“Automation is Not Our Enemy”

“Automation is not our enemy. Our enemies are ignorance, indifference, and inertia. If we understand it, if we plan for it, if we apply it well, automation will not be a job destroyer or a family displaced. Instead, it can remove dullness from the work of man and provide him with more than man has ever had before.”

-Lyndon B. Johnson, 1964, remarking upon the creation of The National Commission on Technology, Automation, and Economic Progress.

Forty-seven years of technological progress later, automation is a much more pressing issue, and yet I haven’t overhead much about it in the way of public political discussion.
Our current president has mentioned automation on only one occasion I’m aware of. In June of this year he said to NBC news:

“There are some structural issues with our economy where a lot of businesses have learned to become much more efficient with a lot fewer workers. You see it when you go to a bank and you use an ATM, you don’t go to a bank teller, or you go to the airport and you’re using a kiosk instead of checking in at the gate. So all these things have created changes.”

This statement seems to have raised the ire of right-wing commentators, who apparently find the notion of “evil ATMS” threatening jobs completely laughable. Obama has since switched to the somewhat contradictory stance (to the additional delight of conservatives) that automation is actually the key to creating jobs. The Associated Press reports:

“President Barack Obama says technological innovations such as robots can help pump jobs into the economy and spur growth in clean energy and advanced manufacturing.”

As someone who doesn’t think robots are evil, but also thinks it’s crazy to ignore their disruptive impact on jobs, I actually quite like Lyndon B. Johnson’s framing:  “Automation is not our enemy” is a great way to restart a necessary political conversation. It’s important that we not think of technology as the enemy.  And yet we need to start confronting ways that technology is threatening the status quo, and had better start making a conscious effort to adapt.

Education Gets Less Scarce With Increased Free Offerings From Stanford’s Computer Science Department

I hope for some day in the near future when students won’t have to go into debt or compete at meaningless SAT exams to get a Stanford-quality education.

“Stanford University is offering the online world more of its undergraduate level CS courses. These free courses consist of You Tube videos with computer-marked quizzes and programming assignments. The ball had been started rolling by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig’s free online version of their Stanford AI class, for which they hoped to reach an audience in the order of a hundred thousand, a target which they seem to have achieved. As well as the previously announced Machine learning course you can now sign up to any of: Computer Science 101, Software as a Service, Human-Computer Interaction, Natural Language Processing, Game Theory, Probabilistic Graphical Models, Cryptography and Design and Analysis of Algorithms. Almost a complete computer science course and they are adding more. Introductory videos and details are available from each courses website.”

Full article here. At the very least, I hope innovative programs like these will start having some downward impact on inflated higher education costs.

Gartner Hype Cycle: A Framework For Describing the Emergence of New Technologies

I recently discovered the “Gartner Hype Cycle” which describes people’s changing perceptions of new technologies. According to the model, new technologies move through five stages:

  1. “Technology Trigger” — The first phase of a hype cycle is the “technology trigger” or breakthrough, product launch or other event that generates significant press and interest.
  2. “Peak of Inflated Expectations” — In the next phase, a frenzy of publicity typically generates over-enthusiasm and unrealistic expectations. There may be some successful applications of a technology, but there are typically more failures.
  3. “Trough of Disillusionment” — Technologies enter the “trough of disillusionment” because they fail to meet expectations and quickly become unfashionable. Consequently, the press usually abandons the topic and the technology.
  4. “Slope of Enlightenment” — Although the press may have stopped covering the technology, some businesses continue through the “slope of enlightenment” and experiment to understand the benefits and practical application of the technology.
  5. “Plateau of Productivity” — A technology reaches the “plateau of productivity” as the benefits of it become widely demonstrated and accepted. The technology becomes increasingly stable and evolves in second and third generations. The final height of the plateau varies according to whether the technology is broadly applicable or benefits only a niche market.

Here is the concept in graph form:

And here is a 2010 era graph labeled with specific emerging technologies:

I think this framework is a good way of describing a phenomenon I have definitely perceived to be true during the course of my own life. The most obvious example would be the internet itself, which went through all these stages. In addition to the market phenomenon of the dot com bubble and crash, general attitudes about the internet have followed this trajectory. At first people were full of hyperbole about how amazing and utopian the internet would be. Then people started freaking out about how spam, pornography, online predators, information glut and other supposed problems were going to ruin everything. And finally people have settled into the middle, realizing that the internet is here to stay, and it will indeed change everything, just not necessarily overnight.

This insight also has conceptual similarities to Amara’s Law, the idea that people tend to overestimate progress in the short term and underestimate in the long term.

Good Article on How The Tech Industry is Not Creating Many Jobs

Henry Blodget of Business Insider has written an article entitled: “The Country’s Problem in a Nutshell: Apple’s Huge New Data Center In North Carolina Created Only 50 Jobs.” Here’s an excerpt:

“If only America produced more companies like Apple (and Amazon, and Google, and Facebook, et al), the story goes, the country’s problems would be fixed. America could retrain its vast, idle construction-and-manufacturing workforce, and our unemployment and inequality problems would be solved… [But] Apple, Amazon, and Google together employ 113,000 people–which is less than 1/3rd as many as a single American success-story from the prior generation, GM, employed in 1980.” (link)

And yet I suspect the problem is even worse than this. The fact that these tech companies are creating few jobs is only half the story. The other half has to do with convergence. By way of a personal example, perhaps 75% of my non-survival needs are now met by a macbook pro + free software.  And that percentage is only increasing every year. Which is good for Apple and ominous for other businesses. Extrapolating from there, it’s not hard to imagine a future where there’s only one product worth buying, that product is a very powerful computer, and hardly anybody is employed in the making of that computer. Doesn’t exactly sound like a recipe for a diverse and healthy economy.

One Small Step Closer to Wireless iContacts

Never mind that it has one pixel resolution and is only wearable by rabbits:

“Power from an external battery is transmitted via RF to an antenna that runs around the edge of the contact lens, so that the wearer’s vision isn’t obstructed. An integrated circuit harvests the energy, and then powers an LED (which emits a nice blue light, incidentally, and is focused by way of the entire contact lens being a Fresnel lens)…

The point is, our grasp of semiconductors and optics is now so advanced that we can shrink all of the necessary components for a computer display into a contact lens. Bionic vision really is just around the corner now.”

Full article here.

Automating Class Warfare with the OCCU(PI) Bot

Randy Sarafan writes:

Learning from the lessons of the 1%, I set forth to outsource our occupy-related labor to a robotic workforce. Robots obviously have many advantages over their human counterparts. For instance, robots never get tired, they don’t get cold, they don’t sleep, nor eat, don’t require tents, and when armed insurrection becomes necessary, robots are much more morally ambivalent. Additionally, we had a discussion with an unnamed member of the San Francisco police force and they confided in us that the police currently do not have any plan for dealing with robotic occupiers.

For all of those reasons and more, I present to you Occu(pi) Bot; the first in a promising line of tireless, unstoppable, robotic class warriors.

Learn how to make your own:

This is a lot of fun and obviously satirical in intent. But it’s interesting to note that protesting is probably one of the few jobs that can’t be automated, since most of the value of protesting lies in the fact of a human showing up.  That said, if you just want to annoy finance professionals on their way to work, an army of these might do the trick quite nicely.

I wonder how the electronics in the Occu(pi) Bot would hold up to getting maced…

Computers Surpass Human Doctors at Breast Cancer Diagnosis

Sebastian Anthony at Extreme Tech writes:

Computer scientists and pathologists at Stanford University now have a computer system that can look a tissue sample and diagnose breast cancer more accurately than a human doctor. The computer system, called C-Path (Computational Pathologist), even went one step further and identified previously-undiscovered cellular structures that can be used by computers and humans alike to improve the diagnosis and prognosis of breast cancer patients in the future…

C-Path could bring advanced medicine to the home — or to developing and third world nations…The coup de grace, though, is that C-Path could even be trained to detect pre-cancerous cells, possibly helping men and women avoid cancer in the first place.

Full article here.

Progress in the Area of Affordable Desktop 3D Printers

Apparently car enthusiast Jay Leno recently used 3D printing technology to manufacture a rare part for his 1907 White Steamer. While most of us don’t have the financial means that Leno has, such technology is rapidly falling in price:

While an industrial 3D printer (also known as a fabricator or a rapid prototyper) would once have cost over $100,000, a perfectly adequate machine for home use can now be had for less than $2,000. Those prepared to assemble their own can buy kits for $500 or so…The size of products that can be made using a desktop 3D printer is usually limited to something that can fit within a five-inch (12.7cm) cube…Even so, a desktop 3D printer will suffice for a surprising number of components used in cars and around the home. (full article)

Particularly exciting is the RepRap Project.  Started in 2005, RepRap is a free open source 3D printer that is capable of building its own components. Meaning the RepRap is effectively self replicating:

Following the principles of the free software movement, the designs for the RepRap machine are being distributed free …those designs include all the plastic parts for the [Rep Rap] itself, so if you have a RepRap machine you can print a new one for a friend.

Here is RepRap’s introductory video:

Another competing 3D Printer is the MakerBot Thing-O-Matic. Claiming to be “more reliable” than the RepRap, the current kit price is a modest $1,299:

Yet another contender is the Ultimaker which retails for $1700 in kit form.  From their website:

The Ultimaker is the new kid on the block for 3D printing which officially started selling in May 2011….We are committed to making 3D printing better, faster and simpler. Also, the Ultimaker is designed to print larger objects, while the printer only occupies a small space on your desktop.

Although I can’t personally vouch for the efficacy of these printers, it appears we may be on the verge of a revolution in desktop 3D printing…

Nationwide Adderall Shortage the Result of Off-Label Use?

Such is the suggestion of George Dvorsky in a recent blog post:

It seems obvious to me that a significant portion of the demand (and resultant shortage) of Adderall has to do with all those people who are taking it not because they suffer from any condition, but because they’re taking advantage of its nootropic qualities; it’s increasingly being used off-label as a cognitive enhancer.

George finishes with the idea that:

“…the concept of neuroenhancement needs to be normalized in society.”

On that point, I couldn’t agree more.