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Automation Anxiety and the Future of Work

AUTOMATION IS NOT A CAUSE FOR FEAR BUT AN OPPORTUNITY TO REDISCOVER WHY WE WORK IN THE FIRST PLACE.

“I, FOR ONE, WELCOME OUR NEW COMPUTER OVERLORDS.”

In 2011, millions watched as Ken Jennings scribbled this sentence on his answer screen, then looked up defeatedly into the luminous blue avatar of his opponent, a machine called Watson.

The occasion was a special “Man Versus Machine” episode of the quiz show “Jeopardy!” and Jennings had been chosen, along with fellow trivia savant Brad Rutter, to represent “Man.” They were, as Jennings put it, “the Great Carbon-Based Hope against a new generation of thinking machines.”

Jennings’ record alone would have struck fear into the heart of any flesh-and-blood opponent. His 74-game winning streak on “Jeopardy!” earned him a reputation as the greatest quiz show champion of all time — not to mention $2.5 million and a spot in the Guinness World Records book for “The Most Cash Won on a Game Show.”

But Watson, a natural-language processing computer invented by IBM, felt no trepidation. It cycled through questions with a buzzer speed only a machine could generate. And in a steady monotone voice, it delivered its (almost invariably correct) answers, swiftly and soundly beating Jennings and Rutter at their own game.

Jennings’ rueful response about “our new computer overlords” — a reference to an episode of “The Simpsons” — was only partly a joke. He did not believe Watson’s victory heralded a robot takeover of planet Earth. But he did have his misgivings. As he later reflected, “Just as factory jobs were eliminated in the 20th century by new assembly line robots, Brad and I were the first knowledge-industry workers put out of work by the new generation of ‘thinking’ machines.”

He concluded on a foreboding note: “‘Quiz show contestant’ may be the first job made redundant by Watson, but I’m sure it won’t be the last.”

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