Is the Automated Future Finally Here?

People have been talking for decades about a future where machines are able to do most of the work that humans did. Now two economists are publishing an argument that the future is almost here, and that we are reaching the point where the jobs computers wipe out will not be replaced by an equal number of new human jobs:

Faster, cheaper computers and increasingly clever software, the authors say, are giving machines capabilities that were once thought to be distinctively human, like understanding speech, translating from one language to another and recognizing patterns. So automation is rapidly moving beyond factories to jobs in call centers, marketing and sales — parts of the services sector, which provides most jobs in the economy.

During the last recession, the authors write, one in 12 people in sales lost their jobs, for example. And the downturn prompted many businesses to look harder at substituting technology for people, if possible. Since the end of the recession in June 2009, they note, corporate spending on equipment and software has increased by 26 percent, while payrolls have been flat.

As they note, the computer-driven truck is not that far away, and the success of HAL-like forms of A.I., like Watson and Siri, point toward a future where computers can replace humans at just about anything imaginable. Which is the future that science fiction and other popular culture has been predicting for a long time, and it always seemed a bit alarmist; but just because it was alarmist doesn’t mean it can never happen. There could be a point at which almost every business can do more with fewer people. Which in turn would turn all sorts of science fiction ideas into reality (though now that I think about it, science fiction usually seems a bit sanguine about what people will do in the future when computers have taken over; warnings about mass unemployment usually come from doomsday economists and such).

Well, as I said, people have been predicting this since the ’50s and even earlier. Movies like Desk Set were made to deal with our automation fears and to reassure us all that computers are our friends, contributing to a never-ending economic boom. And if computers got out of hand, there was always Captain Kirk to talk them to death and show us that they didn’t know what it is to feel, to love. Still, just because dystopia didn’t happen isn’t proof that it will never happen.