Automation will make you obsolete, no matter who you are


I was part of the first generation of kids to receive computers as gifts. I was also part of the first generation of professionals to adopt computer-assisted tele-work: I can work from my bedroom just as efficiently as from my campus office. I routinely organize and attend meetings while I am at random locations. This week-end, my 7 year-old son  repaired our vacuum-cleaning robot by taking it apart on the kitchen floor:  the contacts with the battery were dirty. Meanwhile, I was on the kitchen table building a solar-powered robot.

Computers can already be superior to human beings on most specialized tasks:

  • Researchers have recently found that a computer persona could more engaging socially than a bona fide human being. This person you are chatting with on Facebook or Twitter, are you sure it is a human being? Maybe you are dealing with a robot, and that is why this person is so responsive and systematically friendly. I suspect that most software is asocial simply because we did not bother to implement sociability.
  • Computers can beat any human being at chess and checker. In fact, you could play 1 million games of checker against a computer, and we know you would never win, not once. How do computers beat you? Not through logic alone. They rely on an extensive database: that is, they have experience, more experience than any human being. Computers show creativity and good judgment when playing these games.
  • A tool like Google Mail sorts my mail automatically for me, and archives it nicely. This used to require a human being making judgement calls about what mail was junk, what mail was high priority, and so on. Yet it has been nicely automated.

Alas our technology is critically limited: we are unable to give computers general intelligence. Does it matter as far as automation is concerned? I believe that general intelligence is overrated in the workplace.

For example, can computers without general intelligence replace managers and accountants? Consider Walmart. We often think of Walmart as a discount store, but it is also the direct result of the largest and most ambitious business automation project ever. Walmart is not killing its competitors just by offering poor wages: it is killing them because it has automated much of the supply and accounting management.

Could computers replace teachers? Khan Academy shows that the lecture component has already been replaced. What about grading? In the software industry, we already use on a large scale automated testing: to determine whether a candidate can program in Java, he is asked to fill out an online questionnaire. Employers rely on these tests more than on college grades. The only reason college professors still grade Calculus and programming assignments by hand is that they lack the incentive to automate it. But have no fear: for-profit colleges are already hard at work automating everything. Would students prefer to have a “personal touch”? I don’t think so: I believe students would rather have quick and detailed automated  feedback than wait for a tired professor to scribble a few notes in the margin of their assignment. (And let us be honest: most marking is done by underpaid teaching assistants who don’t care that much).

In fact, most jobs require little general intelligence:

  • Jobs are highly specialized. You can sum up 80% of what most people do with 4 or 5 different specific tasks. In most organizations, it is a major faux pas to ask the wrong person: there is a one-to-one matching between people and tasks.
  • Jobs don’t require that you to understand much of what is going on. You only need to fake some understanding of the context the same way a spam filter fakes an understanding of your emails. Do you think that the salesman at the appliance store knows why some dishwashers have a shredder and some don’t, and why it matters? Do you think that the professors know what the job market is like for their graduates?

Nevertheless, some believe their job cannot be automated. Most of them are wrong.

For example… Surely, we won’t replace politicians by robots? We may not replace them, but they will become obsolete anyhow. I believe that computers enable a different from of government altogether where we have little need for politicians. In most of the western world, we use representative democracy, with local politicians being elected and sent to a central government, where they form the ruling class. Yet with an entire population having Internet access, we don’t need politicians to represent the people, people can speak for themselves. Most politicians are already more or less powerless since nobody really believe they represent their people. You think that government without professional politicians would be chaos? I am sure there are people who think that without newspapers, individuals cannot be informed.

Whether you are a  lawyer, a medical doctor, a professor or a politician, you already are obsolete. We are just waiting for someone to write the software that will replace you. You replacement won’t pass the Turing test, but nobody will care.

Further reading: The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed, Jobless recovery, the Luddite fallacy and the 4-hour workweek and If robots, machines, and self-service replaced most of the work currently done by humans, what would humans do?

Credit: Special thanks to Seb Paquet,  Phil Jones and Stefan King for online discussions.

15 thoughts on “Automation will make you obsolete, no matter who you are”

  1. @Pascal

    In a counter-intuitive fashion, it is quite possible that we will need fewer and fewer programmers. Once a problem has been solved, there is no need to solve it again, and again. All of Facebook is made of 2000 employees, many of them are not software engineers.

  2. @Paul

    Therapists: People are getting great results treating anxiety, or supporting stroke victims, and so on, using computers. Obviously, therapists have little incentive to automate their work, just like the teachers. But it only delays automation, it won’t prevent it. Imagine a piece of software that can monitor your anxiety 24/7 and provide help when needed?

    Entertainers: I like Hatsune Miku. She is absolutely great. Watch her sing and dance (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wYn2-vVsI8U).

    Prostitution: I bet many Japanese men (and women) would pay good money for a night of sex with Hatsune Miku. The fact that you can’t get diseases is a strong incentive.

    As for the political implications, I think that they are far reaching and more immediate than most people think. We have to collectively come up with solutions. Alas, most people are totally oblivious to the strong trends.

  3. @John

    A good teaching program can only be good if there are good teachers that help create the software.

    I am sure that in the seventies, people would have said that a good information retrieval system can only come about if librarian help create the software.

    Then the Web (created by a Physicist) and Google (created by Computer Scientists) came about.

    My point being that it is not clear that “teachers” will make themselves obsolete.

    you’re really saying is that the forces of capitalism will eventually cause someone to give in to the siren call of money and help create the program that will replace them.

    It is less about money than the freedom to tinker.

  4. What about therapists? A computer could be easier to confide in, but might there be something to human interaction / affirmation in helping with psychological issues? Especially for those feeling alienated by an automated world?

    Or entertainers? Is the theater going to be robots wearing people masks (e.g. “The Darfsteller” by Walter Miller)? Would anybody care how much a pitching machine’s slider breaks?

    Prostitue? The sexbot is an old sci-fi standby, but I can’t imagine there won’t be some who prefer a human’s touch.

    Plus there are some weird economics that start to come into play if you decide against killing all unnecessary humans. I consume roughly the same amount of resources spending my day idly by a pool or sorting envelopes. Even if a computer can do that 10,000 times faster, the energy to create and sustain me have already been allocated, where the sorting machine can ethically be turned off or not built.

    But minor points :), overall I agree that we’re well on our way to automating most jobs.

  5. Hi Daniel,

    Nice article!

    I’ve been thinking of this issue for a while since I started my PhD in Machine Learning. It looks like things will only be more extreme as we move towards hard AI. The solution, in my opinion, is to get rid of the financial system based on scarcity all together, or follow a mixed economical system (scarcity for resources which are distributed in an egalitarian way, and abundance for everything else). The P2P Foundation has a lot of interesting alternative models, including Ripple pay for P2P money, P2P governance, P2P manufacturing, and so on. I think this will shape the next phase, since traditional top-down money is defined as exchange of human labor, it has no future in automated/AI world.

    However as we approach this realization collectively as a species, things will be economically harsher for most.
    I used to worry about whether we will mobilize ourselves in a timely manner before the solution is clear to everyone, but then my adviser pointed me at Bernard Lietaer’s work on complimentary currency systems, which can serve as an interim solution.

  6. Underlying all of this is that computers really aren’t better at any of this stuff. A good teaching program can only be good if there are good teachers that help create the software. Same goes with every other profession. When you say certain professions are only delaying the inevitable, what you’re really saying is that the forces of capitalism will eventually cause someone to give in to the siren call of money and help create the program that will replace them. The computer itself can’t do diddly.

  7. Your train of thought / theme is one that has been stuck with me for a long time.

    While I think, you are right and we/ human mainly stick to not automating certain jobs / processes because of superstition/incentive/… or facing to acknowledge that we are in fact not the crown of achievement in every respect, I find it hard to arrive at that point when those jobs we consider now as “need general intelligence” will be replaced.

    That is, I suppose a redefinition of values, incentive, true meaning of fulfillment, purpose of life has to be established – which can hardly be provided by today’s elite.

  8. @Lorenzo

    I would be happy to have my “job” being reduced to 1/10th of the work I have to do once I have survival guaranteed, and no need to worry for the future

    As argued by Vleben in the Theory of the Leisure Class (available for free on the Gutenberg Project site), most of our work goes toward aquiring “status”, not “survival”. (This is true, at least, in countries such as the USA.)

    If you want to achieve a high status through work, then you must work far more than just what is required for survival.

    I don’t need to save for my kids education because it will be free

    Schooling and degrees remain costly because they belong to the industrial society.

    Fortunately, education is already available cheaply. Spend a few years on MathOverflow and Wikipedia, and you can become a very good mathematician without setting foot on a campus. Moreover, you can already get certified (through MathOverflow badges) as a good mathematician.

    The models are here, but it takes courage to let go of the old.

  9. Dear Daniel,

    Interesting post as usual. I stumbled upon your blog by chance, and I found we both share similar views on a myriad of additional topics including this one. It is just anectodal evidence but this makes me think that in the tech/educated/internet-savy community the matter of machines subsuming humans’ jobs is becoming more and more evident to the point where it is no longer a matter of ‘if’ or ‘when’ will this happen, but of ‘how’.

    So how are we going to do it? Either we embrace this change, and reconsider the whole job == money == (purchasing power) equation, or we will be left with some nice rioting. I know it’s “never that simple” (c) but given that the two forces at play here have both exponential growths, we might be caught completely unprepared by the velocity of such a sudden change. Market and interest combined together push for an exponential growth; technological change is (again, anectodally) following that pattern as well. Certainly there are places where the Internet is controlled/old/slow/not available/much less important than bare survival, but this is largely irrelevant for now. They will catch up at some point. Perhaps we’ll “outsource” to countries where power or cooling are cheaper because of latitude, instead of outsourcing where the cost of labour is cheaper.

    I would be happy to have my “job” being reduced to 1/10th of the work I have to do once I have survival guaranteed, and no need to worry for the future (i.e. I know I don’t need to save for my kids education because it will be free, as well as my health care, etc.). In a way if ‘software’ could automate my daily job in the parts I do not like doing, well, I’d be happy. And I probably would end up doing what I like most anyways. But we’ll see.

  10. As anyone who has experienced that form of direct democracy known as “governance by referendum” will tell you, the only thing worse than having politicians running things is having random voters doing so. Everyone thinks they know what the solutions to various problems are, but few have even the slightest idea how things really work, or how much money the government sounds on it’s various activities.

    Auto grading of calculus is already here, and commonplace. It’s fair to middling, using technology like Maple to recognize equation input, it’s moderately picky about format, order of terms, etc.

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