IS YOUR JOB REALLY SAFE FROM A MACHINERY TAKE OVER?


In jobs from the retail floor to the developers’ office, workers are losing the race against machines. Who can still compete against androids — and for how long?

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Although computers are encroaching into territory that used to be occupied by people alone, like advanced pattern recognition and complex communication, for now humans still hold the high ground in each of these areas. Experienced doctors, for example, make diagnoses by comparing the body of medical knowledge they’ve accumulated against patients’ lab results and descriptions of symptoms, and also by employing the advanced subconscious pattern recognition abilities we label “intuition.” (Does this patient seem like they’re holding something back? Do they look healthy, or is something off about their skin tone or energy level?) Similarly, the best therapists, managers, and salespeople excel at interacting and communicating with others, and their strategies for gathering information and influencing behavior can be amazingly complex.

But it’s also true that as we move deeper into the second half of the chessboard, computers are rapidly getting better at both of these skills. We’re starting to see evidence that this digital progress is affecting the business world. A March 2011 story by John Markoff in the New York Times highlighted how heavily computers’ pattern recognition abilities are already being exploited by the legal industry where, according to one estimate, moving from human to digital labor during the discovery process could let one lawyer do the work of 500. Machinery

In January, for example, Blackstone Discovery of Palo Alto, Calif., helped analyze 1.5 million documents for less than $100,000. …

“From a legal staffing viewpoint, it means that a lot of people who used to be allocated to conduct document review are no longer able to be billed out,” said Bill Herr, who as a lawyer at a major chemical company used to muster auditoriums of lawyers to read documents for weeks on end. “People get bored, people get headaches. Computers don’t.”

The computers seem to be good at their new jobs. … Herr … used e-discovery software to reanalyze work his company’s lawyers did in the 1980s and ’90s. His human colleagues had been only 60 percent accurate, he found. “Think about how much money had been spent to be slightly better than a coin toss,” he said.

And an article the same month in the Los Angeles Times by Alena Semuels highlighted that despite the fact that closing a sale often requires complex communication, the retail industry has been automating rapidly.

In an industry that employs nearly 1 in 10 Americans and has long been a reliable job generator, companies increasingly are looking to peddle more products with fewer employees. … Virtual assistants are taking the place of customer service representatives. Kiosks and self-service machines are reducing the need for checkout clerks.

Vending machines now sell iPods, bathing suits, gold coins, sunglasses and razors; some will even dispense prescription drugs and medical marijuana to consumers willing to submit to a fingerprint scan. And shoppers are finding information on touch screen kiosks, rather than talking to attendants. …

The [machines] cost a fraction of brick-and-mortar stores. They also reflect changing consumer buying habits. Online shopping has made Americans comfortable with the idea of buying all manner of products without the help of a salesman or clerk.

During the Great Recession, nearly 1 in 12 people working in sales in America lost their job, accelerating a trend that had begun long before. In 1995, for example, 2.08 people were employed in “sales and related” occupations for every $1 million of real GDP generated that year. By 2002 (the last year for which consistent data are available), that number had fallen to 1.79, a decline of nearly 14 percent.

If, as these examples indicate, both pattern recognition and complex communication are now so amenable to automation, are any human skills immune? Do people have any sustainable comparative advantage as we head ever deeper into the second half of the chessboard? In the physical domain, it seems that we do for the time being. Humanoid robots are still quite primitive, with poor fine motor skills and a habit of falling down stairs. So it doesn’t appear that gardeners and restaurant busboys are in danger of being replaced by machines any time soon.

And many physical jobs also require advanced mental abilities; plumbers and nurses engage in a great deal of pattern recognition and problem solving throughout the day, and nurses also do a lot of complex communication with colleagues and patients. The difficulty of automating their work reminds us of a quote attributed to a 1965 NASA report advocating manned space flight: “Man is the lowest-cost, 150-pound, nonlinear, all-purpose computer system which can be mass-produced by unskilled labor.”

Even in the domain of pure knowledge work–jobs that don’t have a physical component–there’s a lot of important territory that computers haven’t yet started to cover. In his 2005 book The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, Ray Kurzweil predicts that future computers will “encompass … the pattern-recognition powers, problem-solving skills, and emotional and moral intelligence of the human brain itself,” but so far only the first of these abilities has been demonstrated. Computers so far have proved to be great pattern recognizers but lousy general problem solvers; IBM’s supercomputers, for example, couldn’t take what they’d learned about chess and apply it to Jeopardy! or any other challenge until they were redesigned, reprogrammed, and fed different data by their human creators.

And for all their power and speed, today’s digital machines have shown little creative ability. They can’t compose very good songs, write great novels, or generate good ideas for new businesses. Apparent exceptions here only prove the rule. A prankster used an online generator of abstracts for computer science papers to create a submission that was accepted for a technical conference (in fact, the organizers invited the “author” to chair a panel), but the abstract was simply a series of somewhat-related technical terms strung together with a few standard verbal connectors.

Similarly, software that automatically generates summaries of baseball games works well, but this is because much sports writing is highly formulaic and thus amenable to pattern matching and simpler communication. Here’s a sample from a program called StatsMonkey:

UNIVERSITY PARK — An outstanding effort by Willie Argo carried the Illini to an 11-5 victory over the Nittany Lions on Saturday at Medlar Field.

Argo blasted two home runs for Illinois. He went 3-4 in the game with five RBIs and two runs scored.

Illini starter Will Strack struggled, allowing five runs in six innings, but the bullpen allowed only no runs and the offense banged out 17 hits to pick up the slack and secure the victory for the Illini.

The difference between the automatic generation of formulaic prose and genuine insight is still significant, as the history of a 60-year-old test makes clear. The mathematician and computer science pioneer Alan Turing considered the question of whether machines could think “too meaningless to deserve discussion,” but in 1950 he proposed a test to determine how humanlike a machine could become. The “Turing test” involves a test group of people having online chats with two entities, a human and a computer. If the members of the test group can’t in general tell which entity is the machine, then the machine passes the test.

Turing himself predicted that by 2000 computers would be indistinguishable from people 70% of the time in his test. However, at the Loebner Prize, an annual Turing test competition held since 1990, the $25,000 prize for a chat program that can persuade half the judges of its humanity has yet to be awarded. Whatever else computers may be at present, they are not yet convincingly human.

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What’s Your Halloween Candy Personality?


Halloween looms and with it the annual candy-buying frenzy. While dieters stock up on candy they don’t like so they won’t be tempted by leftovers, the rest of us buy the stuff we do like and hope that only one or two of those pesky little costumed punks comes a-knocking. (And even then, we smack their grabby hands if they dig too deep: “Hey, pal, you’re only 5 years old. One Butterfinger for you!”)

If you haven’t bought your supply yet, the chart below might help you decide what kind of candy to pass out. We not only provide the history and calorie count for 10 brands, we also asked an expert to tell us what the candy you give out says about you. Steve Almond, the author of “Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America” (Harvest, 2005), e-mailed us his analysis of the personality types who might offer these tasty sweets to trick-or-treaters.

“There’s something incredibly liberating about a holiday that encourages children to take candy from strangers,” Almond writes of Halloween in his book. Indeed. For some reason, Almond asked that we make clear that he is a “professional candyfreak, not a therapist.” Well, that’s good enough for us.

CANDY ALMOND’S CANDY-GIVER ANALYSIS HISTORY CALORIE COUNT

3 Musketeers

Does well in groups but is somewhat pompous. Prone to fancy costumes and arcane weapons. Wears hats in public that are ill-advised. Created in 1932 by Mars, the candy bar got its name because it originally had three pieces in one packet: vanilla, strawberry and chocolate. The Fun Size (15 grams) has 63 calories.

Almond Joy

I’m going to put aside my aversion to coconut in praising these folks as happy-go-lucky. Introduced in 1946 by the Peter Paul Candy Manufacturing Co. in New Haven, Conn. It’s a companion to the Mounds bar, which arrived in 1920. The snack size (17 grams) has 80 calories.

Bit-O-Honey

They have contradictory personalities, hoping to express generosity but also having the passive-aggressive desire to damage the fillings of trick-or-treaters. The honey-flavored taffy was first manufactured in 1924 by the Schutter-Johnson Co. of Chicago. It is now made by Nestle. One piece (7 grams) has 26 calories.

Butterfinger

Evasive, slippery, not necessarily to be trusted. Invented in 1923 by the Curtiss Candy Co. of Chicago. The crunchy bar wrapped in chocolate is now made by Nestle. The Fun Size (18.5 grams) has 85 calories.

Candy Corn

Purely deluded people. They don’t get that candy shouldn’t attempt to imitate other food groups, particularly corn. Invented in the 1880s, it was first manufactured commercially by the Wunderle Candy Co. in Philadelphia and by the turn of the century at the Herman Goelitz Candy Co. in Cincinnati. A serving of 22 pieces (40 grams) has 140 calories, or 6.4 calories per piece.

Good & Plenty

Optimistic, perhaps overly so. A little bit of Weimar energy. Strong advocate of gay rights; acquainted with the bitterness at the center of most lives. The licorice candy was first produced in 1893 by the Quaker City Confectionery Co. in Philadelphia and is considered the oldest branded candy in the country. A serving of 33 pieces (39 grams) has 140 calories, or 4.2 calories per piece.

Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups

Generous souls. Those who understand the salty in life, as well as the sweet. Created by Harry Burnett Reese in the 1920s. Reese was a former dairy employee of Milton Hershey, founder of the Hershey Co. In 1963, the Reese candy company was sold to Hershey for $23.5 million. A one-cup package (21 grams) has 110 calories.

Snickers

Just going with the crowd, the safe candy choice, guaranteed to please the masses. Not ambitious, but dependable. Created in 1930 by Mars, Snickers bars sold for a nickel. The Fun Size was introduced in 1968. The Fun Size (17 grams) has 80 calories.

Twix

Both brittle and supple in social situations; sort of trapped between personality types. A Mars product, caramel-and-cookie Twix bars were created in the United Kingdom in 1967 but weren’t sold in the United States until 1979. The Fun Size (16 grams) has 80 calories.

Twizzlers

Sickos. Truly demented. Plastic people living plastic lives. The Twizzlers brand was introduced in 1929. The red licorice strips are manufactured by Y&S Candies, a company established in 1845 that is now a Hershey subsidiary. The snack size (14 grams) has 37 calories.