No, I’m not referencing the third installment of the Terminator series. I’m not interested in destroying artificially intelligent assassins. I am, however, interested in these machines, sent not to kill us but to replace us.
In 2011, an artificially intelligent supercomputer named Watson appeared on three episodes of the quiz show, Jeopardy!. Amid all the hype and fanfare generated in the lead-up to the show, Watson performed as advertised, cruising to victory by using its memory of some 200 million web pages or four terabytes (4000 gigabytes) of memory. Four years after becoming an instant celebrity, Watson is being used a number of different ways, most recently in the healthcare field. IBM, the creator of Watson, hopes that Watson Health “will be a cloud-based service that taps vast stores of health data and delivers tailored insights to hospitals, physicians, insurers, researchers and potentially even individual patients.”
The thought of big data being used to tailor personalized healthcare makes sense in many ways, as it can identify trends and patterns that are difficult for humans to spot. Watson’s abilities are truly remarkable for this day and age, representing some of our most extensive efforts to create all-encompassing machines that can take much of the guesswork and variability out for humans. But the fanfare of Watson may make us forget that there are many other machines that are already here and changing our lives drastically.
This is especially true in the workforce, where humans are being replaced by machines in many fields. Need to make a call to your credit card company? Automated machines are often difficult to tell apart from humans and do the work more efficiently. Entering the United States? You might just talk to a computer-controlled lie-detector, snuffing out your fibs better than a human could.
Replacement by machine isn’t specific to just one class of people or to one line of work–it’s happening to all humans, says Zeynep Tufekci, a contributor to the New York Times. In a book review of Martin Ford’s “Rise of the Robots,” we see that adept, algorithm driven machines are replacing the ones that once required a human with a high amount of education. For example, “as Ford reports, Wired magazine quotes an expert’s prediction that within about a decade 90 percent of news articles will be computer-generated.”
Of course, this isn’t an epidemic wiping out jobs left and right, and may not occur for a long time. At some widespread level, it’s probably inevitable, for this reason (from Tufekci):
Machines aren’t used because they perform some tasks that much better than humans, but because, in many cases, they do a “good enough” job while also being cheaper, more predictable and easier to control than quirky, pesky humans.
It’s not difficult to see the logical steps forward from our point in time when it comes to human workers. Machines don’t demand health insurance. Machines don’t ask for a paycheck. Machines don’t get pregnant or ask for a vacation. Sure, they require money in terms of development and maintenance, but that seems to be about it. To reduce the inherent variability of human performance, machines are the solution.
This isn’t to say that the prospect doesn’t totally scare me. Replacement of human workers with technological improvements has been making our lives safer since the Industrial Revolution. But since then, being replaced by technology has always been the scare. Through the process of learning more skills, humans have been able to stay ahead of the curve. Just looking at the sheer computer power of Watson makes it difficult to envision us being able to do so for much longer.
As we forge ahead in the 21st century, that’s what scares me most. Human employment is not guaranteed. So as this continues to dominate our lives more and more, how will we react? How much will employment be reduced? Will a universal guaranteed living income have to be instituted? All of this brings up further debate of current income inequality, the future of capitalism and universal human rights. There are certainly a lot of unknowns, but one thing is certain:
The machines are coming.