Tag Archives: automation

AI is mainly a stimulative technology that will create jobs

AI has been getting a lot of bad press the last few months from doom-mongers predicting mass unemployment. Together with robotics, AI will certainly help automate a lot of jobs, but it will also create many more and will greatly increase quality of life for most people. By massively increasing the total effort available to add value to basic resources, it will increase the size of the economy and if that is reasonably well managed by governments, that will be for all our benefit. Those people who do lose their jobs and can’t find or create a new one could easily be supported by a basic income financed by economic growth. In short, unless government screws up, AI will bring huge benefits, far exceeding the problems it will bring.

Over the last 20 years, I’ve often written about the care economy, where the more advanced technology becomes, the more it allows to concentrate on those skills we consider fundamentally human – caring, interpersonal skills, direct human contact services, leadership, teaching, sport, the arts, the sorts of roles that need emphatic and emotional skills, or human experience. AI and robots can automate intellectual and physical tasks, but they won’t be human, and some tasks require the worker to be human. Also, in most careers, it is obvious that people focus less and less on those automatable tasks as they progress into the most senior roles. Many board members in big companies know little about the industry they work in compared to most of their lower paid workers, but they can do that job because being a board member is often more about relationships than intellect.

AI will nevertheless automate many tasks for many workers, and that will free up much of their time, increasing their productivity, which means we need fewer workers to do those jobs. On the other hand, Google searches that take a few seconds once took half a day of research in a library. We all do more with our time now thanks to such simple AI, and although all those half-days saved would add up to a considerable amount of saved work, and many full-time job equivalents, we don’t see massive unemployment. We’re all just doing better work. So we can’t necessarily conclude that increasing productivity will automatically mean redundancy. It might just mean that we will do even more, even better, like it has so far. Or at least, the volume of redundancy might be considerably less. New automated companies might never employ people in those roles and that will be straight competition between companies that are heavily automated and others that aren’t. Sometimes, but certainly not always, that will mean traditional companies will go out of business.

So although we can be sure that AI and robots will bring some redundancy in some sectors, I think the volume is often overestimated and often it will simply mean rapidly increasing productivity, and more prosperity.

But what about AI’s stimulative role? Jobs created by automation and AI. I believe this is what is being greatly overlooked by doom-mongers. There are three primary areas of job creation:

One is in building or programming robots, maintaining them, writing software, or teaching them skills, along with all the associated new jobs in supporting industry and infrastructure change. Many such jobs will be temporary, lasting a decade or so as machines gradually take over, but that transition period is extremely valuable and important. If anything, it will be a lengthy period of extra jobs and the biggest problem may well be filling those jobs, not widespread redundancy.

Secondly, AI and robots won’t always work direct with customers. Very often they will work via a human intermediary. A good example is in medicine. AI can make better diagnoses than a GP, and could be many times cheaper, but unless the patient is educated, and very disciplined and knowledgeable, it also needs a human with human skills to talk to a patient to make sure they put in correct information. How many times have you looked at an online medical diagnosis site and concluded you have every disease going? It is hard to be honest sometimes when you are free to interpret every possible symptom any way you want, much easier to want to be told that you have a special case of wonderful person syndrome. Having to explain to a nurse or technician what is wrong forces you to be more honest about it. They can ask you similar questions, but your answers will need to be moderated and sensible or you know they might challenge you and make you feel foolish. You will get a good diagnosis because the input data will be measured, normalized and scaled appropriately for the AI using it. When you call a call center and talk to a human, invariably they are already the front end of a massive AI system. Making that AI bigger and better won’t replace them, just mean that they can deal with your query better.

Thirdly, and I believe most importantly of all, AI and automation will remove many of the barriers that stop people being entrepreneurs. How many business ideas have you had and not bothered to implement because it was too much effort or cost or both for too uncertain a gain? 10? 100? 1000? Suppose you could just explain your idea to your home AI and it did it all for you. It checked the idea, made a model, worked out how to make it work or whether it was just a crap idea. It then explained to you what the options were and whether it would be likely to work, and how much you might earn from it, and how much you’d actually have to do personally and how much you could farm out to the cloud. Then AI checked all the costs and legal issues, did all the admin, raised the capital by explaining the idea and risks and costs to other AIs, did all the legal company setup, organised the logistics, insurance, supply chains, distribution chains, marketing, finance, personnel, ran the payroll and tax. All you’d have to do is some of the fun work that you wanted to do when you had the idea and it would find others or machines or AI to fill in the rest. In that sort of world, we’d all be entrepreneurs. I’d have a chain of tea shops and a fashion empire and a media empire and run an environmental consultancy and I’d be an artist and a designer and a composer and a genetic engineer and have a transport company and a construction empire. I don’t do any of that because I’m lazy and not at all entrepreneurial, and my ideas all ‘need work’ and the economy isn’t smooth and well run, and there are too many legal issues and regulations and it would all be boring as hell. If we automate it and make it run efficiently, and I could get as much AI assistance as I need or want at every stage, then there is nothing to stop me doing all of it. I’d create thousands of jobs, and so would many other people, and there would be more jobs than we have people to fill them, so we’d need to build even more AI and machines to fill the gaps caused by the sudden economic boom.

So why the doom? It isn’t justified. The bad news isn’t as bad as people make out, and the good news never gets a mention. Adding it together, AI will stimulate more jobs, create a bigger and a better economy, we’ll be doing far more with our lives and generally having a great time. The few people who will inevitably fall through the cracks could easily be financed by the far larger economy and the very generous welfare it can finance. We can all have the universal basic income as our safety net, but many of us will be very much wealthier and won’t need it.

 

Can we automate restaurant reviews?

Reviews are an important part of modern life. People often consult reviews before buying things, visiting a restaurant or booking a hotel. There are even reviews on the best seats to choose on planes. When reviews are honestly given, they can be very useful to potential buyers, but what if they aren’t honestly give? What if they are glowing reviews written by friends of the restaurant owners, or scathing reviews written by friends of the competition? What if the service received was fine, but the reviewer simply didn’t like the race or gender of the person delivering it? Many reviews fall into these categories, but of course we can’t be sure how many, because when someone writes a review, we don’t know whether they were being honest or not, or whether they are biased or not. Adding a category of automated reviews would add credibility provided the technology is independent of the establishment concerned.

Face recognition software is now so good that it can read lips better than human lip reading experts. It can be used to detect emotions too, distinguishing smiles or frowns, and whether someone is nervous, stressed or relaxed. Voice recognition can discern not only words but changes in pitch and volume that might indicate their emotional context. Wearable devices can also detect emotions such as stress.

Given this wealth of technology capability, cameras and microphones in a restaurant could help verify human reviews and provide machine reviews. Using the checking in process it can identify members of a group that might later submit a review, and thus compare their review with video and audio records of the visit to determine whether it seems reasonably true. This could be done by machine using analysis of gestures, chat and facial expressions. If the person giving a poor review looked unhappy with the taste of the food while they were eating it, then it is credible. If their facial expression were of sheer pleasure and the review said it tasted awful, then that review could be marked as not credible, and furthermore, other reviews by that person could be called into question too. In fact, guests would in effect be given automated reviews of their credibility. Over time, a trust rating would accrue, that could be used to group other reviews by credibility rating.

Totally automated reviews could also be produced, by analyzing facial expressions, conversations and gestures across a whole restaurant full of people. These machine reviews would be processed in the cloud by trusted review companies and could give star ratings for restaurants. They could even take into account what dishes people were eating to give ratings for each dish, as well as more general ratings for entire chains.

Service could also be automatically assessed to some degree too. How long were the people there before they were greeted/served/asked for orders/food delivered. The conversation could even be automatically transcribed in many cases, so comments about rudeness or mistakes could be verified.

Obviously there are many circumstances where this would not work, but there are many where it could, so AI might well become an important player in the reviews business. At a time when restaurants are closing due to malicious bad reviews, or ripping people off in spite of poor quality thanks to dishonest positive reviews, then this might help a lot. A future where people are forced to be more honest in their reviews because they know that AI review checking could damage their reputation if they are found to have been dishonest might cause some people to avoid reviewing altogether, but it could improve the reliability of the reviews that still do happen.

Still not perfect, but it could be a lot better than today, where you rarely know how much a review can be trusted.

Automation and the London tube strike

I was invited on the BBC’s Radio 4 Today Programme to discuss automation this morning, but on Radio 4, studio audio quality is a higher priority than content quality, while quality of life for me is a higher priority than radio exposure, and going into Ipswich greatly reduces my quality of life. We amicably agreed they should find someone else.

There will be more automation in the future. On one hand, if we could totally automate every single job right now, all the same work would be done, so the world would still have the same overall wealth, but then we’d all be idle so our newly free time could be used to improve quality of life, or lie on beaches enjoying ourselves. The problem with that isn’t the automation itself, it is mainly the deciding what else to do with our time and establishing a fair means of distributing the wealth so it doesn’t just stay with ‘the mill owners’. Automation will eventually require some tweaks of capitalism (I discuss this at length in my book Total Sustainability).

We can’t and shouldn’t automate every job. Some jobs are dull and boring or reduce the worker to too low a level of  dignity, and they should be automated as far as we can economically – that is, without creating a greater problem elsewhere. Some jobs provide people with a huge sense of fulfillment or pleasure, and we ought to keep them and create more like them. Most jobs are in between and their situation is rather more complex. Jobs give us something to do with our time. They provide us with social contact. They stop us hanging around on the streets picking fights, or finding ways to demean ourselves or others. They provide dignity, status, self-actualisation. They provide a convenient mechanism for wealth distribution. Some provide stimulation, or exercise, or supervision. All of these factors add to the value of jobs above the actual financial value add.

The London tube strike illustrates one key factor in the social decision on which jobs should be automated. The tube provides an essential service that affects a very large number of people and all their interests should be taken into account.

The impact of potential automation on individual workers in the tube system is certainly important and we shouldn’t ignore it. It would force many of them to find other jobs, albeit in an area with very low unemployment and generally high salaries. Others would have to change to another role within the tube system, perhaps giving assistance and advice to customers instead of pushing buttons on a ticket machine or moving a lever back and forward in a train cab. I find it hard to see how pushing buttons can offer the same dignity or human fulfillment as directly helping another person, so I would consider that sort of change positive, apart from any potential income drop and its onward consequences.

On the other hand, the cumulative impacts on all those other people affected are astronomically large. Many people would have struggled to get to work. Many wouldn’t have bothered. A few would suffer health consequences due to the extra struggle or stress. Perhaps a few small business on the edge of survival will have been killed. Some tourists won’t come back, a lot will spend less. A very large number of businesses and individuals will suffer significantly to let the tube staff make a not very valid protest.

The interests of a small number of people shouldn’t be ignored, but neither should the interests of a large number of people. If these jobs are automated, a few staff would suffer significantly, most would just move on to other jobs, but the future minor miseries caused to millions would be avoided.

Other jobs that should be automated are those where staff are give undue power or authority over others. Most of us will have had bad experiences of jobsworth staff, perhaps including ticketing staff, whose personal attitude is rather less than helpful and whose replacement by a machine would make the world a better place. A few people sadly seem to relish their power to make someone else’s life more difficult. I am pleased to see widespread automation of check-in at airports for that reason too. There were simply too many check-in assistants who gleefully stood in front of big notices saying that rudeness and abuse will not be tolerated from customers, while happily abusing their customers, creating maximum inconvenience and grief to their customers through a jobsworth attitude or couldn’t-care-less incompetence. Where people are in a position of power or authority, where a job offers the sort of opportunities for sadistic self-actualisation some people get by making other people’s lives worse, there is a strong case for automation to avoid the temptation to abuse that power or authority.

As artificial intelligence and robotics increase in scope and ability, many more jobs will be automated, but more often it will affect parts of jobs. Increasing productivity isn’t a bad thing, nor is up-skilling someone to do a more difficult and fulfilling job than they could otherwise manage. Some parts of any job are dull, and we won’t miss them, if they are replaced by more enjoyable activity. In many cases, simple mechanical or information processing tasks will be replaced by those involving people skills, emotional skills. By automating these bits where we are essentially doing machine work, high technology forces us to concentrate on being human. That is no bad thing.

While automation moves people away from repetitive,boring, dangerous, low dignity tasks, or those that give people too much opportunity to cause problems for others, I am all in favour. Those jobs together don’t add up to enough to cause major economic problems. We can find better work for those concerned.

We need to guard against automation going too far though. When jobs are automated faster than new equivalent or better jobs can be created, then we will have a problem. Not from the automation itself, but as a result of the unemployment, the unbalanced wealth distribution, and all the social problems that result from those. We need to automate sustainably.

Human + machine is better than human alone, but human alone is probably better than machine alone.

Self driving cars will be basis of future public transport

Fleets of self-driving cars will one day dominate our roads. They will greatly reduce road accidents, save many lives, be very socially inclusive and greatly improve mobility for the poor, the old and frail. They will save us money and help the environment, and provide useful synergy with the renewable energy industry. They will reduce the need for car parking and help rejuvenate our cities and towns. But, they will destroy the domestic car industry, reduce the pleasure many get from driving, and increase government’s ability to monitor and control our lives. The balance of benefits and costs as always will depend on the technical competence of our government, but only the most idiotic of governments could prevent this bringing huge benefits overall.

The state of Nevada has granted licenses for self-driving cars with California set to follow:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2012/may/09/google-self-driving-car-nevada?newsfeed=true

It is long-established in lab conditions that computers are able to drive cars, and for a few years now, Google have had experimental ones out on the streets to prove it in the real world, successfully. This extended licensing brings it close to the final hurdle. Soon, we will see lots of cars on the roads that drive themselves.

There are many obvious advantages in letting computers drive. Humans typically react at around 250ms. Some faster, some slower. That is thousands of times slower than we expect of machines. Machines can also talk to each other extremely quickly, and it would be very easy to arrange coordination of braking and acceleration among lines of cars if desired. High speed reaction and coordination allows a number of benefits:

Computer-driven cars could drive just millimetres apart. This would reduce drag, improving environmental footprint, and since there can’t be a significant speed differential, so gives very limited scope for damage if the cars collide. There can also be more lanes, since we wouldn’t need huge gasp between cars sideways because of low human skill, and lanes can be assigned for either direction of flow according to circumstances. It also increases greatly the number of cars that can fit along a stretch of road, and ensures that they can be kept moving much more smoothly. So cars could be safer and more efficient and get us there faster.

However, we only get the greatest benefits if we allow a high degree of standardisation of control systems, road management, vehicle size and speed. Drivers would have little control of their journey other than specifying destination. We could allow some freedom, but each degree of freedom reduces benefits elsewhere. Automated cars could mix with human driven ones but the humans would slow the system down and reduce road usage efficiency considerably. So we’d be far better off going the full way and phasing out human-driven cars.

If we have little control of our cars, and they are all likely to be standardised, and if they can drive themselves to you on request, and you can just abandon them once you arrive, then there is very little point in owning your own. It is extremely likely that we will move towards a system where large fleets of cars are owned and run by fleet management companies or public transport companies, and obviously these are likely to overlap considerably. This would result in better social inclusiveness. Older people who rely on public transport because they can’t drive, might also find it hard to walk to a bus stop. If a car can collect them from their front door, it would improve their ability to taker an active part in life for longer. If we don’t own our cars, and they just go off and serve someone else once we have arrived, then we won’t need as many cars, nor the need for all the parking spaces they use. We could manage with a few centralised high-efficiency storage spaces to store the surplus during low demand. All the spare car parks, garages and home driveways could be used for other things instead that would improve our life quality, such as more green areas or extra rooms in our homes, or more brown field development space.

Energy storage for wind or solar power is made easier if we have large numbers of electric cars. Even though we would eventually make direct energy pick-up in most roads, via inductive loops and super-capacitors, cars would still need small batteries once they leave the main roads. So there is good potential synergy between energy companies and car owners.

All the automation requires that the fleet companies have some sort of billing systems, so they know who has been where. This potentially also allows government to know who has been where and when, another potential erosion of  privacy. Standardisation would favour some parts of the car industry against others, but since we would need a lot fewer cars, the entire car industry would shrink. But I think these problems are not too high a price for such great benefits, in this case. Cars are essential, but they sap a great deal of our income, and if we have a better and cheaper way of meeting the same needs, then we can spend the savings on something more fruitful, and that will stimulate business elsewhere. So overall, the economy should benefit rather than suffer.

So, there is no such thing as a free lunch, and automated cars will bring a few problems, but these problems will be greatly outweighed by very large benefits. We should head down this path as fast as we can.