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CGP Grey: Humans need not apply

Great video essay about automation and the pro/cons of robotic labor.  Highly recommended viewing.

[more at reddit] [via michellzappa]

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Humans need not apply
Robots are coming for your job
You are obsolete
GG Humanity

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CGP Grey - Humans Needs Not Apply

This video really ties together all the important things you need to know about automation and future economies.

H/T realitychemist

The problem isn't technology, it's exploitative business models

Klint Finley

Former Twitter engineer and Simple co-founder Alex Payne writes in response to yet another rant by venture capitalist Marc Andreesen:

We could go back and forth all day on what exactly defines technological change – I certainly have before. But what labor wants is self-determination, not a slowing of technological change. Taxi drivers protesting Uber aren’t saying that they want apps out of their cabs. They want leverage to negotiate wages and working conditions so they aren’t barely scraping by. The pushback is on exploitative business models, not technology.

“Let markets work”, you say, “so that capital and labor can rapidly reallocate to create new fields and jobs.” Well, we’re three decades into an era of systemic deregulation and financialization. The result? Global recession, lingering structural unemployment, and an accumulation of capital at the top of the economic pyramid. In this climate, capital has indeed “rapidly reallocated” … into hard-to-tax, hard-to-regulate asset classes like fine art. Small business loans are still crunched and austerity reigns while tens of billions in corporate profits sit in off-shore tax shelters.

The “severe macroeconomic down cycle, the credit crisis, deleveraging, and the liquidity trap” that you mention in passing? We “let markets work”, and that’s what we got in return. It’s been a failed experiment for everyone but the 1%. Dismissing “the crisis of inequality” as just a “pessimistic economic theory” has not been, historically, a move that’s gone well for aristocracy.

Full Story: Alex Payne: Dear Marc Andreessen

See also:

Marc Andreessen’s Crude and Nuanced Tech Cynicism

Rusty Foster on Andreessen

I honestly cannot wait until the day comes when fast food restaurants are fully automated except for 3 employees: a shift manager, a token greeter and human relations representative, and a maintenance person to take care of equipment in the event it breaks down.

Between the burgerbots and the POS terminals, we are practically there already. No more wrong orders. No more patronizing employees, no more customer horror stories. Everyone is serviced and everyone is happy.

Technology Replacing Jobs

The trend is obvious. A rapid change in the next decade where plenty of “service personnel” in our “service economy” will be wiped out, as more and more economic power is consolidated in those who have capital and those who do not.

Pizza?

Amazon?

B-but, PoL, that’s just pizza and Amazon!

I hope my audience is not that naive. I hope you recognize that when the FAA finalizes their rules for UAV commercial flight in the U.S. come next year, and the major corporations start to utilize this, all of your service sector employees and cashiers (Target, Wal-mart, etc), the men and women in grocery stores, these places will drastically reduce their workforce to a bare minimum in the name of automation.

After all, was this not what happened in the video game industry with Steam? With Blockbuster and Netflix? People seem to prefer to stay in their house and download, rather than go to a store and deal with some snotty minimum-wage clerk, the crowds, and the lines.

This is the path of least resistance, this is what “progress” looks like. You come from work, you don’t want to stop at the store, you just want to go home and relax, you just want to stay in on the weekend; it’s time to go on Wal-mart Air, or Whole Foods Air, your credit card info is already loaded, your “favorite items” are already on your grocery list. Anything and everything will come from regional warehouses, delivered right to your door.

Who wouldn’t want convenience like that? Sure some brick and mortar shops will stick around for a while; going to a fast-food restaurant will once again become a niche experience. Where human labor can be replaced, it will be.

Since I have always preferred making plans to executing them, I have gravitated towards situations and systems that, once set into operation, could create music with little or no intervention on my part. That is to say, I tend towards the roles of planner and programmer, and then become an audience to the results.
—  Brian Eno
Lump of Labor: Certainly a Red Herring (And Possibly not a Fallacy)

I have written before that it is OK to worry about the effects of automation on work. One frequently encountered response is that this worry is wrong, that having it is committing the Lump of Labor fallacy. Marc in particular has been bringing it up a lot, including on Twitter, in a blog post, and a recent interview.

But this is a red herring. One can legitimately worry about the transition even if one believes that the Lump of Labor fallacy is in fact a fallacy. So let me posit for a moment that it is a fallacy (more on that later). Even then the adjustments in the labor market are likely far slower than the displacement effects from automation. Employers can fire people quickly. People take a long time to acquire new skills and find new jobs (and these jobs need to be created first). We have ample of evidence for that from the industrial revolution.

In the industrial revolution agricultural work disappeared much more rapidly than factory work was created. This resulted in an oversupply of labor which allowed factories to pay a pittance, have horrible working conditions, no vacations, etc. The social upheaval that resulted brought us the revolutions of 1848 in Europe and contributed significantly to both World Wars.

We are again experiencing something similar. Why is it possible that ISIS has been able to recruit over two thousand Europeans to join them? One of the key reasons is that youth unemployment in European countries is above 20% on average — that’s 1 in 5 young people without work.

So Lump of Labor or not, we need to do way more than we are about the adjustment. Especially because we have created a situation where the returns to Labor are low at the same time that the returns to Capital are high, which is causing the unprecedented levels of income and wealth inequality. We had a similar situation at the outset of the industrial revolution (due to the effects of land ownership) but the two World Wars managed to destroy enough of the existing wealth accumulation to create more equality for a while. That is really the central point of Piketty’s book.

Now let me address Lump of Labor itself. People who think it is a fallacy argue as follows: we use machines to do something, that frees up labor to do new things which are additive to the economy (and which we can now afford to do as the machines are doing other stuff). So: we used to work in agriculture, then we worked less in that but added manufacturing, then we worked less in manufacturing but we added services.

Now we will work less in services but we will add X. That’s historically correct up to now but it is legitimate to disagree on (a) what is X and (b) how much will anyone get paid to do X. Here are some possible concrete examples 

X = healthcare including caring for older people (the last part is particularly promising due to demographic shifts)
X = cultural production (making music, art, etc)
X = cleaning up the environment
X = traveling to the stars

Marc says he is “long on human creativity" which I interpret to mean we won’t run out of answers to what is X. And I completely agree with that! We will always come up with interesting things to do. But that is only one half of the equation.

Here is the other half of the equation: just because we work on X doesn’t mean we get paid to do it or paid enough. We do plenty of things today already that used to be work at one time but we now actually pay to do them, such as sailing a sailboat or riding a horse. So what determines whether you can get paid for doing X?

First, it is supply and demand for the output of X. And many of the logical X’s currently have insufficient demand (in price terms not necessarily in quantity terms). For instance what is the paid demand for cleaning up the environment? Even caring for older people has an issue here — yes we have lots of people getting older but many of them have no retirement savings, so the paid demand for care can’t come from them directly. Others of the logical X’s suffer from over supply, such as cultural production (eg 100 hours of vide uploaded to Youtube every minute). So it is entirely possible that the market clearing price for many of the possible X’s is low or even zero.

Second, it is the potential for substituting machines in the production of X. In order for X to produce a return to human labor, human labor must be cheaper for that activity than machine labor. There is simply nothing in economics that says this must be the case. You have to go outside of it and somehow construct an argument that machines cannot be cheaper. One place you can look to for that is where people specifically are paying to interact with a human but the list of those isn’t super long.

So in order for Lump of Labor to be a fallacy two conditions must be true. We must have enough new activities X that have a meaningful market size and where humans are better than machines at producing them. Nothing inside economic theory can tell you whether these conditions will be met. You have to go outside of it and appeal to say history, as in “Lump of Labor was a fallacy during the first industrial and second industrial revolutions so I believe it will be a fallacy again” against which someone else could argue “Lump of Labor turned out to be true for horses so there is precedent for other factors of production.”

Where I come down personally is that this is first and foremost a (re)distribution issue both in the transition phase and once we are past that. Here I am supporting for something along the lines of a Basic Income Guarantee which I believe is a better solution than growing the public sector. If enough people have access to some basic income we vastly increase the likelihood that both conditions are met in the long run and Lump of Labor will once again be a fallacy. I also believe this is an issue of creating new markets where there currently aren’t any and one prime opportunity here is the environment and within that the leading candidate is carbon. That would open up a very substantial X, eg reforestation, solar installation, etc. that is currently under priced.

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