Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Social Impact - part of the PR Automation Series

It is time to put PR into the wider context of automation for the majority of the population.

 The Robots Are Coming by John Lanchester offers us considerable insights. It looks at the future in terms of economic activity.

 He reports on the methodologies now at play and instances Google Translate: Google Translate hasn’t got better because roomfuls of impecunious polymaths have been spending man-years copying out and cross-referencing vocabulary lists. Its improvement is a triumph of machine learning. The software matches texts in parallel languages so that its learning is a process of finding which text is statistically most likely to match the text in another language.

Translate has hoovered up gigantic quantities of parallel texts into its database. A very fertile source of these useful things, apparently, is the European Union’s set of official publications, which are translated into all Community languages. Progressively, Translate has improved.

It is still learning but learning very fast and across not one but many languages. Soon (weeks not years) it will be better than even the best humans.

 The new generation of robots are well beyond the rather comic attempts at computing and robotisation (and even word processing) of a decade ago. At the Amazon fulfilment centres’ where it makes up and dispatches its parcels, the robots are slow and marked out in orange. They can lift three thousand pounds at a time and carry an entire stack of shelves in one go. They manoeuvre around each other with surprising elegance. They are inexorable, and they aren’t going away: the labour being done by these robots is work that will never again be done by people.

 Rodney Brooks, who co-founded iRobot, noticed something else about such modern, highly automated factory floors: people are scarce, but they’re not absent. And a lot of the work they do is repetitive and mindless.

 Robert Gordon, an American economist in his paper ‘Is US Economic Growth Over?’ contrasted the impact of computing and information technology with the effect of the second industrial revolution, between 1875 and 1900 (with inventions such as electric lightbulbs and the electric power station, the internal combustion engine, the telephone, radio, recorded music and cinema). It also introduced ‘running water and indoor plumbing and women were freed from carrying tons of water each year’.

 Gordon’s view is that we coasted on the aftermaths of these inventions until about 1970, when the computer revolution allowed the economy to remain on our historic path of 2 per cent annual growth. Computers replaced human labour and thus contributed to productivity, but the bulk of these benefits came early in the Electronics Era.

 In the 1960s, mainframe computers churned out bank statements and telephone bills, reducing clerical labour. In the 1970s, memory typewriters replaced repetitive retyping by armies of legal clerks. In the 1980s, PCs with word processing were introduced, as were ATMs that replaced bank tellers and barcode scanning that replaced retail workers.

 These were real and important changes and got rid of a lot of drudgery. What happened subsequently, though, was a little different: The iPod replaced the CD Walkman; the smartphone replaced the ‘dumb’ cellphone with functions that in part replaced desktop and laptop computers, and the iPad provided further competition for the ‘traditional’ personal computers.

These innovations were enthusiastically adopted, but they provided new opportunities for consumption on the job and in leisure hours rather than a continuation of the historical tradition of replacing human labour with machines. In other words, most of the real productivity benefits of the computing revolution happened a few decades ago.

 The impact is already with us. ‘Our discovery of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour’ (Keynes) is a form of progress that makes jobs go away through the sheer speed of its impact. As Lanchester puts it: ‘Just to be clear: the disappearance of work happens to individuals, not to entire economies. A job lost in one place is replaced by a new job, which may be somewhere else. In 1810, agriculture employed 90 per cent of the American workforce. A hundred years later, the figure was about 30 per cent (today it’s less than 2 per cent). That might sound like a recipe for chaotic disruption and endemic unemployment, but the US economy managed the transition fine, thanks in large part to the effect of the technologies mentioned by Robert Gordon (plus the railways).

So, by extension and analogy, maybe we don’t need to fear technological unemployment this time either. But maybe we do! A thorough, considered and disconcerting study of that possibility was undertaken by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne, in ‘The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation?’

They came up with the likely impact of technological change on a range of 702 occupations, from podiatrists to tour guides, animal trainers to personal finance advisers, etc. It ranks them, from 1 (you’ll be fine) to 702 (best start re-writing the CV). The evolution is clear: human-to-human interaction and judgment is in demand, routine tasks are not.

Some of the judgments seem odd: is it really the case that choreographers come in at 13, ahead of physicians and surgeons at 15, and a long way ahead of, say, anthropologists and archaeologists at 39, not to mention writers at 123 and editors at 140? Frey and Osborne’s conclusion is stark. In the next two decades, 47 per cent of employment is ‘in the high-risk category’, meaning it is ‘potentially automatable’.

 Meantime productivity has gone up steadily (except for the 2008 recession year). The amount of work done per worker has gone up, but pay hasn’t. This means that the proceeds of increased profitability are accruing to capital rather than to labour. The culprit is not clear, but Brynjolfsson and McAfee argue, persuasively, that the force to blame is increased automation.

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