A Philosopher's Blog

Enslaved by the Machine

Posted in Business, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on July 7, 2017

A common theme of dystopian science fiction is the enslavement of humanity by machines. The creation of such a dystopia was also a fear of Emma Goldman. In one of her essays on anarchism, she asserted that

Strange to say, there are people who extol this deadening method of centralized production as the proudest achievement of our age. They fail utterly to realize that if we are to continue in machine subserviency, our slavery is more complete than was our bondage to the King. They do not want to know that centralization is not only the death-knell of liberty, but also of health and beauty, of art and science, all these being impossible in a clock-like, mechanical atmosphere.

When Goldman was writing in the 1900s, the world had just recently entered the age of industrial machinery and the technology of today was at most a dream of visionary writers. As such, the slavery she envisioned was not of robot masters ruling over humanity, but humans compelled to work long hours in factories, serving the machines to serve the human owners of these machines.

The labor movements of the 1900s did much to offset the extent of the servitude workers were forced to endure, at least in the West. As the rest of the world industrialized the story of servitude to the factory machine played out once again. While the whole point of factory machines was to automate the work as much as possible so that few could do the work once requiring many, it is only in relatively recent years that what many would consider “true” automation has taken place. That is, having machines automatically doing the work instead of humans. For example, the robots used to assemble cars do what humans used to do. As another example, computers instead of human operators now handle phone calls.

In the eyes of utopians, this sort of progress was supposed to free humans from tedious and dangerous work, allowing them to, at worst, be free to engage in creative and rewarding labor. The reality, of course, turned out to not be this utopia. While automation has replaced humans in some tedious, low paying and dangerous jobs, automation has also replaced humans in what were once considered good jobs. Humans also continue to work in tedious, low paying and dangerous jobs—mainly because human labor is still cheaper or more effective than automation in those areas. For example, fast food restaurants do not have burgerbots to prepare the food. This is because cheap human labor is readily available and creating a cost-effective robot that can make a hamburger as well as a human has proven difficult. As such, the dream that automation would free humanity has so far proven to be just that, a dream. As such, machines have mainly been pushing humans out of jobs, sometimes to jobs that would seem to be more suited for machines rather than humans. If human wellbeing were considered important. However, there is the question of human subservience to the machine.

Humans do, obviously enough, still work jobs that are like those condemned by Goldman. But, thanks to technology, humans are now even more closely supervised and regulated by machines. For example, there is software designed to monitor employee productivity. As another example, some businesses use workplace cameras to watch employees. Obviously enough, these can be dismissed as not being enslaved by the machines—rather, this can be regarded as good human resource management to ensure that the human workers are operating as close to clockwork efficiency as possible. At the command of other humans, of course.

One rather interesting technology that looks rather like servitude to the machine is warehouse picking of the sort done by Amazon. Amazon and other companies have automated some of the picking process, making use of robots in various tasks. But, while a robot might bring shelves to human workers, the humans are the ones picking the products for shipping. Since humans tend to have poor memories and get bored with picking, human pickers have been automated—they wear headsets connected to computers that tell them what to do, then they tell the computers what they have done. That is, the machines are the masters and the humans are doing their bidding.

It is easy enough to argue that this sort of thing is not enslavement by machines. First, the computers controlling the humans are operating at the behest of the owners of Amazon who are presumably humans. Second, the humans are being paid for their labors and are not owned by the machines (or Amazon). As such, any enslavement of humans by machines would be purely metaphorical.

Interestingly, the best case for human enslavement by machines can be made outside of the workplace. Many humans are now ruled by their smartphones and tablets—responding to every beep and buzz of their masters, ignoring those around them to attend to the demands of the device, and living lives revolving around the machine.

This can be easily dismissed as a metaphor—while humans are addicted to their devices, they do not actually meet the definition of slaves. They willingly “obey” their devices and are not coerced by force or fraud—they could simply turn them off. That is, they are free to do as they want, they just do not want to disobey their devices. Humans are also not owned by their devices, rather they own their devices. But, it is reasonable to consider that humans are in a form of bondage—their devices have seduced them into making them into the focus of their attention and thus have become the masters. Albeit mindless masters with no agenda of their own. Yet.

 

 

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Automation & Administration: An Immodest Proposal

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on May 5, 2017
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It has almost been a law that technological advances create more jobs than they eliminate. This, however, appears to be changing. It is predicted that nearly 15 million jobs will be created by advances and deployment of automation and artificial intelligence by 2027. On the downside, it is also estimated that technological change will eliminate about 25 million jobs. Since the future is not yet now, the reality might be different—but it is generally wise to plan for the likely shape of things to come. As such, it is a good idea to consider how to address the likely loss of jobs.

One short term approach is moving people into jobs that are just ahead of replacement. This is rather like running ahead of an inextinguishable fire in a burning building—it merely postpones the inevitable. A longer-term approach is to add to the building so that you can keep on running as long as you can build faster than the fire can advance. This has been the usual approach to staying ahead of the fire of technology. An even better and rather obvious solution is to get out of the building and into one that will not catch on fire. Moving away from the metaphor, this would involve creating jobs that are technology proof.

If technology cannot fully replicate (or exceed) human capabilities, then there could be some jobs that are technology proof. To get a bit metaphysical, Descartes argued that merely physical systems would not be able to do all that an immaterial mind can do. For example, Descartes claimed that the ability to use true language required an immaterial mind—although he acknowledged that very impressive machines could be constructed that would have the appearance of thought. If he is right, then there could be a sort of metaphysical job security. Moving away from metaphysics, there could be limits on our technological abilities that preclude being able to build our true replacements. But, if technology can build entities that can do all that we can do, then no job would be safe—something could be made to take that job from a human. To gamble on either our special nature or the limits of technology is rather risky, so it would make more sense to take a more dependable approach.

One approach is creating job preserves (like game preserves, only for humans)—that is, deciding to protect certain jobs from technological change. This approach is nothing new. According to some accounts, one reason that Hero of Alexandria’s steam engine was not utilized in the ancient world was because it would have displaced the slaves who provided the bulk of the labor. While this option does have the advantage of preserving jobs, there are some clear and obvious problems with creating such an economic preserve. As two examples, there are the practical matters of sustaining such jobs and competing against other countries who are not engaged in such job protection.

Another approach is to intentionally create jobs that are not really needed and thus can be maintained even in the face of technological advancement. After all, if there is really no reason to have the job at all, there is no reason to replace it with a technological solution. While this might seem to be a stupid idea (and it is), it is not a new idea. There are numerous jobs that are not really needed that are still maintained. Some even pay extremely well. One general category of such jobs are administrative jobs. I will illustrate with my own area of experience, academics.

When I began my career in academics, the academy was already thick with administrators. However, many of them did things that were necessary, such as handling finances and organizing departments. As the years went on, I noticed that the academy was becoming infested with administrators. While this could be dismissed as mere anecdotal evidence on my part, it is supported by the data—the number of non-academic administrative and professional employees in the academics has doubled in the past quarter century. This is, it must be noted, in the face of technological advance and automation which should have reduced the number of such jobs.

These jobs take many forms. As one example, in place of the traditional single dean, a college will have multiple deans of various ranks and the corresponding supporting staff. As another example, assessment has transformed from an academic fad to a permanent parasite (or symbiote, in cases where the assessment is worthwhile) that has grown fat upon the academic body. There has also been a blight of various vice presidents of this and that; many of which are often linked to what some call “political correctness.” Despite being, at best, useless, these jobs continue to exist and are even added to. While a sane person might see this as a problem to be addressed, a person with a somewhat different perspective would be inspired to make an immodest proposal: why not apply this model across the whole economy? To be specific, a partial solution to the problem of technology eliminating jobs is to create new administrative positions for those who lose their jobs. For example, if construction jobs were lost to constructicons, then they could be replaced with such jobs as “vice president of constructicon assessment”, ‘constructicon resource officer”, “constructicon gender identity consultant” and supporting staff.

It might be objected that it would be wrong, foolish and wasteful to create such jobs merely to keep people employed as jobs are consumed by technology. The easy and obvious reply is that if useless jobs are going to flourish anyway, they might as well serve a better purpose.

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Automated Trucking

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Science, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on September 23, 2016

Having grown up in the golden age of the CB radio, I have many fond memories of movies about truck driving heroes played by the likes of Kurt Russell and Clint Eastwood. While such movies seem to have been a passing phase, real truck drivers are heroes of the American economy. In addition to moving stuff across this great nation, they also earn solid wages and thus also contribute as taxpayers and consumers.

While most of the media attention is on self-driving cars, there are also plans underway to develop self-driving trucks. The steps towards automation will initially be a boon to truck drivers as these technological advances manifest as safety features. This progress will most likely lead to a truck with a human riding in the can as a backup (more for the psychological need of the public than any actual safety increase) and eventually to a fully automated truck.

Looked at in terms of the consequences of full automation, there will be many positive impacts. While the automated trucks will probably be more expensive than manned vehicles initially, not need to pay drivers will result in considerable savings for the companies. Some of this might even be passed on to consumers, resulting in a tiny decrease in some prices. There is also the fact that automated trucks, unlike human drivers, would not get tired, bored or distracted. While there will still be accidents involving these trucks, it would be reasonable to expect a very significant decrease. Such trucks would also be able to operate around the clock, stopping only to load/unload cargo, to refuel and for maintenance. This could increase the speed of deliveries. One can even imagine an automated truck with its own drones that fly away from the truck as it cruises the highway, making deliveries for companies like Amazon. While these will be good things, there will also be negative consequences.

The most obvious negative consequence of full automation is the elimination of trucker jobs. Currently, there are about 3.5 million drivers in the United States. There are also about 8.7 million other people employed in the trucking industry who do not drive. One must also remember all the people indirectly associated with trucking, ranging from people cooking meals for truckers to folks manufacturing or selling products for truckers. Finally, there are also the other economic impacts from the loss of these jobs, ranging from the loss of tax revenues to lost business. After all, truckers do not just buy truck related goods and services.

While the loss of jobs will be a negative impact, it should be noted that the transition from manned trucks to robot rigs will not occur overnight. There will be a slow transition as the technology is adopted and it is certain that there will be several years in which human truckers and robotruckers share the roads. This can allow for a planned transition that will mitigate the economic shock. That said, there will presumably come a day when drivers are given their pink slips in large numbers and lose their jobs to the rolling robots. Since economic transitions resulting from technological changes are nothing new, it could be hoped that this transition would be managed in a way that mitigated the harm to those impacted.

It is also worth considering that the switch to automated trucking will, as technological changes almost always do, create new jobs and modify old ones. The trucks will still need to be manufactured, managed and maintained. As such, new economic opportunities will be created. That said, it is easy to imagine these jobs also becoming automated as well: fleets of robotic trucks cruising America, loaded, unloaded, managed and maintained by robots. To close, I will engage in a bit of sci-fi style speculation.

Oversimplifying things, the automation of jobs could lead to a utopian future in which humans are finally freed from the jobs that are fraught with danger and drudgery. The massive automated productivity could mean plenty for all; thus bringing about the bright future of optimistic fiction. That said, this path could also lead into a dystopia: a world in which everything is done for humans and they settle into a vacuous idleness they attempt to fill with empty calories and frivolous amusements.

There are, of course, many dystopian paths leading away from automation. Laying aside the usual machine takeover in which Google kills us all, it is easy to imagine a new “robo-planation” style economy in which a few elite owners control their robot slaves, while the masses have little or no employment. A rather more radical thought is to imagine a world in which humans are almost completely replaced—the automated economy hums along, generating numbers that are duly noted by the money machines and the few remaining money masters. The ultimate end might be a single computer that contains a virtual economy; clicking away to itself in electronic joy over its amassing of digital dollars while around it the ruins of  human civilization decay and the world awaits the evolution of the next intelligent species to start the game anew.

 

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