10 thoughts on “More on The Future Implications of IBM Watson Technology

  1. A related article by John Creighton concludes:
    “IBM Watson on Jeopardy: Harbinger of vexing politics”
    “It’s hard to imagine the mood of the country changing if these trends persist. Will our bad mood turn to deep funk if we’re entering a period of long-term, systemic underemployment without even a hint of a plan for how we’ll manage? Does it make sense simply to hold on to our faith that eventually life will be like it was in the 1940s, 50s and 60s? It is marvelous to witness the technological advances brought about by human ingenuity. It’s a kick to watch computers compete against humans on shows like Jeopardy. But, IBM Watson’s real success on Jeopardy would be if it helps kick-start a meaningful political conversation about the economy of the future.”

    As I see it, there have always been four interwoven economies, and the balance of them is shaped by our society:
    * A subsistence economy (“There’s some lovely berries over here.”);
    * A gift economy (“The meat from this deer is going to spoil; let’s share it with the tribe.”);
    * A planned economy (“Let’s put the longhouse here.”);
    * An exchange economy (“You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.”);

    Paid human labor has less and less value due to robotics, AI, and other automation, due to better design, due to the accumulation of physical infrastructure, and/or due to the emergence of voluntary social networks.

    Mainstream economists try to get around this by assuming infinite demand, but that is just not in accord with human psychology or social dynamics (see Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, or an emerging “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” ethic, or see any of the world’s major religions — including humanism — about moving beyond materialistic values).

    So, we can expect the balance between those four economies to change as our technology and society changes, perhaps with:
    * A subsistence economy through 3D printing and local PV solar panels;
    * A gift economy through the internet, like sharing digital files to use with our 3D printers;
    * A planned economy on a variety of scales, including through taxes, subsidies and regulation affecting market dynamics; and
    * An exchange economy marketplace softened by a basic income.

    The Lights in the Tunnel is mostly about exchange-based economics. But, there are those other forms. As you take your ideas forward, you might want to consider how those different economic subsystems interact.

    I’ve been reading economist Robert Heilbroner’s “The Future As History”. Google on “The Robert Heilbroner problem” for an interesting essay by William Milberg about economics from a historical and transformative perspective. From there: “For Heilbroner, the side effects of accumulation are as numerous in modern-day capitalism as in Smith’s day. Heightened mechanization of production brings inequality and the deskilling of large pockets of the labor force. The growing size and scope of corporations leads to inequality, inefficient market power, and undue political and cultural influence. The spread of markets creates both microeconomic inefficiencies and macroeconomic instabilities that require a balancing force in the form of greater government intervention. Thus economic growth also threatens environmental degradation; technological advance brings forth the possibility of the calamitous use of technology in international conflict and nuclear war; the expansion of markets can bring excessive concentration of industry and inefficiency; and economic prosperity itself appears linked to growing income inequality within the United States and a development trap in the developing world.”

    But what Heilbroner has also talked about, and Milberg talks about, is how modern mainstream economists have lost touch with reality and psychology, and have become lost in their beautiful equations about the theory of optimal exchange. Anyway, Heilbroner may have his own blind spots like not acknowledging how many ancient cultures like in Haiti might have been happy places that were damaged by a quest for gold or slaves, but overall, I think he would agree with the essence of what you are trying to say about the long term effects of automation, and that the “success” of capitalist as far as creating abundance may require us to rethink our social systems and their assumptions, especially from a moral perspective.

    1. Paul,
      Great link to the Creighton piece. I also like your points about the additional aspects of the economy, beyond just a purely exchange economy.

      But your last paragraph really resonates with me. I’m a physicist by education, and an ops-analyst by career. We use lots of modeling & simulation in my job, and I can’t tell you often I see people get caught up in the fallacy that their particular model is a valid reflection of the world (as opposed to a potentially useful abstraction of it). It is very easy for people to forget that every model makes specific assumptions (often implicitly) and binds itself to specific constraints.

      Ever since I’ve been following these trends in advancing tech & the impacts on technology, I’ve been struck by the fact that economists (particularly macroeconomists) seem to believe in the power of their abstracted models & equations, without revisiting the fundamental assumptions on which they lie.

      I think the most important part of Ford’s book, one often missed by critics (though, fortunately not missed by Creighton), is that the past cannot always provide a clear indication of the future. We appear to be reaching (or very soon will reach) a transition point in technology where every past example of a Luddite Fallacy will finally fail to hold true.

      Unfortunately, very few people seem willing to begin the open, legitimate debate about how to respond to this radical change that Ford argues we need to begin.

      1. Jeff-

        Thanks for the reply.

        Yes, one can see that in all sorts of modelers, confusingthe map for the territory. William Kent wrote a related book called “Data & Reality” on general issues in data modelling. Steven C. Bankes at RAND has lots of good stuff to say on the apporpriate use of computer modelling. Freeman Dyson also writes about some aspects of this in his popular books on models and theoories and being a “heretic” (even as the issue may be much larger as Chomsky talks about in “What Makes the Mainstream Media Mainstream”). See also David Goodstein on “The Big Crunch” for how integrity in scientists has faltered under increased pressure to publish and get grants or perish related to the ending of exponential growth in academia in the 1970s.

        Another related link on economists:
        “Should Economists Be Sued for Malpractice?”

        And Jim Stanford’s “Confessions of a Recovering Economist” relates to this, too. As does an essay called “The mythology of wealth”. And another called “The Market as God” by a Harvard professor of religion.

        But why should mainstream economists care about alternatives? Most of the ones with the ear of the mainstream press have well-paying jobs in business, government, foundations, banks, and academia. The worse things get, the more secure their jobs are to some degree. To admit things could be different risks their entire careers and the value of everythign they have published.

        A somewhat related NYTimes article on the probelsm of an inbred mainstream economics profession: “Economists Who Did Their Homework (800 Years of It)”.

        There are some “heterodox” economists around, but in the small (but growing) minority.

  2. Last week I went to the World Ag Expo – a mammoth agricultural trade show held in Tulare, CA. I was very disappointed in the amount of new technology displayed. Worse, in measuring crowd interest, I was keenly aware of the lack of interest in what little was available to see.

    The word “robotics” wasn’t mentioned – as if it was a taboo subject. Yet robotic harvesting machines are winning awards, reducing costs, and increasing productivity all over the world. Nor was the word “robotics” mentioned in the President’s State of the Union speech even though he was talking about investing in new technologies.

    I’m convinced that Watson is going to win Jeopardy!s 3-day contest handily. And I welcome it heartily because I can’t wait for the technology to get commercialized and enter areas where decision support would be a boon to industry. Customer service and support, legal research and medical diagnosis come immediately to mind. Then, once the technology is out in the field, and at a reduced cost and imprint, it can be customized to the human-robot communication problem that is holding up progress in the robotics industry.

    I’d like to point you to two articles I’ve written on these subjects:


    Like you said, we are possibly decades away from human-like artificial intelligence. But reduced-universe interactions (think airline reservations) can make or break America’s fledgling robotics industry.

    If we are forced to import technology while our biggest export is agricultural products, we begin to fit the definition of a third world country. Now that’s a Sputnik moment (to paraphrase Pres. Obama’s recent reference to needing a Sputnik II moment in technology and innovation).

  3. I’m now a BMW owner living now in an unheated warehouse. I’m also a degreed engineer with a distinguished career in system and software development who has been increasingly marginalized by my insistence on looking at “broader issues” in delivering my technical abilities to the powers that be.

    I’ve concluded that the most serious problem is that the technology-driven acceleration of the evolving paradigm is inherently disruptive to any familiar concept of what an organization is and how it functions. Attempts to frame what is happening in left-right, public-private, or democratic-nondemocratic vernacular are not only irrelevant – They are fundamentally dangerous to understanding the effects of disconnecting non-deterministic factors from the social fabric. The effects we are seeing now are a tiny foreshadowing of the chaos to come as traditional institutions – both public and private become simultaneously irrelevant (read, nation-states) and begin to aggressively maintain their hegemonic authority by increasingly draconian, and yet, subtle measures that we’ve been carefully “groomed” to not notice – At least, not until we ourselves are adversely affected.

    If you’re NOT seeing this now, it’s because you’re not reading your newspaper correctly – or because, it too, has been “efficiently” removed by the corporate-government cabal that won’t let you walk across imaginary lines without proving that you exist within the paradigm which they still control. Perhaps you’re too “baked” by the constant ingestion of stimulants designed to keep you engaged in building a future for your fellow citizens based on predicting, exploiting, and then neutralizing every gradient of difference in outcomes by customizing content for individual consumption.

    It seems that Marshall McLuhan, after all, was correct – and the descent into unfettered tribalism is now all but complete. All indications are that the old guard won’t be “moving on” without one helluva fight – and they intend to use every last “value-bending” tool at their disposal to do so.

    If you need a historical reference in this country – I suggest you look a the dark biographies behind the Macy Conferences rooted an even longer historical agenda and desire to manipulate and control the population through pharmacology, technology and the social sciences – work that was supported by the finest educational institutions in this country and later exported globally to such unfortunate destinations as Hitler’s pre-war Germany.

    This agenda of the some, against the many has always been a part of the human agenda – it’s just that now, it may be coming to its logical conclusion. A careful analysis of this information clearly shows that we’re manifesting the consequence of this well-crafted, post WWII agenda – which centered around predicting and then manipulating human behavior using automota as just one its “applied sciences”.

    The dystopian reality of our worst fears, I’m afraid, has already arrived – It was here the entire time. What minor vestigial ability we have to recognize it is all that remains – But that too is being eviscerated daily, as we are further seduced into imaginary, individualized futures presented to us on tiny screens with meaningless, illuminated options, while our actual lives are fraught with increased anxiety, insecurity and institutional dependency as our ability to act collectively is dismantled by mass monitoring and individual “trend-lining”.

    “The war is not meant to be won, it is meant to be continuous. Hierarchical society is only possible on the basis of poverty and ignorance. This new version is the past and no different past can ever have existed. In principle the war effort is always planned to keep society on the brink of starvation. The war is waged by the ruling group against its own subjects and its object is not the victory over either Eurasia or East Asia, but to keep the very structure of society intact.”

    George Orwell
    English essayist, novelist, & satirist (1903 – 1950)

    1. Well said…

      A generalization to that is the issue of a growing “parasite” load. Usually that is directed towards the poor on welfare. But as a more egalitarian-minded person, coupled with a belief in the potential of low-maintenance technology to produce material abundance, I feel everyone has a right to some of the fruits of the natural and industrial commons. So the parasites are more those who are taking a disproportionate share or who are blocking developments in order to keep some big monopoly going. (Many in the developing world might point a finger at the West on some of that…) But with that said, it is the nature of our dominant economic paradigm to celebrate monopolies and financial obesity. Even as that does not mean that some forms of centralization and broad societal wealth are by themselves evil.

      I could say some of the same for me as for your first paragraph. 🙂 Age discrimination is rampant in the IT field in the USA, made worse by the H1B program. And any resume gap if you take time off for family or reflectivity is seen as a stigma. I find being mostly a stay-at-home Dad has given me some extra flexibility to write stuff, but my wife then has the stress of dealing with consulting (I help her sometimes in passing). Also, now I have a big gap on my resume. How else can a technology person get time to think and write about the big picture — unless you are wealthy from past efforts or get one of the very few paid slots related to this?

      And, for me, that is even having contracted at places like IBM Research. There, when I brought up bigger issues like “The Singularity”, it was not so much that there was no interest as there was never any time for reflectivity. Smart people, but no time… And of course, also a mainstream short-term profit-oriented culture all too often, even as parts are not. The thing is, there are so few slots for funded people to be thinking about what it all means… And any discussion of it can be seen as criticism to those busy doing “heads down coding” or focused on bringing in the next contract or meeting some arbitrary deadline to keep their jobs in a complex social machine.

      I’ve spent almost a decade with my family living in a big nature park, and that has given me some time to think on all this. I’m a mid 40s technology person (thirty years working with computers since a teen). From that I also have my own biases and seen way too much stuff come and go, and sees the pointlessness of so much of what is going on out there as far as business projects that just duplicate each other. (Even as I feel everyone who wants to should learn to program just for fun and a sense of mastery over basic aspects of their surroundings.) The nature of a project means a lot to me at this point. And complex intellectual work can be very painful unless you see the value in it or it is fun or challenging. That makes it hard sometimes to even want to do a lot of the work that might be out there. And then so much of it in the USA is defense related, which has its own set of ethical issues. Google on “RSA Animate – Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us”. Money can also interfere with our motivation. And you can’t burn out unless you really care. 🙂 And, there is the fact that people with two-income families have bid up the cost of housing so much near jobs that even one good job leaves people on a financial treadmill if they can’t do it remotely from some cheap location. Google on “The Two Income Trap”.

      While I have not made more than a pittance from it myself, in theory, making my own software is a best route to funds (like for the Android phone). Older tech professionals who have gone off the tracks of a mainstream career may do better on their own doing stuff, but it is a scrappy and precarious existence. (Great book — “How to survive without a salary” but it is not about surviving without any money, even though a few people have demonstrated that too recently).

      I am conflicted on selling apps because I don’t believe in “artificial scarcity” as a good thing. I would prefer software be free and open source. It’s tough morally to have one foot in an exchange economy at present (bills) and one foot stepping into a gift economy future (abundance for all). I compromised in creating one little product I made for the Android platform by saying I’d put the source code under the GPL in three years, but even then, it does not feel great, and it still prevents active partnership with other FOSS developers right now in the gift economy. It’s a tough set of issues to explore. I’ve though of a blog with advertising, but advertising itself is problematical (I block it off myself for the most part).

      Basically, as we’ve been moving from a scarcity-dominated material economy to an abundance-dominated information economy, our economic paradigm has not kept up (if it ever made sense). It’s hard to think about what is an individual to do morally in that situation? Read Marshall Brain’s online book “Manna” for some more ideas on this trend.

      I think the ready answer is a “basic income” right now, but I also don’t think we’ll see that anytime soon.

      And we won’t here much about it for the reasons you suggest and also in Noam Chomsky’s “What makes the mainstream media mainstream” essay.

      Still, and I say this as a pessimist all-too-often, pessimism can have a corrosive effect on our lives… Even if it is often logically justified… Also, as with any change, it is going to be those most at the edges in various ways who get hit hardest first, before things spread (look at all the young lawyers now, deep in debt and no jobs). If you don’t have much debt, at least you can count that as a blessing. Skills and health and experience remain big assets.

      Google on Howard Zinn’s “The Optimism of Uncertainty” on how we are continually surprised by sudden changes in society. So, there is always reason for hope.

      A book I’ve found helpful to either be less pessimistic or to at least accept the value on worth of dark times is by Thomas Moore (beyond my also getting extra vitamin D, eating way more vegetables and fruits and beans following Dr. Fuhrman’s approach a lot, and often using the internet on a treadmill workstation):
      “Dark Nights of the Soul: A Guide to Finding Your Way Through Life’s Ordeals”
      “Thomas Moore is one of the profound spiritual writers of our time. In Dark Nights of the Soul, he delves into the mystery of human suffering. This book really tells it like it is. We’ve all been discouraged by neat, tidy self-help dogmatism and Moore refuses to succumb to the commercialism of simplistic, superficial, and subjective solutions.”

      Hang in there. There is always the chance things might look up. 🙂

      You have ideas there about society. How about turning them into some sort of game? Board game? Card game? Smart phone game? Java applet? JavaScript site with advertising? That’s what I’ve been thinking about (but so little time). If you have “free time” use it for as long as you can to do good.

      One good thing about the current state of the IT economy is kind of like it is working for the individual go getter (sometimes) and the huge company (Google, IBM), but mid-sized business is struggling in the middle. As a tech-savvy individual, you have a lot of options. Just try to put together something you can do in a week, maybe a game about these sorts of ideas as a web site.

      I’m looking at the Apache Project’s CouchDB at the moment as some innovative technology, inspired by Max Ogden’s use of it in open government. That seems like a happening area, and I like it because (well I did some similar stuff years ago, but there stuff has traction… 🙂 it an architecture for things that can be arbitrarily distributed and replicated, so it is not just about centralization as an architecture. Something like the ideas in CouchDB is about, to me, a better mix of meshwork and hierarchy appropriate to specific situations (like Manuel De Landa talks about in his essay “Meshworks, Hierarchies, and Interfaces”. Max Ogden has a picture somewhere of the idea of a brain and keeping data local when you want it. Apache’s Hadoop is related to this theme too, but more at the enterprise level. Anyway, those sorts of things are hot technologies now, and no that hard to get started in. Of course, a few tech types may benefit from it, but overall it will be highly disruptive to the industry to adopt those sorts of things like CouchDB… So, you might get in on something, but ultimately, that tech will prosper because it “saves” a lot of labor (meaning it makes some things easier and destroys jobs assuming limited demand).

  4. Watson’s immediate use is to reduce the need for medical jobs? From:
    “For example, a doctor treating a patient could use Watson’s analytics technology, in conjunction with Nuance’s voice and clinical language understanding software, to rapidly consider all the related texts, reference materials, prior cases, and latest knowledge in journals and medical literature. This could help medical professionals confidently determine the best options for diagnosis and treatment.”

    A good thing, IMHO (although much illness can be resolved by better diet high in vegetables and fruits and with extra vitamin D). But we need to rethink aspects of our economy to adjust to this in an economically healthy way, like with a basic income, a gift economy, better democratic planning, and improved local subsistence… Where does this leave people just coming out of medical school with a lot of debt?

    Radiologists are another group of medical workers under stress both from offshoring and image processing technology…

    Now, the need for doctors including radiologists may not go away any time immediately, but the point is that fewer can do more work… That puts downward pressure on salaries and working conditions…

    The article also says: “Last week, Intermountain Healthcare opened a 10,000-square-foot informatics research center supported by two data centers. Intermountain’s Homer Warner Center for Informatics Research staffs 65 physicians and PhDs charged with providing decision support functions to clinicians, as well as provide input on the best possible care options.”

    Combine off-shoring wage differentials with Watson and imagine what a team of fully-accredited and experienced doctors in India could do with one or a few of these things, to provide global tele-medicine services at low cost directly to lots of people in the USA, maybe using web cams and remote medical kits (stuff like the US military has been developing for battlefield use).

    What is Watson going to do to the law profession, next, considering new lawyers can’t get jobs?

    And yet, there is not yet much organized discussion on this by the mainstream, as “Winston” suggested above.

    Still, even with Watson, I think there is a lot that just plain old web technology can do to structure discussions about medical information in a better way. These things will all interact though. Imagine Watson (or Google) datamining Healthboards or similar services…

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