This website is no longer actively maintained
Some material and features may be unavailable

The Daily Need

From Watson to Siri: As machines replace humans, are they creating inequality too?

In the run-up to the 20th century, the industrial revolution saw the migration of jobs to the factories from the fields. Technology created new industries, opened up new possibilities for entrepreneurs and innovators, introduced new conveniences into the American household and raised the quality of life for vast numbers of working and middle class families. But the transition was not without strife: The share of Americans working on farms was cut in half from 1800 to 1900, and in the early, rockier days of the industrial revolution, pioneers and financiers wielded a tight grip over their profits, accumulating more wealth in fewer hands than at any other time in American history. The wealth disparity led to labor riots, violence against immigrants and widespread populist anger that engulfed cities throughout the country.

Now, in the infancy of the 21st century, a new revolution is reshaping the American economy, what we might call the “A.I. revolution.” New technologies fueled by advances in artificial intelligence are, once again, forging new industries, giving rise to a new brand of entrepreneur and introducing a new digital age that is transforming the way we learn, think, work and interact with one another. And, just like the last industrial revolution, this one has coincided with a period of considerable economic turmoil, a widening wealth gap and a scarcity of opportunity for working and middle-class Americans. Eventually, of course, the first industrial revolution opened up new sources of wealth and opportunity that were accessible to Americans of all socio-economic classes. But this revolution, the A.I. revolution, might not be as kind.

A new e-book published Monday by two researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology argues that the rising tide of digital innovation may not lift all boats. The researchers, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, argue in their book, “Race Against the Machine,” that the artificial intelligence boom has created machines that will replace humans in service industries that have traditionally been considered cornerstones of our economy. Equipped with new capabilities, such as the capacity for natural language, these machines will begin to displace human beings in core economic sectors, such as sales. And it’s unclear what will happen to those displaced workers once they’ve lost their jobs to machines that can do the work of several humans at a much lower cost.

“It may seem paradoxical that faster progress can hurt wages and jobs for millions of people, but we argue that’s what’s been happening,” Brynjolfsson and McAfee write. “Computers are now doing many things that used to be the domain of people only. The pace and scale of this encroachment into human skills is relatively recent and has profound economic implications. Perhaps the most important of these is that while digital progress grows the overall economic pie, it can do so while leaving some people, or even a lot of them, worse off.”

The authors conclude that we are not in the middle of a Great Recession, as many observers have claimed, but a Great Restructuring, in which white-collar jobs considered for decades to be the backbone of our economy — such as marketing, retail and sales — are being re-distributed to machines that can do them just as well. What’s especially threatening about this new restructuring is that, unlike the industrial revolution of the early 20th century, it’s less clear what the next step is for the American worker. Although there were decades of labor strife and unequal wealth distribution when factories began replacing farms as the engines of job creation, the industrial revolution ultimately added jobs to the economy. This current restructuring, however, has so far mostly subtracted jobs and stagnated wages, all while allowing the corporations that control the new technologies to continue maximizing profits. (The Great Restructuring has added mountains of new wealth to the top tiers of American earners while stalling income growth for the working and middle classes. The 400 richest Americans, for example, have as much wealth as the bottom 50 percent of Americans combined.)

The theory of the Great Restructuring is based in large part on the notion that advances in technology are not only growing, but that their growth is accelerating (the futurist Ray Kurzweil famously popularized the term “the singularity” the describe the tipping point at which this acceleration would become unpredictable to humans). Watson, the Jeopardy-playing IBM computer, and Siri, Apple’s new personal assistant software, are the most recent examples of this accelerating growth. Just a few years ago, one of the most fundamental and perplexing challenges in computing circles was designing a machine that could understand natural language. The capacity to process language as uttered by humans was considered to be a perhaps impenetrable barrier for computer engineers. In the span of just four years, however, IBM designed a computer that could process natural-language questions and, almost instantaneously, provide answers. That technology is now being tested in even the most advanced sectors of the economy, such as health care, were Watson is being used to determine medical diagnoses based on patients’ symptoms provided by doctors.

And where Watson focuses on one aspect of artificial intelligence, natural language processing, Siri employs another: voice recognition. The new technology has the potential to fundamentally transform everyday business transactions. For one thing, corporate back-office operations might be easily replaced by software that is nearly indistinguishable from human beings in how it understands and responses to requests. Rick Bookstaber, a financial author and Treasury Department official, wrote recently that Siri might even pass what’s known in computing circles as the “Turing Test,” a theoretical test of whether a machine is capable of exhibiting intelligent behavior. “If a Turing Test is fashioned to distinguish a computer from a person in the day-to-day tasks of working with a personal assistant,” Bookstaber wrote, “it is only a matter of time before the iPhone becomes indistinguishable from the human.”

While most experts agree that rapid technological advances are fundamentally reshaping our culture, not everyone fears the “singularity,” or the point of no return — the moment, according to futurists, at which artificial intelligence will surpass human intelligence, making the consequences of future technological advances unpredictable. Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, wrote in an article for Technology Review over the weekend that the intricacy and complexity of the human mind, while theoretically quantifiable, only reveals more mysteries as scientists probe deeper, and that mimicking this complexity in robots will be nearly impossible for the foreseeable future. “The closer we look at the brain, the greater the degree of neural variation we find,” Allen and co-author Mark Greaves wrote. “Understanding the neural structure of the human brain is getting harder as we learn more. Put another way, the more we learn, the more we realize there is to know, and the more we have to go back and revise our earlier understandings.”

So, what does this mean for our jobs? Simply put, it means there are still things about the human brain that are unknowable even to us, and certainly to machines. This may not be an obvious economic advantage, but it reveals something about the divide between human and artificial intelligence. Computers will not be able to mimic humans any time soon, which means we’re unlikely to be wholly replaced any time soon.

Nonetheless, machines employing natural language processors, voice recognition software and other tools of artificial intelligence are proliferating, just as textile mills and, later, assembly lines proliferated and fundamentally altered the American economy in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Then, American workers won the race against machines by using advances in technology to usher in a new era of consumerism and mass production. This time, Brynjolfsson and McAfee argue, we must learn to co-exist with machines, rather than race against them. “We can’t win that race, especially as computers continue to become more powerful and capable,” they write. “But we can learn to better race with machines, using them as allies rather than adversaries.”

  • thumb
    The admission arms race
    From ProPublica, an in-depth look at the ways in which colleges can pump up their stats.
  • thumb
    Home-grown terrorism
    The story of the Boston bombers is still unfolding at high speed, but counterterror officials believe the brothers were Islamic extremists.
  • thumb
    Boston reading guide
    Need to play catch up? Here's a full list of resources for more on what's going on in Boston.


  • MarieColette

    I keep hearing that when computers become smarter then humans, that’s when the tipping point is reached? huh? my computer is absolutely smarter then me…….I mean, c’mon now. 

  • Joseph Wolf

    There still needs to be “consuming class” to buy all these goods and services.  If the New Overclass is as smart as they claim to be they’ll wake up to this and realize they *need* a stable, not-angry middle class and do what is needed – more public service jobs, etc. – to make that happen.

  • Mark

    As someone who has worked in AI, particularly NLP (Natural Language Processing and Generation), for many years, I’d like to add that computers can more easily handle highly technical and thus circumscribed language much more easily than everyday chatter. I have built a number of EMR (Electronic Medical Records) tools that used natural language and they are vastly easier then say talking about the weather or a baseball game or even day-to-day business. This means, that an expert system would probably have to be built for each field. I don’t think that a robot, for example, an android, if you like, would be able to handle the job of waiting or cooking in a restaurant.

  • drakvl

    Come now.  Computers aren’t smarter than humans; at best, they’re idiot savants.

  • Mohan Embar

    > “it is only a matter of time before the iPhone becomes
    > indistinguishable from the human.”

    As a chatbot writer and two-time Loebner Prize Contest qualifier, I can vouch for the senselessness and ludicrousness of such statements.

    My stock response to this kind of nonsense is here:

    Search for “one final closing observation”.

  • Joe Blow

    One only need look at the recent experiment where two customer service chat-bots were connected together and allowed to “converse” ( to realize how little we have to worry about “robots” taking over anytime soon.  As both a mechanical engineer and a computer scientist, I can tell you that just keeping the electricity on for any such feared future nemeses (plural) is going to be a much bigger challenge (and, therefore, a vulnerability for them) than the computing issues.

  • Anonymous

    The human brain is still by far the most complex entity that we know of in the universe.  The human eye is still the best method for drawing a best fit line, or solving complex equations inundated with partial differential equations.

    Computers compute great, but humans live.  A Turing test may find a comparison between the two, but the result of the test is narrow, just as an SAT exam doesn’t accurately test the skills of people who have not been trained to do well on it.

  • Gregory D. MELLOTT

    The most straight forward way that I can see to keep order in a economy with machine able to execute duties that humans would normally do as a job is to have the people be the only economic source of material resources ‘funds’ introduced into the system form taxes upon material resources operating in the system.  That way the focus of the economy is to serve and economically benefit the people they need to receive recourse funds from to be economically viable.  One may potentially extend this idea in some refined way to natural resources needing to be similarly maintained and respected.  Likely though, that would also require oversight input by people to verify how properly that endeavor is being carried out.
      With people being freed from more mundane tasks they could more readily focus there energies on keeping things in proper order and balance more generally throughout the area they are living in.  Nothing will still be working perfectly.  But more possibilities may exist for more precisely addressing matters running into trouble.
    My leaning on energy in the future is that there are abundant amounts of deep geothermal energy in the earth.  In some places it is even coming out and generating dangerous impacts on the surface.  In the end there may even be enough for man to launch large amounts of rare material into deeper space before the sun consumes it some billions of years from now.

  • Oberon

    So…what you’re saying is that the majority of people in the future will be working as waiters and cooks serving food to programmers and engineers.  That sounds encouraging.

  • George Glasser

    Actually, the tipping point has been reached. At my grocery store, they replaced nine cashiers with ten automated checkouts and one person to help people like me. More and more, service workers are displaced everyday by machines.

    Much of call center jobs will be automated by 2015 along with upwards to 50% of the cocky investment bankers who will be replaced with algorithmic programs.When you hear people in the AI industry talk about “humans,” they’re suggesting that parents start teaching their children to be complacent and accept the fact that most will simply be warehoused in comfortable surrounds, and ‘of course, there will be jobs around such as personal shoppers, aroma therapists, etc. offered by the ultra-rich who own all the machines.”Of course, there will will always be the people who don’t fit into the new social order, but they have always been around – you can see them living it the ghettos and slums today. They are social malcontents - the fringe element who will never conform.”Also, if people have a problem with having nothing to do, there is always the availability of cheap prescription drugs, and rather than have unhappy people in the midst of the new society, just feed them all the drugs they want.’This is the future algorithmic mathematicians developing AI see for everyone – I just love those guys’ attitude, but unfortunately, their vision of the future is happening as we speak, and according to them, we just need to resign ourselves to our fate because mathematicians will rule the world and put everything is perfect mathematical order.

  • Ryandoe11

    As of now, the computers are always expanding and will achieve higher excellence than human minds.

  • Anonymous

    The interesting aspect of all this is the way people emulate
    computers. Information being respected and trusted more than thought,
    conversations and meetings becoming exchanges of data and quotes,
    relationships managed through Internet avatars – life being played out
    behind the safety of puppets. Until iRex can be a good parent, childcare
    worker, salesperson, artist, friend, and feed the dog it is welcome in
    my world as a tool to enhance thinking but not usurp it.

  • roger compton

    machines are reading the micro chip in our pets, how long before they are reading the micro chip in we the people?   ( 666 )

  • Dennis Sweitzer

    Or else the waiters and cooks will be programmers and engineers who have been displaced by AI systems that are highly specialized for those highly technical skills.

  • Anonymous

    I disagree.  While the future in computing is without a doubt going to be exhilarating, and computers will be developed to pursue currently unimaginable tasks, I don’t see how they will encompass the plasticity of an organic mind.  We constantly parse and shift importance, not because of a command line, but because of surrounding environmental changes.  Computers may indeed be programmed to navigate that feature as well, but will it be automatically correcting?  Your memories are located somewhere in-between neurons, in the synapses.  Your moral code is in constant flux, often battling paradoxes and inconsistencies. 

    Unless they invent self-correcting, self-replicating, highly-plastic, empathic and compassionate machines, the human brain is by far still king of a transient world where materials deteriorate.  When Siri or Watson can get hit by a car, and lose half functionality, and train itself to resume functionality by internal re-wiring, only then are we perhaps on par.

  • John Ross

    The corporate drive to create a workforce of intelligent but completely obedient robots shows what they want, and cannot get, from flesh-and-blood human employees. But if they replace us and we have no jobs, who will buy the products, the robots (?!)

  • Anonymous

    Did the automobile  tank the economy because farriers lost employment? We won’t lose jobs if we MAKE the robots.

  • Gregory D. MELLOTT

    Perhaps I wold be wise to add some clarity in the realm just how humans and other intelligent creatures might interact with wisely serving machines.  Reality is the top most dominating factor in the whole ‘equation’ if you will.  Machines can help us make wiser decisons at times, there has to be records of similar situations, or a well defined calculatable environment for it to do so though.  Beyond that, where natural intelligence and its artificial supporter system(s) fail; then there needs to be entities determining that something is not working properly.  A crude example may be a robot inappropriated maintaining grand-ma’s flower garden.  Should this not be somewhat rectifiable quickly ; it is not impossible that she may find the old shotgun has a new use…  Anyway, you get the idea….

  • Anonymous

    - The real question is, how can humans actually co-exist with AI as co-working allies/assets unless specifically human traits and skills /are/ valued systemically, as belonging to more than just minimum-wage or elite/’boutique’ niches?  If the overall emphasis is not on preserving and improving actual human quality of life, then machines are indeed the enemies, because they serve (unthinkingly & unquestioningly) an amorally profit-seeking executive-&-shareholder class.       

  • John R. Largent

    Buddy, There will be robots making the robots. You are on the breadline.

  • John R. Largent

    Roger, You can believe that within a generation or two, laws will be  passed that all human babies will be implanted with some time of microchip which will follow you wherever you go. 

  • sample papers | essay examples

    I don’t think that computers and machines will ever replace humans. They may only complement human functions. 

  • sample papers | essay examples

    I don’t think that computers and machines will ever replace humans. They may only complement human functions. 

  • Isaiahcampbell123

    I personally feel as though this is a waste of time to many people in many ways . Computers and machines can never replace humans and never are capable to do the things a human can . Even though computers and machines are invented to be very smart and bright they still cant work as well physically as we can . They are creating inequality as well because they are making some people feel as though they are not good enough to complete their own jobs but instead a machine or computer can . In this time period many computers and machines are known and capable to do many things so they will have some achievement while replacing humans in some cases.

  • Sfethon

    Biological machinery (humans/mammals) will invariably be replaced by Artificial intelligent machinery. Normal natural Darwinian selective pressures will ensure this. 

    Every mammal has its time.A changing environment is always the catalyst for the demise of that mammal, humans (great apes with grey matter at the front of our brains) included.

  • Key

    I think that yes the world is moving fast in technology but we cant forget the basic things like reading and writing.

  • maga

    computers are already replacing people in a lot of can find much information on this topic.

  • indipendentdream

    I share the concern and I’m a computer scientist. Machines are clearly needed in some task which are impossible (or dangerous) for humans, so it’s not the technology itself that should be opposed. But I’m afraid that many companies and employers will prefer to use automated machines whenever possible to optimise production and reduce costs.
    This could happen too fast, and society will not have the time to “reconfigure” itself, and all power and wealth will concentrate in a small percentage of people. It’s a potential dystopia.
    I’ve always acknowledged that technological progress is beneficial only when accompanied by cultural progress. You can’t give technology in the hands of greedy and narcissistic people.

  • Salvation Tube

    “War of two Worlds” has begun are you ready?

  • Salvation Tube

    China ;)