Earlier this year The Economist analyzed a trend dubbed the onrushing wave – or the wave of technological progress expected to accelerate the automation of work. Adding some figures to their observations, the editors predicted that jobs in 47% occupational categories ran the risk of being automated in the near future. Jobs like: accountancy, legal work, technical writing... Thanks to LEGO enthusiasts, not even DJing is safe anymore.
Disruptive innovation causing employment unease is not a first, of course. Unlike the original luddites – those angry 15th century defenders on pre-technological way of life – however, today’s reactions towards industrial robots, invisible algorithms and every automated, job-simplifying product, service or business model in between are far more complex. Moreover, they inspire new and exciting avenues for growth. In other words, the onrushing waves will likely wash good things to shore too. As humans become replaceable and ultimately replaced by processes they will feel compelled to take a stand and many of the (re)actions – either for or against technology – will translate into more productive change.
The pessimists, for example – or the category whose skills are no longer compatible with new technology / who simply do not support certain systems or rules – will continue to “rage against the machines” through various forms of hacking (ethical hacking anyone?). White hat hackers are already recognized as vital to security and are paid bounties by companies like Facebook and Microsoft to discover vulnerabilities in their systems.
Those supporting artificial intelligence – the optimists - will argue that automation is not about technology replacing human reason and spontaneity altogether (though the prospect is interesting; here is IDEO’s view of objects that react to moods). Rather, automation is about technology exploiting opportunities and data better so we may focus on the more pleasurable aspects of life. The latter category features the data miners and other advocates of establishing bigger and better patters to make predictions for our comfort and joy. Think of what Spies, goodreads or Spotify are doing to suggest better holiday destinations, books or music.
Next to the active pessimists and optimists lies a third category: the passive observers, or those who acknowledge work automation & technological change but feel unable and or / uninterested to react to it. To some extent, we all go with the technological flow. Tom Whipple, science correspondent of The Times, wrote a great piece on becoming slaves to the algorithms around us. His summary is well worth a read.
Whether we are for, against or in complete ignorance of it, one thing is for certain: automation is omnipresent, it will disrupt our working life and it is here to stay. We see it in journalism and media, in healthcare, in the entertainment business and even in online dating. Not convinced by this statement? Here are some examples:
- Robot journalists are already employed by major news companies to compile short stories about topics of interest. The software works its way through older archives, clips together news items and prepares an update – which might lack humor but is nevertheless factual and accurate;
- FindZebra, a search engine for difficult medical cases does something even more remarkable: it correlates symptoms with possible diagnoses to rare diseases, enabling doctors everywhere to search for correct treatments in situations in which extensive testing might not be possible;
- Epagogix is a company that takes prediction to a wholly different level. Using elements from movie scripts as input, the program attempts to predict box office success. Working with major Hollywood studios as well as with independents, the company’s services are some of the most sought after in the industry;
- OkCupid, a mainstream dating website, matches users with a patent-pending method based on answers to user-generated questions (see PCMag review here) eliminating the need for a human intermediary completely. Gone are the days when psychologists (or just friends) played a key role in the search for love;
The conclusion is clear: as computers draw in more information than any human ever could, automation in general and algorithms in particular will gradually take over most, if not all, of the donkeywork. Though unease will likely persist and luddites will never go out of fashion, big data mining (among other trends) will open up unprecedented avenues for growth and innovation.
P.S. No, this post has not been written by a computer. Just with the help of one.