Economist warns of the coming robot apocalypse

A followup to my earlier post on technological automation:

Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University, writes in the current issue of Politico that the trend toward automation in economies around the world is leading to a robot takeover.

ShortCircuit3-2

Okay, that’s not it exactly. There’s no robot apocalypse. But there is a global trend of better and more widespread technology leading to increased automation, which Cowen says is shifting employment patterns and remaking American politics.

The highest-paid job in America is anesthesiologist. So it’s surprising to see that even this highly skilled occupation is seeing automation encroaching on its turf, too: A new system called Sedasys is able to do what previously only expert doctors could. Sedasys only does a small range of what these doctors do, but it’s more than anyone would have thought possible not too long ago. Anesthesiologists are paid so much because, contrary to what you see in the movies when somebody is given a knockout gas, it’s really hard to strike the fine balance of chemicals necessary to safely knock somebody out.

Other occupations facing possible competition from automated replacements: butcher, taxi driver, financial journalist, and comedian. (Hat tip to Politico’s Elizabeth Ralph for the links.)

Cowen predicts that the growth of automation will help to continue the shrinking of the middle class:

In 20 years, intelligent machines will expand their reach into every corner of our lives, and as technological change rewards a select few, these social and economic fissures will only deepen.

Our future will bring more wealthy people than ever before, but also more poor people, including people who do not always have access to basic public services. Rather than balancing our national budget with higher taxes or lower benefits, we will allow GDP growth to falter and the real wages of many workers to fall, creating a new underclass. But this polarization notwithstanding, America’s political collapse is much less likely than the pessimists imagine, between the general aging of American society and the way new technologies are improving basic living standards.

I’m not sure I agree with everything he says in this piece, but he makes some really interesting points.

(Side note: It’s also kind of interesting that Cowen starts his article out with an Isaac Asimov story, because one of my favorite economists, Paul Krugman, was inspired to become an economist in the first place because of Isaac Asimov.)

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Weird National Cat Day facts: Your cat has 3 eyelids and can outrun Usain Bolt

For National Cat Day (a holiday made up in 2005), the smartphone-enabled taxi service Uber teamed up with cheezburger.com to bring kittens on demand to people in Seattle, New York, and Los Angeles. You’d just ask using an app, and they’d bring one out for you to pet and enjoy for a while, then leave for the next person.

People love their cats, and cats love to be loved.

CatSaysHeyWhereAreYouGoing

Hey, get back here.

But still, cats are so dang weird.

Another weird cat, named Bubs

Another weird cat, named Lil Bub

The top speed of an ordinary house cat is faster than the top speed of the fastest person in history, Usain Bolt.

usain bolt speed compared to other land animals_595x237

Not only that, but cats’ eyes have three eyelids — two normal outer ones, and a third one underneath that moves sideways. It works as a windshield wiper.

Is that weird?

No, it turns out that you’re weird for not having three. Most mammals and most birds have a third eyelid, but primates only have a vestigial remnant of it. It’s just like our tailbones are a reminder that many many generations ago, our ancestors had tails.

Chickenblinking

Most mammals and birds have these creepy secret sideways eyelids. This is how chickens blink.

Wonderful World pt 2: Little heroes of the big picture

The Link: 200 Countries, 200 Years, 4 minutes

The Story:

Trevor Macy has a funny straight-faced blog called DIY Superhero where he details how to become a caped crimefighter, one post at a time.  I love it.  It makes me think of how superheroes relate to real life.

You’re never really going to be Batman, but the world is full of everyday heroes like nurses, firefighters, and teachers.  A lot of little heroes makes a big difference.

With all the terrible events on the news every single day, it’s easy to think the world’s going to Hell in a handbasket.  But looking at the numbers gives a better understanding of the big picture.  Literacy, life expectancy, and prosperity are at higher levels around the world now than ever before.  There have always been terrible things in the world, but the farther back in history you go, the more life was poor, nasty, brutish, and short.  (But not really solitary).

Like I said before: We may not always fully appreciate it, but living in the twenty-first century is awesome.

Wonderful World pt 1: “You’re sitting in a CHAIR in the SKY!” …”Yeah, but it doesn’t lean back very far.”

The Link: Louis C.K. and the miracle of flight

The Story:

Louis C.K. has a comedy routine that sums up my feelings: “Everything’s amazing but nobody’s happy.”  I grew up in a house below the flight path that planes took while descending to the runway.  All those years, it never occurred to me how weird it was that there were people from around the world flying above my head several times a day.

We’re surrounded by the most excellent things in history, but we take them for granted. Psychologists say that people tend to get inured to their situation because of “regression to the mean.” (Yale psychologist Paul Bloom gives a good but lengthy explanation of the science of happiness.)

But it’s important to appreciate what’s right under our noses.

Like Louis Armstrong said, it really is a wonderful world.