Two stories caught my eye this week for their potential impact on labor markets, immigration policy and wider issues. The first involves a new computer chip being introduced by IBM based on the neural architecture of the human brain. From the MIT Technology Review:
The new chip is not yet a product, but it is powerful enough to work on real-world problems. In a demonstration at IBM’s Almaden research center, MIT Technology Review saw one recognize cars, people, and bicycles in video of a road intersection. A nearby laptop that had been programed to do the same task processed the footage 100 times slower than real time, and it consumed 100,000 times as much power as the IBM chip. IBM researchers are now experimenting with connecting multiple SyNapse chips together, and they hope to build a supercomputer using thousands.
Spatial recognition is one of the great frustrating limitations of robotic technology. It is extremely difficult to teach automated systems how to recognize context from what they see around them. IBM may have found an opening, by mimicking mammalian brain architecture, which could in time radically increase the range of robotic capabilities.
The other story relates to agriculture. UC Davis researchers are closing in on the development of new peach and nectarine trees that can produce at lower heights, perhaps as low as 7-8 feet.
Conventional peach and nectarine trees grow about 13 feet tall. Setting up, climbing and moving ladders to prune the trees and harvest fruit consumes about half the workday. Ladders are dangerous, too, which is why peach and nectarine growers pay about 40 percent more for workers’ compensation insurance than growers who work with more low-lying commodities, like grapes.
Developed by breeders at UC Davis, the new rootstocks will produce trees that grow about 7 or 8 feet tall and can be pruned and harvested from the ground. With the right orchard management — which Day and DeJong will test at their plots at the UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center, near Fresno — the shorter trees could produce just as much high-quality fruit as their lofty kin.
Both stories are interesting for their immigration and labor implications. On the one hand, native born populations in the US and everywhere else in the developed world have been in decline for years. Globally, humans may experience our peak in the number of births this year. Absent immigration (which is also declining in the US, contrary to popular belief), there would be virtually no population growth in the developed world.
Conventional wisdom assumes that this is a problem because young workers are necessary to maintain support for an aging population, but these two stories illustrate why that might be wrong. They also illustrate what a decline in immigration might mean for our economy.
Labor may not be as important for maintaining an aging population as capital. It’s capital that fuels the development of technical and scientific advancement that steadily undercut the need for labor. Advances like these deliver and economy that requires fewer and fewer laborers to support production.
Declining immigration with its accompanying impact on population would create some significant local disruptions, but with capital investment and time innovation would fill most of those gaps. Shorter peach trees offer labor savings and food for thought.