Press-Republican

March 10, 2013

Automation: Part 2

Stewart A. Denenberg, Technology and Society
Press-Republican

— In my February column, “The challenge of automation”, I began a review of some of the ideas in Martin Ford’s book, “The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future.”

His basic premise is that as technology grows exponentially so will automation and its net effect will be to destroy more jobs than it creates causing unemployment to grow and economic chaos to ensue.

He concludes that we must start now (this was 2009) to plan for this crisis and take what steps we can to deal with it.

The author argues that since near full automation is inevitable, the best solution is to bite the bullet and pay the people who have lost their jobs to automation so that they may continue to consume goods and services so that the overall economy will not collapse.

He views both capitalists and workers as consumers, but since the workers are a much larger population, when the workers lose their jobs, they can no longer participate in the free market and the economy eventually tanks.

Ford suggests that the businesses that save money by replacing human workers with machines be taxed to pay the displaced workers, as machines are cheaper and have no associated payroll taxes, He understands that there will be a massive pushback against this idea as it smacks of socialism but believes attitudes can and will change especially under enormous economic pressure.

Ford also asserts that while providing additional educational resources will slow the job displacements of automation, it cannot stop the ultimate result of massive job losses. In fact, he insists that education alone is not the decisive factor determining whether a particular job can be automated or not.

Until recently, most economists have opined that automation displaces low-skilled workers more than skilled ones; basically blue-collar jobs are more likely to be replaced than white-collar jobs.

However, Ford provides several counterexamples throughout the book, such as a housekeeper vs a radiologist — which would you predict is most likely to be replaced by automation? Certainly the radiologist needs higher-level skills than a maid, but Ford makes a strong case that it is the job of the housecleaner that is more difficult to automate.

Computers are getting very good at pattern recognition — the armed services use software to analyze aerial photos; they can spot a tank in a forest. Why then couldn’t a program analyze an X-ray or an MRI?

Ford believes it’s only a matter of time before a computer can replace a radiologist or at least most of their functions so that fewer and fewer need to be hired by hospitals. But what about the maid’s job? One could argue that most anyone can it, but it turns out to be very difficult to program all of the situations that a housekeeper has to deal with. For example, what should our robot do when it finds a pair of glasses on the dining-room table and the case for them by the TV? A human housekeeper would have no trouble identifying the item on the table no matter its orientation and making the inference that these spectacles belong in the case by the TV — but this situation is easily left out of the program that drives the robot.

Alfred North Whitehead has an interesting take on automation and its effect on society when he states, “Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.”

For example, I can use an automobile to transport me from location A to B without knowing anything at all about mechanical engineering. But he also cautioned, “It is the first step in sociological wisdom, to recognize that the major advances in civilization are processes which all but wreck the societies in which they occur — like unto an arrow in the hand of a child.”

In other words, technology is a double-edged sword — we must be careful not to let it cut us as we use it to cut our problems down to size.

A longer, more detailed review can be found at: tec-soc.blogspot.com

Dr. Stewart A. Denenberg is an emeritus professor of computer science at Plattsburgh State, retiring recently after 30 years there. Before that, he worked as a technical writer, programmer and consultant to the U.S. Navy and private Industry. Send comments and suggestions to his blog at www.tec-soc.blogspot.com, where there is additional text and links. He can also be reached at denenbsa@gmail.com.