Technology and the future of work

Our Technology and Democracy research project had a terrific talk this afternoon by Mike Osborne of the Oxford Martin School about the research that he and Carl Frey published in “The future of employment: how susceptible are jobs to computerisation?”.

That paper is impressive in lots of ways. Unlike many academic research reports, for example, it’s written in pellucid prose. And it’s historically informed — which is unusual in technology publications: the authors know that the issue of the impact of machinery on jobs goes back a long, long way — at least to Elizabethan times with William Lee and his request for a patent on his stocking frame loom.

But most importantly, the Frey-Osborne study is the best analysis to date of what we in our project regard as one of the most significant puzzles of our time: namely what does the combination of infinite computational power, big data, machine learning and advanced robotics mean for our future? Or, to quote the title of Norbert Wiener’s book, what will constitute “the human use of human beings” in a digital future?

What preoccupies us is the question of whether we now stand on a hinge of history. Are there things about digital technologies which make our situation and prospects different from the disruptions that our ancestors faced when confronted with the seminal general-purpose technologies of the past? Can we say with any confidence that this time it’s different?

Mike’s presentation provoked lots of thoughts…

The first is the objection often made by historians and economists who argue say that apocalyptic concerns about digital technology are just outbreaks of a-historical hysteria. Historically, they say, technological progress has always had two conflicting impacts on employment. One is the overtly destructive impact — the leading edge of the Schumpeterian wave, if you like. The other is the capitalisation effect, as companies start to enter industries where productivity is relatively high, leading to the expansion of employment in these new or revitalised industries. So, according to the sceptics, although automation definitely taketh away, it also giveth.

But if I’ve understood Mike and Carl’s work correctly, this time it might be different, for two reasons.

  • One is that whereas automation historically served to eliminate manual and/or highly routinised tasks, the new digital technologies mean that automation is remorselessly moving into work domains that have traditionally been seen as cognitive and non-routine.

  • The second is that what happening now is what Brian Arthur called “combinatorial innovation”, which is basically the network effect applied to technological innovation. This means that the pace of innovation is increasing exponentially, which in turn means that our traditional capacity to transition into employment in new areas is going to be outpaced by the pace of change. In which case, the life-chances of a lot of human beings could be undermined or destroyed.

Which leads to a final thought, namely that in the end this will have to come down to politics. Mike and Carl’s analysis is not a deterministic one — they don’t imply that the job-destruction that they think could happen will happen. Decisions about whether to deploy these technologies will, in the end, be made by people –- the owners of capital — not by machines. And if there’s no element of societal control in all this, then the clear implication is that Piketty’s rule about the returns from capital generally outrunning the returns from employment will be turbocharged, with predictable consequences for inequality.

But of course, it doesn’t have to be like that. The economic and productivity gains that result from these technologies could be used for different purposes other than giving even more to those who already have. And that brings to mind Keynes’s famous essay on “The Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren” in which he saw the possibility that, through technology-driven productivity gains, man “could for the first time since his creation … be faced with his real, his permanent problem — how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well”.

Only politics can ensure that that agreeable prospect comes to pass, however. This isn’t just about technology, in other words.

And now here’s the really strange thing: in all the sturm und drang of our recent election campaign, the implications of computerisation for employment weren’t mentioned once. Not once.

Scribble, scribble

From Virginia Woolf’s diary for Tuesday 11 May, 1920…

“It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly on beginning a new book quiets down after a time, & one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, & the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything. I’m a little anxious. How am I to bring off this conception? Directly one gets to work one is like a person walking, who has seen the country stretching out before. I want to write nothing in this book* that I dont [sic] enjoy writing. Yet writing is always difficult.”

Yep. As someone who is working on a book, I can vouch for this.

*She was working on ‘Jacob’s Room’.

Why data is political

Intriguing piece in Slate:

Imagine visiting Yellowstone this summer. You wake up before dawn to take a picture of the sunrise over the mists emanating from Yellowstone hot springs. A thunderhead towers above the rising sun, and the picture turns out beautifully. You submit the photo to a contest sponsored by the National Weather Service. Under a statute signed into law by the Wyoming governor this spring, you have just committed a crime and could face up to one year in prison.

Wyoming doesn’t, of course, care about pictures of geysers or photo competitions. But photos are a type of data, and the new law makes it a crime to gather data about the condition of the environment across most of the state if you plan to share that data with the state or federal government. The reason? The state wants to conceal the fact that many of its streams are contaminated by E. coli bacteria, strains of which can cause serious health problems, even death. A small organization called Western Watersheds Project (which I represent pro bono in an unrelated lawsuit) has found the bacteria in a number of streams crossing federal land in concentrations that violate water quality standards under the federal Clean Water Act. Rather than engaging in an honest public debate about the cause or extent of the problem, Wyoming prefers to pretend the problem doesn’t exist. And under the new law, the state threatens anyone who would challenge that belief by producing information to the contrary with a term in jail.

Now, why would that be?

The reason is pure politics. The source of E. coli is clear. It comes from cows spending too much time in and next to streams. Acknowledging that fact could result in rules requiring ranchers who graze their cows on public lands to better manage their herds. The ranching community in Wyoming wields considerable political power and has no interest in such obligations, so the state is trying to stop the flow of information rather than forthrightly address the problem.

Ah! Why does this remind me of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People?

Missing the Beats

This morning’s Observer column:

This time last year Apple paid $3bn to acquire a company called Beats that made overpriced headphones and ran an unsuccessful music-streaming business. This acquisition made Beats co-founder Dr Dre the first hip-hop billionaire at the same time as it baffled many observers of the industry. For example, Benedict Evans, a seasoned analyst, tweeted: “If you think Apple’s lost it, Beats deal is confirmation. If you don’t, it’s… perplexing. Few really convincing rationales.” This columnist was likewise puzzled. Apple normally designs and makes its own kit, and if it wanted to do headphones it would certainly do better than the Beats products. So the conclusion had to be that if Apple didn’t want Beats for the headphones, it had to be the music-streaming service that it craved.

And so it has proved. We have just discovered – in a roundabout way – just how much Apple wants to get into the streaming business…

Read on

The “dedicated public servants” who protect us from harm

One of the strangest things about the current debates about surveillance and the law-enforcement and security agencies that are lobbying energetically for even more intrusive powers than they already have, is the eerie absence of any sceptical voice about the integrity and trustworthiness of these agencies. The idea that there might be even a single black sheep among the serried ranks of ‘dedicated’ public servants (aka spooks, NSA/GCHQ geeks, public police officers, etc.) is treated with outrage by their leaders and political masters. I know, because I’ve uttered such outrageous conjectures in their presence!

This is really weird, because you can only rationally take this line if you have no knowledge of history. And we’re not talking ancient history either — the recent past will do. In Britain, for example, it’s not that long ago since MI6 was riddled with Soviet spies (Blunt, Burgess, Maclean, et al, or that MI5 was staffed by right-wing nutters (see, for example, the files on that agency’s surveillance of Eric Hobsbawm). So the idea that their successors are 100% certain to be squeaky clean seems, well, a mite implausible.

On the other side of the pond, we have seen the former head of the NSA lying under oath to Congress (though now Agency lawyers are claiming that it was just a slip of the memory that led him to mislead legislators). And the current Director of the FBI, one James Comey, has been weighing in against companies like Apple and Google providing their customers/users with strong encryption with which to protect their privacy.

Which, of course, reminds anyone with a sense of history of one of Mr Comey’s predecessors, J. Edgar Hoover. There’s an interesting article by Margaret Talbot in the New Yorker about a new book by Betty Medsger, a former Washington Post reporter. It’s about a incident that took place in March 8, 1971, when a group of pacifists broke into an F.B.I. field office in Media, Pennsylvania, and stole hundreds of the agency’s files.

The files, predictably, were very revealing about Hoover’s FBI. Among other things they showed that

Hoover’s F.B.I. had a twisted idée fixe about African-Americans; it aimed to put spies in every black student union at every college in the country, “without regard for whether there had been disturbances on such campuses,” and had largely achieved that goal. As Medsger writes, the over-all impression the files gave was that Hoover and many other F.B.I. officials “thought of black Americans as falling into two categories—black people who should be spied on by the F.B.I. and black people who should spy on other black people for the F.B.I.”

But that was relatively small beer compared to some of the other stuff. As Talbot tells it, “One of the files contained a routing slip with a strange word on it: COINTELPRO. It took two years and the determination of Carl Stern, an NBC News reporter who filed several Freedom of Information Act requests and a lawsuit against the Justice Department and the F.B.I., for Americans to discover what COINTELPRO was.”

So what was it?

Hoover had been running a highly secret program under that name which not only spied on civil-rights leaders, suspected Communists, public critics of the F.B.I., student activists, and many others but also sought to intimidate, smear, and blackmail them, to break up marriages, get people fired, demoralize them. These were the auspices under which the F.B.I. spread a false rumor that the actress Jean Seberg, who had recently given a donation to the Black Panther Party, was pregnant by a Panther leader. (Seberg was pregnant, and, shortly after the story appeared in a gossip column, she miscarried.) It was under COINTELPRO that Hoover waged his assault on Martin Luther King, Jr., wiretapping his hotel rooms and recording his sexual encounters, and, at one point, trying to coerce him to commit suicide.

So Hoover was a bad apple, and he bent the FBI into a contorted shape. The stolen files led to a scandal and the setting up of the Church Committee, the imposition of a ten-year term for the Director of the FBI and permanent Congressional oversight of the Bureau. Ironically, they also led to the setting up of the secret FISA court under which the NSA now supposedly operates.

All of this took quite a while (five years between the leaking of the files and the second report of the Church Committee). Given that the Snowden revelations started in June 2013, we’re on track to find out about the current deficiencies and perversions of NSA/FBI/GCHQ/MI6 round about 2018.

Self-service checkouts

As someone who detests self-service checkout systems (why should the customer do all the work?), I was delighted to find a cartoon in the New Yorker showing a sign over the accursed terminals saying “NOT IN THE MOOD FOR HUMAN INTERACTION LINE”.

Follow the money

The debate about why the opinion polls got the election so spectacularly wrong has begun. This piece by Leighton Vaughan Williams makes an interesting point:

Interestingly, those who invested their own money in forecasting the outcome performed a lot better in predicting what would happen than did the pollsters. The betting markets had the Conservatives well ahead in the number of seats they would win right through the campaign and were unmoved in this belief throughout. Polls went up, polls went down, but the betting markets had made their mind up. The Tories, they were convinced, were going to win significantly more seats than Labour.

I have interrogated huge data sets of polls and betting markets over many, many elections stretching back years and this is part of a well-established pattern. Basically, when the polls tell you one thing, and the betting markets tell you another, follow the money. Even if the markets do not get it spot on every time, they will usually get it a lot closer than the polls.

So now you know what to do next time.

We need a new electoral system. But we won’t get it.

From the Economist:

The SNP vote was part of a widespread rejection of Westminster politics. The solution for that involves fixing Britain’s broken electoral system. The SNP won about 5% of the popular vote in Britain and more than 50 seats. The UK Independence Party won about 10% of the vote but seemed likely to end up with one or two seats. With the relationship between votes and MPs in the Commons now almost random, the first-past-the-post method of allocating seats has clearly failed.

The case for topping up this creaking system with proportional representation, something this newspaper has long supported, has now become overwhelming. Tory backbenchers will object, but Mr Cameron might get enough support from others to override them—and would transform British politics for the better. For a weak government, that would be an impressive achievement.

It would. But they won’t do it.

How to lose gracefully

Nice essay by Stephen Moss. Concludes thus:

It is fashionable to decry politicians as venal, self-interested, ineffectual, but on election night – as the smoke on the battlefield clears – we see them at their best. Most of us went to bed last night knowing we would have the same job and the same life the next morning. Politicians don’t have that comfort. Their nearest equivalent is sports people, for whom every game is win or lose, make or break, life or death. Many were broken last night, and mostly they responded with courage and dignity. Not lions in the political jungle, but not hyenas either. Just people, finding something in themselves that allowed them to rise above the bitterness of seeing everything they had spent their life working for extinguished.