Future of Employment II

Yesterday I talked a little bit about the future of employment. Apparently this isn’t the most interesting topic. However, it’s important. The Slate series ends with some startling research that shows even scientists could eventually be replaced. I think we are a long way from those things happening. In my opinion the first things that  machines will do in R&D is replace humans in the creation of incremental innovations. In fact, to some extent computers already do replace humans in some of these things. Computers do a great deal of CPU, DRAM and Flash designing. Typically, these are incremental innovations. They are building on a current technology and making improvements. Humans are required for the radical innovations, such as a new chip set, calculation methodology or what have you.

Even some advanced R&D work could easily be improved by computers. Researchers have to read a great deal of papers to keep up with the state of the art in research. As the slate series points out, this is a form of data mining and lawyers are currently using automated programs to find specific words. There’s actually a branch of Science and Technology Studies that focuses on word analysis. They use similar programs and dump a few papers into it and figure out what verbal connections between the papers exist. This is a way of creating maps of knowledge. You are able to see through citations and similar word usage that a specific theory is prevalent or not. How would this apply to R&D? You could put in the materials that you’re using the problems you’re seeing and a bunch of papers that might be related and see what comes out. It could give you new materials new designs things of this nature. For this to work though, it’s a ways away.

What does mean in the long run? That no position is safe. I don’t think this will happen in our life time though. People are much too conservative to leave everything to computers. They just simply won’t be accepted. Even by our generation there’s too much distrust. It’s going to take one or two more generations for there to be enough trust in computing and technology to allow more control to shift to them. Sure some companies will be on the cutting edge with accepting these changes, others will be laggers.

If computers can do everything why do we need any jobs, isn’t the guy from CNN is right? I disagree. People will always want to work. People need to work. I’m not saying this because I’m hoping there won’t be a robotic take over or anything, but because people will not allow it to happen. In general people like to feel in control. Even if you aren’t the bus driver, knowing that it’s a person that you can relate to makes you feel like your more in control. Leaving everything to computers requires a level of surrender. Many people will simply refuse to give up that level of control. We won’t have fancy automatically driving cars for this very reason. People love to feel in control of where they go. It doesn’t matter if they would be safer, save money and get places faster. They would rail against the change because they loose control.

Would we leave the future of our economy in the hands of machines? You could argue that some companies already have. For instance take the May flash crash on Wall street. This has been attributed to high frequency trading following logical algorithms, it wiped about $1 trillion in wealth, most of it was restored.

In much of my research on academic spin-offs and technology incubators there is an important component related to tacit knowledge. Know how of the inventor of a technology. This is something that we’d lose if all of our work was robotized. There’s no difference in that than outsourcing. In developmental economics and innovation theories the ability to create copycat technologies is a precursor to developing their own technologies in that field. I think this is something we must keep in mind when discussing the reality of full automation. Without tacit knowledge and hands on experience with the devices and machines building the product it’s very difficult to develop improvements on either.

I think that we’ll have many legacy jobs hanging around for a long time. Simply because we need them to continue growing economically. Otherwise, we’ll stagnate and keep producing the same technologies.

The future of employment

I posted this Slate series a little bit ago on my facebook and twitter feeds. It’s an interesting read about the future of robotics in the work place. Most people think of robots only in the automobile industry. However, they are in nearly every major industry now. All new semiconductor fabs can be run with only a handful of people over seeing the production of the product. The author notes that robots are making headway into pharmacies and other professions with menial tasks being a large component. In pharmacy computers also help ensure patients aren’t on conflicting medicines, with medical records in the computer it can easily flag potential issues. You could argue that this isn’t robotics it’s automation, personally I don’t see much of a difference. You use a machine to make a task faster and automated, it doesn’t matter if there are moving parts or not.

This isn’t the only recent discussion on the longevity of jobs. CNN had an opinion piece about 3 weeks ago discussing if jobs were obsolete. Which if this is the case we will have to take a serious look at our current capitalistic system. As an evolutionary economist (or at least having some training in it) I can see that this perspective is somewhat accurate. Between these two articles it really indicates that in the near future we’ll have a great deal of mechanized labor through robotics and computer programs. We will need dramatically less and less people employed in the western societies. This will even eventually trickle down into the developing societies.

My roommate argued that we should stop creating pointless jobs. That we should create a system that supports these people that continually fall out of the labor pool through job type elimination. This would take a complete reworking of our society to make this sort of change happen. Also, for a huge amount of people this freeloading kills them. We hear anecdotal evidence about some old fart at a company that is forced to retire and then within the year is dead. Whether we want to admit it or not, for the vast majority of people employment is tied to self worth. There’s increases in suicide rates when people aren’t able to work and cannot support their families. Depression is also higher among the unemployed.

There are further problems with this future. The CNN article discusses how we should be ok with just a white collar work force. I completely disagree. When I worked at Samsung some great ideas came from the technicians fixing our tools. The greater the variety of knowledge sets the higher the number of ideas. Sure a great deal of them may be really crappy, but the ones that end up surviving through the competition end up being better ideas. Make the workforce more homogeneous would reduce this affect.

I don’t have an answer to this. We need to be realistic and try to understand the fundamental changes that our economy is going through. If we see that jobs are in fact going the way of the dodo we basically have to throw out all free-market economics. Why? Because there’s no one to buy anything except an elite few and they just do not have the buying power to keep an economy of this size going. We will have to evaluate our morals, ethics and goals in life. It will not be easy.

Accessibility to Copyrighted Content

Torrent Freak had this article today that discusses how the amount of piracy in Sweeden. In fact, it discusses how it has dropped with the introduction of Spotify. This isn’t the only case where access to material impacts piracy. Hulu (US only) has introduced an 8 day waiting period for new Fox episodes, this has lead to an increase in the amount of pirating of Hell’s Kitchen. If people are going to pirate Hell’s Kitchen, HELL’S KITCHEN!, then why wouldn’t they pirate just about all Fox episodes? Limiting access drives people to pirate.

Why are people willing to use Spotify over other streaming services? For one, it’s free with ads, but people are also able to share. They are able to share legally too. I am able to access music, which my friends on facebook have shared, from friends back in the US. From people that I only talk to on an irregular basis. My friends are able to share with me, where before I would have had to ask them for music and either bought it or download it. Since, I’ve decided to forgo using Apple products I’m limited by what is on Amazon or other music sites. Not all of the songs that my friends listen to are on those services. They like a lot of indie music.

I think that it’s time for copyright holders to wake up to the fact that people don’t really want to illegally acquire music. Sure they’d like to pay as little as possible, but they are willing to have ads, visual or audio, to listen to the music they like. The other good thing about a service like spotify is the fact that on your phone, if you pay, you can access your music there. Access is the important thing. If I’ve bought something once I should be able to access that product on any device in any manner that I want.

The differences in ability to view copyrighted material drives piracy. If copyright holders want to reduce piracy they need to increase accessibility for users. Users are willing to put up with a great deal of things if they are able to easily access content they want. Copyright holders, like Fox, should figure out a way to include online viewership into their rating system. People don’t want to be forced to watch shows when they are on TV. They want to watch shows when they are able to.

Frivolous Science? Pfft

Today I saw this post on Reddit. Long story short this guy was asking the r/askscience subreddit why we do research like the CERN experiments, as it has no practical use. There are several reasons. I’ve mentioned some of these on here before, but they can always be mentioned again. First, research that we conduct now that is interesting only to a small subset of people may be applied for other things later. Second,  furthering our understanding of the world isn’t frivolous. Third, in many cases basic research must be completed at universities because industry will not pay for it.

Some examples, bird migration research that told us a lot about birds historically probably wasn’t very interesting to much of the scientific community. However, it’s become more important of late. One of my friends commented to me about how in Europe during the Avian flu, migration patterns became extremely important for predicting where the next could be. There are further uses, those migration patterns are being used to determine where to place wind mills, because we don’t want to put a wind farm in the middle of a bird migration path. The slaughter would be horrifying. Finally, changes in migration patterns may represent a shift in local climates. If birds take longer to migrate south, it indicates that the weather isn’t changing as fast as it used to. Over time this data could indicate a trend and we should look for further evidence of climate change.

In 2009 there was a rash of articles that questioned the importance of scientific research in some cases. This isn’t really new, even at that point there’d been the infamous McCain bear comments. Even scientists make fun of some of the more obscure types of research with the Ig Noble Awards (One award was given to a research that only cracked the knuckles on one hand to test for arthritis differences (there wasn’t any)). Despite this, some of this research is interesting and could be useful in the future. Take the recent finding that fish are angry in boring fish tanks. This research is pretty much useless unless you’re a fish fan. However, it also shows us that we clearly don’t understand animals as well as we think we do. Even popular stories about the memory span of gold fish was shown to be wrong by the MythBusters. These examples indicate that many people don’t understand the importance of research and that even scientists don’t. However, even seemingly pointless research can illuminate our understanding of the world. People love to know nearly pointless facts. This also ties back to the my first point above, we never know when something seemingly useless can suddenly have an importance beyond the scope of the original study. It may save lives. That finding about fishes could help build better large scale aquariums where it is safer to interact with dangerous fish, like killer whales and sharks.

My final point is that some basic research will not be conducted by industry players. There’s no guarantee on any return on some scientific investigation. However, it can be incredibly important for the advancement of industry. Quantum computing could be the next big thing for computing, however it’s being researched by a combination of industry and universities. Most of the money and risk is on the university side though. Our understanding of particle physics helps us understand how quantum computing can help. Eventually we may be able to use this neutrino finding, if it pans out, in communication systems. There’s no reason why we wouldn’t be able to use the spin of a neutrino to transmit information.

Seemingly frivolous research is an important part of the scientific process. Enjoy it.

On Being the Product

Today I’ve read and reposted a few articles (another) about users being the final product for several companies. These of course are facebook, twitter, google (in various forms including plus), yelp and the list goes on. Personally, I think that the claims that we are only the product is a bit of simplification. There is no doubt that we are the product, however, it’s also a matter of to whom are we the product? For instance, my blog, which I post on facebook, twitter and Google Plus allows others to be consumers of my content. The people who are my friends, followers or in my circles are able to consume my content. We are not merely products to companies, but we are products for other people as well.

We consume what are friends put out there. We have habits an manners in which we’d like to be able to consume that information. However, we’re running into a bidirectional problem. We’re losing control over what information we’re sharing and we’re losing control over how we consume this information. In Tom Anderson’s (of myspace fame) post about the changes in facebook, he mentions something called seamless sharing, where you have to do nothing and it’s instantly shared. This, to me, raises all sorts of privacy concerns. In this TED talk the speaker addresses the problem of filtering algorithms in google and facebook.

I think it’s very obvious that Facebook still realizes that we’re consumers of the information. For without our work as the product, posting links, pictures and statuses, there’d be no facebook. However, without us as consumers reading various different posts and clicking related links there’d also be no facebook. The product we are to non-fellow consumers comes down to our network, what the people in our network are interested in and whatever information that is automatically shared with facebook through our web browser.

We need to be aware that this trend is going to continue. We as users and consumers need to fight to get control over our data and the right to control what we share when we share it. This gets back to my points in my earlier blog posts about pseudonyms and truly being anonymous on the web. If you are interested in knowing at least some of the information that you’ve shared on facebook over the years in some countries you are able to download a copy of your facebook history. I haven’t done so yet, but I plan on it. If it is not available in your country, try to get the rights to your data.

While facebook is using you as a product, you still should have the right to demand the information they have on you and are selling to 3rd parties. Being the product isn’t fun, however, it’s nothing new. We’ve been the product for years and have never really complained. The difference now, is that the information about your personally has never been better and is only going to get better the more you give them. For free.

They’ve gone PLAID!! or CERN finds faster than light particle.

Yes, CERN has claimed that the speed of light has been broken by Neutrinos. What is exactly does that mean and why is it a big deal? First why is breaking the speed of light a big deal? According to the theory of special relativity, the speed of light is the maximum speed that something can accelerate to. Because of the famous equation E=mc2 it would require an infinite amount of energy to accelerate an object beyond the speed of light.

What is a Neutrino? A neutrino is one of the particles that make up other particles. It’s part of the building blocks of atomic theory. Neutrinos carry no charge, so they are different than the electron. Since they have no charge they are able to pass through matter. Neutrinos also require very special detection mechanisms. Neutrinos also have mass. 
This is why it is a big deal to have detected the speed of a neutrino at greater than the speed of light. Either the neutrino always has traveled faster than the speed of light or they were somehow able to accelerate to a speed greater than that of light, which requires infinite energy under our current model of physics. Since we’re talking about a particle accelerator here it can be assumed that the collision created the neutrino, thus we know that it is impossible for infinite energy to have be entered into the system.
Now that we understand what is going on, what is at stake here? A particle that is able to accelerate to a speed faster than the speed of light completely shifts our understanding of subatomic particles. Actually, it obliterates it. We will have no clear understand of what is going on at these particle sizes. 
Could this be the greatest finding in the 21st century? Yes. All physicists believe it would be. Are people just accepting these findings? No. There is a great deal of skepticism, and it’s not just from the broader community. The scientists that are presenting the results are basically issuing a challenge to the scientific community to show that they are wrong! Based on their findings these results are in fact statistically significant. 
Are other scientists going to test these results to verify it? Well, there are only two other places in the world that could have the capabilities to test it. Fermilab in Chicago and a Japanese lab that was damaged by the earth quake and tsunami. However, Fermilab’s equipment isn’t sensitive enough to detect the difference in the speeds. Basically, the speed difference is so small it is within the margin of error for the detection equipment.
What’s this all mean to me though? Well, for us non-physicists life goes on as normal. We can’t suddenly travel faster than light. However, this is a case of good science at work. We should seriously pay attention to what happens here. This type of science happens all the time at a smaller scale. For evolution this type of science is happening. Some extraordinary claim is made, which requires extraordinary data to support it, then is tested by other people. IF the claim withstands additional scrutiny the claim is accepted. In some cases where the claim is so extraordinary that the people making the claims don’t really buy it, then it is the duty of the scientific community and the larger community to give them the support they need to determine the validity of the results.
Here’s some comments from British CERN physicists Brian Cox.

Technocrats and Technology II

In my previous post I outlined some of the problems facing the energy sector in terms of determining the best course of action in the wake of the Fukushima reactor disaster. One of the solutions was to create a group of experts to determine the best mixtures of technologies and sources of energy. However, there are clearly flaws with this methodology. First, there’s the problem of trust in these experts. Second, there’s obviously a lack of input from the general public. Third, there’s problems with selecting technologies themselves.

As I mentioned yesterday, experts can claim many different things and using the right language can make something that’s incredible sound credible. When these experts put out information or opinions how can we trust it? Can we be sure they aren’t on the pay roll of big oil or big coal? If these experts are university professors how can we be sure they aren’t part of some global warming conspiracy? I think that it’s obvious there will be influences from oil and coal. These are to be expected and the goal should be to actually welcome them into the discussion. We should attempt to include them, however we need to give them the same weight of opinion with their obvious bias as any other expert on the panel. The difference is that we want it to be known that they are going to be rooting for oil/coal. Why? because we can more easily critically analyze their economic data knowing for sure where it comes from. This goes the same for a scientist that is heavily pushing solar or wind energy. We should know that they support it so we can have an honest discussion.

Public participation is a huge problem as well. Without proper support from local groups, agencies and governments a promising energy program and be killed. “Not In My Back Yard” (NIMBY) is always a hugely successful counter attack to many of green energy programs. People don’t want to have giant windmills over looking the beautiful landscape or oceanscape they cherish. Understanding these concerns and getting input into the the process from the public can lead to greater social acceptance of a plan. Also, making it clear who the information is coming from also will improve the tone of conversations. Without the clarity of information sources public opinion can quickly turn from a project.

Finally, what technologies should we use? Public opinion and vested interest in legacy technologies is very difficult to overcome. Especially when a technology like solar energy is more expensive than coal power, and has less consistent energy profiles. Of the solar technologies how do we select which technology is the best? How do we pick the right nuclear power plants? There are many different technologies out there competing. There is not a clear which technology a government plan should invest in. We are likely to pick a loser technology. However, we still need to choose something. I have mentioned it previously some ways to select technology. I’ll discuss more of that in my next post.