March 25th, 2014
11:47 AM ET

Will computers make human workers obsolete?

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By Global Public Square staff

Many people are worried that in tomorrow's economy, a machine might take their job. If you think your job is safe, you would do well to remember Watson – that's the IBM computer that beat Jeopardy champ Ken Jennings. If a computer can handle the complex challenge of playing a trivia game like Jeopardy, it is mastering the kinds of subtle judgments that we used to think of as the sole province of humans.

Eric Brynjolfsson and his MIT colleague Andrew McAfee recently wrote a book called The Second Machine Age – an insightful and sometimes startling look at how computers are becoming smarter by the minute. They note that computers can pull off some truly remarkable tasks these days: driving cars by themselves, and even talking to us.

Why is this happening? It's because while all machines improve over time, computers do so on an exponential scale. Moore's law states that computer processing power doubles every two years or so.

A fascinating way to visualize the power of exponential growth is the myth of the invention of chess. In one telling, the inventor of chess – a brilliant man from India – impresses a ruler with his new game so much so that the ruler invites him to name any reward. The inventor's request seems modest: he asks that just one grain of rice be placed on the first square of a chessboard, and then please double the grains on every new square, until all 64 squares have rice.

The King is bemused by the seemingly small payment and tells his treasurer to go with the man and pay him. It looks like small numbers at first. One grain becomes 2, then 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1,024, 2,048. But keep going and you see that by the time you get to the 32nd square – the last square on the top half of the board – you have over 4 billion grains of rice in total on the board. The treasurer is said to have winced but calculated that they had enough in the granaries to pay this guy out.

But we're not done. You now have to get to the second half of the board and you begin with over 4 billion on the 33rd square, which becomes 8, 17, 34, 69, 137, 275, 550 billion, 1.1 trillion, and on. When they get to the last square, the 64th square, the total on the board is over 18 quintillion grains of rice. That’s a bigger pile of rice than Mount Everest and more than is produced in the entire world. In some versions of the story, when the king hears this, he orders that the inventor be executed.

Computing power is now in that second half of the chessboard. You have the results in your hand. NASA says that the computer in your cell phone has many, many, many times more power than the computers used in the entire Apollo space program to get man to the moon and back. And remember, computing power continues to improve dramatically ever year.

Now that computers are reaching such great heights, where does that leave humans?

Here's an example from Brynjolfsson and McAfee's book: when the computer Deep Blue defeated chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997, it may have appeared that humans could no longer match up against computers in chess. But in tournaments in the ensuing years when teams of humans and computers played against the best machines, they did well – like when a human chess player using a simple laptop computer was able to defeat a chess super-computer in 2005. The combination of a human being and a computer appeared to be the best of all worlds.

So, human beings still have a role to play. To succeed in tomorrow's world they will have to use their creativity and insight. And they will have to use computers.


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soundoff (43 Responses)
  1. translationscrapbook

    Reblogged this on Translation Scrapbook.

    March 25, 2014 at 1:38 pm | Reply
    • Salvador

      Anyone ever see the B-movie Demon Seed? Seemed so hilarious in the '70's yet now . . . almost possible.

      March 26, 2014 at 5:10 am | Reply
    • godismyshadow

      Corporate America, working together with computers, will reduce the need for human workers.

      March 30, 2014 at 1:15 pm | Reply
  2. Leroy

    The issue is not about how computers are progressing; rather, that there aren't proper laws protecting the workers.

    Computers can do what they want to; we don't have to use them. A human can ALWAYS do what a machine or computer can do, and they need to eat; the computer can sit in a corner until someone is curious enough to turn it on.

    If nobody worked, nobody would eat, and then everyone would smash the machines anyway.

    Good countries get everyone working, get stores open everywhere and force people to interact and use the services of humans so everyone makes a living, everyone eats and has shelter, and then people at the end of the day can turn on a machine for an hour to play a video game.

    March 25, 2014 at 2:06 pm | Reply
  3. Doug

    The point of the article is still well taken, but according to Intel, Moore's Law may be coming to an end:
    eetimes.com/author.asp?section_id=36&doc_id=1321536

    March 25, 2014 at 4:20 pm | Reply
  4. The Mayor of Medinah

    I think they should make news reporters obsolete , we should just have a pleasant avatar to look at and a pleasant voice reading us the news

    March 25, 2014 at 5:05 pm | Reply
  5. HeyHey

    If they are going to create so much unemployment then why are they being made?

    March 25, 2014 at 6:28 pm | Reply
    • what1ever

      They are being made by the people smart enough to know that they'll still have jobs in that world.

      April 7, 2014 at 9:05 pm | Reply
  6. idiotusmaximus

    Will computers make human workers obsolete?

    Lolololol...isn't this what they said in the 1950's when UNIVAC was created....come on people get a life.

    March 25, 2014 at 6:32 pm | Reply
  7. Ferhat Balkan

    Computers are great computational machines, but they lack self awareness and the ability to truly comprehend visual data the way we do. We're very far from reaching true artificial intelligence and I doubt we'll ever get to see one in our lifetimes. Having said that, computers are great tools that have simplified our daily lives and placed vast knowledge and communication on our fingertips. While they may have taken some traditional jobs, computers have also created jobs (Tech jobs). We are in the information age where news is shared instantaneously, people communicate around the globe via video conferencing etc. Will computers replace us? I don't think so. Computers will always be here to serve our needs and propel us to an ever evolving utopia of knowledge and progression.

    March 25, 2014 at 7:48 pm | Reply
    • Jim

      Computer vision is already a reality and poised to remove a few million more jobs. (See this 2 year old story from the NYT http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/19/business/new-wave-of-adept-robots-is-changing-global-industry.html?_r=0 Anyone that follows robotics in industry can see that 50% or more unemployment is not far away. The rush for more and more profit blinds all industry from the inevitable consequences.

      April 5, 2014 at 12:30 pm | Reply
  8. ✠RZ✠

    Anybody out there have one of those new computers with a photonic processor?

    March 25, 2014 at 10:03 pm | Reply
  9. Rand

    "The combination of a human being and a computer appeared to be the best of all worlds. "

    Quite possibly no longer the case:

    http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2013/11/what-are-humans-still-good-for-the-turning-point-in-freestyle-chess-may-be-approaching.html

    But regardless, the article misses the point. Moore's Law alone doesn't give us good AI programs. That's due to research into Machine Learning, which is progressing at a considerable pace. IBM's achievement with Watson wasn't impressive because Natural Language Processing takes more computing power than chess, but because even with far greater computing power, it's a far more difficult problem. Computing power isn't everything, especially given the commonality of NP-Hard problems, where more computing power doesn't help you anymore.

    You're probably best off thinking of those human-computer "teams" as computers and programmers making them better. There's no guarantee that in the near future all we will need are programmers, or that programmers will still have what to add (it's quite possible that we will make computers that are better programmers than we are). But those are obstacles that we will have to face when we reach them.

    March 26, 2014 at 5:06 am | Reply
  10. The sanctions are really working

    Human beings will make themselves obsolete......... computers might just hasten the process........... it's just a matter of time......... Mother Nature will probably smile as say: Gee, glad that experiment is over........... let me figure out how to design a more kind, gentle and environmentally aware species to dominate he planet next time around........... those humans sure made a mess of things.......... :(

    March 26, 2014 at 5:47 pm | Reply
  11. Ted Jenkins

    Robots and computers will do much of the unskilled labor. The problem will be to reduce our uneducated population and to increase the pay of the human workers so that they can consume the products of the computers.

    March 27, 2014 at 7:24 pm | Reply
    • 12is3times4

      But as the article points out, automation technology is always improving. Eventually even skilled labor will be threatened by it. Eventually robots will even be built and repaired by... other robots.

      I can understand free-market conservatives being OK with this scenario, but it seems even liberals aren't fazed by it either, or at least they don't have a coherent answer to it. They rail against outsourcing jobs to places like India or China, but have barely made a sound about the same types of work staying in the US but being automated – either way, it means fewer jobs available for human American workers.

      March 28, 2014 at 10:40 am | Reply
  12. kurt

    Meh.

    I'll be worried if a machine is made that is self driven, making choices on what to do on it's own without following a set of instructions provided by a person.

    We have to remember that computers are still just following instructions. The instruction set can be very complicated and detailed and can even incorporate randomness where it sometimes will make sub optimal decisions based on random number gereration... but it still has to be told what to do. A chess program has to be told to play chess, how to play chess, what strategies are optimal or sub optimal in different situation. It has to be told to start playing.

    We aren't a point to worry about terminator robots anytime soon.

    March 28, 2014 at 10:59 am | Reply
    • Chris Asking Question

      How about cars that can now apply brakes without any human intervention or decision-making?

      March 30, 2014 at 8:19 am | Reply
  13. krehator

    but prices will still go up and no one will be able to pay them. It's called shooting yourself in the foot.

    March 29, 2014 at 6:43 pm | Reply
    • John

      Krehator has hit the nail on the head. In order for the world economy to work, there must be consumers buying the goods and services that are offered. Therefore, gains in efficiency that replace human workers will soon hit an unsustainable level. Replacing workers is in effect, firing consumers/customers. Corporate America will soon come to the not so brilliant but patently obvious conclusion that turning over to computers all of the things that computers can actually do in place of humans is economic suicide; or, as Krehator has put it: shooting one's self in the foot. In the not too distant future, computers will be primarily engaged in performing tasks that make our lives more comfortable, enjoyable and stress free because replacing us on the payroll (although infinitely possible) in the long run doesn't add up.

      April 1, 2014 at 5:15 pm | Reply
  14. Halen

    It`s more about being able to do a job more efficiently than a human being, a computer never gets complacent never needs to renegotiate a contract. a computer never gets injured never needs to see a dentist or doctor, you can work a machine 24/7 they break down you replace the part move on within 3-4 hours not weeks. the real problem is Governments stepping on your right to work. Here in Canada the government has just released legislation ordering several striking workers back to work, this violates our right to strike, not a single noise has been made about it. this is because Humans here have become complacent that someone else will fight for their rights. in the end they will have no rights and I will vacate this dictatorship!

    March 29, 2014 at 7:49 pm | Reply
  15. BRUCE

    I think Hal is looking for work

    March 29, 2014 at 10:05 pm | Reply
  16. ariely shein

    Technology and human needs should be synchronized!

    This is a huge open challenge for philosophers, politicians, a new system of economy, solution to increase free time.
    Saying this in computer language!

    If: computers and robotics can do more of people's works

    Then: early retirement of people should be affordable to the many because the current begetting scheme of retirement is not valid anymore

    Else: people will search for non relevant political solutions and drag the world into a long unrest.

    March 29, 2014 at 11:10 pm | Reply
  17. Chris Asking Question

    I think they have already made US workers obsolete, at least in manufacturing. Unless they are designing more computers to run the machinery that creates more computers and robotic equipment.

    March 30, 2014 at 8:16 am | Reply
  18. Drew

    1) We shouldn't fear computers taking over our jobs. We should embrace it. If people didn't have to work and could choose to only do fun stuff that would be amazing.
    2) The whole thing about doubling is something I have a problem with. At some point progress slows down. The economy was built around the idea that it would always grow around 5%. This may eventually cause it's collapse.
    3) Computers are still a LONG ways away from being able to do what humans can do. In some things like chess and math calculations, they can fair pretty well, but in most things they cannot.

    March 30, 2014 at 2:25 pm | Reply
    • Natalia

      And where would we be getting the money to do "fun stuff" if we aren't working? Smart one.

      April 1, 2014 at 5:44 pm | Reply
  19. emil kaiypov

    The proposal for which I am asking your kind support is the suspension of all currently existing hostilities on Earth.

    The main goal of my entire project is to save and improve the lives of children who are suffering from the present conflicts and violence.

    The challenge is to create a moment of "pause" [a technical term from video language] in hostilities now and in the future, as well as to refusal to restart them at all. I believe that in this context, such "pause" in the war action seems do-able and practical, much more effective than the idealistic and utopian pressing of an imaginary "stop" button. In the future the first action will equate to the second: "pause" will become "stop". In order to alert the international community and potential supporters, I made a demonstration of my own at 18 October 2013 on the territory of Syrian embassy in Beirut, with poster "pause the war".

    The purpose of this demonstration, is to show through an example that:

    1) one person has the power to perform an action directed to the benefit of all mankind.

    2) no one should be indifferent, when war is concerned.

    3) war requires us to drop everything else, in order to stop it. Daily activities, against the background of war, look meaningless and empty.

    I believe, that this idea will resonate and supporters will wish to join it. The age of information technologies, will help to spread it around the globe. Definitely there will be supporters among the world's famous celebrities. In the event that a large number of ordinary people and celebrities join this campaign, the dream to stop all military actions on the planet will be realized. This will serve as an occasion to announce the call for volunteers in the "international army of peace". It will consist of unarmed "soldiers" who are ready at any time, to go to the hot spot to "pause" the hostilities with the fact of their presence and to encourage the warring parties to engage in dialogue. Ideally, this army should consist of a world-famous and beloved celebrities from all spheres of human activities.

    I suggest that countries be ready to support my initiative, in solidarity, by placing on the cloth of their national flags, the well-known pause symbol "II". I believe that in the course of implementation of this anti-war action, the reasons for which the suspended armed conflict began, will be resolved or continued in a civilized manner. This anti-war action will bring about a new peaceful reality, when there will be no state left, which "international army of peace" had not visited.

    The termination of all hostilities, will become the point of departure for further continuous progress in all directions.

    We are able to bring about the time, when the world will be fairly managed by a workable international organization which will be trusted by all citizens of the earth. When this happens, all kinds of weapons will be transferred to international United Nations control, the purpose of which, will be the preservation of peace and sustainable development of mankind.

    We live in a world, when the collective effort makes possible the colonizing of other planets in the foreseeable future. I believe, that we have enough strength and resources for the child born tomorrow to see a world, where uniform international standards of education, labor, pension and medical care, will be established everywhere. A world, where the primary human needs will be satisfied for free.

    A world, where nobody talks about freedom, because absolute freedom will accompany each person from the moment of birth, to his last breath. A world, where the happiness and freedom of the individual, will not happen in isolation but will include freedom and happiness of all of humanity. A world without war.

    A world without war is undisputed goal, that sooner or later humanity will definitely reach. It is the primary duty of every adult to fulfill a "world in peace"– everyone’s childhood dream. Every child surrounded by the horrors of war dreams that one day somebody will come and say "It is enough!" and by saying it bring war to an end. Then war will stop. That day has come! It's time to combine our efforts in order to make that dream come true.

    March 31, 2014 at 12:15 am | Reply
  20. Tom Bukowski

    Learn a trade.

    March 31, 2014 at 9:37 am | Reply
  21. Bob

    Does anyone know where I can get a you tube video of the grains of rice on the chessboard concept?

    March 31, 2014 at 4:16 pm | Reply
  22. Keith B. Rosenberg

    Computers cannot replicate or design newer more powerful versions of themselves (yet perhaps) so there is one job humans will still do. And computers cannot act as backups for the operators of critical infrastructure like water and electrical systems and I am not sure we should ever allow them to be. In the event of a major solar storm or electromagnetic event, computers that are doing everything might well be destroyed so some kind of backup that is not affected is necessary – humans and robust systems that do not rely on computers to operate. If I can think of these, then there are many other examples.

    April 1, 2014 at 2:17 pm | Reply
    • basedonfact

      Keith. Every motherboard and CPU has been computer designed since the Pentiums hit the market. It would take a human designer YEARS to draw the design of modern motherboard. Humans tweak individual components but we are in the 7th generation of computer designed computers

      April 6, 2014 at 1:12 am | Reply
  23. suzie669

    What will happen when computers have their own critical thinking? What is going to happen when they know the greed and benefits?

    What is going to happen when computers have feeling and the need of power?

    Well, may be we all human have to leave the earth.

    April 4, 2014 at 3:37 pm | Reply
  24. Tom Bombadil

    Have you been considering buying a new PC? Why pay extra for a brand name? You can have a more powerful system for half the price when you buy a custom built system.
    Check us out at http://www.thewizardpc.com/index.html

    April 7, 2014 at 7:40 am | Reply
  25. Rick McDaniel

    They already have.

    Why do you suppose, we have so many people out of work, around the world?

    April 7, 2014 at 5:41 pm | Reply

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