Quote of the Day

“Services like Uber and online freelance markets like TaskRabbit were created to take advantage of an already independent work force; they are not creating it. Their technology is solving the business and consumer problems of an already insecure work world. Uber is a symptom, not a cause.”

Louis Hyman, an economic historian, writing in the New York Times

He has a new book coming out soon – Temp: How American Work, American Business, and the American Dream Became Temporary.

So is the spreadsheet an example of job-destroying automation?

Interesting thought from Tim Harford in his FT column:

Consider an idea dreamt up in 1978, released in October 1979, and so revolutionary that the journalist Steven Levy could write just five years later: “There are corporate executives, wholesalers, retailers, and small business owners who talk about their business lives in two time periods: before and after the electronic spreadsheet.”

Spreadsheet software redefined what it meant to be an accountant. Spreadsheets were once a literal thing: two-page spreads in a paper ledger. Fill them in, and make sure all the rows and columns add up. The output of several spreadsheets would then be the input for some larger, master spreadsheet. Making an alteration might require hours of work with a pencil, eraser, and desk calculator.

Once a computer programmer named Dan Bricklin came up with the idea of putting the piece of paper inside a computer, it is easy to see why digital spreadsheets caught on almost overnight.

But did the spreadsheet steal jobs? Yes and no. It certainly put a sudden end to a particular kind of task — the task of calculating, filling in, checking and correcting numbers on paper spreadsheets. National Public Radio’s Planet Money programme concluded that in the 35 years after Mr Bricklin’s VisiCalc was launched, the US lost 400,000 jobs for book-keepers and accounting clerks.

Meanwhile, 600,000 jobs appeared for other kinds of accountant. Accountancy had become cheaper and more powerful, so people demanded more of it.

Nice illustration of the complexity of the ‘automation = job-killer’ argument.

Impact of autonomous vehicles on (mostly male) employment

From a Guardian column by Paul Mason:

these battles between regulators and the rent-seeking monopolists who have hijacked the sharing economy are, in the long term, irrelevant. The attempt to drive down cab drivers’ wages and reduce their employment rights to zero are, in their own way, a last gasp of the 20th-century economic thinking.

Because soon there won’t need to be drivers at all. Given that there are 400,000 HGV drivers in the UK, that at least a quarter of Britain’s 2.5 million van drivers are couriers, and that there are 297,000 licensed taxi drivers – that is a big dent in male employment.

The most important question facing us is not whether Uber drivers should have employment rights (they should), but what to do in a world where automation begins to eradicate work. If we accept – as Oxford researchers Carl Frey and Michael Osborne stated in 2013 – that 47% of jobs are susceptible to automation, the most obvious problem is: how are people going to live?

Come for a drive in a Tesla

Tesla says that the necessary kit for fully-autonomous driving will be installed on all its new cars from now on. But it won’t be activated until a lot more testing has been done. This video provides a glimpse of this brave new future. Ignore the music.

The Chinese economic miracle, Part 2

The Chinese economic miracle is built on cheap and dextrous manual labour. But labour costs are rising sharply, so…

China already imports a huge number of industrial robots, but the country lags far behind competitors in the ratio of robots to workers. In South Korea, for instance, there are 478 robots per 10,000 workers; in Japan the figure is 315; in Germany, 292; in the United States it is 164. In China that number is only 36.

The Chinese government is keen to change this.

You bet they are. But what happens to all the folks who no longer have work? Stay tuned.

‘Smart’ homes? Not yet

My Observer comment piece on what the Internet of Things looks like when it’s at home:

There is a technological juggernaut heading our way. It’s called the Internet of Things (IoT). For the tech industry, it’s the Next Big Thing, alongside big data, though in fact that pair are often just two sides of the same coin. The basic idea is that since computing devices are getting smaller and cheaper, and wireless network technology is becoming ubiquitous, it will soon be feasible to have trillions of tiny, networked computers embedded in everything. They can sense changes, turning things on and off, making decisions about whether to open a door or close a valve or order fresh supplies of milk, you name it, the computers communicating with one another and shipping data to server farms all over the place.

As ever with digital technology, there’s an underlying rationality to lots of this. The IoT could make our lives easier and our societies more efficient. If parking bays could signal to nearby cars that they are empty, then the nightmarish task of finding a parking place in crowded cities would be eased. If every river in the UK could tweet its level every few minutes, then we could have advance warning of downstream floods in time to alert those living in their paths. And so on.

But that kind of networking infrastructure takes time to build, so the IoT boys (and they are mostly boys, still) have set their sights closer to home, which is why we are beginning to hear a lot about “smart” homes. On further examination, this turns out mostly to mean houses stuffed with networked kit…

Read on

Potholes on the road to the self-driving future

This morning’s Observer column:

Somehow I think it’s going to take quite a while to get to self-driving nirvana. For one thing, autonomous vehicles require digital mapping that is an order of magnitude more detailed than anything in Google Streetview. Secondly, those maps need to be continually updated, because even an unexpected new mini-roundabout might confuse the vehicle and cause an accident.

But the biggest obstacle might come from what supposedly kept Harold Macmillan awake at nights – “events, dear boy, events”. Driving in Devon last weekend, I came on a number of temporary traffic lights at roadworks, and wondered how an autonomous vehicle would cope with them. After all, they would not appear on its digital map; and although it would be programmed to look for a red light in a standard position at a junction, it might not “see” a temporary one.

Devon is a ravishing county, but it has one quirk from the motorist’s point of view: it has lots of extremely narrow lanes, most of which have high hedges growing on either side. There are occasional passing places which allow two vehicles to edge past one another. This is fine until a procession of three or four vehicles meets another procession of several cars stuck behind a truck, at which point the only way to reach a solution involves a good deal of human-to-human negotiation. This is something that even the dumbest human is good at, but which will lie beyond the capability of even the smartest machine for some time to come…

Read on.