Showing posts with label technology. Show all posts
Showing posts with label technology. Show all posts

Monday, April 14, 2014

US Navy Electrical Propulsion

Department of "History Begins When I Was Born." Yesterday's News and Observer printed an AP report about the Christening of USS Zumwalt, named for a former Chief of Naval Operations from the 1970's. Good. I am proud to have served under Admiral Zumwalt's strong and innovative leadership.

On the other hand, the AP article explained that USS Zumwalt is "the first U.S. Ship to use electric propulsion." That is not accurate. In 1912 the Navy launched a new fuel ship, USS Jupiter, powered by a prototype turbo-electric propulsion system. After serving in World War I, Jupiter was converted to become USS Langley, CV-1, the Navy's first aircraft carrier. The next two aircraft carriers, USS Lexington (CV-2) and USS Saratoga (CV-3) were also electrically powered. In the 1920's, the navy adopted diesel electric propulsion for its new S-Class submarines and continued using diesel-electric propulsion for its submarines until the switch to nuclear power. These submarines were propelled by electric motors, drawing electricity from diesel generators when on the surface and from batteries when submerged. At least six US battlehips of the era were also powered by electrical propulsion: (Tennessee, New Mexico, California, Colorado, Maryland and West Virginia,) as were three classes of destroyer escorts (Evarts, Bulkley and Cannon classes) used to protect WWII convoys.

Langley, still in service in 1942, was converted in 1936 to function as a seaplane tender. She supported Australian anti submarine air operations out of Darwin, and then was pressed into service to transport crated P-40 fighters to Tjilatjap in the Dutch East Indies. Attacked by Japanese Aichi dive bombers on February 27, 1942, she was so badly damaged she had to be scuttled and abandoned by her crew to keep the ship out of the hands of Japan. When she went down, her 30-year-old electrical propulsion plant was still working reliably.

File:AV-3 near miss 27Feb42 NAN5-81.jpgUSS Langley  Under Attack By Japanese Navy Aircraft February 27, 1942

So electrical propulsion is far from new.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Al Gore And The Internet

In the 1980's I was in the computer industry, owning a small information technology company with a very small Defense contract. We communicated with other contractors and research centers using e-mail, long before the internet. We communicated over a network developed for Defense, known as Arpanet.

I became aware that a technically savvy member of Congress, one of the so-called "Atari Democrats," was pressing to open up this network for public, even commercial use. This was opposed by most Arpanet users in the research business. But the Atari Democrat in question kept pressing. That person was Al Gore. He eventually got his way.

I just came across an article here that gives a more complete story of Al Gore's role.

No, Al Gore didn't discover Global Warming, either. Scientists did that. Al Gore just let the rest of us know about it and described what needs to be done.

That's what leaders do.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Seventy Years Ago: May 23, 1943, Secret Weapons Test

May 23, 1943, the US Army tested a new secret weapon: incendiary bats.

Miami Herald columnist Dave Barry exposed the whole story in a column printed in 1990. I would simply copy and post the relevant portion about the bat project as blogger Brad DeLong did, but I read the Miami Herald's warning about copyright. What might be called the bloodthirsty copyright notice. So I followed their instructions and put a link to the entire column here.

I recommend you pay no attention to the part of the column about air dropped trout and go right to the interesting part about incendiary bats. Hey, there was a war on.

Monday, May 20, 2013

More On Robots And Humans

Norbert Wiener, a mathematician at MIT six decades ago, wrote down what we need to know about what he called "the new machine age." In other words, the world of robots.

He wrote an essay to be published in the New York Times, but the essay never saw the light of day. Now, six decades later, at least a portion of it has been found and is published here.

In a burst of clarity, Wiener foretold the likely effect of computerization by comparing the computer to a genie. "These new machines have a great capacity for upsetting the present basis of industry," Wiener explained,  "and of reducing the economic value of the routine factory employee to a point at which he is not worth hiring at any price. If we combine our machine-potentials of a factory with the valuation of human beings on which our present factory system is based, we are in for an industrial revolution of unmitigated cruelty."

He described what must be done to avoid this cruelty. "We must be willing," he emphasized, "to deal in facts rather than in fashionable ideologies if we wish to get through this period unharmed. Not even the brightest picture of an age in which man is the master, and in which we all have an excess of mechanical services will make up for the pains of transition, if we are not both humane and intelligent."

"Finally," he warned, "the machines will do what we ask them to do and not what we ought to ask them to do. In the discussion of the relation between man and powerful agencies controlled by man, the gnomic wisdom of the folk tales [that is, of genies and bottles}, has a value far beyond the books of our sociologists."

We should let that be a warning to all.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Robotics And Economics, Take Two

A couple of years ago, I posted my thoughts about Robotics and Economics. My concern at that time was that economists, as they have historically done, were discounting the possibility that future technology might replace many human jobs with machines.

The conventional answer to that concern is that, since the Luddites, human workers have resisted being replaced by machines, but other jobs have always arisen to replace those taken by machines. But it seemed to me possible that this might not continue to be true.

Not long after my post, even Paul Krugman began to think such thoughts.

Now Kevin Drum takes the argument a step further and explains why the digital revolution won't be a replay of the industrial revolution. This is serious stuff.

I strongly believe that in the short to medium run we can put many people back to work using economic stimulus to generate aggregate demand. But this may not be enough to rebuild the hollowed out loss of jobs in the middle and even upper part of the income scale. We could try to rebuild unions, change the tax structure to correct the recent redistribution of income from workers to the wealthy. But if we hope to have jobs and income for most people and general prosperity for all, now is the time (if it is not already too late) to think through the problem.

In another article, Kevin Drum offers more detail about the coming robot revolution. The article raises Lenin's old question: "who - whom." In other words, who will be in charge - humans or robots? That question has interested science fiction writers since Czech writer Karel Capek raised it in his drama, "Rossum's Universal Robots." Similar questions were raised in his novel, "War With The Newts." It is time to take a serious look at the problem.

Economist Karl Smith, writing in Forbes Magazine, takes a look at inequality in the robotic future.

A thought that comes to mind is that while we think about robots, we might seriously examine population control. "Zero Growth" is too modest a goal.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Wind Generators: Department of Defense Data

Wind Energy And Cherry Point

Two weeks ago the Pamlico County Board of Commissioners and the Pamlico County Planning Board had a joint meeting at the court house to receive a briefing by Cherry Point on wind generation systems. Specifically, Cherry Point briefed on problems for their air operations that are anticipated from wind turbines.

The briefing acknowledged that it is national policy and the policy of the Department of Defense to encourage alternative energy sources. The briefing did not emphasize, as it might have, that Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus has been a leading proponent of alternative energy. 

The main focus of the briefing was how wind turbines adversely affect Marine radar systems and how important radar is to their air operations. The main challenge was how to mitigate those effects.

Unfortunately, Cherry Point officials offered no hope and no prospects of hope for mitigation. "To date," one presentation slide asserts, "no study data is published indicating technology exists to eliminate wind turbine adverse effects on radar."

Not so. There are studies.

A 2008 study by MITRE Corporation, one of DOD's most experienced electronics contractors observed. "There is no fundamental physical constraint that prohibits the accurate detection of aircraft and weather patterns around wind farms. On the other hand, the nation’s aging long range radar infrastructure significantly increases the challenge of distinguishing wind farm signatures from airplanes or weather.

"Progress forward requires the development of mitigation measures, and
quantitative evaluation tools and metrics to determine when a wind farm
poses a sufficient threat to a radar installation for corrective action to be
taken. Mitigation measures may include modifications to wind farms (such
as methods to reduce radar cross section; and telemetry from wind farms to
radar), as well as modifications to radar (such as improvements in processing;
radar design modifications; radar replacement; and the use of gap fillers in
radar coverage).

"There is great potential for the mitigation procedures, though there
is currently no source of funding to test how proposed mitigations work in
practice. In general, the government and industry should cooperate to find
methods for funding studies of technical mitigations. NOAA has an excellent
research plan, but no adequate funding to carry it out.

"Once the potential for different mitigations are understood, we see no
scientific hurdle for constructing regulations that are technically based and
simple to understand and implement, with a single government entity tak-
ing responsibility for overseeing the process. In individual cases, the best
solution might be to replace the aging radar station with modern and flexi-
ble equipment that is more able to separate wind farm clutter from aircraft."
Mitre's conclusion: "This is a win-win situation for national security, both improving our radar
infrastructure and promoting the growth of sustainable energy.

So the problem isn't technology, it is budgets for what may prove to be fairly minor improvements to radars, new procedures, and possibly coatings for turbine blades to reduce their radar cross-sections. I got the distinct impression that the Marine Corps isn't sufficiently concerned to spend any R&D funds fixing their radars. Why should they, if they can achieve the same end at no cost by intimidating state and local government? The only cost would be to retard economic development in Pamlico County and that doesn't cost the Marine Corps a dime.

In her introductory remarks to the meeting, Commissioner Holton emphasized the potential economic development benefits of wind energy to Pamlico County.

Speaking of mitigation, any measure to replace fossil fuel energy sources with non-carbon alternatives such as wind, solar or nuclear, will delay anticipated sea level rise from global warming. That should matter to every resident of Pamlico County and elsewhere in Eastern North Carolina. In my case, I just raised my house three feet to mitigate the effect of storm surge after Irene. But predictions are that the sea level will rise one meter (39 inches) this century. If so, my house is back in the flood waters.

So I am in favor of wind, solar and nuclear power. No single solution - all of the above.

This discussion has been going on for awhile here and here and here and here and here and here.

Not certain I have the whole story, I did more research on the wind farm/radar issues. What I have found is:

1. There is data. Some was reported to the Congress in 2006:
2. There is information on what mitigation works.

3. The problems concern two types of radar: Air Defense systems (AD) and weather radar.

4. My reading of the report to Congress is that there is no problem with Air Traffic Control (ATC) radar. The reason for this is that ATC relies not only on direct radar return ("skin paint") but also on transponder beacon returns like IFF. The briefing did not mention this distinction, but the bulk of the briefing was by Cherry Point's ATC expert. I don't know if Marine ATC controllers have the aircraft turn off their IFF or other beacons while training at high speed and low altitude in this region. Maybe they do, but if so, we should be told. Whether to turn it on or off during training ops is a procedural issue.

5. Distance from the affected radar can itself provide the necessary mitigation. The key factor is distance from the radar to the radar horizon - which is a bit further than the unobstructed visible horizon would be. Bottom line is, that for a normal radar height, and a blade tip height of 300 feet, there would be no interference beyond a distance of 30 miles, even without special mitigation. For a blade tip height of 500 feet, the safe distance would be 35 miles. Trouble is, Pamlico County is within either distance. But that only applies to AD radars. For ATC radars, there should be no problem.

So what kind of radar are they talking about? The briefing did not provide enough information for Pamlico County planners and commissioners to develop suitable regulations for wind farms.

Weather radar is a different matter. Here is a pretty good illustration and discussion of the problem: There is also some discussion of weather radar in the report to Congress. I did not get the impression from the Cherry Point briefing that they are worried about the weather radar.

I'm not sure what to make of it.

I think the county needs more information.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Ship Misidentification

During the Democratic National Convention, an evening was set aside to honor veterans and recognize their service to the nation. That's always a good thing to do.

But whoever put together the slide show included a dramatic photo of a group of Soviet warships, with what appear to be a formation of US aircraft flying over.

It was a good picture, but it would have been better to have a formation of American warships. Here's the account from the Navy Times.
 A bit embarrassing. Shouldn't have happened.

On the other hand, at least no one was killed, as happened in 1974 when the Turkish Air Force sank the Turkish Navy destroyer, TCG Kocatepe.

I've been reading a lot lately about WWII in the Pacific, and such episodes were not unknown. The truth is, identifying warships can be a challenge, even for a trained professional.

Now to the interesting part. The slide that was shown is in silhouette and the antenna arrays are pretty characteristic of Soviet warships. The hull and superstructure of the ships, though, look an awful lot like our Arleigh Burke class Aegis destroyers. There's a good reason for that. After years of study by naval intelligence and the Naval Ships Systems Command, our naval architects decided that the hull form used by the Soviets had much better sea keeping qualities in heavy weather than the shape we had used on destroyers and cruisers since early in the 20th century. So, for our newest combatant ship we borrowed heavily from Soviet Naval Architecture.

How do I know? Some of my friends did the research, and I saw the culmination of it when I worked on the details of the Arleigh Burke class combat system design.

It isn't a big secret, but I don't think the influence of Soviet designs on our ships is widely known. Compare the pictures, and you will see what I mean.

By the way, when it was formed in 1882, the Office of Naval Intelligence was formed for the purpose of seeking out and reporting developments in other navies. So we could copy the best. At that time in our history, we intended to modernize, but had not yet begun the "new steel navy." The first four steel warships were not authorized by Congress until 1883. We had a lot to learn about steel plating, assembly, modern steam plants, and large guns.

Why not learn from other navies? we thought then. Still not a bad idea.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Look And Feel: Software Patents

Yesterday a federal court jury decided in favor of Apple and against Samsung in a lawsuit over patents in the smart phone industry. The real target, though, is apparently Google and its Android software. The claim, upheld by the jury, is that the Samsung phone copied the "look and feel" of Apple's iPhone.

Go back in time twenty-five years.

In 1987, Lotus Corporation, whose 1-2-3 spreadsheet dominated the PC industry under the MS-Dos operating system, sued three smaller software companies for having copied the "look and feel" of the Lotus spreadsheet. The three companies were Paperback Software, whose low cost "VP Planner" had significant functional improvements over other spreadsheets, including 1-2-3 and Excel; Mosaic, and Borland's Quattro.

I had used three of the four spreadsheets involved, and at the time was using VP Planner for my own spreadsheets. VP Planner had introduced a "three dimensional" feature to spreadsheets and was significantly better at printing spreadsheets on dot matrix printers than 1-2-3. Borland's product, too, was more convenient for users than 1-2-3.

Lotus, in turn, had clearly appropriated the look and feel of the Visicalc spreadsheet as it operated under the CP/M operating system.

I thought at the time that "look and feel" was a defective concept and I resented Lotus' attempts to protect market share by lawsuit rather than by improving the product. Although Lotus won against Paperback Software, who went out of business, they lost the case against Borland. I suspect Borland won, not because their case had more merit, but because their pockets were deeper. Anyhow, I never again purchased a Lotus product.

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for protection of intellectual property, but I think in important respects patent law has got out of hand. When a company can patent a person's blood cells because they did research on them, that's out of hand. When companies get to patent icons that are common representations, that is out of hand.

Shame on you, Apple!

Saturday, May 26, 2012

70 Years Ago: COMINT

When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, they achieved surprise by effective use of several techniques:
1. Failure to declare war in advance of the attack;
2. Radio silence during transit;
3. Use of couriers for planning instead of radio;
4. Deceptive radio transmissions (spoofing);
5. Cryptosecurity measures, including changing codes just before the operation.

Items 2 - 5 fall in the category of communications security.

Japan had been a target of US Navy Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) since WWI. A small cadre of specialists intercepted Japanese high frequency (HF) radio communications  transmitted in a specialized Japanese Morse code for Japanese Kana characters. By 1941, the US Navy had about twenty intercept stations sharing their take with OP-20-G at the headquarters on Nebraska Avenue in Washington, DC. OP-20-G directed the effort to exploit these signals, (since the intercepted signals were mostly radio communications, the specialty was known as communications intelligence, or COMINT). The intercepted signals were analyzed by traffic analysts, who reviewed the patterns of communication and extracted an electronic order of battle or EOB.

Other experts reviewed the intercepts to determine how they had been coded and encrypted, and to identify any vulnerabilities that might allow the messages to be decrypted, or "broken." The first step was to determine if the message was a code or a cipher. Ciphers could be attacked using mathematical techniques. Codes were a bit more complicated.

To break either a code or a cipher required vast quantities of message traffic for analysis. Unfortunately for COMINT purposes, the Japanese Navy had used telephone, telegraph or courier for communications in their home waters. As a result, by December, 1941, US Navy cryptanalysts were only able to break about 10% of Japan's operating code known as JN-25.

After Pearl Harbor, though, as Japan's military invaded the Philippines, Borneo, Hong Kong, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies and elsewhere, they were forced to transmit vast quantities of radio traffic. By March 7, US Navy COMINT was able to break enough traffic for Admiral Nimitz to send the carriers Lexington and Yorktown to attack Japanese forces invading Salamaua and Lae on the north coast of New Guinea.

By early May, Nimitz was able to position Lexington and Yorktown in the Coral Sea and provide them with excellent information about Japanese forces and plans to invade Port Moresby on the south coast of New Guinea. This effectively halted Japanese advances in the Southwest Pacific.

By late May, 1942, COMINT provided Nimitz and the US Carrier task forces with complete information about Japanese plans to attack and invade Midway.

On May 26, 1942, Halsey's TF-16 with carriers Enterprise and Hornet steamed into Pearl Harbor, having missed the action in the Coral Sea by a day. After refueling and reprovisioning, Nimitz will send them back to sea under command of Raymond Spruance to take position to oppose Admiral Nagumo's four carriers approaching Midway.

The following day, USS Yorktown, heavily damaged at the battle of Coral Sea, limped into Pearl Harbor and went immediately into drydock. It was estimated that repairs would take three months. Yorktown was given three days.

Nimitz needed all three carriers, plus the additional Army, Navy and Marine Corps aircraft he had already sent to Midway as reinforcements.

He knew from COMINT what he was up against.

The attack on Midway was scheduled for June 4, 1942.

Sunday, November 6, 2011


It's time for my annual rant observations about time. We have returned to Eastern "standard" time.  If it's standard, why not keep it all the time?

Have you noticed that "daylight savings time" doesn't actually save any daylight? In fact, the actual length of a day varies with the declension of the sun (don't ask) and the position of the earth in its annual orbit around the sun.

In an earlier (simpler?) time in the history of man, human activity was governed by the position of the sun relative to the particular place people lived. Before clocks, that position was measured by sundials. Before sundials, prehistoric man built vast public works (e.g. Stonehenge) to keep track of the seasons by solar and sometimes by lunar observations. Our time scale was slower, but no less inexorable.

Peasants went out to till the fields based on sunrise and sunset and when the sun was overhead. Before the sun crossed the local meridian was ante meridian (a.m.) and after it crossed was post meridian (p.m.). It bothered no one if the local time by sundial in Prague was different from that in Vienna.

Even at sea, where ships have no fixed location, time was reset every day at local apparent noon (when the sun crossed the meridian) and the officer of the deck received permission from the captain to "strike eight bells on time."

This perfectly satisfactory arrangement was destroyed by the railroad. Railroads wanted to run according to a fixed, printed schedule. They couldn't handle differences in local time between Prague and Vienna and every little train stop in between. Time must be made to conform to the mechanical age and become standardized.

But now we have computers. Computers can't actually think, but they can keep track of vast amounts of data, including the longitude of every town, city and metropolis on earth. It is longitude that determines local time. We could all set our timepieces to global standard time (that is, Greenwich Mean Time) and refer every time-based activity to that standard. That would satisfy the need for a time standard for any scheduled operation. It would make trains and airplanes happy. For local activities, just subtract or add a longitude-based time correction to derive local standard time. It would no longer matter to the railroads that Prague, Budweis and Vienna are on slightly different local times. Or Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington.

Oriental could have its own standard time.

Now synchronize your sundials.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Marvelous Music

The Old Theater resounded this evening with music provided by the Borromeo String Quartet.

The founder of the quartet and native of Durham, Nicholas Kitchen, introduced each piece with an explanation of how it fit in the composer's life and work.

As appropriate for the Old Theater, the concert consisted of old music: by Bach (1685-1750), Beethoven (1770-1827), and Schubert (1797-1828). But the oldest item on the program was cellist Yeesun Kim's Peregrino Zanetto cello, made about 1576.

Nicholas Kitchen emphasized that the quartet's violins, viola and cello had no electrical or electronic components. The sound they made was totally acoustic, using ancient technology.

But there was modern technology on the stage. On the music stand in front of each player was an Apple Macintosh laptop, which displayed the entire score. Pages of the score were turned by a foot pedal fabricated by Mr. Kitchen who paged forward as necessary, allowing each player to be on the same page.

The 435-year old cello filled the air with rich, mellow sound. I would love to hear the same instrument perform a cello concerto.

Apparently the Macintosh computers (circa 2010) performed impeccably as well.

The concert might have served as a paean to the late Steve Jobs.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Connected Again!

The DSL link is working again. What a pleasure to be hooked up to the outside world.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Inherently Safe Nuclear Reactors

A few days ago I mentioned that China is proceeding with an inherently safe nuclear reactor design called the "pebble bed" reactor.

Today's New York Times has an article with details and illustrations of the design here.

But China isn't putting all their energy pebbles in one basket. They are building more conventional reactor designs and moving ahead vigorously with other energy alternatives as well, including wind and solar.

A further benefit of the pebble bed reactor design is that it operates at much higher temperature than the boiling water reactors like the ones in Japan. The higher temperature is not only more efficient for generating electricity, it may also be used to produce vast quantities of hydrogen - sufficient for fueling automobiles. This could free the automobile from dependence on petroleum, while abolishing exhaust pollution. When you burn hydrogen, the only waste product is water.

Critics of each of the above approaches often complain that "[fill in the blank]" isn't the answer. China seems to say, "no problem - we'll just try them all."

Who do you suppose has the best chance of leading the way into the world's energy future?

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Radiation is Scary - But It's All Around Us

Like most folks, I've been watching the TV reports of the disaster in Japan. I'm in awe of the courage and persistence of the nuclear plant workers. They didn't give up, despite the hazards, and they seem to be gaining the upper hand. And the populace hasn't panicked.

What about those face masks so many Japanese are wearing? They won't do any good against gamma rays, but they can be very effective against alpha particles. You don't want alpha particles to get inside your body.

Does all this mean we must abandon nuclear power?


How hazardous is nuclear power?

Today's Dot Earth blog on the New York Times site addresses the issue of "Dread to Risk." The article is worth reading. The most interesting link is to a chart comparing radiation dosage in various circumstances. It shows, for example, that eating a single banana exposes one to more radiation than living for a year in the vicinity of a nuclear generation plant. Living near a coal powered generation plant exposes you to three times as much radiation as living near a nuclear plant. Take a look at the table.

The risk is low. But clearly not zero in case of a major disaster such as an earthquake and tsunami.

The present disaster in Japan is a result of the 40-year old design, which requires a very complex cooling system with backups.

What this suggests is that we should investigate other types of nuclear reactors. The most dangerous kind of reactor is the graphite moderated reactor of the Chernobyl variety. Next most dangerous are the boiling water reactors like Three Mile Island and like those used in Japan. A better reactor type is the pressure water reactors like many of our newer reactors.

All of these reactors require intact and functional cooling systems to insure safety.

China is moving ahead with an ambitious plan to mass produce an inherently safe reactor design, known as a pebble bed reactor. There are other candidate designs that will not overheat and explode if cooling fails.

It is past time to invest in safer designs.

One thing to remember: there is no risk-free way of producing and using the large amounts of energy needed for modern civilization.

Each year, about 2500 Americans die in residential fires. Many of these happen in winter and result from use of kerosene heaters.

Let's put our hazards in perspective.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Brains, Education and Jobs

My favorite economist, Paul Krugman, has just begun to address computerization and its effects on employment. Today's column addresses the "hollowing out" of the distribution of jobs. He includes an interesting graph comparing job distribution by skill level in the 80's the 90's and the first decade of the current century.

In a nutshell, mid skill level jobs are disappearing. In the past decade, so are jobs at the higher skill level. In another post, he shows how the ratio of pay for college graduates compared to high school graduates stabilized more than a decade ago.

If your children and grandchildren want an occupation with a reliable future, they need to find something that isn't easily replaced by computers and can't be readily outsourced offshore. Crafts such as plumbing, cabinet making and welding might be good candidates.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Computers and Lawyers

About three weeks ago I called attention to the effect of computerization on jobs in my post at:

Today the New York Times reports on the ability of computer software to replace entire platoons of lawyers with software in complex litigation cases. The article here explains how new advances in software allow firms to screen vast volumes of computer files for relevant documents responding to discovery requests. The impact is substantial. In some cases provided as an example, five hundred attorneys can be replaced with a single attorney.

Experts familiar with the developments suggest that the effect will be that in the future there will be fewer legal jobs, not more. Similar effects are being felt among loan and mortgage officers and tax accountants.

Ironically, computers are also replacing computer engineers who once worked designing computer chips. In fact, unemployment in information technology leads the list of fields tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in unemployment.

The bottom line: the United States economy is being “hollowed out.” New jobs are coming at the bottom of the economic pyramid, jobs in the middle are being lost to automation and outsourcing, and now job growth at the top is slowing.

The only thing left to do seems to be to replace the financial manipulators at the top of the pyramid with software.

Let them look for a job.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Robotics and Economics

Ninety years ago, the Czech journalist and author Karel Capek introduced the word "Robot" to the world in his play, "R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots)." Isaac Asimov expanded the concept in his I, Robot books.

A staple of science fiction of the forties and fifties was the question of how society might cope with the circumstance created if robots with a wide range of capabilities were to replace humans in routine or even challenging jobs (as did HAL in "2001, Space Odyssey").

We are now there. We get our money from robots (ATM's), we send robots in to fight fires where no human could survive, we use robots to do surgery, dispatch software robots to search the internet, and even use robots to fight our wars.

This is just the beginning.

This Wednesday, IBM will pit its artificial intelligence system named Watson against two of the world's best Jeopardy players. Experts expect that Watson will win the contest. If so, it would be a demonstration of the amazing progress in artificial intelligence. To succeed, Watson will have to deal with puns, homonyms, and contextual ambiguities. (Update as of Tuesday morning: The first round of Jeopardy ended with Watson in a tie for the lead. Stay tuned.)

A different but also successful approach to use of computers to assist human intelligence is known as Intelligence Augmentation (IA). Google searches are a successful implementation of IA.

Economists have always held that increased automation creates as many new jobs as it destroys. That may no longer be the case (if ever it was). For the past few recessions, we seem to have had a "jobless recovery."

The usual suspect for loss of jobs is offshore outsourcing. It may be that another factor is increasing use of computers to perform tasks formerly done by humans. An additional influence is that high speed broad band internet makes it possible to transmit any information that can be digitized to offshore sites for processing. This is already done for widely diverse fields including accounting, law and radiology. Combining offshore outsourcing, robotics and high speed internet could be creating a perfect storm of economic restructuring.

The volume of such outsourcing is said to be small compared to the economy as a whole, but it probably already influences salaries by establishing marginal salaries above which companies will seek offshore solutions, thus keeping labor rates down.

Possible consequences include the fact that twenty-six percent of recent college graduates not going on to postgraduate education are unemployed. For that matter, many of those pursuing graduate degrees may be doing so because they couldn't find a job.