October 11, 2012 By Bill Schrier
(This column is updated from the original version.)
Robert Reich* had an interesting piece this week on NPR’s* Marketplace: "Is Technology to Blame for Chronic Unemployment?" He talked about the imminent end of many jobs and professions in the developed world, and specifically the United States, due to massive changes in technology. Read or listen to it here.
The logic of his arguments is quite clear.
First, the miniaturization of electronics coupled with the consumer technology revolution (smartphones and tablets) is really just in its infancy. Gee, the smartphone, for example, is just five years old, and the tablet computer (in its very usable, iPad-type format) is not even three years old. We’ve just begun to tap their potential.
Next, we are seeing more and more data and information squeezed into ever smaller spaces. While the first personal computers had less than 640 kilobytes of memory*, today we have widely available thumbdrives with 64 gigabytes of memory. Service members and others can carry their entire medical history on a chip in a credit card.
Indeed, Reich said, we may very well, in the future, carry an "all purpose" device, the "I-Everything" as he dubbed it. It could contain all relevant information about you, ranging from medical history to financial information to personal preferences (all suitably encrypted, one would hope!). Using a personal-area-network it could communicate with many other devices in or on your body to monitor your health, allow self-diagnosis of medical issues and even carry on most routine financial transactions and interactions. The I-Everything.
These revolutions in technology have already terminated many kinds of jobs. Word processors and data entry jobs are gone and secretaries, if not gone, are highly endangered. Telephone and switchboard operators, and many newspaper jobs, are gone.
More jobs will fall victim to technology. Bank tellers are endangered, as are travel agents. Retail store clerks are still employed in great numbers, but a decline must set in as more shopping goes online. Even restaurant servers may be somewhat endangered as iPads and other devices become common at tables.
This change will strike at professional jobs too. Sloan-Kettering medical centers have been testing the use of IBM's Watson to help diagnose medical conditions and, starting soon, it will start dispensing medical advice.
(You undoubtedly remember Watson from its appearance on the Jeopardy television show.)
We can see many other professional jobs which will be suspectible to the "artificial intelligence" powers of computers such as Watson. Such jobs might include attorneys and finance. Lawyers research and interpret laws, but computers are vastly better at raw text-based search. And artificial intelligence as demonstrated by IBM’s Watson computer can do much, if not all, of the interpretation and preparation of legal documents and briefs.
My title "Death of Lawyers" is a little dramatic. Lawyers aren’t going to die, but their profession will rapidly and significantly shrink. I suppose we’ll need trial lawyers for a while but almost all the "clerical" work of legal documents, wills, property transfer, tax preparation and so forth will fall victim to information technology. Most law schools and paralegals will soon follow. Indeed, most of the process of adjudication (“judges”) can probably follow as well.
IBM has 200 people working on applying applying Watson's abilities to commercial problems like medicine and finance. And my purpose in writing this column is not to "raise alarm" and cause people to "rise up against the machine." Computing is going to keep advancing and hundreds of companies and thousands of people are working to make that happen. Smarter machines will have many applications to improve our quality of life.
Many professions, however, will experience resurgence. Plumbers, electricians, carpenters and auto mechanics are definitely not susceptible to replacement by Watson -- or to outsourcing to China and India either, for that matter. But the sophisticated computers embedded in homes, appliances and automobiles will dictate more sophistication in these professions. Child care, nursing and elder care will still require "real people." Demand for, and the valuing of, these professions will rise.
Computers such as IBM’s Watson will eventually merge with the "I-Everything", I think, to produce a true digital assistant, able to interact and transact much of the routine business of your usual life. The only trouble is that, with so many people out of work, who will be able to afford one?
Well, this is, actually, supposed to be a blog about the use of technology in government. What do these revolutionary changes mean for government workers?
It’s hard to see how the "I-Everything" with integrated Watson can replace cops, firefighters, water pipe workers, electrical line workers, emergency medical techs, pothole-fillers, and parks and recreation staff. Spouses angrily fighting with each other, throwing kitchen utensils and pulling out knives and guns -- and then calling 911 -- are not exactly susceptible to Watson-like reasoning. "Bureaucrats," in the sense of employees who process documents, issue licenses and permits, and manage finances, may see their jobs in jeopardy.
And, of course, we’ll always need elected officials. Who would want to go to a public meeting and yell at a computer?
Or, perhaps, we’ll just send our I-Everthings to the meeting to yell at the electeds’ I-Everythings!
*Robert Reich is former Secretary of Labor for President Bill Clinton and presently professor of public policy at University of California – Berkeley.
*NPR – gee, you know what NPR is – its that public broadcasting service which includes Big Bird and Jim Lehrer and others who may be sacrificed to the god of Federal Deficit Reduction.
*Bill Gates did NOT say “640k of memory should be enough for anybody” - see here.