Re-educating workers for a life of leisure was the Big Idea of the 1970s.
In the 70s, the Mighty Micro first caught the popular imagination. The microprocessor would automate work. Workers would be released from repetitious drudgery to lead cultured lives writing poetry, composing music and weaving baskets.
It didn’t happen. Or at least half of it didn’t happen. Mrs T, no advocate of a life of leisure, emerged and, instead of a happy contented population weaving baskets, the automation of large swathes of industry delivered a de-empowered workforce.
Unions were smashed. Generations were relegated to the dole without any training in poetry writing or basket weaving, and left to rot.
That was the hardware robotics revolution – and it’s still being pursued in some quarters.
In 1997 the founders of the RoboCup set this objective:
“By the middle of the 21st century, a team of fully autonomous humanoid robot soccer players shall win a soccer game, complying with the official rules of FIFA, against the winner of the most recent World Cup.”
But the mechanical robot is no longer the main event in the robotics revolution. Now comes a more insidious software-based robotics revolution and, this time, it’s not coming after the masses, it’s coming after you.
Algorithms are being written which can perform judgmental tasks. An example is a start-up company called Kensho which is developing an artificial intelligence system which can make financial consequential judgments from real-world events.
For instance: ‘If Vladimir Putin invades Ukraine, and Europe suffers an unusually cold snap, what will be the effect on the shares of Shell and BP?’
Currently these sorts of judgments are being made by human analysts. Kensho hopes to replace them with a Siri-style software robot which can be accessed in everyday English.
Kensho calls its product ‘Warren’ which might, or might not, be named after Warren Buffett.
If Warren works, then goodbye to the jobs of hundreds of thousands of financial analysts.
And not just financial jobs.
A 2011 study by the McKinsey Global Institute showed that 44% of firms which reduced their headcount since the financial crisis of 2008 had done it through automating those job functions.
While an Oxford University study last September by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne concluded that 47% of US jobs could be lost to automation.
Kensho says it has enough start-up money to last two years and currently employs a couple of dozen engineers.
The good news is that AI, like speech recognition, has been painfully slow to evolve.