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Commentary: Man Vs. Machine

By Chris Tucker

Dallas, TX –

Considering the rise of ever-more intelligent machines, commentator Chris Tucker wonders if the 19th Century Luddites might have been on to something.

I haven't watched Jeopardy in probably 20 years, but I was riveted recently as the show's two top human winners pitted their skills against "Watson," the awesome IBM supercomputer. As most of the world knows by now, "Watson" destroyed the flesh-and-blood champions in a performance that was far more dominant than we saw in 1997 when IBM's Deep Blue defeated chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov.

Now chess is just a game and Jeopardy is just a TV show, and the victorious "Watson" did make at least one truly boneheaded mistake, identifying Toronto as an American city.

Still, "Watson's" triumph may have large implications because now, machines will have complex natural language abilities and be able to understand puns, allusions, slang expressions and other linguistic oddities. As this technology spreads and gets cheaper, many jobs could be lost in medicine, business analytics, call centers, banking and more. And I doubt IBM will send unemployment checks to those who lose their jobs.

Now, it's standard for commentators who dare rage against the machine to insert a disclaimer: Hey, I'm no Luddite. I love technology. I use Google fifty times a day. I don't want to walk three miles to the creek for a bucket of water or spend half a day making lye soap.

But what about those Luddites, the British artisans who smashed thousands of pieces of machinery that were driving them out of work? Of course violence and vandalism are wrong, but setting aside methods for a moment, the Luddites were really saying, "What about us? What are we supposed to do for a living once all these fascinating machines make us irrelevant?"

In one form or another, that question has been asked by blacksmiths and mill workers and switchboard operators, toll booth attendants, machine operators and others oer the past century. And now, thanks to Watson and the even faster and smarter successors that will follow, many more workers will find themselves no longer needed.

Is there a limit? Could we reach a point where the net loss to society as a result of innovation outweighs the net gain? Or does technology have its own manifest destiny that overrides all other considerations?

So far at least, we humans weak, fallible creatures who need lunch breaks and a little sleep now and then have decided that the benefits of technology outweigh the losses. As humanity gives up one job after another, optimists always say that automation and artificial intelligence and the like will "free" people to do other things you know, those uniquely human tasks that we hope can never be replaced by metal and plastic and silicone.

But will there always be enough of those uniquely human jobs to go around? Million-dollar robots already perform delicate surgeries, and some experts believe that "middle man" jobs like selling cars and real estate will soon be replaced by Web-based alternatives. Is it that hard to imagine that a Watson descendant could make a pretty good lawyer, combing through hundreds of legal precedents and volumes on jury psychology all in about three seconds?

So what will be left for humanity to do? Can we all be poets? Massage therapists? I write a sonnet for you, and you do some work on my upper back. No way machines could ever do those jobs.


Chris Tucker is a Dallas writer and book collaborator.

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