Wednesday, January 7, 2015

"Driverless" Where are we going?

By Eric Fortune

"Driverless" 20 x 15" acrylic on watercolor paper

I am interested in art as a means of living a life; not as a means of making a living."
~Robert Henri

This is my favorite quote about art.  I hope it becomes more apparent why by the end of this post.

Recently I’ve had the honor of having some paintings featured at the SCOPE Art Fair in Miami.  I’ve done a ton of articles and videos on technique and how I go about making an image.  Today, I’d like to talk about the content and inspiration behind this piece.

What does a world with driverless, automated cars look like?  How could it potentially change our cultural values and our economy?

Does it make sense that most cars spend 90% of their time in parking lots?  Cars aren’t cheap and it’s kind of a shame they’re not being utilized more.  What if cars didn’t spend 90% of their time in parking lots?  What if they spent 90% of their time driving around, picking up and dropping off people continuously?  With automated, driverless cars this makes lots of sense.  However, what does this mean for car sales and ownership?  If you can basically get access to a car whenever you need it, would you still want to own your own car?  Would these fleets of automated cars be like a publicly owned transport system?  Would you miss paying insurance, gas, oil changes, and other forms of continuous maintenance, and waste time looking for parking spots for a car that you use only 10% of the time?  Most importantly, what does not owning a really expensive car and sharing automated vehicles instead say about your penis size? 

“You’ll never own a car again.  I have two two and a half year old boys.  They’re not going to drive when they turn 18.  They’re going to have an autonomous car driving them around.  Every single car company has announced autonomous cars in their future.” 
~Peter Diamandis, founder and chairman of the X Prize Foundation, Singularity University and the co-author of the New York Times bestseller "Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think".

So I guess us guys will have to find another way to overcompensate for our penises.  Just for the record I think minivans are pretty amazing. 

But would a fleet of autonomous cars really be as efficient or convenient as owning your own personal car?

"Yeah, if you could take me to the chopper pronto that would be great.  Mmm k, thanks."

“You may remember Larry Burns the number two at General Motors, for many years the Vice President of New Car Development. He’s now at the University of Michigan.  He did an amazing study. Ann Arbor is a pretty big sized city and he found that even today with the rudimentary Internet of Things platform: communication, energy, logistics internet, in Ann Arbor you could get the same convenience and mobility moving from ownership to access using 80% fewer vehicles right now.”
~Jeremy Rifkinpresident of the Foundation on Economic Trends and author of the recent book “Zero Marginal Cost Society” (fascinating book, highly recommend)

Everyone take a second to imagine what your city might be like with 80% fewer cars.  What are some of the implications here?

Let's be honest.  Somewhere deep down inside, you would miss this.

Less traffic, less pollution, less car related incidents and injuries, and less transport jobs etc.  Excellent, so when is this all happening?  Fifteen, maybe twenty years?  In October of 2014 Elon Musk, the CEO and chief product architect of Tesla Motors stated that self-driving technology will outpace the skill of human drivers in five to six years”.  However, he warned that it would take regulators another two to three years to approve the autonomous cars for use in public.  This is a glimpse at how driverless, automated cars specifically might affect society in the near term.  Let’s expand our scope to include other forms of automated technologies.

In Jan of 2013 I wrote a post titled Art and The Singularity” discussing how the exponential advancement of computing power and automated technologies appear to be having some profound affects on our lives, the amount of available jobs, and how our economy operates.  Before moving on here’s a quote from MIT researcher Andrew McAfee worth revisiting,

"It's in the second half of the chessboard that that constant doubling yields numbers so big that our intuition falls apart, that prior experience falls apart. 

So when we were writing our book, we did just a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation. The U.S. started tracking computers as an investment category in 1958, and the standard period for doubling of computer power is 18 months. You do a little bit of math, and that quick estimate tells you that we entered the second half of the chessboard in about 2006 with computers, which helps me understand why we've got Google cars and Siri and Watson and all these robots coming at us just in the past few years. If this analogy holds up at all, the only real conclusion is we ain't seen nothing yet."

Andrew McAfee, author of "Race Against the Machine" on NPR

2006, that was 8 years ago, and 2015 is right around the corner.  It’s been almost two years since I wrote that last post, so what’s happened since then?  Well, earlier in 2014 researchers at Oxford came out with a Report stating that

“According to our estimates around 47 percent of total US employment is in the high risk category. We refer to these as jobs at risk – i.e. jobs we expect could be automated relatively soon, perhaps over the next decade or two.” 

To help give a little context to this 47% number, during TheGreat Depression unemployment was about 25% Ouch. That sucks.  Of course, we live in a system of global interacting economies.  How would another Great Depression in America affect the other economies around the world?  And this could happen within the next decade or two?  Impossible right?  Sounds a little hyperbolic and ridiculous perhaps?  Well, not long after another study came out echoing the Oxford Report finding that

“Fifty-four percent of jobs in the 28-member European Union are at risk of advances in computerization, according to a study by economist Jeremy Bowles published by Bruegel, a Brussels-based research organization.”

Something here that I think is worth noting, the 47% and 54% of jobs potentially lost to automation are very important numbers, in fact, a bit mind boggling.  But what I’m more curious about is this 25% unemployment during the Great Depression.  When might we potentially hit that number?  Would we see a mirror of what happened during the Great Depression?  In my mind by the time we hit half of the population being unemployed we’ve already arrived at the Thunderdome.  Not in the parking lot and walking to the Thunderdome, more like inside of the Thunderdome and hanging from a body harness.  You won’t even need those tiny binoculars.  I know what you’re thinking at this point, you’re gonna bring your tiny binoculars just in case, cause seriously, you don’t want to miss out.  I’m right there with ya, tiny binoculars, check.

Factoid.  "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome" was Richard Amsel's last film poster illustration. Click the hyperlink for an excellent reproduction of this piece online.

So the question we should all be asking ourselves is “WHEN DO WE START SMASHING ALL THE MACHINES!?!”.  And why would we smash all of the machines?  In order to save many of the jobs that we all love so dearly of course, jobs that pay fair wages, jobs that don’t stress us to death, jobs that leave us with plenty of time to nurture our families and interpersonal relationships, or heaven forbid work on some personal art projects that have been on the back burner for years. 

Don’t worry all you digital artists we’ll save the art software for you.  But surely we can’t have people running around without forcing them into some form of labor right?  So if we’re not going to smash all the technology (sad face) what are some of our options?

In my previous post, Art and The Singularity, I didn’t really go into possible solutions for this conundrum as much as I was describing the problem of technological unemployment and exponential growth in an economic system based on work for income.  Though, I had brought up the notion that society could choose to have a reduced work week, perhaps a 30 hour work week.  As a reminder, a 30 hour work week almost passed in 1933.

"Much to the surprise of the country, The Senate passed the Black Bill on April 6, 1933, by a vote of 53 to 30, mandating a 30-hour week for businesses engaged in interstate and foreign commerce. ...Roosevelt later "voiced regret that he did not get behind the Black-Connery 30 Hour Week Bill and push it through Congress." 
~from "The End of Work" by Jeremy Rifkin

But one must surely see the trend here.  Once upon a time 16 hour days, 6 days a week was the norm.  Eventually, over time and through lots of civil unrest and people sacrificing their lives, workers won a 14 hour work day.  

"What a relief!  Those 16 hour days were busting my yet to drop balls.  I can finally relax with a nice 14 hour day of work.  Ahhh, being a 5 year old is awesome."

Then eventually workers fought for the 12 hour day, the 10 hour day, and now the 8 hour day/40 hour week.  Of course, most freelance artists I know still work long hours as well as the weekends.  The question I’m asking is if technology improves to the point that just to have something near full employment, a mandatory 30 hour work week has to be implemented, what will stop technology from improving further still and forcing us to a 20 hour work week?  Surely, it won’t stay at 20 hours for all of eternity.  So when does a 15 hour work week kick in right?  Once again, it’s starting to feel like we’re in looney land. Noted economist John Maynard Keynes predicted in his essay “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren” written in 1930, that due to such technical efficiency and abundance, we eventually would have so much leisure time that one of our biggest problems would be occupying our free time to keep us from going crazy.

”Three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week may put off the problem for a great while. For three hours a day is quite enough to satisfy the old Adam in most of us!”
~John Maynard Keynes

In "The Jetsons" George Jetson actually worked a three hour day and for three
days a week.  Should we be taking notes?  Where did we go wrong?

More and more modern day economists seem to be admitting that Keynes was most likely right in his prediction but was off by some years.   It’s more a matter of when it will happen than if it will happen.  Here’s what some other people who study this are saying:

"If one machine can cut necessary human labor by half, why make half of the workforce redundant, rather than employing the same number for half the time? Why not take advantage of automation to reduce the average working week from 40 hours to 30, and then to 20, and then to ten, with each diminishing block of labor time counting as a full time job? This would be possible if the gains from automation were not mostly seized by the rich and powerful, but were distributed fairly instead.

Rather than try to repel the advance of the machine, which is all the Luddites could imagine, we should prepare for a future of more leisure, which automation makes possible.  But to do that we first need a revolution in social thinking."
~Lord Skidelsky, Emeritus Professor of Political Economy at the University of Warwick
(seriously though, I’m sure we can find something to smash)

Another quote from Marshall Brain
“..we should redesign the way the economy works so that we all get the benefits of all this automation.
So, how might you do that?
-Spread the benefit of productivity increases to everyone. 
-Break the concentration of wealth
-Increase pay for everybody
-Reduce the work week, you would say ‘hey, this 40 hour work week, we’ve had it forever. Let’s make it 35, then 30, then 20 til we’re all on perpetual vacation’.” 

~MarshallBrain, formerly taught in the computer science department at NCSU, and founder of How Stuff Works speaking at Singularity Summit.

Perpetual vacation?!  That sounds...horrible ish.  Must...smash...robots...

So besides reducing work hours to spread around the remaining yet to be automated work load what other options are there?  Here’s what some are saying (I know, I’m a quote whore but it’s really much less impressive if someone were to say “Hey, Eric Fortune said this thing.”  If this ever happens you have my permission to smack this person.  But get their consent first and have a safe word.  Always have a safe word.)

"I think that we do need to seriously think, particularly as productivity increases, technological change provides us with great benefits but requires fewer and fewer people to actually do the work.  The robots are going to be doing more and more.  We've got to seriously think about how we widen the circle of prosperity, how we get shared prosperity.  Otherwise, who's going to be the customer?  And a Minimal Guarantee with regard to income, it seems to me, it's almost inevitable in terms of the direction that the structural changes of our economy are taking us in."
~Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor and star of the new documentary "Inequality for All"

"The very conventional solution that we're always offered which was give people more training, give them more education so they can do a higher level job, that simply may not work because those jobs are also quite likely to be automated. So I think we need to do something different and what I have proposed is that eventually we're going to have to move toward a Guaranteed Income where everybody is guaranteed at least some livable income in our society."
~Martin Ford, author of "Lights in the Tunnel" 

"We advocate a Universal Basic Income, received by all citizens on an unconditional basis: that is, detached from the labor market. This offers a choice between work and leisure. To offer such a choice is both a fruit of an affluent society and a solution to the problem of technological unemployment."
~Lord Robert Skidelsky, Emeritus Professor of Political Economy at the University of Warwick 

Recently award winning writer Cory Doctorow invited some of his favorite creators and thinkers to write about their philosophy on the arts and the internet.  Artist Molly Crabapple was one of these people and she wrote a “Molly Crabapples 15 rules for creative success in the Internet age”  What did she put as number 1 on her list?

The Universal Basic Income is also known by a variety of other names ie: Unconditional Basic Income, Minimum Income Guarantee, Citizen’s Income etc.  A UBI(Unconditional Basic Income) is basically an unconditional guarantee that every person would get a sufficient amount of money to meet their basic needs regardless of  whether or not that person has a job and any money made from employment would be in addition to the basic income.

The UBI has an diverse history.  It was advocated as far back as Thomas Paine, one of the Founding Fathers, and has also been advocated by people on both sides of the political aisle like President Nixon, Milton Friedman and Martin Luther King Jr.  On one hand it reduces large, complicated government bureaucracies on the other hand it potentially abolishes poverty and the ever persistent unemployment problem (I would like to point out that smashing technology could be a job that could potentially employ many people, thus alleviating the unemployment problem.  The more machines we smash the more jobs we create, for example, carrying buckets of water from the river for the family.  I majored in Illustration but have a minor in tech smash, I can send any interested parties my resume).  To some an Unconditional Basic Income may sound a bit utopian and would probably never work in real life.  Has it actually ever been implemented?  It has, it was experimented within several cities in the U.S. as well as Canada in the 1970’s.  It’s also currently being experimented on in pilot projects in places around the world such as NamibiaBrazil, and India to gain more data and obviously help those in need.  Many of you may not realize it but Alaska has a type of Basic Income called The Alaska Permanent Fund that was actually referenced in The Simpsons Movie.

One of the first questions that arises when the idea of giving people an Unconditional Basic Income is brought up is “Well, won’t everyone just be lazy and not want to do shit?”  As I mentioned earlier a UBI has already been experimented with and pilot projects are currently being done as well, so what does the research show us?

“I used to be one of those people before I did the research for this book, I thought if you gave people a Guaranteed Income that they would spend it foolishly, they wouldn’t work, but then I went through, I looked at a whole bunch of studies that have been done and the evidence is overwhelming that that’s just not true.  When people are given a Guaranteed Income the costs decrease on health care, the drop in crime, and most shockingly the increase in productivity.  When people are given a Guaranteed Income they actually increase their wealth creation.”

There is no evidence whatsoever that a basic income would reduce work and labour. The evidence is strong that it would do the reverse. But it would encourage a shift to reproductive work (caring, community work, ecologically enriching work, etc) rather than resource-depleting and ecologically destructive labour.
We have plenty of selfishness. We need more mechanisms to encourage empathy and social solidarity…
My intuition is that we should start by proposing a social dividend or basic income that is below what would provide a comfortable living and then build from that, as people come to realise that 99% (or whatever) of people would not be satisfied by a basic income. They want to better themselves and improve the lives of their children. But what we have found in the pilots, and what psychologists I cite in the book have found, is that people with basic security work more and work more productively. It is nonsense that providing basic security would lead to laziness.”

On this point I happen to agree with Molly Crabapple not to mention what the research is showing us.  It seems like a UBI would go a long way in assisting  independent artists with time to work on their craft and to establish themselves, or at the very least, we could do away with the “starving artist” cliché, and perhaps more importantly do away with people starving in general. 

I'm often asked why I choose to paint traditionally when my photoshop skills are off the chain.
I don't have an answer for this question.

A recent Swiss documentary titled "Grundeinkommen - ein Kulturipuls"(Basic Income: A Cultural Impulse) was released as part of an informational campaign for a UBI in Switzerland.  In the fall of 2013 enough votes for a UBI were gathered to trigger a referendum that would allow the citizens to vote on a UBI in the coming years.  The proposal is for every Swiss citizen to get 30,000 francs (about $33,000 usd).  If passed it would become part of the Swiss Constitution and every citizen would get this money just for being alive.

There’s something I found rather interesting about this annual amount of income that has to do with the level of happiness in correlation to the amount of money one makes.“I put this in the context of the Easterlin Paradox, for the audience, The Easterlin Paradox is, it was noted that between 1974 and 2004 U.S. average income doubled but our average level of happiness did not.  There have been various different studies and I thought ‘the Swiss picked $33,000’ and as you know, cause you’ve written about it, there’s what’s called the “Bliss Point”, somewhere between $30-33,000 is the optimum amount.  If you go below that, if you’re less than that, your happiness increases in about direct proportion to about $30-33,000 and above that your happiness still increases but not so fast and the satiation point is $70,000, above that it doesn’t matter, it’s just not worth having that money.“
~Paul Saffo, Technology Forecaster based in Silicon Valley.  Consulting Professor in the School of Engineering at Stanford. Saffo teaches courses on the future of engineering and the impact of technological change on the future

The research quoted earlier about how Unconditional Basic Income would actually make people more productive makes even more sense when one thinks about how economic security and happiness are related to motivation.

"I once heard someone defend that belief by declaring that ‘human nature is to do as little as necessary.’ This prejudice is refuted not just by a few studies but the entire branch of psychology dealing with motivation. Normally, it's hard to stop happy, satisfied people from trying to learn more about themselves and the world, or from trying to do a job of which they can feel proud. The desire to do as little as possible is an aberration, a sign that something is wrong."~Ren & Stimpy...just kidding, this quote is from "Unconditional Parenting" by Alfie Kohn.  Kohn writes and gives lectures about research on human behavior, child rearing, and education.

So our society appears to be at something of a crossroads.  Technology is putting pressure on how our economic structures work and is showcasing flaws inherent in our economic system which is based on labor for income.  In some ways we are adapting to these technologies and in other ways we are clinging to seemingly outdated notions about how an economy should operate while at the same time automated technologies are rendering such notions as car ownership or work for income obsolete.  To be frank, I don’t see technology and automation as the problem here.  I see the context of an outdated economic system and outdated cultural values as closer to what it is we need to have a very long talk about, and soon.  Unfortunately, culture and society seem to change much slower than these emerging technologies.  Perhaps our humanity hasn’t matured enough to apply these technologies in ways that actually benefit everyone.  The question I asked in the title of this post “Where are we going?” says something about the technological trends that have been going strong for decades.  Maybe a better question is “Where do we want to go?”  We all have a say in where we’d like society to go and whether we want a society that can create happier, healthier, and motivated humans.  Do we want to take it to the Thunderdome as in Mad Max or maybe some good ol’ Fist of the North Star, both visions of a society based on supreme scarcity and some high quality smashing, or do we want a world of access and abundance?  You can keep the caged, spiked cars, I want my future driverless.  


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