I’ve been posting about robotics and AI lately. From robotic cars and tractors, I’ve turned to where the impact of AI may be just as big but less expected: in white-collar and “informaitn worker” jobs. Part 1 was about computing moving into financial market transactions. This time, lawyers.
A NY Times article by John Markoff recently looked at software in the legal industry. Systems and software (think IBM’s “Watson”) are being put to use like a backhoe where troops of lawyers usually do the pick-and-shovel labor of discovering relevant documents for cases.
Another e-discovery company in Silicon Valley, Clearwell, has developed software that analyzes documents to find concepts rather than specific keywords, shortening the time required to locate relevant material in litigation. Last year, Clearwell software was used by the law firm DLA Piper to search through a half-million documents under a court-imposed deadline of one week. Clearwell’s software analyzed and sorted 570,000 documents (each document can be many pages) in two days. The law firm used just one more day to identify 3,070 documents that were relevant to the court-ordered discovery motion. […]
Quantifying the employment impact of these new technologies is difficult. Mike Lynch, the founder of Autonomy, is convinced that “legal is a sector that will likely employ fewer, not more, people in the U.S. in the future.” He estimated that the shift from manual document discovery to e-discovery would lead to a manpower reduction in which one lawyer would suffice for work that once required 500 and that the newest generation of software, which can detect duplicates and find clusters of important documents on a particular topic, could cut the head count by another 50 percent.
Indeed, immediately after “Watson” pulled off the Jeopardy take-down, IBM announced it was going to market Watson-like systems for medicine (to help docs make better diagnoses by plowing the literature) and for law as outlined above. Lawyers don’t get a lot of sympathy, but I have the sense tools to reduce the hours worked by legal functionaries comes from outside the profession, not inside. But it’ll be an interesting test case to see how these expensively-educated and well-paid people adjust to system lightening their load and perhaps their paychecks. File an injunction maybe?
I’ve posted before about robots that are on the verge of invading the skills where a lot of people work manually: driving cars and farm equipment, and assembling electronics. This skill of navigating through an unstructured environment has been under development for a long time, but now it seems ready to have its impact. Just today there’s a report that Hon Hai Precision Industry, the parent company for Foxconn, is investing $223 million in robotics research so they can start making robots. And Foxconn is the world’s largest maker of electronic components like the iPhone that — as I mentioned in an earlier post — is planning to install one million robots to do “simple” jobs “alongside” workers in their suicide-plagued factories.
“The investment marks the beginning of Hon Hai’s bid to build an empire of robots,” the Central Taiwan Science Park authorities said in a statement.
Uh, “empire of robots”? How do they mean that?
But, forget about that. Valued human activity (a.k.a., jobs) in the white-collar sector are in for dramatic changes too. In the next few posts I mention a few examples I’ve run across in recent weeks:
The number of human traders employed in the financial markets is set to fall dramatically over the next ten years as banks and brokers become increasingly reliant on computer-based algorithms to run their trading operations. This is one of the early conclusion of the UK Government’s Foresight panel, which was assembled to study the implications of high frequency trading on the economy. […] “Just as real physical robots revolutionised manufacturing engineering, most notably in automobile production, in the latter years of the 20th Century, leading to major reductions in the number of employees required at car plants, so the early years of the 21st seem likely to be a period in which a similar revolution (involving software robot traders) occurs in the global financial markets…”
Back during the 24 Hours of Reality webcast in September I posted about how climate change denial tends to evaporate when real money decisions are on the line. Here’s another example:
From the cotton field in rural India to the local rag bin, a typical pair of blue jeans consumes 919 gallons of water during its life cycle Levi Strauss & Company says, or enough to fill about 15 spa-size bathtubs. That includes the water that goes into irrigating the cotton crop, stitching the jeans together and washing them scores of times at home. The company wants to reduce that number any way it can, and not just to project environmental responsibility. It fears that water shortages caused byclimate change may jeopardize the company’s very existence in the coming decades by making cotton too expensive or scarce.
So to protect its bottom line, Levi Strauss has helped underwrite and champion a nonprofit program that teaches farmers in India, Pakistan, Brazil and West and Central Africa the latest irrigation and rainwater-capture techniques.
So, despite Fox News or the Koch brothers, real decision makers know they have to factor climate change into decision-making. Anybody whose responsibility to commit millions or billions of dollars to long-range plans can’t blow off climate change facts. Lenders, insurers and any CEO with a brain has “risk management” protocols to follow.
I think the kabuki theater of climate change denial is about to come to an end. Sure it’s fun to bash liberals over drinks after work over the “myth” of global warming, but when it comes to the “bottom line,” as the quote above says, Al Gore’s “inconvenient truth” matters. That’s why it’s called inconvenient. Reality bites.
A couple of months ago I posted an opinion that the aging baby boom would generate the most copious outpouring of products and services we’ve ever seen to serve the needs and whims of that population (of which I’m a member). There are literally trillions to be made — and spent — in innovative and bazaar ways.
The shoes will sell at around $300 a pair and buyers will be able to set up a monitoring service to locate “wandering” seniors suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. […] Carle (the guy who invented the shoes) said studies indicate more than five million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s, a number expected to quadruple in the coming years. He said 60 percent of sufferers will wander and become lost and up to half of those lost who are not found within 24 hours may die, from dehydration, exposure or injury.
It’s not a trivial thing. I’ve been at nursing homes when all hell breaks loose because a door alarm goes off and there’s an ol’ gal heading off down the sidewalk in her nightgown. Sounds like there’s a cross-selling opportunity to people with both elders and toddlers.
Yay! Friday a key skeptic about human activity contributing to global warming, Richard Muller, a physicist at Berkeley, announced a study of claims used by climate change deniers to dismiss climate change research and found that the disputed research was right all along. And get this: Charles Koch foundation funded Muller’s study, in part! Ouch! That’s gotta hurt. Muller said the following in, of all places, a Wall Street Journal op-ed:
Since I enrolled in the Stanford ginormous online AI class a couple of months ago articles mentioning robots and artificial intelligence have popped up everywhere. Or has my perception just gotten more focused?
In a post a few weeks ago I listed several robotic developments that suggested to me that there are some big areas where robots are lumbering up behind us looking to do what we do and, maybe, push us out of our seats: self-driving farm equipment, inserting small parts on electronics assembly lines, and aircraft assembly. In other words if you make your living using your brain to coordinate your vision hands and eyes to do a job, you ought to glance in the rear-view mirror; the ‘bots may be gaining. For example, this week General Motors announced that autonomous vehicles may be in showrooms by the end of the decade with semi-autonomous ones even sooner.
“The technologies we’re developing will provide an added convenience by partially or even completely taking over the driving duties,” said Alan Taub, GM vice president of global research and development. […] The primary goal, though, is safety. (Yeah, right!) Future generation safety systems will eliminate the crash altogether by interceding on behalf of drivers (That’s called “removing the human element” by self-driving farm equipment marketers.) before they’re even aware of a hazardous situation.” (And before they’re aware of the hazard to their jobs.)
Such vehicles will be equipped with sensors, radars, portable communication devices, GPS and cameras, said GM.
“Combined with digital maps, the same technologies will allow the driver to let the vehicle concentrate on driving while he does something else,” said GM in a statement.
Bingo! More time to text, to slurp lattes, to change the channel, to scold the kids, to put on makeup… Viva liberation!
Sarcasm aside, what will be the impact on people who get paid to grip a steering wheel and push an accelerator such as truck drivers, cabbies, and pizza delivery guys? Seriously, I get all kinds of planning and money is going into removing the expensive, bothersome humans as vehicle jockeys, but where’s the effort to get people ready to redirect their talents? One of the hard barriers to bringing unemployment down from 9.1% is that “productivity” increases have pushed down the number of jobs needed to do the same work a few years ago. It’s also known as “structural change,” a wonky phrase for jobs that have been displaced by technology or shipped overseas for cheaper labor.
I’ve just been talking about the hand/eye/brain side of robotics and AI. But the challenge to the thinking side of human skills is just as great if not more. I’ll look at a few examples in the next post.
Today’s headlines are surreal. There is so much that is business-as-usual (e.g., there’s a new iPhone out! How about that!). Then there’s: “Wall Street protests go global; Riots in Rome.”
The now global “occupy-everywhere” movement is, I suspect, the new business-as-usual. Most of the rest of what’s going on, at least in mainstream media, is either an anachronism or simply myopic.
I started The Vortex blog because it seems plain that there are huge forces at work right now that are having sweeping consequences, but they are obscured by the noise of attention-grabbing daily events. The only image I can come up with is a vortex. Climate change, raging technology evolution, 7 billion (and growing) Earth co-inhabitants, power in the hands of people with all the empathy of Lord Voldemort. These forces are synergizing each other in an change-driving engine that’s dismaying and —to me, anyway — pretty intimidating.
I’m retired and I ain’t gonna be around for the longer term effects, but I’m really glad I don’t have to figurine out my whole life plan today like young people need to do. And I’m concerned for them. There has always been angst about starting out self-directed life, but I’d be juiced on adrenalin and indignation like the “occupiers” on the streets today if I were, say, 20 or even 30. This blog is my attempt of make a tiny contribution of advice born of my experience.
I am encouraged that people are showing that technological devices that weren’t here 10 years ago can open up communication and make common cause among people worldwide. This is social change unlike anything we’ve seen before. I believe that we’re seeing the birth of a generation that “gets it”; individuals who share a common identity as world citizens with an equal stake in the future.
There’s the bumper-sticker that says “Question Authority,” and it appears to have been headed. Many people are confronting authority in all its forms whether its brutal dictatorship, abuse of financial trust, or corruption of democracy by special interests. Today’s young seem to understand that they must be world citizens and participate in shaping the future together. The real issues of today effect everybody and so it’s time to transcend identities based on location, history, ethnicity, and religion. It is the business of everyone on the planet who the president of the United States is, who’s running China, and what anachronistic monarchs and despots are up to. Abuses by the powerful few in the past have been cloaked in the fragmentation of our national, tribal, religious and ethnic identities. But I’m now optimistic that that’s changing.
Is nirvana just around the corner? Of course not. This nebulous movement is far, far from achieving anything. It will face daunting difficulties and perhaps even disappear. But the precedent of people communicating worldwide and collaborating, no matter how ambiguously, is in the historical record. A milestone has been passed; hopefully one that will help us move forward.
I’m sympathetic to the #occupywallsreet movement. I’ve been expecting it for some time. I’m sorry for the young people facing the some of the changes and economic imbalances they’re facing in the future. As I’ve posted before, I’m shocked at the cost of college education and debt young people are taking on. I now realize I was born into the Golden Age of America and was very, very fortunate to grow up in California during the ’50s and ’60s when it had perhaps the best, low-cost public education in the world. The first protest I participated in was a 1966 march in Sacramento when Gov. Ronald Reagan ratcheted-up university tuition and accelerated the degradation of education in California. It seems to me it shouldn’t be a surprise that young people are out in the streets again. It was only a matter of time. Indeed, ‘bout time!
In the spirit of encouraging the “occupy-everything” movement to come to grips with the real scope of their challenge, I want to put on the table an AP article published a couple of days ago about Mike Daisey’s monologue, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” Daisey went to China and gathered information about the terrible conditions in electronics assembly plants such as Foxconn (I’ve noted before) that assembles iPhones. Daisey is performing the above mentioned monologue blasting Apple, Steve Jobs and pretty much the whole electronics industry built on working conditions in China and other Asian countries that would never be tolerated here. The thing is, we — consumers like you, me and #occupywallstreeters — have been enjoying the fruits of another disparity, the one between US salaries and and those of China, Malaysia, the Phillipines, etc., etc. We can hardly live without our electronic toys and the constant prattle of the internet. It’d be great to repatriate many of those jobs but under US standards. Another alternative: put pressure on to improve the wages and conditions in Asia and wherever sweatshop employers may run. But we probably would see a big reduction in the electronic products we could afford. How often would you get the latest phone if it cost $1000?
If disparity inspires a sense of unfairness then there are many to address. Yes, the gap between the 1% and the 99% in the US isn’t right. But the disparity between the work and living standards in America and the appallingly low income of billions of people in the world isn’t right either. My wife and I sit on the deck of our modest home in Oregon with trappings of a rather frugal life and say, “Life is good.” But I’m uncomfortable with the fact that the disparity between my standard of living and others is just as great as between mine and a billionaire. While economics isn’t necessarily a zero-sum game in the long run, in the short run it often involves transferring benefits from one group to another. That’s why economics is called “the dismal science.”
So the Introduction to AI class online has started. The final enrollment is somewhere over 160,000 class members. (Well, we all know that the attrition from class is terrible in the first couple of weeks.)
But, this is being touted as the biggest online teaching event ever. There are students from more than 190 countries. That’s spanning the globe for sure. A lot of university class material and lectures have been online for years now, but running a real-time class of this magnitude is, I guess, a first.
So is this a preamble to a whole new or emerging way of learning? One enthusiast has likened this event to the “butterfly-effect“ notion of chaos theory and expects a sudden revolutionary change. I don’t think I’d go that far. One of the problems of AI over the past half-century has been too much hyperbole about the imminent arrival of super-intelligent machines. These failed forecasts have caused credibility problems for the field.
One thing I hope does happen: I hope the fact that over 160,000 people worldwide are paying attention to artificial intelligence reaches the awareness of the public and of clueless politicians in the US and elsewhere. The advent of desktop computers caused a real if unheralded revolution in jobs and needed job skills over the past 30 years. AI and robotics will mean an enormous need for people who expect to enjoy a level of prosperity to get out ahead of this trend and then run like hell to maintain their marketability.
A few weeks ago I deactivated my Facebook account. Trying to keep up with all the drama around Facebook privacy and changes sure wasn’t worth it. So I became a #facebookdropout .
I wasn’t in any hurry to jump to Google+. Indeed, it appears a lot of people have jumped off of G+ already. But since the Intro to AI course has started a Google+ “hangout” I figured it was time to give it a try. Is there something there I didn’t get from Facebook? We’ll see.
How about you? Anyone on Google+?
One of the things that most interests me about the Intro to AI course going on around the world with 145,000! students are the parallels between the intelligence that computer scientists engineer (what this course is about) and intelligence in biology (what Mother Nature has been evolving for billions of years). I’ve already mentioned that the course instructors, Sebastian Thun and Peter Norvig, aren’t wasting time with definitions of intelligence or with biology; they’re plunging straight ahead with things to do with computers like searching or driving a car. Still, I can’t help being fascinated with how intelligence manifest and is used in nature. Moreover, how close are the engineered intelligent processes to the intelligence honed by a few billion years of evolution — our own? Is the sovereign about to be dethroned? Should we at least be looking over our shoulders?
The starting point for the simplest ideas in AI is presented as a little diagram called the “perception/action cycle”. It means that to have any intelligence a thing has to get environmental information through its sensors, process that information and turn it into action in its environment. That’s both basic to engineered devices of any value, and to any living thing. Even single cell organisms get environmental impacts and react to them in some way. It may just mean quietly oozing away.
The critical thing, the “intelligence”, lies in transforming information is some form into an action within a repertoire. That process is the red arrow pointing down in the box in this diagram. For both machines and living entities that arrow becomes enormously complex. The fun of the course — at least for me — is finding and comparing the analogous processes between protoplasm and machine.
The Stanford Introduction to AI class has started ( @aiclass ). It’s a little like the first DARPA self-driving car competition: it’s got a few glitches in login, and access to the class videos. But that’s the first lesson of AI: do something, fix the problems and repeat…over and over.
It’s interesting that Thrun and Norvig haven’t bothered to try to define artificial intelligence. They consider search engines, medical diagnostic programs, chess, robots, video game engines and other things to be artificial intelligence. The field of AI is full of ongoing debates about just what “intelligence” is. From the perspective of neurobiologists or philosophers a lot of what they call AI is not intelligence. But we could spend the whole course debating these things. The instructors’ approach seems to be: if a computer can do something useful on its own, it’s AI. I don’t know whether or not they’ll tackle the definition later; in the meantime I’m sure we students will debate these issues endlessly in online forums.
Additionally, there’s meta-meaning to the AI course. Intro to AI is also perhaps the biggest online class ever (~140,000 enrolees), worldwide, and free. It’s like some global rock concert for peace. There definitely an innovative purpose in taking this cutting-edge topic to the world stage complete with all the social media trappings. Might it kick-off other such learning events? We’ll wait and see.
I mentioned before that I’m one of the very select 100,000 people enrolled in the Stanford “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” online course starting in October. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, I always say. And here’s several reasons I’ve run across in just the last couple weeks that make me I say that:
Airplanes are big, complicated things to put together. They require high-precision positioning of joints, and, heretofore, the work has been done by highly-skilled, and, presumably, highly-paid workers. But the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Technology and Advanced Materials in Germany is working on a system for airplane assembly mainly using robots.
Aircraft will in future be machined — and their parts increasingly bonded together — by a host of small industrial robots, much as we see in today’s automotive sector… They [system designers] envision fuselage segments, tail fin and wings sitting atop a kind of rolling assembly line and being carried past one-armed robots, akin to automotive production methods. […] However, there is one more challenge: Aluminum, the classic aircraft material, is increasingly being replaced by CFRP [that is] unyielding during assembly, so they [parts] sometimes need to be assembled under tension. While technicians have developed a feel for how much tension is permissible, which allows them to assemble these parts manually, robots don’t know how to do this yet. Nonetheless, Niermann and his colleagues are certain that they will have an initial demonstration facility up and running around three years from now.
In a more prosaic setting, farming, robotics is rolling along too. The Kinze Autonomy Project is developing a line of equipment and software to enable farm equipment to operate driverlessly. They recently demonstrated a John Deere tractor pulling a cart that can catch the stream of grain from a combine. (Here’s the YouTube video.)
The Kinze Autonomy Project is designed to reduce the need for skilled operators by taking the human element out of the tractor cab. Kinze will market this technology to help growers increase their productivity by allowing them to focus their time and attention elsewhere while performing cursory monitoring of the Kinze autonomous equipment. […] “This technology could be used to do a variety of tasks, including planting, nourishing, maintaining and harvesting crops.”
Uh, pardon me, but isn’t that “human element” in the tractor cab also known as a guy with a job? It’s dusty and boring, but it’s cash in the bank to somebody. (Oh yeah, it’s not a person, just an “element.”) And doesn’t “planting, nourishing, maintaining and harvesting crops” pretty much cover all the jobs in farming? When the driverless tractors come won’t these ” human elements” need to be “focusing their time and attention elsewhere” like picking up an unemployment check and looking for other work that doesn’t involve working with crops?
But for the sheer magnitude of robotic impact you’ve gotta like IEEE blogger Evan Ackerman’s post about plans by Foxconn to bring in one million robots to work on their electronics assembly lines in China in the next three years! Foxconn is one of the biggest Taiwanese electronics manufacturers for the iPhone and other devices assembled on human assembly lines. They’re notorious for the suicides of employees, so much so that they evidently have put up nets around some building. Critics of the company have claimed that working conditions are so bad there that it’s no wonder people want to jump.
It looks like Foxconn has figured out how to solve the problem: get rid of the pesky humans by replacing them with robots. Indeed, humans demand pay, cause problems, get sick, etc. Take that, troublesome meat-puppets! The robots rumored to be the droids of choice are FRIDAs (Friendly Robot for Industrial Dual-arm Assembly) from the Swiss company, ABB. According to ABB the robot is intended to “work alongside” people, not replace them. Looks like it might work out: the FRIDAs, after all, don’t have a head, just a handle.
I deactivated my Facebook account this morning. I’ve never been a gregarious guy, so the whole social networking thing is kind of lost on me. I’ve been mainly following organizations and a few information resource people. But all the drama about what Facebook us up to, what privacy you have or don’t have, what whim Zuckerberg had last night, is just a waste of time. But ignoring privacy matters is, I think, unwise.
One thing I’ve learned from 30 years working with computers is, if things are going weird, sometimes the best thing to do is kick the plug out of the wall.
Don’t know if I’ll go over to Google+. Right now, I’ll just wait and see.