I think that object recognition systems are getting too good as are systems that have mobility without rolling around. Car mechanic might work, but only for "older" cars. As he mentions in the book, newer cars will probably be built such that robots can do repairs. I expect that to be especially true of electric cars. Plumber might be the best option for a safe job in this list. It combines the need to go into a normal house, work in areas that are often highly cluttered, and other factors that I see being really hard to automate. Granted, I think automation will get there, but if someone is looking for a job to train into that won't be automated too soon, plumber might be a fairly safe one.

On the other side, Mr. Ford assumes that all knowledge jobs and anything that can be outsourced is easy to automate. His main example is a radiologist. I agree 100% on that job. I expect computers will do that better than humans very soon if they can't today. However, he paints with too broad a stroke here. To see why, consider other jobs that can be outsourced: creative writer and graphic design artist. There are people working on getting software to do those things. However, I think most people would agree those are really challenging to automate, even if they are software only, no robotics involved. He doesn't mention those, but he does mention programming. I point out creative writer first to make it clear I'm not just "defending my turf". This isn't a knee jerk defensive reaction to telling people they shouldn't major in CS. I strongly believe that writing software has more in common with writing fiction and painting than it does with building bridges. What is more, unlike creative writing, software construction has been proven to be non-computable in the general case. The Halting Problem demonstrated that as one of the earliest results in CS. That doesn't mean computers will never be good programmers. At some point I expect they will get as good and better than non-augmented humans. After all, humans put bugs in code too. However, it isn't at all straightforward and I would argue it will be very hard to do. It will certainly take longer than automating truck drivers and house keepers.

So my main complaint is that I think Mr. Ford draws the wrong line in saying what jobs are "safe" in the near future. It isn't about whether it is a knowledge worker or not, it is about algorithmic describability. It is about "art" vs. "science". This also means that it isn't about college vs. non-college type jobs either. The real line has a lot more nuance to it. Still, Mr. Ford's conclusions stand. Over time that line will move and more jobs will rely more heavily on automation because they can. Thanks to the natural optimization of the market system, they will. The result will be that companies put a lot less money into the general public through employee wages or that the money is much more concentrated in a few individuals with specialized skills.

In his solutions, Mr. Ford mentions a number of changes to policy that will help to preserve jobs. They basically remove government forces that go against job creation. Things like payroll taxes and job based health insurance are policies that put an extra burden on companies that hire humans. To preserve jobs we want the cost of employing a human to be that person's wages, nothing more. Adding additional costs just gives employers a reason to try to do the job without a human. (Or in the case of outsourcing, an American. Employers don't pay FICA on non-US workers.)

I think there is one other big policy change that Mr. Ford misses. We need to remove the minimum wage. In fact, I think this might remove some of the hurdles he goes through talking about job sharing. The minimum wage sets a bar where, when the cost of automation goes below that bar, industry will flip 100% from humans to automation. If automation really does bring prices down the way it should, some money is better than no money, and having a job making that money is better than sitting at home while a robot does it. For those worried that people will be squeezed to the point where they can't live, I'll just say that Mr. Ford introduces other ways of getting money into consumer's pockets. They aren't handouts, but they help to keep our system running.

There are inevitably other tweaks that would have to be made to Mr. Ford's proposals to make things work, but on the whole I found this book to be very valuable and I honestly wish we could get everyone in the country to read it. Life moves pretty fast and technology is making the pace even faster (in an exponential way). I agree with Mr. Ford that we are going to have to make some changes in how our society works to keep up with it.

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