Well, the Man vs. Machine exhibition Jeopardy! tournament is over and we've seen the outcome. The humans got trounced, in other words.
Ken Jennings, first of the two humans, wrote underneath his “Final Jeopardy” response:
I FOR ONE WELCOME OUR
NEW COMPUTER OVERLORDS.
If you don't know, this particular phrasing about welcoming our new overlords is a meme with a rich history of usage. He intended it as a joke, but it still begs the question, what do victories like this herald?
IBM has declared it to be a victory for “humankind.”
I'm less certain.
As in the excellent movie Desk Set, with Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, questions are raised about the feasibility and appropriateness of replacing people with machines.
Both in the movie Desk Set and in the aftermath of this Jeopardy! challenge, the spin we are to accept is that such innovation heralds not a replacement of people by computers but instead an amplification of the usefulness of people in world because computers will be there to help.
Yet the message of the marketplace is not that at all.
As a matter of definition, a “jobless recovery” is an economic boom that occurs in conjunction with sustained or increased unemployment. But why does it happen? There are a lot of opinions about that, but for my purposes here I'm going to risk oversimplifying a bit and blame a lot of it on the push for automation. Many companies would rather pay a fixed cost to buy a machine that can do your job—or enough of it—than pay for you, who needs salary each day and every day you're employed.
In some cases machines can't do the jobs of people, but companies or the market itself decide they can offload the burden onto their customers. A travel agent used to provide a lot of value beyond booking tickets—answering questions, organizing things, etc. Going to Orbitz or Expedia isn't the same as going to a travel agent. But there's no money to be made on the difference, so jobs for travel agents dwindle away. Bank tellers are being replaced by ATMs. Even customer support is increasingly handled by programs.
Could highly skilled professions like medicine be next? Doubtless if they do, the spinmeisters will tell us that it's OK if medical professionals lose their jobs to computers because they are obviously very smart people and can be easily retrained to do some other technical job. But if we get that far, I don't think that will be true.
We watch with eager excitement now to see these cool programs do cool things. But so what? It will save some company a few dollars to be able to provide their service cheaper if they don't have to employ someone, but what will that someone do instead? “Oh, they'll get another job where they're needed more,” comes the answer from those spouting the mindless dogma of the Capitalist religion. But it's not true. They aren't needed more at another job because all jobs are doing the same thing—automating.
At some point we need to start to ask ourselves: Is automation really the goal? And if so, what will people do?
Or even more generally, just because we can do a thing, must we?
Mind you, I'm not a Luddite. I've worked in technology all my life. I do technology for a living. I'm not anti-technology. I believe in the power of technology to do good.
But I am pro-wisdom and pro-thought. I'm not a subscriber of the quasi-religious notion that the “invisible hand” of the marketplace will magically guide us to acceptable social outcomes.†
Technology alone does not solve social problems. What will we do with the technology, and who will watch out for those adversely affected?
Is the Grand Plan to replace people with computers that “think” and robots that “do?” Because that seems to be industry's plan. Or, perhaps more properly, it seems to me the inertially inevitable consequence of a market without a plan.
I'm not even talking artificially intelligent machines. Watson isn't artificially intelligent, yet was capable of outdoing humans at the task it was designed for. Computers will be a threat to humans—they already are a threat to humans—in the workplace even without achieving Artificial Intelligence.
And if we do replace people with computers in the workplace, where will people get their money come from?
Unlike in Star Trek, where people who have no job seem to just somehow find useful things to do and end up fed and clothed and housed anyway, the situation in the real world is not so idyllic. All the money in the world seems to be accumulating with the owners of fewer and fewer companies because those companies rely less and less on people and more and more on the kind of advanced technology that Watson represents.
We hear political rhetoric all the time about how the people with the money don't want to share that wealth with people who “aren't contributing.” But what are people to contribute in a world that can increasingly do without them? Is the plan to simply play this selfish game until all the money is held by one person? What will be the value of all that money if there is no one left to buy from?
There's a lot of fussing about the Technical Singularity, a point at which computers are smart enough that they don't need people any more. But that's not really my concern here. I actually think computers could one day be intelligent, but I worry about effects involving smart computers that will happen long before then.
I think we're going to hit an Economic Singularity much sooner—a point at which computers are not yet truly smart but are sufficiently useful in industry that really none of us have jobs. A few of us will race around faster and faster in a deadly game of musical chairs, vying for the last seat at the employment table. But to what end?
How is this expected to end? Are we content to just ride the wave without asking questions about where and how that wave will crash?
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†A fair reading of Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations might lead one to believe that even he doesn't believe the invisible hand can do its job without government oversight. He himself suggests a legitimate role for government to invest in the common good and protect citizens from social injustice, though his remarks on such issues of morality seem less often quoted by many who seem prefer to cite him as an advocate for the unfettered free market.
Text and fish graphics © 2010 by Kent Pitman. All rights reserved.
Image of Jeopardy! is a photograph taken of my home television screen,
used here on a theory of fair use.