Machine Learning: A job killer?

VentureBeat reports that Clover, a startup company in Mountain View, CA, has received $5.5 million of funding to focus on machine learning technology. Machine learning is still in its infancy, but it has the potential to be a disruptive technology as it progresses.

Machine learning is one of the primary technologies that powers IBM’s Watson computer. Watson was able to achieve championship-level proficiency at Jeopardy! by analyzing thousands of previous Jeopardy! questions. One of the things I’ve tried to point out here, and also in my book The Lights in the Tunnel, is that any jobs that are routine and repetitive in nature—regardless of the skill and education required to perform the job—are going to be increasingly susceptible to automation. Now, most people would probably not characterize playing Jeopardy! at a championship level as a “routine and repetitive” activity. Yet, a machine was able to prevail.

Machine learning essentially allows a computer to analyze past situations (together with outcomes) and develop optimal, statistical-based rules that can be applied in the future.  In other words, machine learning is basically a way to take a seemingly non-routine task or job and turn it into something that can be handled by a computer.

Here’s why that’s important: in today’s business world nearly everything gets recorded. This often shows up as a privacy issue: web surfers and shoppers are disturbed to learn that their activities and preferences are recorded and used for profit. What receives less attention is the fact that everything happening internal to organizations is also probably being recorded.

All transactions are, of course, recorded. Customer interactions (sales, support, service), together with their ultimate resolution are recorded. Emails get recorded. Many tasks and decisions, together with outcomes, made by knowledge workers are likely recorded.

I would argue that all that data is probably the equivalent of the sample Jeopardy! questions that Watson used to analyze and become proficient. In other words, in large organizations there is an enormous amount of data (activities coupled with outcomes) that is waiting for a machine learning algorithm to come along and churn though it.  That may ultimately result in software automation applications of unprecedented sophistication. Anyone who sits in a cubicle performing a knowledge-based job may have cause for concern.

35 thoughts on “Machine Learning: A job killer?

  1. It’s more than office workers that will lose jobs. I don’t believe that Ballroom Dance Instructor jobs are safe. Many people don’t realize that top competitors spent a very large amount of time in constant repetition, without a partner..
    A significant physical couple connection really a small part of dancing.

    Now to the subject of machine learning. Hook up a 4th generation Microsoft Kinect to a learning enabled computer system and get personal feedback on your dancing.

    I think we’re all replaceable. (owch)

    blong206b on YouTube

  2. ‘Machine learning is still in its infancy’

    …and has been since von Neumann, right?

    Machine learning has been old news for decades. Where have you been?

  3. I agree. It is inevitable that humans and computers will collaborate to make high-level business decisions. Personally, I think this will improve the work place. I would rather my performance be evaluated by objective AI than by a human manager whose agenda is questionable.

    Most “knowledge-based” workers will be displaced. Or their jobs will be so gutted that they won’t require years of specialized training. I suspect “bleeding edge” tech jobs will be around for a while though. People will likely require retraining, but they won’t attend universities. AI will take over that role as well for a fraction of the cost. The flip side of this is that every person will have access to inexpensive high-quality professional services.

    As Moore’s Law spreads throughout the economy, there will be deflationary pressure: the *real* cost of goods and services will fall through the floor. Perhaps as it becomes easier to afford any need or want, people will spend less time working and more time enjoying life. It wouldn’t surprise me if by 2030, most people were on a 20-30 hour work week, with AI picking up the slack.

    1. Yeah, you’re right, machine learning is still in its infancy whereas human learning is on its top (that means it will not be much better in the future). Despite of this,
      Watson won jeopardy 🙂
      Machines are improving exponentially. Is your learning ability doubling every two years?

  4. The automation saturation will occur when all tasks can be accomplished by machine. This will occur. Everything from trash collection to brain surgery will be performed by machine and humans better figure out a better method of government to arrange for this forthcoming event… or we could just allow the machines to figure that out as well.

  5. I have recently ordered Mr. Ford’s book, so won’t comment here at length for fear of restating what may be obvious to his readers. I think the last paragraph of E’s comment is spot on, and we need, then to figure out how to make that result institutionally possible, say, by REDUCING the Social Security age instead of increasing it and – here’s the hard one – restoring a norm of one earner per family. More after I’ve read about the light in the tunnel.

  6. If Watson cost IBM $25 million and the price drops by 50% every year, and computer processing power increases by **a Factor of 30** within the next decade, then by the time the year 2022 rolls around a machine like IBM’s ‘Watson’ that just beat 2 human competitors on Jeopardy! will cost all of $25,000 dollars for a company like Wal-Mart to buy.

    Or less.

    And the price is going to halve each passing year, and every 2 years computer processing power is going exponentially double.

    Given the choice to invest in a frail, unreliable, human worker, or one of these machines, where do you think that Wal-Mart, and every other major company that can afford it, is going to put their money?

    Here’s the thing of it, the Creators of these systems are well aware of what is coming, and are planning accordingly, whereas the vast majority of those that will be adversely impacted in the Job Market have no idea of what is about to happen, and as such are making exactly *zero* plans for this fast approaching future.

  7. Looking at the big picture, it’s even more ominous! The primary and secondary sectors of the economy are mechanizing, automating and robotizing with zeal. Just look at the double digit profits of high tech companies during the Great Recession and our current recovery. As these sectors of the economy continues to layoff worker the service sector will begin to run out of money and capital will concentrate in the primary and secondary industries. Wait! Isn’t that happening right now?

  8. It’s certainly a bleak picture if you believe that labor is necessary and that big corporations will always survive. And it is certainly going to get pretty bad before the secondary effects of automation begin eliminating the hardships that their primary effects will cause.

    But those secondary effects will inevitably lead to the collapse of the corporate system and improve the living conditions for everyone. The question is how long it will be from the short term effects beginning and the much longer term effects that will mitigate the short term effects beginning to kick in.

    I discuss this more fully here:

  9. Fascinating post and comments. I’m also reading the ‘Lights of the tunnel’, and as a recent graduate that is just starting a professional career I can’t stop thinking how to plan for this. Thanks for helping me figuring that out.


  11. There won’t be any real reduction in the number of jobs available! All that will happen will be a shift from certain domains to other domains! Much of the confusion and fears are due to a very superficial education in IT-related fields, especially a lack of understanding of how computers work – few people are aware that computers only know abot 1 and 0, how the computing power is related to human thinking – it isn’t at all, what artificial intelligence is and whether it really exists or not – it doesn’t exist, it’s just a fancy term for algorithms.

  12. Nice article! Intriguing topic!
    Laying off people because of automation has been going on since the Industrial Revolution, and is increasing ever since. Keeping the people employed when there are machines that do the job more efficiently is moronic (sorry to all the unions) and would stop progress(won’t happen anyway). I think the way layoffs are implemented and the inability of the people to change their profession is causing misery.
    Hence, I believe that the best future would be the one which implements radical changes in the human value system (like in the documentary Zeitgeist). Where they state that the monetary system is flawed but no change(for the better) is in sight!
    However I was pleasantly surprised to see the book “Lights in the tunnel” is given away the way it is! For a price that is set by the reader! I am poor student struggling with my overdrafts so I got it for free! But I will NOT forget Martin Ford when I get a job!

  13. Very interesting article. I’ve seen a lot of companies trying to implement machine learning technology in recent years, however, nobody seems to do it as good as companies like AlphaPoint Technology, a US-based software company implementing data center solutions.

    – Phil

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