April 1, 2014


Hey, Robot: Which Cat Is Cuter? (ANNIE LOWREY, 4/01/14, NY Times)

[E]ven more troubling is the fact that crowdsourcing platforms are hurrying along the automation of more and more of these tasks. Erik Brynjolfsson, a co-author of the popular book "Race Against the Machine," cites image recognition as one obvious place where humans have helped robots replace them. Crowdworkers can collect pennies for identifying adorable cats in photographs, and then companies take that data and improve software that identifies adorable cats with a marginal cost that approaches zero. "We're at a real inflection point in terms of artificial intelligence and machine learning," Brynjolfsson said. "Things are speeding up."

Indeed, many Turkers are actively helping to put themselves out of jobs. "Yesterday it was spam moderation," said Panos Ipeirotis, a professor of business at New York University. "And today it's transcriptions and translation. Once we help computers solve the problem of today, we move on to more challenging tasks. Maybe in 10 years, it's something we think of as completely out of the range of computers right now. I see it happening, all the time."

This is, of course, the latest iteration of a procĀ­ess that has been going on at least since the evolution of the ax and the plow: Man invents a machine to make life easier, and then that machine reduces the need for man's work. Ultimately, it's a virtuous cycle, because it frees humans up to work on higher-value tasks. But technological change can also cause huge economic dislocations. And right now, the great fear is that robots are taking over jobs faster than humans can adjust. High-tech firms may be the most vibrant part of the economy, but they just don't require the manpower of former blue-chip companies. "At the height of its power, the photography company Kodak employed more than 140,000 people and was worth $28 billion," writes the computer scientist Jaron Lanier in "Who Owns the Future?" "But today Kodak is bankrupt, and the new face of digital photography has become Instagram. When Instagram was sold to Facebook for a billion dollars in 2012, it employed only 13 people." Lanier describes the future of automation as big-data "puppetry," where the actions of humans are replicated once the set of data is big enough.

White-collar jobs were once deemed mostly immune to such automation, but that is no longer true, either. Carl Benedikt Frey, an economist, and Michael Osborne, a professor of machine learning, at Oxford University estimate that about half of American jobs -- sailors, paralegals, you name it -- are susceptible to automation. "Software substitution, whether it's for drivers or waiters or nurses" is coming, Bill Gates said recently at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "Twenty years from now, labor demand for lots of skill sets will be substantially lower. I don't think people have that in their mental model."

Posted by at April 1, 2014 7:54 PM

blog comments powered by Disqus