Monday, April 15, 2013

Dystopias: Disruptive Tech

Technological revolutions kill. They cause social upheavals, throw millions out of work, and displace tens of millions more. The resultant conflicts over how to responded that kind of chaos can shape the lives of generations and define a century with a long chain of wars, human misery, and hard-edged activism. Then, if we get it right, we learn how adapt our societies to the new technology through broad packages of laws, entrepreneurship, regulations, and business practices.

Or we don't. There are several regions around the world that have never managed to successfully adopt industrial manufacturing for reasons both external and internal. Most of these are not fun places to live. Then there are the nations where manufacturing has taken root, but the wealth produced by it is so concentrated that much of the population lives in the kind of poverty and pollution associated with Charles Dickens novels.

So what's in store for us during the next hundred years?

First off, the normal caveats. Historical analogies and reasoning by analogy can be hazardous to both good judgment and civil debate. In other words, saying the future will be like X period or Y event in the past is one of those things that people not only get het up over at the drop of the socially constructed hat, but also drives them to make sweeping predictions based on a single incidence or one off event.

That said I'd like to take a worst case look at how some emergent technologies could trigger the kind of long chain of economic transformations and accompanying social chaos that shaped the West and spread to rest of the globe during the Industrial Revolution.

Software Automation

Automation through robotics has already had an impact on the working class here in the US, playing a role in driving down wages over the past thirty years, alongside the export of much of the American manufacturing base to East and South East Asia. Even as the replacement of blue collar jobs in manufacturing and warehousing continues to accelerate, the middle class is starting to feel the heat as jobs requiring critical thinking and education in fields like finance, health care, and business operations are taken over by expert software systems.

It's a process hastened by the recession of 2001 and the long one starting in 2007, when companies shed jobs and turned to technologies that allow them to do more with fewer professionals. Particularly when it comes to repetitive tasks like scanning x-rays and MRIs for signs of tumors, or reviewing vast spreads of finical information for irregularities. The adoption of automation has become widespread enough that not only have recoveries from the recent recessions failed to match the jobs lost, but well over 50% (the numbers reach up to 85% depending on whose stats you look at) of college graduates since 2007 remain either unemployed or underemployed, working low-paying service sector jobs. In other words, job growth has remained below population growth for sometime now.

In the near future, job automation may well reach into the cutting edge of creative thought. Cornell's Eureqasoftware expert system has been able to derive known scientific laws from raw data and psychical measurements in physics. It's also created new a mathematical equation that accurately describes a biological system's behavior, leaving the human staff of researchers baffled as to just how the equation manages to do so.

To date, the information revolution has not produced a wave of new types of employment sufficient to replace lost positions. Historically, that's not surprising as it took several decades during the Industrial Revolution to create new types of jobs on a large enough scale. That and a system of minimum wages and wartime unionization to put enough money in the hands of consumers to make it worthwhile for manufacturers to produce the kind of consumer goods associated with the modern middle class over a long period of several decades.

The current decline in wages and stagnation of professional salaries outside a handful of industries is similar to the earnings shrinkage or collapses during the Industrial Revolution that came with automation and increases in efficiency. Farmers saw their ability to make a living off the land collapse in successive waves during the late 1800s in the United States as modern agricultural tools, pesticides, and powered equipment sent food production soaring. Likewise in Europe, skilled weavers, the manufacturing vanguard of the middle class since the medieval period, were replaced by garment factory workers whose wages were so low that successive generations lived with chronic malnutrition during a century filled with revolutions and riots.

 Big Data and Augmented Reality

Two related, and newly emerging technologies may help extend the reach and impact of software automation. Big data--in one of its applications--is the use of software to search and organize vast arrays of information in order to spot and make use of patterns that are normally invisible to humans. Mostly because we people don't possess the ability to hold millions or even hundreds of millions of data points in mind.

It's much too early to say with any certainty what kind of an impact Big Data will have on employment. Hopefully in the long run it will serve as an augmentation for researchers, but we'll have to wait and see. It may well lend expert systems a kind of perspective that human analysts will either be unable to match or not be able to make effective use of.

Augmented reality, meanwhile holds the potential to have a much bigger effect on the way we live. The ability to search large volumes of data at a desktop computer has already changed the way many of us work and learn about the world. Now that same capability is about to become integrated, if not seamlessly into our lives, then to an even more intimate degree.

Possibly with humorous effects.

Video by Seattle-based comedian Dartanion London, whose YouTube channel can be found here

At first glance, augmented reality looks like it will be an accelerator of current trends. Being able to purchase everything from books to electronic goods at home has wreaked havoc on the big box stores and traditional retailers here int the US. Having the capability to impulse shop in a coffee shop or at a bus stop while wearing something ubiquitous as a pair of glasses could make online shopping more attractive or even easier than it already is. And as we've seen with Amazon and Internet travel services like Expedia, even a marginal increase in convenience can shift another significant market segment from brick-and-mortar to digital firms who employ far fewer workers.

Beyond that first-blush look, I'm not at all certain how augmented reality might alter our economy. Its potential uses in the civilian world are something that I'm just starting to address in my reading and thought experiments.

3D Printing 

This could be the big one. The technology with a truly radical impact on how we live and structure our societies. Over the past few years we've seen 3D printers go from turning digital designs into crude plastic novelty figurines to printed weapons components and ultra-light car chassis of ridiculous strength. As the technology continues to improve, it could become common to download a design for consumer goods, then print them out at home or in a local fabrication shop.

I realize that sounds like a bit of a jump. Current household goods incorporate a wide variety of materials. Something like 32 different types in the contents of the average living room, ranging from wood to flavors of plastic, to steel, and the rare earths incorporated into the batteries of electronic devices.

That's almost certainly not going to pose a problem.

In part because there are already 3D printers that can work with metals, layering them on droplet by droplet, and then switch back to plastics or resins. But also because of carbon. We're getting good at making damned near everything out of carbon, from high-strength carbon graphite boat hulls and car bodies, to casings for consumer electronics, to batteries.

In the long-run, the use of carbon could potentially liberate us from our the vast sprawling infrastructure of resource extraction and refinement. How? Buy pulling construction material out of the air.


As I type this, I'm looking out my front window at a typically Western Oregon urban array of firs, pines, Japanese maples, cherry trees, and copper beeches. Some of these are impressive specimens, reaching up to two-hundred feet or so, with one one particular giant topping out at around 300 feet (about a 100 meters). That's a whole lot of carbon biomass, and as trees have been doing for hundreds millions of years, it's been largely sucked out of the air through a combination of fractal leaf/pine geometry and organic chemical reactions.

Of course there are a number of technical hurdles in need of jumping through before atmospheric carbon harvesting becomes a viable source of material. Appealing as it is, the vision of living in a city where goods are printed locally from raw material absorbed from the sky by artificial trees is a long ways off.

Even so, 3D printing will be a viable for manufacturing in the near future. Both as the printer designs improve, and as designers and artisans continue to improve their methods and grow adept at working with the most economic materials. The social and infrastructure impact of retail or even home manufacture-on-demand is hard to gauge, as It potentially could affect almost every aspect of our industrial-based societies.

In my most starry eyed moment I like to think that 3D printing will reverse the centuries long-trend towards working outside of the home. That at some point, power harvesting and storage, along with 3D printing will restore a level of self-sufficiency to average households that hasn't been since the medieval period.

Even that rosy scenario would have a heavy short-term, costs for the millions around the globe who labor or work professionally in resource extraction. Back home in Nevada, there are working class men and women who enjoy middle class prosperity and access to health care because of copper mining and refinement.

We may well reach a better future in which our children's children have more options in life than we do, and in which the process of designing and making things does not demand the high cost on us, the environment, and our societies that industrial technology does. Maybe such a tomorrow will require the same kind of artificially structured regulatory economies that created the long post-war peace and prosperity in the US, Western Europe, and parts of East Asia. Or the new technologies may approximate a libertarian's paradise of increased self-sufficiency and reduced interdependence. Either way, there's going to be turmoil between here and there, as the current emerging technologies continue to develop and as new ones like bio and nanotech leave the shadows of theory and step into the world of actuality.

If it's anything like the past, that turmoil will shape our lives and kill or impoverish some of us. And without foresight, alertness, and a knowledge of past technological transitions, there's little likelihood that any of our societies will get it right.

Next: Software Nightmares

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