Thursday, January 18, 2018

Double Issue: Around the Horn on the News, On and Off the Jobs Topic

What’s been happening lately? 

The smelliest story of last week, if not truly deserving of being the largest, was not quite how it was widely interpreted.  Our president’s descriptive term about Haiti and a group of central African countries was vile, highly offensive, gratuitously provocative, and a piece of putrid diplomacy.  It was not racist.  The tendency of many liberals and some others to see any situation involving significant numbers of blacks through a racial lens came through here.  It is true that the countries referred to have predominately non-Arab African populations, but so do many others, such as Barbados, The Bahamas, and Botswana, which would never, even in his mind, suggest that label.  The citizens of almost all the world’s poorest countries are predominately of that overly general racial type, so unless he had gone out of his way to name one of the exceptions, say, Afghanistan, his statement would draw that accusation.  In our generally reasonable efforts to assess what this president is doing and saying, even when it is as here spectacularly repulsive, we must still be fair.

Prejudicial responses also came from last week’s top business news, Walmart’s boost of their lowest chain-wide pay from $9 to $11 per hour, with additional benefits and many $1,000 add-on bonuses, and their almost simultaneous announcement of their decision to close 63 Sam’s Club stores later this year.  Walmart is to liberals much as Jane Fonda is to old-time conservatives, and their reaction to these business decisions, the first of which will cost the chain $700 million, was no more positive and believing than what those on the right would say if the former actress posed with a cache of guns and expressed fealty to the Second Amendment.  The point of this sharp attack may have been John Foley’s January 11th New York Times “Walmart’s Minor Act of Retribution,” which called the over-two-thirds-of-a-billion-dollars “just a sliver of what it could save in taxes,” though according to analysts it was actually about 30 percent, or rather more if you imagine that portion of a pie.  The company also announced it would be cutting 1,000 corporate positions, which also seemed to get no favorable press.  It was noteworthy that while the closing Sam’s Club locations are heavily located in urban, suburban, or other relatively high-wage areas, a much larger share of the workers benefitting from these 22% wage increases are not, meaning not only that the company will now be sending a greater part of its money to the poorest American areas, but that it will get even more applicants for jobs already in heavy demand.  Investors were not moved much, and it may prove to be a lose-lose proposition for the firm, costing itself money while failing to satisfy its inconsolable opponents. 

Another large news item was from the previous week, that of Oprah Winfrey giving a fine if very partisan speech at the Golden Globes award ceremony, and emerging almost instantly as not only a possible 2020 presidential candidate but as a potential juggernaut of one.  She seems the perfect Democratic response to our current president – she is widely beloved for reasons other than substance, she is a woman, her fame is mostly from entertainment, her previous political experience borders on nonexistence, her party orientation is secondary but clear-cut, and she is black but transcends racial limitations similarly to Colin Powell who decades ago could have run and won.  Given the bizarre turn presidential politics took two years ago, she is deserving of the oddsmakers’ present choice of her as the most likely Democrat to win.  If she wants it she should go for it – it is quite possible that she is actually the only person, aside from the president himself, who can limit our current, potentially disastrous situation to four years. 

Moving to the subject of an article appearing in a Monday-dated magazine but appearing online the week before that, we, along with Alexandra Schwartz in The New Yorker’s “Resolutions” (electronic-version title “Improving Ourselves to Death”), look at the state of self-help literature.  Schwartz showed us how the genre has responded to higher work standards and requirements, gained diversity, and of course built on its own history, giving us approaches based on self-acceptance, telling others off, setting measurable and quantifiable goals, multifaceted development including such as cleansing diets and 1,000-digit pi memorization, making radical situational changes, and even choosing to “content ourselves with being average.”  It’s a good check-in on the field, but does not quite touch on what I have long considered its largest problem, that no matter how much most people can improve, their success will be determined by others who usually will not care about, or even like, your progresses.  Unless you want to do it as a hobby, or you have the aptitude, opportunity and sustained intensity necessary for a serious business venture or other project (and, as the world is closing in, realistic settings for such things are getting rarer and rarer), raising yourself from the 90th percentile to the 99th in public speaking, self-awareness, physical health, organization skills, work habits, or self-esteem will generally not, in money or even happiness, justify itself.  The outcome for people in the great middle capability and ambition zone is more likely, per Schwartz writing freely and quoting various authors, to contribute to high suicide, body-dissatisfaction, and anxiety rates; succumb to perfectionism, “the idea that kills”; and, if conveyed to others, add to the current situation, where “parents continue to feed their children the loving, well-intentioned lie that there are “no limits” and they can “be anything,” which leaves the kids blaming themselves, rather than the market’s brutality, when they inevitably come up short.”  If you find yourself the likes of morbidly obese, emotionally unable to chair a meeting at work, or stopping yourself from social behavior you know would be fun as well as beneficial, get the help you need, but once you surpass problems of this severity it may not be healthy for you to consume figurative platefuls of vitamins.

Another issue that keeps coming up is the possibility of removing our president through the Twenty-fifth Amendment, which, if “the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office,” the vice president can indefinitely act for him.  Our current one may be as objectionable as anyone to ever hold that office, and be the best likewise at bringing out negative emotions, but is not in this territory.  He maintains an excellent chance of being impeached, especially if Democrats take over both houses of Congress this fall, but it’s a waste of hope and effort to get him out before 2021 otherwise.  On a similar note, it’s wrong to overstate how much he is damaging our country’s reputation, as a clear problem with our form of government is that, once a century or two and with luck no more often than that, we elect a stinker. 

Here is one more paragraph on three more issues.  One, sex, often called gender, is becoming more of a social construct, defined by which one people decide to present as, which may be a change for the better, but doesn’t make transsexuals biological members of their new one, and it is positively Orwellian to change sexes on birth certificates, which must reflect anatomical and genetic realities.  Two, sex differences in average pay need not reflect educated and career-focused women, but those who set up their lives to depend on men for most of their money – as long as Seven Sisters graduates and similarly credentialed women are statistically tethered to others, we will not know the extent of the discrimination they face.  Three, in response to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and others, all should know that advocating social conservatism, in anything from drug legalization to religious views, is going against the flow of history – in fifty years, for example, it will stun our great-grandchildren to realize that using a certain wild-growing weed could once, in this country, get you prison time – and should not be done.  

Next week, I will be traveling and well away from both computers and my normal routine, so will not have a blog post.  Rejoin me on February 2nd, for my comments on the January jobs report and the latest update of the American Job Shortage Number (AJSN).  Have a fine fortnight. 

Friday, January 12, 2018

Starting 2018 with Six Proposed Jobs-Related Trends of Merit

We’re now on the twelfth day of the new year.  We don’t know what will happen, but we can predict and project. 

I am in receipt of six interrelated views.  How good are they, and what might the authors not be seeing about our current and evolving situation?

We start with the October 24th New York Times “A Peek at Future Jobs Shows Growing Economic Divides.”  Ben Casselman suggested that the expected 2026 state for our economy is “more dominated by the service sector amid the continued erosion of manufacturing jobs,” appropriate since after those two, which followed extraction, we know of nothing to take over from service positions, which have hardly multiplied in past decades, as the highest level of paid work.  He did well to say that jobs centering on not only machine-compatible tasks but on algorithmic ones are endangered, and that, according to a recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report, “overall job growth will continue to be slow.”  I quarrel with a finding that “computer science and other fields heavy in math or science will grow quickly” – I think in the next decade many American positions in those fields will go away to both globalization and automation, factors mentioned in the article – and don’t think a “steep decline” for typists and telephone operators would now be meaningful, but, overall, Casselman and this study are on solid ground.

Finlay Renwick, writing in Esquire, cited a rather different source in his November 7th “Stephen Hawking Is Reasonably Worried We’re All Going To Be Destroyed By Robots.”  This is not new territory, but hearing it from possibly the world’s most brilliant man gives it extra impact.  As Renwick reported, Hawking told a Web Summit conference crowd that artificial intelligence “could be the biggest event in the history of our civilisation or the worst,” and maintained that “we cannot know if we will be infinitely helped by AI, or ignored by it and side-lined, or conceivably destroyed by it.”  Not only could the technology produce “powerful autonomous weapons,” as we should already know, but also “new ways for the few to oppress the many.” He correctly said that “we simply need to be aware of the dangers, identify them, employ the best possible practice and management, and prepare for its consequences well in advance.”  All worthy of emphasis, especially from such a lofty perch.

There isn’t any consensus on the nature of the first three, but now, per Jim Hoagland in the November 22nd New York Times, “The fourth industrial revolution is upon us.”  After steam engines, electricity, and computers, Hoagland saw some combination of machine learning and autonomous vehicles as the next fundamental leap.  It’s a problem that even two-page articles based on ideas as good as this one are sometimes too long, and here it didn’t help us to hear, erroneously, that “6.1 million jobs currently sit vacant largely because applicants lack either the skills or mobility needed,” or that China is one of two superpowers because we are in “a new bipolar world based on technology.”  Still, full credit to Hoagland.

One large autumn piece of employment news was a McKinsey study concluding that “Automation could kill 73 million U.S. jobs by 2030” (Paul Davidson, USA Today, November 28th), which drew the comment, odd since it was from one of the effort’s co-authors, that “the dire predictions that robots are going to take our jobs are overstated.”  Well, it depends on both the job and the timeframe, and the “huge overhaul of the economy and labor market” advocated in the report won’t, as far as we can see, happen with paid positions.  The vague conclusions Davidson cited, such as that technology will replace from “zero to a third of work activities” and that from “39 million to 73 million jobs could [not will] be destroyed,” fail to inform, but the conclusions that “jobs will be created from rising incomes and consumption” and from “an aging population that will demand more health care professionals and investment in infrastructure and renewable energy” are, if obvious, worth something.  Although, in the absence of something as wide-scoped as a national infrastructure project, training doesn’t seem like a national project, it was good to hear the same co-author putting blame where it belongs, by saying that “governments and businesses already have fallen short in the retraining of workers.”  Ultimately, these study results are down the middle, which should make them noncontroversial and relatively easy to accept.

We have also long known about average Westerners getting older, but how is it that “We haven’t prepared for the aging monster” (Washington Post, December 6th)?  Author Robert J. Samuelson correctly said that “the problem is simple,” but concluded that our only choices are higher retirement ages, cut benefits, or higher taxes.  He left out the effect of not only more jobs but more good jobs for those 60 and older, without which we will indeed make no progress and need no preparation.  The reason the jobs crisis continues despite much improved employment numbers is that so many Americans and others, such as the 96 million out of the labor force, are neither working nor officially jobless, and that people choosing in large numbers to drop interest in working does not mean they would not ultimately want to do that and generate federal tax revenue in the process.  More career positions for those now taking early or other retirement from lack of perceived opportunities is the best aging-trend preparation we could have.

Contrary to its title, Alex Williams’s December 11th New York Times “Will Robots Take Our Children’s Jobs?” is a survey of what individuals should know and can do about our employment situation.  As I covered in Work’s New Age and Choosing a Lasting Career, Wilson identified the problem, documented the rising ability of software to replace human analysis, considered guaranteed basic income, touched on the Singularity, and looked at what career paths might stay or disappear.  Although he seemed to fall into a trap by citing a TED talk saying that bank employees have not reduced in number, but rather replaced “mind-numbing work like counting out 20-dollar bills” with “more cognitively demanding tasks” when the lack of job loss has been completely due to massively more transactions, he ended with a quotation that “the robot plumber is a long, long way away.”  As with other articles here, Williams’s piece is flawed but still well worthwhile.  We might end the decade with the likes of December’s 4.1% official unemployment, but only if we can avoid a recession – if we get one of those, we will see even more truth in the predictions above.       

Friday, January 5, 2018

December’s AJSN Up 113,000 to 16.3 Million Positions Behind in Classically Meh December Jobs Report

The word on the electronic street, coming in to this morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary, was that it was going to be a good month, with 190,000 net new nonfarm payroll positions added.  It didn’t work out that way, though as we will see it was hardly a thumbs-down report either. 

We added 148,000 jobs, not an embarrassment but only about 15,000 more than we need for our increasing population.  Average private nonfarm payroll wages were up 8 cents per hour, a few cents more than inflation, to reach $26.63.  The count of what the BLS calls “long-term unemployed,” or those jobless for the past 27 weeks or longer, fell 100,000 to 1.5 million, but the number of those working part-time for economic reasons, or keeping less than full-time positions while looking thus far unsuccessfully for something beyond that category, rose the same amount to 4.9 million.

The other significant statistics broke even.  There are still 6.6 million officially unemployed.  Seasonally adjusted and unadjusted joblessness are still at 4.1% and 3.9% respectively.  The two measures of how common it is for Americans to be working, the labor force participation rate and the employment-population ratio, held at 62.7% and 60.1%. 

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the metric showing in one figure how many more positions could be quickly filled if all knew that getting one were as easy as getting a pizza, didn’t change much either.  However, with a sharp increase in those claiming no interest in working, and gains or no change in all seven categories of marginal attachment, especially those wanting work but not looking for the past year, the difference was unfavorable, up just over 100,000 as follows:

Compared with a year before, however, the AJSN has shown real improvement, completely in the number of those officially unemployed, down since December 2016 from 7,170,000 to 6,278,000.  There was a drop of 255,000 in the count of people not having looked for work in the past year, but that was more than erased by rises in the numbers of those in the armed services or off the grid and the best estimate of American expatriates.

So where did we go this month?  Once again, nowhere.  As before, where we are camping out is not so bad, with low unemployment and participation rates significantly above their 2015-2016 lows, but that is very much what we are doing.  However, our employment situation has stopped improving.  Whether that is plenty good enough, woefully inadequate, or somewhere in between is for you to judge.  For the third straight month, though, the turtle did not move a leg muscle.  

Friday, December 29, 2017

Artificial Intelligence at the End of 2017: Three Large Questions and Answers

The idea of nonhuman intellectual capability has been around since at least the 98 years ago that author Karel Capek introduced a now-familiar word in his play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots).  Since then, it has often gone under the name “artificial intelligence.”  As I have written before, that has been a misnomer, as everything being accomplished in it had been simply algorithmic, or limited to situations where something can be programmed to execute an “if a happens, then do b” sequence, which is not what we mean by intelligence. 

Over the past few years, though, the field has become more prominent, and its developments have reached many ordinary consumers.  People have published articles about “machine learning,” which, according to one definition, “is an application of artificial intelligence (AI) that provides systems the ability to automatically learn and improve from experience without being explicitly programmed.”  That technology has been credited for, among other things, reaching world-class status in go, a game which, along with bridge, poker, and chess, the most skilled and motivated humans can spend a lifetime learning without coming close to comprehensively solving.  We have also seen a variety of non-fundamental but large incremental improvements in home management devices and children’s friendship-robot toys.  Classic questions, such as “Will Artificial Intelligence Become Conscious?” (Subhash Kak, Live Science, December 10) and “A.I. Will Transform the Economy.  But How Much, and How Soon?” (Steve Lohr, The New York Times, November 30) have returned to the press, and salient concerns about the latest playthings have been raised by, among others, MIT professor Sherry Turkle, after decades still the leading figure on the social side of technology, whose “Why these friendly robots can’t be good friends to our kids” (The Washington Post, December 7th) was released almost simultaneously with “Should Children Form Emotional Bonds With Robots?” (Alexis C. Madrigal, The Atlantic, December). 

All of this, though, is preliminary to three higher-level questions.  Is artificial intelligence still algorithmic?  What effect, beyond the established factors of globalization and efficiency and what we have already been able to project about automation, will it have on American and world employment?  And based on where it is actually going, is it dangerous?

The first question’s answer is yes.  Getting computers to program themselves is revolutionary, and cutting out the slowest and least effective parts, the people, will prove to be a huge improvement, and has already got us unquestionably fundamental gains, with many more to follow in the next months, years, and decades.  It can also be so fast and complex that many such systems cannot explain their results in forms succinct enough for human understanding.  However, machine learning itself is still limited to computational procedures, with nothing else under the surface.

On the second issue, we have five different responses.  In the October 29th Salon “Will the AI jobs revolution bring about human revolt, too?,” Kentaro Toyama saw more to artificial intelligence than actually there, and interpreted author Ray Kurzweil’s old Singularity prediction as meaning that “by 2045, computer intelligence will match or exceed human abilities in every way.”  While it may be true that even now a product can come up with “eerie, dream-like images that seem genuinely creative and uncomfortably human,” that does not mean that such things are truly either, and employment requiring authenticity there will not go away.  In ”Who’s afraid of the A.I. wolf?” in the same publication seven days later, Crystal Point gave us the opposite view, saying correctly that “scientists still haven’t pinpointed the actual brain processes that make up awareness, and philosophers have not reached a consensus on the nature of this baffling state.”  In the November 9th Motley Fool, Chris Neiger went back to the first position in “Artificial Intelligence Is Already Common – and It’s About to Take Over,” naming a study claiming that 38% of American jobs could go away to automation by 2030, a valid prediction in any event, and that artificial intelligence could “be capable of performing any task currently done by humans,” if not up and running in all of them, by 2060.  Lohr’s article above presented both sides, and a set of specific timelines, with 25% and 75% chances of success polled from “hundreds of attendees at two well-regarded AI conferences,” turned up in “Human obsolescence” in The Economist’s December The World in 2018 issue.  A few of the capabilities rated included “fold laundry” (25th percentile of probability 2018, 50th in 2022, 75th in 2031), “retail salesperson” (25th in 2022, 50th in 2029, and 75th in 2048), ending with “full automation of labor” (25th percentile 2071, 50th percentile 2141, and 75th percentile 2241).  Despite the conference connection these chances also include existing forms of automation, but are enough to tell us that even those in the field do not think any kind of “singularity” is likely within anything like 28 years. 

On the third question, it is still a real concern that such machines will program themselves with systems that take living beings to be unnecessary, redundant, or even detrimental to their purposes.  The movie The Terminator may now be 33 years old, but its premise of “autonomous goal-seeking programs” failing to incorporate basic human assumptions is as current as today’s news.  Those involved with artificial intelligence must take a line from another 1980s popular culture work, Donald Fagen’s song “I.G.Y.,” and ensure that if we have “a just machine to make big decisions,” it is “programmed by fellows with compassion and vision.”  That is true whatever the eventual effects of artificial intelligence.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Driverless Cars – Wrap-Up, The New York Times Magazine Issue, and Ten Things to Understand

Since and including October 13th, when I said I could write a weekly blog on this topic alone, I have done almost that.  Except for two monthly issues on the AJSN and the jobs numbers, this source has provided nothing but eight topical installments.  Now, finally, it’s time to summarize, in preparation for moving on to other issues, this jobs-and-way-beyond area.

First, here is a glancing mention of nine remaining articles.  In “Waymo’s Human Problem” (Forbes, November 8th), Chinka Mui addressed yet another quandary, that of how to deal with shared-driverless-car users leaving behind a mess, which, as any current or former cabdriver (present company included) will tell you, is hardly rare.  We learned that “Optimus Ride will provide self-driving vehicles to Boston community residents” (Darrell Etherington, TechCrunch, November 30), another example of the advantage of introducing autonomous cars and buses in agreeable subdivisions.  The tech-happy Russians are showing their skill in “Yandex takes its self-driving test cars out for a spin in the snow” (Natasha Lomas, TechCrunch, November 28th) – where could anyone better learn about that?  Unsurprisingly, “Intel wants to make your autonomous car rides more entertaining” (Andrew Tarantole, Engadget, November 29th), with “in-cabin, immersive experiences,” which will be a great growth area within this larger one.  We can expect “GM to launch self-driving vehicles in big US cities in 2019” (Fox Business, November 30th), if that company, which seems behind the curve, can get there.  We saw more specificity by one of the leaders in “Ford details plans for all-new autonomous vehicle” (Jeff Flock, Fox Business, December 6th), which will, quite appropriately in my view, be “shifting its focus from a new electric car driven by traditional buyers to hybrids driven by no one at all,” and will strive to “enable the vehicles to be in constant use.”  Central Beantown’s chaotic driving will improve, as “Lyft’s self-driving pilot with nuTonomy begins rolling out in Boston” (Matthew Lynley, TechCrunch, December 6th), with that firm seeming soberer and more measured than Uber.  The chance of a large computer internals maker, called “Chipzilla” without irony here, to appear in competing consortia now seems strong, as described in “Mobileye’s Latest Moves Will Strengthen Intel’s Clout in Autonomous Cars” (Motley Fool in Fox Business, December 9th), and, as to another behemoth, “Apple AI chief reveals more progress on self-driving car tech” (Jon Fingas, Engadget, December 10th).  Christina Anderson and Neal E. Boudette wrote that Volvo, the most famous-for-safety automaker, is “Trying to Bypass Anxiety on the Road to Driverless Cars” (The New York Times, December 12th), a fine thing for the industry, and one reason why political-liberal concern has significantly dropped in the past few months.

Second, I have not reviewed the year’s largest event in autonomous-vehicle press, the November 12th New York Times Magazine number, titled “Life After Driving.”  The entire section, except for the ads and puzzles, was given over to five articles on driverless cars, some with multiple parts, on what is happening, what will probably happen, what may or may not happen, and their myriad potential effects on our lives.  Given that lead times for books are simply too long, this remarkably current 82-page compendium will need to stand in, and it does that superbly.  The Sunday Times may cost $7 per issue here, but this thoughtful and prophetic compendium alone, which ended with a full-page drawing of “the museum of driving,” at which our descendants will be able to experience, among other things, drag racing, sitting in traffic jams, pumping gas, parallel parking, and even finding their cars in parking lots, was easily worth three times that.  If you haven’t seen it, it is well worth getting a copy.

Third, here are ten things we should all understand about autonomous vehicles and their associated revolution.

Number one, despite many efforts to tether the two together, driverless does not mean electric.  Hybrids would be well-suited, but after 50-plus years of government promotion and optimistic forecasts, only 2% of United States cars are electric-only, and that share, even if it goes up, will have its figurative doors blown in early next decade by the share of autonomous ones.

Number two, rural and urban considerations will be different.  Here in the rural Catskills, it will not be expedient for me to take a shared car one mile to the town center, 15 miles to the nearest McDonald’s, or 35 to the closest major retail center.  On the other hand, most city residents will join those in Manhattan by finding that owning a car is unjustified.

Number three, expected job losses are no reason to stop or deter technological progress, even if thoughts that other positions will replace them are unjustified.

Number four, in life quality and even expectancy, autonomous vehicles will prove to be a great boon.  Half a century from now, we will wonder how we lived without them.

Number five, consumer acceptance of driverless cars will grow, though not necessarily quickly.  Once people ride in them, see they are not scary, and understand their rapid improvement pace, few will stand against their proliferation.

Number six, the effects will be extremely broad-based.  Did Gottlieb Daimler know that by putting a lawnmower-sized engine on a four-wheeled bicycle, he would be kicking off changes ranging from romance and sex practices to city layouts? 

Number seven, despite some wonderfully creative thinking, autonomous vehicles will have many consequences which we cannot now predict.  We just can’t see it all from here.

Number eight, the cars’ interiors will have a gigantic range of possibilities.  They will provide some badly needed diversity in auto design, and it is quite likely that customers will be able to choose between ones made up as offices, shopping malls, reading spaces, card clubs, or even, of course, bedrooms.

Number nine, the 2020s will be the transitional decade during which drivered and driverless vehicles, both in great numbers, will share the roads.  The challenges of minimizing accidents and maximizing efficiency will be greatest then, and, eventually, most Americans will look forward to the almost-driverless-only 2030s and beyond.

Number ten, it IS happening.  It will not turn out like artificial hearts or air-and-road vehicles, which, although they exist in niches now, failed to gain widespread use.  It will be more like email or the Internet, with autonomous cars permanently entering one life after another.  That is the most important point here.  We all need to accept that cars will soon be driverless, so we can best deal with their expected, unexpected, and potential shortcomings.  We have no other choice.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Driverless Cars – More Progress and Positioning – VIII

Another good move by the industry leader came forth in “Waymo inches closer to driverless car launch with repair deal” (Steve Dent, Engadget, November 2nd).  The partner is AutoNation, cited as “America’s largest auto retailer,” which will use its skill at maintaining massive numbers of cars to meet the expectation that, as their CEO put it, the autos will “be in service for hundreds of thousands of miles, much more than personal-use vehicles, to make them economically viable.”  Will they or won’t they?  Their chances would be best if they were diesel, but we know by now that won’t be the case.

Pedestrians can usually cross streets wherever they want, laws or not, so it would be mostly a formality if “Self-driving cars could make jaywalking legal” (Matt McFarland,, November 3rd).  This “crime,” which the article points out was invented with the coming of cars with drivers, may go out with their replacements, which will be able to stop more consistently.  In any event, it would be good riddance to lose this infraction so small that few police even care about it.

In Gizmodo on November 3rd, Kate Conger addressed an attitude change in “We Need To Be Okay With Self-Driving Cars That Crash, Researchers Say.”  She rightfully contrasted the attention given Joshua Brown’s death, which involved driverless technology, with 37,000 annual others which did not, and publicized someone else’s question of just how safe autonomous vehicles need to be for them to be legal, concluding that if they are “just a little bit” less dangerous, they could save massive numbers of lives.  It’s now clear, though, that there will be no great cutover, but phased in a city and state at a time, which will provide plenty of data encouraging other places to accept them.  Conger’s view was more or less echoed by Aarian Marshall in Wired’s November 7th “To Save the Most Lives, Deploy (Imperfect) Self-Driving Cars ASAP,” in which the author points out that “today, autonomous vehicles are about as good as a standard crappy driver.”  Of course, though, unlike the latter they will improve, month by month.   

Michelle Chavez, writing in Fox News on the same date, told us about more progress from a beleaguered company in “Uber prepares next generation of self-driving cars.”  They may be overstating a bit, though, to say that their vehicles “could be on the road as early as the end of this year,” with so little time remaining, but it still looks like a good development for a firm that badly needs to get rid of its human drivers.  That company started off two more promising headlines later, in CNBC’s November 20th “Uber has an idea to keep you from getting sick when you read in self-driving cars” (seasickness, which is genetic, may well need attention here), and “Uber Strikes Deal With Volvo To Bring Self-Driving Cars to Its Network” (Mike Isaac in The New York Times among many other sources, also November 20th).  On November 7th, Megan Rose Dickey’s TechCrunch “Renault shows off self-driving car that can avoid obstacles as well as pro test drivers” highlighted more real improvements.   

Three days later, though, wasn’t too late to see that “Las Vegas expands its self-driving shuttle tests this week” (Jon Fingas, Engadget) – the full-year trial was scheduled to start November 8th, and did.  The debut made the news, but not for anything good, as within an hour the bus collided, though at only a couple of miles per hour, with a truck that backed improperly, getting its driver a ticket.  Jeff Zurschmeide, who got his account, “I was on the self-driving bus that crashed in Las Vegas. Here’s what really happened,” published by Digital Trends on November 9th, called it “the result of human error,” but pointed out that the truck driver may have been misled, as the shuttle did not stop and give him more space, or even sound its horn.  Is this another situation calling for different programming, or just one telling us that we need to realize that autonomous vehicles will, indeed, drive with great caution but no imagination?  It’s a good real-life case to study. 

In Forbes, Bernard Marr took a loftier view in the November 6th “The Future Of The Transport Industry – IoT, Big Data, AI and Autonomous Vehicles.”  He offered two reasonable predictions for 2020, that there will be 10 million driverless autos sharing the roads with 250 million “smart cars,” a phrase he uses not to describe tiny German vehicles but “cars connected to high-tech networks.”  We will depend on that grid, which is in its infancy now, to get us through the rough times when large numbers of both meatmobiles and self-driving vehicles will be out there.  

A worthwhile summary of an area addressed little in the popular print was Yahoo Finance’s November 9th “The ‘Driverless’ Car Era:  Liability Considerations.”  We don’t know who or what will pay when autonomous vehicles do damage from negligence, but we will resolve that issue somehow.  Meanwhile, Detroit Free Press paid attention to even more difficult issues with Todd Spangler’s November 23rd “Self-driving cars programmed to decide who dies in a crash.”  Disasters will happen, people will argue about them, and ethicists and philosophers are starting to weigh in.  It won’t be easy for them.  As computer programming demanded that we be specific about our instructions, driverless vehicles will require that we be explicit, as well as standardized, about our ethics.  In the over 2,500 years this field has been around, we haven’t come close to that – but we will, ultimately, have no alternative.

We finish today’s post, and the last regular installment of this series, with three positive pieces.  In the November 12th New York Times “Where Self-Driving Cars Go to Learn,” Cecilia Kang showed us how Arizona’s relatively laissez-faire legal stance has helped the state as well as the industry.  Washington Post’s “Driverless cars may help disabled, elderly,” reprinted in the November 24th Times Herald-Record, asked questions about wheelchair accessibility, which, if required for all autonomous taxis, could massively increase their cost and even their sizes, but acknowledged that such vehicles, even with less expensive accommodations, will be flexible and greatly beneficial for people with other disabilities.  Joe Rinzel got “Driverless cars can transport lives – if we change the rules and let them” on the November 21st USA Today editorial page – the article, as well as announcing that Central Florida has joined Michigan, California, and the state above in the front line of the technology, made a case for friendlier laws nationwide. 

Next week, I will address the New York Times November 12th magazine issue, which was dedicated to the subject of this series, and wrap up, for now, with some conclusions.  While I now need to allow room for other subjects, there will be much more here on driverless cars in the years to come.  

Friday, December 8, 2017

November’s Employment Data: A Good Jobs Gain, Few Other Changes, AJSN Effectively Identical

This may be the closest our nation’s employment situation has ever come to being unchanged by a Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary.

The good news, and almost all the news for that matter, was the creation of 228,000 net new nonfarm positions, almost 100,000 more than population growth and about what some analysts projected.  Otherwise, little happened.  Adjusted and unadjusted unemployment were unchanged at 4.1% and 3.9% respectively.  There are still 1.6 million people officially jobless and without work for 27 weeks or longer.  The labor force participation rate held at 62.7%, and the number of Americans working part-time for economic reasons, or holding on to less than full-time propositions while looking beyond that level, stayed at 4.8 million.  Average private nonfarm payroll earnings, after a downward 3-cent October adjustment, went up 5 cents per hour to $26.55, the closest rounding-to-the-nearest-penny figure to inflation.  Two major metrics had one-increment worsenings, as the employment-population ratio decreased 0.1% to 60.1% and the number of unemployed went up 100,000 to 6.6 million.

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the Royal Flush Press statistic showing how many new positions could be quickly filled if getting one were known to be easy, got into the breakeven act with distinction, down from October’s 16,169,554 to 16,169,313 for an improvement of 242, or .0015%.  That, while humorous, is of course statistically insignificant – in fact, the same would be true for a gain or loss of 100 times that amount – so we can safely say the metric in November was unchanged.  For the sake of completeness, here is the latest breakdown:

The latent demand effect of none of the above categories changed more than 49,500, that coming from a drop in the number of discouraged workers from 524,000 to 469,000.  The share of jobs that would go to those officially unemployed is still a hair short of 35%. 

There were greater differences between last month and November 2016.  The largest change in our job shortage came from official unemployment’s fall from 7,066,000, which, with a latent demand drop of 702,000, was very close to the AJSN’s 714,000 one-year decline. 

Was November, then, good?  The best thing about it, aside from the gain in jobs, is that we are camping at some good levels – those unemployment rates, the decline in those out for half a year or more, and undistinguished but off-recent-low working and participation rates.  Worst was that we really went nowhere, meaning our low jobless figures are still heavily dependent on people leaving the labor force.  Our monthly job gain did not seem to help the other numbers at all.  The turtle, then, stayed right where he was.