Life Update / Robots and Historical Determinism

Before we get started on today’s entry I want to announce that I’ve moved from my previous residence to a temporary place. It has superior internet but it also has rent to pay and other various costs that I’ll now have to deal with. Given this I’ll likely be employed sometime in the next few weeks. This will impact my output for the site, but my hope is that the job will only take those days up that I wouldn’t have done something on the site anyways.

Okay, I think that’s all I really need to say about that.


The next Mozart? …Probably not.

Everyone tries to be hopeful about the future. Even the most cynically blooded among us usually think that there are some spots in life that are a little less bleak than others and this is what makes life living for. Perhaps it’s the simple pleasure of a stroll on a beach or the family dog or doing drugs or whatever it might be.

There’s really no limit to the extent that people will try to remain optimistic about the future. And the expression of this sentiment ranges from, “Tomorrow will be another beautiful day!” to “Tomorrow will be another day?” and everywhere in between. People also have sayings that imply in one way or another that the best is always still to come.

People do this with their own futures and hell even the future of the world.

Take the issue of automation as an example.

Jason Hiner of ZDNet thinks that When robots eliminate jobs, humans will find better things to do.

And that’s a nice thought and one that as an anti-work advocate I appreciate. But I’m not really sure that Hiner gives us much of a reason to believe that he’s correct on this point.

He gives us some historical examples of it happening in the past:

For example, farming used to be one of the largest labor sources in the United States. But, advancements in the way we farm have made it far more efficient and dramatically reduced the number of workers it takes to run farms — from 10 million in 1950 to 3 million by 2010, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. During that same period, the U.S. technology industry was created and by 2014 it employed 6.5 million workers, according to CompTIA.

But what reason do we have to believe that the advancements in technology will continue to occur in exactly the same way as the advancements that happened nearly a century ago? Can the tractor really be compared to the laptop? Can we really compare the ability for farmers to be more efficient to an entire society being able to run more efficiently?

To be clear, I appreciate Hiner’s point here and I think it’s okay as a surface-level reassurance. But once you go even a little bit deeper at his response it seems to rely on a sort of sense that history has a pace that can be easily measured. And I’m just not convinced that history is as predictable or overall comparable as Hiner seems to be implying.

Hiner has a more interesting argument further down though:

It’s the same principle that recessions tend to spawn surges of innovation. Many of today’s leading tech companies — including Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Facebook — were all born during economic downturns. The Panic of 1873 was followed by a surge of new patent filings and the decades that followed gave us the light bulb, the telephone, the phonograph, the electrical grid, and the urban subway system.

Part of these outpourings is due to “necessity being the mother of invention” but part of it is also due to humans giving in to their natural curiosity and creativity when they have extra time on their hands. All of the things that robots and algorithms are good at mostly involve brute force — physical or computational. They don’t involve creativity or nuance, empathy or finesse.

The first part of this isn’t something I was aware of but I’ll take Hiner’s claim for granted given that it seems intuitive enough. But it still doesn’t really seem to compare to the automation of jobs which the computers by themselves weren’t doing. Apple inventing its own line of computers in the 80s didn’t automate jobs just like that, it wasn’t a societal phenomenon at first so much as much as a technological one.

But the automation of jobs covers both of these areas and in broad ways that I am not sure Hiner’s argument covers. The overall tone of arguments like this seems to me like an argument from history or trends. In other words because history has gone in such and such a way before this means that we should consider it plausible it’ll continue to go in that way. But as I’ve said I’m not sure what good reason we have to think that or think that robots can’t do much more.

The second part is a bit more contentious and arguable though in my “Robots Will Take Over, Stupidly, Slowly But Surely”  I quoted Barbara Ehrenreich’s review of Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots which seems relevant here:

Particularly terrifying to me, computer programs can now write clear, publishable articles, and, as Ford reports, Wired magazine quotes an expert’s prediction that within about a decade 90 percent of news articles will be computer-­generated.

And in October of 2015, The Guardian interviewed four individuals on technology and creativity with most of them leaning towards the idea that robots would at some point be able to better perform creative pursuits.

A professor of music and composer named David Cope had this to say:

I’ve been working on writing novels computationally for well over 10 years now and I’m still trying it, although I believe that within the next two to three years I will have broken its back and will produce 100,000-word novels in half an hour or so, novels that I think most people would consider to be creative.

I can do uncreative short stories at this point, ones where the associations are routine and expected; they have occurred in many thousands of previous books. But I believe that in the near future my programs will be able to do creative ones.

This isn’t even mentioning the various robots who can do paintings, music and poetry right now:

Knowing that software can compose music, it should come as no surprise that the written word is a piece of cake for computers as well.

Enter Narrative Science — a company that trains computers to write news stories. Said stories run on publications like Forbes, along with many other Internet giants, covering everything from sports to the latest corporate earnings statements.

Approximately 8.5 percent of the articles on Wikipedia were written by a bot. Lsjbot, created by Sverker Johansson of Sweden, writes 10,000 new articles for the site every day.

Computer-written literature goes far beyond short news content and Wikipedia articles, though. Economist Phil Parker, for example, doesn’t write most of his books. He instead uses complex algorithms that can author an entire book, cover to cover, in just a few minutes. The algorithms essentially mimic the thought process behind formulaic writing, making it very easy and efficient to crank out new books all the time.

Parker’s company, ICON Group International, has auto-written more than a million titles. Most of them are nonfiction books on specific niche topics, but the software can also write poetry.

And as a poet myself?

I gotta say their poetry is pretty good.


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