Sunday, March 20, 2011

Automation and Jobs

This is following on my previous blog entry about automation and social impacts. The whole NY Times series on Smarter than you think is very relevant to the topic. The most recent article is about lawyers being displaced by e-Discovery systems. Those are truly high paying position being eaten up there. Another significant article is this one about automated cars. Note that they forecast a 10-year window for full automation. Don't go into truck driving at this point. I'd also expect loading equipment like forklifts to be automated on a slightly shorter timescale.

What I wanted to write this blog on is a thought that occurred to me while checking into the Disney cruise. In the last blog post I had a link to the Microsoft virtual receptionist. My thoughts combine that with this clip put out by Corning called “A Day Made of Glass”. There are a large number of jobs that I can think of that could easily be replaced by a reasonable quality virtual receptionist with large touch sensitive electronic displays. In fact, probably 90% or more of the Disney park employees and people at the cruise registration could be replaced that way. Airline counters too. Throw in a little robotics and the flight attendants either go away or get their numbers cut way down. With that little bit of robotics this hits a whole other set of jobs. Move more documents onto those touch surfaces and the paperless office might become more of a reality. That removes the need for a lot of people as well.

Apparently there are a number of restaurants that are working on the idea of using iPads for customers to order. Some are giving those iPads to waiters, but others put them right in the hands of customers. Corning would love tables that have Microsoft Surface capabilities for this purpose in the not too distant future. I have to admit though, I don't see Microsoft being the driving force behind this in the end. For food chains where the food is fairly routine, robots will quickly come into play for food preparation and even serving.

Watson beat the top Jeopardy! champs and while it certainly isn't infallible, it ranks above most all humans in that game. IBM is aiming it squarely at the medical field for diagnosis. Throw in this work with automatic processing of medical images and work various people are doing on having robots care for the elderly, and I'm not even certain that the medical field is all that safe an employment option. This is contrary to the predictions that the medical field will see huge job growth. There will be a surge in the amount of medical work done, but that actually provides a driving force to automate as much of it as possible.

This leads to a question that I find rather interesting. What fields are safe for young people to go into? As one would expect, I think that CS and software development are pretty good. However, even there it might only apply to higher end work. Law and medical practice could easily stagnate with automation. Engineering? That isn't a given either. The article that mentions Lawyers being replaced also mentions that Computer Engineering positions are stagnating because software is so good at helping make people more efficient at designing chips. What about other fields of Engineering? I expect that software is pretty good at bridges and mechanical work too. It doesn't have to do the job. It just has to make one human doing the job more efficient to prevent additional hires.

So what won't computers move into? If I only project until 2030 I see two areas. They are things that have a noticeably human touch, and those that require work that borders on non-computable. The former might not even be all that safe as people get more comfortable interacting with computers and the computers get more human. The latter is where the field of programming lies. Thanks to the non-computability of the halting problem, writing software is, in general, non-computable. Granted, humans make mistakes when programming so I see no reason to believe computers will never get as good or better than humans. I just see this being one of the later problems they get to. What else is provably non-computable? I don't know exactly. I don't know if people have really asked what tasks are and aren't computable. I have a theory that things which we consider to be “art” are non-computable while things we consider to be “science” are computable. Does that mean arts are safe and sciences aren't? Not really. It means fields where practitioners follow specific algorithms and there are known recipes for success are risky. Fields where people develop a sense for what is good through practice are safer. Since the value of a job is determined by demand regardless of automatability, artistic fields that no one wants to pay you for doing aren't going to make good career paths even if they can't be easily automated. For this reason, I'd add research scientists to my list of safe job paths. New science will always be needed to drive the next round of technology and research is much more of an art than a science. Creative jobs that involve some form of content creation can also work, but one has to be careful because they are only as valuable as their products are in demand. However, I also expect the wave of automation to open up whole new possibilities for creative jobs.

So how different is this from having a sewing machine make seamstresses more efficient? For me, the difference is that the jobs being replaced now are often the ones at the top end of the spectrum. It will also hit those at the very bottom end of the spectrum as well. The sewing machine made products cheaper and increased wealth so the people trained up into a whole new level of jobs. This round of automation will also improve efficiency and increase general wealth. It will make products cheaper and make it easier for everyone to enjoy a higher standard of living. Unfortunately, unless you can augment human capabilities with wetware it isn't at all clear to me that this round will make new jobs that humans can train into. Why not? First, the jobs you are eliminating here are at the top of the spectrum of what humans do. Where do you train up to when you already have a doctorate level degree in medicine, law, or engineering? Second, the timescale of training for jobs at that level is really long. If it takes a human 4 years to train for something that hasn't been automated when the start the training, what are the odds it won't be automated before they finish. Even if it isn't, how many years until it is? Train 4 years then work 2? That's not exactly a good approach to making a living.

So where does this leave us? Well, if wetware develops quickly and we start augmenting humans at or before 2020, then maybe we get Kurzweil's singularity. Barring that (and only looking forward to 2030 right now), we have a need for dramatic social change as total wealth grows dramatically, but the number of humans who are able to hold down jobs for extended periods of time drops dramatically.