The movie “The Imitation Game” is playing everywhere. It is mainly about the story that the great British mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing cracked the Enigma code during World War II. The movie title actually comes from Turing’s seminal paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” on artificial intelligence after World War II (1950 to be exact).
In the paper, Turing considers the question “Can machines think?” Because the words “think” and “machine” cannot be defined in a clear way that satisfies everyone, Turing replaces the question by another closely related problem in terms of the imitation game. The game is played with three people, a man (A), a woman (B), and an interrogator (C) who may be of either sex. The interrogator is unable to see either player A or player B (and knows them only as X and Y), and can communicate with them only through written notes or any other form that does not give away any details about their gender. By asking questions of player A and player B, player C tries to determine which of the two is the man and which is the woman. Player A’s role is to trick the interrogator into making the wrong decision, while player B attempts to assist the interrogator in making the right one.
Furthermore, Turing asks “What will happen when a machine takes the part of A in this game?” Will the interrogator decide wrongly as often when the game is played like this as he does when the game is played between a man and a woman?
Turing believes that in about fifty years’ time it will be possible, to programme computers, with a storage capacity of about 109, to make them play the imitation game so well that an average interrogator will not have more than 70 percent chance of making the right identification after five minutes of questioning.
Of course, today’s computers have way more computing capacity than Turing expected and the advancements of AI bring great cognitive capacity to machines. For example, IBM showed us twice how smart computers are. First, Deep Blue defeated the chess world champion Kasparov in 1997. Then Watson won Jeopardy! over Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, two of the most successful contestants on the show, in 2011.
While we are celebrating the great achievements of science and technology, some people are worried. After the competition with Watson, Jennings later wrote an article for Slate, in which he stated “Just as factory jobs were eliminated in the 20th century by new assembly-line robots, Brad and I were the first knowledge-industry workers put out of work by the new generation of ‘thinking’ machines. ‘Quiz show contestant’ may be the first job made redundant by Watson, but I’m sure it won’t be the last.”
Indeed, most of us should be worried for our jobs! We all know that machines are faster, cheaper and more consistent than humans for many tasks. Throughout history, machines have been replacing human for many jobs. With machines, for example, a very small number of farmers can provide sufficient foods for us. However, it is different this time. During industry revolution, factory work created more than enough jobs to offset those lost in agriculture. Yes, we have created a lot of jobs around computers. There are millions of programmers who bring handsome money home. However, can the computer industry really offset the jobs lost to computers? Considering USPS, the first class mail volume has decreased significantly because of the wide use of Internet and emails.
Consequently, the number of USPS employees is falling like a stone!
More and more jobs will disappear with the acceleration of technology. Two days ago, Audi showed off their driverless car in the 2015 CES. When driverless cars become the standard, what will millions of taxi drivers and truck drivers got to do? Similarly, Lowe’s is testing robotic shopping assistants. There are a lot of examples like these. We are probably at the pivotal point into a new age.
Besides, it is affecting almost everyone, not only physical labor but also cognitive labor. Traditionally, we believe that jobs requiring less intelligence are under pressure from automation. But actually high end jobs are also under pressure from automation (maybe even bigger due to higher human capital cost). And it already happened in some area. For example, Wall Street’s traders are being displaced by machines as banks cut costs and heed new regulations. About 10 years ago, Mr. Blankfein, the current CEO of Goldman Sachs, expected that Goldman would have more than 60,000 employees by now. But the company has only about 33,000 employees today, partly because computers displaced thousands of traders.
A realistic question to many of us is how to stay in the game without being displaced by a machine? Apparently, we have to develop the skills that computers are unlikely to be able to be a substitute for. This will be a tough and ever-going effort as we have been frequently surprised by the quickly growing capability of computers. Ten years ago, who did expect that driverless cars be so close to us in short time as they are now?!
Many people believe that creativity is a weak spot of computers and thus we should find jobs that require creative thinking. Although we all have some creativity on something, creativity is not universal and thus is highly valued in our society. Can we improve our creativity at work in a general approach? Like by education? Well, schools have been indeed pretty good at killing creativity so far.
Emotional intelligence is another weak spot of machines. And interestingly, people with higher EQ seem more likely to survive in this machine age. A robot may be able to flawlessly do a health care job. But can it provide the much needed empathy, encourage, and other emotional supports to patients? In order not to be displaced by machines, the best way is not to be a better machine: calculate faster, remember more information, or recognize patterns more accurately. We will lose all these to machines. Instead, just be a human with good social skills, which can be learned more easily than creativity. We are what we are because of humanness, not because of physical strength or calculation speed. Recall that Lowe’s is testing robotic shopping assistants. Watch the below funny video. A shopping assistant is actually much harder to be displaced by a computer than an equity trader!