Sunday, June 07, 2015

[Rant] Robots Quietly Wait

I belong to a facebook group that follows news and events and such for Las Vegas (no surprise) where recently someone started a thread about a minor dust-up in Sin City over the Uber and Lyft ride-sharing services. Traditional cabbies are feeling threatened; their union is preparing for battle against the upstarts. The cabbies response to this is a typically self-destructive protest: some are planning to park their cabs somewhere on The Strip for a couple of hours as a demonstration of...well, I don't know what. It's really just a form of acting out.

Here's the thing about cabbies in LV. They are cool enough individually, often clever conversationalists as they whip you around town. But every single one of them is on the make. They make heavy use of something called long-hauling, especially from the airport. LV is structured so that you can take either the freeway or city streets to get to your hotel. Taking the city streets is shorter distance-wise but because of traffic it takes about the same time as a longer route down the freeway. Naturally cabbies, who are paid by the mile always try to take the freeway. They do this all the time. The occasional tourist will never notice and only be out an extra few dollars (maybe one hand's worth of blackjack), but once you are a veteran visitor it really grates on you. This would easily be solved if the cab authority/city council would implement a zoning system with fixed rates. But I suppose the cab union or some group has wielded enough power to prevent it. Thus the attraction of Uber.

So through their own corruption the cabbies have pissed everyone off, and their response to Uber is to do something so profounding futile and childish that people will hate them even more. They just don't realize life as they have known it is already over. But they'll learn. Or maybe they won't. Maybe they'll just go through life with a victimized-by-the-man chip on their shoulder. Hey, it's easier on your self-esteem than admitting you're on the wrong side and adapting.

But that's not my point here. My comment in the facebook thread was "Long-term winner: Driverless cars." I don't think I need to go into that topic here as I have done it in depth in the past. But it made me think further about the automated world we are barreling toward. In the age of automation what would a trip to Vegas be like? More specifically, at what points will I actually need to interact with a human being?

I certainly don't need to see people at the airport. Exit the plane, take the shuttle to the terminal, pick up my bags, and grab a cab. I already don't have anyone involved. If I have a driverless cab that gets me to the hotel, then no humans needed. What about when I get a rental car? National already lets me just walk to the lot and get my own car. I have to check out with some guy before exiting, but he does nothing that can't be automated.

At the hotel, no reason I couldn't check in and have my room assigned at a kiosk. I rarely need help with my bags, but I have no doubt baggage handling could be automated. Even if I couldn't get direct transport to my room, I bet it could be automated at least to the point of having your bags waiting in a central area on your floor.

Having checked in I might want to hit the casino, where there will be no dealers, all the games will be electronic. Maybe you could even use your phone to play and pay for your chips with Apple pay.

Dining out is an interesting conundrum. Certainly, I would have no problem ordering my food from a touch screen at the table. Food could be delivered via a robot cart of some sort, but I suspect a lot of folks would want an actual person to talk to about suggestions for food and wine and such. That may become a sign of an upscale restaurant -- real, live servers. That is to say, you want to talk to someone, you'll pay for it. But you don't need it. The genius of buffets is just that: minimizing server labor.

Entertainment -- ah here we go. I have no interest in seeing a robot Cirque du Soleil. I already know machines can do things people can't. I want what people can do. And however perfect a robot might mimic Frank Sinatra's voice and phrasing and emotion -- the robot is not feeling it. Mimicry is novelty not art, otherwise Elvis impersonators would be as big as Elvis.

So I got pretty far before we found something people had to do. Now the response to this might be that while I didn't have to interact with any people, there were people behind the scenes that had to come through for things to work smoothly. I only agree with that a little bit. You need people but not that many.

You need systems people to maintain the automation certainly, but that's done wholesale. That is to say, you need mechanic when your car breaks, but not every car needs its own mechanic. So you need driverless cab repair services and perhaps even car routing assistance if things get fouled up, but that doesn't replace the number of cabbies no longer needed. And in that robot restaurant, you need people to resolve problems, address complaints, and offer assistance to the overly confused, but you don't need a server for every five or six tables. You've gone from needing a staff of twenty to cover the floor to a staff of two. Probably something similar going on in the back of the house.

So there are a couple of clues about how to position yourself for a career in the future. Creative work seems relatively safe. Anything that requires abstract thinking is good, too. Being good at dealing with uncertainty in general and when problem solving in particular -- like diagnosing a failure in an electronic poker system -- is going to be good too. But if your job just requires diligence, not wit, you're in trouble. If you can do it by following a checklist, you're toast.

And let's speak bluntly, IQ and creativity, the two human qualities most required for employment in this future world are already considered elitist qualities. And let's be even more blunt, they cannot be learned. Through diligent effort you might be able to increase your IQ a point or two or learn some tricks that can provide something approaching minor inspiration, but for the most part if you aren't born with brains or creativity, you're probably not going to acquire them. There is definitely going to be a class warfare aspect to this.

One thing we have in our favor as we approach this is our unmatched skill for hypocrisy. We can claim sincere beliefs in things while acting oppositely, with a straight face. For instance we might simply make it an honorable thing to be left behind. Instead of neglecting or denigrating folks who can't keep up, allow them the badge of honor of entitled righteousness. We do that to some extent already with virtually every disaffected group and many individuals today. Those who have adapted and overcome the difficulties of the world to find success find it in their interest to tell those who haven't "It's not your fault, we are in the wrong; it's us, not you, but we're trying to fix the situation -- here's a program (protect you industry) or a social norm (perceived authenticity) to prove you are of value" even though they wouldn't change places for anything. The underlying world goes on as it will and those who can't achieve in reality are mollified by the ego massage. The traffic in drugs will be permitted, but controlled, and Don Corleone will give up protection in the East, and there will be the peace.

That sounds dark and negative, but honestly, it's a feature not a bug. The desire to have other people feel of value is real, despite the hypocrisy of it -- partly for moral/religious reasons (they, too, have an immortal soul, no different from yours) and partly because we all know luck plays a role in the world and the folks who have "made it" know they could find themselves on the other side faster than they think.

The alternative to this self-worth management is to force the world to stop -- to say "That's far enough, no more progress, we're happy as we are ever going to be. No robots allowed." There is a naive, egalitarian appeal to that but it hides a greater evil. To stop the world from going the way it wants will require an exercise of authority unseen outside North Korea and brings costs beyond anyone's expectations (see: The War on Drugs). I do not know if the age of automation will bring greater overall happiness to the world, but I know stopping it will make the world much less happy.