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March 01, 2017
A.I. (Artificial Intelligence) & Robots
Michael Schubach - michaelschubach@me.com

©2017 Hospitality Upgrade
This work may not be reprinted, redistributed or repurposed without written consent.
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We are living at a time when we can realistically foresee the end of menial human labor; we stand poised at the entrance to Eden 2.0, our next-gen garden of the future.
 

I recently changed trash collection services.
Despite the fact that the previous sentence might constitute the most seriously flawed opening since “It was a dark and stormy night,” my service transition was a portent of our collective future. I’ll admit that making the switch was motivated by money – I wanted to spend less of it. A competitive company, one of seven that serve my neighborhood, offered me a deal that would save me a full 20 percent. In the wonderful world of residential trash collection, that equates to an easy $3 per month. Not a fortune, I grant you, but to quote the poet-philosopher, Donald J. Trump, “A buck is a buck.” I, too, am all about the deal.
   
The more salient points of the deal were that it offered a better schedule, guaranteed the prices for a longer term, and came with sterling references. All of this and three extra bucks to boot. I wondered how they were managing to do so much for so little money until I watched them pick up my trash one day. To be more accurate, that last phrase should have read, “until I watched him pick up my trash one day.” 
 
Conventional garbage collection requires a minimum of two workers, a driver and a refuse collector. Most trucks today have some sort of semi-automated collection system, where the collector positions the bin onto a hoist that raises and upends the container and then returns it to the pavement. My new collection service uses a next-gen truck that only needs a driver; the rest of the process is fully automated. The result of these mechanized advances is that the labor requirement for a centuries-old rubbish-hauling paradigm has been reduced by 50 percent. 

If labor cost savings were the only benefit, it would be more than enough to trigger a run on robotic garbage trucks. However, consider this: in its May 13, 2016, issue, Time magazine reviewed the US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ updated “Census of Fatal Occupation Injuries.” Of 2014’s 25 most dangerous jobs in America, refuse and recyclable material collectors ranked fifth, with an astounding 35.8 fatalities per 100,000 workers. Compare that to police and sheriff’s patrol officers, a job classification that ranked 15th, with 13.5 fatalities per 100,000. In 2014, a trash collector was 265 percent more likely to die in the line of duty than a peace officer. 

What must the employer’s liability insurance cost for such a risk-laden environment? What if that employer could seriously reduce or eliminate the riskiest occupations? If I correctly recall my accounting classes, I’d say that labor and insurance expenses go down and profit goes up. And if I correctly recall real life, I’d say the difference would be dramatic and game changing. What does the future hold? Futurists tell us that we are 20-odd years away from fully automated, self-driving vehicles, which will thereby reduce the labor requirement for this profession by 100 percent. We will have entered a brave new world, and such high drama is not limited to the competitive world of trash collection. We will all be living and vacationing in Tomorrowland.  

Society has been contemplating the rise of subservient automation since Jules Verne and the Industrial Revolution. Within my lifetime, mass culture has translated our mechanical innovation into visions that capture the popular imagination. We watched with eager anticipation as robots ran our homes, made light work of complex problems, and even warned us of, “Danger, danger, Will Robinson.” Star Trek showed us that computers could engage with us verbally, understand our habits and desires, provide thoughtful companionship and entertainment, and help us be happier and more productive – maybe just plain better – as space explorers and human beings. The ultimate user interface was people just being glibly conversational with their computers, forsaking the finger fatigue of typing, swiping and pointing. Humans weren’t designed to share their thoughts through their fingertips; you only have to look at traffic fatality statistics to know what a bad idea that is. Siri is a legacy straight off the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.

We are now moving beyond the legacies of the industrial, electronic, television and information ages, and stand ready to embark on the age of vivit fere (“nearly alive”) computing. We can realistically foresee the end of menial human labor; we stand poised at the entrance to Eden 2.0, our next-gen garden of the future. It certainly has the potential to be a utopian paradise, unless, of course, one is a provider of menial labor and dependent upon the income it generates. For those individuals, Eden 2.0 does not foresee any openings suited to your background and experience.
 
This utopian/dystopian conundrum is the subject of John Markoff’s thought provoking treatise, “Machines of Loving Grace” (2015, Ecco/HarperCollins). The title of Mr. Markoff’s book is taken from “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace,” a poem by Richard Brautigan, written in 1967; unease over encroaching automation has been with us for decades now. Such works offer disquieting views of what may yet become of our every-evolving relationship with our machines of wonder. The possibilities that face us are succinctly summed up by Markoff’s final chapter’s title: “Masters, Slaves or Partners?” It’s an interesting question with no precise conclusion – the future will be what we make of it... or what it makes of us.

What we know for sure is that the parade of progress is relentless. Early robotics took away the assembly line jobs that politicians like to pretend are on their way back; those jobs are gone forever and others like them are getting ready to leave. The first-generation systems were very accomplished at repetitive tasks but weren’t powerful enough for real-time decision-making, nor were they independently mobile. With those kinds of limitations, widespread human obsolescence wasn’t really a viable proposition. However, Moore’s law (Intel co-founder, Gordon Moore), the theory that computing power doubles biannually, is alive and well and hard at work; capacity continues to increase geometrically as unit costs continue to decline. Today the human obsolescence forecast has changed – that possibility is both real and reasonably affordable.

Will American companies take advantage of our technical prowess and make every effort to fast track a robotic revolution? Count on it. Even if human and robotic work products were identical, the work processes would make them radically different. Sure, one can certainly draw analogies – people get sick and machines break down. People must be trained and retrained, machines must be programmed, adjusted and reprogrammed. But there the similarities wane. Human work is shaped by attitude, colored by mood, factored by attention span and simply ignored on a tough Friday afternoon when the traffic is bad and the need to be at home is high. Robotic devices don’t suffer from depression, don’t have family issues, ask for the day off or resent the need to work late. When robots underperform, replacing them with something that’s younger, smaller and costs less isn’t an ethical crisis or a legal issue. Performance reviews aren’t required and neither are raises, recognition, birthday celebrations, encouragement, counseling or non-denominational holiday parties. Not only do the line workers do a better job, so do their supervisors. There’s only one little drawback to this workers’ paradise: human beings need not apply.  
     
In an economically driven society, there is no justification for human labor unless it is the lowest-cost alternative, which it will never be. Human frailties and expectations mean that the flesh-and-blood set requires extensive accommodation. They’re going to want living wages, clean and safe working environments, healthcare, secure futures with advancement possibilities, retirement benefits, and, dammit, personal fulfillment and job gratification. All of this adds up to a non-competitive non-starter. 

Although the technocracy may be gearing up for post-modernism, I fear that the working population is unaware of the tsunami headed their direction. Markoff quotes Sebastian Thrun, an academic, Google pioneer and mobile robotics engineer. Thrun hypothesizes that “within three decades as much as 90 percent of all jobs will be made obsolete by advancing artificial intelligence (AI) and robotic technologies.” Our Great Recession of 2007-2009 produced its highest unemployment rate in October 2009, coming in at 10 percent. At its very worst, the unemployment rate in the Great Depression of 1929-1939 hit 25 percent in 1933. If Thrun turns out to be only half right, a 45 percent unemployment or under-employment rate would be catastrophic; 90 percent is unimaginable. 

All this dystopian hypothesizing can sound alarmist, and maybe it’s best that it does. I’ve already been told that it isn’t realistic to eliminate professional jobs like teachers, doctors and lawyers. Oddly, those are the best examples of what can happen, because it already has. We now use technology to allow a single teacher to educate in classrooms around the world, a single doctor to diagnose from afar, and a single law application to generate a will, a contract or articles of incorporation for a flat fee and shipping charges. It’s not that the work is any easier or any less necessary; it’s just that it no longer requires a platoon of workers to get it done. We’re not waiting on C-3PO; we already have YouTube, WebMD and LegalZoom.   

What kind of social changes might we reasonably foresee in a society in which the population has realized the utopian dream of a work-free existence? Well, first we are all pretty clear that unemployment doesn’t pay very well. If 90 percent of the population will be unemployed, then 90 percent of the population will be on unemployment benefits or a universal basic income. (Watch as this idea gains traction and spreads like wildfire – it’s already being prototyped in Finland. This might be the first time you’ve heard of it, but it will not be the last.) 

What government could possibly afford to pay for that? Correct – the U.S. government. And who will be funding that government once the 90 percent go on permanent vacation? Correct – U.S. businesses and the country’s wealthiest citizens. It’s a good thing they both have such stellar track records at contributing their fair share of the tax burden. (Note: their fare share of the tax burden on its way to 100 percent; maybe that should have made the list of the staggering things that are going to happen.) Nonetheless, I have every faith that the wealthy and the advantaged will rise to the occasion – or fall to the pitchforks and torches.
 
Another interesting side effect of the adoption of sophisticated robotics by technically advanced economies is that conventional manual labor will continue as a viable commodity in the less-developed nations. By mid-century, it would be reasonable to assume that American underemployment will be responsible for the flow of undocumented American laborers out of the United States and into the more agrarian economies of Central and South America. Perhaps Sensei Trump should again approach the government of Mexico about funding an impenetrable barrier between our two countries. Once the Mexicans more fully understand our economic trajectory, they will realize that the investment in strong national borders is clearly in their best interest. 

The paradox of Americans leaving America in order to have a better shot at the American dream may defy reality but it does make for a more engaging magazine reading experience. The future is no longer seen by looking into a crystal ball but by falling through a looking glass.

It’s also quite ironic that the captains of industry would invest in robotics to build an underclass that fuels corporate profits and fills corporate coffers. In their attempt to eliminate payroll expenses, they un-employ the masses, turn them into wards of the state, eliminate their income, and destroy their purchasing power, the result of which is the loss of government’s tax revenues. They inadvertently eliminate any return on their investment in robotics, decimate their own profits, drain their company coffers, cost themselves their livelihoods and their fortunes, thereby establishing a new robotics paradigm: the unintended downfall of the one percent. I’ll bet Bernie Sanders wishes he’s one of the things we could reasonably foresee for 2050.

For the sci-fi lovers, I’d like to explore one other question: Do I think that humanity could perish at the hands of malevolent machines? No – it’s too much hyperbole to prophesy a robotic revolt in a manner foretold to us by “The Terminator,” “I, Robot” and “Colossus: The Forbin Project.” But what is interesting about these movies as a genre is that they plead for help like a patient on a psychiatrist’s couch. They reveal our collective sin and guilt and shame. It’s a tale as old as the pyramids, and told as often as “Spartacus” is shown: We humans must enjoy the institution of slavery – we do it often enough – but we aren’t very good at being benevolent overlords. Subliminally, we know that if the others did unto us as we’ve done unto them, we’d be in one giant world of hurt.

Man’s inhumanity to man is legend – just because western civilization’s next underclass might be built rather than subjugated is no reason to believe we’ll be any more logical or compassionate about the situation. If anything, we’re more likely to expect their presence and services as an entitlement, and eventually dispose of them as the simple commodities they are. Secretly, we know we deserve the pitchforks and torches of the downtrodden, and we see them coming for us in our worst nightmares.

But we’re awake now, and it’s not the machines I fear. We have met this enemy before and we know who it is. If economics is any teacher, we know that those who demand a life of relative ease in a brave new world will pay dearly to those who supply the privilege. And if history is any teacher, we shouldn’t expect kindness or benevolence. Keep a very close eye on just who the underclass really is – I doubt seriously that it’s going to be the machines.           

That straight-line progression from technological triumph to the collapse of human civilization is my flight of fantasy, not Markoff’s. He would simply alert us to the problem so that we take open-eyed ownership of the outcome. His text repeats the warning that one of the men who helped create the foundations of our future was wise enough to issue:

“At the very dawn of the computer era in the middle of the last century, Norbert Wiener issued a warning about the potential of automation: ‘We can be humble and live a good life with the aid of the machines,’ he wrote, ‘or we can be arrogant and die.’  It is still a fair warning.”
-- John Markoff, Machines of Loving Grace

It’s the most sobering $3 I’ve ever saved. 

Michael Schubach is a regular contributor for Hospitality Upgrade and can be reached at michaelschubach@me.com.

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