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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.
Why mega-eruptions like the ones that covered North America in ash are the least of your worries.
- The supervolcano under Yellowstone produced three massive eruptions over the past few million years.
- Each eruption covered much of what is now the western United States in an ash layer several feet deep.
- The last eruption was 640,000 years ago, but that doesn't mean the next eruption is overdue.
The end of the world as we know it
Panoramic view of Yellowstone National Park
Image: Heinrich Berann for the National Park Service – public domain
Of the many freak ways to shuffle off this mortal coil – lightning strikes, shark bites, falling pianos – here's one you can safely scratch off your worry list: an outbreak of the Yellowstone supervolcano.
As the map below shows, previous eruptions at Yellowstone were so massive that the ash fall covered most of what is now the western United States. A similar event today would not only claim countless lives directly, but also create enough subsidiary disruption to kill off global civilisation as we know it. A relatively recent eruption of the Toba supervolcano in Indonesia may have come close to killing off the human species (see further below).
However, just because a scenario is grim does not mean that it is likely (insert topical political joke here). In this case, the doom mongers claiming an eruption is 'overdue' are wrong. Yellowstone is not a library book or an oil change. Just because the previous mega-eruption happened long ago doesn't mean the next one is imminent.
Ash beds of North America
Ash beds deposited by major volcanic eruptions in North America.
Image: USGS – public domain
This map shows the location of the Yellowstone plateau and the ash beds deposited by its three most recent major outbreaks, plus two other eruptions – one similarly massive, the other the most recent one in North America.
The Huckleberry Ridge eruption occurred 2.1 million years ago. It ejected 2,450 km3 (588 cubic miles) of material, making it the largest known eruption in Yellowstone's history and in fact the largest eruption in North America in the past few million years.
This is the oldest of the three most recent caldera-forming eruptions of the Yellowstone hotspot. It created the Island Park Caldera, which lies partially in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming and westward into Idaho. Ash from this eruption covered an area from southern California to North Dakota, and southern Idaho to northern Texas.
About 1.3 million years ago, the Mesa Falls eruption ejected 280 km3 (67 cubic miles) of material and created the Henry's Fork Caldera, located in Idaho, west of Yellowstone.
It was the smallest of the three major Yellowstone eruptions, both in terms of material ejected and area covered: 'only' most of present-day Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska, and about half of South Dakota.
The Lava Creek eruption was the most recent major eruption of Yellowstone: about 640,000 years ago. It was the second-largest eruption in North America in the past few million years, creating the Yellowstone Caldera.
It ejected only about 1,000 km3 (240 cubic miles) of material, i.e. less than half of the Huckleberry Ridge eruption. However, its debris is spread out over a significantly wider area: basically, Huckleberry Ridge plus larger slices of both Canada and Mexico, plus most of Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri.
This eruption occurred about 760,000 years ago. It was centered on southern California, where it created the Long Valley Caldera, and spewed out 580 km3 (139 cubic miles) of material. This makes it North America's third-largest eruption of the past few million years.
The material ejected by this eruption is known as the Bishop ash bed, and covers the central and western parts of the Lava Creek ash bed.
Mount St Helens
The eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980 was the deadliest and most destructive volcanic event in U.S. history: it created a mile-wide crater, killed 57 people and created economic damage in the neighborhood of $1 billion.
Yet by Yellowstone standards, it was tiny: Mount St Helens only ejected 0.25 km3 (0.06 cubic miles) of material, most of the ash settling in a relatively narrow band across Washington State and Idaho. By comparison, the Lava Creek eruption left a large swathe of North America in up to two metres of debris.
The difference between quakes and faults
The volume of dense rock equivalent (DRE) ejected by the Huckleberry Ridge event dwarfs all other North American eruptions. It is itself overshadowed by the DRE ejected at the most recent eruption at Toba (present-day Indonesia). This was one of the largest known eruptions ever and a relatively recent one: only 75,000 years ago. It is thought to have caused a global volcanic winter which lasted up to a decade and may be responsible for the bottleneck in human evolution: around that time, the total human population suddenly and drastically plummeted to between 1,000 and 10,000 breeding pairs.
Image: USGS – public domain
So, what are the chances of something that massive happening anytime soon? The aforementioned mongers of doom often claim that major eruptions occur at intervals of 600,000 years and point out that the last one was 640,000 years ago. Except that (a) the first interval was about 200,000 years longer, (b) two intervals is not a lot to base a prediction on, and (c) those intervals don't really mean anything anyway. Not in the case of volcanic eruptions, at least.
Earthquakes can be 'overdue' because the stress on fault lines is built up consistently over long periods, which means quakes can be predicted with a relative degree of accuracy. But this is not how volcanoes behave. They do not accumulate magma at constant rates. And the subterranean pressure that causes the magma to erupt does not follow a schedule.
What's more, previous super-eruptions do not necessarily imply future ones. Scientists are not convinced that there ever will be another big eruption at Yellowstone. Smaller eruptions, however, are much likelier. Since the Lava Creek eruption, there have been about 30 smaller outbreaks at Yellowstone, the last lava flow being about 70,000 years ago.
As for the immediate future (give or take a century): the magma chamber beneath Yellowstone is only 5 percent to 15 percent molten. Most scientists agree that is as un-alarming as it sounds. And that its statistically more relevant to worry about death by lightning, shark, or piano.
Strange Maps #1041
Got a strange map? Let me know at email@example.com.
The pandemic has many people questioning whether they ever want to go back to the office.
If one thing is clear about remote work, it's this: Many people prefer it and don't want their bosses to take it away.
When the pandemic forced office employees into lockdown and cut them off from spending in-person time with their colleagues, they almost immediately realized that they favor remote work over their traditional office routines and norms.
As remote workers of all ages contemplate their futures – and as some offices and schools start to reopen – many Americans are asking hard questions about whether they wish to return to their old lives, and what they're willing to sacrifice or endure in the years to come.
Even before the pandemic, there were people asking whether office life jibed with their aspirations.
We spent years studying “digital nomads" – workers who had left behind their homes, cities and most of their possessions to embark on what they call “location independent" lives. Our research taught us several important lessons about the conditions that push workers away from offices and major metropolitan areas, pulling them toward new lifestyles.
Legions of people now have the chance to reinvent their relationship to their work in much the same way.
Big-city bait and switch
Most digital nomads started out excited to work in career-track jobs for prestigious employers. Moving to cities like New York and London, they wanted to spend their free time meeting new people, going to museums and trying out new restaurants.
But then came the burnout.
Although these cities certainly host institutions that can inspire creativity and cultivate new relationships, digital nomads rarely had time to take advantage of them. Instead, high cost of living, time constraints and work demands contributed to an oppressive culture of materialism and workaholism.
Pauline, 28, who worked in advertising helping large corporate clients to develop brand identities through music, likened city life for professionals in her peer group to a “hamster wheel." (The names used in this article are pseudonyms, as required by research protocol.)
“The thing about New York is it's kind of like the battle of the busiest," she said. “It's like, 'Oh, you're so busy? No, I'm so busy.'"
Most of the digital nomads we studied had been lured into what urbanist Richard Florida termed “creative class" jobs – positions in design, tech, marketing and entertainment. They assumed this work would prove fulfilling enough to offset what they sacrificed in terms of time spent on social and creative pursuits.
Yet these digital nomads told us that their jobs were far less interesting and creative than they had been led to expect. Worse, their employers continued to demand that they be “all in" for work – and accept the controlling aspects of office life without providing the development, mentorship or meaningful work they felt they had been promised. As they looked to the future, they saw only more of the same.
Ellie, 33, a former business journalist who is now a freelance writer and entrepreneur, told us: “A lot of people don't have positive role models at work, so then it's sort of like 'Why am I climbing the ladder to try and get this job? This doesn't seem like a good way to spend the next twenty years.'"
By their late 20s to early 30s, digital nomads were actively researching ways to leave their career-track jobs in top-tier global cities.
Looking for a fresh start
Although they left some of the world's most glamorous cities, the digital nomads we studied were not homesteaders working from the wilderness; they needed access to the conveniences of contemporary life in order to be productive. Looking abroad, they quickly learned that places like Bali in Indonesia, and Chiang Mai in Thailand had the necessary infrastructure to support them at a fraction of the cost of their former lives.
With more and more companies now offering employees the choice to work remotely, there's no reason to think digital nomads have to travel to southeast Asia – or even leave the United States – to transform their work lives.
During the pandemic, some people have already migrated away from the nation's most expensive real estate markets to smaller cities and towns to be closer to nature or family. Many of these places still possess vibrant local cultures. As commutes to work disappear from daily life, such moves could leave remote workers with more available income and more free time.
The digital nomads we studied often used savings in time and money to try new things, like exploring side hustles. One recent study even found, somewhat paradoxically, that the sense of empowerment that came from embarking on a side hustle actually improved performance in workers' primary jobs.
The future of work, while not entirely remote, will undoubtedly offer more remote options to many more workers. Although some business leaders are still reluctant to accept their employees' desire to leave the office behind, local governments are embracing the trend, with several U.S. cities and states – along with countries around the world – developing plans to attract remote workers.
This migration, whether domestic or international, has the potential to enrich communities and cultivate more satisfying work lives.
The potential of CRISPR technology is incredible, but the threats are too serious to ignore.
- CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is a revolutionary technology that gives scientists the ability to alter DNA. On the one hand, this tool could mean the elimination of certain diseases. On the other, there are concerns (both ethical and practical) about its misuse and the yet-unknown consequences of such experimentation.
- "The technique could be misused in horrible ways," says counter-terrorism expert Richard A. Clarke. Clarke lists biological weapons as one of the potential threats, "Threats for which we don't have any known antidote." CRISPR co-inventor, biochemist Jennifer Doudna, echos the concern, recounting a nightmare involving the technology, eugenics, and a meeting with Adolf Hitler.
- Should this kind of tool even exist? Do the positives outweigh the potential dangers? How could something like this ever be regulated, and should it be? These questions and more are considered by Doudna, Clarke, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, psychologist Steven Pinker, and physician Siddhartha Mukherjee.
Measuring a person's movements and poses, smart clothes could be used for athletic training, rehabilitation, or health-monitoring.