Thoughts on Foreign Affairs July/Aug 2015 issue: Hi, Robot

Foreign Affairs has become one of my favorite publications, in general, and regarding U.S. international relations and comparative politics, in particular. What follows are some of my thoughts regarding their latest feature which is on robots and technology and their implications regarding well…..everything. More accurately this issue is about the coming – or is it? – Robotic Revolution, a.k.a the Age of Automation.


MIT professor Daniela Rus, in the lead essay titled ” The Robots Are Coming,” surveys driverless cars, and more-or-less paints an optimistic view of the future, at least regarding technology. Her main big claim: The objective of robotics is to find ways for machines to assist and collaborate with humans more effectively. A new term, for me, that was used was “pervasive robotics” which describes a time when robots will be so common and seamless in our lives that we won’t even think of them as robots. This harken backs to Carl Sagan’s notion from A Demon Haunted World that the reason we don’t understand science is because when it works, you don’t have to think about all of the details. We are living in a time that, for me, seems to be on the cusp of this pervasiveness when it comes to robots. I appreciate her optimism for autonomous cars: “Imagine a mass transit system with two layers: a network of large vehicles, such as trains and buses, that would handle long-distance trips and complementary fleets of small self-driving cars that would offer short, customized rides, picking up passengers at major hubs and also responding to individual requests for rides from almost anywhere“, she writes.

I did have a negative feeling after reading about robot dog walkers; this feels dystopian. Especially now since so many Americans are feeling lost and alienated and dogs and loved ones provide all of us with so much joy. Walking a dog shouldn’t feel like a chore and shouldn’t be equated with cleaning a room or something. Do I want robots to clean my room? I don’t care. Do I want robots to walk my dog? Not a chance. Professor Rus does admit that this pervasiveness is years, if not a couple of decades, away. She is also correct that “consequences will be profound” when robots are seen as so commonplace that we won’t remember getting around or cleaning, for ex., without them. A great introductory essay. Robots should be designed to enhance our lives. On the surface: who could argue with that?


The next essay is titled in question-form: “Will Humans Go the Way of Horses?” by two other MIT professors, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. “No,” humans won’t they answer. This essay is asks profound political and social questions regarding the “possible mass displacement of labor.” There used to be a domesticated horse population of 21 million prior to ubiquitous engines. We used horses to “carry goods and people.” The inserted photo of a horse-drawn fire engine from 1914 will stick with me. This blew my mind. This essay is basically a rift and rebuttal to the Nobel economist Wassily Leontief who remarked that “the role of humans as the most important factor of production is bound to diminish in the same way that the role of horses…. was first diminished and then eliminated.” This brings us to another useful term: light-labor economy. An forthcoming economy that doesn’t need all that much labor from humans. Sounds utopian and dystopian to me. Also: robot dividend – a “more widespread ownership of robots and similar technologies, or at least a portion of the financial benefits they generated.” Now I really like this idea.

So why do these authors assert that humans won’t go the way of horses? Well, because humans won’t go quietly, for one. Horses couldn’t organize to fight for their jobs; horses can’t vote. People are not “meek” and won’t take irrelevance sitting down. Democracy is why. Also, technology is not ready yet; they write that “humans can do many valuable things that will remain beyond the reach of technology.” Their examples? Restaurant busboys and a child sorting a bowlful of coins. Really? Busboys are already paid by their fellow co-workers in many states supplemented by minimum wage from their employer. (I work in a restaurant and busboys are not happy at all.) Also: in a truly robotic future world do you think that we will have coins to sort? How much does this happen now? These examples are weak. They do argue that its our minds that are great. This is true but great minds doesn’t produce shrinking inequality – as we now know. They are on to a good point when they mention that we value social experiences which can’t be replaced by robots. One more reason humans won’t go the way of the horse regarding labor: capital. Or capitalism. Humans own shares and capital and can invest; horses couldn’t do this. Ignore the current realities regarding capital and wealth and inequality.

They are not flippant though, I hope I’m not coming across as otherwise. They warn that “the world may not be able to maintain the industrial era’s remarkable trajectory of steadily rising employment prospects and wages for a growing population.” Piketty was referenced and so was a Credit Suisse 2014 study that suggests that “the richest one percent held 48% of the world’s total wealth.” This is a crisis. My question is: how worse can robots make this already dire situation?

They emphasize goals. And values. This is what we should emphasize. But – like the aforementioned time I brought this up – this is of course what we should do. This essay had good history, a compelling take, and interesting points. However, their solution they articulate is that “the best way to help workers in today’s climate is to equip them with valuable skills and to encourage overall economic growth.” Really? Duh. What? No, seriously. We know this already.  I enjoyed this essay a lot though.


Same as It Ever Was,” by Martin Wolf is the third essay. Wolf is the Chief Economics Commentator for the Financial Times. Wolf compares the techno-optimists to the pessimistic possibility of “supremely intelligent and even self-creating” machines. He refers to economist Robert Gordon and his work regarding productivity growth. “Who really cares about the Internet when one considers clean water and flushing toilets?,” he writes. Yes, this is a response in some ways to the prior essay; Wolf even references Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee and their latest book, The Second Machine Age.

I didn’t read this essay before typing my thoughts about the previous essay. I should have: this guy has my same concerns and same attitude. “All of this has repeatedly been true since the nineteenth century.” Yep. “An ancient Roman would have understood the way of life of the United States of 1840 fairly well. He would have found that of 1940 beyond his imagination.” I love when I have this feeling. It’s so amazing to be anything at all, you know?

Wolf’s brief synopsis of the Second Revolution was to compare it to the Information Revolution – the Internet, and e-commerce. The former altered “entire patterns of habitation.” This essay is an attempt to put the current discussion and possible future in context. A few sentences that illuminate this point succinctly: “Yes, robots can do well-defined human jobs in well-defined environments. Indeed, it is quite possible that standard factory work will be entirely automated. But the automation of such work is already very far advanced. It is not a revolution in the making. Yes, it is possible to imagine driverless cars. But this would be a far smaller advance than were cars themselves.” Wolf is skeptical of the techno-optimists but also asserts that “techno-feudalism is unnecessary,” as well. We may get more of the same but this is all up to us, writes Wolf. I enjoyed this very realistic take on the issue. One more point: Wolf can’t imagine the singularity as a state of the world. I have been thinking this for awhile now. I read Abundance – for example – and we have yet to see what they are imagining. (Abundance is not a book about the singularity, per se, but it’s an example of economic utopianism that has yet to happen.) Will we spread the abundance or will it be concentrated? For the umpteenth time, this is a great read.
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These essays have all become more and varied. This next essay, “The Coming Robot Dystopia,” by Illah Reza Nourbakhsh, is the most pessimistic. Basically, he does not welcome robotic relationships or a world where we share our ecosystem with super intelligent robots, writing: “a robotic vacuum cleaner shouldn’t tell its owner that it misses him when he’s at work.” I couldn’t agree more. Human relationships can never be replaced. For those who crave anthropomorphic robots well, there should be accountability, and roboticists should “grow up.” “People must be able to question these machines about their knowledge, their goals, their desires, and their intentions.” The weirdness of all of this is really hitting me after reading these essays; this essay in particular.

This essay is not all gloom. Nourbakhsh predicts that “thanks to robotics, the next two decades will likely see the end of the wheelchair.” This is a bold claim. Ambiguously he writes that “it is merely a matter of time before human-robot couplings greatly outperform purely biological systems.” This brings us to another term: transhumanism; “a post-evolutionary transformation that will replace humans with a hybrid of man and machine.” I must say though that their will never be a epoch that is post-evolutionary; this is an interesting abstraction and categorical idea but it can never be a reality. (In my I-understand-evolution-rooted opinion.) Nourbakhsh reminds us of the potential that Big Data has; we can choose a democratic and transparent way forward or not. We have a choice. Those who assume that Big Data equals Big Choices, shouldn’t; we can already see how all of our own data is being used to manipulate us in a myriad of ways.


The final essay is one that is the nearest to my heart. I remember when I first learned of flexicurity; it was in the first couple of weeks of my comparative politics class at the University of Missouri – St. Louis. This essay is about social policy. Nicolas Colin and Bruno Palier write about the future safety nets in the digital age. They write in “The Next Social Policy” that social policy will therefore have to cover the needs of not just those outside the labor market but even many inside it. The biggest challenge is “mass intermittent employment” and they argue that “the task of twenty-first-century social policy is to make a virtue of necessity, finding ways to enable workers to have rich, full, and successful lives even as their careers undergo great volatility.” This is precisely true. I am glad they mentioned a Universal Basic Income (UBI) which is amassing quite the amount of literature as of late. U.S. President Richard Nixon, 40 years ago, mentioned that we might need a income given to every citizen uncoupled from employment. They don’t analyze the idea but they simply put it that a UBI won’t be comprehensive enough. I asked the writer and UBI advocate Scott Santens what he thought about this essay’s framing of the UBI. He said that UBI is a type of flexicurity which I couldn’t agree more; he also wrote that this essay assumes that the UBI would “replace everything.”

A more effective, the authors argue, tactic could be in the regulatory realm. A government dedicated to lowering “legal barriers” to facilitate economic growth. His example? Uber. This is distressing and would amount to another attack on unionized transportation work. Their claim that governments should help and not work in competition with entrepreneurs is faulty. Moreover, governments do already work with entrepreneurs and this has always been the case. If I was some how in front of these gentlemen I would point them to the work of the Professor of the Economics Mariana Mazzucato and her essay in this very same publication from earlier in the year called “The Innovative State.” She is also the author of the book The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs Private Sector Myths.

Back to flexicurity. Flexicurtiy or flexible security is “separating the provision of benefits from jobs.” Ok. Actually, I think this term is so incredibly important that a block quote is in store:

“The essence of flexicurity—shorthand for “flexible security”—is separating the provision of benefits from jobs. If the government can guarantee citizens access to health care, housing, education and training, and the like on a universal basis without regard to their employment status, the argument runs, people won’t be so terrified of switching jobs or losing a job. This, in turn, would allow the government to deregulate labor markets, leaving decisions about hiring and firing of employees to be made by firms themselves, according to economic logic. The result is greater efficiency, dynamism, and productivity, all built around workers’ needs rather than on their backs.”

I agree with their main claim: 21st century social policy involves more “state activism”, not less than the 20th century. One point: their categorization of the UBI as not a form of “flexicurity” is strange. It of course is a type of flexible security. Worker’s needs are citizen’s needs; if they aren’t met in a very real way, I would expect the type of unrest that Brynjolfsson and McAfee predict as a possible future if our policies don’t meet the realities of the New Economy.

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These essays were great and I recommend reading them if you have the chance. If not, I hope my loosely organized and always changing thoughts on these pieces illuminate in some minor way.

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4 thoughts on “Thoughts on Foreign Affairs July/Aug 2015 issue: Hi, Robot

  1. pt

    A point about the first 3 essays – I was thinking about how possible future companies might use solar/electric cars, and if widespread it would be much more sustainable, environmentally friendly. But, then I remembered what car companies did and are still doing to the electric car. It just made me think about any kind of ACTUAL progress we might make will either be stifled by these same people who want nothing to do with change, or swallowed up by the same awful people we have running things right now.
    Unless things change drastically, money is going to be the main driver of what will or won’t happen regarding robots. It’s the reason American companies don’t use Americans to produce their stuff. The move labor to whoever will do it for the least. If robots are cost-beneficial and functional, it’s going to happen. The people running things right now do not care about people. Right now humans are replacing humans in the workplace. Since 2008, there’ve been massive layoffs, leaving less people doing the same amount of work. I saw it at both of my previous customer service jobs. There’s also automated payment at restaurants and grocery stores – more people will be out soon when it becomes more trustworthy and secure. Just think of all the people that can be replaced. I don’t see democracy working out, either. Do you?

    Reply
  2. pmftheman Post author

    Thanks for reading my blog post. I’ll try and hit on all of your questions. Thinking about solar/electric progress from the lens of history definitely allows for much skepticism. The oil trader Dan Dicker once commented something to the effect of “expect to see huge solar stations in the future owned and operated by Shell, for example.” He was implying that any huge change or shift in the near future will probably be driven by those who already have power and institutional hold. Do we care about the future of life more than destroying companies such as Shell? We are in no place, really, for waiting any longer. I don’t know how this is going to play out but I expect the worse; according to all predictions by the Obama Admin, expect fossil fuels to be about half of our energy use in the next 20 years; and this is a conservative estimate, in my opinion.

    To your point about robots and money. I agree that if minimum wage becomes too high, for example, companies are going to shift to investing in robots who can fry food, for example, over paying a low-skilled (read: person in poverty) person $15.00. This is a real concern to me. Krugman says that we still are 20 years away – as if that’s a consolation regardless – from robots taking over many jobs en masse. I anticipate this to go quicker as labor costs become higher. Again: I am not optimistic, really. But: something has to give eventually, right? Hmmm….

    Do I see democracy working out? Maybe I’ll write a longform post answering this question but my short one-word answer is: No.

    Reply
    1. pt

      Great points. Especially about Shell. Really, fuck it. If they’re willing to get on board for renewable, I’m all for it. It just seems like they’re more than dragging their feet and even when car companies like Chevy, etc. are forced to mass produce sustainable cars, they do it begrudgingly and make it extremely limited.
      It’s like going shopping and finding all the big brands having “organic” products. It’s like – if you can make it both healthy and delicious – just get rid of the non organic, or non natural, or even vegan, and just make that healthy sustainable product the main product. This is what I imagine Shell will do – we already see it in their commercials, how supposedly they’re helping communities (meanwhile polluting others), but like getting across that they care about a specific, while blatantly not caring across the (rest of the) board.
      …if that all makes sense.

      Reply
      1. pmftheman Post author

        Thanks. I don’t agree with your sentiment of “really, fuck it,” but I just think it’s most likely to be true re our energy future. It’s typical “greenwashing” where companies spend millions and millions and millions more on PR ABOUT developing clean energy than actually developing clean energy.

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