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What did the tech CEO say to the worker he wanted to automate? (marketplace.org)
192 points by jamesjyu 1603 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 222 comments



The thesis of the audio clip appears to be that an unsolved problem with automation is what becomes of the automated workers.

My girlfriend works in a government job, at a regulator.

Most jobs there exist because they insist in dealing with paper forms instead of internet ones - for most employees, half the work is in correcting invalid forms (e.g. no contact address).

The other half is in applying rules that they have to know because they have never been codified in a database (instead living in large regulation documents).

Recently, they have been downsizing. One of the employees that was fired was primarily responsible for sorting emails that arrive in a centralized inbox, allocating them equally to staff. She also ordered stationary, and watered plants. When she left, she was entirely replaced by 2 Outlook rules, one to allocate the mail, the other to periodically order stationary by automated mail.

I wonder what will become of that lady. She had a fear of technology, not even mastering how to send email though it was her primary role for 5 years. She regularly cried in the office, and when asked to do anything outside that small role, approached a nervous breakdown.

There are a lot of people who are not able to cope with advanced roles, by which I mean normal jobs a normal person could perform. Either we are willing to pay for them to be comfortably unemployed (as the CEO implies we should be), or we are not. I suspect we are not. So they will be punished, and made to feel terrible, until they are diagnosed with something and can be disabled. At this point, their livelyhood relies on not being able, and this seeps into the soul.


Yes, to be provocative about it, here are some options for what to do:

1. Support them comfortably for the rest of their lives, retrain the ones who wish to be retrained. (too crazy?)

2. Euthanize them in a kindly fashion, ie with laughing gas. (obviously ridiculous)

3. Euthanize them in a cruel way, ie humiliate them by making them beg their families for care and resources, starve the ones with no family. Let them die of exposure if they haven't saved a fortune and can't cope gracefully with rapid technological progress. (the way we've been doing it)


Optional number 4: Turn them into resources in the for-profit criminal justice system when they eventually turn to using and selling addictive drugs.


And this is why I often put the concept of basic income in terms of what we could be paying for people to be in jail instead when explaining why I support it to my more economically conservative acquaintances.


#1 won't happen - there's too many people who want to toss unproductive people aside like so much dead wood. Unproductive people cost money and there's a whole school of thought in the US that really, really (and I do mean really) resents that.

#3 is already being done and it's working as intended (not that it is a good thing by any means), although it seems to be inefficient as far as that first group of thinkers is concerned.


You did a very good job of making it sound as though it is someone else's fault, even intention, when someone fails.

Of course, calling failure "euthanization" is ridiculous fallacious bullshit.


1. The post was intentionally provocative. I said so in the post. I don't really care about the blame as much as the solution.

2. It is a serious dilemma for me. I've worked in, and now I teach industrial automation. I have probably automated thousands of peoples' jobs away. While I don't believe it is my fault, or my client companies' faults that there are box packers and fruit sorters who are unemployed. I do feel enough responsibility that I should at least advocate for the people's sake. I also don't think it is the fault of the workers. One thing I do know is that wide-scale automation of labor is a potential social disaster if we don't figure out how to handle the transition gracefully.

3. I'll double down and tell you my opinion that "euthanasia" is really too kind a word for what happens to the sick who are also poor in this country. Do I think it is deliberate? Maybe, judging by the priority policymakers have placed on alleviating the problem.


Personally, I love your #3. When you put it that way, it is insane that we think it's cruel to kill someone swiftly and painlessly by giving them drugs, but perfectly reasonable to kill someone slowly and painfully over a period of years by gradually denying them the necessities of life.

It boils down to diffusion of responsibility. If you kill someone directly, someone is directly responsible. But if you just let them go out into the world without the means to make a living, everybody is sort of responsible together, meaning no individual is strongly responsible at all.


That's a big problem I see, too. In the past, the productivity increase caused by automatisation was either used for export (driven by economic growth in other countries) or domestic growth. At least in Germany baseline unemplyment increased all the time, so.

Now, that increased productivity isn't eaten up by external parties the basic options are

1. Stoping right here and wait (won't happen in our world)

2. Find a way to provide a living for the people no longer needed in any given economy (it's not their fault after all, and it seems to me that there's enough wealth for everybody)

3. Or continue with your option 3. Sadly enough I think it will be option 3 for quite a while.

Looking at the situation in some european contries right now (like Spain or Greece, maybe even Italy and France) which have somewhere around 50 % unemployment at the under 25 year olds this situation is already creeping up on us, slowly but non the less.


`euthanazia` implies that somebody is doing something to another, in this case that we actively make them suffer a cruel sort with the intention of killing them.

It's obviously not my intention, nor do I think it is the intention of most. I believe it is more correct to simply state that human life can be tough walk. If you don't manage to keep your head up, you'll suffer the wrath of some evolutionary conspiration.

We as societies can try to alleviate that minimum suffering by choosing to provide basic needs. Some societies decide to do it, some don't. I believe societies who don't are of this opinion because they are blind to the benefits, not because they are evil.


>I believe societies who don't [provide for basic needs] are of this opinion because they are blind to the benefits, not because they are evil.

It's likely also a side effect of the current structure, which dictates that we must all work. Of course, this mantra is required to encourage people (especially low wage workers) to continue working.


It is a simple fact than many people (especially those aged 50+) are basically not re-educable. It is pointless of you to try to start an argument over blame or whether they should be called failures, because such a discussion does nothing to solve the problem, and does not even effectively address the question of whether the problem should be solved.


> It is a simple fact than many people (especially those aged 50+) are basically not re-educable.

This is nonsense. It greatly exaggerates a small age-related difference in the acquisition of new skills.

I have five Android apps on Google Play, I picked up Android programming over the past two years in my spare time with no great difficulty, and ... wait for it ... I'm 68.

https://play.google.com/store/search?q=paul%20lutus&hl=en

So much for your appeal to simple facts.


I'm glad you're not one of the "many people". Neither are my parents - they're also very enthusiastic about adopting new technology. But my parents are also constantly bitching to me how many of their same-aged friends refuse to learn anything new. My parents want to share photos of their travels using tools like Flickr and Facebook to their friends, but their friends just refuse to learn anything new past the year 1999, so e-mail it is.

If you believe most 68-year-olds are gung-ho about learning Android programming, I think you'll find you're a bit mistaken.


> If you believe most 68-year-olds are gung-ho about learning Android programming, I think you'll find you're a bit mistaken.

I think you're right. I was only objecting to the absolute character of the original pronouncement, as thought it were always true, not that there isn't evidence for it in many cases.


Read my comment again, and point out where it was being absolute and implied that something was always true. You've been arguing against something quite different than what I wrote. Perhaps you're overly sensitive to potential age-related discrimination, since the age factor wasn't even the main point of my comment.


You picked up Android programming in your spare time, after having been a programmer for decades. That's not a counterexample, and even if it was, I certainly didn't say that all older people are unable to learn a new career, I said that many people are, especially older ones.


> You picked up Android programming in your spare time, after having been a programmer for decades.

True, but the thesis being tested is whether I am re-educable. Android programming is certainly not 6502 processor assembly-language programming.

> I said that many people are, especially older ones.

Fair enough, I may have overreacted to what seemed to be an overbroad generalization.


those aged 50+) are basically not re-educable

The word for that is ageism, it's a growing problem in the IT industry.


Well the ancient COBOL programmers got their revenge when they were begged to come out of retirement. I suppose that 20 years from now people will scramble to find someone that understands how exactly this 50K lines xml moves the enterprise java mission critical system that haven't been updated since the great crash of 2015.


Ageism is when you don't hire or promote someone on the assumption that an older person can't do the job or won't be as good at it because of their age. What I was referring to are the people who don't even apply for the new job because they don't believe themselves capable of changing careers.


We're all just 1 technological improvement away from failure.


"You did a very good job of making it sound as though it is someone else's fault, even intention, when someone fails."

Do you think it is always the fault of the person for failure?


Odd that for those who hold a certain worldview, people are always responsible for their own failure or success, yet never responsible for the impact their actions have on others.


This is why the idea of a basic income has taken off within the futurology crowd (including myself).

We have to do something about these folks and fairly quickly because it will be upon us soon I think.


How many people died of starvation caused by the inability to acquire sufficient calories (i.e. excluding anorexics) last year in the USA? How many people are living on the streets who simply can't find anywhere to spend the night (as opposed to simply too mentally ill to look)?

Being first-world poor is certainly miserable and can have deadly consequences but this type of bs exaggeration just hurts the point you seem to be trying to make.


Not many starve, but many are homeless. And no, not all homeless people are lunatics off of their meds.

Basically, if you don't have a support system and have any of a number of serious events (layoff, dovorce, criminal conviction, medical event, return from military service, etc) take place, you have a high probability of becoming homeless, at least transitionally.

Being poor is often miserable, and misery brings on all sorts of bad behaviors. People need to feel some threshold measure of security and control. You can be poor and fulfilled, but modern urban living makes that difficult for many.

I find this entire article a little ironic. You have some smug CEO of a company (that offers a glorified messageboard intended to allow companies to provide mediocre customer support) lashing out like a child about a labor dispute and jobs he knows nothing about. I wonder how he'll feel when his business gets blown away by some open source project.


> Basically, if you don't have a support system and have any of a number of serious events (layoff, dovorce, criminal conviction, medical event, return from military service, etc) take place, you have a high probability of becoming homeless, at least transitionally.

Homeless under the HUD definition[1], sure. Homeless in the sense the original post in this discussion used it (i.e. at danger of death from exposure) no, that's quite usual in the circumstances you've outlined. Almost always in those cases there's a couch to sleep on or at least a car to stay in.

[1] https://www.onecpd.info/resources/documents/HEARTH_HomelessD...


Ok, so by your definition, it's essentially impossible to be homeless in a place like South Carolina or California, because folks are unlikely to die of exposure?


It was fnord that brought up our alledged status-quo policy euthanasia of the unemployed via starvation and exposure.

However, you are right that may last comment may have over-stretched the point. Sleeping under the stars in SC is just as homeless as sleeping under the stars in NY. Still, I don't think there's much of it going on among the non-mentally-ill in any state.


Maybe I'm just optimistic but she must be able to do something productive. Even if it's sewing toys together for children or making sure the elderly don't fall over. To me that's one of the benefits of a basic income, to help people find their niche, as humble as it may be for some


I like how you construct your 123 answers to support your own opinion. You would make a good politician.


People like this -- and I've known several -- are suffering from an acute case of knowing their situation perfectly well. They know that they don't warrant the salaries they're receiving for the work they do. They fight against any improvement to their systems because the inefficiency is their job security. They feel constantly threatened because they understand that people coming up behind them just don't need them. That's why their nervous and irritable. The biggest problem with these folks is that they grew old between the ears, and think they can't adapt to their changing circumstances. If they would, they could learn to be more valuable in other ways.


Human ability is not liquid enough. She has already been mistrained/miseducated by the time her skills have become obsolete.

Either she's going to end up jobless, poor, and constantly fighting the change that took her job away, or she's going to educate herself enough to join a new career.

In the former, there's a loss of economic value because she's going to be working against progress while at the same time not contribute economically because she keeps fighting for keeping the things the same old inefficient way.

In the latter, she's being punished for picking the wrong career path that society probably partly encouraged her to pick.


You're spot on with that thesis. Automation is inevitable. How we react to it is what's going to matter. I tried to encapsulate that here: http://rrwhite.com/on-the-inevitability-of-automation


Two remarks about taking the booth lady as an example:

1) Her job has already been automated, thus validating the automation thesis. Her job has/used to have two aspects: ticket sales, and information. Tickets are now being sold by automatons, and she only has to handle the edge cases of people unable to use the machines, or the machine failings. As for information, most people will now use convenient smartphone apps to navigate BART, and she will only handle the few people who don't --tourists or people unwilling to use smartphones.

2) She was a terrible example in that you cannot automate her, since she is precisely what is left after the automation of her job. The work that comes to her is what did not fall into the automated use cases.

The value of some jobs is the human contact, or human interface they provide, and she falls into this category. This is also why we won't automate, say, barmen, or waitresses.

But what CAN be automated about BART, are train drivers (absolutely unnecessary in our day and age), and train dispatchers. They don't do consumer-facing human interaction, and machines would do their jobs better. And in time, they will get automated.


At the time of this comment, there is a post on the HN front page titled "More Connected, Yet More Alone" (link: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=6312076 ). One thing that automation like this misses is the much needed human interaction. Yes, humans are not as efficient or dependable as machines (not yet). But we are now entering a rather depressing period in history where human interaction is set aside in favor of digital and mechanical efficiency.


Y'know, I may be missing something but I don't feel like I get much out of the fleeting interaction I have with checkout people. They are almost always "tuned out" and any kindness they dispense is completely rote. If we're worried about human interaction, fire the checkout people and hire more greeters.


Oddly enough, I find the "tuned out" nature of most checkout people to be an opportunity. At least for the past fifteen years, I play a game with checkout people. My goal is to get them to smile. I make some comment about something, anything, with the goal to get them to respond and hopefully smile at me, and take me as something other than one of the hundreds of people they contact each day. I'm about 90% successful, but I keep trying for 100%. Every once in a while, either I'm really distracted or I see they are so distracted that I don't try. I have an ulterior motive: as I polish my skill at making a random stranger smile, I get better at tossing out a verbal gambit on very short notice to an attractive stranger.


Yes, whether they are completely disinterested or overly cheery the majority of the time they appear that they couldn't care less about your transaction.

Which is fine, it just feels less weird of an interaction when it is a machine that doesn't care.


http://xkcd.com/1227/

Your complaint is nothing new. People will always be able to romanticize the past.


The present is better (for humans) than the past. But that doesn't mean that everything is better.

When I go to Safeway, and have to go through a self-checkout, I do feel less connected to the people around me. When I order delivery, it's online through GrubHub, not over the phone. It's fairly obvious that automation is decreasing the amount that we have to interact with one another, and some people dislike that.

This is a specific problem that's because caused by automation, even though automation solves many other problems. It's a problem that should be thought about and fixed. And your attitude of "things are generally better now, so don't complain" is utterly counter-productive.


I absolutely reject your assertion that there is any net harm to be mitigated. Automated customer service reduces those moments where human interaction is required, but in the process frees up time for us to devote to more meaningful forms of human interaction. It certainly doesn't prevent you from interacting with other people, just frees you from the obligation of some fleeting encounters. And I personally don't find those encounters to be all that rewarding on average - a good customer service experience doesn't brighten my day much, but an avoidably bad one really kills the mood.

You should probably learn to accept the fact that some people want the option of having a business transaction be strictly business, without the overhead of social conventions of politeness. This does not make a person anti-social, it just makes them not so pathologically extroverted that they need human interaction (error-prone, and still relatively impersonal over the phone) just to order a pizza.


I never said there was any net harm; quite the opposite. Nuclear power is incredibly useful and relatively good for the environment, but there is the risk of meltdown. While it's a net positive, there are still issues that should be discussed and dealt with.

The fact is that much of our lives is spent doing things like buying things, eating out, et cetera. And for many people, spending your time doing those things without any human contact is lonely. It may not be for you, but you don't speak for everyone.

I absolutely believe in automating as much labor as is possible. Nonetheless, I think there is room for improvement in how society functions so that we get both efficiency and, for those who want it, human contact.

I do, however, reject your premise that automated customer service is better than in-person help. I am not an expert at checking out groceries in the same way that a cashier is. I go much slower through the process, and have to focus more on that. Right now, automated customer services largely serves to cut down on costs, not to improve service.

(I also never said anyone was anti-social. I do think that "pathologically extroverted" is needlessly insulting, and "need human interaction" is a strawman. I don't need a cloth napkin either; I just prefer it.)


I think this was excellent observation - one that I did not make the first time around.

I am unsure if I find it compelling that there is some utility in having a person there for the human contact piece. If you were able to remove the person and retain the usability within a non-human interface (to an equally useful or better replacement) would people say "I wish there were a person here?"

I would like to say no for most cases, I think there are a few people who would prefer that almost in spite of the efficiency gain.


Often the staff you see "standing around" or doing menial jobs have more complex roles than one might appreciate at first.

People say "I wish a person was here" in emergencies and on their worst days. When a dress gets stuck in the escalator, when the disabled need assistance. When people are impaired or confused or just looking really distressed. When the station needs to be evacuated.

Some of this can be outsourced to the general public (although I find it a little callous to do so), some cannot.


The whole reason her job remains is that it is very difficult to have the same usability in a non-human interface, in a manner satisfactory to human users. So, from a practical point of view, such an "if" is kinda pointless. Ask yourself if you prefer IVRS interfaces on the phone, or talking to a human.


Ask yourself if you prefer IVRS interfaces on the phone, or talking to a human.

Neither, I prefer a decent mobile-ready website. Why should we be limited to a dumb audio pipe?


> This is also why we won't automate, say, barmen, or waitresses.

Hold on there -- it's already being automated in Japan (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s0Z1EaFFICI ), Germany (http://www.engadget.com/2007/08/27/fully-automated-restauran... ), etc. Here in America there'll be some resistance but I'm pretty sure we'll go through automation in restaurants/bars as well. The driving force is economic benefit, sooner or later when these robots keep get less expensive, it'll start to make more economic sense for restaurant owners to have a robot server instead of a human server (no wage to pay, no health insurance to pay, no pension to pay, no risk of accidents or inconsistencies, no fear of getting things stolen, no fear of tension between BOH and FOH (common problems in a restaurant)). Savings will likely be passed on to customers, they won't have to tip, and so ultimately a large subset of consumers will eventually accept it. Except of course, a very small minority that is interested specifically in the human interaction... so, much like the lady in the article, the server job will not completely disappear, but it will be heavily minimized. And like there are tools with which customers can buy tickets by automation, customers will be able to order on things like E la carte ( http://elacarte.com/ YC-funded by the way). A server's job is cut in half with E la carte. Restaurant owners will realize that servers are doing half the work, so you need half of them now anyway (or alternatively, they now need half the pay... which will make the server job half as attractive).


One novelty restaurant != all-around automation. Computers are unbelievably, mind-bogglingly stupid, compared to pretty much any human capable of putting his pants on without outside help. So I wouldn't count on robots replacing humans in actual customer service - on the contrary, I expect companies that do not provide proper human interface start losing customers to those who do.

>>> Except of course, a very small minority that is interested specifically in the human interaction.

It's not like pubs/bars are universally known as places where people go to socialize... No, of course nobody actually needs any human contact, everybody is a hikikomori nowdays.


I agree with much of what you have said -- I think you misunderstood my original post, I'm not claiming these jobs are going to be completely eradicated from society come another 20 years, I just simply think that they'll decrease in numbers by a considerable amount. So a restaurant that once used to have 10 servers working at any given time will need maybe 3 or 4 with automation going on.

> So I wouldn't count on robots replacing humans in actual customer service - on the contrary, I expect companies that do not provide proper human interface start losing customers to those who do.

Right, but that's for the /edge/ cases. Like when you're going through automated calls and the robot voice has you go through a process of giving information in various ways -- either by saying something out loud and it'll try to determine what you said, or you just simply type it through the keypad... and then when you fail to communicate properly you get transferred to a real human being.

I can tell you that a very high amount of my friends/family relatives (middle-class folks) cite the reason of their not going to restaurants to be the cost of eating out. Automation will help reduce that cost, so I don't think you have a very strong argument here that people will just stop going to restaurants. And, there is more to a restaurant service than just the 'server experience' -- there is the decor, the fine view, the washed dishes, the nice walk around the town it takes to get there and so on.

As for pubs and bars, yes they are the places that people go to socialize, but not all of that socialization is with the bartender or the server, it's with other people too who're there to also socialize. Bars and pubs will get help from automation, just lessly so than restaurants.


>>> So a restaurant that once used to have 10 servers working at any given time will need maybe 3 or 4 with automation going on.

Or, more likely, same 10 working part-time to avoid government-mandated expenses for full-time workers. This is what is happening right now. Keeping people on the job becomes more expensive all the time.

>>> either by saying something out loud and it'll try to determine what you said,

Oh how I hate those. I usually press 0 until it gives up and connects me to a live human.

>>> the reason of their not going to restaurants to be the cost of eating out.

See above - employing people gets more and more expensive. You have to abide by a hundred of regulations, have the proper paperwork to prove it, get dozens of licenses, pass inspections, and then some lawyer drive-by-sues you for not being ADA-friendly. And then comes the local union and demands you to double the wages because they say so. Of course it'd be expensive.


Restaurants maybe, but I think more than any other food service job, bars see people who just want to talk to somebody. The bars know it too- you can tell, when they learn your name after just two or three visits.


>This is also why we won't automate, say, barmen, or waitresses.

For rich people, obviously not.

The direction of the economy is to eliminate the middle class. Has been for multiple generations. A horde of middle class machinists and bean counters can easily financially support a waitress at a lower class level of income. What happens when all those middle class jobs go away and they're unemployed or people greeters? There is no way the same people, now much poorer, will be able to support the waitress unless her income also shrinks by more than half, which can't happen given the fixed costs of living. Therefore either most restaurants will go out of business other than those serving the few remaining rich, or the now poor ex-middle classes will be served by robots aka fancy vending machines.

One other remark you may have missed is there is a huge, and growing segment of the population who can not and never will be able to afford a smartphone. And this fraction of the population has been growing both as a quantity and as a fraction of the population for generations as the economy permanently declines.


It seems that smartphone ownership (which is steadily increasing) is more of a factor of age than income (though both are a factor): http://www.nielsen.com/content/dam/corporate/us/en/newswire/...


An interesting counter-example to your point is the DC Metro system. There are human train drivers, but the driver operates a single switch varying speed/brake. The system automatically starts and stops when operating normally, and the centralized management system can operate the trains more or less against the will of the conductor.

In summer 2009, the outdated trains had a massive crash killing eight people, and there was a great amount of debate as to why, even if the driver engaged the manual break, the automatic control software failed to stop the train when a head-on collision was imminent. [0]

The fact you do not reference this event makes me think this was not headline news outside of the Beltway (where I lived at the time). But I do presume this will help support Luddite, anti-automation views in transportation industry, especially in other places where similar accidents occur.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/June_22,_2009_Washington_Metro...


It seems driverless trains will be held to a much higher standard than ones with a driver. As with driverless cars we are willing to accept a certain percentage of accidents, the second a driverless car runs someone over though it will be a massive controversy.


BART was originally designed to run without train drivers. That was rethought after the automation system launched the "Fremont Flyer" into a parking lot.

You really need drivers for safety reasons.


My uncle worked for a large railroad in Chicago, in their switching office. "You need a train engineer because that means someone not in management or the switching office is the guy whose hands were physically on the machine right before poor Mrs. Milly died. There is no other purpose to have them on the train. People like to think that having eyes on the ground stops accidents, because they think eyes on the ground stops physics, but if you are on the train track and the engineer can see you then physics says you better get off the train track because neither the engineer nor anyone save God Himself will stop the train from reaching your current location."

The train engineer's job is to hit the start button when the switching office says to. It's drive-by-wire, and he's not only just a wire, he's statistically speaking the most bug prone wire on the train.

He also had some sharp words for management on the topic of encouraging engineers to think they were responsible for accidents, claiming that it caused preventable suicides after unpreventable ones.


> You really need drivers for safety reasons.

One incident does not a point prove. There are many completely unattended trains in operation, several of which are in the United States.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_driverless_trains


None of the systems listed are very complex. One or two lines, or a loop of track, with very few level-grade crossings. Most of the ones in the US are just airport shuttles. Sure, that's easy to do.

I wouldn't move the subway systems in New York City to UTO operation, though. Not a chance.


It's already done. The docklands light railway in London is more complicated than the metro systems of most cities and it's been driverless since the 1980's http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Docklands_Light_Railway#Map. On the other hand, it still has a staff member, 'Passsenger Service Agent', on every train to deal with customer service. They are also trained to drive the train at very low speed (I'm guessing <10mph) when the automation fails, which it does occasionally.


"Passenger Service Agents" are on some, not all trains. And on about a third of the trains they are on, they are manually operating the train at full speed (generally for "diagnostic" (read as sanctioned joyriding) purposes, I am informed by a friend at TFL).



What's the difference between an automated train failing to stop at the end of a line in a system with 200 stations to an automated train failing to stop at the end of a line in a system with two stations?

Of course in the rest of the system if can be incredibly complex to ensure safety, but that's not where the accident you're relying on to make your case occurred.


So we're on the cusp of having driverless cars and driverless airplanes, but driverless trains are impossible?

I've ridden the driverless train systems in Singapore, Tokyo and Copenhagen and they're all great.


The DLR in London operates fine without drivers:

http://www.visitlondon.com/traveller-information/getting-aro....

I'm sure there are plenty of other examples.


Yep. If your job could conceivably be done by an automaton, eventually it will be. Since we are just automatons, that means that every job could eventually be automated. Which is ok. I'd rather not have to work. But it's also basically proof that someday we'll need socialism because there will be no jobs at all.


Socialism is such a harsh word.

All it really needs is a welfare program for the general population that doesn't punish those whose jobs have been automated.

A system how to solve that has been discussed in Germany by left-leaning parties. The idea is simple: give everyone a certain salary per month that allows them to rent a flat, buy groceries, and have a social life. Without the fear of losing their job, not being able to afford food or just becoming poor, people will do whatever they like: some will continue their job (which earns them extra pay, obviously), some will try out a business idea they have, some won't work. Or that's the idea, at least, with the assumption that people aren't lazy by nature and thus must be punished if they neither work nor actively seek for jobs (i.e. the current unemployment benefit system in Germany), but instead would like to work, except working on the stuff they like working on.


I don't know why you think socialism is a "harsh" word - those same leftist parties in Germany and the rest of Europe call themselves Socialist or Social Democratic and are proud of it.

It's only on the US where Socialism is such a term of abuse on even the left of the political spectrum.


Left wing politicians call themselves socialist in Europe because it has positive connotations in certain circles over there. In the US right wing politicians call somewhat less right wing politicians socialist because it has a negative connotation to many Americans.

They are both wrong. Socialism involves collective ownership of the means of production, not capitalism plus a welfare state.


Not all of the left though.

There is actually an open socialist in the US Senate. Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont. He's surprisingly widely liked.


he idea is simple: give everyone a certain salary per month that allows them to rent a flat, buy groceries, and have a social life

The cost of the welfare system in the UK is such that it would actually be cheaper to just give every man, woman and child in the UK 3000/year no questions asked, no strings attached. Could a single person live on 3000/year in London? Well it was a long time ago now, but I did, as did millions of others, when we were students. Could a family of 4 live on 12000 somewhere like Wales, today? Sure, especially if it was supplemented by a little casual work from one or both parents. And we'd need to stabilize the population too.

People say I'm a fascist because I want to abolish the welfare state, but it's not true: I merely wish to abolish the department that runs it and go direct!


Could a single person live on 3000/year in London? Well it was a long time ago now, but I did, as did millions of others, when we were students.

Are you adjusting for inflation? Did you get £3,000 a long time ago? Or did you get what is now worth £3,000? 3k in 2000 is the same as 4.2k, in '95 it's the same as 4.8k now, in '90 it's like 5.7k now.


It's a long time ago now, but IIRC the grant was something like £2200/year. I worked about 10 hours a week at £3/hr on top of that.


How long ago? We can calculate how much it's worth in today's money.


Call it 20 years.

I'm not saying it would be a necessarily desirable lifestyle mind, but if you're young and all your friends are in the same boat, that much plus a little part-time work was enough to live on, certainly.

The point it, tho', we in the UK could afford that level of minimum income guarantee, as in that's what the welfare state costs right now. If we need more then we'd need to decide where that money was going to come from.


This already kinda exists in the United States, except not in the salary form. Food stamps + subsidized housing + disability pay.


Honest question. What kind of life does that give you? A decent enough life or a pretty miserable life?

Also, if this is true why are there so many more homeless people in the US than any other Western country I've been to?


It doesn't give you a very good life. That said, there is still a question of when we should begin heavily subsidizing non-work. I think there's a decent argument to be made that we're not at that point yet.

Also, homelessness in the US is barely related to the question of subsidizing non-work. It's more of a failure on the part of our mental health system. If you talk to a homeless guy in the US, odds are he'll have some pretty noticeable mental issue right from the get-go.


SSI (disabled from birth) is $600 a month. SSDI (disabled after working for some time, generally 10 years) is $900-$3000 a month. Food stamps top out at $200 for an individual and a little more than $600 for a family of four. Section 8 (housing subsidies) is based on a complicated formula but in NYC can amount to a $1800 subsidy for a family of four.

People on SSI + Food Stamps + Section 8 + Medicaid certainly aren't living the lifestyles of the rich and famous, but their effective income at PPP is comparable the median household income in a country like Czech Republic or Portugal.


At least in Indiana where I love, these aren't guaranteed. Food stamps only last for a year or two and then you're done, even if you are still in a bad situation. Subsidized housing is a lottery with something like 1:4 odds. Even if you are lucky enough to get these things, you aren't in a stable position, because they can be taken away from you.

I also think the comments here about how its luxury compared to a 3rd world are true, but also note that it is more expensive to live here, and there are very few fallback options if the government programs don't work out. The homeless in my town don't have a shelter they can legally sleep at, and with all of the regulations we have in place, a minimally legal structure still has a pretty high cost.


We're discussing basic income, so the point is more the survival and freeing up time to do anything one ever wanted outside of work.

Depression is a valid point though, something that's frequently omitted in such discussions, which center on the fact that if only you provided people with ATM cards, things would be nice and clean and drug-free.


It gives you a life of luxury barely imaginable to the average person in Bangladesh.

The US is strongly anti-authoritarian. Rounding up the crazies and putting them in a managed home simply is not done. It would infringe the civil rights of burned out alcoholics, schizophrenics, etc.


That's not it at all. Food stamps and subsidized housing don't empower people to just do what they like doing, become entrepeneurs, etc.


From 1994 (I welcome any earlier references too):

An easy change in the United States could be through the social security system. Social security was originally presented as a government-run pension fund that accumulated wages for retirement, but in practice it transfers income from workers to retirees. The system will probably be subsidized from general taxes in coming decades, when too few workers are available to support the retiring post World War II baby boom. Incremental expansion of such a subsidy would let money from robot industries, collected as corporate taxes, be returned to the general population as pension payments. By gradually lowering the retirement age towards birth, most of the population would eventually be supported. The money could be distributed under other names, but calling it a pension is meaningful symbolism: we are describing the long, comfortable retirement of the original-model human race.

from http://www.frc.ri.cmu.edu/~hpm/project.archive/general.artic...


The problem with "general taxes" is that they don't fall from the skies.

In the economies with large percentage of makers and small percentage of moochers things work out decently, as the moochers category includes babies and elderly, so the work by makers is almost a social contract, a "thank you" to the society for support while being a baby, and a rainy day fund for one day when the maker himself will turn elderly.

Having a large population of working-age moochers violates the social contract, and creates incentives for the makers to optimize their revenue generation, if not quit altogether, Atlas Shrugged style.

The perverse incentives are apparent in post-Soviet economies, where under Soviet ruling government-owned enterprises frequently supported a vast infrastructure of company towns - everything from kindergartens to hospitals was included in the balance sheet of the local plant or factory.

Fast forward a few decades ahead, when the government-owned enterprises are now privately-owned, and typical pattern you see is profit-less plants and factories now selling their products at cost, avoiding profit sharing, to a Cyprus or Cayman Islands affiliate, with affiliate (incidentally controlled by large shareholders and top management) pocketing all the profits in tax-efficient manner.


creates incentives for the makers to optimize their revenue generation

The quote in my other post up there says community pension is fueled by taxing corporations who generate income from virtually zero (or highly leveraged toward automation) human labor. So, yes, optimizing their revenue will increase the payments to the community pension fund which will help it grow larger.

Post-scarcaity will come right after everybody is automated out of a job, so we'll have zero employment and massive corporations. I see your point about backwards third world places being run by money warlords, but I'm not sure that's a rational outcome for modern society. Once you have empowered populations, those go away quickly.


Taxing them on what? Profit? Sales?

The scheme I've described could very well apply to the US. Company A in China is doing the manufacturing with virtually zero human labor. It sells its product to Company B, located in a tax-free zone, which then resells the product to the US importer, Company C, which then sells it in the US. It just so happens that Company C makes a tiny margin on the profit it receives after buying from Company B, so it's happy to pay an exorbitant tax on that profit margin.

Company B is the one who makes a killing, but hey, it's in the tax-free zone, those lucky bastards.


A thousand times yes! Automating away a lot of jobs as the economic system is now be disastrous, just think of Detroit at a very large scale.

"Wouldn't that be perfect if she could actually pursue her hobby?" is a very ignorant statement if you start to consider the implications of industry automation for all of the workers who have been automated away.

I believe that if we don't fundamentally change the economy through reform this will eventually lead to the next large revolution.


Yeah. Not a lot of laid-off auto workers doing backflips with joy because now they can devote more time their stamp collection.

The "hobbies" line is also infuriating because it practically drips with condescension. "I'm sure you have a hobby, don't you, dear? Of course you do! Why don't you go and spend some time on that while the grown-ups do the important work." All it's missing is a little pat on the head at the end.


I think you are missing the point that people don't usually want to work doing these menial, easily automated jobs. They do it because they have to, to support themselves and their families.

If they could still support themselves or get paid, but not have to spend their day working, wouldn't they be better off?


Wouldn't they be doing that now if they could? How does losing their jobs make their "hobbies" suddenly profitable?


I think the argument about "hobbies" is a long term one, not one that applies to people who just got laid off. If there was no automation and everyone had to farm, nobody can pursue their "hobbies", because everyone has to work to meet their needs. At present, because of automation, less people have to farm. Because of that, people with a "hobby" of filmmaking can go make films, and other people with a "hobby" of watching films are able to spend their time (and money) watching those films. The argument is that automation eventually frees up society into doing less essential things and increases overall happiness.

Also hobbies is definitely not the right word here.


>I think the argument about "hobbies" is a long term one, not one that applies to people who just got laid off.

I think that's the reality, but I am not sure that people like White from the article really acknowledge this. That is, he trivializes it by kind of offhandedly suggesting that it is good for people to have these new options open up as a result of losing their jobs.

But, in fact, what is required is a radical restructuring of our economy and society at large (including our ideas about work) in order to arrive at what he suggests. This is not a point that can simply be glossed over or assumed if he is being earnest or even remotely serious about addressing the automation issue.

Reminds me of this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tO5sxLapAts. Step one is the automation of workers. Step three is this perfect utopian society, wherein we all just pursue our "hobbies".


We would need something like a basic income or some other way for people to support themselves without working. It's not reasonable for everyone to survive only by the value of their labor. Especially if automation makes it nearly worthless.


Something like a basic income or other provision of basic needs will be unavoidable at some point. Automation is coming for virtually all of us, and we simply won't require nearly the number of people to produce what the world needs.

We have to some degree offset this with rabid consumerism, debt, and globalization. The latter in the sense of both opening new markets and the appeal of low wage workers usurping the appeal/cost of automation. But as the wages in these countries rise and technology continues to evolve while growing ever cheaper, even this can't stem the tide forever.


When you replace someone with a machine, the cost of creating whatever object or service they worked to create goes down.

Either the customer gets a better deal (and has more money), the shareholders get more profit, or some combination of the two.

Either way, the customer buys more stuff or passes the benefits onto their customers, and the shareholders buy more stuff. All of a sudden, there is more demand for labor, and over time, the displaced humans get hired again.

You are invoking the luddite fallacy.


This is a fantasy. There has to be diminishing returns at some point--there has to be a tipping a point where the Luddites are actually correct... it just wasn't 1811.


The Luddites were correct in recognizing that there was a problem to be addressed, but they weren't correct about how to deal with that problem. Halting technological progress and forgoing the economic prosperity it enables will never be the right answer for society as a whole - it's only a selfish and shortsighted response that gets triggered because our current society is unable to put that new prosperity to good use and instead leaves people out in the cold.


Yeah, I agree with you -- the part I was saying the Luddites were right about is that at some point, technology obviates the need for everyone to be employed. I think that's a great thing, and I welcome it despite the enormously painful process it'll be to transition the economy.


The problem is that technology accelerating at a pace far greater than 1811, even though that was in the midst of the industrial revolution. Now, it makes perfect economic sense that automation of jobs on the cheap follows on to improving the economy, globally. However, this progress is associated with period of painful social adaptation.

The fear is not that demand for labor will decrease, but that the speed at which the labor force is upskilled will be outpaced by the progress of technology. So your factory and warehouse workers (who are already in a perilous financial situation) are unemployed, but more than that, their skills are no longer relevant. Increased demand for labor will not readily mesh with the skills of the existing workforce.

In the past, the gap has closed. But what if jobs are shed faster than their workers can transition to new ones? A scary, and not unrealistic prospect.


Why would people even be necessary in your view of the future?


People are not necessary, of course. People simply exist.

It is human physicality and desire that creates necessity. When humans are freed from servitude under other humans, their own passions are able to flourish.


Detroit collapsed because of the 1967 African insurrection, not automation. The engineers and executives fled to less lethal cities, where their automated car factories are thriving just fine.


we'll need socialism much earlier than when all jobs are gone. the only problem is how to marry this transition with incentives for further technological development.

technological elites enjoying fruits of the economic growth, while the majority gets gradually reduced to TaskRabbits - that's really a disgusting picture...


We'll need less people, or smarter people, not socialism.

Socialism, as a whole, leads to Bad Things. Sprinklings of socialism help and are good, but if you subscribe fully to any specific socialist doctrine, history shows your group will be harmed by it.


Patent nonsense. The 'specific socialist doctrine' of Social Democracy is what the countries with the highest quality of life currently run.

If you mean 'communist', then say 'communist'.


That's like saying Lance Armstrong took performance drugs, so if you want to bike like Armstrong then drugs is the best way to get there. In fact, for most people drugs would much faster get you into the hospital then into the Olympics. Same with socialism - some rich countries can take a lot of it and still maintain health, but less rich countries would just collapse.


Stop trying to shoehorn all of the kinds of socialism into the same bucket - it's a disease of modern American political discourse.

Not to mention that there isn't any system which survives your counterargument.


There's only one kind of socialism - one that is based on forcibly taking the resources from producers and redistributing them by political whim. Everything else is a window dressing.

>>> Not to mention that there isn't any system which survives your counterargument.

If you can't distinguish good from harm or follow casual links - maybe. Fortunately, many people can.


> forcibly taking the resources from producers and redistributing them by political whim

The producers are actually the poor bastards working 40+ hours a week on the factory floor. The entities forcibly taking resources from them are the wealthy, by controlling the means of production, increasing CEO salaries, and colluding with legislators to provide more tax cuts and loopholes that only the wealthy can take advantage of. The political whim is that congressmen get more dollars from corporations after Citizen's United.

It's fucking ridiculous to be an Objectivist. You can continue to assert that poors are able to fight their way into the "producer" class by "not being lazy" or whatever. But the reality is when you can barely support your housing, food, transportation, and healthcare you don't have many rational options for aggressive advancement.


>>> The producers are actually the poor bastards working 40+ hours a week on the factory floor.

This is one kind of producers. But definitely not "the producers" - there are a lot of ways to produce value besides working on the factory floor. I suspect you yourself are paying your bills via one of such ways.

>>> The entities forcibly taking resources from them are the wealthy,

If they indeed do so, and you know about it, please call the police. I suspect, however, you do not understand what "forcibly" means, as wealthy people rarely resort to robbery - it is usually resort of the desperate and stupid.

It is true, however, that some wealthy employ other means of forcibly taking resources from other - namely, they benefit from various government programs, which forcibly extract resources from producers - ones working at the factories and in other places - and give it to some wealthy that are politically connected, claiming it is "for public good". Unfortunately, Supreme Court in infamous decision in Kelo vs. New London, decided it is completely legal to take private property and give it to another private person just because some government bureaucrat decided it is a good idea. In the very New London the case was about, they succeeded into converting a thriving residential neighborhood into a literal dump, spending tons of taxpayer money on the way. But I suspect for a socialist it is no problem at all.

>>> The political whim is that congressmen get more dollars from corporations after Citizen's United.

Barack Obama, who criticized this decision, spent $775 million on last election (http://www.cnbc.com/id/49550998/) outspending Romney by 75 mln. Romney is a rich man, and Obama is not exactly poor either, but this kind of money is not possible to come up without attracting donations, unless you want to have elections between Warren Buffett and Bill Gates each time.

Biggest political spenders are the unions (see here: http://www.opensecrets.org/orgs/list.php?type=A). So if you are worried about money in politics, that's where I would look. But then I don't see how you'd finance it... Oh, let me guess - instead of fatcats giving up the money voluntarily you want to tax the poor bastards working 40+ hours and get the money from them. Thanks, man, brilliant idea.

>>> It's fucking ridiculous to be an Objectivist.

I wouldn't know but if you say so...

>>> You can continue to assert that poors are able to fight their way into the "producer" class by "not being lazy" or whatever

No, I can't "continue" to assert that since I never started to assert it.

>>> But the reality is when you can barely support your housing, food, transportation, and healthcare you don't have many rational options for aggressive advancement.

When you have 1 welfare recipient for every 1.65 workers and the ratio is getting worse each year (http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2012-11-27/when-work-punished-...), and if you count government workers who are financed form taxes the ration is 1.25 - this means you only getting barely more than half of the value you're producing on average. If you don't produce a lot, this half indeed may not be enough to have very good life. However, for some people solution is for the state to take more and make the ratio worse. How this makes sense for them - I have no idea.


This is idiotic. Look at the Nordic countries. They rate highest for happiness, freedom of the press, etc. You're still suffering from the idiotic anti-communist propaganda from the cold war which ended over 20 years ago.


As a Swede having followed American politics (who doesn't these days) I can sort of see reasons to shun government influence. I guess you have to have a reasonable amount of trust in your government for a larger state apparatus to be acceptable. Not sure what would allow that but one bet is a political system that doesn't enforce a two party outcome. One crazy idea could be that a system that take a closer responsibility for wellfare issues also tend to encourage representatives that focus more on humanitarian values to be elected and such may be easier to put your trust in.


It is comments like this that make people think libertarianism is simple-minded twaddle.


I am impressed by the depth of your analysis. Obviously, anybody who says "twaddle" on the internet immediately wins the argument. Congratulations!


You called me a moron, but you did it in 'civil' language. Exactly what kind of deep analysis did you expect?


No I didn't. But I must admit I didn't expect any depth of analysis from a socialist - if a socialist were capable of depth of analysis, he'd stop being a socialist. Socialism if a very natural feel-good idea, but it completely disintegrates as soon as one considers how it is actually supposed to work. That's why the only way it can exist is to be a parasite on capitalist systems in some rich country. Given to its own devices, socialism produces North Korea.


Average quality of life is not the goal of the US, nor should it be the goal of any country interested in creating wonders and advancing the whole of humanity.


first of all, it depends what you define as socialism.

what seems more important, history shows that there are no Iron Laws Of History Written In Capital Letters. what we see is always an outcome of particular circumstances. like - "trying to establish a particular form of socialism (i would rather say this was communism, not socialism, but let's not open an argument here...) in an isolated, pre-capitalist country, that was recently destroyed by war, and has no democratic culture, produces shitty effects". that doesn't tell much about choices we have today.


If you define worker processes as workers, virtually all software is creating little socialist empires. This is basically a premise of jamesaguilar's comment.


We've never tried socialism where all the workers are replaced by automation. I suppose it could work, but I'm doubtful. People just aren't meant to live that way.


people aren't "meant to" live in cities, use wheel, spend life in front of computer screens... but we're not hunters-gatherers any more, which suggests that what we are is far more determined by current form of society than innate "human nature". living a TaskRabbit life in the techno-capitalist dystopia is no more "natural" than some hypothetical form of democratic socialism - not to mention far less desirable for the majority.


If there would be no scarcity, who needs socialism? If there would be scarcity, there would be jobs in producing scarce resources and delivering them to whoever wants to consume them.

But if you are not happy with this, I can easily offer you a job creation program. Take two people. One would dig the ditch for 8 hours, the other would come next day and fill up the same ditch. Since you claim "jobs" are something we should pursue, this is a perfect example of jobs that can be created cheaply and abundantly. Of course, these jobs would provide zero value, but if you don't care about loss of value from employing people to do things that can be done with much higher value, then why should you care there? Just tax "the rich" and dig the ditch, and the jobs would be there forever.

Hint: google "broken window fallacy".


I think a big turning point in human history will be when computers will finally be capable of everything and more that a human can do.


If you want to talk about replacing jobs which are done more effectively by software, managing scarce resources to maximize utility and happiness seems like a pretty good candidate.


Hard to understand what you mean. It's not like the current resource managers are trying to maximize happiness, but just lack efficiency. Just the opposite - the majority of ambitions, rich, powerful people in the world are putting tremendous efforts into extracting as much resources from the poor as possible.


Considering how far the research into EEG has gotten the line between you and the computer will eventually blur out.


I think it's more likely that there will be a massive war and the survivors will be peasants again.


That's ok. The other animals in the zoo won't have to work either.


You realize most of us are in that zoo too? There's nothing inherently magical about being able to make CRUD web sites and apps that protects us forever.


My point, perhaps too veiled, was that as the amount of work that humanity is required to do approaches zero, so too does the likelihood that humanity remains the dominant species.


Who could replace us? Why can the task of keeping them at bay not be automated?


I think he may be referring to machine overlords. If the automated processes are what replace humans as the dominant life form, who will watch the automation?

I think the "dominant life form" thing is a bit of semantics. But I have found this entire thread very interesting.

It will be interesting to see what happens when humanity lacks scarcity. Research indicates that humans tend towards heirarchies, which are defined relative to neighbors. The "keeping up with the joneses" disease might be part of our core programming.

In a surplus society, I wonder what will substitute for status. Probably something much like our current system, I suppose.


If you've never read this article in Jacobin magazine, I think you'd quite like it: http://jacobinmag.com/2011/12/four-futures/


Instagram followers.

You think I'm joking, but really I am only sort of.


In my opinion the BART kiosk employee is a bad example of a job that can be automated. The fact is her job is already automated and probably why we don't have 10 of those kiosk workers per station handing out tickets and processing them by hand.

Her job is really just catching the 10-20% of people who don't know how to use tech that need hands on support at the stations, and random other odd jobs at the station that in fact can't be automated or automated to the same level of quality.


"Her job is really just catching the 10-20% of people who don't know how to use tech..." or people that need something that current tech simply doesn't provide.

The last time I traveled to another big city I actually sought assistance from the metro kiosk worker - information that wasn't limited to metro data. Could I have gotten the info I needed in other ways - yes, but it would have taken me longer than the time I had available. The kiosk worker was familiar with the area and the metro and was able to address my needs in a way that technology simply can't (at this point).


Precisely. The job is already automated; the worker is a value-add resource. That's not entirely unlike what many other 'advanced' roles do, just in a different form.

The same applies to technical support - for the most part, there's FAQs and the like to resolve common problems, but also additionally there's tech support people who can value-add by solving the more difficult, fuzzier issues.


Exactly. Customer service jobs are actually increasing in pay and sophistication because there's less overall work to be done but what's left behind after automation is more complex.


Amara's Law: "We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run."

Not to seem like a luddite, but let me play the devil's advocate here. 15 years, IMHO, a huge exaggeration. The standard technology of today: IVRS systems suck so bad that they make me want to slam the phone down after 2 minutes, if I cant talk to a human. Siri or GoogleNow aren't much better. When you force a human to interact with a computer, you are handicapping them and taking away most of their expressiveness. Guess what, humans don't like that. You reduce them to the level of the computer which can only understand a few pre-programmed options. That seems like a far cry from human communication which it will try to replace. And we don't even know if that's possible even in principle. All we have is the hope from a bunch of people who are generally excited by technology, and the ensuing hype.

Keeping Amara's law in mind, I would imagine that such a drastic change would take a longer time (almost 1 generation's working life?). Incremental changes summed up might displace jobs over decades, but if someone can adapt to those incremental changes, I would imagine that they can manage their whole working lives. At least as applicable to people born till (say) 2000 and would presumably live till 2100 or so. Any "predition" beyond that would be a wild leap. As for humans being born circa now...

However, I believe that a few questions are still of supreme importance and we need to tackle them for the sustenance of mankind (pun unintended).

1. If a computer/robot could exactly replicate a job (and do it on a macroscopic scale), will such a solution be energy efficient? [Assume that you already have a population of X billion whose needs you will have to meet]

2. What is the real aim of automation? Is it to save costs from the perspective of the business owner, or to give people leisure?

3. Let's say robots/computers replace a large segment of jobs. Presumably, a small number of people will own and operate those systems of scale (you just have to make a 3D printer which can print other 3D printers). Then what is the role of the "unemployed" humans? And most importantly, any such structure we come up with, must lead to a stable society.


I find it interesting how many smart people seem to truly believe that things will just work itself out. Kind of like the idealist libertarians or communists, only with technology as the solution to every problem.


They generally also believe in the invisible hand of the capitalist market.


That is something that can only "believed" in or "disbelieved" as much as gravity can be "believed" in or "disbelieved."


One has to be careful when applying the "invisible hand" idea. You can't just take an "ideal" situation (fixed point) and say that the system will evolve towards that. For an example, I refer to my comment on this HN thread -- https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=6313482


Gravity can be tested just by dropping your pencil. The invisible hand takes a lot more faith and fervent wishing, IMO.


To test the invisible hand, as described by Smith, you just need to buy something useful from someone who just sold it for money, and not out of any desire of helping people.

People just inflate the concept to ridiculous levels, which were clearly not intended by the author.


I believe in the invisible hand, but I also believe it's drunk.


That's probably because there's no good reason things won't just work themselves out.


Eventually, all blue collar jobs will be replace with machines. Only the people who make the machines will remain employable. Eventually, white collar jobs will be replaced too; we're already seeing this in the field of law where an army of clerks is no longer necessary. I'd imagine health care will be a prime target given how outrageously inefficient it is in the US and the percentage of the GCP that flows into it. Its very easy to imagine a society where at least 25% of able bodied, working age people are categorically unemployable not just working itself out.


Look up the luddite fallacy.

When we, as a society, reach that point, goods will be so cheap that people won't need to work to live.


"goods will be so cheap that people won't need to work to live."

That sounds like a nice, optimum fixed point. Let's think about how we might get there. It's highly unlikely that things become cheap and then humans lose jobs. It will probably be the other way round. Consider a time slightly before we get to that utopia of yours -- things are not quite cheap enough, but lots of human jobs have been "obsoleted". In such a situation how do the unemployed people survive? How does the system evolve into your utopia, rather than in a direction where the "have-nots" are neglected while the "haves" cater to their own needs? In other words, your utopia looks like a nice fixed point, but it's not a stable or attractive (in the technical sense) fixed point, of this dynamical system.

This is an example which shows that correlation is not enough. It is important to keep in mind what the causes and effects are. You can't have the effect happening first and inducing the cause. The causal order is important.


Most engineers/technologists probably never see the inside of an ethics or philosophy course.


It's interesting to watch the SF tech vs. blue collar debate as someone who has lived in both worlds. It was almost impossible for me to read an article during the strike without cringing.

It's easy to forget that there are people who know nothing about technology through no fault of their own. My nephews go to low income schools that still don't have computers in the classroom and their parents can't afford them.

On the flip side, many people assume that tech workers are all smug bastards who work 10 hours a week who have had everything handed to them. Even if they had many advantages there's still hard work involved, sure it's not manual labor but that doesn't negate someone putting in 50 hours a week and spending another 20 keeping up with their trade.


I think this is related to another trend that's a little closer to home for us hackers: software that solves common problems tends to become free over time. Eventually an open-source option picks up steam, and proprietary vendors find their product has been commoditized. This is nearly identical to having their job automated away.

I think customization and support are the future. Just like the woman in the article was able to provide specialized help for the other person who couldn't figure out the ticket machine, there will always be room for someone to fit a generic solution more closely to some company's specific needs. It will at least be the next phase before strong AI (possibly) takes over and makes people completely obsolete.


One thing I thought was funny was when he suggested that perhaps the information desk worker might instead work remotely via video chat. She laughed at the suggestion, saying that was a long way off. I saw this exact use case, and I mean exact use case, in Japan a couple weeks ago. It's technically trivial at this point.


It's not much cheaper but much more limiting - you no longer can help people out.

It's an example of false economy.


They used it in japan. It's probably economic. Why, because you could:

1. Outsource the job.

2. Use dead times more efficiently/share loads.

3. Now it's easier to automate more stuff. For example, after hearing you're request , the lady could give you a map+text+video explanations and move to the next customer.


It depends on the volume. Often you can handle the 80% case with VAs, and then have just one or two people to handle the rest.

A good example is banks: mine still has tellers, just much, much less than before ATMs were common.


Just because you have a distinct view on the future doesn't mean it's OK to push that view into others. Telling someone their job is going to be obsolete is akin to saying, "If you don't make the choice to get a new job in the next 15 years, it's likely you'll be out of a job." Honestly, if someone told me what I do for a living would be not needed soon, I'd probably go on a Tweet bender myself. It's a frightening proposition, even if it is interesting and exciting.


It's also a great way to take your smugness out for a walk. The unspoken corollary to "your job will be obsolete in 15 years" is "but mine won't." It's casting judgment on the person: I'm smart, you're stupid; I'm successful, you're a failure. (Even though your job isn't obsolete yet! Don't be fooled by the decent life you have today; your inherent loser-ness is going to flush all that down the drain, you see. It is inevitable.)


> Just because you have a distinct view on the future doesn't mean it's OK to push that view into others.

I guess that's why he didn't. The conversation seemed to be very calmly introduced even when that lady had no idea of what was coming.


Yes, and it isn't doing anyone a favor to not talking about the reality of the future.


Well he did push it on his blog and on twitter?


You certainly believe some jobs will not exist in 15 years? For instance, I assume you can see the writing on the wall for truck drivers and cabbies? No matter how unpleasant it may be to say to those people, "If you don't make the choice to get a new job in the next 15 years, it's likely you'll be out of a job", not saying is not a service to them and does not make it any less true. What do you propose we do instead?


I reject the idea that there will suddenly be a shortage of jobs due to automation and technological advances. It didn't happen after all our agricultural advances, it didn't happen after the industrial revolution, and it hasn't happened in the information age. Think about the types of jobs people have today and compare it to the types of jobs people had 100 years ago, or even 50 years ago. I would argue the majority of today's jobs not only didn't exist back then, but didn't even seem conceivable.

As long as something exists that someone else doesn't want to do, there will be work. Even when robots handle 90% of our labor intensive work, there will be new annoyances and problems that require a human element. Artificial intelligence is a long ways away from being better than even the most simple human mind for most creative tasks, and the more information we have to parse the more opportunity there will be for people to help curate and manage it. Or maybe, once we've run out of jobs that are aimed at making our lives comfortable we'll create jobs aimed at making our lives more exciting. More immersive video games and cinematic experiences. Missions to mars and space tourism. Extreme sports. Nature restoration. Etc, use your imagination.

We can't possibly know what the jobs of the future might be, but I'm pretty sure there will be enough for everybody.


>I reject the idea that there will suddenly be a shortage of jobs due to automation and technological advances. It didn't happen after all our agricultural advances, it didn't happen after the industrial revolution, and it hasn't happened in the information age.

Many people believe it's happening now.

>We can't possibly know what the jobs of the future might be, but I'm pretty sure there will be enough for everybody.

That's the thing, there aren't enough jobs for the unskilled and semi-skilled right now. And those that exist provide dramatically lower pay (relatively speaking) than the unskilled or semi-skilled jobs of our parent's era.

It's hard to quantify unemployment, but it's been historically bad for more than half a decade now.

Of course, you are going to have a hard time pinning that down on automation (or any other one cause) - but the point remains, there are a lot of folks who would like jobs, who would have had jobs in the '90s, who are unemployed now.

The valley is a huge exception right now.

Now, on your overall point? I... am sympathetic to your view; My view on the unemployment problem (and I recognize that this is... insulting, and that my view comes from a place of privilege.) My view is that something is wrong with the economy; Nobody has spent enough effort figuring out how to make money off of semi-skilled labor.

I also think that we have a cultural problem. We have generations who were trained to "do your job" - e.g. the boss will tell you what to do and how to do it. You follow those steps, and you make money for the company, and the company pays you.

Most job growth that I've seen has been in jobs where the boss kinda waves in the direction she wants and you do something reasonable. Sometimes, you get to participate in deciding which direction in which to wave. There's a big difference in the way of thinking.


Then White was the one smiling. “See?” he said. “Wouldn't that be perfect if she could actually pursue her hobby?”

I don't understand how this person could be the CEO of uservoice. How can she pursue her hobby if she loses her job?


He's thinking a few steps further: she loses her job due to advancing automation (along with a large segment of the population), _and_ guaranteed basic income becomes a reality.


That's a pretty big assumption given the current status of welfare in the US.


Which is why I talked about the concept of basic income. I don't know the answer but people are arguing about whether automation is good or bad which is irrelevant. These jobs will be automated whether you like it or not. If we play our cards right then perhaps more people can pursue their passions. If we don't... well I'd rather focus on making the former happen.


Well think about how your request plays out.

She stays on her job for the next 2-3 years until they figure out how to automate her job.

Then for the next 30 years she is destitute or working a more menial job until the number of marginalized citizens become a large enough to pass a basic income bill.

Then all the people in control of these automated industries ask themselves, why am I going to pay 20% more tax for these deadbeats when I can move to Ireland or Dubai?


And how does your request play out?

We halt any technological improvements which would result in lost jobs. Is there any historical precedence for such a thing?


I didn't make a request nor did I ever pretend to know the answer.

What I do know though, is wanting someone's job to be automated soon so she can pursue her hobbies on some personal hope for a basic income, which there isn't a historical precedence for either, is not something she should be excited for.


Given that part of her hobby is buying and selling real estate in one of the most expensive markets in the country I think she'd be fine.


I feel that often such discussions tend to the extremes: either do nothing, or replace everyone with robots. The happy middle ground, for example, is left out because it's the least controversial.

There are some jobs that are best automated. The BART "train operator", for instance; it is _already_ automated! People don't realize that the BART train runs by itself; the "operator" just hits the "close door" button when needed.

Or, for example, the cleaner who is (purportedly) supposed to clean the cars. A Scooba-like robot would do just fine.

On the other hand: a customer-service job is best done by humans (for now), because when we need help, it is reassuring to speak to a person instead of Siri.

So casting this debate as one between "replace all humans" and "keep the current inefficient system" is wrong.


There's a difference between "replace everyone with robots" and "replace everyone with robots now". We can't really say what the limits are to what kind of jobs can some day be done by robots, so we all have to live with the knowledge that our jobs might be automated before we're ready to retire.


The real problem here is the working people, chasing the slackers, mocking holidays, praising people with long weeks. Nobody will want this free time if it's stained with stigmata. There will be the work alcoholic saying "I'm working more than him, I don't want to pay for his free time". Moreover we work more now than before. So the free time thesis is just a joke, it might me economically feasible, but to sell it to the society will be hard.

The idea that the maximum output of a system is very not often achieved when all of its components are at their individual maximum is already impossible to act on in a company (ie. it might be better to have some slackers), I can't see that happening with money directly involved.


That Richard White guy has a blog post of his thoughts on the topic:

http://rrwhite.com/on-the-inevitability-of-automation

And for a shameless self-plug I made a recent blog post on the same topic of automation a couple of weeks back (although from a different angle):

http://standardfuture.com/post/58571196148/a-fully-automated...

Automation in society IS something we (especially as hackers) should feel responsible for discussing, planning for AND acting on.

I know we are some fairly smart people, I just hope that we are all smart enough to take this seriously. :)


Stories like this always assume that the benefits of things like automation are equally shared. As if because business A saves X amount of money doing Y, they will divide that money up by the whole of society and just cut us a check. However, as we've seen, automating BART would now be done by a private company who would pocket all the profits. Pretending that this theoretical world where LaNesse does her hobbies is great seems to miss the point that she will join the ever growing ranks of Americans living in poverty. I don't even understand how statements like that are taken seriously.


Let alone distributing the benefits among mankind. For starters, you'd want the displaced ("obsoleted") workers to get a share of the benefits. You might ask why they deserve a share of the benefits when somebody else designed a system to replace their jobs... These are people who signed up for "risky" jobs, those which could be obsoleted within their working lifetimes. If we refuse to compensate them for that, we would face problems with people running away from any field which is "soon" to be automated, well before the jobs are actually automated. It's like asking them to hold the door open so someone could kick them out. To not compensate them (and hence ensure a smooth transition for everyone) would be tatamount to exploitation. It is interesting to note that a union of sorts will preserve employee interests in such a situation, by giving them bargaiing power.


I recommend http://marshallbrain.com/manna1.htm

A nice little dystopian story about runaway automation and the effect that might have on society.


It seems like he doesn't understand the complexities of her job. Automating repetitive tasks isn't hard, but automating a person is.


The hardest part I noticed while reading was automating empathy and helping someone calm down when they are stressed out. The rest of her job could be done with better maps and UI design.


It's short-sighted to think that you have an understanding of a person's job after reading a tangentially related article and thinking about it for five minutes.


I don't think I do, I'm just going off what was written in the article. But I have also had simple jobs that could be automated with the right tools. Even software developers have to constantly stay on top of tools that automate the use of older or more complex tools.


Yes, and he's not the only one. Just look at how many people are convinced that pilots can easily be replaced by autopilots.


Yeah, but then again there are services like Siri that do a phenomenal job at understanding complex user input. I don't think I've ever experienced Siri not understanding my intended query and then giving me a generalized response that has nothing to do what I asked for, so maybe people in roles like this woman's can be easily automated. It's probably trivial to encompass every function that she performs. Maybe a weekend project!


I was worried you were serious until I got to the last sentence. :)


Can't they be? I read the autopilot can land a plane in an emergency, and engineers have got them to fly model planes with a whole wing broken off.


Well, they can if all you do is expect them to actually fly the plane. And even then, these autopilots make trivial mistakes if the get the wrong input data.

Human pilots make tons of non-trivial decisions that don't have anything to do with the actual maneuvering of the airplane, including where to land the airplane in an emergency. So again, the fallacy is believing that the job is a specific, well-defined task. When we have sentient computers that can process 3D vision, hearing, smell etc as well as a human and exceed humans in decision making, we can replace human pilots and expect the same performance.


For a second I forgot how poor, compared to us, machine vision and planning is. Forgive me.


The problem with the arguments of people like White are that they ignore the fundamental negative consequences of automation. When workers (lets call them the "proletariat") are displaced by automation, they don't see any of society's productivity gains - those benefits are instead captured and concentrated by a smaller and smaller set of owners/capitalists (lets call them "bourgeoisie").

Yes, everyone who's displaced is now free to pursue their "hobbies" but let's not forget that the IRS (rightly) defines hobbies as unprofitable activities. It's one thing to say that you should pursue your passion, but another thing to also not provide any method to ... you know, pay for stuff.

This should worry White (and us a lot more) because economic/technological logic is no doubt going to drive this displacement, but it's not going to address the resulting social instability creating a massive and literally unsustainable underclass.


One interesting nugget from Superfreakonomics book: whaling industry in the US at the 19th century was fifth largest (think all the insurance industry right now) and employed 1% of the total workforce (think twice the auto industry now). It has almost completely vanished now and yet US economy did not collapse (for the smarties out there - I know about the Great Depression, has nothing to do with it).

I deduce from this that even a huge market shift can be absorbed by a healthy economy and healthy society without too much harm. Now, for the people that get caught in it, it can suck big time, and means must be found to help those of them that can't help themselves (the toll booth lady from the article who has a hobby of buying and selling houses probably is going to be fine anyway), but economically if you say we can't do without some industry or sector, more frequently than not it's just a failure of imagination.


"... can be absorbed by a healthy economy and healthy society..." Are we playing Spot the Problem with the Argument? Because I think I have a possible winner.


If you're implying that US economy and society is hopelessly sick, it is not. If anything, we have wastly more support programs for needy than in 19th century, and vastly more opportunities for mobility and career change.


Still, you are sort of begging the question, which is whether we actually can absorb this shift and something you state as fact.


We could absorb the shock of industry of size of the whole insurance industry now disappearing and amount of people roughly equivalent of twice the whole car industry now having to find new jobs. What exactly says we couldn't absorb a bunch of toll booth attendants or cashiers having to look for other job?


There's a pretty big difference in terms of employability between a toll booth attendant (whose skill set is probably largely fit for the same easily automatable jobs) and, say, an insurance adjuster (who may not have transferable general skills but is likely to be significantly more educated and more desirable as a worker).

That's the core of the problem that you're not really addressing: we'd be absorbing the unemployment of more people already only marginally capable of employment as it is.


Are you saying some people are too stupid to do any job except the job they happen to be doing right now? It sounds to me a) pretty condescending and b) plain wrong just because there's a lot of jobs not requiring particularly high qualifications or a lot of training.

>>> only marginally capable of employment as it is.

This of course is a damning statement about our government-run education system (which I have no illusions about - in best-of-breed big cities it now produces people that finish the school not being able to read their own diploma) but I still think even for those there's plenty of jobs if you bother to look. I'm paying someone to cut my lawn, for example. And the federal government pays someone to deliver my mail. Both don't really need a doctorate to do.


> Are you saying some people are too stupid to do any job except the job they happen to be doing right now?

No. I'm saying that there are certain strata of jobs into which most people of the jobs you propose to eliminate fall and that that strata of job is being systematically reduced as automation takes more and more of that cut of the pie. They are not effectively substitutable workers.

> I still think even for those there's plenty of jobs if you bother to look.

Reality indicates otherwise, as demonstrated by the massive underemployment and unemployment among marginally-skilled workers (both with college degrees and without).


Robots aren't cheap. Complicated systems aren't cheap and neither is the maintenance required to ensure an up-time of near 100%.

However, will there be markets where the high investment will be justified as the return is also high as well? Yes. San Francisco is a prime example.

But, with that said, much of the argument here isn't actually technological, but political. Take wages for instance, many of our current policies such as minimum wage actually muddle the ground between an economical policy and a social policy.

If we are able to separate the two types policies, human resource cost reductions such as automation and out-sourcing would actually make much less sense given that labor rates would be more closely tied to output and required skills of a given worker. Of course, as a society, we would need to implement policy including a minimum universal health care to ensure a sustainable life style even in our large metropolitan areas.


If you read some of the comments on the article they simply cite automation techniques that are focused on decreasing costs for merchants like grocery checkout. It's true, these are arguably worse than the human alternative. However, this is extremely short sighted as in time we will have automation that is superior to the human alternatives. Grocery checkout will be replaced with self-stocking kitchens (which decide on a menu based on the FitBit in your blood stream) delivered by self driving cars. Instacart is a good example of the "hack" version of this.

With that being said, I think there'll still be room for the "human touch" in leisure oriented businesses like restaurants or high-touch pricey services like high end wealth management.

You can see that this article appears to have an anti-futurist, anti-technology sentiment. Its opinion represents the vast majority of the world's view which tends to only forecasts out 3 to 5 years out. Significant change is a scary concept especially to those subject to the change. I believe that wealth disparity will continue on the trend that it has been and likely "get worse". But it is my hope that someday a high standard of living will be so affordable that the poorest will have a very high quality of life.

Currently, we technologists are building products that improve the quality of life of the wealthiest 25%. I see this as a good testing ground. Take a page from Tesla's strategy with products and services for the wealthiest to later understand how to bring those products/services to even the poorest.

A note to the technologists/futurists here: as much fun as it is to be "disruptive" especially to large enterprise and put ourselves against them, this is not the most pragmatic approach for middle class jobs. Instead, let's emphasize that automation/technology will ultimately improve everyone's lives so that the middle class lifestyle will be the new "poverty". That's the type of "poverty" I'm happy with.

EDIT: reworded/reorganized/clarified


"let's emphasize that automation/technology will ultimately improve everyone's lives so that the middle class lifestyle will be the new poverty"

except there's no reason to believe it will happen. possibly new poverty will be good, old poverty as we know it - just extended to what used to be middle classes. when mass labour is no longer needed, those who possess the wealth have no incentive to share it. last 30 years fly in the the face of the "trickle down" narrative. when those who sell their labour will face further weakening of their negotiating position, this trend will rather accelerate.


Well, there are incentives. Unfortunately history suggests that, unfortunately, wealth and the wisdom to share enough of it to avoid bloody revolutions rarely go hand-in-hand. There are more 1917s and 1789s than Bismarks.


The answer nobody's facing is that the system of working for a living is going to have to stop. We all retire, or we're all sacked, pick one. Because eventually ALL jobs, without exception, will be automated. Even in the near term, a lot of jobs you wouldn't expect, ones that look "creative" or "decision making", will be automated.


Playing in a band isn't exactly a job today, but I can't see how it can be automated. It can become less popular or forgotten altogether, but not automated.


Yeah, there's stuff that nowadays is phrased as "a job" because it has to be, that would become "a vocation" when jobs went away. Programming is another obvious example.


It depends on how you define "playing in a band", but I'd say that's what Hatsune Miku does.


She's not playing, she's the act.

Someone "wrote" her and (s)he is the artist.


Yeah, but it's turtles all the way down, isn't it? She's just software, so in theory someone can metaprogram that as well. If you're writing a generator of virtual performers, are you really "playing in a band"?


You're no longer in the music business but you don't replace musical bands. You can't. You just created a new genre of music while bands happliy bang away.


I bet I could write a program to automate away the job of a start-up CEO. Think of the vast amount of money we'd save!

And the start up CEOs of the world, freed from the burden of making any money, could pursue their personal hobbies of... what is it exactly that they contribute to the world other than smugness anyway? I'm a bit unclear on that.


What if AI, automation, and the goal to maximize short-term profits leads to robots only making things for other robots?


I'd like to point the most excellent Automation Song (1964) by Phil Ochs as still relevant here: http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=WbSTnuXv_3Y&desktop_uri=%2Fwatc...


A good example is the docklands light railway in London, already automated railline that serves the financial district - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Docklands_Light_Railway


Seen from China this debate becomes at the same time epic because of the proportion and in a way easily solved. Here if you have no salary you just borrow a few tools from a relative and choose a street corner where to fix passers by's bicycles.


I'm waiting for fast food to be automated. http://momentummachines.com could be on to something huge.


Next time, don't do something automate-able. You're a human, remember? Do things that only humans can do.


automating unions? good luck with that... not before they automate you with the crowbar.


The first job I would automate would be the job of Tech CEO.




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