Jackson MeadThursday,7 March 2013

The Snap:

This is the second of three parts of a conversation with Marshall Brain. The first part can be found here. In this part, we continue with themes written about in his new book Manna: Two Visions of Humanity’s Future.

Among other things, Marshall is known for being the founder of “How Stuff Works.”

Editor’s note: Please also see Part 1 and Part 3 of Jackson Mead’s conversation with Marshall Brain.

The Download:

JM: To date there have been four successfully operational Mars rovers, the latest of which is Curiosity. The cost of Curiosity is about $2.5 billion to date, but still cheaper than sending a human (estimates from $30 – $450 billion) to Mars and back. Do you think that robots are, today, taking away the most sophisticated jobs – and doing these jobs more cheaply and efficiently than humans? Aren’t they putting humans out of sophisticated work as well as menial work?

MB: Robots will eventually take over all jobs. At this exact moment, robots lack the vision systems, natural language skills and mental flexibility to take over jobs in retail (like Walmart), restaurants, construction sites, transportation, factories, etc. But the day will come when general purpose robotics take all of those jobs away.

At the other end, software will be able to displace much of the work done by doctors, lawyers, pilots, researchers, teachers, authors, journalists, etc. Watson on Jeopardy demonstrated the early progress in that area – and while it took a room full of computers to create Watson, that power now fits into a desktop machine. Jobs will disappear at both ends of the spectrum.

The legal profession is being especially hard hit today, as described here. The cost of college tuition is something else that is rising when it should be falling. And lawyers are being replaced by automation and outsourcing – everything from LegalZoom to software that does basic research once done by a human.

JM: Self driving cars are coming and that same technology will put truckers (2 million) out of work eventually if an improved rail network does not do so beforehand. Considering that we have monorails and inner city “trains” that have no conductor or motorman, won’t the trains’ operators be replaced by robots as well, resulting in the obsolescence of both of these occupations?

MB: It is easy to imagine truck drivers, cab drivers and perhaps even Fedex/UPS drivers being out of work sooner rather than later. In two years or so, we will start seeing cars that take over control from the driver if a crash is imminent. Not long after that, we will see cars that drive themselves on highways, then in stop and go traffic. From there the jump to full automation will be easy.

Trucks will be able to drive themselves 24×7 with much lowered accident risk. Are a million unemployed truck drivers going to become lawyers? Electrical engineers? Software developers on iOS? The simple fact is that the economy is not going to create a million new jobs to absorb a million unemployed truck drivers.

JM: What is the driving force behind replacement of both menial and sophisticated jobs with automata?

MB: If you run a super-Walmart, you have hundreds of employees you are managing. They are doing menial stuff – stocking shelves, mopping floors, cashiering, etc. But these employees are troublesome. They want health benefits, vacation, pay raises; they get sick, they show up drunk, they are rude to customers, their cars break down on the way to work, they get pregnant. If you can replace the human work force with a 24×7 robotic workforce that has no complaints, no problems, no wages and gets better every year through upgrades, which direction are you likely to go? That will be true in every retail store, every restaurant, every construction site, every factory, etc.

On the sophisticated side, let’s take doctors. Something like 50,000 people die in the U.S. every year through medical mistakes. It takes years of training to become a doctor, so doctors are expensive and in short supply. Doctors do not want to work nights or weekends. If a piece of software can do much of what general practitioners are doing at a significantly lower cost and with fewer mistakes, then that’s a big incentive to replace doctors with software.

JM: Why aren’t we replacing menial jobs with more sophisticated ones – computer and mechanical technicians to take care of the robots or scientists and engineers to do the programing and design?

MB: There is a great example you can see happening at the FAA right now. For decades, the FAA has been selling paper aeronautical charts to pilots. They use huge printing presses and lots of skilled employees to do it, then ship the maps all over the country to stores which sell them. Four years ago the first iPads appeared, and several companies popped up to sell the charts to pilots in digital form. These companies are tiny. One or two people in many cases. Pilots love the apps these companies create, so pilots quickly abandoned paper charts. The market for paper charts collapses.

Think how many “good jobs” are lost in that collapse. All of the people in the printing plant who operate the presses, drive the forklifts, trim and box up the charts, etc. are gone. And it ripples down. They don’t need the presses anymore, or ink, or paper, or forklifts, or boxes, or labels. The press manufacturer no longer needs to buy motors, ball bearings, steel or the machinery to bend it. The factories that make those products all scale back. The trucking companies that moved those products around scale back. The salespeople, office staff, etc. scale back. All the stores that used to sell the charts – their customers disappear.

This one piece of new technology potentially affects the jobs and lives on hundreds or thousands of people in just a couple of years. That process has been happening all through the economy as the web replaces newspapers, magazines, books, newsletters, billing, snail mail, travel agents, ticket clerks, etc., etc. There are 150,000 gas stations in the U.S. that used to employ people to pump gas. Automated pumps now handle almost all of that. ATMs replace thousands of tellers. And so on.

Automation is destroying old jobs (which were often “good jobs” in terms of pay and benefits) faster than new jobs are being created, and the new jobs offer lower pay and fewer benefits. And that process is accelerating. So no matter how quickly people retrain, there are fewer and fewer jobs to go around. If you lose your factory job, retrain to become a call center employee, that job gets off-shored, you retrain to become a what? It is extremely uncomfortable if you are in that situation. The job of last resort is something in retail, like Walmart, or food service. When Walmart and the rest of the retail sector start replacing millions of workers with intelligent robots, then what?

JM: There have been a couple of stories circulating about VGo being used as an avatar for sick kids. What’s stopping us from doing this, now, on more than just a case by case basis?

We might be able to do that, but humans do get something out of being in the same room with other humans. Yahoo’s new CEO just mandated the end to telecommuting at Yahoo – she wants all the employees in the same building together. Our brains evolved over a very long time period to be able to process facial expressions, body language, intonation with our eyes. Much of that is lost with an avatar or a phone call.

JM: In the future imagined in “Manna”, you mention that people don’t like to exercise, even though we used to bike a lot, so people would shut down and let “something” else do the work for keeping them fit. What are your thoughts on what Lance Armstrong did since “something” other than he was responsible for his abilities?

MB: I might not be the best person to ask about sports, because I don’t really understand sports. Why would someone want to watch other people ride bicycles, or drive cars in circles, or throw balls into hoops, or give each other concussions, or shoot balls into little cups with clubs? Why does anyone care that a guy can pedal a bike fast, or that he increased his red cell count so he could do it a little faster?

I like to ride my bicycle, either alone or with friends. If someone wants to boost his red cell count so he can ride faster than me, what do I care? That’s one way to look at it.

The other way to look at it is that human beings create systems, and then create rules within those systems to try to make things safe and fair for everyone. Once any system exists (whether it is a system for bike racing, financial transactions or food processing) there are cheaters who try to get around the rules (Lance Armstrong, many bankers, and horse meat vendors being examples).

Cheaters have been around as long as human beings have been around. We try to catch cheaters and remove them for the sake of everyone else in the system. It would be great if we could get better at this cheater-removal process – Lance Armstrong apparently cheated for years. Bankers brought down the world economy without any consequences. Etc.

But the concentration of wealth makes cheating easier.

Hat Tips:

Marshall Brain, Part I, Manna: Two Visions of Humanity’s Future, Bye-bye Lawyers, Image Credit: FlickrPart 1Part 3

Take Action!


  1. […] all of the human preferences and differences. For example, I don’t understand sports (see part II of interview). Many other people cannot live without sports. Humans can have strong differences […]

Subscribe to get updates delivered to your inbox