“World” Category

The Automated Future

For the last few decades, we have struggled with how to employ manufacturing workers who lost their well-paid job with great benefits due to a globalized economy. When workers in another part of the world are willing to work for a fraction of what it costs to manufacture something in the United States, it’s obvious why companies move their manufacturing operations: it’s a significant cost advantage and, worse, if they don’t, their competitors will. This is only more true today. In January, Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher reported for the New York Times that for technology products especially, the labor cost itself is less important. What matters is that Asia—especially China—is the only place where every part of the supply chain exists in one region, that can manufacture quickly and at immense scale.

Manufacturing, too, is increasingly automated. The human’s role in actually putting things together is decreasing. Automation on large scale for identical products, like cars, has been a reality for decades. What’s happening now, though, is that smaller scale, small production runs are being automated as well. Rethink Robotics has created a robot called Baxter that can be “taught” how to do repeating tasks, and can work around humans. Rethink Robotics says Baxter can work for the equivalent of $4 an hour. Vanguard Plastics, a 30-person company in Connecticut, is using Baxter for menial tasks. Vanguard’s president, Chris Budnick, says that workers who did these jobs before are not being laid off, but are now assigned to “higher-level” tasks like training Baxter for each new production run.

Robots like Baxter are a work multiplier. Whereas before Vanguard required humans to do menial tasks, now they only need humans to train robots how to do something. But many more people are required to do the menial tasks than are required to train robots, so while no one may be losing their job now, they will need to find new productive tasks for them in the future—or eliminate their jobs. As robots like Baxter get better, too, manufactures will need even fewer employees to train them.

Other industries face very similar problems. Retail salespersons and cashiers, for example, account for nearly 6 percent of all jobs in the U.S., but are increasingly irrelevant. For many products, shopping online is more convenient and cheaper. Tower Records, Blockbuster and Borders all failed fundamentally because purchasing music, movies and books online is much better than paying more money for the privilege of driving to a store, hoping they have what you want and waiting in line. Even grocery stores are reducing their need for cashiers by employing self-checkout machines, which allow customers to scan and pay for items on their own and require only one employee to monitor several self-checkout machines.

Almost all of the jobs lost due to offshoring and automation have been low or semi-skilled kinds of jobs. Manufacturing jobs required training, but certainly did not require several years of specialty education and training to do. Retail sales and cashier positions require almost zero training. It would appear, then, that since offshoring and automation are eliminating low and semi-skilled jobs, we can re-orient our economy toward “knowledge work,” or work whose primary task is thinking. Examples of these kinds of jobs are software engineers, engineers, lawyers, doctors, accountants, managers and scientists. These kinds of jobs require a tremendous investment in education and training, and therefore seem not to fall prey to offshoring and automation.

In The Lights in the Tunnel, Martin Ford asks a very good question: “What is the likely economic impact of machines or computers that begin to catch up with—and maybe even surpass—the average person’s capability to do a typical job?” Or, more provocatively: If computers can already beat the best chess players in the world, isn’t it likely that they will also soon be able to perform many routine jobs?

Ford argues that not only is this true, as we’re seeing for manufacturing and retail jobs, but that it is also true for highly-skilled knowledge work jobs. Think about what a radiologist does. Much of what they do is read routine x-rays or CT and MRI scans to diagnose issues with patients. Since radiology is increasingly digital, and knowledge of what different conditions and diseases look like can be digitally represented and algorithmically identified, it’s likely that some of what human radiologists do today—the more routine, easy to identify cases—will be handled by computers instead. Doing so will dramatically decrease costs for hospitals because they will have to employ less doctors, which require large salaries, health insurance, vacation and sick days, and have to be hired and managed. Computers don’t.

The same, of course, is true for much of what general practice doctors do as well. Computers like IBM’s Watson could diagnose patients with routine things like the flu and provide a treatment as well. In fact, because Watson would have access to exponentially more medical research, journal articles, studies and patient history (and aggregate patient data), Watson may very well provide better diagnoses and treatments than the average human doctor.

Ford points out this is true for other fields, too, like law. He writes:

Currently there are jobs in the United States for many thousands of lawyers who rarely, if ever, go into a courtroom. These attorneys are employed in the areas of legal research and contracts. They work at law firms and spend much of their time in the library or accessing legal databases through their computers. They research case law, and write briefs which summarize relevant court cases and legal strategies from the past.… Can a computer do the lawyer’s job? (70-71)

Is there any reason to think that computers will never be able to do this kind of basic research and summarization? I don’t think so. What this suggests is that automation will challenge many kinds of knowledge work just as much as low and semi-skilled work. Indeed, companies will have even more reason to automate these kinds of jobs, because they are generally very well-paid jobs.

Manufacturing and retail job elimination, then, is just the first wave of many to come. The question, though, is not how to get those jobs back and protect the ones that still exist. That isn’t going to happen, is counter-productive and a waste of time. The question to ask is, when many of the jobs people depend on our automated, what kind of jobs will they do instead?

That question is, I think, the most important question to answer for the next few decades.

I have some ideas, but for now, I just want to ask the question and want you to think about it. How do we productively employ these people?

November 21st, 2012

The Beijing Consensus At Work

The China Model continues to impress:

The owner of an Internet cafe in southwest China was given an eight-year prison term for criticizing the ruling Communist Party in online messages and for seeking to establish an opposition party, his wife said Thursday.

November 1st, 2012

Drug Abuse in Portugal Drops by Half After Decriminalization

After decriminalizing all drug use in 2001, Portugal’s drug abuse has dropped by half:

The number of addicts considered “problematic” — those who repeatedly use “hard” drugs and intravenous users — had fallen by half since the early 1990s, when the figure was estimated at around 100,000 people, Goulao said.

Infections among intravenous users and drug-related crimes have dropped significantly as well.

Portugal’s policy is to provide drug addicts with treatment rather than put them in prison. Our country would be better off with a similar policy.

November 1st, 2012

Obama: American people need to know how I make national security decisions

Barack Obama, while on The Daily Show:

‘Whatever else I have done throughout the course of my presidency the one thing that I’ve been absolutely clear about is that America’s security comes, and the American people need to know exactly how I make decisions when it comes to war, peace, security, and protecting Americans.

‘And they will continue to get that over the next four years of my presidency.’

Except, apparently, for when he will kill American citizens with drone strikes, when he will support the people overthrowing one ally’s government but not the other, and when he will intervene in one country’s revolution but not another. Because this administration’s policies are not at all clear on those issues.

October 19th, 2012

Earth-Sized Planet Found in Alpha Centauri

An Earth-sized planet was found in Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to our solar system:

Bringing the search for another Earth about as close as it will ever get, a team of European astronomers was scheduled to announce on Wednesday that it had found a planet the same mass as Earth’s in Alpha Centauri, a triple star system that is the Sun’s closest neighbor, only 4.4 light-years away.

The planet is much too close to its star to be habitable, but there’s no doubt that our galaxy is littered with near-Earth sized planets. As we get better at finding exoplanets, we’re finding more and more small planets. With enough of them, there is almost assuredly rocky planets in their system’s habitable zone. And with enough of those, there has to be some where conditions were similar enough to our own that life popped up.

Intelligent life may not be very prevalent (because the conditions have to be quite good and stable for it to pop up, at least in a form similar to our own), but my bet is that life is. There’s very little that excites me more than the idea that there are many planets across our galaxy with living creatures on them, and maybe even intelligent beings wondering the same thing as us—are there others out there?

It’s unfortunate that there is almost no chance that we will ever find evidence of intelligent life elsewhere in our galaxy, but it is nonetheless exhilarating that we may be able to soon identify a number of planets that could sustain life as we know it.

October 16th, 2012

Zhang Weiying, China’s Austrian Economist

Chinese economist Zhang Weiying is gaining in audience in China for his view that China’s Keynsian, state-run model has mis-allocated investment and made conditions worse:

In other words, the stimulus was a poster child for Mr. Zhang’s Austrian theories. And the sheer size of the failure suddenly has people paying attention. “The Keynesian policy didn’t deliver what it promised,” he says, so “more and more people realize that . . . when the government makes investment [in] something that’s useless, recession will come.”

Chinese officials no longer treat Mr. Zhang as a pariah. He reports that Ministry of Agriculture officials tell him they enjoy reading his articles. Other ministries and local governments, including in Henan and Liaoning provinces, invite him to speak. He says that when he recently wrote an article praising the late Austrian economist Murray Rothbard, the Communist Party secretary of Shanghai—a fairly high-level apparatchik—told him he liked it.

Interesting, especially because only a few short years ago, the “Beijing Consensus”—a sort of state-directed capitalism—was lauded across the world for its success.

October 15th, 2012

The Only Freedom She’s Allowed

Reporters Without Borders has a video of Liu Xia, Liu Xiaobo’s wife, looking out her window and smoking a cigarette at night, one of the few freedoms she has. The video is haunting. This is her only day-to-day contact with the world.

October 14th, 2012

China Pressures Liu Xiaobo By Locking Up Wife

China has held dissident Liu Xiaobo’s wife under house arrest for 2 years, since Liu was imprisoned for calling for democratic reforms in China. The Chinese government is holding Liu Xia under house arrest without any legal justification, and it’s believed they are doing so to try to pressure Liu Xiaobo to go into exile:

His wife Liu Xia, an even softer-spoken poet and photographer, has been similarly silenced. She’s being held in her own flat in Beijing.

She’s been there for two years, detained just a couple of days after her husband was announced as the 2010 winner.

That’s what the Chinese government (and CCP) does: it imprisons people who are critical of its actions, and harms their family and friends to silence them. The party has no compunction for squashing its own people, because the party is more important than mere individuals. Individuals are merely grist to the mill, resources to be ground up to achieve their goals.

October 10th, 2012

Why Explore Space?

Lawrence Krauss poses a good question about space exploration—for what purpose?—and seeks to answer it:

For example, every time I see a Hubble Space Telescope photograph showing hundreds of galaxies, each containing billions of stars whose light has taken billions of years to travel to the Hubble cameras, it inspires me to ponder whether they may have been surrounded by now-frozen planets harboring long-dead civilizations.

And closer to home, I have to admit that I am in love with Curiosity.

Something that’s been fundamentally true as long as we’ve been around is that humans seek to understand why things are the way they are, to understand the world we live in. We’ve always wondered what lies beyond that next mountain range, or on the other side of that ocean, why the sun rises and sets, what are the stars in the night sky.

We’ve answered many of the big questions, but there’s still much we don’t know. Some of it is here on Earth, deep in the oceans or under the Earth’s surface, but much of what we don’t know lies in the rest of our solar system and beyond. There might not be many direct, short-term economic benefits to further exploration, but those will certainly come in the future. Most important, though, is we will continue to explore, expand our knowledge of why the universe is the way it is, and so keep us moving toward greater knowledge and a greater future. I believe that setting our boundaries at orbiting our planet, never to go beyond, will also set limits on our hopes for a better world tomorrow and our ambitions to create it. After all, if we’ve decided that we won’t go any farther than we have into the greatest unknown left, why would we dream to continue pushing boundaries here at home? Why wouldn’t we settle down and enjoy the benefits of the human race’s collective efforts thus far, rather than toil for something new?

Humans are driven by the unknown and all the possibilities it entails. Continuing to explore our boundaries creates the conditions for our ambitions and successes. I don’t think that’s a design flaw—I think it’s a feature. We’re never satisfied with what we already know and have already done, and I hope we never are.

October 2nd, 2012

Obama’s Incoherent Middle East Policy

Helene Cooper and Robert Worth describe the tension in Obama administration’s Middle East policy:

“We realized that the possibility of anything happening in Saudi Arabia was one that couldn’t become a reality,” said William M. Daley, President Obama’s chief of staff at the time. “For the global economy, this couldn’t happen. Yes, it was treated differently from Egypt. It was a different situation.”

Some analysts credit Mr. Obama for recognizing early on that strategic priorities trumped whatever sympathy he had for the protesters. Others say the administration could have more effectively mediated between the Bahraini government and the largely Shiite protesters, and thereby avoided what has become a sectarian standoff in one of the world’s most volatile places.

If Mr. Obama had cultivated closer ties to the Saudis, he might have bought time for negotiations between the Bahraini authorities and the chief Shiite opposition party, Al Wefaq, according to one American diplomat who was there at the time. Instead, the Saudis gave virtually no warning when their forces rolled across the causeway linking Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, and the ensuing crackdown destroyed all hopes for a peaceful resolution.

On the one hand, President Obama said that Egypt’s Mubarak must step down and respect the will of the people, but said nothing about Shiite protestors in Bahrain who were put down by the Saudis and the Bahrain government. Support for protestors in Egypt and public indifference toward protestors in Bahrain is, based on principles, wholly hypocritical.

It, of course, reflects a geopolitical difficulty for the U.S.: a Sunni, friendly to the U.S. Saudi Arabia ensures that oil shipments will continue to flow through the Persian Gulf, and therefore the world economy stability. But if the Saudis are overthrown by Shiites, or there is instability caused by a conflict between the Shiites and Sunnis, Iran would receive the strategic upper hand, threatening oil shipments. That isn’t a particularly pretty scenario for the U.S. or, indeed, the world. It’s easy to understand the U.S.’s incoherent and hypocritical Middle East policy, as distasteful as it is.

But that also doesn’t mean the protests had to end with tanks, tear gas and bullets. The Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, know that the president’s rhetorical support for protestors in Egypt’s Tahrir Square could just as quickly turn against them, too; after all, Mubarak enjoyed three decades of staunch U.S. support before it dissolved in a matter of days. Cooper and Worth’s reporting inveighs that Obama has, perplexingly, refused to build relationships with allies across the region. Not only did the Gulf states feel threatened by protests in their nations, and by the equally-applicable nature of U.S. support for Egyptian and Tunisian protests, but also because they had no basis to trust Obama. How could they trust him when he’s made very little effort to form trust between them?

There’s no way of knowing if it would have been different otherwise, but from that perspective, the Saudi’s move to crush the protest before it spiraled out of control makes sense. If it did, like it did in Egypt, it seemed likely that the U.S. would snap their support away, and the regimes would crumble. Crushing the protests became an inevitability. That may, of course, still have been the result in the counter-factual, but if they had formed a relationship of trust, it is also possible that Obama could have called them early on to reiterate the U.S.’s firm support for Saudi Arabia, and to try to create grounds for dialogue between protestors and the Bahrain government and Saudis. That dialogue almost assuredly would do little to address Shiite grievances, but at least it could have avoided a violent end to the protest.

His refusal to build relationships with Middle East nations also undermines the U.S.’s ability to push them toward democratic reforms. While we may not be able to ditch the Saudis, that doesn’t mean we can’t use our relationship to push them. When there isn’t a strong relationship, that simply isn’t possible. In this way, Obama’s Middle East policy creates the conditions for further instability while reducing our ability to push authoritarian regimes toward better outcomes.

October 1st, 2012

Bo Xilai to Face Prosecution

Bo Xilai will face prosecution:

Mr. Bo is accused, among other things, of abusing his power in relation to the case of a British businessman who authorities say was murdered by Mr. Bo’s wife and of taking “massive bribes” directly and through his family, according to Xinhua, the state news agency.

It says a lot about China’s system that someone as corrupt as Bo, and who ruined as many people’s lives as he did, was only charged with crimes when his actions became inconvenient for the CCP. In China, that tends to be the only way to get justice: give the party no other choice.

September 28th, 2012

Hamas Disappointed With Egypt’s Morsi

The Economist reports that Hamas is disappointed with Egypt’s new Muslim Brotherhood president, Muhammad Morsi:

So the new Egyptian authorities are putting national interests ahead of Islamist ones, noted a chirpy Israeli official. “Mubarak with a beard,” snapped an angry Hamas man, referring to the Egyptian president ousted last year who co-operated with Israel to keep Hamas and his own Muslim Brothers down. Some of Egypt’s Muslim Brothers are unhappy about Mr Morsi’s cold-shouldering of Hamas.

Egypt has better sealed the Sinai-Gaza tunnels under Morsi than it did under Mubarak. I wonder, then, whether Morsi’s rather timid response to the Egyptian U.S. embassy protests was largely due to the Brotherhood’s own support for them, general anger toward the U.S., and Morsi’s more moderate position on Israel and the Palestinians. If he is already under internal pressure, staying relatively quiet on the protests, and allowing the public to focus their anger, makes a lot more sense.

That doesn’t justify it, of course; a favorite tactic for Arab regimes has been to stir up anger against the West and blame all troubles on it to shift attention away from their own failings. Morsi seems to be using that tactic well, but he’s also been quite amenable toward Israel, which is something to be happy about. Peace between Israel and Egypt is a bedrock for stability in the region, and threatening it would be very dangerous indeed.

September 27th, 2012

Curiosity Finds Dry Stream Bed on Mars

The Curiosity rover has found an ancient stream bed on Mars.

Incredible to see. That’s not the first evidence we’ve found of flowing water on Mars, but seeing a steam bed that easily could be mistaken for one on Earth on another planet is awe-inspiring.

Also, isn’t it great that they released this photo on Twitter?

September 27th, 2012

Automation is Coming

Automation of more and more tasks is coming. Here’s one more example:

Baxter, the first product of Rethink Robotics, an ambitious start-up company in a revived manufacturing district here, is a significant bet that robots in the future will work directly with humans in the workplace.

That is a marked shift from today’s machines, which are kept safely isolated from humans, either inside glass cages or behind laser-controlled “light curtains,” because they move with Terminator-like speed and accuracy and could flatten any human they encountered.

Better to start thinking through how this new age’s economy is going to work now than later.

September 19th, 2012

White House: Embassy Violence Isn’t Directed at U.S., Two Plus Two Doesn’t Equal Four

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney says embassy violence around the world isn’t directed at the U.S.:

This is a fairly volatile situation and it is in response not to United States policy, not to, obviously, the Administration, not to the American people. It is in response to a video, a film, that we have judged to be reprehensible and disgusting, that in no way justifies any violent reaction to it, but this is not a case of protests directed at the United States writ large or at US policy, this is in response to a video that is offensive, and, to Muslims. Again, this is not in any way justifying violence, and we’ve spoken very clearly out against that, and condemned it.

Oh, no, Jay—it’d be crazy to think that protests at U.S. embassies, the storming of them, taking down and burning the U.S. flag and raising Islamist flags would be directed toward the U.S., wouldn’t it? I haven’t a clue what might give anyone that idea.

Totally unrelated, but the administration is very accomplished at digging holes and burying their heads. It’s quite impressive, really.

September 14th, 2012