Why Automating Jobs is Like Pirating Content

As I’ve said before, I believe there is a fundamental similarity between the following two scenarios:

  1. A business fires workers and replaces them with robots or software.
  2. A consumer pirates content instead of paying for it.

Both situations involve using technology to get something for free or significantly cheaper.

Both involve an act of “copying.” A robot copies a worker’s skills. An illegal download copies data from an original file.

Both cases are decried using the language of theft. Robots steal our jobs. Pirates steal content. And yet neither automation nor piracy is very much like stealing when you think about it.

Both have uncertain economic effects. Opponents of piracy claim it destroys industries. Others claim that times have never been better. Some economists are concerned about the job-destroying effects of automation. Others think this a tired fallacy that’s been proven wrong time and again.

The evidence suggests that automation and piracy have been mostly harmless up until now. However given the speed of technological change, the future is very uncertain. Perhaps automation and piracy will follow the trajectory of previous technology trends, as described by the Gartner Hype Cycle and Amara’s Law. Meaning that our initial fears are overhyped and exaggerated, but that over time, the true impacts are going to be even greater than we could have imagined.

In any event, it is useful to line these two cases—automation and piracy—up against each other because the juxtaposition reveals potential biases. If we are going to demonize the downloader in his bedroom, perhaps we should also consider demonizing the owners of this automated Walgreens. Alternately we might consider celebrating both of them as triumphs of technology and accept that economic disruption is a fact of life.

Personally, I tend to be way less sympathetic to the content industry’s complaints about piracy than to the plight of workers facing automation. Most likely this comes down to me intrinsically caring more about what I conceive of as “the average joe worker” than a faceless movie or music corporation. Similarly, I have often voiced skepticism about the negative effects of piracy, while at the same time projecting relative certainty about the dangers of automation. Comparing automation and piracy has proven to be a useful thought experiment that has caused me to pause and reconsider my stance on both.

Abundance of Links — Virtual Therapists, Skip College, Gamified Brain Research, Legally Autonomous

1. Should Even Therapists Be Worried About Their Jobs Now?

A virtual programmable human will role play with adolescents and adults to teach social and assertiveness skills to prevent and treat depression. “We think this will be especially helpful for kids, who often are reluctant to see a therapist,” Mohr said. The program will allow them to practice these behaviors in the safety of virtual space. Existing online interventions for teens “look like homework,” Mohr noted. The virtual human feels like a game, making it more likely to engage them.

2. Another Promising Way to Bypass Higher Education Costs

Skip college, work at a startup. Enstitute wants to help establish this type of real-world experience as a credential. It’s working with recruiters from large technology companies to set up interviews for entry-level jobs with program graduates that would give them a chance to compete directly with college graduates. “I’ll put money on it now that our fellows will outperform any green college graduate,” Ittycheria says.

3. More Ways Games Can Help Speed Up Research

Using a new site called Eyewire, MIT will ask users to track a neuron’s path by coloring in each axon (tendril). In the future, MIT will roll out another “game” which challenges users to find the synapses. The end result will be the connectome (a tome of connections) of the mouse’s retina.

4. The Uncertain Legality of Driverless Cars

“Suppose that most cars brake automatically when they sense a pedestrian in their path. As more cars with this feature come to be on the road, pedestrians may expect that cars will stop, in the same way that people stick their limbs in elevator doors confident that the door will automatically reopen.”

Abundance of Links — Job Losses by 2030, Transition to Post-Scarcity, Quadroters

1. Futurist Predicts 2 Billion Jobs to Disappear by 2030

On education:

“As the OpenCourseware Movement has shown us, courses are becoming a commodity. Teachers only need to teach once, record it, and then move on to another topic or something else. In the middle of all this we are transitioning from a teaching model to a learning model. Why do we need to wait for a teacher to take the stage in the front of the room when we can learn whatever is of interest to us at any moment? Teaching requires experts. Learning only requires coaches. With all of the assets in place, we are moving quickly into the new frontier of a teacherless education system.”

2. Cat Valente asks ‘How Do We Transition to Post-Scarcity?’

“But here’s the thing–in most (not all, of course) post-scarcity SF, the fact of post-scarcity is a given. The Culture exists. The question of how we got there might be alluded to or skimmed over in an infodump, but I have so often been left feeling like there’s us here, and then SCENE MISSING, SCENE MISSING, transeconomic future humans.  What’s the missing scene? There are a whole mass of possibilities (and I really think most of them are: not developing a post-scarcity culture) and I want to chart some out. Barring aliens landing with manna-dispensing replicators, how do we actually progress, both technologically/economically and as a culture to the point where a job is not the measure of a man? Because the cultural bits are a thorny, thorny business.”

242 people posted comments attempting to answer Cat’s question.

3. Nano Quadroters Are Awesome

The Robot Report — Robots Team Up With Surgeons, Dogs, Children

Today on the Robot Report:

1. Robot Assisted Surgery

“Each system consists of a two-armed surgical robot, a guiding video camera, and a surgeon interface system (which could be located far from the robot). They are run by software created using the popular Robot Operating System, which should allow them to be compatible with many other robotic devices. All of the systems are open-source, and will be linked with one another via the internet. In this way, the groups can work together on collaborative experiments, and share data on the new hardware, software and algorithms that they each develop.” (link)

2. Rescue Dogs Deploy Robo-Snakes Using Bark Control

“This kind of dangerous [rescue] work is just exactly what robots are around for, and by giving them rides on trained disaster dogs, they can get exactly where they need to go quickly and safely. The system can be adapted to deploy just about anything, and apparently, deployment is controlled by the dog: whenever it starts to bark (which it does when it smells a human), the robot jumps out of the dog’s chest-pack and starts exploring.” (link)

3. Study on What Kids Want From Robots

“Latitude asked 348 kids between the ages of eight and twelve from Europe, Africa, Australia, and America to write and illustrate a story answering the following question: ‘What would happen if robots were a part of your everyday life—at school and beyond?'” (link)

Abundance of Links — Digital Destruction of Textbooks, The Effects of Self-Driving Cars, Not Worth Stealing

1. Apple’s Plans to “Destroy” Textbook Publishing

“We know that former Apple CEO Steve Jobs was working on addressing learning and digital textbooks for some time, according to Walter Issacson’s biography. Jobs believed that textbook publishing was an ‘$8 billion a year industry ripe for digital destruction.'”

2. The Future of Car Tech: Efficiency, Automation, and Sharing

I’ve done a lot of thinking about self-driving cars but for some reason I overlooked the effects on insurance. Self-driving cars should very rarely have accidents, so one might expect a steep drop in insurance premiums?

“All told, the changes may not best the leap from horses to cars, but they are big enough to undermine many of the legal systems we rely on for things like insurance, not to mention criminal law. If a car doesn’t require a driver, can a 12-year-old “drive” to his friend’s house? Can a drunk person drive home from a bar? How will insurance work if people share driverless cars? Courts and legislators will be sorting those out for years to come.”

3. Physical Media Products are No Longer Worth Stealing

“Thefts of entertainment products like CDs and DVDs have collapsed in England and Wales, to the point that they are now taken in just 7% of all burglaries in which something is stolen (see chart). They are now targeted no more frequently than are toiletries and cigarettes.”

The Computerization of Everything: Or What Music Pirates Have In Common With Cut-Throat Employers

Two big trends have the potential to disrupt our economy:

  1. The automation of services (ex. robots or software doing jobs people used to do)
  2. The digitization of goods (ex. music becoming mp3s, 3D printers manufacturing objects from digital files)

Though these trends are not often linked in conversation, I think they are deeply related. In a sense, they are both part of the same bigger trend. Call it “the computerization of everything.”

For both issues, the debate is the same: What are the economic consequences of people getting something for free that they used to pay for?

Automation primarily benefits businesses. Since the goal of a business is to maximize profits, we do not expect businesses to pay for services they could otherwise get more cheaply. Thus we anticipate businesses will replace workers with robots or software at the first available opportunity. We might begrudge them their choice, but we are not surprised.

Digitization, on the other hand, primarily benefits consumers. Here the cultural norms are the opposite. We do expect consumers to pay for things, like software or music, that they could otherwise get for free. But why shouldn’t consumers, like businesses, maximize their consumption by seeking out as many pirated goods or free alternatives as possible?

Traditional economists will tell you neither automation nor digitization is a threat to the economy. It’s all just part of the normal process of creative destruction. New goods will appear to replace those that have been digitized. And new jobs and services will appear to replace those that have been automated. Up until now the economists have been right, and the doomsayers have been wrong.

However, I am quite fond of Amara’s Law which says, “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.”

Exponential progress in computing power means that both of these trends are accelerating. In addition, they may create a feedback loop.

If you automate away jobs, denying people a source of income, you incentivize them to acquire as many goods for free as possible. Unemployed people have more time than money, so the minor inconvenience of pirating something or browsing for a free alternative suddenly shrinks in importance. As a consequence, businesses may lose customers and turn to automating more jobs to make up for lost profits.

In the long-term, none of this is necessarily a problem. After all, what could possibly be wrong with free goods or robots doing all of our work?

The problem arises in the transition. It seems like automation may outrun digitization in the short-term. If that happens we will potentially have great political unrest. Imagine what happens if we automate away most jobs (and thereby people’s incomes) and we haven’t yet figured out how to digitize food? Or medicine?

The Robot Report — Civilian Drones, Animal Communication, Using a Dishwasher, Exploring the Intestines

Today on The Robot Report:

1. The Rise of “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles”

“UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) are no longer the sole prerogative of the military. Police forces around the world are certainly keen to lay their hands on small pilotless aircraft to help them nab fleeing criminals and monitor crime scenes from above. And the police are not the only ones eager to take advantage of the technology… Any civilian activity that would be improved by having an aerial view—monitoring traffic, checking electricity cables and pipelines, surveying forestry and crops, taking aerial photographs, patrolling wooded areas for fire—could benefit from the use of UAVs.” (link)

2. Robots Develop Animal Communication Strategies

“An initial experiment showed that the robots rapidly acquire a communication system that enables them to transmit information about the location of the food to their peers. In fact, two really distinct communication systems evolved, according to the given populations. The simplest mechanism, using a single color to indicate the location of the food, proved more effective that the system using two colors – one pointing towards the food and the other towards the remaining part of the arena.” (link)

3. Humanoid Robot Performs Tasks in the Kitchen

“AMAR has learned to recognize common objects to be found in a kitchen, such as cups of various colors, plates, and boxes of cereal, and it responds to commands to interact with these objects by fetching them or placing them in a dishwasher, for example. One example of the tasks AMAR has learned to carry out is setting a table, and it is able to do this even if a cup is placed in its way. The robot worked out that the cup was in the way, was movable, and would be knocked over if left in the way, and so it moved the cup out of the way before continuing with its task.” (link)

4. Small Robot Designed to Swim Through the Intestines

“Researchers have collaborated to create a robot that will be able to swim through the intestines. The size of a large pill, the “microswimmer” is powered by the strong magnetic fields generated by an MRI machine. A tail measuring 20mm x 5mm made of copper and flexible polymer vibrates due to the magnets and propels the little microrobot through the gut. Eventually its creators hope that the robot will be able to quickly explore the intestines, sending back pictures to diagnosticians, and helping detect the early stages of cancer.” (link)

THE ROBOT REPORT — The Advantage of Dinosaur Tails, Robot App Stores, Modular Robot Construction Kit

Today’s Robot Report appeals to my inner child: dinosaurs and robotic building blocks!

1. Dinosaur Tails Will Make Robots More Agile

“When velociraptors jump, they don’t tip over backwards nor do they fall flat on their faces like mobile robots tend to when they get airborne at high speed. The secret, it turns out, is use of the tail as a mechanism for generating torque to control orientation in all three dimensions. As the researchers put it, “torque applied through the tail yields an instantaneous, predictable counter-torque on the body.” Instantaneous and predictable are two very sexy words when it comes to the wild world of dynamic mobile robots, so the obvious next step was to create a mobile robot with an active tail.” (link)

2. Is 2012 the Year that Robot Applications Take Root?

Frank Tobe of Singularity Hub reports on several new Robot App Stores that are currently in development, including My Robots, Robo Earth, and Robots App Store.

Read the article.

3. Cubelets Modular Robot Construction Kit 

“Cubelets are magnetic blocks that can be snapped together to make an endless variety of robots with no programming and no wires. You can build robots that drive around on a tabletop, respond to light, sound, and temperature, and have surprisingly lifelike behavior. But instead of programming that behavior, you snap the cubelets together and watch the behavior emerge like with a flock of birds or a swarm of bees.” (link)

Abundance of Links — The Technological Unemployment Debate in 2012, Cloud Robotics Will Kill Jobs, Using Satellites to Evade SOPA/PIPA

1. Why It’s Time to Worry About the Rise of Robot Workers

“2012 will be the year that it finally dawns on us that more digital technology might mean fewer regular jobs and that robots could be replacing human beings as the critical labor constituency of our new economy. This is a debate that will particularly focus on the impact of digital technology on average workers. It will pit what we might call ‘innovation fundamentalists’ against ‘innovation skeptics.'”

2. Martin Ford Weighs in on the Repercussions of Google’s Cloud Robotics Strategy

“I think that many economists and others who dismiss the potential for robots and automation to dramatically impact the job market have not fully assimilated the implications of machine learning. Imagine that a company like FedEx or UPS could train ONE worker and then have its entire workforce instantly acquire those skills with perfect proficiency and consistency. That is the promise of machine learning when “workers” are no longer human.”

3. Mike Masnick Reports on the Futility of Censoring the Internet

“It’s been pointed out over and over again that censoring the internet is no way to deal with things like copyright infringement — and that people will always figure out ways to route around such censorship. That’s why it’s interesting to hear that some folks at the famed Chaos Communication Congress in Berlin last week outlined some plans to set up their own satellite system for routing around internet censorship around the globe.”

THE ROBOT REPORT (1/1/2012) — Connect 4, Remote Access, and Robot Ethics

Today on the Robot Report we’ve got a humanoid companion, a robot remote suit, and the ethics to guide their use.

1. Nao More Than Ever


Two great videos featuring the French NAO robot who can grab a ball, cover his face when falling, and play connect four. Via here and here.

2. Telexistence in Japan

This Japanese robot is going to massively accelerate the trend of offshoring for skilled work.

3. Robotic Getaway Cars?

The New York Times had an op-ed by Colin Allen from Indiana University, Bloomington on machine morality that’s worth a read. It’s triple-hedged in typical academic fashion, but he admits that it’s a worthy question and that’s a good thing:

Machines are increasingly operating with minimal human oversight in the same physical spaces as we do. Entrepreneurs are actively developing robots for home care of the elderly. Robotic vacuum cleaners and lawn mowers are already mass market items. Self-driving cars are not far behind. Mercedes is equipping its 2013 model S-Class cars with a system that can drive autonomously through city traffic at speeds up to 25 m.p.h. Google’s fleet of autonomous cars has logged about 200,000 miles without incident in California and Nevada, in conditions ranging from surface streets to freeways. By Google’s estimate, the cars have required intervention by a human co-pilot only about once every 1,000 miles and the goal is to reduce this rate to once in 1,000,000 miles. How long until the next bank robber will have an autonomous getaway vehicle?

I find the image appealing but strange; doesn’t it seem much more likely that your ‘autonomous’ car will be synchronized to a network that allows the government to stop all the cars in the city the second the bank is robbed?

The Future of Moral Machines