Target Health Global Blog…usually devotes space to information about pharmaceuticals, medical research, personalized medicine, stem cells, etc.  However, in this unstable economic climate, where the number one concern is about jobs, we at THI, think readers would find the following articles interesting.  They deal with the future of global economies where many are predicting that sophisticated computers, aka robots with highly developed artificial intelligence, will, no doubt, in the near future, take over 50% to 75% of available jobs. Because this new world seems inevitable  Read on …  and don’t forget to download a stimulating book at the end of these articles.

From cars to bread, robots dominate modern production., by Aaron Saenz  —  Modern manufacturing isn’t based on human labor, it’s based on the robot. Still, most people cannot grasp the breadth of automation in factories. We still picture plants full of human workers toiling to make our cars and furniture, just as we imagine our meat comes from animals in a barn. The truth is much more awe-inspiring, perhaps even frightening. The factories of today have some human workers, but huge portions of assembly lines are 100% mechanized. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics expects automotive jobs to decline 18% by 2018 despite expected increases in production. Robots eliminate the need for more workers. Before you lament the loss of jobs, take a moment and watch how robots earn their role every day in the workplace. Incredible!

You probably know that most cars are made with less than 24 hours worth of human labor. The rest is all done by automation. Machines building machines. It sounds simple, but you have to watch it to really understand what it means.

It goes way beyond cars, though. Pick an industry with a repetitive task, and you’ll find  a robot. Here are some stacking wood:

Sorting and packaging is almost completely mechanized:

And you can’t discuss sorting and stacking without mentioning the Flexpicker. Look at this thing fly. No humans needed, just raw robotic speed and accuracy.

Even those who understand the scope of the robotic workforce may not understand its versatility. Here we see a FANUC machine with a huge array of embedded tools used for a complex assembly process.

Automation isn’t a far off possibility any more than it’s a disastrous end to human labor. It is a natural part of our industrial world, and without it we would be unable to support our modern lifestyle. As robots continue to step in and increase factory productivity, new and cheaper goods will become available. If we plan it right, that will mean we can spend more time being creative, relaxing, and enjoying the fruits of our mechanized labor. In order to realize that potential, we’ll have to plan for the future, and that means accepting the present. If it helps, you can always imagine that factory robots are more human than they appear:

[photo credit: WikiCommons]
[video credits: Honda, ABB, PingMag, FANUC, RGLuma Automation, Mitsubishi, by Aaron Saenz  —  ABB’s latest industrial robot can glide along a rail while performing complex tasks at high speed. One robot, many jobs – humans just can’t win when it comes to manufacturing.

The modern factory is the natural habitat for the latest generation of industrial robots, and we’re seeing some impressive results from that environment’s natural artificial selection. One of ABB’s latest robots can glide along a horizontal rail for up to 33m while performing complex tasks or carrying a payload of 150 kg. The IRB 6620LX is a five axes robotic arm suitable for welding, grinding, assembly, or materials handling. According to its press release, it’s only been on sale since October, so I doubt its permeated through to your local factory. Still, seeing this thing in action, I can just imagine a whole plant full of these things zipping around back and forth, juggling multiple tasks on the same line. Watch the 6620LX get put through its paces in the video below, and don’t miss the “robot-view” footage starting at 0:47.

Sometimes I find myself cheerleading robots just because they look cool. Which I’m totally okay with, but I don’t want to ignore the bigger picture here. Sure, ABB makes some impressive bots, and the 6620LX even beats the old “soda can” trick we love so much by dodging at high speeds through wine glasses (0:52). More importantly though, industrial robots as a whole are getting more versatile, able to work in many different applications using the same basic platform. The 6620LX could be spot welding a car in one factory, and moving baked goods in another. The same goes for all the other industrial robot arms we’ve seen lately. Robots have already taken over manufacturing to such a degree that we can see entire factories with a minimum of human workers. Now we’re creating the next generation of these industrial juggernauts, and they’re only going to increase their dominance in the field. As automation and robotics continue to advance we’ll see manufacturing continue through this mechanized revolution. The end result is likely to be cheaper goods, faster production, and a shift in the human labor force. That’s an exciting and scary prospect. And it’s amazing to watch in action.

[image and video credit: ABB Robotics]
[source: ABB Robotics]

Martin Ford’s new book asks how automation will affect the near future of the economy., by Aaron Saenz  —  Will the future be filled with cool technologies and endless opportunities or will our own creations lead to eventual doom? I tend to think the former. Technology has seemingly endless ability to improve the health, freedom, and happiness of our lives. Even optimistic futurists like Ray Kurzweil and James Canton admit, however, that the road to advancing technology is fraught with dangers. Super viruses, artificial intelligences run amok, environmental calamity – science has its threats as well as its promises. Yet there could be one near term problem that even futurists tend to ignore – economic collapse. Martin Ford, a silicon valley computer engineer, entrepreneur, and blogger has written The Lights In The Tunnel, a book which explores the economic implications of a world which is becoming increasingly automated. Ford proposes that in the upcoming years robots and computer programs will edge human workers out of their jobs and that unless we take drastic actions this will reduce mass market purchasing power, destroy consumer confidence, and shut down the global economy. Ford has the reader envision these changes during a thought experiment where lights in a tunnel represent purchasing power in the mass market (hence the title). Even after discussing the book with the author, I’m not convinced that The Lights In The Tunnel is an accurate prediction of our future, but I wanted to spread the question: what does increased automation mean for our economy?

It’s hard to deny that robots and computers will eventually take over for humans in many industries. Already we’ve seen how robots like the Flexpicker and Adept Quattro excel at sorting and moving goods in a manufacturing environment. More humanoid creations, like Kawada’s Nextage or Honda’s ASIMO, could take on even more human-like tasks. And then there are the software programs. We’ve recently showcased how sports journalists and other news people could one day face serious competition from virtual writers and performers. Everywhere, automation is progressing and taking over more jobs. Even vending machines are starting to eliminate the needs for some human workers.

Is the Fallacy Itself a Fallacy?

Yet even as technology removes some jobs, it creates others. For every worker taken off the assembly line there’s another added to the maintenance team, or two who become consultants. We’ll never automate away all the jobs, will we? Depends on how advanced the machines become.

Back in the industrial revolution, a group of English textile workers protested the use of mechanized looms. These were the Luddites, who believed that jobs lost to machines would lead to economic ruin. Obviously they were wrong. From these protesters modern economists have derisively coined the Luddite Fallacy – the belief that labor saving technologies will increase unemployment. That fallacy is one of the key issues debated in The Lights In The Tunnel (here after TLITT).

In TLITT, Ford argues that the Luddite Fallacy will only remain a fallacy so long as human capability exceeds technological capability. That is, as long as humans are able to improve faster (or as fast as) machines, humans cannot be fully replaced. Ford worries that we’re approaching a point where machines will exceed human performance to such a degree that the Luddite Fallacy will fall apart. Once a superior automated workforce is created, it could take over a large portion of the jobs in our global market.

Much to Ford’s credit, he considers the implications of technology far beyond the loss of manufacturing jobs. TLITT emphasizes that many high paying positions (research lawyers, software engineers, radiologists, etc) could be automated before more mundane ones (mechanic, housekeeper). Specialized fields with algorithmic approaches to problems can be synthesized. Already, the US and many European countries outsource tech support and similar positions to India. Eventually, Ford argues, they’ll be outsourcing positions to computers.

TLITT goes on to predict some pretty awful results from this widespread automation. With few high paying jobs, there will be less people able to buy goods. Sure, a few robotics corporations and software companies will create a new generation of trillionaires, but the number of consumers with middle class purchasing power will diminish. People will sense that purchasing power is dropping and consumer confidence will also decrease. Eventually all the wealth will be consolidated in a relative few, but with no one to sell to, those wealthy will struggle as the economy continues to wither.


While Ford proposes a good thought experiment, and pulls no punches as he explores all of its implications, I don’t think his assumptions can go unchallenged. First, there are jobs that may never be automated, or even if they could be, consumers will want humans in those positions. Artists, counselors, public officials, entertainers, teachers, and others provide a “human touch” in their work that is unlikely to be achievable by any but the most impressive of artificial intelligences. If such AI comes to exist, the economy may be the least of our concerns.

Second, we may simply transition away from production and service jobs. Just as the bulk of our workforce has shifted from hunting/gathering to farming to crafts to manufacturing to service, it could continue on to entrepreneurship. Owning capital, and developing it, could be the job of the future. Already we’ve seen how open source projects can help you become a mini manufacturing, information, software or robotics mogul. These trends could continue and define the future economy. Or, even if they don’t, we could all heavily invest in public robotics (and software) companies, thus owning the capital of those firms and spreading the wealth.

Finally, while Ford’s “lights in the tunnel” thought experiment is logically sound, it doesn’t come with a lot of numerical evidence. TLITT includes a reasonably enlightening discussion on the slave economy of the Confederacy during the US Civil War, but otherwise dodges finding historic proof for its assumptions. To some degree I understand: the looming global automation would be unprecedented. Still, I feel like the predictions that Ford asserts should come with some sort of hard evidence.

The author was gracious enough to correspond with me and address my concerns. (He was also patient enough to help me understand the important distinction between industrial and end-user consumption.) Ford’s responds to my first critique by pointing out the sheer number of jobs that could be replaced by automation. He has a table on page 59 of his book that describes the largest occupations in the US. The top positions (sales people, cashiers, office clerks, and food preparers) represent millions of workers, none of whom need a college education. The list goes on to describe other positions which could all be automated. Ford asks, can we really expect all of these people to become artists, and performers, and counselors and teachers? Would most people in these new positions get paid enough to support themselves?

As for the rise of a new capitalist society full of entrepreneurs, Ford’s already had that debate before. He and Robin Hanson (a blogging economist) have discussed that very idea (and other ideas presented in TLITT) in various posts on their respective blogs. Can we all own enough shares of a (robotics) company to replace a general lack of employment income? Hanson implies yes while Ford worries the answer is no. You can catch Ford’s first critique of one of Hanson’s academic papers here, Hanson’s response to that critique here, and Ford’s retort here. It’s hard to summarize the eventual tone of the debate, but I think it boils down to: technophiles don’t adequately understand the market (Hanson) vs. automation will cause disruptions that the market may be unable to compensate for (Ford).

The Cure (and other fantasies)

Ford doesn’t leave his readers with just another doomsday scenario, he does his best to find a solution. No, he doesn’t think we should (or perhaps even can) avoid automation. Instead, TLITT explores some pretty radical ways that we could put purchasing power back in the hands of the masses and create non-traditional jobs with economic incentives. He speaks of ‘recapturing wages’ by imposing capital/labor taxes on industries as they automate, and value added taxes to goods as they become cheaper. These taxes should not be large enough to discourage automation, but they could (Ford proposes) provide revenue for a new kind of job.

Ford’s ‘virtual jobs’ are incentivised programs that would reward people for pursuits such as education, civic service, journalism, and environmental responsibility. These jobs would be paid for by the state through the revenue gained through recaptured wages. Those who accomplished more in their virtual jobs would receive higher wages, thus providing the financial incentive that everyone needs to feel like they are really working. There would be some industries and some workers that exist outside of this new system, and plenty of space and encouragement (Ford says) for entrepreneurs, who would still have the most potential for monetary gain.

So, to paraphrase Ford’s solution in my own words: we should take money from automating industries to fund a state guided program that gives money to consumers in exchange for working at bettering themselves. Sounds like a decent plan. Never gonna happen.

The US is freaking out simply at the mention of socialized healthcare, socialized work would be dead on arrival. Maybe when 75% of all jobs are automated (the level supposed in TLITT), the governments of the world will see the benefits of such a system, but even then I doubt it. Ford’s solution requires that the wealthy consent to (or that the public impose) increased taxes to avoid economic ruin. I think that those institutions (or people) in the business of acquiring wealth would sooner face ruin than impediments to their financial gain. Even if everyone wanted to switch to such a system, the scope of the change is monstrous.

But then again, so were the changes brought on by the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions.

For all my critiques of TLITT, I find myself unable to completely argue it away. Automation is increasing, and the economic fall out from that change could be disastrous. Or it could usher in a utopia. We don’t know, and not knowing could prove to be fatal.

After talking with Martin Ford, I’m most impressed with one aspect of his book: it asks a question few seem willing to contemplate. Even if there always are enough jobs for humans, even if a superior automated workforce doesn’t cause economic disruptions, I still think discussing and debating the possibility is an important task. I encourage you to pick up a copy of The Lights In The Tunnel and consider the scenario it warns against. Then add some comments below to get the discussion going. In order to reap the benefits of technology we have to stand ready against the possible threats that it presents, whether or not they ever arise.

Computers To Take Human Jobs, Shutdown Global Economy?

Download Martin Ford’s Book Here

Martin Ford’s recent book discusses the growing capability of artificial intelligence and robotics to replace workers at all salary levels and what a sharp rise in automation may mean for the global economy. Ford believes that without drastic adjustments to the way the market is structured, automation could bring the whole system crumbling down. In the interest of boosting sales and spreading the message, The Lights In The Tunnel is now being offered free for download as a PDF.. As I mentioned upon reviewing the book this past winter, I don’t agree with Ford’s conclusions, but I do think he is one of the few authors spending time exploring the long term and potentially extreme consequences of what automation could mean. That’s important.

Practically every day at Singularity Hub we show you some new amazing feat of automation. Everything from scientists to shish-kabobs is getting a computer or robotic make-over. Yet the global economy still relies mostly upon human labor. What happens when automated systems make up 10%, 25%, 75% of the effective workforce? Some may point to the rise in structural unemployment as a consequence of advances in technology already present today. The Light In the Tunnel proposes that nearer to full-automation, a lack in consumer purchasing power will effectively slow then shut down the global economy. Personally I believe that automated systems will enable an explosive growth in cheap and effective technologies that lead to more workers pursuing creative and cooperative endeavors. Clearly there is room for people with differing opinions here on the Hub. If you’ve been considering these possibilities (and if you haven’t, you should) The Lights In The Tunnel is a good launching point for the discussion. Give it a read, even if it’s only to know why you disagree.

…oh, and if you do like it, help Ford out. Buy the paperback (~$13), or the Kindle version (~$7) to show your support. We need more authors willing to bring critical thinking to discussions about the future.

[image credit: Martin Ford, Acculant Publishing]
[source: Martin Ford]

The New York Times, November 22, 2010, by John Tierney  —  A quick experiment. Before proceeding to the next paragraph, let your mind wander wherever it wants to go. Close your eyes for a few seconds, starting … now.

And now, welcome back for the hypothesis of our experiment: Wherever your mind went — the South Seas, your job, your lunch, your unpaid bills — that daydreaming is not likely to make you as happy as focusing intensely on the rest of this column will.

I’m not sure I believe this prediction, but I can assure you it is based on an enormous amount of daydreaming cataloged in the current issue of Science. Using an iPhone app called trackyourhappiness, psychologists at Harvard contacted people around the world at random intervals to ask how they were feeling, what they were doing and what they were thinking.

The least surprising finding, based on a quarter-million responses from more than 2,200 people, was that the happiest people in the world were the ones in the midst of enjoying sex. Or at least they were enjoying it until the iPhone interrupted.

The researchers are not sure how many of them stopped to pick up the phone and how many waited until afterward to respond. Nor, unfortunately, is there any way to gauge what thoughts — happy, unhappy, murderous — went through their partners’ minds when they tried to resume.

When asked to rate their feelings on a scale of 0 to 100, with 100 being “very good,” the people having sex gave an average rating of 90. That was a good 15 points higher than the next-best activity, exercising, which was followed closely by conversation, listening to music, taking a walk, eating, praying and meditating, cooking, shopping, taking care of one’s children and reading. Near the bottom of the list were personal grooming, commuting and working.

When asked their thoughts, the people in flagrante were models of concentration: only 10 percent of the time did their thoughts stray from their endeavors. But when people were doing anything else, their minds wandered at least 30 percent of the time, and as much as 65 percent of the time (recorded during moments of personal grooming, clearly a less than scintillating enterprise).

On average throughout all the quarter-million responses, minds were wandering 47 percent of the time. That figure surprised the researchers, Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert.

“I find it kind of weird now to look down a crowded street and realize that half the people aren’t really there,” Dr. Gilbert says.

You might suppose that if people’s minds wander while they’re having fun, then those stray thoughts are liable to be about something pleasant — and that was indeed the case with those happy campers having sex. But for the other 99.5 percent of the people, there was no correlation between the joy of the activity and the pleasantness of their thoughts.

“Even if you’re doing something that’s really enjoyable,” Mr. Killingsworth says, “that doesn’t seem to protect against negative thoughts. The rate of mind-wandering is lower for more enjoyable activities, but when people wander they are just as likely to wander toward negative thoughts.”

Whatever people were doing, whether it was having sex or reading or shopping, they tended to be happier if they focused on the activity instead of thinking about something else. In fact, whether and where their minds wandered was a better predictor of happiness than what they were doing.

“If you ask people to imagine winning the lottery,” Dr. Gilbert says, “they typically talk about the things they would do — ‘I’d go to Italy, I’d buy a boat, I’d lay on the beach’ — and they rarely mention the things they would think. But our data suggest that the location of the body is much less important than the location of the mind, and that the former has surprisingly little influence on the latter. The heart goes where the head takes it, and neither cares much about the whereabouts of the feet.”

Still, even if people are less happy when their minds wander, which causes which? Could the mind-wandering be a consequence rather than a cause of unhappiness?

To investigate cause and effect, the Harvard psychologists compared each person’s moods and thoughts as the day went on. They found that if someone’s mind wandered at, say, 10 in the morning, then at 10:15 that person was likely to be less happy than at 10 , perhaps because of those stray thoughts. But if people were in a bad mood at 10, they weren’t more likely to be worrying or daydreaming at 10:15.

“We see evidence for mind-wandering causing unhappiness, but no evidence for unhappiness causing mind-wandering,” Mr. Killingsworth says.

This result may disappoint daydreamers, but it’s in keeping with the religious and philosophical admonitions to “Be Here Now,” as the yogi Ram Dass titled his 1971 book. The phrase later became the title of a George Harrison song warning that “a mind that likes to wander ’round the corner is an unwise mind.”

What psychologists call “flow” — immersing your mind fully in activity — has long been advocated by nonpsychologists. “Life is not long,” Samuel Johnson said, “and too much of it must not pass in idle deliberation how it shall be spent.” Henry Ford was more blunt: “Idleness warps the mind.” The iPhone results jibe nicely with one of the favorite sayings of William F. Buckley Jr.: “Industry is the enemy of melancholy.”

Alternatively, you could interpret the iPhone data as support for the philosophical dictum of Bobby McFerrin: “Don’t worry, be happy.” The unhappiness produced by mind-wandering was largely a result of the episodes involving “unpleasant” topics. Such stray thoughts made people more miserable than commuting or working or any other activity.

But the people having stray thoughts on “neutral” topics ranked only a little below the overall average in happiness. And the ones daydreaming about “pleasant” topics were actually a bit above the average, although not quite as happy as the people whose minds were not wandering.

There are times, of course, when unpleasant thoughts are the most useful thoughts. “Happiness in the moment is not the only reason to do something,” says Jonathan Schooler, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His research has shown that mind-wandering can lead people to creative solutions of problems, which could make them happier in the long term.

Over the several months of the iPhone study, though, the more frequent mind-wanderers remained less happy than the rest, and the moral — at least for the short-term — seems to be: you stray, you pay. So if you’ve been able to stay focused to the end of this column, perhaps you’re happier than when you daydreamed at the beginning. If not, you can go back to daydreaming starting…now.

Or you could try focusing on something else that is now, at long last, scientifically guaranteed to improve your mood. Just make sure you turn the phone off.