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Navel Gazing

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So, there are amateur future navel-gazers (see last month’s column of Fearless Predictions) and there are paid professional future navel-gazers. The latter like to give themselves titles such as “economists” and, if they obtain a sufficient reputation, gather in exotic towns at lush hotels where they eat, drink and listen to each other say how smart they are.

Nice work, one could say. Most of us go about daily life safely insulated from their thoughts, unless they’re on the Federal Reserve and we have loans tied to interest rates.

So why should a computer dude, or you, care?

As I write this, there is a gathering in Davos, Switzerland (home of one of the world’s largest ski resorts), called the annual World Economic Forum (WEF). This year’s theme is the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” — meaning the accelerating pace of technological changes, such as artificial intelligence and 3-D printing.

This is going on in the midst of a stock market bloodletting, oil prices declining to lows not seen since 2008, and China actually admitting that its economy might, just possibly, be having problems. So, to lighten the mood, the WEF released its paper on what effect this upcoming “fourth revolution” will have on jobs.

Summary: If you’re one of those people who want to commune with nature, thus wander fields and forests, searching for wild roots and berries and canning things while making your own clothes, you’re in luck.

Overstated? The prediction is that the 15 largest economies will lose 5 million jobs just in the next five years. Looking forward 20 years, one study predicted that 47% of U.S. jobs could be taken by robots. Even those jobs that have been, so far, immune to disruption will be affected by artificial intelligence.

This is already happening with automated programs edging out financial planners for low-cost advice, for instance; that’s yet another example of an up-until-now high-paying field being invaded.

Certainly, there will be increases in technical jobs, such as engineering (someone has to design this stuff), but even that will be impacted. In my past, I designed high-pressure filter tanks for the chemical industry, a task that involved intimate knowledge of thick code books and material strengths. The last time I checked, robotic programs that did slice-by-slice analysis of critical joints were allowed, replacing much of the experience needed in the past.

And yes, this was safe, but needed far fewer engineering hours.

Additionally, the Davos study predicted that two-thirds of lost jobs would be office and administrative tasks — fields where women hold large percentages of the jobs. This is not likely to go down well.

As if we didn’t have enough social upheaval, this will certainly add to it. Glorious.

Car Culture

Much has been written on the marriage of Millennials and car-sharing services, such as Uber. But looking forward, what happens if self-driving cars actually get past the safety concerns and start being added to Lyft and Uber fleets? After all, if their drivers do get organized and start winning benefits, the companies would have a great incentive to innovate this way.

First off, things will get more than a little bland. If it’s not your car, and thus you have no stake in it, it doesn’t matter if your ride today is one of a million white Corollas. After all, you don’t have to find it in a parking lot filled with similar cars. And you’re just using it, not showing off.

But let’s speculate on the effects on jobs and the economy if car ownership becomes far less common. And it might; think how much income goes to car loans, maintenance, gas (not your problem if you’re catching a ride), insurance, garage fees, etc.

This may seem a bit far-fetched, seeing that 2015 was a banner year for car sales, with bigger models once again becoming popular due to low gas prices. But we can’t count on that forever, and the convenience of not dealing with car ownership is increasingly appealing.

Think also of the lost revenue for governments, state and local. How much does the state collect in title fees and registrations on private cars? How much do local jurisdictions depend on parking tickets (I’m looking at you, Washington, D.C.) and speed camera fines?

Centralized maintenance facilities and refueling stations at Lyft headquarters would cripple the neighborhood garage and gas station business, with the loss of jobs that usually don’t require advanced schooling. And don’t even contemplate the effect on car dealerships.

No, unless the car companies wake up and smell the coffee, and launch a determined lobbying effort to ban self-driving cars (under the banner of safety, of course), we could see serious disruptions in the economy, as well as our style of life. It’s not going to be pretty.

Yet More Joy

To complete this happy missive, let us note that PC sales were down in 2015 to their lowest level in seven years. Tablet sales are down also, so they are not stealing sales there.

One problem is that prices rose around 10% last year, largely because the rise in value of the U.S. dollar made imports more expensive. Lenovo was leader in sales, capturing 20% of the world market. HP and Dell were second and third, respectively.

Cliff Feldwick is owner of Riverside Computing and does PC troubleshooting, network setups and data retrieval — when not burying food in his backyard. He can be reached at 410-880-0171 or at cliff@feldwick.com. Older columns are available online at http://feldwick.com.