Honda has just released a new version of its ASIMO robot, which is now fully autonomous (as opposed to remote-controlled).
ASIMO can navigate complex environments along with people, recognize and distinguish faces and voices — even when people are speaking simultaneously. And it can do a lot of other stuff.
Details are here. Check out the video below:
As I wrote previously, a lot of people have jobs that are safe from automation not because they are especially advanced or creative, but because they involve skills such as dexterity and hand-eye coordination that are currently beyond the capability of machines. Things are changing.
And, as I noted here on the subject of personal robots:
The thing is that for a robot to autonomously run around the house doing a variety of tasks requires a very sophisticated level of technology. If that technology is developed and becomes affordable then it will certainly make its way into a variety of commercial applications—in fact, it may well be deployed there first.
It seems to me that if we have affordable personal robots that are actually capable of doing anything useful, then that technology implies that millions of jobs will be at risk in areas like:
- stocking shelves in supermarkets and other retail stores
- moving materials in stores and warehouses
- providing security in a variety of settings
This is the second version of ASIMO. What will the 5th version look like? What about v. 10?
Singularity Hub also has the story.
A few links from around the web on the impact that technology is having on the job market and economy:
Ford’s basic thesis (laid out in his book “The Lights in the Tunnel”) is that machines are now getting so advanced that they’re going to be better than human beings at doing everything and thus there will be no jobs. He also thinks this is a very bad thing, a view which I think is terribly strange.
In fact, I’ve never said there will be “no jobs.” I’ve only said that technology may ultimately eliminate the bulk of routine jobs. But that will nonetheless result in major problems. History suggests that the 25% unemployment the United States experienced during the Great Depression is probably pretty close to the limit of what a democratic society can withstand.
I also have never said that advancing technology, or job automation, is “a bad thing.” In fact, I agree that it is a great thing. I just believe we need to reform our economic system so it will be a great thing for everyone — and not just a tiny elite. Suggesting such reforms was really the whole point of my book, “The Lights in the Tunnel.” We cannot escape the fact that a great many people are best equipped to do routine things and will have great difficulty moving to non-routine/creative areas, even if those jobs are available. If we assume a bell curve distribution, then by definition, 50% of the workforce is average or below average in terms of capability. At the same time, technology is also encroaching on even the high skill jobs held by people with above average capability. Ultimately these trends will demand a response.
Later Worstall says this:
Machines are about to get so good that humans just won’t have anything to do at all. We won’t need to sow, weed or reap, sew or in fact anything. Not only will food and clothes be made by machine, the machines that make the machines that make the food and clothes (and houses and cars and computer games and….) will be made by machines.
Humans will therefore have no jobs, no jobs at all. Ford thinks this is appalling as therefore human beings will have no incomes. I think it sounds like a rather wondrous world actually, even without humans having any incomes.
The problem is that in the world as it exists today, you do not get to consume without an income. I think Tim is saying that all those machines will make production so efficient — and prices so low — that even people with very low incomes will still be able to consume. There are a couple of problems here. First if your income is ZERO, then it doesn’t matter how low prices are: you are out of luck. And a great many people will be in that situation unless we dramatically improve our social safety net.
The second issue is that efficient machines will not drive down many of the fixed costs that take up most household budgets. Powerful robots are not going to lower the principal on your mortgage. Nor are they likely to drive down food prices much, as agriculture is already highly mechanized. We can dream that technology will dramatically lower health care costs, and maybe it will happen someday — but probably not until after you lose your job.
In general, if prices fall in one area — say food production or computers — that has historically been a good thing. But if wages and prices fall across the board then that is DEFLATION. And a big problem with deflation is that while wages, prices and asset values may fall — debts do not. In time, people will default or debt service will leave them with little discretionary income to spend on other things — creating the risk of a deflationary spiral. I’ve written more about this in a previous post.
Marshall Brain has started posting new items to his Robotic Nation Evidence Blog.
Occupy Silicon Valley?
CBS MoneyWatch: Is Silicon Valley fueling unemployment?
I recently appeared on the TV program “Ideas in Action” to discuss the impact of robots and automation on the future job market and economy. The show will air on PBS stations at various times beginning this week.
WordPress won’t let me embed the video, but you can watch the show here.
I thought it was a very interesting discussion, and at a full half hour, was the most in-depth treatment I’ve seen so far on this issue.
Libertarian economist Arnold Kling (and Robin Hanson fan) also comments over at EconLog.
I was in Washington last week for an event entitled “Will Robots Steal Your Job?” sponsored by the New America Foundation and Slate Magazine.
Slate also published a series of articles on the subject by Farhad Manjoo.
There were two panel discussions. Here is the list of participants from the event page at the New America Foundation:
Panel 1 – Can Robots Do Nuance?
Founder and CEO, Automated Insights, Inc.
Dr. Sarah Kramer
Primary care physician, University of Washington Medicine
President, Nutonian, Inc.
Slate Video: Robots on the Silver Screen
Panel 2 – Can the Economy Survive a Robot Uprising?
Dr. Tyler Cowen
Holbert C. Harris Chair of Economics, George Mason University
Co-author, Marginal Revolution blog
Author, The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future
Policy Director, Economic Growth Program
New America Foundation
A video of the discussion is here. One of the most interesting questions Farhad asked me was one that I have seen raised quite a few times: Why do I worry that machines might outpace workers when we all know that people in the future will be enhanced by “transhumanist” technology (brain implants, etc.)? That’s at 1:01:20.
I was asked to write an op-ed for the Washington Post on how Watson (the computer that won on Jeopardy!) could impact medicine. I think it could eventually be quite transformative.
Mark Lewis, a computer science professor at Trinity University, thinks I might be too conservative in my projections for Watson’s future impact on medicine.
My feeling has been that in areas like medicine and self-driving cars/trucks the technology may run ahead of social acceptance. Also there are some powerful groups that might lobby hard to slow progress (AMA, Teamsters, etc.).
How long will it be, for example, before society would trust a machine to independently prescribe drugs? (Possible future Kindle bestseller: How to Get Watson to Give You Vicoden: The Insider’s Guide). But, then again, which would be harder: gaming a smart computer to get a prescription, or just finding a doctor that will prescribe on demand?
I’ve heard from a number of people who, like Mark, think things are likely to progress faster than we might expect in these areas. Let us know what you think in comments.
Washington’s blog has a post on the possibility that: Raging Inequality May Cause Unrest and Violence In America and the Rest of Western World.
This is something that I’ve been wondering about for quite a while. I’ve been writing here primarily about the impact of technology on the job market, and I think it is clearly one of the primary reasons for the ever-increasing inequality we’ve seen over the past few decades. Although there are certainly other important factors, including the demise of private sector unions, globalization and perhaps the entry of millions of women into the workforce.
There is also, of course, a positive feedback loop between the concentration of income and wealth, and the concentration of political influence. Extreme income inequality allows a few wealthy members of society to effectively capture the political process and push through an agenda that is in their favor. In the U.S. this has resulted in dramatically lower marginal tax rates on the wealthy, and also an unsustainably low rate of overall taxation: The U.S. currently collects about 14% of GDP in federal taxes, as compared with a historical average of 18%.
The problem I see going forward is that there is really nothing whatsoever on the horizon to counteract the trend toward increasing inequality. The trend was reversed in the 1930s by direct government intervention. The time when policies of that type might have been implemented seems to be past – we are now moving aggressively in the opposite direction, and austerity measures seem likely to accelerate the drive toward even more inequality.
While we can have a reasonable debate about which forces have led to the concentration of income we now face, I would argue strongly that technology will be the primary factor going forward. I believe this because of the exponential progress of information technology.
If you get in your car and gradually double your speed, so you are travelling at 5, 10, 20, 40 and finally 80 miles per hour, that would be similar to the way computing power continues to advance. And the point is that when you are going 80 miles an hour you cover far more ground that when you were just starting out.
That’s where we find ourselves today: information technology has beeen progressing for decades and is now reaching the level where advances in areas like artificial intelligence and robotics are likely to unfold far more rapidly than most people expect. This could impact jobs at virtually all levels: from fast food workers to professionals with college degrees.
Corporate managers won’t hesitate to deploy these technologies throughout their organizations, and they’ll collect huge bonuses as a reward for doing so. The result may well be even more dramatic concentration of income as those who own or control large amounts of capital (CEOs, Wall Street) win big and the vast majority of people who rely on wages or salaries continue to lose out as they face higher unemployment and stagnant wages — perhaps in the face of significant food and energy inflation.
If inequality continues to increase relentlessly, it seems likely that major social disruptions are inevitable. We see this in Europe and the Middle East already. What people should keep in mind is that — despite conservative rhetoric about the welfare state – the U.S. has the weakest social safety net of any advanced country. Once you exhaust your unemployment benefits and your savings, you are in serious trouble if you can’t either find a job or get someone to take you in.
The current recession has now been going on for so long that one has to begin to wonder how many families out there are getting close to the brink. At the same time, huge numbers of young people are unemployed and probably see little prospect of that changing anytime soon. That has been one of the primary drivers of unrest in the Middle East.
One argument against the possibility of unrest in the U.S. is that there seems to be no clear organizing mechanism. In the past, private sector unions were heavily involved in organizing people, but their influence is now greatly diminished. In the Middle East, social media has played a key role.
Another issue is that many people seem to be confused or uninformed about what policies are in their own self-interest. A large percentage of the population does not realize (or acknowledge) that it receives substantial benefits from the government. We see Tea Party supporters — many relying on Social Security and Medicare – who seem to truly believe that it would be better if the debt ceiling is not raised.
Is it possible or likely that we’ll have social unrest in the U.S? Please leave a comment and let us know what you think.
This is also running over at Huffingtonpost, where it has over 1000 comments so far…
Maybe I should have said “United Kingdom” rather than “United States.” But stay tuned, U.S. austerity measures have not been fully implemented yet…