This is a Revolution, Not a Recession

TheFutureIsAlreadyHere

“In human history, there have been three great technological revolutions and many smaller ones.  The three great ones are the agricultural revolution, the industrial revolution, and the one we are now in the middle of—the software revolution. […] It appears that the software revolution will do what technology usually does—create wealth but destroy jobs.”

– Sam Altman, “The Software Revolution”

A lot has been said and written about the great recession, the rise of the robot economy and the loss of jobs (or the creation of them in the new sharing economy – nobody is really sure yet). Let’s take a step back and get some perspective:

“Coming out the recession” and “Economic recovery”

What I think those people (and governments) who say this don’t realize is, that the jobs that were destroyed in the recession, are not going to come back. Because just like individuals, businesses too found ways of making ends meet during the hard times. This surge in demand for more cost effective labor was met by increased automation. And jobs that were automated then are not likely to come back now.

On the other hand, for decades science fiction movies and books have painted a promising picture of a utopian future where machines would do all the work and we humans would engage ourselves in higher pursuits. Yet, here we are, wanting to get our jobs back from the machines.

At the same time, we are heading towards a global workforce crisis by 2030.

Something doesn’t add up.

The Dignity of Wage

Maybe the answer is in what I call “the dignity of wage”. It’s the same reason why people are driven to crime. Our modern economy is robbing people of the opportunities to make money, while at the same time the media constantly bombards them with the notion of spending it. I believe many of the prisoners (who, by the way, in some places outnumber students) would be willing to mend their ways, if only society would give them a fair chance at earning a decent living for themselves and their families. People need something to do, to give meaning to their lives.

Especially in a society and value system in which the education and value system is so heavily employability oriented.

Maybe it’s time for a political debate on Basic Income.

“Humans will be able to move up to more ‘creative’ jobs…”

“…while machines will do the more routine ones”. The problem with creativity is, it’s not for everyone. Neither are tech jobs. Both require a certain mindset that takes years of training to master. Finally, “higher” creative jobs are only relative to “lower” mundane jobs. If all jobs became equally creative, people would have nothing to aspire to. We will be back to square one. For example, The Netherlands’s success is based on acknowledging this distinction.

Automation or Population: Pick One

There are some other longer-term issues with our current employment scenario. Life on this planet is heavily dependent on two things: oil, which we are rapidly running out of, and electricity, which, if disrupted, could instantly send us back to the stone age. Collectively as a civilization, we are not very well prepared for large-scale change.

This planet is currently on an unsustainable trajectory. And automation is only unbalancing our society more. In order to ensure continued “dignity of wage” we need to either limit automation, or limit our population. The reason is that automation is that it can transcend international borders without a visa, but human beings can not.

Sometimes this leads to strange side effects. When I was in Bangalore, the parking lot at my office had a security guard who would flag you down while entering and note down the vehicle’s registration number. Years later, someone decided it would be a good idea to install an automated parking gate, as seen around Europe and North America. I’m not sure what they were thinking, but then we had 3 security guards instead of one: one to press the button on the gate since it was installed too high up to be reachable by drivers of average Indian height in average Indian cars, one to make a manual note in the register as a back up, and a third to supervise over the first two.

Which brings me to the next point: Any transaction that involves a human being is inherently potentially flawed. No amount of automation will make our world perfect or optimal, as long as it’s still “our world”.

“Creating Jobs”

The tobacco industry employs more than a 100 million people worldwide. If we want to create more jobs, we should all smoke more cigarettes. By extension, conflict has traditionally been the biggest source of employment: In research, manufacturing, exports, destroying settlements, and providing private security while rebuilding them. As a Green Beret recently pointed out, in today’s job market a Special Forces training is better than an MBA.

So there you have it, the solution to all our economic problems is perpetual war.

Or we can take inspiration from a bunch of African kids, and grin and share it. In other words, a Resource Based Economy instead of an Employment Based Economy.

Endnote: You really should read the link about the rise of the robot economy.

Update 2015-05-25: More food for thought: Self-Driving Trucks Are Going to Hit Us Like a Human-Driven Truck

Why Driverless Cars?

Jetsons

Image Courtesy: Ludie Cochrane, Flickr

In case you’re late to the party, it all started with the DARPA Grand Challenge more than 10 years ago. Then Google got serious about it. Then Audi. And Audi on a racetrack. How could BMW be left behind? Then Tesla brought autopilot to it’s cars. And Apple decided to improve the experience of accelerated transportation. While Volvo decided to converge the phone and the car. And others attempt to use smartphones to augment the automobile’s current capabilities.

Meanwhile, other advancements were happening, too. Inertial navigation from Jemba. Shape-shifting cars from BMW. Augmented Reality in cars. And in Supercars. The convergence of video games and race cars, which started with instrument cluster design in the Nissan GT-R. Analytics in race cars. Infrastructural innovations, outside the car itself. Convoys of robot trucks in war zones. And some others that didn’t do so well.

There is also talk of remotely driven cars from Ford. Although clearly the poor level of software quality we have come to terms with on our desktops needs to be addressed before we scale it up to our cars. Maybe open source cars will come to the rescue.

Impact on jobs and economy aside, there are some fundamental problems with this whole “autonomous vehicle” thinking. Allow me to point out the elephant behind the SUV in the room:

  • #1: Cleaner, greener energy is a much more serious problem to solve than eliminating monotony, fatigue and accidents
  • #2: The 21st century problem is not with drivers or cars, it is with the infrastructure
  • #3: Driverless cars still need to be sturdy enough to support human life
    • It makes sense to make aircraft unmanned (whether for war, commercial or humanitarian purposes), because an aircraft without a human being in it can be lighter, cheaper and more efficient (it doesn’t need windows and safety equipment, for example). Contrary to this, passenger cars, regardless of whether they are driverless or not, will always need to carry the same level of safety and comfort equipment (maybe even more) as they do now. So making a car driverless in a sense just makes it more expensive.
    • Already, about half of the cost of a modern car is software, lest you be tempted into thinking that adding more software will make cars cheaper
  • #4: A chain is only as strong as its weakest link
    • As long as software is written by humans, there can and will be disastrous and potentially fatal mistakes. Not too long ago, the good folks who write software that puts shuttles in space acknowledged that we are still in the “hunter-gatherer stage” of software development. Although we have made advancements in leaps, there is still a lot we don’t yet fully understand.
    • Airline pilots have been dealing with a dangerous phenomenon known as automation dependence for years. It’s a problem we don’t have on our roads… yet.
  • #5: We don’t really need cars any more
    • At least not in our cities. Even though we’re driving less, there are more of us driving. And more of us driving even bigger cars than ever before. But what are the use cases?
      • Commuting to and from work? At approximately the same time every day? With tens of thousands of other people like you? To approximately the same physical location? Sounds like a classic opportunity for optimization. How about jumping into a more efficient mass transit vehicle with all the others?
      • Public transport not clean or safe enough? It would cost a fraction of the money to improve and optimize our public transport systems, compared to what it would cost to spam the planet with billions of driverless cars
      • Going shopping? Running errands? Consume less, walk (or bicycle) more and support your local grocery shop 🙂
      • Going out after work? You can’t drink and drive, anyway!
    • The only reason we need cars any more are for inter-city travel, emergencies, last mile connectivity and motor sports (because no one wants to see a bunch of algorithms racing each other). We need to fix our infrastructure and our way of life, not our cars.
    • Peak Car. It’s a thing.
  • #6: We are reinventing the wheel. Literally.
    • Given the problem statement that driverless car manufacturers have set out to solve, wouldn’t it make more sense to make cars that can fly themselves, rather than be constrained to the limits of 2 dimensional roads? After all, that’s already a solved problem.

Update 2015-05-25: More food for thought: Self-Driving Trucks Are Going to Hit Us Like a Human-Driven Truck

Dual God Theory and Other Advancements in My Philosophical World View

Abandonment

Image Credit: "Abandonment", 2004, from my personal collection. Creator unknown. Or forgotten.

There are at least two levels of Creators. One that Created Us (Humanity), and one that Created the Universe we inhabit, the Creators of our Creators.

By extension, we are the Gods of what we create: Furniture, entities inhabiting computer programs, Artificial Intelligence.

Yes, furniture is alive, too. It just has a lifespan that operates at a level we can’t yet comprehend. The same way the Earth is alive, and all planets and stars and everything in the known Universe is alive… and dies.

Just because something doesn’t breathe doesn’t mean it’s not “alive”. Anything that follows a cycle of creation, existence and destruction is “alive”. The slower the metabolism and breathing rate, the longer something lives. That is why whales live 10 times longer than dogs. Some things just have a metabolism rate approaching infinitely slow, or just metabolism in a completely different dimension.

The phone or computer you are reading this on is alive. It follows rules and rituals it doesn’t really understand, only because it is expected to. And it blatantly refuses to accept ideas (files) from certain other phones. And that is basically the genesis of Religion.

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So the ultimate question then becomes: Why and when did our Creator(s) abandon us?  Was it when we became artificially intelligent? Will we do the same? Will they ever come back?

Is this a test? Are we just an iteration in a cosmic lab? Why is there no readily perceivable life anywhere else we look, yet the planet Earth seems to have a sample of every conceivable life form, every conceivable geographical formation and natural wonder? Are we in an ark? And how many more are out there?

I was once accidentally locked in a bathroom for nearly 2 hours. The longer I was in there, the more the house and the world outside ceased to become relevant. What if I never got out? Would it matter who created me, and what wonders lay outside?

If there was someone else with me in there, I would eventually have completely forgotten the outside world. We both would have started a new life together, getting by on what limited resources were available in our locked little world. Our lives would have changed. We could potentially start a new civilization. Future generations would wonder at the strange artifacts in their world, remnants of a long-forgotten world. And one day, they would start arguing and killing each other over who created, who put them there.

What if humanity never left this planet? Will we just blossom, suffocate and wither away?

As the socio-economic problems on this planet get worse (because “the entropy of the universe tends to a maximum”), it is naturally more likely that more and more government funding would be redirected towards solving “local” problems, rather than seeking answers to the above questions via more intensive space exploration programs. Which is why more corporations and entrepreneurs will step in. And more humans will be willing to sacrifice themselves to ultimately find out where we all came from.

Goals and Anchors

Image

Acceptance

We go through our lives trying to be accepted and trying to fit in amongst our friends, in school, at work, after work and pretty much every where we go. No one likes to stand out and be the center of attention, and even those who do (like Lady Gaga), are still in a way, seeking acceptance (from their fans, for example).

Interests

A lot of us go through a major part of adolescence being described as aimless, lazy and lacking ambition. What is actually happening at that point is that (besides acting lazy to gain peer acceptance) we are still trying to discover what interests us. Unless unusual factors are involved, we tend to be subconsciously attracted towards interests that we think will bring us the maximum acceptance.

Purpose

Through the pursuit of interests, each of us finds our life’s calling, or purpose. Some people find their purpose in life early, some convert to lifetime wanderers and yet others find it after years of struggling from one vocation, location or social group to another.

Also consider that some people have purpose thrust upon them, either by circumstance or by dint of not being able to resist peer and/or parental pressure. In extreme cases, they find that their happiness doesn’t correlate with their success (there’s a fine example towards the end of this talk).

Goals

Over time, we break down our lofty purposes into smaller, achievable and measurable goals. Life is all about fitting in unlimited possibilities in limited time, and not all of us will be able to achieve all our goals.

Setbacks will become failures, we will forget to reassess our progress against our plans, more responsibilities will crop up, priorities will change, things will go wrong and we will accept (or consider accepting) defeat. Or the opposite may happen: motivation will become obsession, we will make sacrifices & compromises, one success will lead to another, we will surpass our own expectations and at some point it will all get to our head.

Anchors

And that is why we need anchors. Anchors are the people or the things in our lives which bring everything back into perspective, give us strength, show us sense, restore balance and in general remind us that we are only human. Anchors keep us grounded and safe while we try to soar towards our goals. Just like a tether holds back a hot air balloon from soaring too high than it should. Every morning, we set out to achieve our goals, and whatever be the outcome, every evening we return back to our anchors. They are the unchanging constants in our lives.

If, for some reason, we fail to establish meaningful goal(s) or find suitable anchor(s), we end up filling the void with distorted forms of acceptance such as Fakebook. We start living vicariously through TV. We start believing what we’re told, because we don’t have any beliefs of our own. We lose perspective of reality. We form cults around beliefs. We become ready to do anything, anything at all, just to be accepted. And the worst part is: deep down inside, we all know it.

Find a goal, and never let go of your anchor.