Sunday, February 26, 2023

Is AI a job killer? What does history say?

With all the concern about artificial intelligence (AI) destroying a large number of jobs in the coming years, it might be worth it to see what history tells us. It's possible that things are different this time and we may all soon be reading news articles and watching entertainment created through AI and dealing with automated call centers and accountants. On the other hand, maybe not.

More often, new technologies have augmented what people are already doing. They help them focus on other more complex tasks. Despite the introduction of automated bank tellers (ATMs) in 1969, human bank tellers are still around. While ATMs have mastered dispensing cash and taking deposits, today's tellers tend to focus on more complex transactions. And, I am happy to report that they are still willing to take my deposits at the teller window with a smile. Even a second wave of technology in the form of online deposits and other transactions has yet to finish off the job of bank teller.

As ATMs grew in popularity, one New York City bank (I cannot remember which one) limited teller transactions to those involving a high dollar amount. (Again, I cannot remember the amount.) A local competitor rolled out an ad campaign with the theme, "Our tellers love people." The first bank rescinded its policy very soon after.

Sunday, February 19, 2023

Efficient and fragile: Low prices, modern railroading and the toxic Ohio derailment

Complex, tightly networked systems run very efficiently and can work with precision for long periods, until they don't.

Money saved on the front end can be lost in one catastrophic accident. There is no better recent example than the derailment of a Norfolk Southern train carrying copious amounts of toxic vinyl chloride and other toxic chemicals. By now nearly everyone knows the tale of toxic fires and fears of explosion which led officials to drain undamaged tank cars carrying the same toxic chemicals which escaped the initial fires and then burn those chemicals as a precaution. Toxic smoke and residue settled far and wide from the crash site near East Palestine, Ohio, a small town of about 4,700. (You can read a summary of the possible effects of these chemicals on living organisms here. But I think the writer might actually be underplaying the consequences both short- and long-term.)

Who will pay for all the damage to people and the environment is a tricky question. You can be certain that Norfolk Southern won't be embracing its responsibility for the accident financially, at least not in public. Companies that get into such trouble have tried to limit their liability by reorganizing their companies and/or going bankrupt and saying they are unable to pay much. The injured must wait in line with other creditors for their share.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

Taking a short break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break this week and expect to post again on Sunday, February 19.

Sunday, February 05, 2023

Who knew? There are limits to growth in the American West

The most recent poster child for the failure to understand resource limits is the town of Rio Verde Foothills, an unincorporated part of Maricopa County in Arizona adjacent to Scottsdale. The town's residents were blindside recently, when the City of Scottsdale ceased allowing water trucks to fill up from the city's water system to service the hundreds of homes in Rio Verde which lack water wells and use water tanks.

The residents still have access to water, but at a price that now averages triple what they were paying, about $660 a month for a thousand gallons. Instead of filling up and riding 15 minutes to Rio Verde, water trucks must now spend up to two hours round trip—after finding a willing supplier.

Warnings about the inevitable water crisis in the American West are not new. The most comprehensive and prescient critique came from author Marc Reisner in 1986 in his classic tale of greed and corruption, Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water. In a previous piece about water and the West I wrote:

It turns out that there is no substitute for potable water—despite what economic theory may wish to assert. To get enough of it in many locales will be increasingly expensive as we turn to ever more exotic means to extract water while both population grows and climate-enhanced droughts diminish replenishment of existing sources.