Monday, May 20, 2013

Escapist Literature My Ass, Ctd

It is both delightful and a little sad to find serious people in 2013 coming boldly out in favor of thinking about something -- 
It’s Time to Talk about the Burgeoning Robot Middle Class

How will a mass influx of robots affect human employment?

In the book Race Against the Machine, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee of MIT’s Sloan School of Management present a chart showing U.S. productivity, GDP, employment, and income from 1953 to 2011. The chart looks as you would expect from 1953 until the mid-1980s, with every one of the measures rising together: employees work more productively, companies make more money, and more hires occur as the middle class swells.

Then, during Reagan’s tenure, the bad news begins to show its face. First, even though productivity and GDP continue their upward arc, median household income starts to level off. That is unsettling, since it suggests that companies can get richer and yet employees can stop benefiting from increasing GDP: what happened to trickle-down? A decade later, in the mid-1990s, more trouble crops up: employment flattens as GDP and productivity continue even faster growth.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee argue that these are signs of a true sea change in the dynamics of productivity and employment. Contrary to popular conceptions that all we need is more technological innovation to increase employment, they argue, technological innovation is itself among the forces behind the change.

The elephant in the room is how robotics will play out for human employment in the long term. New robots will take on advanced manufacturing, tutoring, scheduling, and customer relations. They operate equipment, manage construction, operate backhoes, and yes, even drive tomorrow’s cars.

It is time for not just economists but roboticists, like me, to ask, “How will robotic advances transform society in potentially dystopian ways?”...
-- that dozens of science fiction writers of my youth were already busy exploring from almost every imaginable angle (that did not involve genitalia) more than 60 years ago.

Learned discussions about robotics and our future are important -- even imperative -- but when I run across them it disappoints me to see them happening without any acknowledgement that people like Asimov
One source of inspiration for Asimov's robots was the Zoromes, a race of mechanical men that featured in a 1931 short story called "The Jameson Satellite", by Neil R. Jones. Asimov read this story at the age of 11, and acknowledged it as a source of inspiration in Before the Golden Age (1975), an anthology of 1930s science fiction in which Asimov told the story of the science fiction he read during his formative years. In Asimov's own words:
It is from the Zoromes, beginning with their first appearance in "The Jameson Satellite," that I got my own feeling for benevolent robots who could serve man with decency, as these had served Professor Jameson. It was the Zoromes, then, who were the spiritual ancestors of my own "positronic robots," all of them, from Robbie to R. Daneel.[3]
I was working for General Electric at the time, right after World War II , and I saw a milling machine for cutting the rotors on jet engines, gas turbines. This was a very expensive thing for a machinist to do, to cut what is essentially one of those Brancusi forms. So they had a computer-operated milling machine built to cut the blades, and I was fascinated by that. This was in 1949 and the guys who were working on it were foreseeing all sorts of machines being run by little boxes and punched cards. Player Piano was my response to the implications of having everything run by little boxes. The idea of doing that, you know, made sense, perfect sense. To have a little clicking box make all the decisions wasn't a vicious thing to do. But it was too bad for the human beings who got their dignity from their jobs.
In the course of the next day, the new mechanicals have appeared everywhere in town. They state that they only follow the Prime Directive: ''to serve and obey and guard men from harm". Offering their services free of charge, they replace humans as police officers, bank tellers and eventually drive Underhill out of business. Despite the Humanoids' benign appearance and mission, Underhill soon realizes that, in the name of their Prime Directive, the mechanicals have essentially taken over every aspect of human life. No humans may engage in any behavior that might endanger them, and every human action is carefully scrutinized. Suicide is prohibited. Humans who resist the Prime Directive are taken away and lobotomized, so that they may live happily under the direction of the humanoids.
ever existed.

Without any awareness that these dead writers thought and wrote seriously and deeply about this very subject long, long before the Daily Beast or Huffington Post stumbled across it


Anonymous said...


When I went away to school and was exposed to Vonnegut, "Player Piano" hit really close to home. I am from two towns over from "Ilium" in upstate NY, home to the Remington Arms gun factory. Also not very far from Albany, home to GE.

Thanks for this tribute to those who had their eyes open long ago.


Lawrence said...

The software "machines" are coming for your job too. Especially if you are a doctor or a lawyer. Law firms are already using search algorithms to do legal research that was once done by clerks and junior members of the firm. The impact has thus far been obscured by the broader crisis of too many JD grads. IBM's Watson is making progress at medical diagnostics. In a few years it might be ready to work under a physician's supervision like a human resident, though I am not sure if that is planned at this time. This would be a good thing for consumers, as it could potentially supply cheap primary care. But the AMA is going to wail mightily. And the issue will get attention, because the only union a Republican ever liked is a rich man's union. I am quite looking forward to seeing the medical cartels get screwed. They have behaved quite badly for decades.

n1ck said...

Capitalism, you see, is a game of musical chairs that has been cleverly disguised as "everyday life", and the oligarchs of our society get to write the rules that they themselves don't have to follow.

That tedious and boring human labor can and is being replaced by tools doing the work for us is only a problem as long as the game of musical chairs is the basis of our entire society.

In an intelligent, just, and good society, we would welcome computerization and mechanization of labor for shorter and shorter work weeks, paired with a much higher quality of life.

This is the easiest way to tell that we do not live in a intelligent, just and good society.

Neo Tuxedo said...

Capitalism, you see, is a game of musical chairs that has been cleverly disguised as "everyday life"

Like Philip K. Dick's vision of "Zebra" -- an entity that takes protective camouflage to a new extreme by disguising itself as the entire environment.

ScarabusRedivivus said...

As I read, I thought of three works:

Auden's poem "The Unknown Citizen"

Chaplin's Modern Times

Lang's Metropolis