Machines Want Your Job

I’ve been planning for a while to write a series of posts on this blog about how advances in science and technology have the potential to make certain current jobs carried out by people unnecessary. This topic gets some thoughtful coverage in the media from time to time but usually it’s just short throw away stories on some funny looking robot (ahem…see below). But the bigger picture for people’s careers and the economiy are important to think about as well. That is because if you know technology is being developed which could make your current job disappear in 5 or 10 years you may have time to consider a new career. Or imagine you see on the horizon that 20 years from now we may not need human bus drivers in cities because of self-driving cars. Then you wouldn’t encourage your children or any young person to get into that job for the long term, even if the benefits are great, because it’s fundamentally unstable in the long run due to technology.

So as a public service, and to give me a theme to write about, I’m going to try to regularly post here to raise awareness about advances in science and technology that have the potential to do away with entire careers completely. Or to give it a pithy Twitter hashtag:  #MachinesWantYourJob.

What to do about it

Some of these trends are obvious to a lot of people, such as repetitive factory work jobs being replaced by robotics. But a lot of cases aren’t so obvious. Personally, I think people are underestimating how disruptive self-driving cars will be on many jobs once the technological, safety and regulatory kinks are worked out. This may take a long time, but it’s progressing faster than some expected. Also, there is a lot of scientific research and technology development that is not so widely covered or understood by the media, so people don’t realize that some jobs could be just doomed in the long run. Another example is grocery checkouts, the current clumsy self-checkout lines in supermarkets are only a first step.  It is perfectly feasible with existing technology to build a supermarket or big box store with no checkout lines at all by using RFID tagged merchandise, QR code printouts from scales and object recognition on digital cameras. No cashiers would be needed, just pillars near the exits to confirm your purchase and pay.  It’s seems to be just a matter of time before it’s cheap enough that some store will implement it and do away with those cashier jobs.

Just to be clear, the intention in pointing out these trends is not to necessarily stop them in order to save existing, 20th century style jobs. The intention is to raise awareness about what may be coming and encourage people to prepare themselves for the future, to retool, to consider new careers while working in old ones so that when the hammers falls, they are prepared. Because it is unlikely anything going to stop these changes, and if you want to know you certainly can’t stop them if you don’t see them coming.

A more positive and inspiring way to think about this future as an opportunity to have many careers over your life is summed up much more eloquently than I ever could by this comic on Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, take a look.

Ok, Show us the Funny Robots

Entry number one – I hope you weren’t banking on being a noodle cutting chef in a Chinese restaurant, because the robots are all over that:

The best thing about this is how he felt the need to make it look like a 1970s stereotype of a robot. It’s actually really simple, barely a robot at all, anymore than the windshield wipers on your car are.

Now I’m hungry…noodles. mmmm.

See you next time, if you have any ideas for topics on this theme reply in the comments or tweet me @compthink.

Building the Enterprise? Seriously? Why not?

I ignored this the first time I saw it and then I was going to make  snarky comment that we should just send a bunch of ships to mars instead of building the Enterprise if we’re going to spend $1 trillion. But then I thought, at least look before you ridicule.

I was wrong. I’ve read bit of his idea so far, but he’s not some crackpot trekkie. Instead, this is a thoroughly thought out argument for building a single large ship that will sit in orbit and be reused just like in Star Trek. Whether or not you think it should look like the Enterprise he has a good point about the use of a single large ship. (I know, why not build Serenity…oh, come on, some of you are thinking it. What? Millenium Falcon? Be serious people.)

Engineers are given a goal to get people to Mars on a give cost budget with a given risk level and they  work out ways to do it as cheaply and safely as possible. This site argues that maybe we’re thinking about it all wrong. Maybe the right idea is to build a huge space taxi, that has launchable landing shuttles and artificial gravity and doesn’t ever get thrown away. We really do have the technology for a large ship with cosmic ray shielding and ion pulse drives powered by an onboard nuclear reactor to travel around the solar system. Oh, and high powered lasers even.

What is the argument against this? Surely it can’t be that small, short missions are more efficient since they are more likely to get cancelled and delayed as we’ve seen. In a way this solution combines the best of robotic exploration and human exploration. Some probes can be designed ahead of time and brought in the hold of the ship. Having hundres of people on board allows the engineers to fix or even design new robots as needed. When problems arise humans can fix them on the spot. When something interesting is found they can change focus and go take a look. Sending a once-off ship with 6 people on it means everything has to be designed and optimized ahead of time. When you’ve got 100 engineers in orbit around Mars you don’t need to build so many failsafes into every probe in the same way. Give me a 100 engineers and a huge nuclear powered space ship with lasers and a store room full of spare parts and I can do anything.

Last night I watched the historic launch of the first private corporation sending a vessel up into space to bring equipement and experiments to the International Space Station. The Dragon Capsule rose into the sky atop the Falcon 9 rocket built by SpaceX Incorporated. It was inspiring. Soon, they’ll be bringing up astronauts and maybe even tourists to visit the ISS on those modules. This would have been hard to imagine 20 years ago. Things can change. As more companies get into space lots of things are going to change. So why can’t we think big?

The only problem is money and vision. But any politician who could pull this off cheap would go for it because it makes them look like they have vision even if they don’t. As for cost, it is very possible that a single all purpose, crewed vehicle like this would be cheaper in the long run and allow an order of magnitude more complex missions than a series of individual, custom designed probes.  Currently we conduct a small number of experiences for each generation of scientists each costing billions and some failing. This proposal is to build a platform, not a single probe. One that has people on it who can fix it and improve as needed. It’s not like sending a scout or  a reconnoissance plane, it’s like sending the whole aircraft carrier. Which would be better investment for improving the lot of humanity: building the Enterprise or a building 5 more aircraft carriers?

About the money, I’ll just say this. If money ever stops humanity from expanding its knowledge of the universe then we might as well just give up now. We already know a lot, why are we building these particle colliders, bigger telescopes, gene mapping projects, supercomputers for weather simulations, global climate models, nano materials or exploring the depths of the ocean? Why? We do it because there is always more to know and what we don’t know can kill us. We need to boldly go where no one has gone before. That’s how humanity got this far and we can’t stop now.

I don’t know if Building the Enterprise is the right solution, but it’s worth talking about. So let’s talk about it.

Do you believe in the Multiverse?

Great review article of cosmology by Martin Rees, the British Astronomer Royal  : One universe among many? 

Some people complain that scientists should be wary of assuming everything in their math exists physically in our world. Very right, however, they should be just as careful to assume they know what ‘exists’ means and what can be true based on some notion of what makes sense to them. A good example from physics of crazy math leading to a real thing is that the idea of anti-matter first occurred to scientists only as a theoretical concept because some equation had both a negative and a positive root for the energy of an electron. Everyone assumed the negative root couldn’t possibly be ‘real’…until they discovered the positron which is now used in your local hospital and the smoke detector in your house.

I’m no physicist, but I think it’s inevitable that some form of multiverse explanation for reality will be required to explain the fundamental cosmological questions physics is looking at.  One thing I always wonder though is why so often people seem to mean a single, infinitely large universe with all possible events in it as the multiverse rather than an infinite number of separated universes which do not interact. The single approach isn’t really a multiverse isn’t really a multiverse it just something large enough to disallow communication, seems like a bit of a hack to me. But there could be some good theoretical reason in the physics that this is preferable to the ‘parallel dimensions’ approach.

Light Reading: Space Elevators, Brain Uploading and more

I’ve been meaning to get this blog more active, “at least one post a week” I tell myself. But every time I want to write something it always end up being about Canadian Politics. I often start jotting down ideas and then get too picky about being sure and I end up never writing anything. So new rule, if I can’t think of a single new idea to write about I’ll post a short list of interesting articles I read this week and what’s interesting about them:

Reality is all Math : this is a really interesting side topic of philosophy of Math and Science that I think about in my spare time. What is the nature of the universe in relation the mathematics. Why is math so good at describing the universe? Is the universe a computer or is there some beyond computation in the way physics behaves? This article has some interesting news on the latest thoughts from quantum physics about the relation of information and computation to the nature of the universe.

It sounds like there is debate about how central information theory is to explaining the equations of quantum physics. The opinions seem to range from important to central to quantum physics is nothing but information theory. I like that last one, but we’ll have to see what they find. It looks like there is no risk of physicists completely explaining everything before we get workable large scale quantum computers. I am glad to see there is more discussion about why the universe we live in adheres to quantum weirdness rather than just accepting the highly accurate math without any explanation.

Upcoming Technology and Your Job : Andrew Leigh wrote this piece on his experience being that rare thing, a politician who pays attention to science (we could sure use more of those). He presents his list of five technologies that could revolutionize politics in the near future, but really they are disruptive technologies that would widely affect everyone in society. It’s a bit fast and loose but they are genuinely important technologies to keep an eye on, always being wary to look for wide agreement before believing any claims. I’m in favour of anyone who brings up space elevators as a viable technology. Apparently NASA has made some significant advances to powering remote devices with laser that could reduce the weight load for a space elevator cable dramatically.

His discussion of Machine Intelligence is also worth thinking about even if it is jumping the gun a bit. We aren’t exactly near to creating self aware machines or being able to upload our minds into computers. But it is becoming possible to think about computers with the complexity of a human mind so it’s worth thinking through the implications.

He makes the point that replicated minds would be a threat to many people’s job’s as a single person who’ve very good at what they do could farm themselves out to available in many places at once. I suppose this is true but I think there is a much more relevant short term concern of people being made redundant by technological advances before we get to the point of copied human consciousness.

This is one of the topics I’m hoping to blog about here in the future: understanding scientific and technological change from the point of view of the job loss metric. What is the long term viability of your current career? Could it be done by machines or through crowdsourcing the skills of many people? As Leigh points out, typists and human computers in the early 20th Century had a career which would not exist a few decades later. Many factory workers have already found that what they do is fully automatable. Many educators are now starting to wonder if everything they do really needs a live human being present. What is the value of repeating lectures when you could have videos of the best teachers in the world which can be reused over and over?

This is a simple way to make discussion of new advances concrete for the layman and also very relevant. Most people don’t really care about quantum computers, machine vision or robotics. But if you explain how what’s going on in these fields of research could affect people’s jobs down the road, or the jobs which may or may not be viable for their children in the future, then they’ll be more interested in gaining a high level understanding.

If you have other good examples of ongoing research that could make entire jobs obsolete that people should be more aware of let me know.

Women in Computer Science : this article is couple weeks old but it’s worth a repost. Maria Klawe used to be department head at my alma mater doctorum (yes, I made up that phrase, if you know latin then correct me) which has a strong focus on CS Education and making it accessible to womens. She’s done some amazing things changing the CS program at Harvey Mudd to make it more accessible and focussed on solving problems rather than programming for its own sake. They have got their graduation number of female students up to 40% which is stratospheric in Computer Science program terms.

The Snowy Owl Invades

If you are looking for a good example of the growing intersection of sustainability science and computer science I suggest taking a look at this fascinating description of the yearly winter invasion of Snowy Owl sitings. This year seems to be a big year but it is also undoubtedly the best documented year ever due to a project called eBird ( The eBird project gathers information from professionals and thousands of amateur borders. The observations are compiled and analyzed in near real time to build an observation map. This kind of citizen science is becoming more and more possible using the Internet, wireless access to websites from the field and advanced machine learning techniques to analyze huge amounts or data. Exciting times for many fields of science ahead.

%d bloggers like this: