Robots and Riots

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You do not see union workers holding benefits for robots. — Stephen Colbert

There’s a Doomsday scenario where machines take over all jobs and everyone becomes unemployed. Evictions, hunger, and illness ensue. Riots in the streets. Calls for a guaranteed national income. Legislation to prevent robots from being built at all. Political calamities. A real mess.

French police unleashed tear gas and water cannons on demonstrators Tuesday as tens of thousands packed the streets of Paris in an outpouring of opposition to the government’s anti-labor agenda. news item

If workers will riot over incremental changes to employment, imagine how berserk they’ll go if all the jobs disappear.

“But robots will never take every job!” Oh, yes they will. We humans are clever — we’ve invented countless labor-saving gadgets over the centuries, devices stronger or faster or more precise than people can be. We’re also clever enough to invent mechanical brainpower that’s stronger, faster, and more precise than our own. In fact, we’re developing this Superior Artificial Intelligence as we speak. Such an intellect will eclipse our own poor powers and take charge. Soon.

(Which would you rather buy, something dirt cheap but excellent from a machine, or something flawed and unreliable and expensive from a human? Hmm.)

This could easily become a bad thing, since people thrown out of work generally don’t have money for food, rent, gasoline, and doctor visits. Also, most of us derive meaning from our labors, and without a job — a way to contribute — people might find themselves existentially adrift. Combine a lack of purpose with a lack of cash, and you get street riots and the other disasters.

And it also could be a good thing … if the automata serve us faithfully and make us all wealthy. We’d have endless free time to pursue our interests, with no need to convert hobbies into jobs. In that world to come, what matters would no longer be how rich you are, but how interesting you are. I call it The Star Trek Future.

(Yes, I’m well aware that this very blog could be replaced by automation. I’d have to find some other way to amuse myself. Tennis, anyone?)

A solution that lately has gotten traction is a guaranteed national income — a stipend for every adult citizen. If all people were unemployed, only those who owned investments would have regular income. The corporations would need to donate money to the unemployed, or none of them would buy any products.

The problem with this plays out as follows: I own a store, and you come in to get a candy bar but don’t have any money. I give you a dollar, and you hand it back to me for the candy bar. Essentially, I’m performing a short ceremony with you, at the end of which I give you a free candy bar. At this rate, I’ll go broke.

Another idea involves a kind of fiscal land reform: the government confiscates corporate stock and hands it out to everyone. We’d all become owners of the robots that took our jobs. Automated production would go to our bottom line, and everything turns out fine.

Except this would basically destroy the market economy. Nobody would invest in companies anymore, lest their hard-won gains be taken from them abruptly in some similar, future upheaval.

But what people aren’t talking about and what’s getting my attention, is a forthcoming rapid demonetization of the cost of living. — Peter Diamandis

What to do, then? It turns out there’s a solution that will likely unfold as a natural consequence of total automation of jobs. It’s called demonetization, and it will cause most prices to plummet. After all, robots don’t take vacations; they don’t need healthcare for their kids; they don’t go on strike; and they perform their tasks vastly more efficiently than can humans. They work much better and much cheaper.

Thus, though we may all one day find ourselves unemployed, our expenses could decline by as much as 90 percent. A meal at a fast-food restaurant would cost 50 cents, and a ride in a driverless taxi would set us back about 30 cents per mile, less than half the cost of car ownership. Dirt-cheap housing will be built using 3-D printing. Meanwhile, online education already is basically free, and the smartphone in your pocket comes with a slew of products and services that 30 years ago would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Given a small stipend from the government and/or a small stake in the big corporations, people would have more than enough cash to pay for basic necessities even if they were out of work.

It’s also important to bear in mind that non-human employment will likely emerge over time and not all at once. Economic downturns in recent decades have tended to resolve themselves with “jobless recoveries” as businesses bought new software first and then hired real people. This hints at workforce automation building momentum slowly over several decades.

Instead of being eliminated, your job might merely get cut back, bit by bit: they’d offer to keep you on at reduced hours that drop even further over the coming months and years. Of course, your pay would decline, but meanwhile your personal expenses will have plummeted due to all that cheap automation everywhere in the economy. So who cares? You just got a bunch of extra hours away from work while retaining essentially the same lifestyle.

(If you’re worried this optimistic scenario won’t play out according to plan, there are a number of ways to adapt your work life to reduce or delay your risk of being replaced by a machine.)

If business and government can coordinate properly (and that’s a BIG “if”), automation might supplant us gradually, so we retain a declining level of employment while prices also decline. We could actually achieve a soft landing into a life of prosperous leisure.

That’s not Doomsday. That’s more like Paradise.

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UPDATE: Will we control AI?

UPDATE: Jobs are already disappearing as robots take over

UPDATE: Automation begins to clean out white-collar jobs

UPDATE: The rise of the useless class

UPDATE: How to get paid in the Age of Layoffs

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Great Product, Not-so-Great Marketing

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Ever been in a conversation with several people and you remember a story that’s perfect for the topic at hand? And you can’t wait to tell it? The group is lively, people are chiming in one after another, and by the time you can get a word in, the talk has moved on to other topics. Still, you insist on telling the story. And it falls flat.

It’s Spring 1977, and I’m in a movie theatre. A commercial for an upcoming film — a “trailer” — appears onscreen. It’s all explosions and weapons fire and hurtling spaceships and strange alien creatures and weird robots. I was totally hooked. I had to see it. When it opened I was among the first in line. The movie was “Star Wars”, and it was everything the trailer had promised and more. I saw it five times in the first week and many times thereafter. That first trailer, with its invitation to hyperactive adventure — not to mention vivid images drawn from the many sci-fi books I’d read as a kid — totally captivated me. As history shows, I was but one in a ravenous audience of millions.

Decades later I saw another trailer for the latest sci-fi flick, and it, too, was jam-packed with the same rush of action and quick cuts. This time, though, I had a completely different response: “Yeah, we’ve seen this a hundred times. But what the hell is the movie about?” 

The film was “John Carter”, and apparently it was based on the old Edgar Rice Burroughs adventure novels about a man who’s transported to Mars, where he gets caught up in a civil war. But the trailer was a dizzy mess that left me with “Huh?” I decided to wait for the DVD.

The film flopped so badly it shook the Disney studio and caused a storm of criticism and second guessing in the media. CEO Robert Iger had to issue strict directives to his staff not to start pointing fingers in public at each other.

Months later, not sure what to expect, I screened “John Carter” for myself. To my surprise, I was delighted with it. The story was a classic rollicking adventure. The actors performed ably, and there was strong chemistry — and comic banter — between the two leads. (The heroine, played by Lynne Collins, might have sashayed out of a sizzling Boris Vallejo fantasy painting.) Effects and animation were top-notch. Production values were high: “The money was up on the screen,” as they say. The music was gorgeous and compelling. In short, the film carried me away to a romantic fantasy adventure on the Martian plains. 

This movie should have been a huge hit. What went wrong? Fingers pointed at everything from the film itself (“a bit cheesy”) to the lead, Taylor Kitsch (“stolid and dull”). Those accusations rang false to me, given my experience viewing it. And others suggested the problem lay in the marketing.

For one thing, the working title had been “John Carter of Mars”, but the Disney brass — stung by the recent flop of their animated feature “Mars Needs Moms” — renamed it simply “John Carter”. This took away much of the huge sci-fi audience, especially those who knew and admired the famous source material.

Recently I chatted with someone who’d been involved in distribution of “John Carter”, and he said flatly, “The marketing director didn’t know what she was doing.” Interesting. 

I kept looking. Turns out both the marketing chief and the studio head were new, and neither had ever before worked in film. Uh-oh. Meanwhile the director, Andrew Stanton, had lately moved across the hall from a hugely successful career directing animated features for Pixar. “John Carter” was his first essay in live action. Hmm.

Granted, “Carter” required more than a thousand animation shots, so Stanton wasn’t exactly the wrong choice. And, judging from my own experience, the resulting movie was well made and entertaining. But Stanton’s was the biggest name in the production, and he encountered a studio power vacuum. He ended up calling the marketing shots.

His idea for advertising was to revive the fast-action flurry of quick cuts like those game-changing “Star Wars” theatre trailers. He wanted the audience to relive his own youthful excitement — and that of anyone else who could remember back thirty-five years — or discover it anew if they were young enough. He wanted the thrill of the “Star Wars” promos to waft over his own film.

There were three problems with this idea: (1) anyone old enough to relive that thrill was now probably too old for the film’s demographic; (2) anyone young enough had already seen hours of such action sequences (*yawn*) in movie trailers; and (3) the film suffered from pre-release bad press, but Stanton plowed ahead, his marketing strategy unchanged. Disaster ensued.

In other words, the movie’s promotional campaign was like a great old story Stanton just had to tell, but the crowd had moved on. 

There’s talk of rebooting the John Carter series under another production team. That’s kind of sad, since the first film was terrific, while its biggest problem was the promotion. 

Let’s review:

• DON’T let a strong department push around a weak department

• DON’T hire inexperienced people to run marketing

• DON’T let your artists, even the superstars, make business decisions

• DO step in when staff is squabbling

• DO let everyone have input

• DO let department heads win arguments involving their own turf

Of course, it’s easy to Monday-morning quarterback a failed launch. And, as Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman said about predicting Hollywood hits, “Nobody knows anything.” There’s no good way, with any given film, to tell exactly which part of the moviemaking process — the story, the acting, the directing, the cinematography, and of course the marketing — will make the biggest contribution to success or failure. In a print ad you can alter a single word and response rates may change enormously. How much more tenuous must be the decisions made in promoting a film via its trailer?

And there’s always that ineffable something that can empower a work of art to capture the public’s imagination. Besides, many things happen to a movie offstage, things that can change everything, things we never find out about.

But, people! There’s no sense in spending hundreds of millions on a movie production if the marketing department is on vacation. Let the director direct, and let marketing market.

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