The Workforce of The Future Could Be Tiny

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This was once the face of the Robot Apocalypse.

A terrifying unified metal organism crushing humanity under its robotic heel, exterminating the humans who once gave it life and whose robotic perfection could no longer tolerate our imperfect nature. We as humans have grown to fear this meme more than nearly any other; the machine finding humanity’s flaws a reason to remove us from the Earth. Okay, perhaps that was a fictional account of the robot apocalypse designed to play on our fears of the unknown, robots, and the ever-encroaching wave of technology swallowing up our lives.

But the robot apocalypse may look more like this: Robots coming to work, first in our factories and then later in our offices, programmed with capabilities which allow them to displace the less qualified workers engaged in tasks that can be replicated with algorithmic procedures and programming. (That may be more jobs than we are willing to admit.)

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Illustration by Roberto Parada

I predicted the future of work and the economically debilitating effects of robots, automation, and the replacement of the workforce with machines on the populace in previous articles. In Death to the Labor Class, I postulate the consideration that the culture of America and the world at large may need to re-evaluate how we deal with compensation and the nature of work in the future, as machines put laborers out of the workforce in greater and greater numbers.

I tried to remind people that automation has been taking your jobs for years, you simply still had other choices of work to get and still bring home the bacon. Now I am postulating not only will the potential for automation take your job, it will take it higher and higher along the social-economic food chain. Once only blue-color workers were affected, now the potential for algorithms can take any job which can be proceduralized and structured based on databases of stored information.

For example, there are already computerized journalists in use today. See: NYTimes: In case you’re wondering a human wrote this article. A market for such technology will continue to grow as the databases they draw from become more intelligent and sophisticated. Will they replace real journalists? For some types of articles the answer is assuredly, yes.

 See: Death to the Labor Class: http://storify.com/ebonstorm/may-13-2013-monday-s-musing-death-to-the-labor-cla.

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How the Tesla Model S is Made — Behind The Scenes

A sample of how robotics are slowly changing manufacturing from Wired Magazine and the Tesla Automotive company

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The opinion of the masses: So what?

The comments I received primarily indicated those jobs needed to be replaced since robots COULD do them, they should. Mostly this would affect people with less education, blue-color workers and the disdain of the white-color workers was palpable because they thought their jobs would be unaffected by technical automation of any kind.

I mentioned the idea of algorithms or procedural decision-making based on experience. This is how experienced doctors, lawyers and other professionals decide on courses of action. What if you could write a program or algorithm to do the same thing? The program would learn from decisions made in the past and predict what possible outcomes and their potential chances for success. This could mean an entirely new class of workers, including middle managers could find themselves unemployed as intelligent agents make the same decisions they did without preferential treatment, emotional attachments, or favoritism to muddy the economic water.

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Christoper Steiner
Steiner is an engineer, a skier, an author and one of the founders at Aisle50. Before starting Aisle50, he was a senior staff writer at Forbes magazine for seven years. His book “Automate This: How Algorithms Came to Rule Our World”, chronicles the march of algorithms from the very first hack of Wall Street to their current role as disruptors of the creative class in fields as varied as music, writing, law and medicine.

© Chris Steiner

Engineer Christopher Steiner has an interview in the European Magazine discussing the idea that white-color jobs that are low in innovation are indeed next on the list of people made unemployed by technology. And there are a lot more jobs at stake than in the manufacturing industry.

Here is a telling quotation from the article. It is definitely worth your time to read. The effects are worldwide and potentially socially catastrophic:

The European: We tend to think about unskilled labor as the most precarious form of labor – machines could easily do it. Yet one of the arguments you make is that algorithms threaten many mid-level, white collar jobs…

Steiner: Being an expert in a field, having worked for fifteen years in that field, usually means that you have accumulated enough expertise, seen enough cases, read enough studies, dealt with enough clients, that you develop your own pattern recognition system within your brain. In medicine, experienced doctors are valuable because they have seen and treated many patients and diseases. Experienced lawyers know very well what information they need to pursue litigation, where to find that information, and so forth. But algorithms are very well suited for pattern recognition, much more than humans. If you can feed algorithms with data about a patient’s symptoms or about a legal case, I can’t see how that would not take away many of our jobs.”

http://www.theeuropean-magazine.com/christoper-steiner/7226-algorithms-and-the-future-of-work

Science Fiction and Social Awareness

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Can science fiction function as a means of creating social awareness around technology and its future developments?

In advance of my interview on #SCIFICHAT on Friday, April 12, 2013, I thought I would write a quick article about my interests in science fiction, fantasy and how I use my love of the genre to promote and pursue ideas around science, scientific achievement, technology, social development under the guise of science fiction (and occasionally fantasy). I happen to agree with Ray Bradbury and believe a little fantasy hiding underneath one’s science fiction never hurt anyone.

I am a writer of all kinds of genre fiction including hard science fiction, social fiction, space opera, fantasy, urban fantasy, sword and sorcery, epic fantasy, and a bit of pulp and horror when no one is looking. I grew up reading the required classics from Asimov to Zelazney: Dune, Foundation, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, The Chronicles of Amber, The Eternal Champion Sagas, Xenogenesis, Lord of Light and The Hyperion Cantos.

My guilty pleasures included the hard science styling of Ben Bova and Larry Niven, the wild space romps of Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat, Steve Perry’s The Man Who Never Missed and Jack L. Chalker’s space operas, The Well of Souls Saga and the Four Lords of the Diamond series and so many others…

The failures and the cowardice of modern science fiction

Though I missed the conversation a few years ago on the internet which talked about the failings of science fiction in recent years, I could completely relate to the idea that science fiction wasn’t taking the risks it once did. Its protagonists were mostly white, mostly male and moving further away from being accessible to the readers. Some of those failings included:

  • social/racial inequalities in the writing the marginalizing other social groups.
  • the rewarding of primarily white men as the best writers of the genre and as the main protagonists
  • A failure to acknowledge writers from minority groups who may have different views of the future
  • a failure of the genre to address near-future issues due to potential scientific complexity
  • science fiction becoming more like fantasy or westerns in space
  • losing the exploration of scientific ideas 
  • the increasing marginalization of the genre due to lackluster efforts of writers to explore more risky ideas
  • the increasingly doom-centric orientation of the genre and the preponderance of dystopian fiction
  • the lack of ideas of working toward a positive future
  • The lack of scientific interest in the potential audience which reduces the potential quality of stories

As a long time reader of the genre, I am aware of how science fiction has been used to address a variety of social ills. Many such works exist. A quick sampling include:

  • The Left Hand of Darkness – deals with a world where gender is almost non-existent except for periods of reproduction. Considered a work of feminist fiction, it addresses a world where many of our planet’s polar extremes of behavior simply don’t exist.
  • The Handmaid’s Tale – a tale where the rights of women are completely removed when a neo-Christian movement takes over the government and uses religion to brutally subjugate women.
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four – a world of perpetual warfare, psychological manipulation, mind control and the creation of a surveillance society.
  • Brave New World – promotes a society which at first glance resembles a utopia, where want has been eliminated along with a segment of free will. Population is regulated, children born in artificial wombs, a caste society is instituted with regimented behavior, drug use and recreational sex being the norm of the society.

While I don’t as yet consider myself in such august company, I have tried to use science fiction to address a variety of social ills and challenges facing humanity today in my collection of short stories called Hayward’s Reach:

  • Genetically Modified Organisms –  in my story of the same name, I posit the idea of our constant experimentation with GMOs without a real understanding of how such interactions might affect each other over time. Reinforcing of genetic traits could lead to an alteration of human consciousness.
  • Suicide Seed – In a similar vein, I posit the idea of transgenetic mutation of plants by corporate entities using transform viruses. These viruses while originally designed to affect plants cross over into human populations, potentially rendering the human race sterile in the same fashion as large agro-corporations want to do to control seed development and food production.
  • The Great White Spot – a story in which I posit an Earth whose runaway greenhouse effect cause by global warming creates a storm similar to the Great Red Spot on the surface of Jupiter. A storm of immense size, ferocity and because of the inability to cool off, eventually erases all life on Earth.
  • Pax Cyridian – a tale where genetic engineering of insect-like lifeforms results in new forms of life able to work and live with humanity in relative peace. Instead of an industrial age, the people of Cyridia use organic life to perform the work of machines until a military leader decides to create new lifeforms adapted for war and conquest.
  • Paper – a world where the internet has become infected with self-replicating virus programs, information held in books is now more important than ever. A young man in Mexico finds a cache of old magazines and has been selling them to bidders anonymously. His brother’s selfish greed puts them both at risk when he reveals the cache of reading materials and tries to sell them to a criminal enterprise.
  • Hub City Blues – in one of my largest projects I am experimenting with creating a positive near-future world where humanity is trying to put off the future of impending global warming by creating a variety of new world arcologies. These super-cities use the most advance sciences known to man in an effort to create a new way of life utilizing a variety of alternative energies. Much of the technology used in Hub City is based from technology being created daily such as programmable matter, diverse solar and wind technologies, new underground building and waste management technologies.
  • The Last Divide – I am not above using a variety of different memes to address ideas around our modern world such as the proliferation of social media and its complete invasion of all levels of our society. This piece plays with the idea of social media after death; who maintains our social profiles, could we pre-program our responses after our passing? Could programs be written to approximate our social media habits and continue them, extending our social media existence?

I have to admit I was a bit embarrassed to be writing stories such as these because they are so far removed from much of the science fiction I see being written today.I’m not disparaging such science fiction because it is both popular and from a writer’s perspective quite profitable. I keep hearing the litany of the writers everywhere: Readers don’t want challenge, they want escapism. So if you make them work too hard, they will put your book down. I just don’t happen to agree with it. Eventually, I believe they will want more. So I write and wait.

Can we as science fiction writers make any changes in our society through our work?

Once upon a time science fiction propelled engineers and scientists to create ideas and technologies which are only now becoming a reality.  Look at our cell phones, submarines, computer monitors, space craft, and wireless technologies, many of these started in the minds of early writers of the genre fiction. For a time, successful science fiction television inspired an entire generation of scientists, astronauts and engineers. We see far less of that today, with science fiction instead promoting a fear of technology or a return to superstition rather than embracing scientific curiosity.

Can science fiction tell potential stories about the human condition and potentially guide policies toward the effective use of science in society?

Some of our science fiction has lent itself to predicting trends in human behavior such as Nineteen Eighty-Four prediction of a surveillance state, similar to the one we find ourselves approaching in 2014. There does not seem to be quite as much of that kind of writing today. I believe part of the reason is the breakneck pace of scientific advancement. It is hard to write a novel about a piece of technology or a technological idea because by the time you finish the novel the idea has been superseded by a more advanced piece of technology in two years it took for you to finish your tale. I think it is a risk few writers are willing to risk their careers on.

After reading Should Science Fiction Die, and other such screeds on the failure of science fiction writers to innovate, to solve problems, take risks, ask questions, challenge the status quo and include complex themes within their body of work, I feel much less like I am on the wrong track and instead just working on a different kind of story-telling.

I’m done being embarrassed about asking questions or trying to find answers with my science fiction. I’m quoting one of my favorite space westerns, Firefly’s Captain Malcolm Reynolds: “So no more runnin’. I aim to misbehave.”

Other related articles: 

Science Fiction Goes McDonald’s: Less Taste, More Gristle; Huffington Post, 2013, 

Should Scifi Die?: In the plane of the ecliptic, 2009, 

Racism and Science Fiction; The New York Review of Science Fiction, Samuel R. Delany

Where is the World in the World Fantasy Awards?: World SF Blog, 2009, Lavie Tidhar

Superficial Darkness and Luminous Ink: World SF Blog, 2013, Athena Andreadisoriginally posted at Starship Reckless

Stranger and Happier: A Positive Science Fiction Platform; Strange and Happy, Jason Stoddard

What is Human Wave Science Fiction?: According to Hoyt, Sarah A. Hoyt

Barbarian Confessions; Asimov’s Science Fiction, Thought Experiments, 2006, Kristine Kathyrn Rusch

Mundane Science Fiction; founded by Geoff Ryman

Megastructures: Artwork by Steve Burg © 2012-2013

ScreenHunter_314 Mar. 28 14.56

E-waste Explosion Continues…

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Having talked about E-waste in past articles on Open Salon (Forget About Saving the Earth… and on the Good Men Project in Gadgets: A Perfect Storm of Wrong) this recent info-graphic embodies more up to date information from the EPA reinforcing the idea we are not handling the development of technology in a responsible manner for the simplest of reasons: No one is being held economically culpable for the development of new devices without concern for the disposal of the old technology.

What should happen from the development of any portable technology is a disposal fee built right into the cost of the device. The provider pays a part and the customer pays a part. When it’s time to dispose of the tech it is sent to a facility to maximize its safe disposal rather than shipping it overseas and allowing the lowest paid labor to handle the disposal in the most toxic method possible, usually by burning it, releasing long-lived and deadly dioxins into the atmosphere.

Remember, this info-graphic only discusses e-waste produced in the United States. As other countries ramp up their production, these numbers will continue to skyrocket. The only thing we know about e-waste for sure is eventually it will be coming to a landfill or garbage disposal facility near you. You won’t have a choice unless we start handling this problem today.

Prescient Inspiration: Play once a day or as necessary…

Charlie Chaplin’s Speech at the end of The Great Dictator (1940)

“I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an Emperor, that’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone if possible, Jew, gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one another, human beings are like that. We all want to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone and the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone.

The way of life can be free and beautiful. But we have lost the way.

Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate; has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed.

We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in;
machinery that gives abundance has left us in want.
Our knowledge has made us cynical,
our cleverness hard and unkind.
We think too much and feel too little.
More than machinery we need humanity,
more than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness.

Without these qualities life will be violent and all will be lost.

The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men, cries out for universal brotherhood for the unity of us all. Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world, millions of despairing men, women and little children, victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people. To those who can hear me I say: do not despair.

The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed, the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass and dictators will die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people and so long as men die liberty will never perish.

Soldiers: don’t give yourselves to brutes, men who despise you and enslave you, who regiment your lives, tell you what to do, what to think and what to feel, who drill you, diet you, treat you as cattle, as cannon fodder!

Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men,
machine men, with machine minds and machine hearts.
You are not machines!
You are not cattle!
You are men!!
You have the love of humanity in your hearts.
You don’t hate, only the unloved hate.
The unloved and the unnatural.
Soldiers: don’t fight for slavery, fight for liberty!

In the seventeenth chapter of Saint Luke it is written:
- “The kingdom of God is within man.”
Not one man, nor a group of men, but in all men: in you!

You the people have the power, the power to create machines, the power to create happiness. You the people have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure.

Then, in the name of democracy, let us use that power, let us all unite!
Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give you the future and old age and security.
By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power, but they lie. They do not fulfil their promise, they never will. Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people.

Now let us fight to fulfill that promise. Let us fight to free the world, to do away with national barriers, to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance. Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness.

Soldiers! In the name of democracy: let us all UNITE!”

I have, until I heard this, never knew anything or heard anything which espoused my personal belief in human potential, in human virtue, in the strength of what is good in humanity in such a clear and focused way. I keep thoughts like these to myself because I fear most people would think I am too optimistic about people, that I don’t recognize what terrible things humans are capable of. I tend to think differently in that regard. I think of what we could do if we harness our energies for good, the same way we harness them for greed or fame or dominance over our fellow man. I will live this way even if no one but me can believe it is possible to harness the good in men. I think of movies today and find them mostly banal, filled with little to stir men’s hearts, but this, this is an anthem worth remembering.

The Overblown Death of the PC (part 2)

Stop Predicting the Death of the PC.

“The PC Market is collapsing.” –Business Insider

“Mobile devices like smartphones and tablets have taken the world by storm. Apple launched theiPhone six years ago. Three years later came the iPad. Google sold its first Android phone in 2008, five years ago. Is the PC dead yet?” –Yahoo Finance with the Business Insider

In Part One of The Overblown Death of the PC we talked about the reasons people believed the personal computer to be on its way out. I disagreed with almost all of them.

But that conversation on LinkedIn continued and the overall message shifted to virtualization, thin clients, and the much ballyhooed “Bring Your Own Device” or BYOD premise of bringing whatever you prefer and just connecting it to the company network.

Bring Your Own Device is not a silver bullet. BYOD is just one of a new strain of network security concerns which continue to abound in our modern age. Malware and other denial of service attacks continue to increase and are working on more sensitive integrated systems every day. As the technology for smarter devices continues to develop and as fast as new apps are being developed, malware is just as quickly propagating across this new interconnected and completely open environment.

What I hear far too little of is an understanding of the new technological ecosystem being developed. In addition to the growing iOS and Android playgrounds where few if any environmental monitoring is being done, almost no malware protections are being enacted and neither security processes, nor human awareness have kept pace with the potential for hackers to invade the privacy of billions of potential devices which lie unprotected for the most part.

Adding to this tech-soup of potential vulnerability are the complexities of virtual computing and remote desktop environments, as well as thin client systems are all becoming dependent on cloud computing technology, wide area networks and client-managed environments. Few are discussing the increasing complexity of these environments where hardware is centralized but use is distributed through a multitude of virtual environments without concern for operational capacity, network stability, and Internet connectivity.

We are seeing more outages of the Internet daily, so much so, there are applications which monitor traffic to let you know which services are currently available:http://www.isitdownrightnow.com/ . Though this tool is primarily for popular web services, Amazon has a version which is also accessible through the internet:http://status.aws.amazon.com/ . Each tool like these is predicated on the idea that no system of computer operation is infallible and the more interconnected we become the more likely we will find the opportunity to see first hand:

For Want of a Nail
For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a nail.

The death of the desktop computer is built around the idea we have managed to supersede what the tool has given us.

  • That we have managed to secure our environments, to create infrastructure which will support wireless technologies, metropolitan area networks, and the inevitable planetary-area networks we are designing.
  • That we are able to effectively isolate and route around failed areas of the largest network which connects us all, the internet. The jury is out.
  • That we have greater control of our soon-to-be completely necessary planetary network in such a way, hacking vulnerabilities are a thing of the past, every system which is put on that network is aware of how to deal with potential threats, without human intervention and will do so in a fashion so humans can simply be informed without having to worry about restorations of a failed environment, first.
  • That scrupulous use of said planetary network ensures no one will be using it to unlawfully monitor its users, manipulate the users or their data, socially engineer user behavior for profit, perform acts of vandalism or terrorism, using said network as part of a control system and structure for acts of military warfare or sabotage.

So, is the desktop dead? Is that even the right question?

Perhaps the question should be: Is the desktop computer being killed by corporations who want to manipulate users into a cycle of:

  • Regular planned obsolescence – creating underpowered devices which need constant upgrade to deal with software bloat, development issues and a constant need for upgrades.
  • Consumerism – the technology is really being structured around pushing products, dependence and reliance on said devices (extending the reign of television advertising in the new medium).
  • Development Control: by getting rid of users ability to create information this creates a more passive audience waiting for new “products” and “fees” for receiving them. 
  • Health issues: The long-term effect of using said devices in terms of user health (eyestrain, inattention, psychological distress) and destroying the environment to feed the engine of gadget production.

Is the death of the PC being artificially hastened to sell portable digital technology, even when financial, economic, social, and technological safeguards for that technology are not currently in place? Oh yes, I would say so, just from watching the industry and its lust for profit.

The PC is not dead. But we are sealing it up alive in the coffin for profit’s sake. Think of how much money can be made while new interfaces are being developed. Think of all the planned obsolescence inherently built into each device, replacing it after only 6-12 months. Imagine all of that technological churn being done, the billions spent on advertising new versions of old devices with only minuscule differences making corporations like Apple some of the most profitable agencies on Earth. Think of the ever-expanding app industry estimated to grow to $25 billion dollars in 2013 and continuing to grow. There is so much money to be made by Apple, Samsung, Nokia, Motorola, and other device manufacturers I can’t see them NOT promoting the device/gadget over desktops. The potential profitability is absolutely astounding. Charge as much for a handheld device as you do for a laptop with 1/10 the functionality, but call it mobile. “Make a gadget cool, and the sheep will follow.”

If the PC is dying, I suspect someone is killing it; for a profit. And it’s not the butler.

See Also: Gadgets: A Perfect Storm of Wrong – Where I discuss the environmental issues around the constant proliferation of gadget/device technology.

Perspectives on Cybersecurity

As the head of United States Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM) and the National Security Agency/Central Security Service, General Keith Alexander is at the front lines of many aspects of American national security. While online life has improved many aspects of public life, it has also opened up a entirely new realm of possibilities for those wishing to do the US harm.