Humans Need Not Apply

Earlier this year I attended a half day meeting entitled The End of Jobs as We Know Them? Technology, Society, and the Future of Work, which was hosted by the Open Society Foundation’s Future of Work Project.  While it was exciting to hear from innovative leaders in of  Alt-Labor movement (Saket Soni and Sarita Gupta are at the top of the list), I was really there to hear from Carl Frey the author of The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerizationan academic paper from Oxford University, speak.

First they come for the burgers, then.....

The paper predicts that 47% of U.S. jobs are at risk of being automated in the next 20 years. This figure has taken off in the media, Frey’s paper has been cited countless times by economics reporters and publications (here, here, here, etc). In my own informal monitoring of this type of news Frey’s research is the primary source that reporters reference when writing about automation.

Finally there is video that takes Frey’s paper (and even the new book The Second Machine Ageand makes it easily digestible (and terrifying). If you work for a living I recommend you check it out, and get ready for the Robot Apocalypse.

A choice quote –

“These jobs are over. The usual argument is that the unions will prevent it. But, history is filled with workers who fought technology that would replace them and the workers always lose. “


Racism, Chairs, and the Silver Set – This week in the #RoboApoc

This semi-weekly feature scours the internets for news of the Robot Apocalypse (#RoboApoc). I rate each item on a scale of 1 to Skynet

These kids are using tech to create a better world.
These kids are using tech to create a better world.

1. There’s an app for that. A family of Georgia teens created Five-O, an app that allows people to rate their interactions with the police. The people who conceptualized and designed the app – Caleb, Ima, and Ahsa Christian – range in age from 14 to 18.

#RoboApoc Rating – 1. Given the recent killing of Mike Brown by Ferguson, MO. police officer Darren Wilson, this app is super timely. Any app that makes it easier to hold people in power accountable is great. And the fact that this app was designed by teenagers means we may have a new generation of tech savvy freedom fighters on our side, the robots haven’t won yet. 

2. Wearable chairs? A Zurich based start up called noonee has developed the chairless chair. Basically you strap a couple of exoskeleton legs on, and when you drop into sitting position it they will take you weight. This ridiculous CNN article, which actually dives into the health concerns of sitting all day, proclaims you can even run with the wearable chair strapped to your legs. 

#RoboApoc Rating – 1. The promotion video above explains how the wearable chair is good for employees (keeps them injury free) and employers (keeps workers injury free and efficient), the only problem is they show a factory worker on an assembly line. Ha. Humans don’t work on assembly lines (in the US), robots do.


friendly robots

4. Human friendly. The 7th International Workshop on Human Friendly Robotics is happening in Pisa, Italy in October.  I learned about the workshop when I was researching CYBERLegs (more about cybernetic legs in a forthcoming posts). Apparently the workshop will address, “The technological shift from classical industrial robots, which are safely kept away from humans in cages, to robots, which are used in close collaboration with humans.”

#RoboApoc Rating – SKYNET! If there is a workshop to intentionally talk about  Human Friendly Robotics there must a be a fairly large trend of Not Friendly Human Robotics, and by looking at the webpage for this workshop, the friendly side could use some help.

5. The Silver Set. In an article for Harpers Magazine this month, journalist Jessica Bruder writes about the growing trend of seniors who take to the highways in RV’s and campers in search of seasonal work. In an interview with Alternet Bruder mentions CamperForce, an program that specifically recruits “work campers” for seasonal work in the company. Beyond the insanity of making seniors give up their homes and roam the country in search of work, there is the added old news that (two years ago) bought Kiva Systems Inc., a integrated warehouse management system that includes robots that follow stickers on the floor bringing products to pickers and packers.

#RoboApoc Rating – 8. The semi-robotization of what was previously considered unrobotizable (because of the human spacial relations skill that robots can’t replicate) is frightening enough. Combine this technological advancement with pushing vulnerable seniors back into the workforce and you have what many are predicting is the future of work in this country – temporary, contingent, precarious, seasonal. What is most troubling about this is that as technology rapidly evolves and companies keep up; workers, the organizations that traditionally protect workers, policy, and culture are not moving quickly enough. The robots are already here, and they are making our jobs easier and less.




Can virtual reality save young Black people from a deadly reality? Palmer Luckey hopes so.

Residents of Ferguson, MO., who have been protesting the killing of teenager Mike Brown by a police officer Darren Wilson for almost two weeks, have a new and unlikely ally: Palmer Luckey.*

Ferguson, Mo. residents protesting the police shooting of unarmed Mike Brown. - courtesy of NBC News
Ferguson, Mo. residents protesting the police shooting of unarmed Mike Brown. – courtesy of NBC News

The 21 year-old inventor of the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset is offering to outfit the Ferguson police department with special versions of the crowd funded device. White police officers can wear the headsets as they go about their policing business, but instead of seeing the people around them as they are, they will see and hear old white people.

According to a statement released by Oculus Rift, which was bought by Facebook in March for $2 billion,  making white police officers see elderly white people, “is intended to intercede on what many blame for the ongoing killing of young Black men by the police in the United States: implicit and explicit racial bias.”

Palmer Luckey, the creator of the Oculus Rift virtual reality gaming headset, at his workshop in Irvine, Calif.- courtesy of the Dallas Morning News.
Palmer Luckey, the creator of the Oculus Rift virtual reality gaming headset, at his workshop in Irvine, Calif.- courtesy of the Dallas Morning News.

The statement continued, “According to recent research in race perceptions and bias, elderly white people trigger the least amount of bias in younger white police officers– the intended users of the headsets. By removing the trigger of bias and the accompanied perceived threat, the headset creates a situation where police officers can respond to actual circumstances, such as assessing whether a suspect is actually carrying a weapon and/or behaving in a threatening manor.”

Continue reading “Can virtual reality save young Black people from a deadly reality? Palmer Luckey hopes so.”

The right question?

“As more data becomes available and as the economy [world] continues to change, the ability to ask the right questions will become even more vital.”

– Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew MacAfee, The Second Machine Age


The data black hole will take you to galaxies of possibility.

Those in the business of winning elections have been using all sorts of data (consumer being a big one – what does your magazine subscriptions say about your political leanings?) to build voter models. Combine these models with polling information and you can develop a blueprint for winning messages.  Of course this all happens in the limited field and timeframe of elections where the question is clear: How do we win this election?

Continue reading “The right question?”

Programs as Agents – Repost from Samir Chopra

Today I got involved in a Facebook debate about Google scanning people’s email and tipping of the authorities when they found questionable images of a child. My grandfather would often give me the sage advice, “Never get into internet debates about pedophiles.” He really was a wise man. And I am a fool.

I think Google is super smart, and not just because they actually know everything about me or because they are figuring out how to live forever. Google is smart because they gave us a moral reason to support them scanning our emails. In fact by taking on sex offenders they gave us a reason to demand them to scan our emails.


Here is what I wrote in my Facebook debate (sorry Grandpa):

“Of course protecting children from sexual predators should be a top priority for all of us. And we should therefore all take action to stop it, root out the causes of it and take responsibility for stopping it. And Google has now convinced you that scanning all of your email and doing god knows what with the information they gather is all worthwhile because they helped catch a predator.

While it is uncomfortable to question Google’s actions because those actions are so commendable in this case, it is important to do so. I have real questions about what they do with the data and how they use it for their own purposes. As the article I cited above [here] asks, how would we feel if Facebook started swaying elections through its algorithms? How come we aren’t as upset at the fact that Google dominates how you experience the expanded world of information? What impact does that have on world view? On actions you would take? It isn’t only about surveillance it is about control and freedom and what we are willing to trade in relation to each.”

This debate happened on the awesome Samir Chopra’s feed. And to show how awesome he is I am re-blogging a post he published back in June about programs (and algorithms) as agents and people.

Samir Chopra

Last week, The Nation published my essay “Programs are People, Too“. In it, I argued for treating smart programs as the legal agents of those that deploy them, a legal change I suggest would be more protective of our privacy rights.

Among some of the responses I received was one from a friend, JW, who wrote:

[You write: But automation somehow deludes some people—besides Internet users, many state and federal judges—into imagining our privacy has not been violated. We are vaguely aware something is wrong, but are not quite sure what.]
I think we are aware that something is wrong and that it is less wrong.  We already have an area of the law where we deal with this, namely, dog sniffs.  We think dog sniffs are less injurious than people rifling through our luggage, indeed, the law refers to those sniffs are “sui generis.”  And I…

View original post 1,154 more words

Online organizing is a myth

Early online actions relied on the ability of organizations like MoveOn to jam up the means of communications for politicians and their offices. They did this by  flooding email inboxes with countless emails. This was the online equivalent of locking yourself to the office door; slowing down and stopping the actual function of bureaucracy. It was digital direct action utilizing political power.

direct action gets the goods

This strategy made sense for the times, it was late enough in email’s development as a common means of communications that people in government and corporations were using Blackberries to stay connected to their inboxes, and it was early enough in email that no one was ready for what it would mean to receive thousands of emails all at once. It was a time when center/left activists were leveraging technology faster than corporations and electeds.

Continue reading “Online organizing is a myth”

Robot #Fail? – This week in the #RoboApoc

This is a semi-weekly feature that scours the internets for news of the Robot Apocalypse (#RoboApoc). I rate each item on a scale of 1 to Skynet


Hold still, you might feel a pinch.
Hold still, you might feel a pinch.

1. Robot #Fail?  This week everyone in the world reported that robot based bladder surgery isn’t better than human based surgery, it is the same. The #RoboApoc naysayers  are shouting from their mountain tops “See? We were right. No #RoboApoc here.” Really though? To me it seems the predictions around how robots in this particular arena would perform in relation to humans were wrong, but the forward march of the #RoboApoc is clear. Robots performing on par with humans is an advance for robots, these types of advances will continue. Also if robots perform better at particular tasks and cost less than workers who do the same tasks, then guess who wins.

#RoboApoc rating – 6 Robots- 0, Humans – 0.

3d printing + human muscle = biobot
3d printing + human muscle = biobot

Continue reading “Robot #Fail? – This week in the #RoboApoc”