The rise of the machines

Anthony Caruana
15 May, 2018
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As I write this, I’m sitting in a noisy press room at a conference in Las Vegas, talking about software automation and looking at how mundane tasks can be taken out of our work so that we can engage in more fulfilling and valuable activities.

A couple of days ago, Google demonstrated a new artificial intelligence capability that allows software to interpret a request you make, like the need for a haircut, to find local providers and call them to make an appointment. That’s not just looking up a website and filling in a form – Google’s software made an actual phone call and spoke with a person, even throwing in a few ums and ahs for extra authenticity, to make an appointment with a human operator at the other end of the call.

When I look at my calendar, Siri finds itineraries for flights and automatically adds the details to my schedule.

All around us, repetitive and boring tasks are being replaced by software that can recognise patterns and follow instructions.

At one level, I look at this optimistically. The less time I spend on boring things, like making appointments to book my car in for a service, the more time I can spend on things like writing, exercising, spending time with family or self-education.

But I’m also concerned. In all revolutions, people are left behind. There are jobs that disappear and, while many are replaced by new jobs, not everyone can be retrained. And many things that we valued in the past are lost.

For example, my late uncle was not just a skilled trademan but, in times gone by he would have been called an artisan. He loved to hand craft beautiful objects and even when he repaired something he took special care it not only restore function but to make it look perfect.

That kind of attention is something that we don’t seem to value. Automation is great but it results in a homogenised world where the customisation of objects is less valued. And it results in skilled trades being devalued in favour of mass production.

Of course, that isn’t new. It’s been happening since the Industrial Revolution but the pace at which the change is happening now is far faster. And while that makes some things exciting and interesting, I’m not sure it’s all good.

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