Saturday, 14 February 2015

The man behind the curtain

Wizard of Oz: [speaking in a booming voice into microphone] I am the great and powerful...

[then, realizing that it is useless to continue his masquerade, moves away from microphone, speaks in a normal voice]

Wizard of Oz: ... Wizard of Oz.

I was drinking beer with my neighbours.

“I know how to connect a hosepipe to the internet,” said my next door neighbour.

“Ooh,” I said. “Exciting! How?”

“Whenever your tomatoes need watering, you can send me an email. Then I'll lean over the fence with a watering can.”

I thanked him for the kind offer, but declined.

“We're meant to have robot slaves by now, to tend to our every whim. We were promised it in the 1950s. That was 60 years ago.”

I asked my second neighbour, who is a software engineer for a national newspaper. I thought he would know about this sort of thing.

“One of the first things I did in my job,” he said, “was to build a system for election night. The results would come in from constituencies, and so needed to be fed into the database. But this was tricky to automate. Labour candidates, for instance, are not always actually from the Labour Party – they're often a local party which is affiliated to Labour – but when they win they need to be added to Labour's results.

“I spent three months building this. On election night, I turned it on, and it worked perfectly,” he said proudly. “And it was the worst thing I've ever made.

“It would have been far, far more efficient just to hire a couple of graduates for the night, and when the results came through, they could have keyed in the data. It would have done exactly the same thing.”

The Wizard of Oz technique

My neighbour explained that there are many systems where we think we are interacting with computers, but there's actually a human behind the scenes pressing the buttons and pulling the levers. This is less expensive than making an equivalent system which is genuinely automatic.

Are humans are cheaper than robots?

A prediction of futurologists has always been that machines would replace human labour, and we'd end up with oodles of leisure time to spend smiling in sunny fields. This has at least partly happened, though I sometimes feel it manifests itself as unemployment rather than leisure.

But when technology replaces human labour, does this not create a surplus of labour, thus pulling down wages? As things become harder to automate, do we hit an equillibrium, where labour is cheap or free, and automation inefficient? Can it ever be worth creating robots in a free market economy? Should I, in other words, accept my neighbour's emailable gardening services, and abandon my quest?

“No,” I tell my next door neighbour, coldly. “This is the future. I will not take advantage of you. And frankly, if you water my garden, I will feel obliged to water yours, and I'll end up with more work than I had in the first place. And I'm not doing that.”

The next day I posted the problem to Facebook. A friend commented.

"Can't you just ask your wife to change the settings?"

I fear the 1950s will be hard to leave.

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