Tag Archives: deep-thoughts

The PLC is Hallucinating

If you’ve been anywhere around YouTube or any TED talks recently, you’ll probably have heard the idea that your brain hallucinates your conscious reality. Simply put, your senses aren’t good enough to give you a perfect picture of reality as it is now, so your brain fills in the gaps by creating a model of the world in your mind and it uses your senses to direct that model, to keep it grounded in reality (whatever that is). This internal model of the world is what you use to make decisions.

Probably the most famous example of the fallibility of our senses is the blind spot we all have in our eyes, where the optic nerve enters the eye. Yet we don’t experience this blind spot. What we experience is an internal model of the world, and the lack of visual information at the eye’s blind spot simply has no effect on our internal model. Certainly, something happening in our environment can be obscured by the blind spot, but even with one eye closed we don’t perceive a big hole in our visual field.

Have you ever seen something out of the corner of your eye, or at a distance, and thought it was something else? I routinely experience this when I’m driving to work in the dark and passing a forested area beside the road. A weirdly shaped bush or a branch can be recognized as a deer about to jump out on the road. I instinctively tap the brakes, only to realize it’s not a deer, but a bush. When this happens I’m inclined to say I “thought it was a deer, but I was mistaken.” In truth, I literally saw a deer, and in my internal model of the world it was a deer, fully formed, ready to leap onto the road, and I reacted accordingly. Occasionally this happens, and as I get closer, I confirm it really is a deer.

A while ago, I wrote an article on this blog about part tracking, and if you don’t remember reading it, I suggest you go back and take a look (it’s a rather short read). No, honestly, go back and read it.

Sound familiar?

For the most part, in the world of industrial automation we’re blessed with very reliable sensors. Thru-beam and proximity sensors are remarkably reliable. But as I discussed in the part tracking post, even our best sensors can sometimes send us erroneous data. There are blind spots in our industrial sensors.

Novice PLC programmers are obsessed with inputs and outputs. One of the earliest exercises I like to give to a new PLC programmer is to program a light to flash continuously. More than half will start their program with an input (usually a pushbutton). Clearly this is incorrect… it’s a flashing light, so the only input is time. The solution requires an internal model of time (in our case the on-delay timer). But to someone fresh out of their first PLC programming course, inputs and outputs are king.

In my part tracking post, I literally ask you to “focus on part tracking”. Your first job, as a PLC programmer, is to create a simplified model of the world in the PLC’s internal state and maintain the accuracy of this model using the inputs. I call this “part tracking”, but it’s literally the PLC’s hallucination of its world. The internal model of the world stored in the PLC is the proper foundation of the decisions the PLC will make. This is the core idea behind of the patterns of ladder logic programming. The mission pattern, step pattern, and five rung patterns are all on the output side of the program. They are the actuators of a decision that was made in the mission controller based on the model (a.k.a. part tracking).

Now here’s a bonus thought… is the PLC’s internal model an accurate representation of reality? Well, yes, your goal is to make it more accurate than our sensors. But is it a complete representation of reality? Clearly not. We pare down the model to the simplest, most fundamental level. We only include the bare minimum of what we need for the machine to do its job.

So… what could that mean about our own internal model of reality? If we evolved this consciousness (or I guess if it was designed like we designed the PLC program), there’s a good point to be made that accuracy has a lot of value. Our internal model of reality is likely more accurate than our senses can perceive. But is it complete? Almost certainly not. Modeling a part of reality that we don’t need in order to survive is just wasteful.

Thinking Critically?

Every once in a while I’m talking with someone and they open up about their beliefs. I’m pretty sure this is a normal thing humans do with each other, but it always catches me off guard.

Sometimes their beliefs are strongly at odds with my worldview, like they might say, “You know, I really think the moon landings had to be faked.” I always react immediately, and it doesn’t appear to come from the thinking part of my brain. No, the first thing that happens, completely automatically, is an emotional reaction. I know because I can feel my face turn red.

It only lasts a few seconds. I automatically take a deep breath. The thinking part of my brain starts working again. “Remember,” I tell myself, “there’s always a chance they have information you haven’t heard yet.”

I ask, “Well, how do you know? What convinced you?”

“You know, I’ve been watching this guy on YouTube and he just makes a lot of sense,” they say.

The Rational Animal?

These people I talk with aren’t dumb. They’re logical, thoughtful people. In fact they can’t do their jobs without being ruthlessly analytical.

I often have to diagnose a problem with a machine, and it’s clearly a problem in the I/O network. Whether it’s DeviceNET, Ethernet/IP or EtherCAT, we’re often dealing with a daisy-chain configuration. You open up your diagnostic tool and you can see that nodes A, B, and C are online, but nodes D and E aren’t. Clearly the problem is between nodes C and D.

This where I say, “well, it can only be one of three things: the transmitter in node C, the communication cable, or the receiver in node D.” I usually check the communication cable first, not because it’s the most likely, but because it’s the easiest to check by simply grabbing my 100 foot cable and temporarily replacing the existing cable. Same problem? It’s not the cable. Now it’s either the transmitter or the receiver.

Now I can try bypassing the receiver… if I connect node C directly to node E, and node E communicates, then I know the problem is node D. Problem #1 solved. Replace node D, pack up the tools, and problem #2 gets a promotion.

Why does logical thought come so easily in this case, but completely elude us in other cases?


There’s one very important distinction between these cases. When I’m diagnosing the I/O network on a machine, I don’t have a vested interest in whether it’s the transmitter, cable, or receiver that’s faulty. I’m an unbiased judge. I don’t identify with any of them.

That isn’t always true. If I’m working on the same machine with a co-worker, and they designed the transmitter, and I designed the receiver, then I really wouldn’t want the receiver to be the problem, would I? What would happen if it was the receiver? Would I feel embarrassed in front of my team? Would I lose standing within the group? Probably not where I work, but it’s conceivable. In some places it might be quite likely.

One thing’s for sure… our impartiality is in question.

Perhaps more importantly, the machine doesn’t have an agenda. It’s not actively trying to influence you, like a person is. To diagnose a machine, all you need is logic. To listen to an argument, you need to think critically.

Fight? Flight?

Our bodies and our minds are finely tuned to threats in our environment. When something threatening happens, our bodies initiate a stress response (also called the fight-or-flight response) by releasing hormones that get us ready to deal with threats. It happens when a deer jumps out in front of your vehicle at night. You react quickly and automatically, but afterward you can feel the physical changes. Your heart is racing, your senses are more sensitive, and your reactions are faster.

How does the body improve your reaction time? Less thinking.

Oh, later it may feel like you saw the deer jump out, you hit the brakes and swerved out of the way, all because you decided to do it. But you didn’t decide anything. You reacted, and the thinking part of your brain couldn’t possibly have worked fast enough to be a part of that process.

How does the automatic part of our brain know what to do? I’m not sure. I’ve often wondered if that’s what our dreams are: our brains simulating stressful situations, letting the thinking part do it’s thing, and recording the result for future automatic playback in a stressful situation. Of course, I have no evidence of that, but it’s fun to speculate.

You see, it’s not just deer jumping out at us that causes stress. Many of the most common bad dreams are about social embarrassments, like showing up naked in an inappropriate place, or showing up late to a meeting.

Not only are we finely tuned to physical threats, but also to threats to our social status. We’re very sensitive to anyone thinking badly about us, or thinking badly about a group we identify with. Nobody wants to be voted off the island. It isn’t just that it makes us feel bad… it’s that it causes our body to prepare for a fight. It inhibits the thinking part of our brain.

It’s not about the Moon Landing

So when someone tells me they think the moon landings were faked, my body somehow sensed a threat and reacted. Why?

It doesn’t make sense to be upset because someone is wrong. We’re wrong all the time. Disagreements always involve at least one person being wrong, but disagreements lead to learning. I think we should have a right to say wrong statements (just don’t be shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater).

I didn’t react because I thought they were wrong. The reaction was almost instant, so I wasn’t thinking anything. Any disagreement causes the reaction, because any disagreement is a potential threat.

It may not seem like it, but we go out of our way to avoid disagreements, particularly with the people we interact with directly. In fact we tend to align our views with our social circle. People measurably change their political views when they move to a new place. Some people will give an answer they know to be wrong just to conform.

Winning Friends? Influencing People?

I really am curious. I’m fascinated by how stuff works, whether it’s stars and planets, subatomic particles, machines, or even people. I really want to know the truth, and I don’t actually have a reason for wanting to know. I’m just curious. But I’m also comfortable with the answer, “I don’t know.”

I think we all tend to assume everyone else is like us, and I was no different. I assumed everyone else was just curious like me. I now see that’s clearly not true. We’re hard-wired to care about belonging in a group. Belonging is comfortable. It reduces stress. We crave it. There’s safety in numbers.

A few years ago I was at a dinner hosted by a local startup incubator and maker space. Not big internet startups, just local people starting small businesses. In front of us, there was a young woman who was growing a business that sold dietary supplements and provided nutritional advice and that sort of thing. I asked her how it was going, and she said, in a sort of defeated tone, “I’ve learned that telling people what they need to hear doesn’t work. I just tell them what they want to hear.”

It’s funny what we remember. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that short conversation.

This Guy on YouTube

“You know, I’ve been watching this guy on YouTube and he just makes a lot of sense.”

Partly this is a problem with videos. When we read words on a page, we have more time to reflect, to think critically. We can read at our own pace. Videos don’t work like that.

But really, it’s pretty easy to convince you something if believing it makes you feel good. Every rock band walks out on stage and tells the crowd how awesome their city is. The audience always agrees, but let’s face it… some of those places have to suck.

Also, since we’re so finely tuned to threats, it’s actually pretty easy to convince you something if believing it makes you feel threatened. We’re tuned to threats because over-reacting is a better survival strategy than under-reacting. It’s better to err on the side of caution and assume there might be a lion hiding in that tall grass. If you’re wrong you got some more exercise, and if you’re right, it saved your life.

Thinking critically is hard. Like… really hard. We’re not built to do it.

If you want to start thinking critically about a video, or an article, you need to figure out who the author is, and what their motivation is. It’s rarely curiosity. It’s usually money or status. People post videos to YouTube to make money, and they do that by getting more and more people to watch their videos. They don’t need to post factually accurate information. They just need to post something people will share. Popular videos just say what people want to hear. They appeal to emotion, not logic.

But if you really want to be a critical thinker, it’s much harder than that. Before you watch that video or read that article, you need to stop and ask yourself, “What do I want them to say?” Because unless you’re watching a video or reading an article about a topic that means nothing to you (doubtful), then you’re biased, and you need to be honest with yourself about your own biases before you can worry about theirs.

That’s hard.

“X-Year Old” is a Categorical Variable

Just a quick note to parents out there: when someone says “3-year old” it refers to any individual who is from 3 years of age to 3 years and 364 days of age. It’s a categorical variable. The average “3-year old” is 3 years and 6 months of age. All of the measured “norms” of what a 3-year old can do is based on children who fall in that age range.

So if your 3-year old is one month away from his 4th birthday, it’s not OK to refer to him as a 4-year old just because he’s “almost 4.” He’s still closer in age to the average 3-year old than the average 4-year old, so you’re inadvertently comparing him to a group of children who are older than him, and you’re naturally going to feel like he’s falling behind.

In unrelated news, my 3-year old son is almost 4. 🙂

How Automation is Shaping our Society

Try this on for size:

We’ve been automating for hundreds of years now. The industrial revolution caused a migration of workers from agriculture into the cities to work at factory jobs, and workers that are displaced by new technologies will find new work that didn’t even exist a few years ago.

I assume if you’re reading this article that you’re involved in automation in some way, so you’d actually want to believe that statement, and arguing against what someone wanted to believe would be pointless. I’m going to do it anyway. That statement is wrong. This time it really is different.

To explain this I need you to consider what motivates people here in the “west”. Basically we have some form of regulated capitalism. To boil that down, it means you can own things, and you are allowed to keep some fraction of the proceeds that are generated from those things. This actually applies to almost all of us, even if most people don’t think of it that way. It’s obvious to a farmer: you own land, buildings, and equipment, you grow things and sell them, and after tax you hope to end up with some kind of a profit. Ok, perhaps farming isn’t a great example because there are so many government subsidies involved, but the principle is the same with small business owners, and even employees.

Employees? Most employees don’t think of themselves as capitalists because they can’t see the capital they’re using to generate a profit, but it’s right there in the mirror. You are your own capital. Ever since abolition, this is capital that nobody could take away from you. It’s the first and primary social safety net. No matter how penniless you were, barring illness or infirmity, you had this basic nest egg of capital you could always draw from to bootstrap your life. Most people mistake capital for money, and that’s why they don’t see themselves as capital. After all, you can’t “spend yourself”, can you? Actually, going back hundreds of years, you could. Most slaves around the Mediterranean hundreds of years ago were slaves because they incurred debts that they couldn’t pay off, so they became the property of whoever they owed the debt to, until they could work off their debt.

If it helps, think of the human body as a machine that turns food into… various useful things more valuable than food. Farmers turn small amounts of food into larger amounts of food. Carpenters turn food and wood into houses or furniture. Quantum physicists turn food into transistors and lasers, and you, dear reader, perhaps you’re a machine that turns food into PLC programs. In turn, we trade these things for various useful things that other people have created. Capitalism.

Now I’m a fan of regulated capitalism because it’s an efficient way to organize lots of machines (us) into producing lots of valuable things like cars, houses and episodes of Game of Thrones.

Now here’s the weird part. There’s a huge incentive to use your capital to acquire more capital, which you can then use to acquire more capital, and so on, but very few people do this. You would think that someone who finished 13 years of schooling at the age of 18, worked 47 years and retired at the age of 65, making, let’s say, an average modest wage of $30,000 per year in present-day dollars would have had the foresight to save some of that $1.4 million for their retirement, but it’s clear that many don’t. In fact there are many people with an income far higher than that who not only don’t save any, but go into significant debt and either declare bankruptcy or become virtual slaves to credit card companies. It’s so incredibly common and has such a negative cost to society that governments actually force workers to save portions of their paycheque every week into a government pension program and then pay them a stipend when they retire. I’m not familiar with the way this works in the United States, but in Canada this is referred to as the Canada Pension Plan, and it’s supplemented by something called Old Age Security that kicks in a few years later. This is despite the fact that anyone who bothered to squirrel away 18% of their net paycheque for their entire career into a tax sheltered retirement savings plan and invested it in mutual funds would have a very comfortable retirement – much more comfortable than living on a government pension.

Now part of me thinks this is fine: you made your bed, now lie in it. But this affects everyone, even the wealthiest capitalists. The most basic of government services are the ones that wealthy people need most: military, police (criminal law) and the enforcement of contracts (civil law). These three services of government are what give people the ability to own things. The military protects it from external threats, the police protect it from people inside the country (thieves and vandals), and civil law settles disputes about who owns what.

We keep hearing that wealth inequality is a bad thing, but that can’t be absolutely true. If our system is working, it has to reward the people doing more valuable things with more money, so the only way there could be income equality is if everyone was doing something equally valuable, and we’re not. There should be a way for me to make more money by working harder, smarter, or differently than I am now. That’s the incentive to be more productive.

In fact, that’s what really matters: does the average person believe they can improve their standing? Because if they don’t, they get unruly and do wild and crazy things. Things that make wealthy people uneasy because in the west those unruly people can really mess with the government that’s providing all those military, police, and civil services they depend on.

Imagine you work in a factory in the Midwest U.S. that makes air conditioners. Chances are, you don’t think of yourself as a machine that turns food into air conditioners. You’re not thinking about how to make that machine more efficient, or more valuable. You’re already working 6 days a week, and your family never sees you. All you know is that sooner or later the guy who drives the fancy BMW is going to move your job to another country, or replace you with a robot, and since all the other plants around here have closed, you might not be able to send your kid to college. How would you feel? Maybe you’d be inclined to vote for a politician that promised to punish companies that moved their factories to Mexico.

I think the crux of the matter is that this worker no idea what to do. The incentives are still there: learn a new skill, invest in yourself, be more productive. But few people do it, for the same reason that few people save for their own retirement.

I’ve spent a few years around people who’ve been running small businesses, and I’ve tried to pay attention. It took me years to really understand that there was nothing magical about running a business. That’s because, like almost everyone else, I was brought up with the idea that innovative geniuses come up with brilliant new ideas and start companies that make billions of dollars. Outside of a few small cases, that’s simply not true. Look hard enough and you can find an industry that’s in demand and growing. If the demand is high, there will always be companies in that industry that are poorly run but still make a profit. You can make money simply by doing the same thing as everyone else and simply not being the worst at it. That’s how capitalism works – it gives you incentives to provide products and services that are in demand.

I have a relative that got laid off many years ago. There was a jobs program where they gave him classes on how to start a small business. He learned how to keep books, write an invoice, and how to do his taxes. They hooked him up with a small business loan. A few months later he’s running his own business and a couple years after that he’s hired an employee. Now he has the opportunity to invest in himself, like buying better equipment and improving his skills.

Let’s say you’re a PLC programmer. Your company likely pays you upwards of $50,000 a year. How much did they spend on your computer? Did they cheap out? Does it make any sense to handicap a $50,000 a year resource with a cheap laptop? If you were in business for yourself, you’d quickly realize there aren’t many things you could invest in that would make you a more efficient or valuable PLC programmer, but a faster computer is a no-brainer.

Automation is increasing productivity and with self-driving trucks and expert systems being developed, the rate of productivity increase is set to explode. However, these are expensive investments and there’s no way for displaced workers to take advantage of this automation. If I gave a truck driver a bigger truck, they produce more value per mile driven, but if I replace the driver with a computer, they have no value at all.

Increased productivity stopped producing higher wages back in the early 70’s. A bank teller makes the same now as they did back then (adjusted for inflation) even though most of the drudgery has been offloaded to ATMs. In fact, ATMs allowed banks to open more smaller branches and the demand for tellers to staff those branches has actually increased the number of tellers total, but despite automating the simple tasks and increasing demand for tellers, they’re not making any more in wages.

The same people who are currently blaming immigration and outsourcing for their problems are soon going to realize that automation is what’s really eating their lunch. Unlike in the industrial revolution where displaced workers could participate in this new economy by switching from farming to factory work, during this transition workers will either lose their jobs and have to completely re-skill, or at best they’ll keep their jobs but not see a penny more for their increased productivity.

That’s because old automation made people more valuable, but new automation seems to make them less valuable. That means it’s devaluing the one bit of capital they have.

This is where someone usually suggests a universal basic income so everyone can share in the increased productivity without everyone contributing to it. I’m not convinced the numbers add up. What we really need is to encourage this idea of viewing yourself as capital, not as an employee. An incentive and a safety net for people starting a small business should be less expensive and more effective than paying people to sit at home. How about teaching this stuff in school (I figure teachers are pretty clueless about starting a business). How about making it easier to start a business than going on social assistance? How about making in-demand skills training free?

I’m glad we’re talking about this because it does matter. A lot of this is tied in with what’s going on in the world right now. There’s a general sense that the next generation won’t be as well off as their parents’ generation, and that’s pretty much unprecedented. That promise that anyone could make something of themselves is slipping away, and we need that back.

Hacking the Free Market

Like any system, the free market works very well within certain bounds, but it breaks down when you try to use it outside of those constraints.

The free market works when all of the parties in the system are “intelligent agents”. For the purposes of definition, we’ll call them “adult humans”. An adult human is free to enter into transactions within the system with other adult humans. The system works because the only transactions that are permitted are ones in which both parties to the transaction benefit. So, a plumber can fix an electrician’s drain, and an electrician can fix the plumber’s wiring, and they both benefit from the transaction. The introduction of currency makes this work even better.

In fact, if one party in a transaction ends up with less, we usually make that transaction illegal. It usually falls into the category of coercion, extortion, or theft. Nobody can put a gun to another person’s head and demand money “in exchange for their life” because that person had their life before the transaction started.

Still, we find ways to hack the system. Debt is one obvious circumvention. Normally debt is a transaction involving you, someone else, and your future selves. If you take out a student loan, go to school, pay back the student loan, and get a better job, then everyone benefits, and it’s an example of “good debt”. Likewise, if you need a car loan to get a car to get a better job, it’s “good debt” (depending on how much you splurged on the car). Mortgages are similarly structured. Consumer debt (aka “bad debt”), on the other hand, is typically a circumvention of the free market. However, the person who gets screwed is your future self, so it’s morally ambiguous at worst.

The free market can also be hacked through the exploitation of common resources. For instance, if I started a business that sucked all the oxygen from the air, liquefied it, and then I sold it back to the general public for their personal use, I doubt I’d be in business very long. I might as well be building a giant laser on the moon. Similarly, the last few decades were filled with stories of large companies being sued in class action lawsuits for dumping toxic chemicals into streams, rivers or lakes and poisoning the local water supply. Using up a common resource for your own benefit is a kind of “free market hack”. If a third party can prove they were the targets of a “free market hack”, the courts have ruled that they are entitled to compensation.

Still, we hack the free market all the time. The latest credit scandal is just one example. The general public was out of pocket because of a transaction many of them weren’t a party to. It really is criminal.

A larger concern is the management of natural resources. This includes everything from fossil fuels, to timber, fresh water, fish stocks, and, most recently, the atmosphere. The latter opens a new set of problems. All of the other resources are (or can be) nationally managed. Canada, for instance, while it has allowed over-fishing to take place on the Grand Banks, has exercised systems that reduce the quotas in an attempt to manage the dwindling resource. This makes those resources more expensive, so the free market can adjust to the real cost of these resources. The atmosphere, on the other hand, is a globally shared resource with no global body capable of regulating it.

I don’t want to get into some climate change debate here, so let’s look at it from a higher level. Whenever we have a common resource we always over-exploit it until, as a society, we put regulations in place for managing it. In cases where we didn’t (Easter Island comes to mind), we use up the resource completely with catastrophic results.

I realize the atmosphere is vast, but it’s not limitless. While everyone’s very concerned with fossil fuel use, if it was only about dwindling reserves of fossil fuels, it wouldn’t be a problem. The free market would take care of making fossil fuels more expensive as they start to run out, and other energy sources would take their place. However, when we burn fossil fuels, the energy we get is coming from a reaction between the fuel and oxygen in the atmosphere. The simple model is that oxygen is converted into carbon dioxide. Some of the potential energy of the reaction comes from the atmosphere, not just the fuel. We need to run that carbon dioxide through plants again to get the energy (and oxygen) back. Of course, that would take much, much longer (and more work) to do than the energy that we actually get out of the reaction.

If climate scientists are right, then we’re also causing a serious amount of harm to the climate at the same time. This is a debt that will continue accruing interest long after we’re dead. I recognize the uncertainty of the future, but as any good risk manager knows, you shouldn’t gamble more than you can afford to lose.

This is a free market hack because we treat it like a perpetual motion machine, but we’re really just sapping energy from a big flywheel. Like debt, whether this is “good” or “bad” depends on whether we can turn that consumption into something even more valuable for the future. In general (but not every case), every generation before us left us a better world than the one they inhabited. Most of the value we have now is knowledge passed from generation to generation. It costs comparatively little to pass information forward than the value we gain from the access to that information. Therefore, even if our ancestors used up resources, they couldn’t do it on a scale big enough to offset the value of the knowledge they were passing forward. It’s ironic if that knowledge let us build a big enough lever to tip the scales.

It seems pretty certain that if we fail to leave the future generations more value than we’re taking from them, they’ll make us pay. They’ll turn on the companies and families that profited at their expense, and they’ll either sue for damages, or drag the bodies of the CEO’s through the streets behind camels, depending on which area of the world they live in.

Personally I’d prefer prevention over retribution. The problem is that if there really is a future cost to our actions, the market isn’t factoring that into the price. Even though companies are accruing the risk of a large future liability, they don’t have to account for this risk in their balance sheet. That’s because while future generations have a stake in this situation, they don’t have a voicenow. Nobody’s appointed to represent their interests. That’s why the free market continues to be hacked, at their expense.

How could you structure such a system? Should companies be forced to account for estimated future liabilities, so it shows up on their P&L statements? Do we allow them to account for true value that they’re passing forward, like new technologies they’ve developed, which can help to offset the liabilities they’re incurring? Obviously that’s impractical. Not only does it become a bureaucratic nightmare, but there’s still no international body to oversee the principles of the accounting system.

Could an appointed legal representative of future generations sue us for the present value of future damages we’re risking? Can they spend the proceeds of the lawsuits on restorative projects? (Investments with a big dividend but which don’t pay back for 100 years, like reforesting the Sahara.) I doubt a non-existent group of people can sue anybody, so I doubt that’s a workable solution either.

I’m afraid the solution lies in the hands of politicians, and that makes me sad. We need a global body that can manage natural resources, including the atmosphere. At this point, a political solution seems just as impossible.

I’m still looking for ideas and solutions. I want to contribute to a workable solution, but my compass isn’t working. If you know the way, I’m listening.

(Hint: the solution isn’t energy efficiency.)

To be honest, we could still be producing knowledge at such a huge rate that we’re still passing forward more value than we’re taking from future generations. But I don’t think anyone’s keeping track, and that’s pretty scary.

Anyway, Earth hour’s about to start. While it’s a really silly gesture to turn your lights out for an hour in “support” of a planet that we continue to rape and pillage the other 8759 hours of the year, I think I’ll give this stuff another hour of thought. It’s literally the least I can do.

Edit: I posted a follow-up to this article called What can I do about our global resource problems?

Book Review: The Lights in the Tunnel

I was paging through the Amazon store on my Kindle when I came across a book that caught my eye: The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future (Volume 1)

It’s not every day you come across a book about Automation, and for $6, I figured, “what the heck?”

The author, Martin Ford, is a Computer Engineer from California. To summarize, he’s basically saying the following:

  • Within 80 years, we will have created machines that will displace significantly more than half of the current workforce

This is a topic that interests me. Not only do I have a career in automation, but I’ve previously wondered about exactly the same question that Ford poses. What happens if we create machines advanced enough that a certain segment of the population will become permanently unemployed?

The title of the book comes from Ford’s “Tunnel Analogy”. He tries to model the economy as a tunnel of lights, with each light representing a person, its brightness indicating its wealth, and the tunnel is lined with other patches of light: businesses. The lights float around interacting with the businesses. Some businesses grow larger and stronger while others shrink and die off, but ultimately the brightness of the tunnel (the sum of the lights) appears to be increasing.

I found the analogy to be a bit odd myself. Actually, I wasn’t quite sure why an analogy was necessary. We’re all pretty familiar with how the free market works. If you don’t get it, I don’t think the tunnel analogy is going to help you. In fact, one excerpt from his description of the tunnel makes me wonder if Ford himself even “gets” the concept of how the economy works:

As we continue to watch the lights, we can now see that they are attracted to the various panels. We watch as thousands of lights steam toward a large automaker’s panels, softly make contact and then bounce back toward the center of the tunnel. As the lights touch the panel, we notice that they dim slightly while the panel itself pulses with new energy. New cars have been purchased, and a transfer of wealth has taken place.

That particular statement irked me during the rest of the book. That’s not a good illustration of a free market; that’s an illustration of a feudal system. In a free market, we take part in mutually beneficial transactions. The automaker has a surplus of cars and wants to exchange them for other goods that it values more, and the consumer needs a car and wants to exchange his/her goods (or promise of debt) in exchange for the car. When the transaction takes place, presumably the automaker has converted a car into something they wanted more than the car, and the consumer has converted monetary instruments into something they wanted more: a car. Both the automaker and the consumer should shine brighter as a result of the transaction.

Ford has confused money with wealth, and that’s pretty dangerous. As Paul Graham points out in his excellent essay on wealth:

Money Is Not Wealth

If you want to create wealth, it will help to understand what it is. Wealth is not the same thing as money. Wealth is as old as human history. Far older, in fact; ants have wealth. Money is a comparatively recent invention.

Wealth is the fundamental thing. Wealth is stuff we want: food, clothes, houses, cars, gadgets, travel to interesting places, and so on. You can have wealth without having money. If you had a magic machine that could on command make you a car or cook you dinner or do your laundry, or do anything else you wanted, you wouldn’t need money. Whereas if you were in the middle of Antarctica, where there is nothing to buy, it wouldn’t matter how much money you had.

There are actually two ways to create wealth. First, you can make it yourself (grow your own food, fix your house, paint a picture, etc.), or secondly you can trade something you value less for something you value more. In fact, most of us combine these two methods: we go to work and create something that someone else wants so we can trade it for stuff that we want (food, cars, houses, etc.).

Later in the book, Ford makes a distinction between labor-intensive and capital-intensive industries. He uses YouTube as an example of a capital-intensive business because they were purchased (by Google) for $1.65B and they don’t have very many employees. I can’t believe he’s using YouTube as an example of a capital-intensive industry. The new crop of online companies are extremely low-overhead endeavors. Facebook was started in a dorm room. Again, Ford seems to miss the fact that money is not equal to wealth. Google didn’t buy YouTube for the capital, they bought their audience. Google’s bread and butter is online advertising, so they purchased YouTube because users are worth more to Google than they are to the shareholders of YouTube that sold out. Wealth was created during the transaction because all parties feel they have something more than they had to start.

Back to Ford’s premise for a moment: is it possible that we could create machines advanced enough that the average person would have no place in a future economy? I don’t find it hard to believe that we could eventually create machines capable of doing most of the work that we do right now. We’ve certainly already created machines that do most of the work that the population did only decades ago. The question is, can we get to the point where the average person has no value to add?

Let’s continue Ford’s thought experiment for a moment. You and I and half the population is now out of work and nobody will hire us. Presumably the applicable constitutional elements are in place so we’re still “free”. What do we do? Well, I don’t know about you, but if I had no job and I was surrounded by a bunch of other people with no job, I’d be out foraging for food. When I found some, I’d probably trade a bit of it to someone who could sew that might patch up my shirt. If I had a bit of surplus, I’d probably plant a few extra seeds the next spring and get a decent harvest to get me through the next winter.

I’m not trying to be sarcastic here. I’m trying to point out the obvious flaw in the idea that a large percentage of the population couldn’t participate in the economy. If that were the case, the large part of the population would, out of necessity, form their own economy. In fact, if we’re still playing in Ford’s dreamland here, where technology is so advanced that machines can think and perhaps even nanotechnology is real, I’d probably hang around the local dump and forage for a bit of technology there. The treasures I’d find there would probably put me in more luxury than I currently have in 2010.

So, if you take the thought experiment to the extreme, it breaks down. Given a free society divided into haves and have-nots, where the haves don’t have any use for the have-nots, then what you really have is two separate and distinct societies, each with its own bustling economy. Whether or not there is trade between those two economies, one thing is certain: almost everyone still has a job.

Of course, it’s not like we’re going to wake up tomorrow and technology will suddenly throw us all out of our jobs. The shift in technology will happen gradually over time. As technology improves, people will need to adapt (as we do every day). As I’ve said before, I think a major shift away from the mass consumption of identical items is already underway. As the supply of generic goods goes up, our perceived value of them goes down.

Ford doesn’t seem to participate in automation on a daily basis, so I think he lacks the experience of what automation really does. Automation drives down the cost, but it also increases the supply and reduces the novelty at the same time. Automated manufacturing makes products less valuable but the juxtaposition makes people more valuable.

There’s a company out there called Best Made Co. that sells $200 hand-made axes. There’s a three week waiting time. That’s a feature actually: it’s so valuable to people that there’s a three week lead time. It’s made by hand. It’s made by hand by people who are passionate about axes. Feature? I think so.

In Ford’s dystopia, when the robber-barons are sitting atop their mountains of widgets that they’ve produced in their lights-out factory, don’t you think one of them might want to buy a sincere story? Wouldn’t they be interested in seeing a movie, or going to church on Sunday, or reading a book? When all of your basic needs are met, these higher-level needs will all see more demand. They’re also hard to automate. Some things have value because they’re done by people. Some things would be worth less if you did automate them:

  • Relationships (with real people)
  • Religion
  • Sports
  • The Arts
  • “Home Cooked” or “Hand-Made”
  • Stories (of origins, extremes, rescues, journeys, relationships, redemption, and the future)

Do you recognize that list? That’s the list of things we do when we’re finished with the drudgery of providing for our survival. We cheer for our sports team on a Sunday afternoon, or go and see an emotional movie on Friday night. Some people buy $200 axes (or iPhones, anyone?) because they come with a fascinating story that they can re-tell to their friends. (Bonus points if it’ll get you laid.)

Ford scoffs at the idea of a transition to a service based economy. He suggests implementing heavy taxes on industry and redistributing that to people who otherwise would have been doing the job the robots are doing, just so they can buy the stuff the robots are producing. He can’t see anything but an economy based on the consumption of material goods. I say: go ahead and automate away the drudgery of daily existence, make the necessities of life so cheap they’re practically free, and let’s get on with building real wealth: strong relationships, a sense of purpose, and a society that values life-long self improvement (instead of life-long accumulation of crap). By making the unimportant stuff less valuable, automation is what will free us to focus more on what’s important.

Quick thoughts about Automation

I think that once you’ve been in this industry for a few years, you need to reach out to others to share some of the wisdom you’ve learned. Most of the knowledge we carry around can do other people a lot more good than it will do us again in the future, so sharing needs to be a cultural norm. With that thought in mind, here are some quick automation-related thoughts I’d like to share:

  1. Inexperienced engineers appear to work faster, but their solutions are less maintainable. [tweet this]
  2. Choose open systems over proprietary, when possible [tweet this]
  3. Automate your own job ruthlessly before to automate anything else. It pays back. [tweet this]
  4. Beware of employers who spend 30 minutes reprimanding you about a 15 minute line on your timesheet. [tweet this]
  5. If you can’t find a more powerful tool, make your own. [tweet this]
  6. When estimating a project, if you’re counting in hours, you’re not being realistic. Use half-days. [tweet this]
  7. Don’t take shortcuts writing a program if it’s at the expense of readability. It doesn’t pay off. [tweet this]
  8. Automation doesn’t help if you don’t understand the process you’re automating. [tweet this]
  9. Blame is reactive. “What can we do differently next time?” is proactive. [tweet this]
  10. Innovate is a verb. This is not a coincidence – it requires constant action. [tweet this]
  11. Make things of value, not emails. [tweet this]

Feel free to share your own nuggets of wisdom below.

Doing it “Right”

As an engineer I notice I’m in a minority of people who are obsessed with discovering the “right” way to do something. At the same time, I know that there’s more than one way to do it. Not only that, but the “right” way isn’t the right way until someone discovers it, and the right way becomes the wrong way once someone discovers a better way (and then does the hard work of convincing everyone else that it’s better).

When we say there’s a “right” way, we’re implying that there’s also one or more “wrong” ways, but we’re also implying some more subtle nuances:

  • The “right” way is rarely the one that’s obvious to the novice
  • The “right” way takes more time, effort, and resources up front
  • It’s the “right” way because the additional investment pays off in the long term

I think these are interesting and insightful observations. All of them are strictly tied to experience. Nobody starts their first task on their first day of work and says, “wow, I can do this two different ways… I have no other way to weight the value of these strategies, so I’ll choose the one that takes more effort, time, and money.” By default, we choose the easiest, fastest, and cheapest route available to us. We change our strategy (if ever) only after seeing the outcome of the first trial. We only change if we see that the extra investment now will pay off for us down the road.

That’s why a homebuilder only builds your house “to code”. Have you ever seen how they build their own home? They put extra reinforcing material in the foundation, they use better materials, use longer lasting shingles, and they take care to get the best people to work on it. That’s because to them, the “right” way is different if they’re building your house vs. their home. Your house is just short-term profit, but they want their home to pay them back after the long haul. This is normal, logical, and selfish behaviour.

Yet I think Engineers, Architects, and Designers have some malfunction in their DNA that makes them obsessed with doing what’s in their client’s best long term interest even if there’s no benefit for them personally. There’s some kind of obsessive-compulsive aversion to a sub-optimal design. I would argue that it’s a prerequisite for those professions.

This often leads to frustrating conversations with clients, because the Engineer (not usually that good with social interactions to begin with) is trying to convince the client that they’re going to have to spend more money than they’d planned, it’s going to take longer than they thought, and it’s going to be more difficult than they’d imagined. That is, in fact, what the client is paying for: experience. The Engineer (who is a crazy deviant, always in search of some mythical “right” way of doing things) doesn’t understand why the client is upset, since they’ll be saving a boatload of anguish in the long term.

The most frequent complaint about Engineers has to be that they make things “too complicated”, and to be certain, you can take it too far, but what we’re really doing is inhabiting the losing end of every argument. As Engineers, we’re asking people to endure pain now for the promise of a better life later. If that were easy, the dessert industry would have perished long ago.