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What the Devil won't tell you

Google Assistant coming for thousands of Tucson jobs

Time is now to start forcing candidates to discuss AI revolution

Someone booked a hair appointment and the whole world changed.

Tucson, once again, seems poised to take the brunt of technological and economic disruption because we just can't catch a break.

Earlier this month, C3 announced it was expanding its local call centers here, adding 3,000 more jobs. Those additional positions could push the ranks of Tucson's headphoned workers up past 20,000. Now, I'm no fan of our call-center economy and wonder why so many Tucsonans are still heralding such developments. It is what it is and we are what we are.

Meanwhile in another cluster of cyberspace, Google Assistant booked an appointment for a woman's haircut and the business world lost its mind. It's not that a computer made a phone call or that the receptionist taking the call had no trouble understanding a robot. No, the bigger point was that the receptionist had no idea she was talking to a robot. The computer voice was smooth and human and even knew when to cut loose with strategic "ums." People went apeshit.

Forbes, Wired and the Verge all went long, discussing the degrees to which the technology could be fraudulently used to sucker humans and destroy competition through pure robotic chicanery. The artificial intelligence technology is called Duplex and can only be used in certain "closed" conversations about things like booking appointments. It's part of a broader conversation of clickbait headlines pondering the survival of humanity or our enslavement under the jackboot of mechanical overlords. Or will it decide one day to kill us all?

Let's set aside the genocide of the human species and using AI to curate, contour, manipulate and forge a human perception beneficial to the programmers. Neither terrifies me because people can get around both. I'll get to Moore's Law and how it may have found its limit, but hold that thought.

First, let's talk "disruption," because AI is like Napster for vast reaches of the job market.

AI is an asteroid we can all see coming, so voters must force the tech issue right now on our political candidates. If Bill Gates is worried, Elon Musk is terrified and Stephen Hawking said "you're screwed, I won't be there. Ha ha," maybe it's something we should talk about sooner rather than later.

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I'm not talking about rampant liberalism, in fact, the Left may want to cool the jets on minimum wage hikes that may force a tipping point. Universal basic income is one way to go but how inflation won't swallow a UBI whole hasn't been explained. And AI can easily be paint a broadbrush comparison to the Industrial Revolution. On balance, we're so much better off for having gone through it but, boy, there were some rough spots.

No question, AI is going to help society in ways we can't imagine. It's just going to come at a cost and since costs tend to be socialized, society has to start budgeting sooner rather than later. And tech giants seem insistent Tucson is one of the first to get the bill.

We may be facing a future, starting here in Tucson, where the whole relationship between society and work could very well be on the verge of changing. We may be talking about how economic winners and losers are decided by cash so concentrated in so few hands dollars may as well be chips at the Trump Taj Mahal. Its proof you won, but what are you going to do with it?

When the canaries die, the miners get nervous. So how long will the call center gigs chirp?

Bots without shame

The limits of Google's AI Duplex technology may be "closed conversations." Call center jobs are entirely "closed" conversations and if machines can make them indistinguishable from people, we got a problem. What's more, machines that make those calls are happy to make them forever and don't consider their work to be some dead end job that's a source of shame on a Tinder date. They don't have Tinder hookups because all they do is make calls. Let's throw on top of that, machine learning and now these disembodied voices can get better at their jobs.

Tucson has 17,000 people working in call centers. The bot industry is drawing one of its first beads on a leading Tucson industry.

Here's an interesting point about where I found that statistic. It was on a site selector consultant's website. They were listing the communities and call center jobs as a warning to employers that some communities have too many qualified workers in the call center industry. Those regions are "saturated," which is a euphemism for "ready and willing to seek higher pay at a competitor."

"Due to the industry growth and scale of these operations, call centers began to see employee attrition rates escalate and wage rates increase as workers would switch jobs for as little as 50 cents per hour over their current wage."

Imagine that. For as little as $80 per month, a worker will leave a company that clearly views $80 as too much to pay to retain a worker but finds it a paltry sum for a worker to dissolve loyalty.

Are call centers vulnerable? You better freaking believe it. Bots haven't replaced the call center worker yet because the customer is a big variable with different accents, different problems and seeking different solutions. So a second call placed by Google Assistant is more telling than the hair appointment. On that one, the bot wants to make reservations at an Asian restaurant and the person who answers not only has a heavy accent the bot understands, but the person at the restaurant throws a couple curve balls and forces the AI caller to arrange a Plan B.

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IBM, which brought us Watson, makes it plain:

"New and innovative technologies can deliver advanced levels of service over conventional customer service at a fraction of the cost. A perfect example of this is call computerization solutions, which combine machine learning and advanced speech recognition to improve conventional interactive voice response systems, whilst delivering a 60% – 80% cost saving over outsourced call centers powered by humans"

These jobs are entirely price sensitive. If 50 cents per hour seems like an unreasonable price to keep a "valued" worker, who believes cutting 70 percent of the cost would prompt that business to so much as sniff at automating its workforce?

That's fine, those call center workers with their customer service skills can get a gig in retail. Oh, wait. Brick and mortar is under such technological siege that they are now referred to as "brick and mortar" rather than "stores."

Even the remaining products of masonry face new competition from Amazon, because a sales associate apparently once stole Jeff Bezos' prom date. Amazon Go is a burgeoning grocery store chain that operates without checkout employees.

Amazon will be hiring 1,500 workers at a Tucson warehouse but if it takes out a third or even 10 percent of the area's 46,000 retail jobs, that's a net loss of thousands. It further assumes those jobs won't soon be done by robots and drones — which Amazon and others are already working on. It's better to have jobs than not but call center workers will be looking at shrinking opportunities.

Hey, at least there will be bartending jobs, right? Oops.

The other jobs

Let's talk about what we're talking about. Even Alphabet (nee Google) CEO Eric Schmidt, a big cheerleader of the technology, says bots will make a lot of jobs obsolete but when that happens, new jobs will appear. So the call center worker can just take a job in programming. Yet if the call center worker had solid programming chops, it's a safe bet they wouldn't be working in a call center.

So how are they going to get those skills? All we have to do is look at rural industrial towns to see how well the free market replaces jobs with skills all by its lonesome. It doesn't or it does it very, very slowly to the point where those communities feel entirely left behind. Something is going to have to step into the breach.

Skills: What and where?

What if the bot revolution simply re-arranges the labor market. Then it would appear that we have a skills gap to fill. That gap may be less of a burden than people think, according to this article in the MIT Technology Review. It didn't find a skills gap as much as it found people arming themselves with skills they don't need or business not doing enough to give those skills to new employees.

"Instead of fretting about a skills gap, we should be focused on the real challenge of knitting together the supply and demand sides of the labor market. Thinking about the real financial and institutional mechanisms necessary to make, say, apprenticeships work is far more productive than perennially sounding alarms about under-skilled workers."

Rather than spend $2 trillion on a universal basic income that may not work, maybe spend a couple billion in helping bring trade associations, employment agencies and community colleges together with employers to help workers find their way back into the job market.

Maybe instead of spending however many billions on 99 weeks of unemployment extensions during the next upheaval, shorten the period but pay for giving the recipient those skills for the same price.

Against Moore's Law

Don't think you are safe. In this interview, Schmidt discusses how AI can do chemistry experiments 10 times faster than homo sapiens. Over here, AI is writing horrible poetry but the snark misses the point: A decade ago, it couldn't write poetry at all. The bad poetry is getting better.

So if your job exists somewhere on the spectrum between chemist and poet, a bot will probably do it better, faster and longer than you will find it personally convenient. We're talking about automation that learns in an ever-steepening curve

When? There's good news and bad news. Information processing had been obeying Moore's Law for decades. Computer chips could double their capacity every two years, so the acceleration of technology has been geometric and not linear. Futures become now a lot faster than we think. In 1988, cell phones were bricks in cars. In 1998, they were common in people's hands. In 2008, smart phones were everywhere. In 2018, making a call on a phone is an afterthought. And here's some food for thought. If we went back to 1978 how many Kodak execs would say the leading threat to their industry was the telephone?

So are we all working for AT&T in 1988 or Kodak in 1978? Or we working in Columbia Records A&R department in 1995? Anyone plan in being in the labor market in 2038?

The good news for workers is that Moore's Law has recently popped in "general purpose computing." But in AI, the law is still operable because it's more specialized. Bot tech is still increasing fast but maybe the breaks will catch someday and give us some time. Then again, researchers are already preparing for a similar bottle neck in machine this field by doing stuff like scuttling arithmetic computation requirements for chips and replicating the biological neurons.

Farmer and the Ox

Just consider the industrial revolution parallel (Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" may be worth a read). Farmers got displaced. Industrial work forces grew by leaps and bounds. Maybe we're the farmer but maybe we're the ox.

Farmers could walk into a factory and get a gig turning a nob. The jobs AI is going to create come with a price for entry — some sort of advanced training that the suddenly out of work truck driver may need but can't afford.

In one of the dumber counter arguments to bots killing jobs, British industry analyst Kallum Pickering says business would never do what's bad for the workers because the workers provide the demand for the goods. Therefor industry will act responsibly.

“Producers will only automate if doing so is profitable. For profit to occur, producers need a market to sell to in the first place. Keeping this in mind helps to highlight the critical flaw of the argument: if robots replaced all workers, thereby creating mass unemployment, to whom would the producers sell? Because demand is infinite whereas supply is scarce, the displaced workers always have the opportunity to find fresh employment to produce something that satisfies demand elsewhere.”

That's not an argument that's worked out terribly well in restraining Walmart's roar through rural America. If business thought about labor costs as its consumer market, it wouldn't have let the wage gap grow to historic levels. Hell, it wouldn't lay off workers during a recession.

Even Kallum admits AI will "hollow out the middle class." So there's that.

The information age is not an inclusive age. It's an exclusive age. We are using information to disqualify, especially in the areas of employment. What used to involve a snappy resume or an application on clipboard now involves a search for information that debars workers from re-entering the work force. What's your credit rating? Have you ever had any scrape with the law more involved than a traffic accident (it's all first degree murder)? What about your social media footprint? Take this battery of exams so big data can figure out who you really are. What year did you graduate high school? Do you know the newest suite of office information systems? And, perhaps, most important:

What's your employment status now?

Society doesn't mind helping people who need it "through no fault of their own," but has a tendency to plus up the definition of "fault." Taking a job in the first place that will eventually be slammed by bots could be defined as a "bad decision" (trust me, it happens) but it's hard to blame people for doing a job no longer needed because they did the job when it was needed.

The question before the politicos will be how do we help them? That depends now on knowing the unknowable.The worst case scenario is a bot-pocalypse, where workers lose jobs en masse and the economy's capacity to create jobs never recovers. Now we have what guys like Gates and my main man Juval Noah Harari calls "a useless class."

Then we have to reframe the question to deal with people who no longer have a job and won't get one.

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Insta-culture won't wait

Point is, we need to start having the conversation now and business leaders can be a part of it but they can't be relied on to fix it. It's not their job. They're thinking about their product, their costs, their profits and their stock price. That's their job. Society and government need to think about how to patch the holes the market punches into the social fabric. AI is going to gash the social fabric.

Just like Tucson got nailed by the housing bubble, AI would seem to be coming for one of our leading industries first. So asking candidates for office at all levels what they think should be done about it, will force them to start thinking about it.

The Industrial Revolution ramped up after the Civil War and went on for nearly 50 years before politics adapted to it. We deal today with instant messages, Instagram and 24-hour news cycles that demand problems be solved by the end of the episode. Who thinks we'll sit patiently for 50 years during the next revolution?

People today are probably willing to be adaptive farmers but they aren't going to willingly go the way of the ox without a fight.

Blake Morlock is a journalist who spent 17 years covering government in Arizona and also worked in Democratic political communications. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.
Upate: Because Amazon’s PR folks objected to a characterization of the company’s “Amazon Go” stores as operating without employees, we’ve updated to note that they’re eliminating cashiers. Amazon still says they’ll need workers to chop broccoli and make sandwiches, though they’ve probably filed patents regarding those tasks even if they don’t have robots doing the work already.


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