If you are a trekkie, especially one of a specific age then you have probably seen star trek 3. There is a very unique scene in that movie where the recently reincarnated Spock is being educated by a bank of computers. The goal of the director is to make a statement about the character’s developing understanding of his emotions, but the more interesting element as it relates to this blog has to do with the computers quizzing spock. What seemed so science fiction in 1984 has become very much a reality in 2014.
That means the teacher, the quintessential individual contributor in the education world is no longer needed, not nearly to the extent that they were in the past. This is true when it comes to relatively simple subjects such as math or physics. I say simple because the hard sciences are very much steeped in the world of fact. 1+1=2, is the same thing as a2 + b2 = c2 which is really the same thing as:
Ultimately they are all just gradients on the same theme, in fact they lead directly to each other. All it really takes is a differential engine. Did the input (student) equal (figure out) the right answer x number of times? Ok, move them up to the next level of complexity. Rinse, repeat. I would guess that most teachers would say, yes, but when it comes to the arts, the need for teachers will never go away. The teachers, the lawyers, would say it takes intelligence and creativity to do their job properly. Using our star trek example, how do you get a student to comprehend the whole aspect of “how do you feel?”. This is where Artificial Intelligence comes in.. and it’s coming, very very quickly.
One of the most important facts that I use to guide my life is Amara’s Law, a concept that began with Roy Amara, and popularized by Mark Stephens writing as Robert X. Cringely. In the common parlance the law states:
We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.
My favorite examples of this law are not computer related. For example, Air conditioning was invented as a way to control humidity in a manufacturing plant. It’s existence is directly responsible for many societal and cultural institutions that couldn’t exist without it including Summer Blockbuster Movies and the City of Las Vegas among many others. Another great example is the automobile. Let’s get rid of all those horses and the poop they leave everywhere. 40-50 years later we have a thing called the suburbs, that never could have existed.
Let me get to the meat of this article now, I think the same thing is going to happen, but with professional individual contributors and i’m not alone. This is because we live in the early adoption curve of the information age, the period of time when things are just now speeding up. The point of this article isn’t that tech is going to challenge the professional (It will, greatly) , nor is it to predict what those changes are going to look like (Nobody can know this), although to be honest, lower wages, less benefits, etc. is a very safe prediction. Nor is it to provide a guideline for what may come next in the brave new world that we couldn’t predict before, for example suburbia gave rise to HOA management companies, green home builders and mortgage brokers, etc..
seismic changes are going to happen much more quickly this time around because it takes a bunch more time to build roads and houses than it does to evaluate data and make decisions
So what makes our life different than that the information age does one thing very well. It accelerates. A very recent example can be seen in the history of Walmart. Their adoption of bleeding edge communication technology and data management is arguably the primary reason why they destroyed their competition. It can also be argued that it illustrates how the blue vests, permanent part time staff, low/no benefits replaced the full time retail career. This took decades, but it did happen. Who is beating walmart? The goliath of retail? It’s Amazon, the only company that can can combine information and retail better than walmart itself. And we know how they are treating their professional contributors.
What makes things so different this time around is that technology is at it’s core an accelerant. How does this affect today’s professional? The answer is simple.. It took an entire lifetime for suburbs to supplant the City/Country foundation our country was built on. These seismic changes are going to happen much more quickly this time around because it takes a bunch more time to build roads and houses than it does to evaluate data and make decisions which are the things that professionals generally do.
One of the best ways with tech to see where something is going to happen is to look at those who living on the bleeding edge. In the case of artificial intelligence, the bleeding edge is mainframes and the gaming industry. The gaming industry is more interesting to me as these are the people who are trying to squeeze as much artificial intelligence into as small a computational space as possible (PC’s and game consoles). They are doing a pretty good job of it too. In the case of one effort, the industry is building what amounts to a creativity engine that can build stories. So much for the uniqueness of the creative professional, eh?
Even with the limitations of physics, the technology is going to improve greatly, because we will continue to figure out better ways to configure what processing power we do have. Think today’s mustang vs the early Model-T – any color you want as long as it’s black. Today’s vehicles have the same basic engine and body style building blocks, it’s just we have a thousand times more refined and customizable options which are better in every conceivable way. So we have a massive population of PIC’s, who are now going to be obsoleted by code. The Model-T to the Tesla took a hundred years. I’m just not so sure that mainframe level technology out of IBM such as resistive processing and other like technologies are also a hundred years away.
I could go on for a good while longer discussing this topic, but I believe the points here are made well enough. That being said, even though it wasn’t my original intent, I should take a moment to gaze into my crystal ball. The initial reaction with the future is that if we lose jobs, several more will be created. You won’t need a professional producing, just overseeing and servicing the automated production. So we will migrate to managers of automated systems. This makes sense, unless of course you remember the point of A/I is to replace intelligence. It’s not hard to think that there will be A/I systems which will oversee A/I systems. I’d like to think I am smarter than the average bear. That I have chosen a future endeavor that is immune to this threat, but sadly that is simply not the case.
As much as I believe there will always be jobs to do because humans, by our very nature, want to ‘do’. There will always be someone who can look at a group of people, see a resource, and use that resource. I’m not so sure those jobs will be anything like they are today. I’m also pretty sure they won’t provide the return in compensation and benefits we currently enjoy with our labors. So how will we provide for ourselves and our families? I honestly don’t know but there are some pretty crazy ideas that may gain traction even among those you would never expect it to gain traction with.
Hi Mike, great post! I was thinking along these lines while on the American Tobacco Trail today, a former railway line. The railroad industry was huge and central to industry 100 years ago. Now trails are spreading across the US on former railways.
[…] about my favorite (and eerily accurate) Sci-fi vision of computer automated teaching in my post “Will we shut off the lights?” but that was more about automation disrupting jobs making things more difficult to the […]