Sunday, January 24, 2010

Living In The Bell Curve, Part 2

In the last post, I claimed that someone was actively trying to steal your job, and mine as well. I also proposed an abstraction for the concept, which involved human effort being distributed along a bell curve of complexity, ranging from those doing jobs that have already been automated, up to being the ones working to automate new things.

One of the most important points of the Tech Bell is that it's self modifying. Specifically, the work represented by the green area (effort put toward automation) will likely change the shape of the curve itself, as well as altering the distributions of the zones within it. This is especially important because any alteration in the distribution of the graph will affect the green zone itself, either magnifying or dampening the effect of the change over time.

The other key point is that the entire graph shifts horizontally over time, being pulled along to the right (toward higher complexity), again due to the effort represented by the green zone of new automation. So although the change in the shape of the graph may be more gradual -- and I suspect it is -- the specifics of the work represented by each zone from one decade to the next may still be drastically different despite the overall shape being largely unchanged.

The reason for the second statement is, I think, pretty obvious. As more automation is created, jobs that were once in the blue shift into the red, and in at least some cases it will be more cost effective for the person doing that work to switch from human labor to mechanical, or at least mechanical supervised by a human. Then as the automation becomes more and more widespread, prices for the automation technology will fall, and those cases where the human worker stayed employed in the red zone for a time will eventually switch over.

This results in the long tail of the red zone shrinking, jobs falling off from the blue into the front of the red, and new jobs being created in the blue non-automated zone in the from of human supervision and oversight of the new automation process. At the same time, the people working on automation turn their attention to something new, and move that zone forward as well. Everything shifts up in complexity a little bit, but the shape of the curve hasn't changed all that much.

I say not much, but it probably has changed a little bit. The day after a new method for automation is created, nearly every single worker will still be doing the same job, only classified in the red zone rather than blue by an omniscient observer. As the price becomes more reasonable and more jobs are switched over, many of the workers will continue doing the same work, only with the help of automation.

They're monitoring, adjusting, tweaking, and adding the human feedback that automation usually can't cover, especially not cheaply. And one cycle of this change probably doesn't offer enough efficiency improvement to put a majority of humans in a particular job out of work. But repeat the cycle ten or fifteen times in quick succession, and the few who are out of a job due to increases in efficiency in each cycle will add up, until you only need a small fraction of the original human hours to match the same output. (Again, remember that I'm speaking in abstractions here -- most jobs are not all in one zone, but if you have five jobs where a fifth of each turns red and is replaced by automation, you've effectively lost one full red job)

So what happens to the displaced workers who once had a safe blue zone job? At first most will be unaware that their once safe job has turned red. Once they do realize, some will continue for a while, usually the ones who are paid less for reasons of local economics. Some will be able to reinvent their job as a blue job, supervising the automation and putting some other fellow red zone workers into unemployment. Some will move on to a new blue zone job that has nothing to do with their previous work, and some will simply become unemployed.

And that's the real point, I think. Anytime you have an area that's constantly spinning off unemployed workers, you're going to have people trying to avoid it. Usually we think about that concept in terms of failing industries, but I hope I've made a convincing case that it can also be applied to a type of work that extends across almost every industry in the world.

I'm not just talking about avoiding red zone jobs, either. Of course nobody wants to work a job where the day they'll be replaced is only a matter of the cost of machinery coming down a couple dollars. I'm talking about the blue zone jobs as well because, as I said, someone in the green zone is working on making all of us obsolete right now. Maybe that doesn't mean you go out and get a PhD in robotics tomorrow, but most people would probably conclude that if they don't want a green zone job, they should probably try to be more toward the top of the blue zone than the bottom if they want some security.

So that's the forcing function. As the efforts of those in the green zone remove red jobs, and convert blue jobs to red, displaced workers pile up at the front of the blue zone, with some spilling over into the green. The whole curve shifts slowly forward, rolling on into previously unexplored territory, and leaving behind it a set of work that was once the bulk of human labor, and now almost nobody could imagine doing by hand.

It's sort of a poetic idea, looking back at the blackened rubble we've rolled over in the course of progress. All those hours of sweat and backbreaking toil by people who would be lost and confused if they could only glimpse where the sum of their efforts would take us. It's a little less poetic, and a little more frightening, to realize that the movement of the curve is probably accelerating, and that you personally have to find a way to stay in front of it.

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