19 April 2015

Robo Rat

I'll admit it. The notion that one can run an economy with increasing automation and olde style wage setting is just silly. While we now, by all accounts, take it for granted that machines should replace humans in assembly line type work, some of us have taken this notion to its logical conclusion. Which conclusion is that, without a rebuilding of wage earning, the capitalist utopia is about to end. Even Foxconn has tired of workers, cheap as they are in China, for robots.

The assumption is that only manual labor will be replaced by automation. Yet, why? Way back in the 80s while I was building databases for medical pre-qualification, we had a low priority project to make an AI-ish module for diagnosis and allowable therapy. This was in Progress, not the most relational or flexible database in the world. But AI, especially in the Boston area was au courant, so what the hell. A professor in North Carolina, not the most liberal state in the nation, has this to say:
Most of what we think of as expertise, knowledge and intuition is being deconstructed and recreated as an algorithmic competency, fueled by big data.

The mantra of the quant, especially in the financial sub-world, is that intuition is worthless because data tells the truth. May be.
An ad in 1967 for an automated accounting system urged companies to replace humans with automated systems that "can't quit, forget or get pregnant." Featuring a visibly pregnant, smiling woman leaving the office with baby shower gifts, the ads, which were published in leading business magazines, warned of employees who "know too much for your own good" -- "your good" meaning that of the employer. Why be dependent on humans? "When Alice leaves, will she take your billing system with her?" the ad pointedly asked, emphasizing that this couldn't be fixed by simply replacing "Alice" with another person.

The solution? Replace humans with machines. To pregnancy as a "danger" to the workplace, the company could have added "get sick, ask for higher wages, have a bad day, aging parent, sick child or a cold." In other words, be human.

The reposte, as always, goes something like, "by replacing expensive humans with cheap automation, product is cheaper for everybody." Which is true for those who can afford the new price, however minuscule the price difference. As time has gone on, the proportion of production cost attributable to labor continues to fall. Cheaper hands yield a yet smaller reduction in a yet smaller proportion of cost. All the while increasing output capacity, but not demand. That's a problem. Were we still in a pre-industrial world, keeping a burgeoning population enslaved to produce goods and services for the elite works. In a macro sort of way. But with a capital driven automated production world, there's the problem of killing off your market as you kill off your employees. If there's no one left to buy your widgets, how do you manage?

I suppose that the problem won't be admitted until the Wall Street masters find they've all been outsourced to a room full of HALs and Watsons. Ah, the sweet revenge. Those dirty rats!!

Well, not all rats are dirty, it turns out. The only giant rats I'd ever heard of were the giant rat of Sumatra. Made up by Conan Doyle, of course.
I'M walking in a minefield here in rural Angola, tailing a monster rat.

This is a Gambian pouched rat, a breed almost 3 feet from nose to tail, the kind of rat that gives cats nightmares. Yet this rat is a genius as well as a giant, for it has learned how to detect land mines by scent -- and it's doing its best to save humans like me from blowing up.

At this minefield, which is full of metal objects, a human with a metal detector can clear only about 20 square meters a day. A rat can clear 20 times as much.

This is one case where replacing humans is better for everybody.

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