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Posts Tagged ‘automation

“I have spread my dreams under your feet”*…

Brunel’s tunnel shield. The isometric on the right shows an individual frame of the shield

From Brian Potter, a fascinating look at the history of a technology, tunnel boring, the products of which we tend to take for granted…

Tunneling is an important technology for modern civilization, as a tunnel is often the only reasonable way to create a direct path between two points. When the Hoosac tunnel was completed in 1875, it turned a difficult, 20-mile railroad route along “precipitous grades” into a direct 5 mile route, connecting Boston with the Upper Hudson Valley. Large infrastructure projects such as hydroelectric dams often require tunnels to function. The Hoover Dam required more than 3 miles of tunnels 56 feet in diameter to divert the Colorado River around the construction site. And a tunnel can be used to create new land beneath dense urban areas, making it possible to build large-scale horizontal infrastructure like sewers or mass transit that wouldn’t be feasible to build above ground.

A common way of building a tunnel today is with a tunnel boring machine (TBM), particularly in urban areas where other construction methods such as drill-and-blast or cut-and-cover would be too disruptive. Of the 89 transit projects around the world that required tunneling in a dataset compiled by Britain Remade, 80 of them used TBMs. But tunnel boring machines are a comparatively modern construction technology. The first successful rock tunneling machines weren’t invented until the 1950s, and into the late 1960s most tunneling was done using other construction methods. But as TBMs have improved, they have increasingly been the method of choice for tunneling through a wider variety of ground conditions. And while many construction tasks have resisted automation and mechanization, tunneling machinery has steadily gotten more automated, to the point where a modern TBM is akin to a mobile factory that burrows through the earth and constructs a tunnel behind it.

Soft ground TBMs evolved from unmechanized tunnel shields. The first tunnel shield [see illustration above] was designed by Marc Brunel, father of famous engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel and an accomplished engineer in his own right, and built by Henry Maudslay for tunneling under the Thames in 1825. Brunel’s shield, which was inspired by the action of shipworms boring through the wood hulls of ships, consisted of a large cast-iron structure, 38 feet wide by 22 feet tall, which was broken into 12 separate “frames,” each consisting of three individual compartments stacked on top of another. Within each compartment was a series of horizontal boards, called “poling boards,” that were placed against the face of the tunnel. A worker in the compartment would remove a board, dig out the earth behind it to a depth of around 6 inches, and then proceed to the next board. Once all the soil behind the boards in a frame had been dug out, that section of the shield would be advanced forward using screw jacks, and the process would repeat. Behind the shield, masons would construct the brick lining around the sides of the tunnel, which prevented the tunnel from collapsing and provided a structure for the shield to push off against.

When the Thames Tunnel was completed, it was the first tunnel under a body of water in the world. But the project proved to be incredibly difficult, encountering “almost overwhelming problems” (West p115). Excavation was slow, advancing at around 8 feet per week on average, and the tunnel flooded repeatedly. Gas occasionally filled the tunnel, which caused “collapse and blindness of the workmen” (West p109), and at one point the entire shield needed to be replaced. The tunnel wasn’t completed until 1843, 18 years after it was started, and it was never a commercial success, though it is still in use today. Tunneling via shield wasn’t tried again for over 25 years…

[But it was tried again… and again, and again, being improved and enhanced each time. Potter describes (and illustrates) the steady mechanization of the process– up to and including The Boring Company]

… The arc of tunnel boring machinery looks much more like the progression we see in other industrial areas, and that we don’t often see in construction. Construction operations often remain craft-based and labor intensive, and have been performed in similar ways for decades (or centuries). With tunnel boring machines, we see gradual automation and “factoryization,” where the work increasingly takes place in a highly mechanized, factory-like environment. New technology comes along and displaces the old technology, even in an environment of high risk aversion. And the process gradually converges on the “continuous flow,” where the machine continuously transforms solid ground into a lined tunnel, and continuously removes excavated material with the use of conveyors, the same sort of development we see in things like Ford’s assembly line, chemical process industries, and the Toyota production system.

The Evolution of Tunnel Boring Machines,” from @_brianpotter.

* W. B. Yeats, “Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”


As we go deep, we might recall that it was on this date in 2017 that work on the Ryfast Tunnel, connecting the Norwegian city of Stavenger with the the village of Tau on the other side of the fjord, entered its final stage. It became the longest undersea road tunnel in the world; its 8.9 mile length was greater than the Eysturoyartunnilin in the Faroe Islands (at 7.0 miles), the Tokyo Bay Tunnel in Japan (at 6.0 miles), and the Shanghai Yangtze River Tunnel (at 5.6 miles) in China. It is also currently the world’s deepest subsea tunnel, reaching a maximum depth of 958 ft below sea level.


“Prediction and explanation are exactly symmetrical”*…

From a December, 1969 episode of the BBC series Tomorrow’s World, an eerily-prescient look at the computerized future of banking…

The emergence of the debit card, the impact on back-office jobs, the receding importance of branch banks… they nailed it.

TotH to Benedict Evans (@benedictevans)

* “Prediction and explanation are exactly symmetrical. Explanations are, in effect, predictions about what has happened; predictions are explanations about what’s going to happen.” – John Searle


As we find our ways into the future, we might recall that it was on this date in 1878 that the modern music business was effectively born: Thomas Edison was awarded U.S. Patent No. 200,521 for his invention, the phonograph.

Thomas Edison with his phonograph, photographed by Mathew Brady in Washington, April 1878


Written by (Roughly) Daily

February 19, 2022 at 1:00 am

“Not with a bang, but a whimper”*…




What actually happens to workers when a company deploys automation? The common assumption seems to be that the employee simply disappears wholesale, replaced one-for-one with an AI interface or an array of mechanized arms.

Yet given the extensive punditeering, handwringing, and stump-speeching around the “robots are coming for our jobs” phenomenon—which I will never miss an opportunity to point out is falsely represented—research into what happens to the individual worker remains relatively thin. Studies have attempted to monitor the impact of automation on wages on aggregate or to correlate employment to levels of robotization.

But few in-depth investigations have been made into what happens to each worker after their companies roll out automation initiatives. Earlier this year, though, a paper authored by economists James Bessen, Maarten Goos, Anna Salomons, and Wiljan Van den Berge set out to do exactly that…

What emerges is a portrait of workplace automation that is ominous in a less dramatic manner than we’re typically made to understand. For one thing, there is no ‘robot apocalypse’, even after a major corporate automation event. Unlike mass layoffs, automation does not appear to immediately and directly send workers packing en masse.

Instead, automation increases the likelihood that workers will be driven away from their previous jobs at the companies—whether they’re fired, or moved to less rewarding tasks, or quit—and causes a long-term loss of wages for the employee.

The report finds that “firm-level automation increases the probability of workers separating from their employers and decreases days worked, leading to a 5-year cumulative wage income loss of 11 percent of one year’s earnings.” That’s a pretty significant loss.

Worse still, the study found that even in the Netherlands, which has a comparatively generous social safety net to, say, the United States, workers were only able to offset a fraction of those losses with benefits provided by the state. Older workers, meanwhile, were more likely to retire early—deprived of years of income they may have been counting on.

Interestingly, the effects of automation were felt similarly through all manner of company—small, large, industrial, services-oriented, and so on. The study covered all non-finance sector firms, and found that worker separation and income loss were “quite pervasive across worker types, firm sizes and sectors.”

Automation, in other words, forces a more pervasive, slower-acting and much less visible phenomenon than the robots-are-eating-our-jobs talk is preparing us for…

The result, Bessen says, is an added strain on the social safety net that it is currently woefully unprepared to handle. As more and more firms join the automation goldrush—a 2018 McKinsey survey of 1,300 companies worldwide found that three-quarters of them had either begun to automate business processes or planned to do so next year—the number of workers forced out of firms seems likely to tick up, or at least hold steady. What is unlikely to happen, per this research, is an automation-driven mass exodus of jobs.

This is a double-edged sword: While it’s obviously good that thousands of workers are unlikely to be fired in one fell swoop when a process is automated at a corporation, it also means the pain of automation is distributed in smaller, more personalized doses, and thus less likely to prompt any sort of urgent public response. If an entire Amazon warehouse were suddenly automated, it might spur policymakers to try to address the issue; if automation has been slowly hurting us for years, it’s harder to rally support for stemming the pain…

Brian Merchant on the ironic challenge of addressing the slow-motion, trickle-down social, economic, and cultural threats of automation– that they will accrue gradually, like erosion, not catastrophically… making it harder to generate a sense of urgency around creating a response: “There’s an Automation Crisis Underway Right Now, It’s Just Mostly Invisible.”

* T. S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men”


As we think systemically, we might recall that it was on this date in 1994 that Ken McCarthy, Marc Andreessen, and Mark Graham held the first conference to focus on the commercial potential of the World Wide Web.



Written by (Roughly) Daily

November 5, 2019 at 1:01 am

“The gods keep livelihood hidden from men. Otherwise a day’s labor could bring man enough to last a whole year with no more work.”*…


Ind Rev

Upheaval more than a century into the Industrial Revolution, and more than 100 years ago:
An International Workers of the World union demonstration
in New York City in 1914. Credit: Library of Congress


As automation and artificial intelligence technologies improve, many people worry about the future of work. If millions of human workers no longer have jobs, the worriers ask, what will people do, how will they provide for themselves and their families, and what changes might occur (or be needed) in order for society to adjust?

Many economists say there is no need to worry. They point to how past major transformations in work tasks and labor markets – specifically the Industrial Revolution during the 18th and 19th centuries – did not lead to major social upheaval or widespread suffering. These economists say that when technology destroys jobs, people find other jobs…

They are definitely right about the long period of painful adjustment! The aftermath of the Industrial Revolution involved two major Communist revolutions, whose death toll approaches 100 million. The stabilizing influence of the modern social welfare state emerged only after World War II, nearly 200 years on from the 18th-century beginnings of the Industrial Revolution.

Today, as globalization and automation dramatically boost corporate productivity, many workers have seen their wages stagnate. The increasing power of automation and artificial intelligence technology means more pain may follow. Are these economists minimizing the historical record when projecting the future, essentially telling us not to worry because in a century or two things will get better?…

We should listen not only to economists when it comes to predicting the future of work; we should listen also to historians, who often bring a deeper historical perspective to their predictions. Automation will significantly change many people’s lives in ways that may be painful and enduring.

Get a start on understanding that history at “What the Industrial Revolution Really Tells Us About the Future of Automation and Work.”

* Hesiod, Work and Days


As we hum “Hi Ho, Hi Ho,” we might send ink-stained birthday greetings to Richard March Hoe; he was born on this date in 1812.  In 1847, he patented the rotary printing press.  Hoe had invented the press a couple of years earlier and improved it before submission. His creation greatly increased the speed of printing, as it involved rolling a cylinder over stationary plates of inked type, using the cylinder to make an impression on paper– thus eliminating the need to make impressions from pressing type plates, which were heavy and difficult to maneuver.  In 1871, Hoe added the ability to print to continuous rolls of paper, creating the “web press” that revolutionized newspaper and magazine printing.  His first customer was Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune.

Hoe’s “web perfecting press,” with continuous feed



Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 12, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution”*…


What can a 19th-century rebellion against automation can teach us about the coming war– the robots are coming!– in the job market?

Clive Thompson, an author and journalist at the New York Times Magazine and Wired, revisited Luddite’s history in an article for The Smithsonian to see what it could teach us. As machine learning and robotics consume manufacturing and white-collar jobs alike, the 200-year-old rebellion’s implications for automation are more relevant than ever, says Thompson:

“The lesson you get from the end of the Luddites is: Do the people that are profiting off automation today want to participate in distributing their profits more widely around the population, or are they going to fight just as hard as they did back then?”

That economic and political question is hanging over western democracies coping with a wave of populism seemingly tracking a widening gap between stagnant wages and ballooning wealth at the top. While automation eventually tends to create new jobs even after it destroys old ones, that’s little consolation for millions of workers whose skills and experience are obsolete…

More on this all-too-relevant history in a interview with Thompson: “Luddites have been getting a bad rap for 200 years. But, turns out, they were right.”

And do read Thompson’s original article: “When Robots Take All of Our Jobs, Remember the Luddites.”

Then, check out “Robots don’t have to take over jobs in order to be a problem for workers.”

* Stephen Hawking


As we heft our hammers, we might we might send thoughtful birthday greetings to José Ortega y Gasset; he was born on this date in 1883.  A philosopher and essayist, he is perhaps best known for The Revolt of the Masses, which characterized 20th-century society as dominated by masses of mediocre & indistinguishable individuals– a conception tha converged with other “mass society” theorists like Karl Mannheim, Erich Fromm, and Hannah Arendt.  (Lest his view be seen as too grim and judgmental, he is memorialized in what has become known as “the Ortega hypothesis,” based on a quote in The Revolt of the Masses, that states that average or mediocre scientists contribute substantially to the advancement of science.)

In exile during the Spanish Revolution, he refused to support either side or to hold academic office under Franco.



Written by (Roughly) Daily

May 9, 2017 at 1:01 am

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