Friday, September 15, 2023

Artificial intelligence, as Summer Wraps Up

What has been written about AI since late July?

First, we had “4 careers where workers will have to change jobs by 2030 due to AI and shifts in how we shop, according to a McKinsey study” (Jacob Zinkula, Business Insider, July 28th).  The areas are “office support, customer service and sales, food services, and production work (e.g. manufacturing).”  The emphasis here is on “lower-wage jobs,” with “clerks, retail salespersons, administrative assistants, and cashiers” each expected to lose more than 600,000 positions, net, in the next seven years.

Kevin Roose spotlighted one apparent area of early adoption in “Aided by A.I. Language Models, Google’s Robots Are Getting Smart,” in The New York Times on the same date.  He started by describing an automaton responding to “pick up the extinct animal” by doing so with a dinosaur model instead of a lion or a whale, a seeming merger between AI and robotics, and meaning that much more along that line would also be possible.  Additionally, we have, per a Google scientist, such devices discovering “how to speak robot” by guessing “how a robot’s arm should move to pick up a ball or throw an empty soda can into the recycling bin.”  When machines do these things consistently correctly, which they do not yet, they will be especially valuable.  The next day the Times published Ben Ryder Howe’s “The Robots We Were Afraid of Are Already Here,” which was disappointing, as there seemed little new here among these automata’s industrial capabilities.

A subject we would all like to succeed at is “How to invest in AI” (Kim Clark, Kiplinger, July 29th).  Since February, people expecting to be hugely important have long since pushed up some stocks and have done much more trading as developments and even plans have materialized, so we’re way up from any ground floor.  It’s reminiscent of buying automotive stocks in the 1920s, when knowing the industry had great potential did not mean we knew who the winners and losers would be.  Given that, though, there are industry leaders looking less risky than others – ones Clark named were chip designers Nvidia, Broadcom, and Taiwan Semiconductor, along with chip software maker Synopsis.  All are risky, but huge-potential investments always are. 

Controversy stepped into an area in progress for years, as “This tech is the ‘sad reality’ of restaurant industry’s future, business owner says robot works 12 hours a day” (Hannah Ray Lambert, Fox News, August 13th).  When an Estacada, Oregon eatery, in response to not finding enough servers, deployed a Plato automaton to do their work, the owner got “customer pushback.”  Strange, but may prove to be common. 

Expecting the technology to be stronger, not weaker, than people thought months ago, was Arantza Pena Popo, in “AI is going to eliminate way more jobs than anyone realizes” (Insider, August 14th). The author said that “permanent mass employment can safely be ruled out,” but hundreds of millions of people may not be able to work their current jobs in 35 years or less.  Beyond that, it’s just a great mass of unknowns.

A question on the minds of most in this field is “The U.S. Regulates Cars, Radio and TV.  When Will It Regulate A.I.?” (Ian Prasad Philbrick, The New York Times, August 24th).  Per Philbrick’s determination, it “probably won’t happen soon,” as while television was regulated within five years of “invention or patenting,” radio took 20, telephones took 30, and railroads and automobiles were not delimited until 60 and 70 years later.  While “regulation often happens gradually as a technology improves or an industry grows,” “sometimes it happens only after tragedy.”  Accordingly, it may, or may not, take a while.

Related to my post suggesting similar things four days earlier was “The A.I. Revolution Is Coming, But Not as Fast as Some People Think,” by Steve Lohr in the New York Times on August 29th.  Reservations and reasons for going slower named here are “risks of leaking confidential data, questions about how the data is used and about the accuracy of the A.I.-generated answers,” and it cited another McKinsey study suggesting “mainstream adoption” would take somewhere between 8 and 27 years.  By then, other problems, such as copyright infringement, may still be significant.  So don’t expect anything big for a while – but let’s still stay tuned.

Friday, September 8, 2023

Liking Remote Work Won’t Change Its Downward Trend

Although I think the working-from-home cons have more merit than the pros, there have been a significant number of articles favoring the latter.  What do they have to say?

Hiding his opinion even less than I do mine was Gleb Tsipursky, in the May 8th Fortune piece “Why your boss is giving in to the siren call of the return to the office – and giving up on the flexible work gold mine.”  The author called the idea that “many organizations are struggling to foster strong communication, collaboration, and team bonding” when people worked remotely “startling,” and said that companies, as they became “faced with challenges,” “rather than learning to adapt,” were “tempted to go back to the cozy confines of the office-centric model.”  The piece offered no substantive suggestions for improvement, only that management should overcome “status quo bias” and “functional fixedness,” “adopt methods of building culture, collaboration, team bonding, and communication that are a good fit for a hybrid environment,” and “stop running” from “the future of work,” which is “here.” 

Paul Krugman, the columnist and Nobel-winning economist, told us, in “Working From Home and Realizing What Matters,” in The New York Times on May 22nd, that the value of remote labor should be raised in our estimations, because of reduced commuting time, which is undercounted or not counted in other measures.  True – if work hours are no longer.  The same author had “Remote work hasn’t doomed cities.  It may even help them” in the same publication on June 2nd.  His thought here was that “people who don’t have to commute to the office every day spend more time frequenting local shops, restaurants and so on, improving the quality of their neighborhoods,” although “remote work will surely shift metropolitan areas’ centers of gravity away from their central business districts.”

Similar in tone to the first article, Breck Dumas wrote in Fox Business about “Why some bosses hate remote work and what can be done about common gripes” (July 17th).  The five major reasons the author saw were “inadequate communication and collaboration” (which called for managers to “reach out to their remote workers and stay connected with them in other ways, like through phone or video calls”), “task allocation and clarity” (by setting SMART – specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound – parameters), “time management” (by “providing workers with training on time management techniques and encouraging prioritization and delegation”), “workload and resource allocation” (“regularly assess workloads, redistribute tasks as needed and ensure individuals have access to the necessary tools, training and support”), and “recognition and reward” (find ways of celebrating achievements with “elements of fun,” even on Zoom calls). 

Finally, some advice on “Making a successful data-driven transition to hybrid work” (Louis Blatt, Benefit News, August 1st), namely to “find out what your employees need” and “give workers some space,” along with habitually “explicitly dividing your project management into two categories:  focused/individual work and collaborative work.” 

How did you like the above?  If you did, you’re probably in favor of plenty of remote work.  If you didn’t, you saw blitheness, vagueness, superficiality, and confusing training with individual performance.  The pendulum between in-person and remote labor is still moving – it is now pulling strongly toward the office.  If it were not, there would be few calls for workers to come back, and little controversy about it.  Dressing as vegetables on celebratory video calls won’t change that.  Assuming that everyone will be focused and conscientious when faced with the temptation of being unsupervised won’t alter its back-and-forth nature.  That’s not only the present, but the future of work.  That’s what we have known since the first George Bush was president – and what, indefinitely, we will continue to know.

Friday, September 1, 2023

Unemployment Up, Job Gains Robust, More People on Sidelines, Latent Demand from AJSN 145,000 Higher

In this morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary, we were supposed to be keying on the number of net new nonfarm payroll positions, often just referred to as “jobs.”  It was a fine one, 187,000, an even ten percent over a published 170,000 estimate.  As excellent as that is and keeps being, with total population growth lower, some other outcomes were more surprising and less favorable.

Seasonally adjusted unemployment jumped 0.3% to 3.8%, with the unadjusted variety up 0.1% to 3.9%.  That reflected lower than seasonally expected August hiring, or, more likely, additional firing or layoffs, an effect from bankruptcies (Yellow Corporation) and strikes (Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists).  The number of officially unemployed gained 600,000 to 6.4 million, and those with jobs fell 55,000 to 161,427,000.  The count of those claiming no interest in work also increased 600,000, reaching 93,682,000.  The number of long-term unemployed, in that state for 12 months or longer, also rose, 100,000 to 1.3 million, while those working part-time for economic reasons, or holding shorter-hours jobs while seeking full-time ones, tacked on another 200,000 to 4.2 million.  The two measures of how common it is for Americans to be either working or officially jobless, the labor force participation rate and the employment-population ratio, gained 0.2% and broke even respectively, ending at 62.8% and 60.4%.  Average hourly private nonfarm payroll earnings gained 8 cents per hour, a tiny bit less than inflation, to $33.82. 

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the measure showing how many additional positions could be quickly and easily filled if getting one were perceived as no more difficult than another household errand, rose modestly to the following:

The AJSN added 226,000 from higher unemployment, but lost overall in categories of marginal attachment, mostly those wanting work but not looking for it for a year or more.  The share of the AJSN from people officially jobless is still a clear minority, 35.5%, up 1.1%.  There was remarkably little year-over-year AJSN difference, a 116,000 increase, following the same pattern as the change from July 2023, as higher unemployment was partially offset by a smaller number of those not putting forth searching efforts for 12 months or longer. 

What happened here?  It seemed that there was a real mixture of people thrown out of work, probably in the case of truckers and writers temporarily, those deciding not to make themselves available for a while, and solid growth otherwise.  The weakest outcomes, such as total unemployment, wages, and the count of those working part-time for economic reasons, gave back only parts of recent improvements.  The bottom line is indeed that 187,000.  Few have acknowledged how favorable it is for our labor force to be continuously growing, but there is no reason for that to be happening, month after month after month.  We would have a strong economy even if we averaged 100,000 fewer.  If negative trends continue this month we may not be able to say this, but, once more, the turtle took another step forward.