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.