The machines are coming – 2049?

It is notoriously difficult to predict the future. I lived my life at IBM, following Alan Kays 1982 aphorism

The best way to predict the future is to invent it

In my career I got many things right, and many things wrong. While Amazon was still a small time bookseller, and Youtube for the most part didn’t exist, it was obvious both business models would thrive. While I couldn’t convince IBM to pursue either of these opportunities with ny success, we demonstrated the technology perfectly. My “Wired for Life
Presentation contains some of my wins, and many of my losses.

It was much easier to build on these, especially the societal impact in my 2003 “Trends and Directions” presentation.  Societal impact is much easier to predict as you can demographic data, current trends and it’s pretty easy to extrapolate. Technology adoption is much harder.

Many of these predictions are not useful, after all who needs  a robot to write high school essays? Many though will continue to fundementally change work and life as we know it.

What they are though is a signal in the way the World Economic Forum predicts the technology will develop, and to some degree it’s a self fulfilling prophecy. Watching this and reading many of the “machines are coming” articles that have been published over the past 5-years, it’s easy to become depressed about the rise of automation, AI, and robots. In a year when the sequel for Blade Runner will finally appear on our screens, there are some key things to remember.

  1. There is no magic, no silver bullet – If they can’t explain it, or worse don’t understand it, they have not invented it. Machine learning is great, but the machines can only learn with the machine learning constraints they have.
  2. Listen to the doubters – Doubt is very different to dismissal. People who dismiss possibility out-of-hand either don’t understand the opportunity and the potential, or are afraid of the change. It’s the doubters who have thought things through and understand the problems and the weaknesses.
  3. Don’t fear automation – If you do, you will be left behind. Learn, adapt, change; if possible work to invent the future By all means be a doubter, don’t be a dismisser.
  4. Find a problem, don’t start with a solution – AI, Robotics, Big Data, Machine Learning, Algorithms, Neural Networks are all speciality fields, grabbing onto them and asking how can we use them isn’t useful. The more specific you can be about a problem that needs solving, the easier it will be to identify the correct technology.
  5. Be Human – the more we automate, the more important human interaction becomes. The more empathy you have for someone who has a problem, the more likely you are to be able to understand how to solve it. Empathy, the arts, sports and human interaction are all fields where robotics and automation are least likely to take over.

More Human than Human – Dr Eldon Tyrell, The Tyrell Corporation

Trains, horns and taxes

I’ve been  frustrated that my blog has been withering but I just didn’t want to be an endless stream of rants about the #potus45 administration.

So this isn’t about them, at all. While I have in mind a summery I’ll steer clear for now. So, meanwhile back in beautiful Colorado, the natives are getting worked up over a plan to install “quiet zones”  for all the railroad crossings in town.

As much as I can’t envisage enjoying the horn blowing, and we can barely hear them in the night, apparently many can and do like them and have a nostalgia for them.

Well the whole thing went  awry went Rene posted, she said.

If you don’t like the trains, don’t live near the tracks. No body would build within spitting distance of a rail road track if nobody would live there, then no body would be bothered by the noise. All the high density housing along the tracks is ruining my wonderful, small home town. I resent that people come in and then start to try to change it.

Which of course completely misses the point that most of old Town was built around the railroad out of economic necessity, which made people want to live there, rather than people who loved the sound of the horns and built a house there.

Rene, change is not only inevitable but essential.

For the most part the city carries most of its infrastructure on its book as assets, which means they depreciate it over its lifespan, and they have scramble to find ways to replace it.

In essence the only way they have to do that is to raise property and sales tax, or get new residents who make up the difference. Bonds are indirectly taxes.

If there is some road, building or other city or state asset you’ve been using since you arrived here, that hasn’t been rebuilt or replaced, then you have been subsidized by either earlier generations or the new residents. This is especially true for water, sewage, and roads.

As has been previously articulated here, essentially the quiet zones are really doing no more than returning the crossings to pre-2005 safety and horns for post 2015 traffic volumes.

It’s not the new residents that are to blame, I’m one of them. If anyone is to blame its the people that have lived here for 25+ years.

They’ve not been accounting for city resources as liabilities, not taxing enough to support those liabilities, and then selling property off to developers to make a buck for themselves.

Unfortunately development in America, not just Louisville has been a ponzy scheme for 100 years. You either keep growing or you’ll wither and die, or become Boulder. Louisville is headed for the latter since it’s mostly built out.

Edit:8/02/17 12:40 – Add links, change @potus45 > #potus45 and correct typos.

Giant fleet of small scheduling nightmares

In tenuous link between my recent posts on automation, here and especially here, where back in November I discussed autonomous vehicles and their impact on employment. I also said:

While many cities are salivating over the ability of self-driving, autonomous vehicles to fix their broken road and transport infrastructure, that’s missing the point.

Sometime between then and last weekend I became a weekend subscriber to the (Boulder) Daily Camera, a great local paper for the Boulder/Denver metro area. Right on queue, my first Sunday paper was laying in the snow on the drive this weekend and I opened it up and parsed it during the day. One item that particularly caught my eye was Dave Kriegers main editorial entitled “Imagine a giant fleet of tiny buses“.

serveimageI grabbed a pen, marked the editorial up, scribbled in the margins and sat down on Monday morning and wrote an open forum letter. It didn’t get published, I have no idea if it’s policy not to publish corrections on staff written op-ed pieces, or they just didn’t think it interesting enough to include?

Since a big fuss has blown up about an Uber self driving car today, running a red light yesterday(in full transparency, Uber self driving development has a big office here in Louisville that is a build-up from the Uber acquisition of Microsofts Bing mapping service.) I thought I’d turn Mondays open forum letter into a blog post.

This also lets me correct one misstatement. Self-driving cars will help with congestion theoretically. In heavy traffic, they will drive at a regulation speed, a safe distance from the vehicle in front, thus avoid the hard braking and the impact that can have on several miles of traffic.

It is hard to respond to Dave Kriegers editorial imaging “a giant fleet of tiny buses” in 300-words, but I’d like to have a try.

First, I completely agree with his sentiment that if you keep trying the same old thing, you’ll keep failing. However, when it comes to his “giant fleet of small buses” he falls into the same trap most transport ‘imagineers’ do when the come to self-driving vehicles. For the sake of brevity, let’s assume they’ll be electric; let’s assume they can dock themselves; let’s assume they have a slightly better range than current electric cars.

Dave jumps to the conclusion that less space will be needed for parking. Sort of, except the cars have to be charged somewhere. But yes, they could be charged in either fields or reclaimed parking garages outfitted with self-docking chargers. Dave then makes the confusing jump to the conclusion that “[they] could reduce congestion because fewer cars would serve more people”.

Anyone that’s given any serious thought to scheduling and transportation would understand implicitly that that isn’t true. It’s implied because it fits the paradigm of autonomous vehicles. If 20,000 people want to get into Boulder today between 7:15am and 9:00am in their own unshared transportation, and the demand is the same in the era of self-driving cars, then, you’ll have the same number of journeys. Add in the recharging trips, the fact that using Daves logic, there will be less self-driving cars, then some of those cars will have to drive in and out and back into Boulder, actually increasing the number of journeys and therefore contributing to the congestion.

If we take Daves “less parking space” claim at face value, then what will the space formerly used by parking garages be used for? Green space… err no, more offices/accommodation, with the potential to further increase the number of journeys and congestion.

Don’t get me wrong, self-driving cars are great, but until we have flying cars they will only help indirectly with congestion won’t help with congestion. The only way is shared transport. Bus Rapid Transport isn’t it either. Trams, street cars, metro-rail are the only real fix.

Dystopian Future it is then

In his acceptance speech, President elect Trump said, among other things:

We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals. We’re going to rebuild our infrastructure, which will become, by the way, second to none. And we will put millions of our people to work as we rebuild it.

This from a man, who tweeted:

I’ve no idea what to expect now from the Trump Presidency, but it’s an amazing  coincidence that the original Blade Runner film was set in In Los Angeles in November 2019, just two years from now.

Hopefully Blade Runner isn’t a metaphor for a Trump Presidency; the weather and the blade runners, especially Gaff, do not foreshadow Trumps Immigration cops; and hopefully the Los Angeles in the film, nothing like the real LA in 2019; and the replicants not an extreme of the automation I wrote about yesterday.

blade-runner

What we don’t know is how Trump will do this. Just running up the deficit doesn’t seem likely given he’s from the GOP/Republican party. Taking much of what he’s said, closing tax loopholes, defunding Nato, closing overseas bases in place like Germany, Japan and more won’t likely save enough money. Your move President Trump.

Bring back what jobs?

Look, the jobs that are lost, are not coming back, get over it. When Trump claims he’ll bring back jobs, he either has no idea what he is talking about, or he envisions some dystopian future where Americans are more like slaves than they’ve been since, well, slaves.

China and Mexico are not the problem, automation is. Even if Trump were able to force companies to bring manufacturing back to ‘Merica, through punitive tax and trade barriers, the manufacturing won’t be the same as it was, ever.

Listen to this recent extract from NPR’s All Things Considered. Bertram de Souza of The Vindicator talks about steel mills following a recent visit of Trump to Youngstown Ohio.

The next wave of automation is coming, it’s in driverless vehicles, it will have a dramatic impact on employment. Automated delivery trucks, automated taxi’s, autonomous vehicles will make a large dent in the current employment of some 3-million in America. While many cities are salivating over the ability of self-driving, autonomous vehicles to fix their broken road and transport infrastructure, that’s missing the point.

There are many detailed, and complex reports on the impact of automation, pick your favorite organization and search their website, McKinsey and Company(2014); Stanford Business School(2015); Pew Internet(2016) and on, and on.

Equally there have been a few superficial recent reports in the news media, this one from US Today. One of the better, more recent articles is from Rex Nutting over on Marketwatch.Rex Nutting over on Marketwatch.

I’ve been horrified by the lack of actual policy discussion and examination of the context, detail and and lack of clarity even where there is policy. This is something we should have had a real debate about when, what and how we handle the future of automation.

It’s not as if the impact of automation is new. Depending on how you classify automation, it’s been going on since the invention of mills, but importantly since the computer became pervasive in business.

As far back as the late 1960’s it was a discussion topic. In the early and mid-1980’s automation had become a key issue for governments and businesses. This was a classic of it’s time.

A human teller can handle up to 200 transactions a day, works 30 hours a week, gets a salary anywhere from $8,000 to $20,000 a year plus fringe benefits, gets coffee breaks, a vacation and sick time… In contrast, an automated teller can handle 2,000 transactions a day, works 168 hours a week, costs about $22,000 a year to run, and doesn’t take coffee breaks or vacations. – Bennett, 1983

This is a well used quote from a report called “Bank Systems and Equipment” by Bennett et al 1983 and often misquoted and attributed to Nobel Prize winner, Wassily Leontief and  Faye Duchin, who used it in their seminal 1986 work “The Future Impact of Automation on Workers“.

img_20161107_125230I worked on an IBM Corporate study in 1998, following the release of Dunkerleys book, the jobless economy.  I still have the books on my home office book shelf.

Many of us were uncomfortable with what technology was capable of doing to our society, much more than our jobs. I’d seen it first hand and contributed to the loss of hundreds of jobs. When I first arrived at Chemical Bank in New York city in 1983, there were hundreds of people, mostly women, sat in large rooms, processing incoming credit card authorization phone calls. Within 3-years, they were all gone. Their positions had been eliminated. Replaced by simple automation of the repetitive tasks they did using search and a “database” lookup.

Some of the information and outlook from that IBM study found it’s way into this presentation I gave at meetings and conferences around the world at that time.

Automation was, and is unstoppable without a much bigger debate. Trump alone can’t fix it or stop it. Automation is a result of three, equally powerful trends.

One. The absolute fear and revulsion in America of Unions, their impact, power and influence. Sterns 1963 paper “Automation-End or a New Day in Unionism?” captured the potential impact of automation on Unions.

Two. Big corporations and the way the market values them, their ability to balance investment against revenue and more importantly profit. Investors and the market don’t care how business makes profit, and the tax authorities allow investments to be written off against profit. So removing expense, in the form of employees, and improving profits is always on the agenda.

Three. The continual consumer march towards ever more consumption and disposable, cheap goods. Perhaps more than the loss of jobs, if pernicious tax and trade barriers were implemented by any politician or President, we would see a revolt among the people, who more than anytime in history, want their stuff as a measure of their value.

So, we can’t stop automation, the jobs are not coming back. Where does that leave us?

I’m inclined to agree with Musk. The only way around the impact of automation is a universal basic income. That’s what we should have been debating this election cycle. Not fucking emails, walls, muslims and pussygate, let alone if somewhat left leaning Bernie Sanders proposals were socialism by the back door. Without serious discussion on these difficult topics, America will continue to into social conflict and fear.

Even if Trump gets elected today, those 5-million jobs we’ve already lost, and another 5-million are not coming back.

The Greatest Social Challenge of our Generation — Strong Towns

This is one of the best blogs of many on the Strong Towns blog. American suburbia is only viable with heavy government subsidy and planning — It would be unaffordable otherwise.

As we see the Growth Ponzi Scheme unwinding and the first decades of what journalist Alan Ehrenhalt has called The Great Inversion, Americans are experiencing a return to normal living conditions. In many ways, it’s a traumatic transition; who-moved-my-cheese on a continental economic scale.

Source: The Greatest Social Challenge of our Generation — Strong Towns