The coming robot invasion is suddenly a hot topic again. This week, Fresh Air interviewed Martin Ford, whose book Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future was just reviewed in the New York Times by Barbara Ehrenreich. The Harvard Business Review published a long article with advice for protecting your career from super-smart robots. And NPR's Planet Money has been producing a series of stories on how machines are getting really good at doing tasks from serving food and writing news articles to reading emotions.
As MoJo's Kevin Drum, who's been following this rapidly emerging trend for while, explains, by 2030 or 2040 we could see a major economic shift in which robots and computers start to make significant chunks of the human workforce obsolete: "When the robot revolution finally starts to happen, it's going to happen fast, and it's going to turn our world upside down."
So just how worried should you be that a bot or app is about to force you into early retirement? Planet Money made a nifty tool that spits out the chances that your job may soon be done by robots or computers. Some selected results:
Telemarketers: 99.0% chance of being automated
Umpires and referees: 98.3%
Manicurists and pedicurists: 94.5%
Massage therapists: 54.1%
Chief executives: 1.5%
Preschool teachers: 0.7%
The numbers, based on a 2013 study by an economist and a machine-learning prof from Oxford, are all over the board. In general, jobs that require negotiation, creativity, and people skills tend to have a lower chance of being done by a robot. So dancers and preschool teachers can sleep easy. As can CEOs, who will no doubt find a way to provide essential oversight of the new 24-7, benefit- and bathroom break-free workforce.
Some of the findings seem to push the bounds of what we're currently willing to let machines do. Robocalling people during dinnertime, sure. But will we really see a robot ump calling the 2040 World Series? In theory, a computer can call a strike more accurately than a person, but what's the fun in shouting "Get your vision algorithm debugged!" at a camera behind home plate?
Only a mindless machine would read these as precise probabilities. "The researchers admit that these estimates are rough and likely to be wrong," Planet Money concedes. Now if only there were a machine that was good at analyzing data to make reliable estimates…
Long before a biker gang shootout in Waco, Texas, left 9 people dead and 18 wounded last weekend, law enforcement agencies have been concerned about outlaw motorcycle gangs—a.k.a. OMGs. A 1987 report by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms titled "Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs: Organized Crime on Wheels" warned that the gangs were "an extremely violent disruptive force in American society," an assessment that's echoed in the Department of Justice's current statement that the Bandidos gang that took part in the Waco skirmish poses "a growing criminal threat to the U.S."
Though it's nearly 30 years old, this ATF report provides a fascinating look at how law enforcement understands OMGs' inner workings. It also contains some lesser-known details about biker gangs' customs and history, such as the Hells Angels' lucrative foray into catering.
Our gang: According to the 1987 report, outlaw motorcycle gangs were magnets for "remorseless killers, psychotics, panderers, and social misfits." Once a "symbol of the younger rebellious generation" and "more concerned with good times and general lawlessness," in the late 1960s, the gangs started to transform into "sophisticated criminal organizations whose primary interest is in making money through various criminal endeavors." Overall, there were thought to be 520 gangs nationwide.
OMG members' "motto and arrogant attitude" can be summed up as "FTW": Fuck the World (not For the Win). "They have rejected society and its laws…This is why they have created their own dress code which is filthy, repulsive and often offensive." Most gangs are all-white, "in keeping with their strong white supremacy philosophy."
The Big Four: The most prominent OMGs were the "Big Four": the Pagans, Outlaws, Bandidos, and Hells Angels. All OMGs can trace their origins to the Angels, according to the report, which cites "Hunter Thompson, an authority on the Hells Angels." At the time, the Angels reportedly had 33 domestic chapters (including its Oakland "Mother Chapter"), 18 foreign chapters (including in Brazil and New Zealand), and as many as 600 "patch-wearing" members.
The Bandidos, which were involved in the Waco shootout, formed in Houston in 1966. The 26 chapters of the spelling-agnostic "Bandito Nation" were heavily concentrated in Texas.
How they roll: A pack of OMG members riding in formation is known as a "run," a surprisingly well organized outing. The riders travel two abreast, "usually always within the posted speed limit," and without any contraband. A "crash truck" driven by probationary members or women carries "spare motorcycle parts, sleeping bags, beer, drugs, and weapons" and communications equipment at a safe distance from the run.
Sons of hierarchy: "Let there be no doubt that OMG's are highly structured, well disciplined organizations." The OMGs, according to the ATF, were increasingly affiliated with and organized like traditional organized crime networks. When they were not involved in illegal activities ranging from murder and making meth to "international white slavery," some OMGs invested in legal enterprises including motorcycle repair shops, hotels, apartments, investment firms, and ice cream shops. An Oakland Hells Angel reportedly used $200,000 in drug money to start a successful catering business. During the 1970s, the Angels and Bandidos even "incorporated as non-profit organizations dedicated to promoting interest in motorcycling."
It's only business: As the OMGs began to see themselves as "big business," they also got more dangerous, according to the ATF. Gangs "will use any means or methods they can think of" to control and protect their turf. And they adhered to an increasingly unforgiving "philosophy of biker loyalty": "Where conflicts within a club were formerly settled with fist-a-cuffs and a good beating as punishment, now those same disagreements result in death." The bikers from several gangs who recently battled in Waco had reportedly met to discuss a turf dispute; the bloodbath followed someone's foot getting run over during a confrontation over parking.
Even before presidential candidates started lining upbillionaires to kick-start their campaigns, it was clear that the 2016 election could be the biggest big-money election yet. This chart from the political data shop Crowdpac illustrates where we may be headed: Between 1980 and 2012, the share of federal campaign contributions coming from the very, very biggest political spenders—the top 0.01 percent of donors—nearly tripled:
In other words, a small handful of Americans* control more than 40 percent of election contributions. Notably, between 2010 and 2012, the total share of giving by these donors jumped more than 10 percentage points. That shift is likely the direct result of the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United ruling, which struck down decades of fundraising limits and kicked off the super-PAC era. And this data only includes publicly disclosed donations, not dark money, which almost certainly means that the megadonors' actual share of total political spending is even higher.
It's pretty fair to assume that most of these top donors are also sitting at the top of the income pyramid. Out of curiosity, I compared the share of campaign cash given by elite donors alongside the increasing share of income controlled by the people who make up the top 0.01 percent—the 1 percent of the 1 percent. The trend lines aren't an exact match, but they're close enough to show how top donors' political clout has increased along with top earners' growing slice of the national income. Again, note the bump around 2010 and 2011, when the Citizens United era opened just as the superwealthy were starting to recover from the recession—a rebound that has left out most Americans.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that a few hundred people control 40 percent of election contributions, based on my own calculations. According to Crowdpac, the number is around 25,000.
If you've seen any photos of the current California drought, you've probably seen some variation on these striking before-and-after images of this bridge near Lake Oroville:
California Department of Water Resources
Seeing those images poppingupeverywhere has been a little weird for me since that bridge used to be named after my grandfather.
My grandfather, B. Abbott Goldberg, was the deputy director of California's Department of Water Resources from 1961 to 1966. He was one of the legal architects of Gov. Pat Brown's California Water Project, the massive, contentious undertaking that built the infrastructure that currently supplies 25 million people and 1 million acres of farmland. He argued and won two Supreme Court cases, the details of which are mind-numbingly arcane. But they were essential to realizing Brown's vision for mastering the natural resource that he saw as essential to the state's survival.
Winning the West's water, my grandfather explained in a University of California oral history project, was almost a religious mission. His colleagues, he said, "had come up and they had transmitted to me, certainly, the tradition of the Old West, that water is the limiting resource and that by bringing water to the thirsty land, you were in effect doing the Lord's work and that there was nothing more important for the people of California than providing an adequate water supply."
He was proud of his work, whose effectiveness was evident in Californians' unquestioning expectation of plentiful, cheap water. When the state went through the big drought of 1976-77, he noted, "There wasn't a murmur about a shortage of domestic water in Southern California…I didn't find anybody beating the doors down to thank us for what had been done. The fact that it took some forty years to achieve it was just forgotten." Later in his life, he read Cadillac Desert, Marc Reisner's critique of the growth-at-all-costs mentality embodied in the Water Project. He wasn't a fan.
Not that he couldn't see the other side. In his oral history interview, conducted in 1979, my grandfather admitted to some conflicted views about California's relationship with water. Sounding like a good Northern Californian, he mused, "Someplace along the line, the idea began to dawn on me that really Southern California was an environment essentially hostile to human occupation…[B]ut what are you going to do about the millions of people already down there?" And: "I do remember saying to someone that really, the only solution to the water problem was birth control."
He even indulged the what-if question that every thinking Californian asks once they've been here long enough: "I sometimes wonder, maybe it would have been better to let California dry up and blow away, and keep it the way we used to know it."
Which brings us back to the bridge, another symbol of Californians' ambition and ambivalence. After the state named it after my grandfather in the late '60s, local lawmakers objected, insisting it be renamed the Enterprise Bridge, after a town of the same name that had been inundated by Oroville Dam—one of the signature features of the California Water Project.