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Monthly Archives: December 2013

Technological unemployment

Will Work For Free is a program on technological change that is leading to unemployment in the UK. Sam Vallely believes “all industries will be affected” and goes through them one by one, starting with High Street retail. Retail is the largest employment sector, but is going away, getting replaced by websites and smartphone apps, leaving a small number of specialist stores. Only things like tattooing (maybe) and hairdressing appear to be immune.

The photography company Kodak once employed more than 140,000 people and was worth $28 billion. But today Kodak is bankrupt. As is Jessop’s the store where we used to go to print the films where our photos were stored on.

So many jobs have disappeared. And what happened to the wealth that those middle-class jobs created? Questions like these will only become more common as robotics and automation hollows out every industry, from media to medicine to manufacturing.

In manufacturing, robots are becoming more adaptive, less pre-programmed and brittle, and more flexible, able to produce new products with less re-programming.

In the agriculture industry, what jobs are left are being replaced by robotic cow milking, automation of crop cultivation, vertical farming and hydroponics.

Automation is starting to enter the health care industry. Smartphone apps can send your heart rate directly to your cardiologist. A 15-year-old from Maryland discovers a way of detecting cancer that looks like it is 99% accurate, 168x faster, 26,000x cheaper than existing methods. Hospitals are getting robot couriers and telepresence robots. And of course IBM’s Watson is helping to diagnose illnesses.

In the food industry, McDonald’s is rolling out kiosks in Europe, and in the US, McDonalds has started replacing drive-thrus with voice recognition systems. Momentum Machines has invented a burger-making machine that can make burgers to order, and FuA-Men Noodles is working on machines to replace chefs completely at restaurants like Panda Express.

But its not all bad news, Vallely also shows the positive side as he points out the benefits to the environment of buying online. And isn’t being forewarned our opportunity to create our own future? Those that don’t may be left on the side…

H/T to Wayne Radinsky

Automation and Technology driving growth in corporate profits – but impacts jobs and wages

Are Robots really taking our jobs and how can jobs be recovered/re-created? As the fallen price of technology has made investment cheaper, companies are using computers and automation tools to replace staff. This has led to a rise in profits relative to wages against GDP.

According to a study by Chicago Booth business school researchers Loukas Karabarbounis and Brent Neiman (and others) the most profound impact on wages and jobs losses is likely to be the rise of information technology investment by corporations and greater automation through Internet and software technologies and robotics on the factory floors, the investments in which gathered pace in the 1980s as depicted in a series of papers (Oliner and Sichel (2000, 2002), Jorgenson and Stiroh (2000), Stiroh (2002), and Jorgenson, Ho, and Stiroh (2002)). In a 2007 paper, a team of economists led by Harvard’s Dale Jorgenson found the economic expansion was driven by efficiency increases in the production of IT, including computers, software and telecommunications components. Improvements in IT production “resulted in higher rates of decline in IT prices, stimulating decisions by firms, households, and governments to invest in IT equipment and software.”

It would seem that there is solid evidence that during the period of the Great Stagnation where the global economy is said to have been stagnant, corporate revenues and profits have risen so dramatically, and as the above study shows, much of that can be attributed to improved efficiencies due to investments in automation. Of course globalization and migration of jobs also has an impact but by far the automation tools so heavily invested in over the 1990’s and early 2000’s are leading to increased profits versus GDP.

Chart 1 shows the record profits of US corporations, in fact since 2009, for instance, the majority of companies of the Standard and Poor’s 500-stock index have doubled their profits.

US Corporate profits

But, despite these profit and revenue growth at least one finding indicates that corporate investment is low or in ‘the trough’ as depicted in Chart 2, courtesy of Cardiff Garcia – US Net Business Investment.

US Net Business Investment

I’m less convinced about the low level of corporate investment to GDP as much of software investment is treated as intangible assets and therefore not included in the above chart. US enterprise software revenue grew by 6% year over year in 2012 to circa $165 billion, and 5.6% in 2011 according to IDC.  Further, of the 500 companies on the S&P index less than 50% include R&D spending in their annual reports whereas a company like the Euro 90 billion AXA group show significant investment in software and digital technologies, and almost 7,000 staff in their technology solutions division, but in respect to R&D spend they indicate ‘not applicable’ in their latest annual report. Additionally private companies tend to spend 6.8 per cent of total revenue versus just 3.7 per cent average for public companies according to a study by Joan Farre-Mensa and colleagues at Harvard and New York University.

My own belief is that corporate investments are rising and probably nearer 3% of GDP, whilst still low in comparison to 15 years ago the trend is up. This is indicated, in one ‘small’ example, by the 18 to 25 per cent growth in orders to robotic manufacturers and the growth in sales revenue by enterprise software companies, plus several additional factors listed above.

Sadly for employees, the growing investment in technology is reflected by a falling share of GDP for wages; which in turn contributes to rising inequality (Chart 3).

wages to gdp

Much of this can be attributed to the fact that mid-wage jobs (sales, airport personnel, travel agents, bank employees, etc.) are not recovering whereas low-wage jobs have (Chart 4).

Mid wage jobs

By one measure, real GDP has continued to increase as corporate investment grows and profits excel, despite 2 million less jobs:

real gdp growth

Another illustration of technology investments increasing productivity, whilst the number of employees declines comes from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

productivity to employment

On reflection: profit growth will not be sustainable without revenue growth and revenue growth is not sustainable without investments, and investments create jobs right? According to a Reuters Thomson study the top 100 innovative companies in the S&P 500 spent $223 billion on R&D, and added more than 266,000 jobs. On the other hand without growth in earnings and pending interest rate increases people will have less to spend creating a downward spiral.

I remain confident that automation and robotics will serve to re-ignite the global economy – those profits have to be invested somewhere, even, as Apple has done in returning a significant amount to shareholders the money will have to be re-invested somewhere – the smart money is on improving processes and automated technologies and the companies that benefit from them. Technology companies will have a major impact on the economy in the next decade.

The future of work in the Robot economy

50 years ago, author Isaac Asimov prophesized about the future: “What will the World’s Fair of 2014 be like?” he wrote in the New York Times. “I don’t know, but I can guess.”

His essay forecast everything from self-driving cars:

“Much effort will be put into the designing of vehicles with ‘Robot-brains’”

To Keurig machines:

“Kitchen units will be devised that will prepare ‘automeals,’ heating water and converting it to coffee.”

To photochromic lenses:

“The degree of opacity of the glass may even be made to alter automatically in accordance with the intensity of the light falling upon it.”

But Asimov’s most impressive prophecy had less to do with gadgets than perceiving what that progress would mean for society.

”The world of A.D. 2014 will have few routine jobs that cannot be done better by some machine than by any human being,” he wrote. Later, he added, ”The lucky few who can be involved in creative work of any sort will be the true elite of mankind, for they alone will do more than serve a machine.”

A proliferation of new books, scientific studies, newspaper and journal articles are informing us that it was advances in technology and automation that have contributed to the extended period of unemployment that continues in the Great Recession. They tell us that robots will take our jobs, with headlines such as: “How Technology is Destroying Jobs[i]“Will Robots Steal Your Job?  You’re highly educated. You make a lot of money. You should still be afraid[ii].” We read that: “Factories have replaced millions of workers with machines.[iii]

Automation and other productivity improvements are expected to have eliminated 2.2 million business-services jobs in the United States and Europe from 2006 to 2016, at a rate of about 200,000 jobs annually, according to the Hackett Group, a Miami-based consultancy.

The Economist magazine calls this the “Third Industrial Revolution[iv].” I call it the Robot Economy, one that millions can and should benefit from and thereby avoid being displaced with what the brilliant Joseph Schumpeter termed ‘the inevitable creative destruction‘ that will lead us out of the great recession.

Over the last 20 years there has been incredible advances in automation. Windows 3.1 was released between 1992 and 1994, the first viable desktop publishing program which catapulted more and more individuals and businesses to begin using computers. In 1993 the Internet was in its infancy, used mainly by some government department and universities – it is only in the last 10 years that internet communication has taken off and streamlined many business processes; just look at banking and airline/travel reservations. It is as recent as 2009 that we began to see the widespread use of smartphones. Manufacturers assembly lines have largely replaced people with machines.

In short technology has advanced at a vast pace and the advantages technology has brought to automating processes and improving daily tasks within homes and businesses has had a significant impact on reshaping the workplace – eliminating many jobs, whilst creating new ones.

It’s not just that the old economy, built on factory work and mid-level office jobs, has stagnated. It’s that the nature of work itself is changing, largely because of the increasing power of intelligent machines and new evolutionary companies, such as Google, Tesla and Amazon and bell-weather IBM with their Watson artificial intelligence platform.

We may all immediately think of machines and automation as common features in factories, but also consider the insurance sector, in the UK alone some 75% of car insurance is now purchased online, just one example of a multi billion dollar industry that has considerably automated its sales reach and in so doing eliminated the job of the door-to-door friendly neighborhood insurance salesman.

Smart software is transforming almost everything about work, and ushering in an era of a new meritocracy. It makes workers redundant, by doing their work for them. It makes work more unforgiving, by tracking our mistakes. And it creates an entirely new class of workers: people who know how to manage and interpret computer systems, and whose work, instead of competing with the software, augments and extends it. Over the next several decades wages for that new class of workers will grow rapidly, while the rest will be left behind.

A recent scientific study indicated that people with ‘numeracy’ skills are likely to fair better in the workplace than those with literacy skills. On average people with 1 basis point more in numeracy skills earn 18% more than those with literacy skills. Clearly numeracy skills are essential for people programming the algorithms that are driving the robot economy through software.  I’ll write more about this study in the coming weeks as I am not so convinced and creative types with marketing and psychology skills will be much in demand as Professor Tyler Cowen has written in his book Average is Over.

Finally back to Asimov, who also wrote in his essay Whatever you Wish: “It may be that machines will do the work that makes life possible and that human beings will do all the other things that make life pleasant and worthwhile.

Will we have and want more leisure time? Having meaningful work that stimulates and challenges the mind is something I certainly I hope to continue to do – isn’t that something most of us want?

Future Dimensions and Artificial Intelligence

Future Dimensions

The present is surreal and one thing is for sure, the future will be weirder still. Anders Sandberg of the Future of Humanity Institute in Oxford and other thinkers mull over whether humans might become the pets of intelligent machines; what threat does epidemic disease pose, and why we feel such a need to predict the future anyway.

I believe some of the following video is exaggerated but not too far off what may happen:

Director Biography: Ryan Harding is a photographer and film maker based in London.

Producer: Marianna Petrilli

Robot manufacturers report significant growth in orders and revenue

As the world economy continues to trickle forward and record nominal growth the industrial robotics-manufacturing sector is growing at record levels with some robot manufactures reporting year on year growth from 18% to 25%.

Kuka RoboticsABB the $39 billion turnover power and automation technology company reported in their annual report for the year ended 2012: “Strong order performance in robotics.” Further adding: “Increase in large orders for robotics.” During each of the 3 quarterly reports so far in 2013 ABB have indicated: ‘robotics orders are up.’ And “Revenues reflect execution of strong order backlog, especially in robotics.”

The discrete automation and motion division, which includes robotics, had approximately 29,300 employees and generated $9.4 billion of revenues in 2012 – it is unclear how much robotics contributed to sales but it is clearly reported that robotics is the sector that is growing most.

The strong growth in the Discrete Automation and Motion division reflected continued demand for energy-efficient automation solutions leading to an increase of 63 percent. While all businesses contributed to the increase in orders in that division, Robotics (and power electronics) posted the highest growth rates.

And

Revenues rose in the Discrete Automation and Motion division, as the Robotics business continued to grow at a double-digit rate in 2012.

The Robotics business also “grew at a double-digit pace in 2011.”

ABB also reported the highest increase in EBITDA was due to “the Robotics business.”

In 2012, orders (across the group) were flat due to slower industrial growth globally in a more challenging macroeconomic environment.  Lower demand from the renewable energy sector was offset by increased volumes from large orders in other sectors.

The highest growth was achieved in the Robotics business due to several larger automotive orders.

Later adding: “Robotics orders increased due to improving demand in automotive and general industry sectors.” Further emphasizing business growth came from the robotics division: “The highest increase (in orders) came from the Robotics business.”

During the second quarter of 2013 the Precision Machinery division of Kawasaki Heavy Industries reported:

Consolidated orders received increased ¥6.1 billion ($58.6 million) year on year to ¥61.7 billion ($592 million), largely by virtue of growth in robot orders from the auto industry and orders for cleaning robots for semiconductor production lines.

In the first quarter of 2013 the same division of indicated additional growth:

Consolidated orders received grew ¥1.2 billion ($11.5 million) year on year to ¥29.8 billion ($286 million). The increase was largely a net result of growth in robot orders from overseas automobile manufacturers.

German headquartered Kuka Robotics, who it is thought have 7% of the industrial robotic market, showed remarkable growth between 2011 and 2012 for their industrial robots:

Their robots (excluding robot services) order book increased by 22.7% from Euro 654.4 million ($894) in 2011 to Euro 803.1 million ($1.1 billion) in 2012. And actual sales revenue increased by 20.5% from Euro 616.3 million ($842.6) in 2011 to Euro 742.6 million ($1.015 billion) in the financial year 2012.

Combining the robot manufacturing with robotic services is even more impressive. Kuka reports combined revenues for their robotics sales and service orders as increasing by 22% to Euro 1.89 billion (2.58 billion) and sales revenues increasing by 21% to Euro 1.74 billion ($2.38 billion).

Yaskawa the Japanese conglomerate recently reported robot sales of 58.6 billion yen ($506.2 million) for the first six months of 2013 up 7.9% against the previous year.

For the financial year ended 2012 Yaskawa had reported a 9.1% increase in sales revenue for its robots up to 110.2 billion Yen ($1.05 billion). Effectively recording more than 18% increase in eighteen months

Another Japanese manufacturer Fanuc indicated growth for robot orders for the six months ended September 2013: “Looking at the performance by business group, the FA Group posted consolidated sales totaling ¥109,645 million, up 2.0%, the Robot Group posted consolidated sales totaling ¥73,619 million, up 25.0%. Bloomberg provides a comprehensive directory of approximately 110 industrial robot companies many of whom are reporting significant increases in revenue as manufacturers seek to automate much of the supply chain.

According to an International Federation of Robotics (IFR) study of World Robotics conducted in 2012, there were at least 1.15 million operational industrial robots by the end of 2011. This number is expected to increase by over 36% to 1.58 million by the end of 2015. Other reports indicate the market is currently worth $17 billion per year, and is expected to cross $37 billion by 2018, excluding services.

The figures reported by the robot manufacturers in their financial releases would appear to support this growth.

Whilst some jobs will be displaced due to the increased rollout of robots in the manufacturing sector, many will also be created as robot manufactures recruit to meet their growing demand and jobs that were previously sent offshore are brought back to developed countries, such as Apple manufacturing its Mac Pro in America.

The future looks bright for robotic manufacturers and those skilled in developing and working alongside the machines.

Are maps and localization driving Google’s robot strategies?

Now that Google has confirmed reports of the acquisitions of eight robotic companies much speculation is being made of where the search giant is heading.Google where to?

My own belief is this is very much part of their mobile strategy, and if it is not, it certainly has generated a significant amount of press and media attention, despite the probable sizes of the deals being small by Google’s standards. In their latest 10Q filing (pdf), the company reported during the nine months ended September 30, 2013, they completed 21 acquisitions and purchases of intangible assets, 20 of these, (which are likely to be most of the robotic companies) were for a relatively small amount of approximately $369 million. The other acquisition during this period was Waze, a provider of a mobile map application, which provides turn-by-turn navigation and real-time traffic updates powered by incidents and route information submitted by a community of users, for a total cash consideration of $969 million. Google writes:

The acquisition is expected to enhance our customers’ user experience by offering real-time traffic information to meet users’ daily navigation needs.

Effectively the acquisition of Waze is nearly 3 times as much as the combined purchase price of the 20 other companies. Let us also remember that as recent as April 2012 Google paid a staggering $12.4 billion total purchase price for Motorola (they subsequently sold Motorola home for $2.4 billion and retain focus on Motorola mobile).

In Google’s 2012 10K (pdf annual report) the company reflects on the acquisition of Motorola:

We expect to continue to devote significant resources to the creation, support, and maintenance of mobile products and services… to capture the opportunities available as consumers and advertisers transition to a dynamic, multi-screen environment.

The multi-screen environments move from personal computers to “mobile phones, smartphones, handheld computers such as netbooks and tablets, video game consoles, and television set-top devices.”

Adding:

The acquisition is expected to protect and advance our Android ecosystem and enhance competition in mobile computing. 

It’s not uncommon for Google to spend a lot on acquisitions, some of which would never get the press coverage a robot or big dog will. Yet during the year ended December 31, 2012, Google spent over $1 billion ($1,171) on 52 other acquisitions (in addition to Motorola) that ‘generally enhance the breadth and depth of our expertise in engineering and other functional areas, our technologies, and our product offerings.’  But little is written of what that $1,171 was spent on, despite it being significantly higher than the acquisition spending in the 9 months ended September 2013 (excluding Waze). Although at least some of the cash in 2012 went on speech recognition technology!

The man spearheading Google’s robotic acquisitions and project is Andy Rubin, the former head of the hugely successful Android development, the person that was effectively challenged with establishing Google’s foothold in mobile, the area they see as being strategically important to their future cash-flows as users turn more and more to multi-screen browsing.

So why the question — Are maps and localization driving Google’s robot strategies?

It’s clear the Motorola and Waze acquisitions together with Google Maps, StreetView, Nexus 7 (Google’s tablet) and Android are establishing a mobile ecosystem and Google sees Maps as a crucial part of an operating system for mobile devices.

Maps is already generating around 20% of search queries and according to the New York Times article (link above) Google indicates the same amount of advertising revenues is connected to map searches. It seems Google has a clear vision of combining maps and mobile to ensure it continues to grow its $50 billion plus per year revenues.

The sheer amount of human effort that goes into Google’s maps is just mind-boggling and the geographic data Google has assembled is not likely to be matched by any other company. We can now navigate around shopping malls with Google’s Indoor maps, in fact Street View now includes the ability to navigate inside of Gatwick Airport, Waterloo Station, and even inside an Airbus A380 on the runway at Dubai Airport.

Sergey Brin, Google’s co-founder, has promised to release self-driving technology within four years, and Google’s maps will then be a standard feature in its robot cars. Likewise maps are integral to Google Glass another of the ‘moonshot’ projects Google is working on.

Google Ventures recently announced a $250 million investment in Uber the ‘taxi service’ and again maps will be one of the driving factors behind this investment.

Google’s home delivery service, Shopping Express, which provides same day delivery service, relies heavily on maps.

Maps are clearly at the core of Google’s development strategy, from driverless cars, online shopping and search, to wearable technology. Many of the recent robot acquisitions will enhance Google’s mobile strategy and improve its delivery services, hardware capabilities and above all localization experiences.

Google revenues are dependent upon growing advertisement revenues and the closer it gets to users through localization and awareness of consumer habits through mobile technology and maps the more it can increase its sophisticated and timely service to advertisers.

According to Alexis Madrigal writing in The Atlantic magazine: “Google’s geographic data may become its most valuable asset. Not solely because of this data alone, but because location data makes everything else Google does and knows more valuable.

Google is reshaping the computer question “where do you want to go today?” And that makes for improved search and services for all of us. It seems that Google has a big part to play in the Robot Economy…

Morgan Stanley predict trillions in savings by switching to driverless cars

For the best part of 130 years the automotive industry has been a force for innovation and economic growth. Now, in the early decades of the 21st century, the pace of innovation is speeding up and the industry is on the brink of a new technological revolution: “self-driving” cars.

driverlesscar

Morgan Stanley Research analysts held brainstorming sessions with top executives in the auto industry to help develop a specific vision of what the industry’s future might look like. In doing so, they claim to have broken new ground on the topic of driverless cars by focusing on areas that have not yet been addressed. Specifically, they determined:

  1. A timeline for adoption
  2. Highlighted global implications
  3. Quantified the socio-economic benefits
  4. Examined investment implications, including categories such as long-haul freight delivery, telecommunications services, semiconductors, media and software.

The authors of a report titled “Autonomous Cars: Self-Driving the New Auto Industry Paradigm” also claim to have come up with a variety of potential solutions to the industry’s most pressing obstacles. The report indicates:

Autonomous cars are no longer just the realm of science fiction—and the social and economic implications are enormous. Cars with basic autonomous capability are in showrooms today, semi-autonomous cars are coming in 12-18 months, and completely autonomous cars are set to be available before the end of the decade.

According to the lead author Ravi Shanker of Morgan Stanley Research:

“With US drivers driving 75 billion hours a year, autonomous cars are poised to have a much greater impact on society as a whole than most people give them credit for.”

Autonomous cars “can drive one of the most significant transformations of the automobile in its history.” In addition to their many practical benefits, autonomous cars can contribute $1.3 trillion in annual savings to the US economy, with global savings estimated at more than $5.6 trillion. The report attributed the savings to a number of factors, such as a decline in costs for fuel and accidents, as well as $507 billion in annual productivity gains, since people could work, not drive, in their cars while commuting to work.

The report’s authors believe that the main barriers to autonomous vehicle growth include questions around liability in the event of an accident, customer acceptance and infrastructure development. Despite the potential roadblocks Morgan Stanley’s Shanker indicated: “It is now clear to us that not only are autonomous cars real, but also they are likely to come around sooner than most people think.”

It is clear the new technology associated with driverless cars could provide solutions to some of our most intractable social problems—the high cost of traffic accidents, transportation infrastructure, the millions of hours wasted in traffic jams, and the wasted urban space given over to parking lots, just to name a few. The implications could also be profoundly disruptive for almost every stakeholder in the automotive ecosystem.

As various participants in the automotive ecosystem grapple with the impact of these potentially disruptive new technologies, many are starting to embrace the possibilities. Intel, for example, recently launched a $100 million Connected Car Fund because, says Mark Lydon, director at Intel Capital: “Intel is looking to apply its expertise
in consumer electronics and systems intelligence to the development of smarter vehicle technologies.”

Everything, from how we move goods to how we move ourselves around, is ripe for change.

See also:

UK Government betting on driverless cars and robotics

Sebastian Thrun – Google’s driverless car

How do you feel about driverless cars?