Can Washington Be Automated?
WASHINGTON, D.C.-It’s a brisk late November afternoon in an 8th-floor office overlooking downtown Washington’s Thomas Circle. Hwang is the CEO of a four-year-old firm called FiscalNote, which makes a kind of technology that is quickly raising questions about who-or what-is still an essential player in Washington. In its own workings, Washington seems almost a uniquely un-automatable place, a constitutionally erected edifice of institutions and people driven by irreplaceable experience and relationships. Journalism, another mainstay here, is more of a challenge to automate, but that’s happening too: The Washington Post experimented with machine-written coverage during the 2016 Rio Olympics, and is now trying to do the same thing with House, Senate and gubernatorial races in every state in the Union. As quickly as technological change is coming to Washington, the profound questions it raises about both ethics and economics-what is “Democracy” if it has machines at its core? whither the United States’ capital city if there are far fewer people left?-are lagging behind. “We’re still going to need a lot of them,” Hwang says of those professionals hustling down the streets outside, “But I don’t think we’re going to need them at the scale at which Washington operates today.” When it comes to the nation’s capital, he says, “People vastly, vastly underestimate what automation is going to do.” Washington, D.C., to be fair, was never all that congenial for humans. Nearly every job tied to official Washington falls under that banner; a 2013 study by the economic modeling firm Emsi found that half the jobs held by people in Washington can be “Explained by the federal government.” When it comes to the lobbyists threatened by Hwang’s software, their numbers are, on paper, small: Only 10,960 people are at the moment registered as lobbyists in the city. Drilling down in Washington, Welser says, if you look at that low-chaos, low time-pressured corner of the matrix, you find the policy analysts-those professionals who fill the ranks of institutions across Washington, from, say, the Department of Education to the Council on Foreign Relations. Quorum tries to track, in real time, the topics people in and around Washington are talking about, whether that’s a tweet or an email to constituents or a Congressional Research Service report. Take a step back, and it seems exceedingly likely that there’s almost no slice of the Washington economy that won’t be reshaped by automation. Do reporters really need to stay on Capitol Hill past midnight just to note that, say, H.R. 1789 has passed on a party-line vote right before Congress left town for recess? How about election results? The Washington Post’s in-house automation tool, called Heliograf, currently cranks out simple, formulaic sports stories built on box scores, and the publication is experimenting with using it for elections. “Each time, the types of jobs that exist grow closer to the more philosophical and cognizant,” he says, saying that’s what he predicts will happen in Washington. Out in America, voters have fairly often proved themselves perfectly happy to send and re-send to Washington lawmakers paid close to $175,000 a year who refuse to actually make laws. “What does Washington look like,” Hwang ponders, “When you hollow out large portions of trade associations?”.
Automation, the application of machines to tasks once performed by human beings or, increasingly, to tasks that would otherwise be impossible. Although the term mechanization is often used to refer to the simple replacement of human labour by machines, automation generally implies the integration of machines into a self-governing system. Robotics is one of these technologies; it is a specialized branch of automation in which the automated machine possesses certain anthropomorphic, or humanlike, characteristics. The robot’s arm can be programmed to move through a sequence of motions to perform useful tasks, such as loading and unloading parts at a production machine or making a sequence of spot-welds on the sheet-metal parts of an automobile body during assembly. Some of the important historical developments in mechanization and automation leading to modern automated systems are described here. Thousands of years were undoubtedly required for the development of simple mechanical devices and machines such as the wheel, the lever, and the pulley, by which the power of human muscle could be magnified. The next extension was the development of powered machines that did not require human strength to operate. Examples of these machines include waterwheels, windmills, and simple steam-driven devices. The steam engine represented a major advance in the development of powered machines and marked the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. During the two centuries since the introduction of the Watt steam engine, powered engines and machines have been devised that obtain their energy from steam, electricity, and chemical, mechanical, and nuclear sources. Each new development in the history of powered machines has brought with it an increased requirement for control devices to harness the power of the machine. The flying-ball governor remains an elegant early example of a negative feedback control system, in which the increasing output of the system is used to decrease the activity of the system. Another important development in the history of automation was the Jacquard loom, which demonstrated the concept of a programmable machine. These cards were the ancestors of the paper cards and tapes that control modern automatic machines. The concept of programming a machine was further developed later in the 19th century when Charles Babbage, an English mathematician, proposed a complex, mechanical “Analytical engine” that could perform arithmetic and data processing.