Friday, May 20, 2011

Even Ken Jennings Can Be Replaced By a Machine

In my last column, I touched on automation as a reason for improved workplace safety.  Perhaps we should revisit automation as a job killer.  This is not new.  The most famous automation story is the Luddite Revolt of 1811 when English weavers set about to destroy newly-invented looms run by Jacquard’s punched card system.

Eli Whitney introduced the cotton gin in 1794.  Whereas Jacquard’s machine replaced highly-skilled workers, Whitney’s machine replaced unskilled labor.  And further, the cotton ginning machine did more to guarantee consistent quality than increase production.  Hence, there was no revolt in America’s cotton belt.

Automation, nevertheless, continues its march.  We accept it because it works.

When I visited the T. L. Smith factory in Milwaukee in the late 1970s, I expected to see machinists standing at their lathes turning out parts for Telsmith rock crushers.  I always admired machinists and their ability to hone steel.  But on that day in Milwaukee, the machinists were sitting in lawn chairs, reading the paper and drinking coffee.  The machine tools were made by Cincinnati Milacron and, like Jacquard’s loom, were operated by a punched tape drive.

Fixed machines performing repetitive tasks are the easiest machines to automate.  Machines that move in space and time present much more of a challenge.  But the advent of global positioning satellites has made that task less difficult.

In the last few years, highway contractors have been fitting bulldozers with GPS receivers and computers.  The highway construction plans are digitized in three dimensions and loaded into the onboard computer.  The GPS controls tell the computer where the bulldozer is on the X and Y axes.  A laser reference light provides the elevation reference (Z axis).

Studies indicate that computer-controlled bulldozers are up to 50% more efficient and use some 40% less fuel than their human-operated peers.  The savings are obvious.  Two bulldozers do the work of three; each bulldozer uses 30 gallons less fuel per shift.

Companies like Caterpillar are now designing bulldozers that will be totally operated by other machines.   The bulldozer of the future won’t require an OSHA-approved, rollover-proof, soundproofed and air-conditioned operators cab.

The automated bulldozer always knows where it is in space, and it does not rely on a survey crew to set grade stakes as reminders.  So the need of the surveyor has diminished.  But surveying work has already diminished for another reason—the work of a four-man survey crew 30 years ago is now done by one man with an electronic instrument.

Machinists.  Bulldozer operators.  Surveyors.  These are just three good-paying occupations that have to compete with machines.

We have the technology to replace air traffic controllers.  Unfortunately, we will tolerate sleeping Luddites until an air disaster forces our government to have the will to do so.

When Boeing and Airbus began designing aircraft with seats for two pilots, a joke circulated around the industry.  It went: The new planes are so sophisticated that the cockpit only needs two seats—one for the pilot and one for a dog.  The pilot’s job is to feed the dog.  The dog’s job is to bite the pilot if he reaches for the controls.

We’ll never see this happen because we think all pilots are like “Sully” Sullenberger.  But the point of the joke remains.

Now that human medical scans are digitized, why do we need a radiologist to read the image?  We don’t.  The computer can read the image as soon as it is taken.  The computer can see pixels that the human eye cannot.

Is there a limit to replacing humans with machines?

In February, the game show Jeopardy staged a contest pitting an IBM computer vs. the two biggest Jeopardy winners on record.  The computer won.


Many faithful fans derided the computer as having an unfair edge—it could beep the beeper faster than a human.  Well, so what?

Others derided the computer by saying that Jeopardy was essentially a memory test, and that a computer could memorize everything in print.  Well, so what?

Jeopardy is a trivia test, not a simple memory exam.   Remembering trivial facts is a very human pursuit.  Programmed by humans to win a human game show, the computer displayed a degree of human intuition.

Is this not the same underlying concept as programming the Jacquard loom’s punched cards to weave patterns that are pleasing to the eye?

Machines will only become smarter.  Machines will take away more human occupations.  So what will humans of the future do for work?

John Henry (and Ken Jennings), we feel your pain.