Wednesday, June 29, 2011

is Martin Ford right enough? does it matter?

In evaluating Martin Ford's thesis in The Lights in the Tunnel, the question isn't whether he's entirely right. Rather, to have no point he must be entirely wrong, otherwise the danger remains that he might be right enough, that the process he outlines might in fact result in economic collapse due to a collapse of effective demand (demand combined with purchasing power), brought about by a too many jobs being taken away by automation.

On the other hand, does it really matter, given an economy that seems to depend, for its long-term health, on an infinite supply of land, water, raw materials, and labor (or its mechanical substitute), an infinite market, and an infinite landfill, none of which actually exist? If the collapse of demand doesn't bring it down, something else will.

The need to fundamentally restructure our economic arrangements is looming and unavoidable.

Moreover, by reducing the need for anyone to engage in dangerous or demeaning work, robotics may actually make this transformation easier.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

augmentation: the other side of the robotics coin

Toward the end of the first installment of my response to Martin Ford's The Lights in the Tunnel I said the following:

just as technology enables automation, it also enables augmentation - strength amplification, protection against environmental hazards, heads-up displays providing just-in-time information, enhanced senses, precise manipulation, eye tracking, voice recognition and synthesis, etc. - making what the average human worker is able to perform a moving target

Under pressure from the growing complexity of the aircraft it produces, Boeing has been a pioneer in using virtual reality overlays to provide people possessing general skills with the specific technical information needed to perform the tasks at hand, making it unnecessary for workers to be experts on the systems they build or maintain. That expert knowledge is maintained in a database and served to the worker just when it's needed. (Such an approach could also enable farmers to maintain robotic machinery with which they had no prior experience.)

DARPA has demonstrated keen interest in providing soldiers with wearable equipment that can enhance their strength and stamina, allowing them to carry more weight further, faster, over terrain too difficult for wheeled vehicles. They have also funded fully robotic solutions, but so far that augmentative approach looks more promising.

These examples combine nicely. A factory or maintenance facility worker with a powersuit would be able to handle heavier parts without the need for hoists, and a soldier with a heads-up display would be less likely to get lost, or to waste time and effort on inefficient paths.

Telepresence and teleoperation make it possible for human workers to be on the scene, instantly, when needed. Using the example of an automated transportation system this could mean welcoming passengers and verifying that they and their belongings are entirely inside the vehicle before closing the door, ascertaining a destination, operating active components to secure assistive devices, checking whether problems develop en route, insuring passenger security at the destination before opening the door, checking whether the vehicle needs to be cleaned or repaired before being used again, and actually directing the vehicle anywhere it needed to go outside of the track/guideway system, with the aid of onboard sensors and intelligence. For each of these functions there might be an automatic mode, with a human operator monitoring in questionable circumstances and intervening whenever the automatic mode proved inadequate, when experience suggested that it would be likely to do so, or when a particular passenger had indicated a preference for dealing with a human operator and time permitted.

When a human is part of the solution, you get a highly evolved brain and basic senses in the bargain. Ford makes the point that, for many jobs, what a human brings to the table is more than is needed, and that providing technical analogs for just the portion that is needed is commonly either already possible or within reach. While I grant the truth of this, I also want to point out that within reach and affordable are far from being the same thing, and that just because you can replace a person with a machine in a particular circumstance doesn't mean that doing so constitutes a reasonable business decision. Moreoever, the 'excess' capacity of a human worker may be just what's needed to prevent an anomalous situation from turning into a disaster, saving the company far more than the difference between wages and benefits and the cost of ownership and operation of some replacement machine.

Because technical augmentation tends to move human workers from mind-numbing work into positions where they are both more stimulated and have a higher level view of the overall operation, it also pays off in terms of developing experience in those workers as individuals and in the workforce as a whole.

Aside from the simplest repetitive tasks, the return on the investment dollar for technology to enhance a human worker's capabilities is very likely to be both greater and more immediate than the return on investment for the more sophisticated technology needed to actually replace that worker.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

where businesses are putting their money

The post Man vs. Machine on the NYTimes blog Economix is closely related to my ongoing discussion of Martin Ford's The Lights in the Tunnel, and lends support to his contention that economists are wrong in their off-handed dismissal of the possibility that automation/AI/robotics may produce permanently high unemployment, resulting in the collapse of the economy, unless something is done to preserve consumer spending power despite unemployment.

The comparison between change in spending on equipment and software versus change in spending on payroll and benefits is particularly telling. Employee compensation is growing, but at about one tenth the pace.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

agricultural robotics and employment

At least with regard to agriculture, the effect of robotics upon employment depends on the approach taken. If your goal is to further reduce the number of people deriving an income from farming, and you are willing to accept any other sort of expense to that end (autonomous tractors for instance), then you can probably manage to reduce the percentage of the workforce engaged in agricultural production to an even smaller fraction of 1%.

If your goal is to maximize the production of those crops that are easily produced and handled in bulk and survive long-term storage well, in the interest of generating return on capital investment and foreign exchange, and only care about how it's done insofar as that impacts the bottom line, you might conclude that capital expenditures to further minimize payroll would generally not be cost effective, that it would cost more to replace the remaining workforce than to keep it.

However, if you're interested in guaranteeing the sustainability of production far into the future, despite climate change, while also halting soil loss, ending the use of poisons, preserving remaining diversity in both crop and native genomes, and rebalancing production for healthier diets, you may need both more sophisticated machinery and all the people you can recruit.

Such a complicated goal implies complex operations, and complex operations imply a large variety of tasks, some easily mechanized and others common enough to make mechanization worthwhile, even though challenging. Those that are neither common nor easily mechanized will fall to human workers, farmers and farmhands, who are far more adaptable than any machine.

At some point in the future it may become possible to build machines adaptable enough to take the place of a farmer, but until the annual cost of ownership of such a machine drops below the annual cost of one human worker, it won't make economic sense to deploy them, and without an infrastructure to drive down the cost of robotics, that may never happen.

Cross-posted from my Cultibotics blog.