Rage against the machine

There's always a machine that can do things better than people

W

ho could argue that it wasn’t good news, exciting news, worthy of nothing but praise and hope for what was clearly going to be an amazing future?

The first self-driving cars are on the road, and it looks like they’re going to work. Imagine that!

When it catches on, and it will, people won’t have to drive their cars anymore and that time behind the wheel can be used in more productive or enjoyable pursuits.

Certainly the driverless technology will go over well in Oceanside, as it would likely give mobility back to the elderly, a treasure they thought they had lost forever when they had their drivers licence taken away.

Who knows? If it makes the roads safer, maybe driverless technology will be mandatory and driving will be just one more task there’s no need for people to do anymore.

There’s certainly no shortage of those.

Look around you the next time you’re on your way from the bank machine to the self-checkout at the store to buy your tax preparation program and think about how many jobs have been taken over by technology and machines lately. There are quite a few, I think.

Back at the start of the Industrial Revolution, when Ned Ludd and his boys were smashing cotton gins, the jobs being lost to machines involved extremely repetitive tasks, such as spinning cotton. Now though, it’s different.

It’s not just tasks at the low end of the skill level that are being impacted by machines and, more importantly, software. Middle-skill jobs such as bank tellers, accountants, administrative workers, journalists and secretaries are also falling prey. There’s even a program coming on the market that lets you order your meal at a restaurant by using a touch screen on the table. Bye bye waitress, so long waiter.

The increasing incursion of technology into the workplace is cited by some as being at least partially to blame for the so-called jobless recovery we’re currently experiencing.

Unfortunately, replacement of human workers by information technologies is likely only going to get more pronounced in the future. With the exponential advances in artificial intelligence taking place right now, there’s no telling how far this might go. They are already starting to replace human workers who hold advanced degrees.

They’ll be dealing out your prescriptions, diagnosing diseases and handling lawsuits.

Lawsuits? Oh yeah. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researcher Andrew McAfee, who helped organized a conference last year called Race Against The Machine, said information technology is being used to do much of the work in legal discoveries, which require digesting large amounts of documentation at the early stages of a lawsuit. It could, he suggested, allow a single lawyer to do the work of 500.

Whether it be Big Blue beating the best chess player in the world or Watson defeating the top Jeopardy player on the planet, it’s starting to look like no matter what you do there’s a machine or program that can do it better, faster and cheaper, with no sick days or personal issues to get in the way.

Sometimes it makes me wonder exactly what people are for — and the way things are going, it won’t be very long before the machines start asking that as well.

That’s when things really get interesting.