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 (53 Responses)
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    They already have.

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    April 7, 2014 at 5:41 pm |
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