Here's my Top 10 items from around the Internet over the last week or so. As always, we welcome your additions in the comments below or via email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
My must read is #4 from Martin Ford on the rise of the robots.
See more Dilbert cartoons here. They're excellent.
1, The robots are coming - Martin Ford's book 'The Rise of the Robots: Technology and the threat of a jobless future" won the the FT's Book of the Year award this year. It's on my summer reading list.
It takes a glass half empty approach to the amazing growth and power of robots and other technology, and in particular whether job creation in 'new' areas will be able to keep up with the creative destruction of all sorts of existing jobs. Various studies suggest up to half of all the existing types of jobs will be destroyed by new technology.
The key question is whether the new jobs as yoga instructors and all the other irreplaceable services jobs are able to replace the destroyed ones fast enough.
Ford’s book is packed with grim prognostications from scholars, scientists and, gulp, even writers, that, thanks to the speedy rate of innovation in all fields, the next few decades will see the automation of jobs like radiologist, composer, pilot, attorney and journalist, fields previously thought immune to, or at least heavily protected from, replacement by machines.
Robots threaten all of our jobs, Ford warns, even the smartest and most educated of us. Yours, mine and, above all, our kids’ jobs.
Martin Ford has a stark message. There is a massive jobs crisis coming, he says. The FT agrees – maybe not unanimously, but enough to give Ford’s Rise of the Robots its business book of the year award.
It’s time to start looking for ways to fix our networked future. The good news is that we are finally recognizing the magnitude of the digital problem. The bad news is that the problem is getting bigger by the smart machine. So now, the challenge is to find solutions to the jobs crisis. We need to fix the future before it fixes us.
2. And here's one example - The incredibly cheap nature of modern technology is reinforced in this piece in the Telegraph about Raspberry Pi's latest 'Zero' computer costing four pounds and being as powerful as 600 pound computers sold a decade ago. It's so cheap it's being given away with magazines. It has 512mb of RAM and a 1gb processor. To be fair it doesn't have a screen or a keyboard or any sort of storage, but it has plenty of ports for those.
The Raspberry Pi Zero is 65mm by 30mm, about the size of three stamps, but has two micro USB ports, a micro SD card slot and a mini HDMI slot. It runs Raspbian, a version of Linux, which can run applications like Sonic Pi and Scratch, designed to teach people how to code, as well as games like Minecraft.
Here's a good video from one of the authors of that book -- MIT's Andrew McAfee.
4. This time is different? - I've heard this phrase described as the four most dangerous words in the history of financial markets. But Ford is wondering if this time really is different.
The first industrial revolution destroyed the jobs of many artisans and craftsmen as machines took over from people in the manufacturing of clothing and all sorts of other things. The Luddites tried to break the machines, but ultimately new jobs were created so people had work and incomes. In some cases it took decades and some never recovered, but it still happened...
We now have yoga instructors and therapists and programmers and colouring book artists to replace the call centre operators and machinists. Whether they are the same people is another thing....
Here's Ford in his own words wondering whether our economy can create new jobs fast enough to keep up.
Today’s information technology, and its realization in areas like robotics and machine learning, is dramatically different in both the breadth of its impact and rate at which it continues to improve. Unlike specialized farm machinery, the computer revolution has produced a truly general purpose technology. Much like electricity, information technology can be viewed as a utility that has invaded every conceivable organization, industry and sector of the economy. And it is a utility that is advancing exponentially and carries with it an unprecedented cognitive capability: machines and software can now solve problems, make decisions, and—perhaps most importantly—learn.
As this new utility continues to disrupt existing industries and employment sectors, it will also form the foundation for all the new industries that will arise in the future. Skeptics will note that jobs were surely lost when horse-drawn carriage manufacturers were decimated by progress—but that the rise of the automobile industry, in turn, created more and better jobs. That was then. The question for us, today, is whether we are really likely to see future industries that generate millions of new jobs. It’s easy to imagine the technologies and industries that may loom large in the future—nanotechnology, synthetic biology, virtual reality, and so forth. What is not so easy is to visualize is the rise of industries that are highly labor intensive.
5. Robots to look after the elderly - One of the arguments used to push back at the Ford-ites saying that creative destruction is faster than new job creation is the idea that an ageing population will reduce the size of the working age population and create lots of jobs and wages for people caring for the elderly.
Unless, of course, there are robots to do that. Here's the New York Times on that, including Bibbity Bobbity Bots:
Examples of robotic and artificial-intelligence-derived technologies that will be commercially available in the next decade include intelligent walkers, smart pendants that track falls and “wandering,” room and home sensors that monitor health status, balancing aids, virtual and robotic electronic companions, and even drones.
In her lab, Dr. Hovakimyan has begun experimenting with small and large drones.
She refers to them as “Bibbidi Bobbidi Bots,” borrowing a phrase from the “Cinderella” movie, to make them seem less intimidating. Last month, in the Nicer Robotics laboratory at the University of Illinois, researchers began experimenting with an Oculus Rift virtual reality viewer to show people how it might feel to be close to a small drone. She believes that drones could ultimately be used to perform all manner of household chores, like reaching under a table to grab an object, cleaning chandeliers and weeding the lawn.
6. Ways work will change in the future - The Guardian has a good look here at the future of work and workplaces in this piece, including the look at the Corporate 'Lattice' (rather than the Corporate Ladder), the rise of Artificial Intelligence, the Human Cloud, workplace monitoring and the end of retirement.
The past five years have seen a proliferation of online platforms that match employers (known in cloud-speak as “requesters”) with freelancers (often referred to as “taskers”), inviting them to bid for each task. Two of the biggest sites are Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, which lays claim to 500,000 “turkers” from 190 countries at any given time, and Upwork, which estimates that it has 10 million freelancers from 180 countries on its database. They compete for approximately 3m tasks or projects each year, which can range from tagging photos to writing code. The market is evolving so quickly that it’s hard to pin down exactly how many people are using these sites worldwide, but management consultants McKinsey estimate that by 2025 some 540 million workers will have used one of these platforms to find work.
The benefits for companies using these sites are obvious: instant access to a pool of cheap, willing talent, without having to go through lengthy recruitment processes. And no need to pay overheads and holiday or sick pay. For the “taskers” the benefits are less clear cut. Champions of the crowdsourcing model claim that it’s a powerful force for the redistribution of wealth, bringing a fresh stream of income and flexible work into emerging economies such as India and the Philippines (two of the biggest markets for these platforms). But herein lies the problem, as far as critics are concerned. By inviting people to bid for work, sites such as Upwork inevitably trigger a “race to the bottom”, with workers in Mumbai or Manila able to undercut their peers in Geneva or London thanks to their lower living costs.
7. When negative interest rates are the new normal - The ECB's promise to do whatever it takes to reignite inflation in Europe is forcing people to ask some hard questions, particularly around the zero lower bound problem. People used to think it was impossible to push interest rates much lower than zero per cent because savers would simply pull their money out of banks and put it under their mattresses.
But an interesting thing is happening. European central banks have cut rates well below zero and Governments are able to borrow for as long as 10 years with negative interest rates. It turns out the cost of mattresses and insurance and safes is higher than many thought. Ever tried to store a billion dollars in cash? It's a problem I'd like to have, but it turns out that's an awful lot of stacks of paper to keep an eye on.
I can't wait for a negative mortgage rate. ;) Just imagine what that would do for house prices...
Here's Neil Irwin looking at the shifting debate about negative interest rates.
The flaw in the old concept of the “zero lower bound” seems to have been this: There are a lot of benefits to keeping money in a bank besides the interest you earn. If you keep $10,000 in savings in a bank, and the bank gets robbed, you’re unaffected; the bank is on the hook for the losses. If you keep it in your freezer, theft is your problem.
The peace of mind of having your $10,000 in a federally insured bank account and the ability to write a check to make a purchase or wire money to a family member are valuable. More valuable, it seems likely, than the $30 in annual costs that would apply if the Fed put in place the E.C.B.’s new negative 0.3 percent rate. The experience in Europe over the last year — really the absence of some catastrophe with negative rates — helps explain why one Fed official argued at the central bank’s September meeting that American interest rates should also be slightly negative.
8. So how about a Guaranteed Minimum Income? - One of the responses to the idea of a robot-dominated jobless future is a guaranteed minimum income (GMI). Indeed, Ford suggests one.
Finland is looking at a GMI of 800 euros a month.
Here's the Independent suggesting something similar for Britain.
It sounds crazy, doesn’t it? The Government giving every adult a fixed sum every month to cover basic living expenses, and to do so irrespective of wealth and income. Dukes and dustmen alike would receive the same stipend from the state, with no means test, no restrictions on where to spend the cash and no caps. David Beckham would get it. Alan Sugar would get it. Any rich banker would get it. No questions asked. Mad, eh?
Well, maybe not as bonkers as it first appears. The Finns may be about to go for it, and the Dutch and Swedes are toying with the idea of streamlining their benefits system in such a way too. Minority parties in Britain have also proposed it, but from the safety of not being serious contenders for power. It’s worth mentioning that, in the somewhat attenuated form of tax credits, a version of the policy was brought in here by Gordon Brown, and proved so popular that when George Osborne tried to scale them back, he was forced into an ignominious U-turn.
The idea has purity and simplicity on its side. It can replace all existing benefits overnight, as the Finns are planning to do. As a flat universal benefit payable to all, there is little administrative cost; and there can be no “poverty traps” or “income traps”, because the benefit would not be scaled back as wages increase, the usual problem with linking benefits to earnings. Thus, it adds an incentive to work harder as well – a solid Tory value.
9. Smurfing and the movement of capital out of China - Figures released yesterday showed China's capital outflows tripled to US$113 billion in November. So how does it get out from under some pretty strict capital controls?
Paul Panckhurst, a New Zealander working for Bloomberg in Hong Kong, explains the practice of 'smurfing'.
When Chinese nationals move money overseas, they often do it the way drug traffickers or terrorists do: They break down cash into small amounts below what would trigger official scrutiny.
Moving money in small increments to avoid reporting requirements is called “smurfing,” after the little blue cartoon characters who as small individuals constitute a larger whole. A record $194 billion exited China in September, according to a Bloomberg gauge estimating capital flows. The Chinese use numerous tactics to transfer money abroad, and smurfing is routine, with some of the cash flowing into overheated property markets in Vancouver, Hong Kong, New York and Sydney.
Now, as Chinese citizens bypass the country’s limit of converting $50,000 a person per year by enlisting friends, relatives and even employees to send out cash on their behalf, banks and regulators around the world are being forced to decide: Is it okay to knowingly allow Chinese citizens to evade their government’s controls if it doesn’t break your own country’s laws?
10. Totally Clarke and Dawe with a version of the Nativity Play involving Christopher Pyne.