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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

When Capitalism Fails

What if? My mother always used to respond to my what-ifs by asking "what if a wild bear crapped in the bathtub?" This was meant to assure me that my hypothetical pondering was highly unlikely. Nevertheless I've never lost that habit of asking what if. Yesterday I wrote a post which touched on something that I've been doing a lot of thinking about lately. That subject is what I'm calling the automation of industry. It's really the Google car that is the touchstone for me. Before someone invented a car that could drive around by itself, recognizing traffic, signs, lights, speed-limits, pedestrians, etc., the automation of everyday unskilled tasks remained in the realm of science fiction.

What if, soon, your Pizza-Hut order rolled up in a small electrically-powered robot-controlled cart with a swipecard strip on the top. You'd swipe your card, enter your pin and from a side slot your pizza and bread-sticks would be dispensed. The cart would be small, light, eco-friendly, and safe. Pizza Hut wouldn't need delivery drivers anymore and consumers would finally be allowed to just pay what the pizza costs without having to worry about adding a tip to the final price tag.

That's not really that big of a "what if." We're right on the verge of that, right now. Sophisticated artificially intelligent computer systems that understand language, and can follow instructions, search information databases, and respond appropriately are already here. Just a couple of years ago a computer called "Watson" beat the stuffing out of a couple of former Jeopardy champions. What if, instead of looking up the answer to: In 2000 they became the only sisters in Olympic history to win gold in women's doubles in tennis[1], your Watson assisted 411 call instead looked up the number to Jimmy's Bowling Emporium? No human operator is required. The phone company could downsize and also increase customer satisfaction by reducing or eliminating the charges for 411 calls.

Let's go back to Pizza Hut. A computer would take the order, and an automated kitchen would prepare the order as required. The order would be rolled into the electric cart and the cart would deliver the order, all without the need for a single human hand to be involved in the process. Obviously this would cut down the franchise owner's overhead tremendously. He or she would be able to reduce the price of the products accordingly.

This all sounds wonderful, doesn't it? Win win all around. So a few people are left without jobs, they'll find other work, and in the meantime everyone has access to faster, better, cheaper, and more hygienic pizza. If it was just pizza I might agree, but it won't just be pizza.

I work for a security guard company. We have more than a thousand security guards around the country who provide security service to a broad swath of retail, manufacturing, and logistics clients. Where do businesses needing security for loss prevention go in the future?
The technology is called AISight (pronounced eye sight), and what it does is automatically monitor hundreds of cameras simultaneously using computer vision, machine learning and artificial intelligence. The system learns what behaviors are typical of a certain place, and which are atypical to generate real-time alerts when it identifies the atypical behavior. Alerts are sent in the form of e-mail or main frame security alerts. A more cost efficient and effective choice than hiring a security guard to monitor a property, this technology never needs a break, runs 24/7, and can monitor all the cameras all at once.
Well now! That's pretty scary, since I work in the contract security profession. My ancillary IT job wouldn't even exist if there weren't a need for security guards throughout the country. Luckily my knowledge is valuable enough that I can if need be take a job somewhere else in some other field, wherever they need IT professionals. Too bad for the 1000 security guards though, I guess.

What if I carry this trend towards replacement of people by automated processes to it's logical conclusion? There won't just be machines making products, there will at some point be machines assembling the machines that make the products. There will also be machines repairing these machines. And machines that assemble the repair machines. And machines that repair the repair assembly infinitum. And perhaps one guy sitting in front of a big red stop button. Yes, my mother would be talking about bears misusing the sanitary facilities at this point.

How would capitalism work in a fully automated economy? What if there were a vastly smaller amount of careers available for a very limited and highly trained segment of the private sector population? The rest of the jobs would be public sector, of course.

There's no way your U.S. mail would be delivered by an automated electric cart. The United States Postal Service's union the AFL-CIO is not going to stand for "good union jobs" being lost to a bunch of robots. Likewise, all the other assorted public sector union jobs will continue to be performed by people, for the same reason...the sheer political power of public sector unions.

Meanwhile private sector job opportunities will continue to drop until there is next-to-nothing. Less private sector workers and more public sector workers means that government revenue will drop while government expenses will increase. Taxes will have to necessarily be raised or borrowing increased...but as we've already discovered, borrowing is a temporary fix that only compounds the underlying problem.

When I imagine this "what if," the only solution that I can see might work is the same way that the stock market works. Goods and services are produced by companies using robots. You own a certain number of shares in stocks of companies, or perhaps mutual funds that own stocks of companies that actually own these robots, or companies that build these robots, or that repair them. Depending on your own market savvy, or perhaps intelligent research, and some luck, your mutual fund or stocks do well. You are awarded dividends, or your shares go up and you sell some of them. Now you have the money to buy this weeks groceries and pay your rent and utilities.

Yes, the proletariat as a whole has now—through the exigencies of forced automation migration—been converted to the bourgeoisie. Isaac Asimov had three laws, which I won't go into here. Let's just assume that robots aren't directly killing or injuring people. They could still destroy competitor robots. How will competitive industries compete in the new automated economy? Will they resort to sabotage? I can only imagine that viruses will be an even bigger problem than ever, in the future. As will perhaps a new breed of sabotage robots whose job it is to damage competitor robots. So there will have to be guard robots at some point. Awesome! If nothing else, the future promises to be interesting....

[1]Venus and Serena Williams.

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