December 17, 2016


OUR AUTOMATED FUTURE : How long will it be before you lose your job to a robot? (Elizabeth Kolbert, 12/16/16, The New Yorker)

Economic history suggests that this basic pattern will continue, and that the jobs eliminated by Watson and his ilk will be balanced by those created in enterprises yet to be imagined--but not without a good deal of suffering. If nearly half the occupations in the U.S. are "potentially automatable," and if this could play out within "a decade or two," then we are looking at economic disruption on an unparalleled scale. Picture the entire Industrial Revolution compressed into the life span of a beagle.

And that's assuming history repeats itself. What if it doesn't? What if the jobs of the future are also potentially automatable?

"This time is always different where technology is concerned," Ford observes. "That, after all, is the entire point of innovation."

Jerry Kaplan is a computer scientist and entrepreneur who teaches at Stanford. In "Humans Need Not Apply: A Guide to Wealth and Work in the Age of Artificial Intelligence" (Yale), he notes that most workplaces are set up to suit the way people think. In a warehouse staffed by people, like items are stored near one another--mops next to brooms next to dustpans--so their location is easy for stock clerks to remember. Computers don't need such mnemonics; they're programmed to know where things are. So a warehouse organized for a robotic workforce can be arranged according to entirely different principles, with mops, say, stored next to glue guns because the two happen to be often ordered together.

"When most people think about automation, they usually have in mind only the simple replacement of labor or improving workers' speed or productivity, not the more extensive disruption caused by process reengineering," Kaplan writes. Process re├źngineering means that, no matter how much the warehouse business expands, it's not going to hire more humans, because they'll just get in the way. It's worth noting that in 2012 Amazon acquired a robotics company, called Kiva, for three-quarters of a billion dollars. The company's squat orange bots look like microwave ovens with a grudge. They zip around on the ground, retrieving whole racks' worth of merchandise. Amazon now deploys at least thirty thousand of them in its fulfillment centers. Speaking of the next wave of automation, Amazon's chairman, Jeff Bezos, said recently, "It's probably hard to overstate how big of an impact it's going to have on society over the next twenty years."

Posted by at December 17, 2016 9:58 AM