What would you do if you had a guaranteed minimum income?

There has been a lot of talk about a Universal Basic Income (UBI) in India recently, thanks to the NYAY proposal in the Congress party’s manifesto.

The Congress party’s proposal wants to fight extreme poverty by giving a minimum income cushion to people who earn less than a certain amount.

However, UBI as a concept is being urgently spoken about in many circles across the developed world for a totally different reason.

It’s not about fighting extreme poverty but about expected large scale job losses from automation. Whether it be of drivers from self driving cars and trucks, or factory workers from assembly line robots or even knowledge workers who are skilled in a specific area (like lawyers or language editors or accountants) from intelligent machines which can do some of the tasks much faster, cheaper and usually better.

Here is an interesting article which presents a socialist case for a Universal Basic Income – 

https://onezero.medium.com/the-socialist-case-for-automating-our-jobs-away-4a12780309d2

Coconut tree climbing robot – where are you?

Vegetable and fruit picking robots are fast making their appearance. And this means that planting and weeding robots are round the corner too.

So are we looking at the emergence of vast greenhouses or indoor farms where planting, harvesting, packing – everything is done by robots. Similar to modern automobile manufacturing plants? And soon, the mobile robots can do this in open fields too?

At this link is a fully mobile vegetable and fruit picking system. https://www.cnbc.com/2019/05/11/root-ai-unveils-its-tomato-picking-robot-virgo.html

Demonstrated for tomatoes and commercially available already. It’s many times more effective than human agricultural labor and works round the clock without tiring and without requiring any supervision.  

It’s easy to say that in countries like India, human labor is cheap and will not be  replaced by such machines. But to such people, I would say two things –

One that these robots will be mass produced sooner or later, will become better every year and the productivity will soon be better than the cheapest unskilled human labor, anywhere in the world. That’s inevitable.

Second is to ask them to talk to any coconut tree owner in Kerala. It is very expensive to find people to climb coconut trees and harvest coconuts. And labor is not easily available either. They would love to hire a robot for one tenth the cost.

E-Commerce box packing jobs set to disappear

Amazon, Flipkart and others employ thousands of people in their warehouses for moving and packing boxes.

This looks like it’s about to change.

Not just Amazon in the US, but also leading e-commerce companies in China like JD.com are now beginning to use robots to do this task, which could not be done by machines so far.

The box packing machines are made by the Italian company CMC srl and are called CartonWrap.

The packing machines are many tens of times superior and faster than humans at this job. Check them out here – https://www.digitaltrends.com/cool-tech/amazon-box-packing-machines/

We can expect them to start making their appearance in the warehouses of the Indian e-commerce industry soon!

Obsolete skills

Reference article – https://medium.com/aeon-magazine/how-much-can-we-afford-to-forget-if-we-train-machines-to-remember-73bc9b21a13c

Technology makes earlier practices, rituals and ways of life redundant.

Technology destroys the past to create a future, which humans embrace as superior.

The tractor makes the bullock and the horse redundant in farming and makes it unnecessary to know how to rear an animal of labor. The automobile similarly made animal driven carts redundant.

Piped cooking gas and electricity in the kitchen makes it redundant to know how to light up and manage a charcoal stove. 

Civilisations have been built and have thrived by forgetting the past and embracing a new technology driven future.

Similarly, in the age of search engines like Google, does it make sense to memorise facts anymore in school textbooks?

In the near future, driving a car will be a useless skill. In an age where self driving vehicles are safer and indeed, humans driving a car on the roads may be banned as unsafe.

What are the skills that our generation has learnt but are now better forgotten? 

The jobs of the future are bypassing developing countries

The new wave of jobs is going to be concentrated in the developed world according to this article in the BBC https://www.bbc.com/news/business-47852589

AI and robots will replace humans in many jobs in the coming decade. However, it will be wrong to think that such jobs will move to the developing world because in the developed world, labor costs are high.

Any new technology revolution destroys jobs, but also creates many new ones.  The same holds true for AI and robotics.

However, it appears that most of the new jobs created by this disruptive revolution, will be in the developed world and not in countries like India.

Earlier eras of wealth creation in the developed world created a large number of jobs in countries like India (software and back office services based on cheap labor)and China (manufacturing based on cheap labor).

However, it is these same services and manufacturing jobs which are threatened by AI and distributed manufacturing technologies. And the new wave of jobs is being created in the developed world with not much trickling down to us.

A brain dead person may not be dead after all!

Reference article – 

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2019/04/pig-brains-partially-revived-what-it-means-for-medicine-death-ethics/

Reviving dead pig brains means only one thing from an ethics standpoint and that concerns the definition of human death.

If a person’s breathing stops, is he dead? We now know he is not and that he can be put on a ventilator.

If a person’s heart stops, is she dead? We know that it is not true because hearts can be revived and hearts can be transplanted as well.

Pig brains have thrown up a conundrum for us.

Artificial life forms

Reference article – https://thenextweb.com/robots/2019/04/19/cornell-scientists-create-living-machines-that-eat-grow-and-evolve

Organically grown, artificial, self reproducing machines are here.

This is still very far away from highly evolved artificial life but has its potential uses.

Highly evolved artificially engineered life is also a reality now but that’s not about creating life from scratch. That’s all about genetically re-engineering an already evolved species.

The old GMO techniques were slow, expensive and error prone.

The new techniques using CRISPR and others like it are precise, inexpensive, quick and quite easy.

I would really like a phosphorescent pet dog that glows bright red in the dark. Just kidding….

Culturing cancer cells on a chip

Reference article – https://medium.com/scientific-american/new-strategies-take-on-the-worst-cancer-glioblastoma-7b3439c8c3f5?

This technology could work not just for glioblastomas. 

Therapies could be tried on various cancers and cellular diseases on a chip to see what works and what does not.

Tissue Culture Diagnostics 2.0, which enables us to culture abnormal human cells in a chip outside of the body and test drugs and other combination therapy on them.

I suspect the biggest leveraged gains from this technology will come from using it for research to identify new, effective therapies.

Of Human Limitations and the Complexity of the Universe

Reference article – https://onezero.medium.com/machine-learning-might-render-the-human-quest-for-knowledge-pointless-5425f8b00a45

We pride ourselves on our understanding of rules and laws and concepts to explain what we see and experience. 

Guess what, we will have no option but to trust machine created algorithms which are practically impossible to explain using the same models. 

This is not in the future but it is already here. For example, with some medical diagnostics and predictive systems. or AlphaGo.

This is a depressing scenario for all of us engineers and “rational” beings. We like to understand and explain how things work. We seek the underlying laws that allow us to do so.

David Weinberger states the obvious when he says “the true complexity of the world far outstrips the laws and models we devise to explain it.”

But then he also makes a powerful case for the learning machines and how they are able to overcome the human limitations that prevent us from deriving meaningful rules out of this complexity.

“Alexa, please tell me if it’s going to rain today.” 

“Yes GK, It will rain at 3:25 PM today for 12 minutes at your location.”

And there will be no way to know how Alexa knows that and no way for Alexa to explain that to us in a meaningful manner.

An explosion of new species is just around the corner

Reference link – https://www.theguardian.com/science/2019/mar/02/nessa-carey-interview-china-gene-editing-big-pharma-100000-genomes-project

The consequences of democratised access to gene editing technology is certainly one of the biggest issues we will grapple with in the next 3 to 4 decades.

Nessa Carey believes that consensus is the only way to manage the risks. I do not agree at all.

There is a reason why consensus works for nuclear weapons but it does not for meth labs.

When everyone has access, it is too complex to deliver consensus or control.

The cat is out of the bag and an explosion of human engineered organisms is around the corner.

I am not sure how this can be avoided. I have not heard of any theories that make sense.

I am also concerned that while there is a lot of talk nowadays about the threats to humans from Artificial General Intelligence, why is there not much talk about the threat from garage engineered plants, microorganisms and possibly even insects, reptiles and mammals.

It takes a lot of money and resources to build complex AI. CRISPR on the other hand, can be used by practically anyone.