Readers: this blog is set in the future (sometime after the year 2020). Each entry assumes there has been a 5th revolution in the US — the Revenge Revolution. More about the Revenge Revolution and author, Entry #1.  Most entries are formatted as conversations. Characters appear in a number of entries, with many entries building on previous conversations.

Occasionally I do a “sense check.”  Auditing one’s own work is problematic but I try to be objective.  Entries #300 and #301 are the most recent standard “sense checks.”   Entries (#310-#313) broke from conversation format.  

Scene: Jordan’s office, Washington, DC.  Continuing conversation with Gelly, Jordan’s assistant.  Conversation began Entry #308.

Jordan: “OK, Gelly, got my coffee refill. Ready to talk more about how societies cope with technology-induced disruptions?”

Gelly: “Yes, but as a reminder, keep it simple, please. I’m just trying to understand the basics. Not trying to become a PhD candidate.”

Jordan: “Not to worry. Besides, I’m not a PhD.”

092615_2031_Characters7.gifGelly: “Maybe not but you have lots of study time…and a bunch of experience in the real world using economics stuff. Remember, KISS, okay?”

Jordan: “Let’s go back and look at how artificial intelligence (AI) is being used. Another example is your iPhone. Ask Siri a question.”

Gelly: “Siri has artificial intelligence?  And I thought she lived in my iPhone. OK, ‘Hey, Siri, what was the score of last week’s Michigan-Indiana football game?’”

MichiganJordan: “When Siri tells you Michigan beat Indiana, that’s a form of AI.”

Gelly: “I understand that part…I think. Siri hears the question, does a quick search of available databases, finds the answer, and then repeats the score. That easy enough to understand. Not saying easy to make happen, just easy to understand.”

Jordan: “You’re right, not easy to make happen. Now ask Siri to tell you a joke.”

Confused Clip ArtGelly: “How does she do that?”

Jordan: “When the question is more abstract, like ‘Tell me a joke,’ it’s the same procedure as looking for the score of the football game. However, for more abstract questions, sometimes the answer is reasonable and sometimes the answer is off the wall. Remember that AI is more effective when parameters of the task are defined. The Michigan-Indiana score is quite specific. So is picking up boxes, which we talked about earlier. Accuracy of AI also improves as more information is added to the database and algorithms refined.”

PhoneGelly: “So for Siri, Alexa and their siblings, they’re best at providing quick access to available information. At the same time, the working stiffs most affected by Siri and siblings are people employed to provide information. The example might seem a bit  dated but as a kid I remember being able to pick up the phone and have the operator get someone’s number, right?”

Jordan: “Right. Another example is society’s need for newspapers. For a couple of centuries newspapers were a primary source of information for all kinds of activities. People used to buy a paper for say just the sports section. That need has changed. Siri just told you the score of the Michigan-Indiana game. And, if you wanted, you could get real-time updates on your smart phone. Even if the game is not broadcast in your viewing area, you can ge an app on your phone to watch the highlights of the game and a bunch of other games as well.”

Legal ClerkGelly: “What about AI replacing some functions of what lawyers do, or at least law clerks do? Same with some portion of information gathered when visiting a doctor. Seems as if a lot of people could be replaced, or maybe have been replaced already by some form of Siri and siblings. What about using AI for tasks that are a lot more complicated than say picking up boxes or searching a database?”

Jordan: “You mean like people who used to paint cars or weld frames or even lay bricks being replaced by robots?”

Gelly: “Yes, but also tasks that seems even more complicated…like sewing clothes. You might not appreciate it but there are lots of steps in sewing. Lots of turning fabric and moving it back-and-forth. Making even simple clothes requires a lot of steps and precise hand-eye coordination. It’s not easy.”

Sewing MachineJordan: “Well, some clothes are already being made 100% or nearly 100% by machines. And over time, machines will make clothes that require more steps.”

Gelly: “That’s what I still don’t understand. What does happen to all those people in low-cost countries that are making clothes? If they lose their jobs, what happens? By the way, has anyone ever studies what happened to all those telephone operators, or guys that were painting cars?”

Jordan: “Your concern is spot on. What does happen? Unfortunately, the people who are most negatively affected by a disruptive technology, AI or otherwise, have little or no recourse when their job is eliminated. If they’re lucky, some get a handshake and severance pay but in developing countries, these people are SOL.”

Poor PersonGelly: “Another case of the working stiff getting screwed?”

Jordan: “The key for the country is whether the leadership begins adopting new technology and creating new jobs. If not, the country will continue to fall behind.”

Gelly: “How often do these technology disruptions happen? Seems like much faster today.”

Jordan: “Faster today…maybe. But we forget some of the objects or equipment we consider mundane today were really technology disruptions when introduced.”

Gelly: “You mean like the printing press, telegraph, the tractor and combine?”

Jordan: “Think about what was introduced between say 1850-1950. Electricity, cars, planes, trains, repeating rifles, motion pictures, radio, television…and that list doesn’t include any medical advances. So whether change is faster now is debatable. But the same problem exists – what do you do with people replaced by technology?”

Gelly: “OK, what does happen to society? I remember you talking one time about Argentina and the US having roughly the same GDP per capita in 1900. Then 100 or so years later GDP per capita in the US was almost 4x Argentina.  Argentina fell way behind.”

TurtleneckJordan: “Excellent example. I’m impressed you remembered.”

Gelly: “Thank you. Now, what happens in these countries?”

Jordan: “Remember when we first started to talk about the patterns of revolutions in the US?”

Gelly: “You found that there was a pattern of a revolution roughly every 50 years.”

Jordan: “The word ‘roughly’ is the key. Major changes in societal behavior do not follow some precise timeline. People who want to develop a more predictive model are always disappointed in how squishy the approach is.”

Gelly: “There seems to be a reasonable pattern for revolutions. Is there some kind of pattern or technology disruptions?”

Jordan: “There seems to be but the problem is trying to figure out if and how other factors affect the cycle.”

dude-with-questionGelly: “Now I’m starting to get even more confused.  What happened to KISS…keep it simple, stupid?”

Jordan: “Let me say after technology moves out of the lab and first becomes commercially viable, there’s a period of very rapid growth in companies and countries that use the technology. After a while the growth associated with the technology slows and, eventually, the technology and companies mature and decline.”

Gelly: “OK, a new technology is introduced, companies grows fast, and then decline. How long is the cycle?”

Jordan: “Without any of these other interruptions, 50 years more or less like a reasonable number. Keep in mind, if the data about revolutions are squishy, data for technology cycles are really squishy. I think there’s a pattern but the timeline for that pattern likely varies.”

Gelly: “Have you got a couple of examples. What about the auto industry? You know a lot about that? What about computers?”

Jordan: “What about another break, then we’ll talk more. I promise to try to keep it simple. As I said, the data and cycles are a bit messy.”