This was my reading on the recent trip to Ontario. Excellent! This is about as up to the minute as a printed book can get, talking about events during the summer of 2019, as the book covers a wide variety of tech related topics. One of them is how computers and data and AI will impact humans. It turns out there is a historical precedent.
I thought I had a good grip on how the Great Depression started. Stock market stupidity. Economic fallout from the disastrous reparations terms imposed on Germany after WWI. What I hadn't thought about was the impact of the horse being replaced by the internal combustion engine for cars and farm equipment.
The economy revolved around horses in the early 1900's. They were used for transporting people, and providing power on farms. There was an entire chain of good and services based on the horse. We talk about buggy whip manufacturers, but that's almost trivial. When there's 1 horse for every 5 people, and a horse takes 10 times as many calories to support, there was more effort put to growing horse food than people food.
When the number of horses declined by 1/3 during the 1920's, there was a corresponding decrease I the amount of land used to grow their feed. That land was switched to crops for people, and prices fell as output increased. Farmer's income dropped, and they started going bankrupt. All the industries around horses went through a corresponding decline, buying and selling them, the related farm machinery, feed, carriages, everything. Then secondary industries started being affected. More people lost their jobs, faster (in the short term) than the automotive industries replaced them. The entire economy nearly came unglued.
Now we have a similar change sweeping through our world, computers, to use one word to describe a complicated industry. There's been lots of changes so far and nobody thinks we're done. The dot com boom bust in the early 2000's, and the global credit crises of 2008, and the crash of oil prices in 2015 or so show that our economy isn't particularly stable. It won't take too much rocking to swamp the boat, and that's before idiots like Trump and Kenney are put in charge.
The horse was a tool that mostly replaced human muscles. The computer is a tool that augments our brains. It can control tools that replace all but the most dextrous and skilled human hands. The changes will be more than we anticipate.
Up till now, computer controlled robots have replaced many industrial assembly line jobs. They had to be programmed to perform specific tasks, so of course there were programming jobs created. The skills already existed to create the actual robots. People that did jobs requiring thought and judgement were safe, or so we thought.
Turns out computers can learn to recognize patterns. Think about a human who is trained to interpret medical imagery. Some more experienced human shows them images of what a broken bone, or a cancerous mass of cells looks like via some imaging equipment, and they go on to interpret new images and give instruction to other medical professionals. Except now a computer can look at millions of images and the corresponding information in a very short time, and will be able to interpret new images faster and more accurately than a human.
Think of paralegals, looking up legal information to be used by lawyers. Except computers can read books now, and can provide the same information far quicker and far more accurately. I would not want to be a para-legal.
Think about your family doctor. The training they go through takes years, and some of what they learn is outdated the day they graduate. New conditions come along, new tests, new data. Nobody can keep up. We used to think that we needed doctors to listen to our story, do some tests, and they would give us a diagnosis. Now people are finding that asking Mrs Google about a specific ailment is a better starting point than asking their doctor. A Google search prepares the patient to make better use of the doctor's time, and depending on their expertise, it might lead the doctor to be doing their own Google or medical database searches right after the patient visit. How long before doctors are replaced by a computer managed by what we'd now call a technician?
This gets us into the the heart of the book, looking at the Artificial Intelligence world that is coming. Some of it is scary AF, or even scarier than that if you can imagine such a thing. This is our problem, we can't imagine, and we're the ones building the rules that our computers will follow. At least, until the computers start changing the rules by themselves. At that point we'd better have given our new overlords reason to treat us kindly. At best we're going to have an amazing world where computer AI and us are partners. At worst, think about something smarter than Skynet and terminators that is mad at us.
Smith talks about this in a very engaging way. There is a hint of Microsoft hagiography about it that nuzzled my buttons, but it was worth it. The topics are relevant for today, and it's well written enough to engage the interest of most people. It doesn't seek to explain how facial recognition works, for example, but talks about the issues related to it, some of which are not intuitively obvious. And no, I won't be buying a phone that turns on via facial recognition software.
I don't know if the book is in the library. If so, put a hold on it. If you live nearby and want to borrow it, ask. The book is worth it.
Deadwood of the Day