Friday, June 11, 2010

The Tragedy of the Commons and The Last Consumer

As I warned you in the last post, I'm still a little off piste and at the edge of scope thinking about the economic context universities will operate in as the century wears on. Bear with me, I'll stop soon!

My eldest daughter, previously mentioned, wishes to be a Mermaid Musketeer when she grows up. "Wouldn't it be nicer to be a Vet" I think, but I don't say it. I remember how many of today's jobs were (and remain) inconceivable to my father's generation. Maybe Mermaid Musketeers will be in high demand in the 2020's. What do I know.

The conventional narrative of technological development has been that with successive leap forward some gadget or other removes another piece of drudgery from the Toils of Mankind. The newly unemployed riot a little, and then find more fulfilling careers as Advertising Executives, Psychoanalysts and Personal Trainers. Since the plough and irrigation gave us the first agricultural surpluses and allowed priestly and bureaucratic castes to emerge, it's been one of the key narratives of history. Thus, we assert, it will always be so, just as the autumn turkey is confident of a good winters food and a fine spring to come. It ain't necessarily so.

Come with me, if you will, to the supermarket. Tesco, Sainsburys, Walmart, wherever. They in a key place in our world, bringing stuff we need from the four corners of the world into one convenient place, beyond the dreams of any dead King. All strive, rightly, to do so as cheaply and efficiently as possible, cutting costs where they can so they can remain profitable, and competitive on price with the other supermarket down the road. Nothing wrong with that.

A year or two ago, the automated tills were a novelty. People were reluctant to use them, but they have become accepted. It seems slower than the human till, but for a small basket on a busy day, great. I'm sure it means that the supermarket can cut the number of staff at peak times, with one staffer monitoring six or eight autotills. Of course, now that RFIDs are dropping in price, pretty soon we'll just have our trolleys autoscanned on the way out, we can swipe our payment card to exit and be off in moments. Much faster, and it'll be a no brainer compared to waiting in a queue. They can cut most of the till staff. It looks like a horrible job, good riddance.

Meanwhile, back in the storeroom, we'll start seeing more and more machines helping out. It's a lot cheaper to run storerooms with robots. Companies like are starting to put in place systems that are faster and cheaper to run. Stacking lemons is a bit more complex. It's taken a long time for robots to be able to do that kind of work, but if a robot can fold towels, how far away can a commercial shelf stacker be? A long long time ago, when I was doing my PhD, I paid part of my way stacking shelves for Coca Cola. Great workout No brainpower required.

So as the century wears on, smart supermarket operators will put in those systems. Driven by sales data from the till systems, warehouse robots will load and unload the trucks (no more tricky health and safety issues in the warehouse - no humans allowed) and specialist packer robots will keep the shelves stocked, working mainly at night to minimise human interaction. You could, conceivably, have a complete supermarket shop without dealing with or seeing one human. A nice Augmented Reality system with voice recognition can show you where the cheese is, no shuffling about looking for staff.

There will probably still be a couple of staff though. So many laws assume a shop will have a shopkeeper, it will be hard to avoid having a bored looking manager or greeter around. Technicians may come and go to fix the odd thing, but in time a good R2 unit could replace them. The trucks will still legally require drivers, but as time goes on they will be more closely monitored by expert systems and central controls so they have little or no autonomy. Industry will lobby for UAV trucks to be allowed between, say, three and six am. The accident figures will make their case compelling, eventually.

Of course, in the meantime, most of your food supply will just arrive, a shopping list mediated between the expert systems in your supermarket, your fridge and pantry, the health assist system your health insurer mandates (no more ice cream!(, with a final approving nod from your bank that the delivery fits within the budget you approved. The milk just appears in the fridge, unpacked by your housebot. No more late night runs to the cornershop for milk. Indeed, no more cornershop,as the few that survived the death of the newspaper close up.

In this future, who actually works in the supermarket? We have a few drivers and perhaps a half dozen staff per megastore so there is enough to cover 24/7 opening, annual leave and so on with always one person instore. We would imagine teeming head office, but as AI's and expert systems improve, we need less and less there. Tasks are hived off to expert systems or outsourced to some up and coming service provider where brains are cheap. Productivity per worker, as measured, becomes immense. There just aren't that many workers anymore.

The supermarket story sounds trivial as presented, but you can, with a little imagination, infer a similar story in many industries. A large proportion of our jobs are semi skilled, and do not really demand much brainpower. All the unskilled and semiskilled people who, even in the first world, make the service sector hum are going to be in trouble.

Now, your local supermarket is still making money. It's still paying people, just much less, more highly skilled people, and of course larger dividends to the owners. Who, exactly, is shopping in this supermarket, and with what? All those unemployed people? Henry Ford is alleged to have paid his workers over the odds, as he felt anyone working for him should be able to afford the cars they are making. What's happening here is a parody of that. With each reduction in workforce, there are less and less consumers who can actually afford to buy very much. It's like the Tragedy of the Commons. In this classic economic fable, it pays each farmer to graze the commons as heavily as possible, even though, in the long run, it will destroy the grazing and ruin them all. Increasing automation to increase productivity and cuts costs is a sensible, responsible decision for any business. Each time it happens, it reduces the pool of gainfully employed consumers until there are none left. So whose left with money to shop? Only a handful of highly paid core staff, and the shareholders, mainly pension plans for people who'll never be able to afford to retire.

Historically, of course, the displaced labour has migrated to newer and more interesting professions, but as the machines get smarter and smarter, the pool of professions that only humans can do gets smaller and smaller. I've already blogged about Emily Howell, the virtual composer and other examples of Artificial intelligences tackling problems long thought to be human only. It's also worth noting the set of problems faced by a business are not all best solved by a brain designed for staying alive on the savannah. Intelligences not as smart as us, but different, might do just fine. Think of chess as an example. Or sorting post, or telephone switchboard operators. The machines may even do better, since they lack some of the human brains many, many cognitive bugs. They don't have to be as smart as us, they just have to be smart enough. And besides, who says we're that smart?

Science Fiction writers readily paint pictures of utopian post scarcity societies, where humans live in abundance. Roddenberry's Federation is the classic example, or more recently Iain M. Banks' Culture Novels. The question unanswered is how do we get there from here. The technological path is clear, tractable, and generally plausible. There is however no guarantee that our economic model will be able to adapt to it. Changing economic models is a somewhat risky operation.

Human history has, of late, been an extraordinary positive narrative. While the History Channel drones on about the great wars of the 20th century, we as a humans live in unprecedented numbers and affluence. Famine, poverty and war, once the global norm, as seen as failures, problems to be contained and solved, not accepted. Much of this prosperity comes from technological change. But there is no guarantee that this will continue. It's conceivable that our economic model, structured around rationing and scarcity, might bring us to some kind of dead end. Increasingly homogeneous government models, where each country operates in much the same way following agreed international norms, limits the capacity for different countries to respond in different ways and for new approaches to evolve.

I'm not advocating a stop on technological development. That is impossible, and unwise. We still need to move fast forward to bring the levels of comfort we have largely reached in the first world to all, and solve some of the problems we've created along the way. But we need to be agile and pragmatic about how our societies are organised, and start keeping a good close eye on numbers like the Gini coefficient, so that things don't get ugly. We need to be open for other ways of doing business, and mindful of how we can keep our economic models flexible and adaptable. I'm not preaching anarchism or socialism. I suspect the exact 'ism we will need hasn't been quite invented yet.

As for what it means for Universities, it's hard to tell. In the long run (and I'm thinking a century out here, at least), I think there will be big shift away from professional/ vocational training we see a lot of now, where the focus is often on getting a job at the other end. In a world where there is no job at the other end, or at least, nothing you or I would think of as a job (is blogging a real job?) what people will do in Universities might look a lot more like recreational activity to us today.

That seems like a big leap, but look at our world through the eyes of an early graduate of Bologna or Oxford. Our Universities might look pretty easy to them. No memorisation, no hand copying books. And the jobs out the other end? I don't know how many hours a scribe to Emperor Barbarossa worked, but I suspect they worked harder and longer than a 21st century middle management white collar type.

We're a little further along the road than we might think.

1 comment:

  1. By way of a footnote, my local supermarket now has almost exactly the model described above. It's a minimart format, with automatic tills and one staffer who covers security and helps out customers having trouble with the autotills.