Sunday, May 03, 2015

Deus ex Machina

Via Brad DeLong, Zynep Tufekci in the NYT Sunday Review:

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — THE machine hums along, quietly scanning the slides, generating Pap smear diagnostics, just the way a college-educated, well-compensated lab technician might.

A robot with emotion-detection software interviews visitors to the United States at the border. In field tests, this eerily named “embodied avatar kiosk” does much better than humans in catching those with invalid documentation. Emotional-processing software has gotten so good that ad companies are looking into “mood-targeted” advertising, and the government of Dubai wants to use it to scan all its closed-circuit TV feeds.

Yes, the machines are getting smarter, and they’re coming for more and more jobs.

Not just low-wage jobs, either.

Today, machines can process regular spoken language and not only recognize human faces, but also read their expressions. They can classify personality types, and have started being able to carry out conversations with appropriate emotional tenor.

Machines are getting better than humans at figuring out who to hire, who’s in a mood to pay a little more for that sweater, and who needs a coupon to nudge them toward a sale. In applications around the world, software is being used to predict whether people are lying, how they feel and whom they’ll vote for.

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But computers do not just replace humans in the workplace. They shift the balance of power even more in favor of employers. Our normal response to technological innovation that threatens jobs is to encourage workers to acquire more skills, or to trust that the nuances of the human mind or human attention will always be superior in crucial ways. But when machines of this capacity enter the equation, employers have even more leverage, and our standard response is not sufficient for the looming crisis.

The original industrial revolution eventually made English workers much richer - after prolonged social struggles and unionization - it also turned hundreds or even thousands of Indian villages which had specialized in weaving into boneyards as the inhabitants starved.

The victims of the current, probably much more profound revolution are unlikely to be confined to far away continents. We are looking, I think, at a profound challenge to the way our whole societies are organized.