How Robots and Computer Algorithms are Challenging Jobs and the Economy

"p8nderInG exIstence", Image by JD Hancock

“p8nderInG exIstence”, Image by JD Hancock

A Silicon Valley entrepreneur named Martin Ford (@MFordFuture) has written a very timely new book entitled Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future (Basic Books, 2015), which is currently receiving much attention in the media. The depth and significance of the critical issues it raises is responsible for this wide-beam spotlight.*

On May 27, 2015 the author was interviewed on The Brian Lehrer Show on radio station WNYC in New York. The result is available as a truly captivating 30-minute podcast entitled When Will Robots Take Your Job?  I highly recommend listening to this in its entirety. I will sum up. annotate and add some questions of my own to this.

The show’s host, Brian Lehrer, expertly guided Mr. Ford through the key complexities and subtleties of the thesis of his provocative new book. First, for now and increasingly in the future, robots and AI algorithms are taking on increasingly difficult task that are displacing human workers. Especially for those jobs that involve more repetitive and routine tasks, the more likely it will be that machines will replace human workers. This will not occur in just one sector, but rather, “across the board” in all areas of the marketplace.  For example, IBM’s Watson technology can be accessed using natural language which, in the future, might result in humans no longer being able to recognize its responses as coming from a machine.

Mr. Ford believes we are moving towards an economic model where productivity is increasing but jobs and income are decreasing. He asserts that solving this dilemma will be critical. Consequently, his second key point was the challenge of detaching work from income. He is proposing the establishment of some form of system where income is guaranteed. He believes this would still support Capitalism and would “produce plenty of income that could be taxed”. No nation is yet moving in this direction, but he thinks that Europe might be more amenable to it in the future.

He further believes that the US will be most vulnerable to displacement of workers because it leads the world in the use of technology but “has no safety net” for those who will be put out by this phenomenon. (For a more positive perspective on this, see the December 27, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled Three New Perspectives on Whether Artificial Intelligence Threatens or Benefits the World.)

Brian Lehrer asked his listeners to go to a specific page on the site of the regular podcast called Planet Money on National Public Radio. (“NPR” is the network of publicly supported radio stations that includes WNYC). This page entitled Will Your Job be Done by a Machine? displays a searchable database of job titles and the corresponding chance that each will be replaced by automation. Some examples that were discussed included:

  • Real estate agents with a 86.4% chance
  • Financial services workers with a 23% chance
  • Software developers with a 12.8% chance

Then the following six listeners called in to speak with Mr. Ford:

  • Caller 1 asked about finding a better way to get income to the population beyond the job market. This was squarely on point with Mr. Ford’s first main point about decoupling income and jobs. He was not advocating for somehow trying to stop technological progress. However, he reiterated how machines are “becoming autonomous workers, no longer just tools”.
  • Caller 2 asked whether Mr. Ford had seen a YouTube video entitled Humans Need Not Apply. Mr. Ford had seen it and recommended it. The caller said that the most common reply to this video (which tracks very closely with many of Mr. Ford’s themes), he has heard was, wrongly in his opinion, that “People will do something else”. Mr. Ford replied that people must find other things that they can get paid to do. The caller also said that machine had made it much easier and more economical for his to compose and record his own music.
  • Caller 3 raised the topic of automation in the medical profession. Specifically, whether IBM’s Watson could one day soon replace doctors. Mr. Ford believes that Watson will have an increasing effect here, particularly in fields such as radiology. However, it will have a lesser impact in those specialties where doctors and patients need to interact more with each other. (See also these three recent Subway Fold posts on the applications of Watson to TED Talks, business apps and the legal profession.)
  • Caller 4 posited that only humans can conceive ideas and be original. He asked about how can computers identify patterns for which they have not been programmed. He cited the example of the accidental discovery of penicillin. Mr. Ford replied that machines will not replace scientists but they can replace service workers. Therefore, he is “more worried about the average person”. Brian Lehrer then asked him about driverless cars and, perhaps, even driverless Uber cabs one day. Mr. answered that although expectations were high that this will eventually happen. He is concerned that taxi drivers will lose jobs. (See this September 15, 2014 Subway Fold post on Uber and the “sharing economy”.)  Which led to …
  • Caller 5 who is currently a taxi driver in New York. They discussed how, in particular, many types of drivers who drive for commerce are facing this possibility. Brian Lehrer followed-up by asking whether this may somehow lead to the end of Capitalism. Mr. Ford that Capitalism “can continue to work” but it must somehow “adapt to new laws and circumstances”.
  • Caller 6 inquired whether one of the proposals raised in VR pioneer Jaron Lanier’s book entitled Who Owns the Future (Simon & Schuster, 2013), whereby people could perhaps be paid for the information they provide online. This might be a possible means to financially assist people in the future. Mr. Ford’s response was that while it was “an interesting idea” it would be “difficult to implement”. As well, he believes that Google would resist this. He made a further distinction between his concept of guaranteed income and Lanier’s proposal insofar he believes that “Capitalism can adapt” more readily to his concept. (I also highly recommend Lanier’s book for its originality and deep insights.)

Brian Lehrer concluded by raising the prospect of self-aware machines. He noted that Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking had recently warned about this possibility. Mr. Ford responded that “we are too far from this now”. For him, today’s concern is on automation’s threat to jobs, many of which are becoming easier to reduce to a program.

To say the very least, to my own organic and non-programmatic way of thinking, this was an absolutely mind-boggling discussion. I greatly look forward to this topic will continue to gather momentum and expanded media coverage.

My own questions include:

  • How should people at the beginning, middle and end of their careers be advised and educated to adapt to these rapid changes so that they can not only survive, but rather, thrive within them?
  • What role should employers, employees, educators and the government take, in any and all fields, to keep the workforce up-to-date in the competencies they will need to continue to be valuable contributors?
  • Are the challenges of automation most efficiently met on the global, national and/or local levels by all interested contingencies working together? What forms should their cooperation take?

*  For two additional book reviews I recommend reading ‘Rise of the Robots’ and ‘Shadow Work’ by Barbara Ehrenreich in the May 11, 2015 edition of The New York Times, and Soon They’ll Be Driving It, Too by Sumit Paul-Choudhury in the May 15, 2015 edition of The Wall Street Journal (subscription required).

Updates on Recent Posts Re: Music’s Big Data, Deep Learning, VR Movies, Regular Movies’ Effects on Our Brains, Storytelling and, of Course, Zombies

This week has seen the publication of an exciting series of news stories and commentaries that provide a very timely opportunity to update six recent Subway Fold posts. The common thread running through the original posts and these new pieces is the highly inventive mixing, mutating and monetizing of pop culture and science. Please put on your virtual 3-D glasses let’s see what’s out there.

The December 10, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled Is Big Data Calling and Calculating the Tune in Today’s Global Music Market? explored the apps, companies and trends that have become the key drivers in the current global music business. Adding to the big data strategies and implementations for three more major music companies and their rosters of artists was a very informative report in the December 15, 2014 edition of The Wall Street Journal by Hannah Karp entitled Music Business Plays to Big Data’s Beat. (A subscription for the full text required a subscription to WSJonline.com, but the story also appeared in full on Nasdaq.com clickable here.) As described in detail in this report, Universal Music, Warner Music, and Sony Music have all created sophisticated systems to parse numerous data sources and apply customized analytics for planning and executing marketing campaigns.

Next for an alternative and somewhat retro approach, a veteran music retailer named Sal Nunziato wrote a piece on the Op Ed page of The New York Times on the very same day entitled Elegy for the ‘Suits’. He blamed the Internet more than the music labels for the current state of music where “anyone with a computer, a kazoo and an untuned guitar” can release their music  online regardless of its quality. Thus, the ‘suits’ he nostalgically misses were the music company execs who exerted  more controlled upon the quantity and quality of music available to the public.

Likewise covering the tuning up of another major force in today’s online music streaming industry was an August 14, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled Spotify Enhances Playlist Recommendations Processing with “Deep Learning” Technology. This summarized a report about how deep learning technology was being successfully applied to improve the accuracy and responsiveness of Spotify’s recommendation engine. Presenting an even stronger case that you-ain’t-seen-nothing-yet in this field was an engaging analysis of some still largely unseen developments in deep learning posted on December 15, 2014, on Gigaom.com entitled What We Read About Deep Learning is Just the Tip of the Iceberg by Derrick Harris. These include experimental systems being tested by the likes of Google, Facebook and Microsoft. As well, there were a series of intriguing presentations and demos at the recent Neural Information Processing Systems conference held in Montreal. As detailed here with a wealth of supporting links, many of these advanced systems and methods are expected to gain more press and publicity in 2015.

Returning to the here and now at end of 2014, the current release of the movie adaptation of the novel Wild by Cheryl Strayed (Knopf, 2011), has been further formatted into 3-minute supplemental virtual reality movie as reported in the December 15, 2014 edition of The New York Times by Michael Cieply in an article entitled Virtual Reality ‘Wild’ Trek. This fits right in with the developments covered in the December 10, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled A Full Slate of Virtual Reality Movies and Experiences Scheduled at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival as this short film is also scheduled to be presented at the 2015 Sundance festival. Using Oculus and Samsung VR technology, this is an immersive meeting with the lead character, played by actress Reese Witherspoon, while she is hiking in the wilderness. She is quoted as being very pleased with the final results of this VR production.

The next set of analyses and enhancements to our cinematic experience, continuing right along with the September 3, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled Applying MRI Technology to Determine the Effects of Movies and Music on Our Brains, concerns a newly published book that explains the science of how movies affect our brains entitled Flicker: Your Brain on Movies (Oxford University Press, 2014), by Dr. Jeffrey Zacks. The author was interviewed during a fascinating segment of the December 18, 2014 broadcast of The Brian Lehrer Show on WYNC radio. Among other things, he spoke about why audiences cry during movies (even when the films are not very good), sometimes root for the villain, and move to duck out of the way when an object on the screen seems to be coming right at them such as the giant bolder rolling after Indiana Jones at the start of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Much of this is intentionally done by the filmmakers to manipulate audiences into heightened emotional responses to key events as they unfold on the big screen.

Of course, all movie making involves the art and science of storytelling skills as discussed in the November 4, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled Say, Did You Hear the Story About the Science and Benefits of Being an Effective Storyteller?. In a very practical and insightful article in the December 12, 2014 edition of The New York Times by Alina Tugend entitled Storytelling Your Way to a Better Job or a Stronger Start-Up there are some helpful applications for today’s marketplace. As concisely stated in this piece “You need to have a good story.” It describes in detail how there are now consultants, charging meaningful fees, with new approaches and techniques who assist people in improving their skills in order to become more persuasive storytellers. Among others interviewed for this story was Dr. Paul J. Zak, who wrote the recent article on The Harvard Business Review Blog which was the basis for the November 4th Subway Fold post. It concludes with five helpful pointers to spin a compelling yarn for your listeners.

Finally, the best story told on TV during the 2014 season was – – in a fictional world where brains take on an entirely different significance – –  The Walking Dead on AMC in terms of the extraordinary number of tweets about ongoing adventures Sheriff Rick and the Grimes Gang. This was covered on Nielsen.com on December 15, 2014 in a post entitled Tops of 2014: Social TV.  TWD averaged twice as many tweets as its next competitor in the ongoing series category. This follows up directly with the July 31, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled New Analytical Twitter Traffic Report on US TV Shows During the 2013 – 2014 Season.  As I read scores of TWD tweets on the mid-season finale myself, everyone will miss you, Beth.

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As a major fan of TWD, I would like to take the opportunity add my own brief review about the tragic events in Episode 5.8:

I think that in the end, Beth was a form of avatar for the entire show. She traveled many miles from lying on her bed in Season 2 completely unable to function and progressing to Season 5 as a realist concerning herself and the group’s survival. Rather than resigning herself to be held a captive ward in the hospital, she was determined to escape no matter what and was so proud of helping Jonah to escape.

She awakened and arose to be a survivor and a committed member of the Grimes Gang, just as everyone else has done during the past five years. That is, Beth’s journey reflects the entire group’s journey. She, and the Grimes Gang, up to this point have survived all of the threats they faced and endured all of the horrors they have seen. They will all survive but this death with have more serious repercussions than perhaps any other death up until this point. Maggie, Daryl, Rick, Carol and Carl, the core of the GG, will not soon recover from this.

What I still do not understand is why, given that she was finally free in the hospital’s hallway, did she jeopardize her life by going after the lead officer with a scissors. It seemed to be somewhat at odds with Beth’s character as someone who had survived until now on her own determination and close bond with the group. She had nothing to gain by such a reckless act in the middle of a very volatile situation. Was it a sacrifice to save Jonah? Did she realize that the cop was holding a gun at that point? Was she just overtaken by the motivation that desperate times sometimes call for desperate measures?

Consider, too, that she was Herschel’s daughter and her character reflected what she had learned from him: 1. Both learned to see things differently and adapted when the circumstances changed. 2. Both faced sacrifices and danger with great dignity. (Recall Herschel’s acknowledging grin towards Rick right before the Governor murdered the elder of the survivors, and then Beth’s defiant grin when she saw that Jonah had escaped.) 3. Both were resilient insofar as Herschel adapting to the loss of his leg and Beth recovering from her father’s murder. 4. Both sought to comfort others as Herschel stayed with the flu patients and Beth finally drew Daryl out about his terrible family life. Recall also, the three very effective times during her history on the show when Beth’s singing gave great comfort to the others. Indeed, she was a saintly figure but as this story arc wore on, her demise seemed to be foretold.

TWD remains, for me, an absolutely brilliant show in terms of its characters, narrative and presentation.

 

 

 

 

Applying MRI Technology to Determine the Effects of Movies and Music on Our Brains

By a very fortuitous coincidence on August 28, 2014, two articles appeared online in very different publications but with very similar facts and implications about using MRI technology to research the neurological effects of movies and music upon their audiences. Let’s, well, scan these features together and see what we find.

First, everyone loves watching movies and nowadays they can be viewed on screens everywhere in theaters, televisions, computers, mobile devices and gaming systems whenever it is convenient for the viewer. The work of a psychologist named Uri Hasson was reported on WIRED.com in a fascinating article by Greg Miller entitled How Movies Sychronize the Brains of an Audience. As reported here, has Hasson employed MRIs to scan viewers of the same scenes in a series of films from different genres. He recently presented his finding to a group of film industry professionals.

He was surprised to find that highly similar regions of the brain were showing specifically increased activity among the viewers of the clips of the same films, That is, discernible patterns emerged in the scans while viewing westerns, action movies, mysteries and so on. However, a comedy on cable produced a much lower level of Synchronicity among the test subjects. (There are two very informative graphics of the MRI’s outputs accompanying this story.) In effect, different films and different genres produced more highly correlated levels of such synchronicity than others. One Hollywood director is quoted here about his concerns that movie studies might soon be using MRIs to test movies at pre-release test screenings.

Furthermore, I think it would be interesting to know if Netflix might also be able to apply this research. This because starting in 2006 and concluding with the “Netflix Prize” being awarded in 2009, the company ran a contest challenging contestants to devise an algorithm that would improve their movie rating and recommendation system. That is, when subscribers order film A for viewing, Netflix will additionally recommend films B, C and D based on the reviews of the user base. So, would the added application of MRI data and analyses possibly improve the current recommendation algorithm being used at Netflix?

Second, is there actually anyone out there who still doesn’t get chills up and down their spine whenever they hear the opening bars of Born to Run? This likely happens even thought you have heard it 10,000 times before. Do you recall the first time you ever heard it come blasting out of the radio?

Using MRI technology in the context of researching why tunes have such a strongly evocative effect upon our brains, was another engaging report entitled Why Your Favorite Song Takes You Down Memory Lane posted on Medicalxpress.com. According to this story, the test subjects in a study were all played six songs (four were “iconic”, one was a favorites and one was unfamiliar), of five minutes each, from very different types of music. The scientists conducting this study found distinct patterns depending on whether that subject either liked or disliked a song and another pattern for the fave among the group.

Moreover, the fave increased activity in the hippocampus*, the brain region that controls memory and emotion, thus causing the resulting connection between music and memory.

I highly recommend clicking through and reading both of these articles together for all of the scientific details of how these studies were done and their conclusions were reached.

Also, for a terrific and thoroughly engaging detailed analysis of the neuroscience of music I also recommend This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin (Plume/Penguin, 2007)

December 19, 2014 Update:

The next set of analyses and enhancements to our cinematic experience can be found in a newly published book that explains the science of how movies affect our brains entitled Flicker: Your Brain on Movies (Oxford University Press, 2014), by Dr. Jeffrey Zacks. The author was interviewed during a fascinating segment of the December 18, 2014 broadcast of The Brian Lehrer Show on WYNC radio. Among other things, he spoke about why audiences cry during movies (even when the films are not very good), sometimes root for the villain, and move to duck out of the way when an object on the screen seems to be coming right at them such as the giant bolder rolling after Indiana Jones at the start of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Much of this is intentionally done by the filmmakers to manipulate audiences into heightened emotional responses to key events as they unfold on the big screen.

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* Isn’t that also what they call the place where hippos go to school?

Discussion re: Faster Web Service, Media Mergers and Net Neutrality

A far-ranging and highly informative discussion of some critical issues concerning the broadband industry in the US was presented on The Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC (the local NPR radio affiliate in New York City). The show’s host, Brian Lehrer, interviewed David Sirota, who is a columnist for The International Business Times. The topics they covered included:

  • The pending merger of Comcast and Time Warner
  • The service call to Comcast that went viral two weeks ago when someone tried to disconnect broadband service the company
  • The current developments and regulation affecting faster and cheaper web access in Tennessee and how this might affect potentially similar offerings in New York
  • Key issues concerning net neutrality

I highly recommend listening to this 23 minute podcast of this segment of the show entitled Will Fast, Cheap Internet Ever Come to New York? to help put these issues into a very timely and well-informed perspective.

On a multitude of many other topics, I also strongly recommend listening to The Brian Lehrer Show either on the air on WNYC in the New York metro area or online each weekday from 10 am to 12 noon EST. Each of the the show’s half dozen or so segments are quickly posted following the daily broadcasts and are available on the link to the show’s web page above. He is a truly remarkable interviewer with a deep and wide understanding of today’s issues, who has his guests and the audience members (live by phone and likewise participating via the show’s message board, Twitter and Facebook), discussing a range of local, national and global social and political issues, and topics concerning such areas as the media, work, health, the economy and so on.