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It's the age of automation and the robots are coming. But for what?
Discover the peril and potential of an automated robotic world.
- Journalist Andrés Oppenheimer, columnist and member of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team explores the cutting edge of automation.
- From South Korean robot schools, Silicon valley futurist predictions and automated Japanese restaurants, this book shows us that the future of work is almost here.
- Already replacing a growing number of workers while also creating new roles, the concept of employment is becoming even more dynamic.
Alarmed and somewhat intrigued by a University of Oxford study that predicted 47 percent of jobs would be replaced by robots or intelligent computers, journalist Andrés Oppenheimer set out to discover what the future of work held for the potential casualties and benefactors of this new era.
Robotics and other assorted automated processes are already radically changing the nature of what we consider work and employment. Unlike past eras of paradigmatic technological shifts, where entire workforces were able to quickly recover and evolve into new burgeoning fields — the coming age of automation isn't going to be as seamless of a transition.
In The Robots Are Coming! The Future of Jobs in the Age of Automation, Oppenheimer casts a wide net of inquiry into a broad and multidisciplinary search for the future of what's to come. The result of years of tenacious research, experiences and thrilling conversations, this book leaves no tech stone unturned.
Without devolving into a buzzword jargon fest, Oppenheimer adequately sketches out and name drops nearly every technology experts and pundits alike think will usher in the new age.
Whether it's machine learning, A.I., augmented and virtual realities or the need for a universal basic income — this book name checks the aforementioned tech and then assaults it from all fronts. Is it hype? Where are we in terms of implementation? What do the experts say and what do the detractors think? How will this affect the job market and notions of employment?
The Robots Are Coming!
What're they coming for? Everything.
Timeframes, statistics, and opinion tended to oscillate depending on who the author was talking to at the time. There were many instances cited that went against all common fears of automation displacing jobs. For example, in 2016 Amazon increased their transport robots from 30,000 to 45,000. Speculators at the time figured this would result in the loss of jobs. On the contrary, more than 100,000 new jobs were added in the next 18 months.
In our present time these types of employment increases are relatively common. But they're also equally matched with a host of jobs in all industries being lost to automation. And they're not just confined to low-level labor and service jobs. They're affecting all levels of work.
Head up to the high towers of Wall Street and you'll even see financial professionals replaced by robo-analysts using big data. These aren't displacing the lowest of the workforce, but knocking out big-time financial advisors that use to make an average of $350,000 to $500,000 a year.
Even duties in professions such as journalism and law aren't safe from being deferred to automation. Andrês remarked that in just the past few years the stunning speed of automated transcription services completely changed the way he conducted interviews. The book's interviews themselves were transcribed and largely translated by A.I. methods.
A growing force of bots are also writing a rising number of articles due to a technology called Heliograf. What would have taken hundreds of journalists covering local elections, was done with just one templating bot. In 2016 the Washington Post was able to cover over 500 local elections with this technology.
If one thing is perfectly clear, it's that automation and intelligent computers are leaving nothing behind and popping up in the least expected places. Understandably, this has got a lot of people worried.
Anders Sandberg from Oxford comically, but nonetheless genuinely, put it this way:
It's quite simple: if your job can be easily explained it can be automated, if it can't it wont.
The future of work is going to require a massive shift in skills, mindset and know-how. Soft skills, being able to work with a steady flow of interactive data and ability to make actionable insights from the data-driven world are just some of the traits of a future workforce.
For those that aren't going to make the cut, they'll need to shift their mindset on the psychological and cultural notion of work and employment in the first place. The many futurists, serious economists, and, at times, the author himself truly believe that a universal basic income needs to be implemented.
A new mindset for the future
In an interview with philosopher Nick Bostrom, there was a discussion about the importance and self-worth that so many people receive from their employment. This he believes is a new phenomenon and one of the major problems we'll have to face socially.
Bostrom mentions that at one point, the aristocratic classes of old were able to live worthy lives by engaging in pleasurable and fulfilling experiences. It's inferred from his conversation that something like this will need to take place in the mindset of a larger sect of the population. With the prospect of an entire futuristic world not needed for work, we seriously need to reconsider the human enterprise and the notions of self-worth tied to employment.
All futurist utopian ideals aside, the nature of schooling, vocational work and employment seem to be following an age-old trend – omnipotent progress always rears its head and usurps the status quo. Work will change with the times in absurdly unique ways in which even this book and any one else alive today will not be able to predict.
Oppenheimer mentions how jobs like iPhone developer, Cloud data analyst and so on emerged from our most recent inventions and innovations. Less than two decades ago these words would have been gibberish to anyone hearing them. The same will hold true for the jobs in the next few decades.
There are a number of things that no foreseeable robotic intelligence will ever be able to compete with. Forget fantasy notions of singularities and eschatological coming of days through superintelligence – these things are a different thing to worry about entirely. The reality of the situation is that new jobs are coming and a whole lot of jobs we've had for years are never going to return.
Dealing with the inability to reskill a large amount of the populace will be a major problem in the coming years.
The author sees himself as both techno optimist in the long-run, but a techno-pessimist in the short term.
If there's one final takeaway from this book it's that the threat or rather promise of automation is real and an inevitability. There's no use fighting against it. The only thing we can do is evolve alongside it.
Geologists discover a rhythm to major geologic events.
- It appears that Earth has a geologic "pulse," with clusters of major events occurring every 27.5 million years.
- Working with the most accurate dating methods available, the authors of the study constructed a new history of the last 260 million years.
- Exactly why these cycles occur remains unknown, but there are some interesting theories.
Our hearts beat at a resting rate of 60 to 100 beats per minute. Lots of other things pulse, too. The colors we see and the pitches we hear, for example, are due to the different wave frequencies ("pulses") of light and sound waves.
Now, a study in the journal Geoscience Frontiers finds that Earth itself has a pulse, with one "beat" every 27.5 million years. That's the rate at which major geological events have been occurring as far back as geologists can tell.
A planetary calendar has 10 dates in red
Credit: Jagoush / Adobe Stock
According to lead author and geologist Michael Rampino of New York University's Department of Biology, "Many geologists believe that geological events are random over time. But our study provides statistical evidence for a common cycle, suggesting that these geologic events are correlated and not random."
The new study is not the first time that there's been a suggestion of a planetary geologic cycle, but it's only with recent refinements in radioisotopic dating techniques that there's evidence supporting the theory. The authors of the study collected the latest, best dating for 89 known geologic events over the last 260 million years:
- 29 sea level fluctuations
- 12 marine extinctions
- 9 land-based extinctions
- 10 periods of low ocean oxygenation
- 13 gigantic flood basalt volcanic eruptions
- 8 changes in the rate of seafloor spread
- 8 times there were global pulsations in interplate magmatism
The dates provided the scientists a new timetable of Earth's geologic history.
Tick, tick, boom
Credit: New York University
Putting all the events together, the scientists performed a series of statistical analyses that revealed that events tend to cluster around 10 different dates, with peak activity occurring every 27.5 million years. Between the ten busy periods, the number of events dropped sharply, approaching zero.
Perhaps the most fascinating question that remains unanswered for now is exactly why this is happening. The authors of the study suggest two possibilities:
"The correlations and cyclicity seen in the geologic episodes may be entirely a function of global internal Earth dynamics affecting global tectonics and climate, but similar cycles in the Earth's orbit in the Solar System and in the Galaxy might be pacing these events. Whatever the origins of these cyclical episodes, their occurrences support the case for a largely periodic, coordinated, and intermittently catastrophic geologic record, which is quite different from the views held by most geologists."
Assuming the researchers' calculations are at least roughly correct — the authors note that different statistical formulas may result in further refinement of their conclusions — there's no need to worry that we're about to be thumped by another planetary heartbeat. The last occurred some seven million years ago, meaning the next won't happen for about another 20 million years.
Research shows that those who spend more time speaking tend to emerge as the leaders of groups, regardless of their intelligence.
- A new study proposes the "babble hypothesis" of becoming a group leader.
- Researchers show that intelligence is not the most important factor in leadership.
- Those who talk the most tend to emerge as group leaders.
If you want to become a leader, start yammering. It doesn't even necessarily matter what you say. New research shows that groups without a leader can find one if somebody starts talking a lot.
This phenomenon, described by the "babble hypothesis" of leadership, depends neither on group member intelligence nor personality. Leaders emerge based on the quantity of speaking, not quality.
Researcher Neil G. MacLaren, lead author of the study published in The Leadership Quarterly, believes his team's work may improve how groups are organized and how individuals within them are trained and evaluated.
"It turns out that early attempts to assess leadership quality were found to be highly confounded with a simple quantity: the amount of time that group members spoke during a discussion," shared MacLaren, who is a research fellow at Binghamton University.
While we tend to think of leaders as people who share important ideas, leadership may boil down to whoever "babbles" the most. Understanding the connection between how much people speak and how they become perceived as leaders is key to growing our knowledge of group dynamics.
The power of babble
The research involved 256 college students, divided into 33 groups of four to ten people each. They were asked to collaborate on either a military computer simulation game (BCT Commander) or a business-oriented game (CleanStart). The players had ten minutes to plan how they would carry out a task and 60 minutes to accomplish it as a group. One person in the group was randomly designated as the "operator," whose job was to control the user interface of the game.
To determine who became the leader of each group, the researchers asked the participants both before and after the game to nominate one to five people for this distinction. The scientists found that those who talked more were also more likely to be nominated. This remained true after controlling for a number of variables, such as previous knowledge of the game, various personality traits, or intelligence.
How leaders influence people to believe | Michael Dowling | Big Think www.youtube.com
In an interview with PsyPost, MacLaren shared that "the evidence does seem consistent that people who speak more are more likely to be viewed as leaders."
Another find was that gender bias seemed to have a strong effect on who was considered a leader. "In our data, men receive on average an extra vote just for being a man," explained MacLaren. "The effect is more extreme for the individual with the most votes."
The great theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg passed away on July 23. This is our tribute.
- The recent passing of the great theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg brought back memories of how his book got me into the study of cosmology.
- Going back in time, toward the cosmic infancy, is a spectacular effort that combines experimental and theoretical ingenuity. Modern cosmology is an experimental science.
- The cosmic story is, ultimately, our own. Our roots reach down to the earliest moments after creation.
When I was a junior in college, my electromagnetism professor had an awesome idea. Apart from the usual homework and exams, we were to give a seminar to the class on a topic of our choosing. The idea was to gauge which area of physics we would be interested in following professionally.
Professor Gilson Carneiro knew I was interested in cosmology and suggested a book by Nobel Prize Laureate Steven Weinberg: The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe. I still have my original copy in Portuguese, from 1979, that emanates a musty tropical smell, sitting on my bookshelf side-by-side with the American version, a Bantam edition from 1979.
Inspired by Steven Weinberg
Books can change lives. They can illuminate the path ahead. In my case, there is no question that Weinberg's book blew my teenage mind. I decided, then and there, that I would become a cosmologist working on the physics of the early universe. The first three minutes of cosmic existence — what could be more exciting for a young physicist than trying to uncover the mystery of creation itself and the origin of the universe, matter, and stars? Weinberg quickly became my modern physics hero, the one I wanted to emulate professionally. Sadly, he passed away July 23rd, leaving a huge void for a generation of physicists.
What excited my young imagination was that science could actually make sense of the very early universe, meaning that theories could be validated and ideas could be tested against real data. Cosmology, as a science, only really took off after Einstein published his paper on the shape of the universe in 1917, two years after his groundbreaking paper on the theory of general relativity, the one explaining how we can interpret gravity as the curvature of spacetime. Matter doesn't "bend" time, but it affects how quickly it flows. (See last week's essay on what happens when you fall into a black hole).
The Big Bang Theory
For most of the 20th century, cosmology lived in the realm of theoretical speculation. One model proposed that the universe started from a small, hot, dense plasma billions of years ago and has been expanding ever since — the Big Bang model; another suggested that the cosmos stands still and that the changes astronomers see are mostly local — the steady state model.
Competing models are essential to science but so is data to help us discriminate among them. In the mid 1960s, a decisive discovery changed the game forever. Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson accidentally discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB), a fossil from the early universe predicted to exist by George Gamow, Ralph Alpher, and Robert Herman in their Big Bang model. (Alpher and Herman published a lovely account of the history here.) The CMB is a bath of microwave photons that permeates the whole of space, a remnant from the epoch when the first hydrogen atoms were forged, some 400,000 years after the bang.
The existence of the CMB was the smoking gun confirming the Big Bang model. From that moment on, a series of spectacular observatories and detectors, both on land and in space, have extracted huge amounts of information from the properties of the CMB, a bit like paleontologists that excavate the remains of dinosaurs and dig for more bones to get details of a past long gone.
How far back can we go?
Confirming the general outline of the Big Bang model changed our cosmic view. The universe, like you and me, has a history, a past waiting to be explored. How far back in time could we dig? Was there some ultimate wall we cannot pass?
Because matter gets hot as it gets squeezed, going back in time meant looking at matter and radiation at higher and higher temperatures. There is a simple relation that connects the age of the universe and its temperature, measured in terms of the temperature of photons (the particles of visible light and other forms of invisible radiation). The fun thing is that matter breaks down as the temperature increases. So, going back in time means looking at matter at more and more primitive states of organization. After the CMB formed 400,000 years after the bang, there were hydrogen atoms. Before, there weren't. The universe was filled with a primordial soup of particles: protons, neutrons, electrons, photons, and neutrinos, the ghostly particles that cross planets and people unscathed. Also, there were very light atomic nuclei, such as deuterium and tritium (both heavier cousins of hydrogen), helium, and lithium.
So, to study the universe after 400,000 years, we need to use atomic physics, at least until large clumps of matter aggregate due to gravity and start to collapse to form the first stars, a few millions of years after. What about earlier on? The cosmic history is broken down into chunks of time, each the realm of different kinds of physics. Before atoms form, all the way to about a second after the Big Bang, it's nuclear physics time. That's why Weinberg brilliantly titled his book The First Three Minutes. It is during the interval between one-hundredth of a second and three minutes that the light atomic nuclei (made of protons and neutrons) formed, a process called, with poetic flair, primordial nucleosynthesis. Protons collided with neutrons and, sometimes, stuck together due to the attractive strong nuclear force. Why did only a few light nuclei form then? Because the expansion of the universe made it hard for the particles to find each other.
What about the nuclei of heavier elements, like carbon, oxygen, calcium, gold? The answer is beautiful: all the elements of the periodic table after lithium were made and continue to be made in stars, the true cosmic alchemists. Hydrogen eventually becomes people if you wait long enough. At least in this universe.
In this article, we got all the way up to nucleosynthesis, the forging of the first atomic nuclei when the universe was a minute old. What about earlier on? How close to the beginning, to t = 0, can science get? Stay tuned, and we will continue next week.
To Steven Weinberg, with gratitude, for all that you taught us about the universe.
Long before Alexandria became the center of Egyptian trade, there was Thônis-Heracleion. But then it sank.