Monday, May 15, 2017

Between here and paradise

There have been news articles about the retail industry dropping 90,000 jobs since October. Politicians have been ranting about lost jobs in manufacturing and mining but have said very little about these jobs, even though more people are involved. Part of the reason is who is losing those jobs.

And part of the reason is who is gaining by those job losses. Those that gain are tech giants and manufacturers who automate and thus achieve lower labor costs. The management of these manufacturing companies are big supporters of the GOP. These jobs are not coming back.

I’ve been reading another old magazine I found in Dad’s house, this one is Mother Jones from May/June 2013. On of its articles is Terminated, by Kevin Drum about how soon Artificial Intelligence will be so advanced robots will take over nearly everybody’s job. I noticed the online title is different.

Drum agrees that AI is not yet ready to take over creative and management jobs. But he says given Moore’s Law (computing speed and power doubles about every 18 months) we should start seeing huge improvements in AI, even though we’ve seen what seems like very little happening in 60 years of computers.

To explain that Drum has a delightful example about Moore’s Law and the power of doubling. My friend and debate partner, well versed in that, will enjoy this one:
Suppose it's 1940 and Lake Michigan has (somehow) been emptied. Your job is to fill it up using the following rule: To start off, you can add one fluid ounce of water to the lake bed. Eighteen months later, you can add two. In another 18 months, you can add four ounces. And so on. Obviously this is going to take a while.

By 1950, you have added around a gallon of water. But you keep soldiering on. By 1960, you have a bit more than 150 gallons. By 1970, you have 16,000 gallons, about as much as an average suburban swimming pool.
But compared to the size of Lake Michigan, this is nothing.
So let's skip all the way ahead to 2000. Still nothing. You have—maybe—a slight sheen on the lake floor. How about 2010? You have a few inches of water here and there. This is ridiculous. It's now been 70 years and you still don't have enough water to float a goldfish. Surely this task is futile?

But wait. Just as you're about to give up, things suddenly change. By 2020, you have about 40 feet of water. And by 2025 you're done. After 70 years you had nothing. Fifteen years later, the job was finished.
Drum explains that Lake Michigan was chosen because the number of ounces of water in the lake is similar to the number of neurons in a human brain.

That example prompted me to open a spreadsheet and create a couple charts.

I’m familiar with the standard parabolic shape that a doubling function produces.

But that image usually shows maybe six or seven doublings. What happens with a couple dozen? Then the scale becomes so large that the first three-quarters of the doublings will be flattened into a nearly straight line.

And that explains why it is still hard to see a lot of commercial use of AI though we’ll see a great deal in the next decade. I’m sure it also explains such phenomena as tipping points (another favorite subject of my friend).

Now on to the important stuff.

What this means is nearly all of us will be out of a job. And soon. Those at the top won’t have to pay for labor, which will concentrate wealth even more (though at some point they’ll run out of people who can afford their products). And the rest of us not at the top?
We'll need to let go of some familiar convictions. Left-leaning observers may continue to think that stagnating incomes can be improved with better education and equality of opportunity. Conservatives will continue to insist that people without jobs are lazy bums who shouldn't be coddled. They'll both be wrong.
What to do? We’ll have to fundamentally change the way we share economic growth (if those at the top will allow it). Drum lists a few ways to do this. We’ll also have to change such things as health insurance provided by the employer. If we don’t, fascism and extreme right governments will likely take hold as the people clamor for a strongman to come up with a solution.

But once we do solve the situation we could be aiming for a very happy time. All of us will have time to do what we want to do without having to worry about the pesky job. In my case it would be devoting time to writing music (an AI might be able to write music, but it won’t be able to write my music). Actually, since I’m essentially retired, that is what I am doing.

There are a couple problems along the way to this paradise. Very few people are thinking about how to get from here to there. And many have huge incentives (especially related to ranking) to make sure we don’t get there.

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