The growing influence of technology in the workplace is making many professional jobs redundantby John McDermott / March 27, 2014 / Leave a comment
Baxter the robot: experts have suggested that “as machines become smarter, the less opportunity there is for humans to complement them” ©Matt Rourke/AP/PA Images
Soon it might be robots that write articles about the future. If the boldest predictions made about technology turn out to be true, humans like you would still read stories but humans like me would not research, analyse, interview, transcribe, scribble, plan, draft, edit, rewrite, sub-edit and dispatch. Artificial intelligence will have rendered the inadequacy of my intelligence all too real.
Narrative Science wants to make this happen as quickly as possible. The Chicago-based company’s algorithms are already used to preview companies’ quarterly earnings and report on sports games. It is a huge leap from writing pithy accounts of data-rich occurrences to penning more complex articles. But Narrative Science is thinking big; it is one of many businesses aiming to make obsolete even the more cognitive of professional jobs.
The idea that smart machines could displace much of the human workforce sounds like a prospect from science fiction. And yet science fiction is not fantasy. Visiting the World’s Fair in Queens, New York, in 1964, the author Isaac Asimov speculated what the world would look like half a century hence.
Reflecting on the jamboree, Asimov wrote in the New York Times that in 2014, “much effort will be put into the designing of vehicles with ‘Robot-brains’”; “communications will become sight-sound”; and that “mankind will therefore have become largely a race of machine tenders.” Today we have driverless cars, Skype and the modern office replete with personal computers.
In The Second Machine Age, a hotly debated new book, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, begin almost where Asimov’s predictions end. The doyen of sci-fi forecast that for all the innovations of the second half of the 20th century, “Robots will neither be common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence.”
If Asimov had been writing about 2010, Brynjolfsson and McAfee would have said he was prescient. A few years ago, robotics, artificial intelligence (AI) and data analysis were “laughably bad.” Then they “suddenly got very good.” The main argument of The Second Machine Age is that technology is at an “inflection point.” We are about to see its profound consequences, the MIT pair says.
Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s…