2015 February 24 Tuesday
DNA Phenotyping To Make Drawings Of Criminal Suspects

Phenotype is what effect a gene has. So a genetic variant could cause black hair or blue eyes. Those are both phenotypes. A flood of genetic data caused by a many orders of magnitude decline in genome sequencing costs has led to the discovery of many genetic variants that control how our bodies develop and how we look. With only a DNA sample some companies can now computer generate a drawing of a criminal suspect.

Already genetic sleuths can determine a suspect’s eye and hair color fairly accurately. It is also possible, or might soon be, to predict skin color, freckling, baldness, hair curliness, tooth shape and age.

This is still very much a work in progress. For example, while hundreds of genetic variations for height have been found the known variants probably aren't a complete list and their interactions are likely complicated. The same is true for genetic variants that control other visible traits such as bone shape in the face, hip width, bone thickness, size of hands, ratio of torso to leg length, and a great many other visible attributes. For example, imagine two variants that have the same net effect so that when both are present it is the same as when only one is present. Or two genetic variants might work synergistically to amplify some effect that they each cause separately.

Whatever the limits of the technology today, every year the accuracy of genetic tests for predicting facial shape will rise. As the number of people who've had complete genome sequencing rises into the hundreds of thousands and millions scientists will get enormously larger data sets to use to detect genetic variants that shape the face, shape teeth, determine hair textuure, eye brow thickness, lip thickness and shape, ear shape, and a great many other physical attributes.

All these genetic variants used to create increasingly more accurate sketches of criminals will be used for a more revolutionary purpose as well: embryo selection. I think we are getting close to the point where many couples are going to start to use in vitro fertilization (IVF) because of the ability to select for desired genetic traits in their offspring. Want your son to be taller than you and your husband? Select the embryo that will give you the tallest baby. Or select the embryo that will make the baby's eyes green or blue. Or go for a very pretty facial shape for your daughter.

I expect genetic test results will be used in mate selection. If the guy won't willingly share his genetic profile she could surreptitiously get a genetic sample and send it out for testing to a foreign lab. Then go online to a server that will show her likely combinations of their genes and what sorts of children will come as a result.

Since By Randall Parker 2015 February 24 07:49 PM 
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2015 February 21 Saturday
Thinking About Robots And ZMP Workers

Some robots do not cause a productivity explosion because they replace low productivity workers and the quality of the task done does not improve much after the initial introduction of robots. The automated equipment that turns a worker into a zero marginal productivity (ZMP) ex-worker does not need to offer a large and growing impact on the firm's total productivity. It just has to lower total costs.

I was thinking about that after reading what I think is a wrong argument from Larry Summers about robots and productivity. He's coupling rates of productivity growth with rates of worker displacement. Those two aren't necessarily highly coupled regardless of how coupled they were in the past.

How much money do robots have to save to replace human workers? Not much from a total cost perspective. Before we explore that point lets briefly look at costs. Calculating costs can be hard because you pay differently for a robot than you do for a worker. In an economic downturn you can't fire a robot you own. But you can fire a worker. So buying the equipment commits you to a long term cost: paying the interest on the loan to buy the robot. That's part of the cost calculation for whether to replace the human worker.

So there's a risk from ownership of a robot. But that risk is not always large and it replaces other risks. Sometimes the need to do a task can be projected for many years into the future, long enough to pay off the robot loan. Plus, you could always lease the robot and pay more per month to be able to easily and quickly stop using it. A large rental and lease market demonstrates the usefulness of this practice. Besides, human employees pose their own risks such as theft, illness, injury, and lawsuits. Plus, the human can quit at any time. The freedom of the employer to fire is paired with the freedom of the employee to quit or damage the firm.

Okay, so getting back to the lower cost robot: Do robots which replace workers have to cause a productivity revolution? Not necessarily. Could be that a robot comes into a position in the workforce, replaces humans from that position with an initial small productivity boost, and then the new lower cost stabilizes with little additional future productivity gains in future years.

Take bank ATMs for example. Once they replace some bank tellers they are going to keep getting used regardless of whether their total cost of operation stays flat or decreases slowly in future years. Ditto self checkout at cash registers. Once the switch has been made what's the potential for future savings?

What I suspect might be happening with robots in many situations is exactly that. If these displacements happen among workers who aren't very productive in the first place then the total initial impact on the economy's productivity is low and so is the future year impact. All the $10 per hour workers are responsible for a pretty small fraction of the American economy's output. Automation can wipe out large numbers of their jobs without causing a huge surge in overall productivity.

Another point: A substantial fraction of the cost savings of robots comes from reducing the work load on managers. Management is freeing itself from the need to manage others. I suspect it preferentially prefers to dump lower productivity workers.

Suppose you manage low skilled and low productivity workers. Suppose they aren't very conscientious. What is your day going to be like? Kinda like someone running around plugging new holes that spout in dikes. Will you like your job? For most people the answer is going to be "No!". So automate the jobs and stop dealing with people who are a hassle to deal with.

Think about it from the perspective of managers. They'd rather manage more fun and interesting problems and more talented people. Computer systems and robots are enabling them to do that. So I expect firms to develop technology that lets them shift their hiring preferences toward the sorts of workers their managers would rather manage. This might be why the labor market participation of high school drop-outs has dropped so low. Nobody wants to deal with them and the technology now exists to avoid it.

By Randall Parker 2015 February 21 02:44 PM 
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2015 February 15 Sunday
FAA Rules Open Up Some Flying Drone Apps, Not Delivery

The FAA new regulations do not allow for delivery drones.

Delivery drones, autonomous vehicles, and rejuvenation therapies all seem like candidates for first introduction in smaller countries with low levels of regulation. Smaller EU countries are probably out due to EU-level regulations. Ideal countries will have a high enough per capita income to create enough demand. Taiwan? Singapore? Iceland?

Another point about delivery drones: It isn't clear they can work in cities. The problem is the front door. If drones are going to deliver to your doorstep then you need to have an outside doorstep. Apartment buildings with apartment doors that open on the inside deny a drone the means to do doorstep delivery or even lobby delivery.

If there is a sufficient will (high enough ROI) there is a way. Imagine a rooftop drone landing area with pod doors that electronically open upward. Each storage pod could open up its top in response to a WiFi or Bluetooth signal sent by a drone. The drone would then drop packages into a pod bin. Then robots on wheels could pick up each package (or pod that contains it), go to a service elevator, and take the package to the right door.

The cost and complexity of urban delivery into large buildings makes it seem a more distant prospect. Suburbs are lower hanging fruit. So they'll come first. What about rural? Drones will have to travel greater distances per delivery. But then so do humans now. If the dollars per hour for the drone come out to less than the dollars per hour for the human and truck then the drones will fly.

What I haven't seen discussed yet: Where do the drones take off from? I think most people are assuming the drones come from buildings. But why? It might make more sense to have something like a UPS truck that cruises thru a town with dozens of drones flying off it and returning to its moving base to pick up more packages. A human in the open back of a truck could load packages onto a stream of drones that keep landing and taking off.

So next imagine that the truck is computer-driven (no big stretch there). When a truck gets emptied another autonomous truck pulls up behind it, the human walks back to it, and the delivery drones start landing on it instead. So no human time wasted on trips back to a warehouse for refills.

Landing zones are pretty interesting with drone delivery. Just as with the city building the suburban landing zones do not have to be on the ground. In the future we might build our houses to have roof delivery landing zones with easy access to bring the packages inside. Perhaps a cover pops open, the package gets dropped, and then it gets lowered to be reachable from a door in the hallway of the top floor.

Ground delivery seems much more problematic. Dogs will decide drones are as evil as UPS delivery trucks. Kids will be kids. Rooftop delivery seems much less problematic once it is set up. Some houses will have rooftop drone delivery beacons to tell the drones who accepts delivery on that roof and where to land and how to signal to open the pod door.

Update: Aggressive use of UAVs could cut the need for warehouses. Consider a long haul truck that comes near its destination. A human worker or two or three hop onto the back with UAVs, start loading the UAVs from the truck, and the goods start flying away to their destination. Never an overnight unloading to reload into local delivery trucks.

The same could be done with trains. Each freight car could be stacked to have the stuff that gets delivered first on top or near the door. As the train winds around into an urban area it could start disgorging goods to final destinations via UAVs. Big UAVs could move heavier goods onto trucks for surface road delivery while the little stuff flies all the way to final destination.

Ships could do the same. Sail along a coast line and do UAV delivery as they slowly cruise. Or they could offload with robotic cranes onto smaller craft which then go inland up rivers where UAVs do the final leg of delivery.

By Randall Parker 2015 February 15 10:48 AM 
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2015 February 08 Sunday
McAfee on automation: what will we need all the people for?

A Technology Review piece about the research that MIT Sloan School of Management profs Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson do into how computer automation is destroying jobs at a high rate includes this line McAfee "when all these science-fiction technologies are deployed, what will we need all the people for?”

McAfee, associate director of the MIT Center for Digital Business at the Sloan School of Management, speaks rapidly and with a certain awe as he describes advances such as Google’s driverless car. Still, despite his obvious enthusiasm for the technologies, he doesn’t see the recently vanished jobs coming back. The pressure on employment and the resulting inequality will only get worse, he suggests, as digital technologies—fueled with “enough computing power, data, and geeks”—continue their exponential advances over the next several decades. “I would like to be wrong,” he says, “but when all these science-fiction technologies are deployed, what will we need all the people for?”

I'm in agreement with Brynjolfsson and McAfee about the impact that automation is having on employment and wages. I look at my daily experience, most notably in terms of dealing with people in order to deal with organizations. In a nutshell: very few of the commercial transactions I engage in (buying things, paying for services, signing up for services) involve interacting with humans. In the vast majority of cases I deal with computer systems. Click to choose. Click to order. Click to pay a bill or click to set up automated future bill payment and automated future delivery. Interacting with humans? Not so much. Less than once a week and dropping.

Once autonomous cars can make deliveries with robots to bring the goods to your doorstep where will humans show up in the chain? The warehouses will go lights out eventually. Long haul trucks will be autonomous. Robots will load and unload the trucks. Farms? Autonomous planters and harvesters. Factories? Fully automated.

As I argue in my recent post Employment-Population Ratio By Education Level the science fiction future is already happening right now. The official unemployment rate radically understates the extent of real unemployment.

Jim Clifton, the chairman and ECO of the Gallup polling organization, says the real employment rate is much lower than thought and he's got polling numbers to prove it.

Yet another figure of importance that doesn't get much press: those working part time but wanting full-time work. If you have a degree in chemistry or math and are working 10 hours part time because it is all you can find -- in other words, you are severely underemployed -- the government doesn't count you in the 5.6%. Few Americans know this.

There's no other way to say this. The official unemployment rate, which cruelly overlooks the suffering of the long-term and often permanently unemployed as well as the depressingly underemployed, amounts to a Big Lie.

Take a hard look at your job and skill set. Do you need to learn new skills to put you into a job that will last longer?

Update: The most common job in most US states is truck driver. Almost all those jobs will disappear in 20 years as autonomous vehicles replace human truck drivers. In 1978 secretary was the most common job in 21 states. Computers radically slashed the need for managers to have secretaries. Secretary is now the most common job in only 5 states. In 1978 machine operator was the most common job in 9 states. Factory automation devastated that position. It machine operator does not show up asa most common job in any state.

Software developer is the most common job in 4 states. That does not bode well for the blue collar workers of today. Few truck drivers will be able to make the transition to software developer. What will the laid off truck drivers do? What will be the big jobs of the future for blue collar workers? To put it another way: Is there much of a future for the lower classes to serve the upper classes? Or are the lower classes going to mostly work for each other? Will a parallel economy of the lower classes emerge?

By Randall Parker 2015 February 08 11:37 AM 
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2015 February 07 Saturday
Thinking About Vaccines

Rod Dreher relates what a doctor tells parents who won't vaccinate:

“People talk about not wanting to put toxins into their kids’ immune systems,” the doc said. “I tell them that the last time you fed them fries from McDonalds, you put more toxins into your kid’s body than you would with vaccine.”

We are at a stage where people have no memory of just how dangerous pathogens used to be. There is no visceral fear of viruses and bacteria. Children in wheelchairs as a result of polio are a thing of the past because the United States has been polio free since 1979 as a result of vaccines. The only people I've ever met who were hobbled by damage from polio were older than me.

Most prospective parents do not know anyone who has lost a kid to infectious diseases. As fear of smallpox, polio, and other killer diseases has faded people look around and notice what problems parents do have with their children. Mental disorders have become better measured and reported. So residents of industrialized countries hear much more about mental disorders (which often surface in the first couple of years of life near the time period when vaccines are being administered) than about killer bacteria and viruses.

I am skeptical of the claim that vaccines pose a risk for autism. Why? Because many studies big enough to test hypotheses relating to vaccine and autism have been done which did not find a link. Check out this review of vaccine autism studies to get a sense of much effort has gone into investigating this question. What's most impressive: both removal of thimerosal and reduction of vaccine usage did not reverse the growing rates of autism diagnosis. Also, rates of autism diagnosis did not start with introduction of various vaccines.

Do vaccines have problems? Sure. Vaccines cause some side effects at very low rates. But the frequencies of complications are so low that large populations must be studied to pick up potential problems. Vaccines have been improved to reduce the risks of side effects.

Another problem: vaccine costs are soaring. Newer generation vaccines are safer but more expensive to get approved. The barriers to entry are higher and so are prices.

I do not expect an innumerate and unscientific public to become more trusting of medical organizations that support vaccination. In some communities herd immunity has already been lost and it will be lost in more other communities. This trend will continue until an old disease comes sweeping thru and racks up lots of damage and fatalities.

By Randall Parker 2015 February 07 07:49 PM 
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2015 February 01 Sunday
Employment-Population Ratio By Education Level

There is concern that in the future robots, computers, and other forms of automation will cause mass unemployment. I share that concern but in the present I think it has already arrived among the less skilled and less talented. I think the use of unemployment rate as a measure of how many people aren't working has created a very widespread misconception about how this problem only lies in the future. Really, it has already happened. Lets have a look at US Bureau of Labor Statistics data on unemployment rate, labor market participation rate, and employment-population ratio. It is the last one that tells us the real story.

As of December 2014 the gap in the employment-population ratio of high school dropouts versus those with at least a bachelor's degree is 31% points. 41.5% versus 72.5%. See below. High school grads and those with some college education lie between high school dropouts and college grads.

Table A-4. Employment status of the civilian population 25 years and over by educational attainment
[Numbers in thousands]
Educational attainment Not seasonally adjusted Seasonally adjusted

Less than a high school diploma

Civilian labor force

10,754 11,168 11,003 10,763 10,709 10,691 10,831 11,153 11,031

Participation rate

43.7 45.8 45.3 43.7 45.2 44.5 45.3 45.7 45.4


9,641 10,213 10,007 9,703 9,738 9,806 9,975 10,201 10,079

Employment-population ratio

39.2 41.9 41.2 39.4 41.1 40.8 41.7 41.8 41.5


1,113 955 996 1,060 971 884 856 952 952

Unemployment rate

10.4 8.6 9.1 9.9 9.1 8.3 7.9 8.5 8.6

High school graduates, no college(1)

Civilian labor force

36,473 35,432 35,281 36,292 36,286 35,937 36,183 35,478 35,164

Participation rate

58.4 57.7 57.7 58.1 58.1 57.9 58.0 57.8 57.5


33,894 33,499 33,406 33,743 34,046 34,016 34,127 33,476 33,310

Employment-population ratio

54.3 54.5 54.6 54.0 54.5 54.8 54.7 54.5 54.5


2,580 1,932 1,875 2,549 2,240 1,920 2,056 2,002 1,854

Unemployment rate

7.1 5.5 5.3 7.0 6.2 5.3 5.7 5.6 5.3

Some college or associate degree

Civilian labor force

36,926 37,320 36,845 37,157 37,503 37,421 37,304 37,246 37,140

Participation rate

67.4 66.9 66.3 67.8 66.8 66.6 66.5 66.7 66.9


34,730 35,579 35,079 34,885 35,490 35,389 35,460 35,422 35,310

Employment-population ratio

63.4 63.7 63.2 63.7 63.2 63.0 63.2 63.5 63.6


2,197 1,742 1,766 2,272 2,013 2,032 1,843 1,824 1,831

Unemployment rate

5.9 4.7 4.8 6.1 5.4 5.4 4.9 4.9 4.9

Bachelor's degree and higher(2)

Civilian labor force

49,612 51,342 51,727 49,704 50,162 50,449 50,471 51,222 51,772

Participation rate

75.0 74.9 74.5 75.2 74.7 74.7 74.6 74.7 74.6


48,053 49,799 50,350 48,039 48,561 48,983 48,937 49,608 50,290

Employment-population ratio

72.7 72.6 72.5 72.7 72.3 72.6 72.4 72.3 72.5


1,559 1,543 1,377 1,665 1,600 1,465 1,534 1,614 1,482

Unemployment rate

3.1 3.0 2.7 3.4 3.2 2.9 3.0 3.2 2.9

(1) Includes persons with a high school diploma or equivalent.
(2) Includes persons with bachelor's, master's, professional, and doctoral degrees.

NOTE: Updated population controls are introduced annually with the release of January data.

Think about the classic jobs available to high school dropouts such as factory assembly line worker, janitor, fast food worker, trash truck worker, and even truck driver. Lets take manufacturing first. From 1992 to 2009 employment of high school dropouts in manufacturing dropped 47.3% while employment of those with advanced degrees (masters, Ph.D) rose 44.4%. Even high school grad employment in manufacturing dropped 38.6% over the same period.

Next comes janitors. Machines will clean floors and vacuum carpets. Larger buildings will have dedicated cleaning robots. At night while we sleep autonomous vehicles will deliver cleaning machines to smaller buildings to get each building cleaned in succession.

In fast food restaurants cashiers will go first. We will order on our phones and pick up the food as we walk in. Equipment will automate the cooking too. Trash trucks won't need drivers. The trucks already grab trash cans off the curb. Long haul trucks will become autonomous as well.

So what will high school dropouts do for a living 20 years hence?Anyone see a future for them in the labor force?

By Randall Parker 2015 February 01 08:27 PM 
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