Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Robot Consciousness (Pt. II)

As a follow-up to yesterday's post on Sophia, the robot featured in an article on robots and consciousness, it might be instructive to focus on a remark in the article by a CEO of a robotics firm. He's quoted as saying that:
...fear will melt away, as people start interacting with robots. "A lot of the concerns people have about robots taking away all the jobs or wrecking the economy or rising up and killing us all, I think those fears are really overblown," he said.
Perhaps so, but on the other hand, there does seem to be some justification for concern about the economic consequences of robots in the workplace, especially those workplaces which employ low-skilled, easily replaced workers:
The CEO of Carl's Jr. and Hardee's has visited the fully automated restaurant Eatsa — and it's given him some ideas on how to deal with rising minimum wages.

"I want to try it," CEO Andy Puzder told Business Insider of his automated restaurant plans. "We could have a restaurant that's focused on all-natural products and is much like an Eatsa, where you order on a kiosk, you pay with a credit or debit card, your order pops up, and you never see a person."

Puzder's interest in an employee-free restaurant, which he says would be possible only if the company found time as Hardee's works on its northeastern expansion, has been driven by rising minimum wages across the US.

"With government driving up the cost of labor, it's driving down the number of jobs," he says. "You're going to see automation not just in airports and grocery stores, but in restaurants."

Puzder has been an outspoken advocate against raising the minimum wage, writing two op-eds for The Wall Street Journal on how a higher minimum wage would lead to reduced employment opportunities. "This is the problem with Bernie Sanders, and Hillary Clinton, and progressives who push very hard to raise the minimum wage," says Puzder. "Does it really help if Sally makes $3 more an hour if Suzie has no job?"

As a result, he and others in the fast-food business are investing big in automation. "If you're making labor more expensive, and automation less expensive — this is not rocket science," says Puzder.

For the time being, Puzder doesn't think that it's likely that any machine could take over the more nuanced kitchen work of Carl's Jr. and Hardee's. But for more rote tasks like grilling a burger or taking an order, technology may be even more precise than human employees. "They're always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there's never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case," says Puzder of swapping employees for machines.
And then there's another disturbing story in the LA Times:
White House economists released a forecast that calculated more precisely whom Atlas and other forms of automation are going to put out of work. Most occupations that pay less than $20 an hour are likely to be, in the words of the report, “automated into obsolescence.”
Much of this displacement is projected to occur over the next two decades:
Powerhouse consultancies like McKinsey & Co. forecast that 45% of today's workplace activities could be done by robots, AI or some other already demonstrated technology. Some professors argue that we could see 50% unemployment in 30 years.

Human workers of all stripes pound the table claiming desperately that they're irreplaceable. Bus drivers. Bartenders. Financial advisors. Speechwriters. Firefighters. Umpires. Even doctors and surgeons. Meanwhile, corporations and investors are spending billions — at least $8.5 billion last year on AI, and $1.8 billion on robots — toward making all those jobs replaceable. Why? Simply put, robots and computers don't need healthcare, pensions, vacation days or even salaries.
Nor does a workforce full of robots require a Human Resources department. Nor are they a source of friction and tension in the workplace. They don't take phony sick days, nor do they require emotional and psychological maintenance, or performance reviews, or incur any of the other expensive burdens of human employees. A robot like Sophia, who appears to be human, would surely be an attractive investment for an employer groaning under the burden of rising minimum wages for minimally skilled workers who demand a wage out of all proportion to their value to their employer.

Those folks "Fighting for Fifteen" might soon be wondering why there aren't any jobs for them at all.