20 March 2019 – The image at right visualizes something described in Douglas Adams’ Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. At one point, the main characters of that six-part “trilogy” found a big red button on the dashboard of a spaceship they were trying to steal that was marked “DO NOT PRESS THIS BUTTON!” Naturally, they pressed the button, and a new label popped up that said “DO NOT PRESS THIS BUTTON AGAIN!”
Eventually, they got the autopilot engaged only to find it was a stunt ship programmed to crash headlong into the nearest Sun as part of the light show for an interstellar rock band. The moral of this story is “Never push buttons marked ‘DO NOT PUSH THIS BUTTON.’”
Per the author: “It is said that despite its many glaring (and occasionally fatal) inaccuracies, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy itself has outsold the Encyclopedia Galactica because it is slightly cheaper, and because it has the words ‘DON’T PANIC’ in large, friendly letters on the cover.”
Despite these references to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, this posting has nothing to do with that book, the series, or the guide it describes, except that I’ve borrowed the words from the Guide’s cover as a title. I did that because those words perfectly express the take-home lesson of Bill Snyder’s 11 March 2019 article in The Robot Report entitled “Fears of job-stealing robots are misplaced, say experts.”
Snyder’s article reports opinions expressed at the the Conference on the Future of Work at Stanford University last month. It’s a topic I’ve shot my word processor off about on numerous occasions in this space, so I thought it would be appropriate to report others’ views as well. First, I’ll present material from Snyder’s article, then I’ll wrap up with my take on the subject.
“Robots aren’t coming for your job,” Snyder says, “but it’s easy to make misleading assumptions about the kinds of jobs that are in danger of becoming obsolete.”
“Most jobs are more complex than [many people] realize,” said Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist.
David Autor, professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology points out that education is a big determinant of how developing trends affect workers: “It’s a great time to be young and educated, but there’s no clear land of opportunity for adults who haven’t been to college.”
“When predicting future labor market outcomes, it is important to consider both sides of the supply-and-demand equation,” said Varian, “demographic trends that point to a substantial decrease in the supply of labor are potentially larger in magnitude.”
His research indicates that shrinkage of the labor supply due to demographic trends is 53% greater than shrinkage of demand for labor due to automation. That means, while relatively fewer jobs are available, there are a lot fewer workers available to do them. The result is the prospect of a continued labor shortage.
At the same time, Snyder reports that “[The] most popular discussion around technology focuses on factors that decrease demand for labor by replacing workers with machines.”
In other words, fears that robots will displace humans for existing jobs miss the point. Robots, instead, are taking over jobs for which there aren’t enough humans to do them.
Another effect is the fact that what people think of as “jobs” are actually made up of many “tasks,” and it’s tasks that get automated, not entire jobs. Some tasks are amenable to automation while others aren’t.
“Consider the job of a gardener,” Snyder suggests as an example. “Gardeners have to mow and water a lawn, prune rose bushes, rake leaves, eradicate pests, and perform a variety of other chores.”
Some of these tasks, like mowing and watering, can easily be automated. Pruning rose bushes, not so much!
Snyder points to news reports of a hotel in Nagasaki, Japan being forced to “fire” robot receptionists and room attendants that proved to be incompetent.
There’s a scene in the 1997 film The Fifth Element where a supporting character tries to converse with a robot bartender about another character. He says: “She’s so vulnerable – so human. Do you you know what I mean?” The robot shakes its head, “No.”
Sometimes people, even misanthropes, would prefer to interact with another human than with a drink-dispensing machine.
“Jobs,” Varian points out, “unlike repetitive tasks, tend not to disappear. In 1950, the U.S. Census Bureau listed 250 separate jobs. Since then, the only one to be completely eliminated is that of elevator operator.”
Another trend Snyder points out is that automation-ready jobs, such as assembly-line factory workers, have already largely disappeared from America. “The 10 most common occupations in the U.S.,” he says, “include such jobs as retail salespersons, nurses, waiters, and other service-focused work. Notably, traditional occupations, such as factory and other blue-collar work, no longer even make the list.
Again, robots are mainly taking over tasks that humans are not available to do.
The final trend that Snyder presents, is the stark fact that birthrates in developed nations are declining – in some cases precipitously. “The aging of the baby boom generation creates demand for service jobs,” Varian points out, “but leaves fewer workers actively contributing labor to the economy.”
Those “service jobs” are just the ones that require a human touch, so they’re much harder to automate successfully.
My Inexpert Opinion
I’ve been trying, not entirely successfully, to figure out what role robots will actually have vis-a-vis humans in the future. I think there will be a few macroscopic trends. And, the macroscopic trends should be the easiest to spot ‘cause they’re, well, macroscopic. That means bigger. So, there easier to see. See?
As early as 2010, I worked out one important difference between robots and humans that I expounded in my novel Vengeance is Mine! Specifically, humans have a wider view of the Universe and have more of an emotional stake in it.
“For example,” I had one of my main characters pontificate at a cocktail party, “that tall blonde over there is an archaeologist. She uses ROVs – remotely operated vehicles – to map underwater shipwreck sites. So, she cares about what she sees and finds. We program the ROVs with sophisticated navigational software that allows her to concentrate on what she’s looking at, rather than the details of piloting the vehicle, but she’s in constant communication with it because she cares what it does. It doesn’t.”
More recently, I got a clearer image of this relationship and it’s so obvious that we tend to overlook it. I certainly missed it for decades.
It hit me like a brick when I saw a video of an autonomous robot marine-trash collector. This device is a small autonomous surface vessel with a big “mouth” that glides around seeking out and gobbling up discarded water bottles, plastic bags, bits of styrofoam, and other unwanted jetsam clogging up waterways.
The first question that popped into my mind was “who’s going to own the thing?” I mean, somebody has to want it, then buy it, then put it to work. I’m sure it could be made to automatically regurgitate the junk it collects into trash bags that it drops off at some collection point, but some human or humans have to make sure the trash bags get collected and disposed of. Somebody has to ensure that the robot has a charging system to keep its batteries recharged. Somebody has to fix it when parts wear out, and somebody has to take responsibility if it becomes a navigation hazard. Should that happen, the Coast Guard is going to want to scoop it up and hand its bedraggled carcass to some human owner along with a citation.
So, on a very important level, the biggest thing robots need from humans is ownership. Humans own robots, not the other way around. Without a human owner, an orphan robot is a pile of junk left by the side of the road!