Category Archives: Technology

His 2020 Campaign Message: The Robots Are Coming

Andrew Yang, a New York businessman who wants to be the Democrats’ next presidential candidate, believes that automation threatens to bring Great Depression-level unemployment and violent unrest. Credit Guerin Blask for The New York Times

Among the many, many Democrats who will seek the party’s presidential nomination in 2020, most probably agree on a handful of core issues: protecting DACA, rejoining the Paris climate agreement, unraveling President Trump’s tax breaks for the wealthy.

Only one of them will be focused on the robot apocalypse.

That candidate is Andrew Yang, a well-connected New York businessman who is mounting a longer-than-long-shot bid for the White House. Mr. Yang, a former tech executive who started the nonprofit organization Venture for America, believes that automation and advanced artificial intelligence will soon make millions of jobs obsolete — yours, mine, those of our accountants and radiologists and grocery store cashiers. He says America needs to take radical steps to prevent Great Depression-level unemployment and a total societal meltdown, including handing out trillions of dollars in cash.

“All you need is self-driving cars to destabilize society,” Mr. Yang, 43, said over lunch at a Thai restaurant in Manhattan last month, in his first interview about his campaign. In just a few years, he said, “we’re going to have a million truck drivers out of work who are 94 percent male, with an average level of education of high school or one year of college.”

“That one innovation,” he continued, “will be enough to create riots in the street. And we’re about to do the same thing to retail workers, call center workers, fast-food workers, insurance companies, accounting firms.”

 Alarmist? Sure. But Mr. Yang’s doomsday prophecy echoes the concerns of a growing number of labor economists and tech experts who are worried about the coming economic consequences of automation. A 2017 report by McKinsey & Company, the consulting firm, concluded that by 2030 — three presidential terms from now — as many as one-third of American jobs may disappear because of automation. (Other studies have given cheerier forecasts, predicting that new jobs will replace most of the lost ones.)

Mr. Yang has proposed monthly payments of $1,000 for every American from age 18 to 64. “I’m a capitalist,” he said, “and I believe that universal basic income is necessary for capitalism to continue.” Credit Guerin Blask for The New York Times

Perhaps it was inevitable that a tech-skeptic candidate would try to seize the moment. Scrutiny of tech companies like Facebook and Google has increased in recent years, and worries about monopolistic behavior, malicious exploitation of social media and the addictive effects of smartphones have made a once-bulletproof industry politically vulnerable. Even industry insiders have begun to join the backlash.

To fend off the coming robots, Mr. Yang is pushing what he calls a “Freedom Dividend,” a monthly check for $1,000 that would be sent to every American from age 18 to 64, regardless of income or employment status. These payments, he says, would bring everyone in America up to approximately the poverty line, even if they were directly hit by automation. Medicare and Medicaid would be unaffected under Mr. Yang’s plan, but people receiving government benefits such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program could choose to continue receiving those benefits, or take the $1,000 monthly payments instead.

The Freedom Dividend isn’t a new idea. It’s a rebranding of universal basic income, a policy that has been popular in academic and think-tank circles for decades, was favored by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the economist Milton Friedman, and has more recently caught the eye of Silicon Valley technologists. Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen have all expressed support for the idea of a universal basic income. Y Combinator, the influential start-up incubator, is running a basic income experiment with 3,000 participants in two states.

Despite its popularity among left-leaning academics and executives, universal basic income is still a leaderless movement that has yet to break into mainstream politics. Mr. Yang thinks he can sell the idea in Washington by framing it as a pro-business policy.

“I’m a capitalist,” he said, “and I believe that universal basic income is necessary for capitalism to continue.”

Mr. Yang, a married father of two boys, is a fast-talking extrovert who wears the nu-executive uniform of a blazer and jeans without a tie. He keeps a daily journal of things he’s grateful for, and peppers conversations with business-world catchphrases like “core competency.” After graduating from Brown University and Columbia Law School, he quit his job at a big law firm and began working in tech. He ran an internet start-up that failed during the first dot-com bust, worked as an executive at a health care start-up and helped build a test-prep business that was acquired by Kaplan in 2009, netting him a modest fortune.

He caught the political bug after starting Venture for America, an organization modeled after Teach for America that connects recent college graduates with start-up businesses. During his travels to Midwestern cities, he began to connect the growth of anti-establishment populism with the rise of workplace automation.

“The reason Donald Trump was elected was that we automated away four million manufacturing jobs in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin,” he said. “If you look at the voter data, it shows that the higher the level of concentration of manufacturing robots in a district, the more that district voted for Trump.”

Mr. Yang’s skepticism of technology extends beyond factory robots. In his campaign book, “The War on Normal People,” he writes that he wants to establish a Department of the Attention Economy in order to regulate social media companies like Facebook and Twitter. He also proposes appointing a cabinet-level secretary of technology, based in Silicon Valley, to study the effects of emerging technologies.

Critics may dismiss Mr. Yang’s campaign (slogan: “Humanity First”) as a futurist vanity stunt. The Democratic pipeline is already stuffed with would-be 2020 contenders, most of whom already have the public profile and political experience that Mr. Yang lacks — and at least one of whom, Senator Bernie Sanders, has already hinted at support for a universal basic income.

Opponents of universal basic income have also pointed to its steep price tag — an annual outlay of $12,000 per American adult would cost approximately $2 trillion, equivalent to roughly half of the current federal budget — and the possibility that giving out free money could encourage people not to work. These reasons, among others, are why Hillary Clinton, who considered adding universal basic income to her 2016 platform, concluded it was “exciting but not realistic.”

“In our political culture, there are formidable political obstacles to providing cash to working-age people who aren’t employed, and it’s unlikely that U.B.I. could surmount them,” Robert Greenstein, the president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington research group, wrote last year.

But Mr. Yang thinks he can make the case. He has proposed paying for a basic income with a value-added tax, a consumption-based levy that he says would raise money from companies that profit from automation. A recent study by the Roosevelt Institute, a left-leaning policy think-tank, suggested that such a plan, paid for by a progressive tax plan, could grow the economy by more than 2 percent and provide jobs for 1.1 million more people.

“Universal basic income is an old idea,” Mr. Yang said, “but it’s an old idea that right now is uniquely relevant because of what we’re experiencing in society.”

Mr. Yang’s prominent supporters include Andy Stern, a former leader of Service Employees International Union, who credited him with “opening up a discussion that the country’s afraid to have.” His campaign has also attracted some of Silicon Valley’s elites. Tony Hsieh, the chief executive of Zappos, is an early donor to Mr. Yang’s campaign, as are several venture capitalists and high-ranking alumni of Facebook and Google.

Mr. Yang, who has raised roughly $130,000 since filing his official paperwork with the Federal Election Commission in November, says he will ultimately raise millions from supporters in the tech industry and elsewhere to supplement his own money.

Mr. Yang has other radical ideas, too. He wants to appoint a White House psychologist, “make taxes fun” by turning April 15 into a national holiday and put into effect “digital social credits,” a kind of gamified reward system to encourage socially productive behavior. To stem corruption, he suggests increasing the president’s salary to $4 million from its current $400,000, and sharply raising the pay of other federal regulators, while barring them from accepting paid speaking gigs or lucrative private-sector jobs after leaving office.

And although he said he was socially liberal, he admitted that he hadn’t fully developed all his positions. (On most social issues, Mr. Yang said, “I believe what you probably think I believe.”)

The likelihood, of course, is that Mr. Yang’s candidacy won’t end with a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue. Still, experts I spoke with were glad to have him talking about the long-term risks of automation, at a time when much of Washington is consumed with the immediate and visible.

Erik Brynjolfsson, the director of M.I.T.’s Initiative on the Digital Economy and a co-author of “The Second Machine Age,” praised Mr. Yang for bringing automation’s economic effects into the conversation.

“This is a serious problem, and it’s going to get a lot worse,” Mr. Brynjolfsson said. “In every election for the next 10 or 20 years, this will become a more salient issue, and the candidates who can speak to it effectively will do well.”

Mr. Yang knows he could sound the automation alarm without running for president. But he feels a sense of urgency. In his view, there’s no time to mess around with think-tank papers and “super PACs,” because the clock is ticking.

“We have five to 10 years before truckers lose their jobs,” he said, “and all hell breaks loose.”

By Kevin Roose/NYTimes

Posted by The NON-Conformist


Meet The Young Robotics Entrepreneur Who Got A Dream Deal With Apple

https___blogs-images.forbes.com_parmyolson_files_2018_01_IMG_0627-1200x1014photo by Parmy Olson/Silas Adekunle is the co-founder and CEO of Reach Robotics.

Behind the bar of San Francisco’s Four Seasons Hotel last March, a set of doors led into an empty cafe room where an unknown, 25-year-old British-Nigerian entrepreneur named Silas Adekunle was about to meet a senior executive at Apple.

If he was nervous, Adekunle didn’t show it.

He smiled and opened up a large suitcase. It was filled with colorful robots that looked at first like toys. When he took one out and set it on the floor, it came alive.

Called a Mekamon, it raced, spider-like across a mat on four pointed legs, trotting daintily before bowing, and performing a dramatic death shudder. Adekunle took out his phone and pointed it at the Mekamon, and now on his screen it was surrounded by glowing lights, facing an animated opponent that it could shoot lasers at.

Apple’s head of developer relations, Ron Okamoto, carefully surveyed the other robots, then peppered Adekunle with questions about motors and articulations. “It’s got character,” he noted.

Their expected 15-minute chat went on for more than an hour. At the end, Okamoto said the words every young entrepreneur with a team of just nine staff dreams of hearing: “You need to come spend some time with us in Cupertino.”

A year on and Adekunle, who at 26 is part of Forbes’ latest 30 Under 30 list for European Technology launched this week, is on course to sell plenty of Mekamon robots thanks to an exclusive distribution deal he signed in November 2017 after “spending some time in Cupertino” and meeting Apple’s retail executives.

Impressed by the quality of his robots and their ability to show emotion with subtly-calibrated movements, Apple priced his four-legged “battle-bots” at $300 and has put them in nearly all of its stores in the United States and Britain. Early customers skew towards male techies but a growing number of parents are buying the robots for their children to get them interested in STEM, Adekunle says.

What he hadn’t known during that first meeting at the Four Seasons: Apple was about to launch ARKit, its very first platform for augmented reality. AR is the cutting-edge technology that mixes digital animations with the real world, on smartphones screens, popularized by Pokemon Go and expected to go further with the face and object tracking technology in Apple’s latest iPhone X. With no track record, Adekunle and his team of nine were suddenly working with the world’s biggest brand.

Robots might already be changing the nature of warehouse management for retailers and other industries, but they’re gradually making their way into our homes too, helped along by people’s increasing ease with artificial entities like Amazon’s Alexa. Adekunle hopes his anthropomorphised robot-spiders will be as popular, say, as iRobot’s Roomba vacuum cleaner.

Trends point that way. Analysts at IDC predict that in three years, the market for consumer robots will have doubled. Next generation AI robots will be focused less on physical tasks, and more on teaching and interacting with family members, says Jing Bing Zhang, the research director of IDC Worldwide Robotics.

The MekaMon Delta Unit

On a more recent Monday morning in January 2018, Adekunle is standing in the corridor of Reach Robotics in Bristol, UK, and staring at a hunk of wires and melted plastic. It’s the first prototype he made in his college dorm room, and is on display as a reminder of how far his startup has come.

“Some of my fingerprints are still on there” he says. “It’s ugly as hell.”

The Mekamon today looks a lot more cutting edge, something like a cross between a crab and a spider, but unlike either of those animals, it has no features resembling a pair of eyes or mouth.

There’s a reason for that.

“When I went into robotics I really loved motion,” says Adekunle. “People are used to clunky robots, and when you make it appear to be realistic, people either love it or they’re freaked out.”

Playing an augmented reality game with the MekaMon Mekacademy unit.