On Automation

I’ve seen discussion on automation come up, usually in discussions about raising minimum wage for fast food workers. It goes something like this:

“Well, if they raise the minimum wage, then the person will just get replaced with a kiosk.”

A thought which shows a lack of vision in what I see as the actual problem.

I was reading about robots in fast food restaurants, and the comment, which was a few years ago, was that the machines that could assemble your food were going for $40,000 a piece.

Ok, math time. Let’s assume a restaurant is open from 5 AM to 11 PM, which is 18 hours. Open every day of the year. So, 365 days, 18 hours per day, $7.25 per hour minimum wage is: $47,700.

Meaning that we, humans, are already more expensive than that machine. It would take less than a year to pay off.

But that isn’t the real problem. The problem isn’t “they will replace low paid workers with robots” the problem is “they will replace us all.”

When I talk about automation, here is what I mean. The guy who owns the fast food company will hit a button.

“Siri, we need three new stores in Ohio.”

“Yes sir,” Siri replies.

Siri (or whatever the digital assistant is at this time) then searches the areas for where there is land for sale, and cross checks that with any historical trends they have. Finds three plots that will be suitable.

She then tells the A.I. lawyers to draw up the purchasing paperwork. Once the land is purchased, those same A.I. lawyers then submit the planning and zoning paperwork.

The A.I. architects tailor the current designs for the spots, and send the build list back to Siri who purchases all of the necessary raw materials.

Those materials are shipped via driverless truck to location, where robotic construction crews are already waiting. Those crews work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week until the store is finished.

Then driverless trucks deliver the internal robots: they make the food, they clean the store, the load and unload shipments.

From there, the store opens, driverless trucks deliver the food, robots process orders and make the food. Hell if you want, their own driverless cars and drones can deliver the food to whoever ordered it.

Oh, and all those robots? Built by robots. We already do that now.

Not a human needed.

The impact alone, economically, of driverless trucks will be immense. Truck driving is one of the last areas where a high school graduate can sustain a middle class life.

Think your job is safe? I doubt it.

Here is another one. You decide you want to watch a movie.

“Siri, I’d like a space western type movie, light comedy, anime style, no make that photo-realistic.”

“Alright, I will let you know when it is ready.”

From there, an A.I. writes the movie script, animates it, renders the movie, and sends it too you.

“I included the novelization for your as well.” Siri proudly says.

When we talk automation, we are talking about taking the human worker out of the equation at nearly every level. Doctors, lawyers, pilots, drivers, builders, even artists, all replaced.

What do we do when there isn’t enough work for everyone? When we can’t afford to buy goods made by human hands because we aren’t paid well enough to support each other?

So when we talk automation, the problem isn’t the kiosk, it never was. The problem is what do we hold valuable–humanity or profits?

Through a Water Drop

20 May 2007

Ten years ago I woke up one morning with distortion in my vision. It looked like a drop of water on a camera lens that hung out in the lower left hand side of my right eye’s vision.

By lunch it had not gone away, and so I set out to my doctor’s office. They looked inside, they took pictures, and we even looked at the two sets to compare–all looked fine.

“But if it gets worse, come back.”

It got worse. The area grew, and the middle began to grow brown. On Friday, I went in again for another look. This time the doc called over immediately to the retina specialists nearby.

“Did you eat lunch?” he asked, looking at his watch, phone reciever on his shoulder.

“Uh, yea, about 11?”

The retina doctor explained my retina was detaching, and I would need surgery. Had I not had lunch, it would have been right then, but they need longer between food and the anesthesia.

So instead, I got to sleep with it one more night. I was scared. My vision has never been good; I’ve needed glasses since I was five. (probably longer…)

The next morning we went in. Mom drove, since I would not be able to myself, for a few reasons, when it was all done.

I sat on the bed, waiting on what would be my first real surgery. The nurse came in, and seeing the TV commented the remote was nearby, and I could change it.

“He changed it TO this,” my mother offers.

It was Pokemon.

The nurse took my blood pressure, and asked if I knew why I was in there today. It seems it was a fairly normal level.

At that point it was either going to work, or it wasn’t. I was in good hands, but nothing was assured. At this point I was simply along for the ride.

And ride I did. First down to the prep room. They put me on a bed, connected me up to all the nodes and tubes. We made some jokes, and they started the meds.

What seemed a few minutes later to me, I was awoken. The right eye was just blackness and numbness. The left eye was covered over by something, so I couldn’t see anything.

You see, you can’t sleep through eye surgery. If you go into REM, bad things happen. I slept through prep, but it would be up and awake the rest of the time.

I’m laying there, listening to the doc talk as they get things ready.

“I could totally move if I wanted to,” I think.

And to prove this to myself, I wiggle my fingers on my left hand.

“HA! Totally,” I think. “Eh, but I don’t really WANT to move.”

And I didn’t. I didn’t want to do ANYTHING but lie there. (pretty sure I wiggled my toes later as well, again for science.)

They start. I never looked into the details of how this all goes down, but I have an overview. With lasers they are gonna tack weld my retina back on, put things back into place, and in the end put a small nitrogen bubble in my eye as a temporary bandage.

I know there was a needle involved because in the midst of that blackness I saw the tip, which at that point looked like a pointed cylindar the size of a barrel.

At one point I hear the doc ask for the laser.

“Is it on a shark?” I ask.

A few moments later he asks what I said, in that ‘are you ok?’ doctor tone.

“Nevermind,” I say. Thinking that making jokes with the guy about to lase my eye may not be the best choice.

All of which happened under a lot of drugs.

They finish up, I get knocked out again for the de-rigging, come to in bed with a nurse talking to me.

Now starts the fun part. Remember that bubble? The nitrogen in my eye? Well, it is a bandage of sorts, intended to help keep things in place. Which means it has to stay in the back of my eye…

For a week.

This is where that starts. I’ve got bandages covering the right side of my face, so all I have a this point is blackness still. The left eye is open, and sees, well, as much as I can see without glasses.

“Keep your head down,” the nurse says.

As we are walking to the wheelchair, she made a comment about her appearance.

“That’s ok,” I say, “I can’t see anything right now.”

“In that case,” she says, “I look like Pamala Anderson.”

She wheeled me down the hall, and we kept chatting. We were joined by another nurse who had paperwork and meds to hand off to my mother.

“And she looks like Christy Brinkley,” the first nurse comments.

Which is how I introduce them to my mom when we get to her. She told me she knew it was me they were bringing out because she could hear people laughing.

And, as we do after important life events, we picked up a milkshake on the way home.

Now for the fun part. Remember that bubble? Remember, I gotta keep it at the back of my eye, so face down, for a week. I spent MOST of that week lying face down with support holding my head in the right place.

My face was swolen, so even after the bandages came off there was still darkness.

It would be nearly three days before I got it open enough that through the blur of my bad vision, and the blur of post surgury, I could see my hand.

The bubble left me near the end of the week, but a new feature had arrive. There was a curved discontinity in my vision from where the detachment had been. Like a crack in a phone screen. Everything was there on both sides, they just didn’t meet up quite right.

As with most of our scars, the brain compensated, and after a while, everything lined up again.

My eye works. In some ways it is clearer than before, as all the stuff that was floating around in there is gone. But in other ways not. The brain kicked things over to the left eye for data, which had the good effect of improving my prescription on that side.

In these ten years I fell in love, had heartbreak. I went to wine country in California. I started playing the violin. I played two seasons of rugby. I wrote. I started a publishing company. I went to Ireland and Poland and Canada. Friends got married, and I stood by their sides. I saw the sunset in Key West. I danced at a wedding in upper New York, twice. I was in a car crash, car totalled. I crashed a Vegas wedding. I climbed rock clifts in Colorado. I read so many books.

I met a girl, fell in love again, but this time it took.

And I saw it all.

A Poem for A President, 2009

The day President Obama was inaugurated, I listened to part of the inauguration as I was driving. A poem came to mind, nearly fully formed.

I rushed to my destination to get it written, and after a quick editorial pass, it was done. It is playful and light, and celebrates the moment for what it was–a moment. And even now, eight years later, I think it one of the better ones I have written post college.

I have shown this poem to practically no one.

I suspect it is silly of me to wish to divorce a poem of this topic from the politics, to have to stand as I believe it to be, rather than have it burdened by the weight of the divide that politics create.

I suspect that is silly–but I am silly.

So it sits, restless, I imagine, on my hard drive. It has been read aloud, recorded even, but always in solitude.

In the end, I fear, the angry, ugly side of the response to something political is simply not worth the chance.

Which is unfortunate.

The only real regret at this moment is that I didn’t make any attempt to send it to him while he was in office. I know the chance he’d see it is very small, but I’d like to think he’d appreciate it.