LONGMONT, Colo. — The IBM Watson supercomputer’s Valentine’s Day debut on Jeopardy brings to mind the old American folktale of John Henry.
Do you remember John Henry? He was the “steel driving” man born with a hammer in his hand. In an effort to save the jobs of his railroad crew, he took on the steam-powered drill to see whether man or machine was faster at carving a tunnel through a mountain. John Henry won the battle, dying of exhaustion in the end, but laborers lost the war. Machines replaced railroad crews as they continue to replace laboring men and women today.
American’s always have had a love-hate relationship with technological advances. We embrace the way technology improves our quality-of-life by, for instance, reducing the number of dangerous, backbreaking and tedious tasks we must perform. Yet, we’re uncomfortable with the economic disruption caused by machines that replace workers. It takes time and hardship for workers to adapt when their jobs are eliminated.
IBM Watson is an amazing engineering feat that will be put to the test when it takes on Jeopardy superstars Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. (Watson bested the champions in practice rounds.) The idea that a computer could listen and respond to nuanced questions with reasonable accuracy is straight out of science fiction. The supercomputer also will open up a whole new wave of economic displacement.
Watson is able to compete with humans because it is lightening fast. When Watson is presented with a question, core processors stored in ten refrigerator size towers do parallel searches of vast databases of encyclopedias, textbooks, plays, dictionaries and countless texts. The supercomputer applies a variety of algorithms to develop hypothesis answers and confidence levels of accuracy – i.e. what are the odds an answer is right? Watson does all of this in the time it takes a human to listen to a question and “buzz in.”
Supercomputers with these capacities won’t just eliminate dangerous and tedious work. Jobs that require up to a decade of post secondary education and training are under threat, too. For instance, the IBM scientists and engineers building Watson have their eyes set on substituting computers for physicians to diagnose ailments and prescribe remedies. As David Ferrucci, principal investigator of the IBM team developing Watson, points out, “When doctors are trying to make a diagnosis, what are they really doing? Something very similar to what happens within Watson today.”
Many business, economic and technology analysts have been pointing out for years that if an algorithm can be written to do a task, then a computer guided machine will eventually do this work. The people who do routine work are fewer in number, in some cases gone all together from our lives. The tollbooth attendant; the bank teller; the airline ticket agent; the grocery store checkout clerk, the travel agent and soon, perhaps, the mailman are fading away. Could financial planners, lawyers and doctors be next?
There are many things we do in life that we don’t think of as routine. People holding professional positions, for instance, are often charged with weighing evidence, calculating risk, drawing inferences and making value judgments. We think of these complex tasks as “more art than science.” But, in fact, our judgments often can be broken down into algorithms – a set of decision-making rules.
Dr. Ferrucci explained the process physicians’ use when making a diagnosis. They consider symptoms, compare these symptoms to the literature (sometimes stored in their head), develop a hypothesis diagnosis, and draw on evidence-based literature to prescribe treatments. These are all routines that can be programmed into a computer.
It is possible for machines to process ever more complicated algorithms and vaster databases as the speed and quality of computers continue to grow exponentially. It is not hard to imagine the power of Watson one day in a hand-held device. It is not hard, either, to imagine having at least as much confidence in a computer diagnosis as a human’s – especially if it’s given at a fraction of the cost. Thus, it’s not hard to imagine the need for fewer doctors in the future compared to the number that are needed today.
The tasks that will one day be assigned to the computer guided machines of the future raise vexing political questions for which we are ill prepared. We are poorly prepared because, for the most part, the questions aren’t even on our radar screen. To state the question simply, “What happens when we don’t need people to work full time?”
We always have assumed that any displacement of workers by machines would be temporary. Individuals might suffer for a short time when they lose a job, but technology eventually produces more and better jobs. Historically, that’s proven to be true. But, what happens if we are entering a long period in which technology eliminates jobs more quickly than new opportunities are created?
Our income distribution system – moving money from those who have it to those who want or need it – depends on people working. Our public safety net programs are designed to help people through temporary periods of unemployment. We believe so strongly in work as the most appropriate means to distribute income that when Federal welfare policy was revamped in the 1990s the reform was dubbed “Welfare-to-Work.”
Over the past decade, we have had a taste of what it’s like when the job engine sputters. The Washington Post reports that net job creation in the first decade of the new century was zero. A decade without at least twenty percent job growth hasn’t happened in sixty years. What’s more, real median income for men has been flat for nearly forty years and for women a slightly less ominous ten years, according to U.S. Census data.
It’s hard to imagine the mood of the country changing if these trends persist. Will our bad mood turn to deep funk if we’re entering a period of long-term, systemic underemployment without even a hint of a plan for how we’ll manage? Does it make sense simply to hold on to our faith that eventually life will be like it was in the 1940s, 50s and 60s?
It is marvelous to witness the technological advances brought about by human ingenuity. It’s a kick to watch computers compete against humans on shows like Jeopardy. But, IBM Watson’s real success on Jeopardy would be if it helps kick-start a meaningful political conversation about the economy of the future.
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John Creighton writes on community life and public leadership at johncr8on.com. He can be found on Twitter @johncr8on and on Facebook. Read more of John’s work in Dispatches From The Heartland at the Communities at the Washington Times.
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