The Robots Want Your Job. Should You Fight Them?

In 2008 a lot of people lost their jobs. You can blame some bankers in New York, London, Reykjavik and other financial centers for that. At least you can blame them as being the proximal cause. In some candid interviews, CEOs of major companies admitted that they were laying people off they probably didn't really need anyway. Automation had improved the productivity of their operations enough that the financial crises became a good excuse to cut some dead wood. After hearing that, it's probably no surprise that as the economy recovered, a lot of the jobs didn't return.

Is the coming wave of automation, with smarter, more dexterous robots and more advanced algorithms, going to take our jobs away? Maybe yes. Maybe no. Maybe we'll learn to work alongside them, removing the drudgery from our jobs and making us even more indispensable.

There are economists, technologists, and pundits firmly entrenched on both sides of that debate. On the one side, you can easily see how robots are getting better at the jobs that we used to think were safe. In 2004, the economist David Autor used driving a car as the perfect example of a job that only a human can do. Whoops.

It's easy to see the existing jobs that a robot could probably do in a few years, but an optimist might point out how hard it is to see the new jobs we're going to invent in the coming years. Ten years ago, you probably hadn't heard of a app developer, social media consultant, or personal chef.

The promise of automation has always been that it could do the grunt work that we don't particularly like. A researchers can now do a text search in a few minutes instead of spending days in the stacks and still not be sure if they missed some vital reference. We've always looked forward to the day when we didn't have to vacuum, mow the lawn, or clear the table. We could be freed to do enlightening, interesting things.

At work, the boring, dangerous, or repetitive tasks are the easiest to automate. If your job consists solely of those kinds of tasks you're probably in trouble, if not already out of a job. Fortunately, most jobs have other tasks that require incite, imagination, creativity and other cognitive abilities that probably won't be automated any time soon.

That probably sounds great. If you're good at the difficult to automate parts of your job, then you'll have no problem working with the computers or robots and becoming even more productive and indispensable.

If you read my previous post, you probably already see the catch. This is a situation that looks suspiciously close the 4-Hour Work Week Nightmare Scenario. Those of us who have managed to keep our jobs in an automated workplace have done so by learning to be flexible, and to work with the automation to do our jobs even more efficiently. The cost is that as the robots, algorithms, and workflows remove the tedious parts of our jobs, we're expected to operate at our peak focus for longer and longer periods. When I was working as a chemist, I came to treasure my "mill time." This was the time when I was making a new component on the CNC mill. Setting up, taking down, and monitoring the process was mostly mindless and gave me break from coding, writing papers, and other brain-intensive activities.

From time to time, there is agitation that we need to break free from the status quo of the 9-5, 40 hour work weeks. A lot of companies have embraced flex time or work from home policies to give their employees more flexibility to manage not just their lives, but their energy.

I'm seeing more and more people putting down the arbitrary decision that 40 hours is a suitable weekly work load. These calls aren't just coming from hipsters and anarchists, but also from stogy sources like Forbes and CNN and FastComany. Companies would be only to happy to (and often do) ask us to work longer hours, but they don't have science on their side. You can ask a guy to screw in a bolt over and over for 80 hours a week, but if you ask someone to do cognitively challenging tasks for too long, they're productivity tanks. Mistakes start to creep and before long, they're less productive than a half-timer. There's a growing understanding that you get more from your employees if you ask them to work less. There are biological limits to how many hours someone can spend in highly focussed flow state.

Here are some trends I've been seeing in the past few years.

  • More and more people are treating the 40 hour work week and an arbitrary and evil imposition to peoples happiness and health
  • More and more people arguing against the idea you tell person to be creative, focused and insightful on a 9-5 schedule. If someone is most creative at 8pm, you're wasting their time (and your money) making them sit a desk chair during their least productive times.
  • Meditation, mindfulness, cold brew coffee, and anything else that might help us focus more, better, or longer get's a headline just about every day.

I think it's no coincidence these are happening at the same time. People are getting fed up with working for 40 hours a week at the same time that computers are getting much better at taking away the time-consuming and low-attention parts of our jobs. I think as our focus, our creativity, and our insightfulness are extracted from us ever more efficiently, we're running into our natural limits. Whether your running a marathon or doing a marathon coding session, running into your limit is exhausting. When your work was 90% mindless, you could easily put in 40 hours and come home relaxed and ready for an evening with friends. When you job is 90% full-on, laser-focused, head-down concentration, you're some kind of savant if you can do it, and your evening will probably be spent in a quiet room with the lights off.

Automation might let you keep your job. You just might end up wishing it hadn't.

To Dunning-Kruger and Beyond

When you go through graduate school, you get to know a lot of doctors. There are the professors, of course, but also your fellow students. From your first year in the lab, you start seeing coworkers make the magical transition. I think magical best describes it because it's not anything you can see or measure. In fact, it's not much of a transition at all. You work for years on learning your field and pushing the boundaries of knowledge. Then you write down what you've learned, and go to a high stress meeting. After that, they mail you a piece of paper that your mother insists on framing.

There are a lot of lessons that come out of graduate school. Here's one.

The more somebody insists that you call them "doctor," the less they probably deserve the title.

There is a cognitive bias known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, in which people who don't know that much about a topic think they know a lot more. It's one of things that seems obvious in retrospect. When you don't know that much, you don't know what you don't know. As you learn more, you become more aware of where you need work. That's why experts might hem and haw about whether they can do a certain project in a given amount of time, while the novice will say "I'll bang that out in no time!" A perfect example is how long it took me to "just make my own chart" below.

In the studies, they brought in students and asked them to rate their own abilities on things like humor, grammar, and logic. Then they tested them. Those at the bottom of the curve for ability pretty consistently thought they were near the top. Giving the poorer students tutorials increased their actually ability, but decreased their self reports of their ability.

It's a neat set of studies. But they don't go far enough.

I've started to notice an after-effect. Imagine if instead of taking the students more or less at random and then testing them, they announced a school-wide contest in some subject or skill set with words in the poster like "only the best need enter." Maybe there could be verbiage to indicate that this will take place in public, or be filmed and posted online. All the world will see your success, or your utter failure in perpetuity.

Consider what the Dunning-Kruger effect says about who's going to even bother to enter such a contest. The best students are going to stay away, fearing permanent embarrassment. If you wanted to find the most accomplished students, you've probably guaranteed that it's not going to happen.

"We only accept 2% of our applicants" might mean <1% are qualified.

"We only accept 2% of our applicants" might mean <1% are qualified.

I'm pretty sure I've seen this effect in action. I've learned to grow suspicious of degrees from BIG NAME schools that are known for being extremely exclusive. They're only exclusive of the people that apply, and their reputation is probably filtering out the best.

I've worked beside folks who were among the most accomplished and knowledgable at their subjects, but who said "I could never get a PhD." I've also worked alongside alums from BIG NAME engineering schools who I eventually learned (the hard way) to never leave alone with sensitive instrumentation.

As we enter the new presidential election season, you'll probably be thinking about this phenomenon a lot.

Future Imperfect

I realized I’ve been falling for type of faulty thinking. I don’t think this kind of fallacy has a name, because it’s not the kind of thing that is always directly translatable into an argument. Most of the fallacies we run into are things you see in rhetoric.

I guess you could call what I’ve been suffering from is mental inertia. You look at something new with the same assumptions that you always applied to old things. I think you see this a lot when people talk about the future. It’s always been a staple of thinking about the future that we’ll have flying cars, but I think almost nobody ever really thinks through what that would actually be like. Would it really be any better than what we have today. The closest thing we have to flying cars are ducted aircraft that have fuel economy that make the worst SUV’s look like Priuses. Just think about. They need to burn fuel just to stand still.

How would you get your license for a flying car. Even if it’s made as easy to pilot as possible, it would probably still be a long and expensive process, not unlike what you have to go through to get a pilot’s license. Once you have your license, you can enjoy the freedom of the skies. Except that with so many other flying cars, there will have to be strict rules to follow about no fly zones, designated flight corridors, etc. Anything less would most likely be a public safety nightmare.

Of course, maybe these futuristic cars will be self piloted. But if you can get in a car, tell it your destination, and then sit back and watch Gravity Falls until you get there, does it really matter whether it leaves the ground or not? You can get your work or leisure activities done during the trip, so why are you in such a hurry, and that’s assuming that flying will actually work out to be faster.

I’ve run into a similar example when I show people my electric car. A common question is “How long does it take to charge?” The best answer I can give them is “I don’t know.” The nature of the question doesn’t really apply. It takes ME about 20 seconds to charge the car: 10 to plug it in at night, and 10 to unplug it in the morning. How long it takes the car is not really a pertinent question. It's the same as your cell phone. Have you ever felt the need to time how long it takes to charge, or do you just plug it in and go to sleep, confident that it'll be charged in the morning?

I realized today that I’ve had something similar going on. I’ve always pictured holograms as something like that projection of Princess Leia in Star Wars, or maybe the chess-like game that appeared later on. It would be something you’d use for communications or entertainment. The TV companies have been desperate to convince us that 3D TV’s are the next big thing. They managed to convince a lot of people that the switch to digital meant you had to ditch that tube TV that had served you well since 1988, and so had about a decade of unprecedented sales. Once everyone had converted, however, they we stuck unless they could invent another “must have” technology. Enter the 3D TV. Not many of us fell for it though. We’ve even had a few hand held devices with 3D technology, with a tiny bit of success.

Well I just found an application. It’s not for the young, hip early adopters. It’s for the guys who aren’t quite ready to abandon their youth and start carrying around reading glasses. How about a tablet that makes the screen appear to be a window. Through that window, you see the virtual screen, that’s just passed arm’s length away. You know, where you wish you could hold your tablet to bring it into focus. The 3D technology isn’t really showing anything that wasn’t there before. It’s just showing it to you so that it’s in focus.

When a Chemist Makes a Pumpkin Spice Latte

As many of you know it’s pumpkin spice latte season. They’re a special treat for Mrs 'Struction this time of year, but as we’re working on cutting back our expenses, I took it upon myself to see if I couldn’t make something approximate at home using my chemical knowhow.

With apologies to FoodBabe, it doesn’t have any pumpkin in it. Believe or not, I tried, but the result was roundly rejected. In the process I also learned something new: pumpkin pie filling and canned pumpkin are NOT the same thing. Now way. No How. In any case, suspending a big of pumpkin puree into your morning coffee does not make for a pleasant flavor experience. It came out bitter, so I fell back on just the pumpkin spices. The world “pumpkin" can also be an adjective. Not everyone knows that.

I’ll get to the simplified ingredients list in a bit, but first I want to get to some of the core flavor ingredients. There are a lot, so feel free to skim.

(2E)-3-phenylprop-2-enal - A fungicide

Ethyl 3-phenylprop-2-enoate - An ester, in the same family as polyester pants

4,11,11-trimethyl-8-methylene-bicyclo[7.2.0]undec-4-ene - Component of marijuana

3,7-dimethylocta-1,6-dien-3-ol - Closely related to many agricultural pesticides.

1-allyl-4-methoxybenzene - A constituent of turpentine

4-(4-hydroxy-3-methoxyphenyl)-2-butanone - An antibacterial poison

(E)-1-(4-Hydroxy-3- methoxyphenyl)dec-4-en-3-one - A medium chain, aromatic aldehyde

(S)-5-hydroxy-1-(4-hydroxy-3-methoxyphenyl)-3-decanone - A possible chemotherapeutic agent

2,2-dimethyl-3-methylene-bicyclo[2.2.1]heptane - Another constituent of turpentine, and useful as lamp oil.

6-allyl-4-methoxy-1,3-benzodioxole - A precursor of the psychedelic drug MMDA (similar to ecstasy)

5-(2-propenyl)-1,3-benzodioxole - Handy if you want to make real ecstasy (MDMA)

1-Methyl-4-(1-methylethenyl)-cyclohexene - A cleaning solvent

(1S,5S)-2,6,6-trimethylbicyclo[3.1.1]hept-2-ene (1S,5S)-6,6-dimethyl-2-methylenebicyclo[3.1.1]heptane - Another constituent of turpentine, and a common industrial feedstock for the chemical industry.

(trans)-3,7-Dimethyl-2,6-octadien-1-ol - A mosquito repellent.

[2,3-dihydroxy-5-({[(2R,3R,4S,5R,6R)-3,4,5,6-tetrakis({3,4-dihydroxy-5-[(3,4,5-trihydroxyphenyl)carbonyloxy]phenyl}carbonyloxy)oxan-2-yl]methoxy}carbonyl)phenyl 3,4,5-trihydroxybenzoate](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tannic_acid) - AKA Wood stain

(4aS,6aR,6aS,6bR,8aR,10S,12aR,14bS)-10-hydroxy-2,2,6a,6b,9,9,12a-heptamethyl-1,3,4,5,6,6a,7,8,8a,10,11,12,13,14b-tetradecahydropicene-4a-carboxylic acid - a male contraceptive

dimethylheptanyl dimethyldodecahydrocyclopentaphenanthrenol - A precursor for anabolic steroid.

ethylmethylheptenyl dimethyldodecahydrocyclopentaphenanthrenol - Another anabolic steroid precursor.

4-Allyl-2-methoxyphenol - Found in some deodorants and sometimes used for euthanasia.

That’s right, I included pesticides, solvents, drug precursors, fuel oils and wood stain. My wife loved it. Before you get too freaked out, here’s the simplified list for those without an account as Sigma-Aldrich for all those chemicals.

  • 1/3 cup ground cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon ground ginger
  • 1 tablespoon ground nutmeg or mace (one whole nutmeg)
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons ground cloves (3) tbs whole cloves ground
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons ground allspice (3 tbs whole)

The chemical names I listed above are all natural ingredients of these spices. If you suffer from chemophobia, those names can look scary, but they are merely an attempt by chemists to encode the structure of the molecules into text, with predictably unreadable and unpronounceable results. Some, like FoodBabe, have suggested the idea that you shouldn’t eat anything that you can't pronounce. This strikes me as add, because instead of letting what you know guide your eating and health decisions, you’re consciously choosing to be lead by your ignorance. Does learning more about food additives mean you can eat more and more dangerous things? "Lead" is easy to say, pass the shaker.

Don't get me wrong. There are good reasons to be concerned about what’s in our food, but falling for the common fallacies can lead to bad decisions. Let’s look at some of the common fallacies about chemicals in food.

The “Chemicals are bad” fallacy

I think I’ve already made a point about this one. Everything you eat is a chemical. What makes a chemical good or bad for you has nothing to do with how “chemically” its name sounds. There is no international body that decides what the name of a given compound should be based on some infallible measure of its dangers. 2-Oxo-L-threo-hexono-1,4-lactone-2,3-enediol sounds scary, but it’s also known as vitamin C.

The “natural is good, artificial is bad” fallacy

This is probably a good as a very general guideline, but it’s far from a rule of nature. We evolved to deal with a lot of compounds found in our environment, and so presumably a lot of “natural” compounds are safe for us. A lot aren’t, however, and just because something came from a naturally growing plant, doesn’t mean it’s any safer than something that come out of a vat. There are chemicals that kill us quickly, and chemicals that we should avoid, and chemicals that we need to live, and chemicals that do us no clear benefit or harm. Where they fall has nothing to do with where they came from. Only lab and clinical studies can really tell us which ones are which, not a blanket rule about the manufacturer, be it plant or person.

The "alternate use" fallacy.

This is the belief that if something has an alternate use, then it’s not a food. There are a lot of solvents on the list above. Most food components are organic molecules, and any organic molecule that also happens to be a liquid at room temperature can be used as a solvent. Being organic, it’ll also burn, so it could also be used to light a lamp or run an engine. That doesn’t mean that consuming nutmeg (which contains camphene) is the same as drinking turpentine or lamp oil. The fact that azodicarbonamide is used to make bread and can also be used to make yoga mats is immaterial. The relative risks need to be assessed based on the chemical’s behavior in the bread and in our bodies, not its behavior in yoga mats. As a chemist, I can envision a process to make a perfectly good yoga mat almost entirely out of products bought from the organic section of Whole Foods My being able to do that doesn’t suddenly render those products suspect.

You’ll notice there are a lot of pesticides on the list above. When you think about a poor plant's life, you’ll begin to understand. It can’t run away. It needs sun, so it can’t hide under a rock. It has to just sit there and get eaten. A lot of plants do have a way of fighting back, however, and that’s often with chemicals. The fact that many pesticides come from plants shouldn’t be surprising. These are the plants’ natural defense systems. As good rule of thumb, if you’re eating a plant product with a strong flavor, that flavor is probably a pesticide. Herbs and spices just contain the pesticides that we humans decided were particularly tasty.

The “guilt by association” fallacy

This actually overlaps with the alternate use fallacy. It comes up when something is found in something else that’s bad for you, and so you ascribe some of the “guilt” of that other thing to the ingredient. Caryophyllene is a constituent of marijuana. It’s also found in ginger. It doesn’t mean you’re a dope fiend if you like ginger, because caryophyllene is not the active ingredient in marijuana. Likewise with all those turpentine constituents.

The “related to” fallacy

Whether a chemical is life giving or dangerous depends on its structure, and small changes in the structure can have huge effects. You’ll sometimes hear scare stories about a common food component that is “in the same family as,” or “related to,” or “a precursor of” something that we’re sure is bad. Don’t be scared.

Just because something shares some structural components with a "bad" chemical, doesn’t mean it would have the same effect within your body. Some of the worst poisons work because they are very similar to compounds that are found naturally within the body. Take a naturally occurring molecule, change a single atom, and you can get a deadly poison. It will almost fit the molecular machinery, but not quite, and so will gum up the works. If making such a small change can have such a drastic effect, you can be sure that looking at similar structures doesn’t mean anything about how healthy or unhealthy a molecule is for us.


Please understand that I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be concerned about what you eat, but working from a position of knowledge is always better than working from a position of ignorance. If you’re concerned about “unnatural” compounds in your food supply, be aware that anything that comes in a box or a bag is necessarily suspect. You’d better like cooking, and you’d better learn to like vegetables, because you’re probably not getting enough, and the health effects of that will more than swamp any purported effects of the scary-sounding-chemical-of-the-week.

Oh yeah, I promised a recipe. We don't have an espresso machine, so I made this with coffee. Technically speaking, that makes it a pumpkin spice cafe au lait, but let's not quibble.

Combine the spices above. If they're whole (which I much prefer for longevity) put in a grinder and blend well. Store the mixture in an airtight, opaque container.

When it's time to perform your morning coffee ritual, make 12 ozs of coffee. Stir about 1/8th teaspoon of the spice mixture into 4 ozs of milk (I use 2%). Heat for 30 seconds in the microwave. You just want to get it warm.

For best results heat the milk first so theres some time for extraction of those yummy yummy pesticides to take place.

Then pour the milk into the coffee through a fine mesh tea strainer to catch any bigger chunks of spice your blending my have missed. Sweeten to taste and in any way you see fit. I won't judge.

Enjoy.