The age of smart machines

25. May 2013

Date: 23-05-2013
Source: The Economist: Schumpeter

Brain work may be going the way of manual work

IN HIS first novel, “Player Piano” (1952), Kurt Vonnegut foresaw that industry might one day resemble a “stupendous Rube Goldberg machine” (or as Brits would say, a Heath Robinson contraption). His story describes a dystopia in which machines have taken over brain work as well as manual work, and a giant computer, EPICAC XIV, makes all the decisions. A few managers and engineers are still employed to tend their new masters. But most people live in homesteads where they spend their time doing make-work jobs, watching television and “breeding like rabbits”.

It is impossible to read “Player Piano” today without wondering whether Vonnegut’s stupendous machine is being assembled before our eyes. Google has designed self-driving cars. America’s military-security complex has pioneered self-flying killing machines. Educational entrepreneurs are putting enlightenment online. Are we increasingly living in Vonnegut’s dystopia? Or are the techno-enthusiasts right to argue that life is about to get a lot better?

Two things are clear. The first is that smart machines are evolving at breakneck speed. Moore’s law—that the computing power available for a given price doubles about every 18 months—continues to apply. This power is leaping from desktops into people’s pockets. More than 1.1 billion people own smartphones and tablets. Manufacturers are putting smart sensors into all sorts of products. The second is that intelligent machines have reached a new social frontier: knowledge workers are now in the eye of the storm, much as stocking-weavers were in the days of Ned Ludd, the original Luddite. Bank clerks and travel agents have already been consigned to the dustbin by the thousand; teachers, researchers and writers are next. The question is whether the creation will be worth the destruction. Read the rest of this entry »