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posted by martyb on Wednesday April 27 2016, @12:17AM   Printer-friendly
from the operators-used-to-connect-phone-calls dept.

Yoav Hollander has an interesting post at The Foretellix Blog about the rise of mostly-autonomous systems (MOAS), systems which are normally autonomous, but still have “operators standing by” for the infrequent-but-crucial moments when they are needed. According to Hollander, the main reason we will have mostly autonomous systems in the future is that it is much, much, much easier to automate (and verify) 97% of the required behavior than it is to automate 100%. Full autonomy is perhaps possible, but is really hard and some claim completely autonomous systems will never be achieved, percisely because of these rare-but-hard-to-handle cases. Even if it can be achieved eventually, economics and common-sense dictate that we’ll first go through this mostly-autonomous stage.

Some examples of mostly-autonomous systems already in use or development include airline pilots, automated answering services, chatbots, autonomous vehicles, and military robots. For example, Everybody and their brother are now creating chatbots based on machine learning (ML), which help in scheduling, pizza ordering and so on. "In the past two years, companies offering do-anything concierges (Magic, Facebook’s M, GoButler); shopping assistants (Operator, Mezi); and e-mail schedulers (, Clara) have sprung up. The goal for most of these businesses is to require as few humans as possible. People are expensive. They don’t scale. They need health insurance. But for now, the companies are largely powered by people, clicking behind the curtain and making it look like magic."


What are the implications for MOAS on future employment? According to Hollander, there will be new occupations but they will not compensate for all the jobs lost to automation and one of the main new jobs will be “operators of mostly-autonomous systems." As a concrete example, consider the future Assistive-Robots-R-Us corporation (motto: “Making the elderly and the disabled independent again”). They rent their robots for a weekly fee, and their sales guy swears on a stack of bibles that by golly, when an emergency occurs and a remote operator needs to take control, an operator will absolutely be there in A-R-R-U’s headquarters, ready and able to assist. In fact, this is why A-R-R-U is so popular: people trust it, A-R-R-U's MOAS operators will be smart problem solvers: This is probably not going to be a low-paid, simple job – all the simple stuff will be automated away. "The typical MOAS operator will be a smart, interdisciplinary problem solver – she gets all the odd situations, and is measured on customer satisfaction and avoidance of bad outcomes."

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  • (Score: 3, Informative) by Immerman on Wednesday April 27 2016, @03:34PM

    by Immerman (3985) on Wednesday April 27 2016, @03:34PM (#337986)

    What work, exactly?

    We probably all know a janitor somewhere that keeps his job through hard work and dedication, because he simply lacks the potential to do anything much more complicated. Once the robots do 97% of the janitorial tasks, so that you can replace 100 janitors with 97 robots and maybe 5 human janitors to handle the unusual situations(with inefficiencies since they probably won't be on-hand when problems are encountered), do you really think that poor hardworking fellow will be one of the 5 who still has a job? He was earning a living as barely more than a fleshy robot to begin with, and has nothing more to offer when robots can do the same job at half the cost.

    And that same situation is going to percolate up through the skill tiers of society as robots become more versatile and capable. Yeah, a good human hairdresser/accountant/banker/etc can probably do a better job than a robot, but if the robot can do an adequate job 97% of the time for a fraction of the cost, then you're looking at ~95% unemployment for most jobs.

    Theoretically that could allow for a 20-fold increase in productivity instead, but we don't have any use for 20x as much cleaning, fast food, haircuts, etc. Moreover, in practice that poor fellow in the first paragraph was probably already getting help for complicated situations - he's not suitable to be a "problematic sanitation specialist" even if we *wanted* a 20x increase in sanitation. So what, exactly, is he supposed to find work doing?

    For that matter, why should anyone work much at all? When automation was first finding its feet, it was sold as a way to alleviate the drudgery and tedium of everyday life, freeing people for a life of art, leisure, and other higher pursuits. And it could very easily deliver on that promise, *if* the benefit of automated productivity were distributed more equitably. And why shouldn't it? Why shouldn't *all* people live the lifestyle currently reserved for the idle rich? Why should a handful of people person reap most of the rewards of robotic productivity simply because their grandfathers happened to be in the right place at the right time to corner the market on robotic labor?

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  • (Score: 2) by cafebabe on Saturday May 07 2016, @10:46PM

    by cafebabe (894) on Saturday May 07 2016, @10:46PM (#343032) Journal

    why should anyone work much at all?

    If handled equitably, we could all perform a small amount of work which is rewarding and within our ability. We could all have a mythical four hour week which has been discussed since the 1970s. What's the downside? Well, I don't know how we'll get there. Ignoring the capitalist nightmare of a few trillionaires owning all of the means of production, many people have made and continue to make long-term decisions which are contrary to being lightly employed. What are we to do with the people who just signed a 35 year mortgage? Or the people who got themselves into 10 years of student debt? Or the people who have begun to make academic choices in preparation for a specialist career?

    • (Score: 2) by Immerman on Sunday May 08 2016, @12:23AM

      by Immerman (3985) on Sunday May 08 2016, @12:23AM (#343049)

      Why should those people make any less money working a four hour week than the current one? Total national productivity is still potentially the same, or even much higher, provided there is enough wealth in circulation to create a demand for it.

      As you say, the problem is in distributing the resulting wealth equitably enough to create that demand. Plenty of easy ways it could be done, *if* the population has enough collective will to force it.

      • (Score: 2) by cafebabe on Sunday May 08 2016, @01:38AM

        by cafebabe (894) on Sunday May 08 2016, @01:38AM (#343064) Journal

        Why should those people make any less money working a four hour week than the current one?

        We may find it difficult to imagine life where it is the norm to work four hours per week and live comfortably but lets take it as given. In such a world, wealth may increase and freedom of choice may increase. However, where the population continues to increase and many over-consume, resources are finite and dwindling.

        Consider the case of mortgages. Assume that someone with a good credit rating obtained a mortgage and successful transitioned from working 40 hours per week to working four hours per week while continuing to pay the mortgage. Does this mean that someone with worse credit and less valuable skills can work more hours and obtain a property of equal value? No, because we don't have the resources for everyone to live in a McMansion.

        Consider the case of professions such as lawyers, doctors and architects. Ignore the varied motive for pursuing such careers and consider how someone reasonably expects to pay US$100,000 of debt after graduating. Take it as given that someone with such skills can repay such debt in full by working four hours per week. Does this mean that anyone with skills that have 1/10 of that value can accumulate 1/10 of that debt? Will a large proportion of people be as rich as doctors when it becomes possible to work 2x, 3x or 10x as hard as a moderately successful doctor?

        Should we make it illegal to work more than five hours per week? How will that be enforced?

        • (Score: 2) by Immerman on Sunday May 08 2016, @03:30AM

          by Immerman (3985) on Sunday May 08 2016, @03:30AM (#343088)

          Population growth is a complicated thing - but it seems like almost every developed nation is seeing negative growth (neglecting immigration), and that the combination of education, affordable health care, and cheap/free birth control and family planning education is consistently having the same effect in the developing world wherever it becomes available. It may yet prove to be an issue, but I hesitate to borrow problems regarding it from the future.

          As for employment limitations - we already have one such mechanism that works pretty well: overtime rates. Eliminate all the exemptions, and employers tend to discourage excess hours. That wouldn't necessarily stop you from having multiple jobs, but if you really wanted to you could probably get a similar effect with an overtime income tax. I doubt it would be an issue though - the reason we'd need to reduce the work week to four hours is because there's not enough work to go around. Doesn't matter how many people are willing to work 10 jobs, there's not 10x as many jobs available.