Monday, February 1, 2016

Well-Educated Professionals and Automation

There is a smugness among some of our nation’s best-educated professionals: doctors, lawyers, financial analysts and advisors, professors, architects and engineers. They’re bright, particularly those who have graduated from the top universities with excellent academic performance. They may thing, “We are secure in our profession; automation is only a threat to the less-skilled segment of the labor force.” But are they? Unless you have been in prison for a long time or are simply media-deprived, or if you are a part of America that simply has adopted denial as a way of life, perhaps you have not actually be watching as those mega-educated experts are slowly being replaced by increasingly sophisticated computer-backed systems.
From “massive open online” classes and open universities, to limited access teaching through remote classrooms with star professors catering to much wider assemblies of student, to programmed learning with one-on-one instruction, we are watching the face of higher education, and even primary and secondary schooling, change dramatically. The notion of providing individual instruction tailored to each student without the need to hire millions of teachers among budget-impaired school districts is pushing education into the data-centric, interactive universe of computer-driven learning. As our computers get increasingly sophisticated, as our younger generations absorb the newest levels of mobile and fixed platform technologies, the shape and form of professional teaching will become less dependent on individual instructors and more focused on automated learning able to discern individual pace and abilities, reacting accordingly.
For those in medicine, computer-driven diagnostic tools are vastly more accurate than human-based evaluations, and medical technology is invading even the most sacrosanct aspects of medical care. With healthcare costs soaring, despite new socio-economic reforms, the need to rely less on expensive doctors and nurse practitioners and more on automated systems is an obvious reality in our future. Even beyond the outsourced (mostly to India) diagnostics, technology is increasingly built on systems that do not rely on human analysis or operations.
Robotic surgery, once thought of as a scary and unrealistic process, is now routine. To many, the steady hand required in micro-surgery, the precision of some of even our most basic surgeries, is better performed by doctor-supervised robots. For example, the da Vinci Surgical system (pictured above) has already been used in 3 million surgeries to date. As their Website states: “With the da Vinci Surgical System, surgeons operate through just a few small incisions. The da Vinci System features a magnified 3D high-definition vision system and tiny wristed instruments that bend and rotate far greater than the human hand. As a result, da Vinci enables your surgeon to operate with enhanced vision, precision and control.
“The da Vinci System represents the latest in surgical and robotics technologies. Your surgeon is 100% in control of the da Vinci System at all times. da Vinci technology translates your surgeon’s hand movements into smaller, precise movements of tiny instruments inside your body.” Even where complex surgeries require a specialized expert, the ability to conduct surgeries remotely (where the surgeon is on one place and a controlled semi-robotic operating system is in another, perhaps distant location) has expanded medical capacity without requiring more doctors in more location.
For those in the legal profession, we have already seen the steady drop in demand for lawyers. About half of all recent law school grads have not been able to find work in the legal fields, and law school applications are at an all-time low in modern experience. Increasingly, people are relying upon online forms and applications, complete with interactive features which simply eliminate the requirement of directly engaging a lawyer. Even big companies are using sophisticated tracking systems to contain the costs of those lawyers they do engage.
Increasingly, investors are finding automated investment advisors to be free of conflicts of interest and more reliable than their human counterparts. “Since the last major stock market plunge, back in 2008 and 2009, a new type of investment adviser has arrived on the scene.
“The robo-advisers, as they are commonly known, hold a lot of promise: They can potentially save investors from themselves in volatile markets by providing access to professionally managed portfolios of low-cost investments. They run on autopilot, cost just a fraction of traditional advisers’ fees and are typically available to people with small amounts to invest.
“But in most cases, investors won’t be assigned to a warm-blooded professional who will be on call should markets plummet, as they have done in attention-getting fashion for most of this year. Instead, customers may receive a video message via email from a well-seasoned adviser, imploring them not to panic, though they can also reach someone at the company via online chat or phone.
“The robo-advisers have quickly attracted a growing number of investors. They have also caught the attention of established financial players. Digitally driven investment providers were estimated to hold $53 billion at the end of 2015, according to the Aite Group.” With artificial intelligence accelerating in cyberspace, with access to vast pools of rapidly evolving financial information being instantly available, it is equally clear that the need for analysts in the future will plunge and a rather large segment of financial services will move to automated responses with better results. Think: Flash-trading, for a harsh example.
Engineers and architects face the “design, implement and monitor” capacity of systems based on super-fast computers with those self-learning characteristics inherent in artificial intelligence. “The Internet of things” is putting machines into direct communication with each other, often eliminating the need of a human intermediary. Nano-technology and the ability to aggregate the mistakes, problems and efficiencies of similarly-situated machines via the aggregation of their operating experience in an accessible cloud makes improving how complex machines work within a new, deeply automated and connected reality. Even testing is improved with increasingly-sophisticated computer simulations that have invaded every aspect of research and development, even in the bio-tech/pharmacological arenas.
You can see the polarizing impact of these macro-trends. For every job displaced by an automated system, the values created by that work now move to the machine that took over. Simply put, money is increasingly flowing to those who own the machines and away from those who work for a living. This social displacement, combined with shifting access to resources and the negative impacts of climate change, will challenge our most basic assumptions of compensation and the enabling political systems in which they operate. If these systems are not adjusted for this shift in how and where values are generated, the increasing level of polarization will eventually rip our existing socio-political systems to shreds. And trust me, the United States is anything but prepared for these changes.
I’m Peter Dekom, and failure to recognize these massive shifts and prepare for their impact accordingly will change the way each and every one of us lives… and not for the better.

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