Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Are Humans Obsolete?

Are Humans Obsolete?


 I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords!   Do you? 

Much concern has been raised in response to the invention and marketing of “Baxter”, an inexpensive robot (about $22,000, less than $4/hr for 3 years of work), who can be trained by hand to do many different kinds of menial (especially assembly line) work.  Oh, so that’s only a concern for the lowest skill workers?  Like….. Doctors!?!?  Meet “Isabel”, a computer program that does medical diagnoses based on the symptoms presented, and is already in use in some places.  Plus, just last year, we all saw the computer Watson win at Jeopardy!.  Are all our jobs going to be replaced, leaving us destitute and homeless?

These fears are nothing new, reflected in the autoworker’s fears in the 1980s, John Henry (and the steam spikedriver) before that, and before that, Paul Bunyan (vs. the chainsaw), and so on.  The replacement of humans by new technologies likely goes even farther back, past Heron, at the famed Alexandrian Library (who devised a vending machine nearly 2,000 years ago), perhaps even to the use of other animals to replace paid human labor.  In all these cases, people moved to different jobs, and the advancements allowed for new job opportunities.  No one today serious suggests that we’d be better off weaving all cloth or digging all ditches by human labor.  Even farther back, our Ancestors for millions of years before becoming human still had to adapt and change  - if not, we'd still be bacteria. 

Looking at this with deep time eyes, it’s clear, both in human advancement and in our evolutionary history, that both change and adaptation to that change are ever present in the real world.  The real world can be hard.  It can require us to learn new skills.  It can change around us in unexpected ways.  But at least, if the past is any guide, in doing so it opens the door to new opportunities for growth and even success.  As the year (and even the Mayan calendar!) come to a close, let’s look toward the next year with hopeful expectation.  See  ya in 2013-

        Jon Cleland Host