This poster hangs in my cubicle. The caption reads, “If a pretty poster and a cute saying are all it takes to motivate you, you probably have a very easy job, the kind robots will be doing soon.”
Besides saying “nyah nyah” to the superiors who never stay in my cubicle long enough to read the caption, I more or less believe what the poster says. My job is very easy. In a few years, a robot will be able to do it.
One of my primary job functions is to be a human interface to technology, so that the important people don’t have to be bothered to learn how to use their computers. With better A.I. — not even strong A.I., just better language handling and learning algorithms — a computer could learn to interpret vague requests and do the right thing. The important people wouldn’t even lose the ability to blame their mistakes on their underlings — they could just blame their computers, and people nowadays are more understanding of computer errors than human error. And with handwriting and voice recognition, no one would ever need a human typist.
The second function of my job is searching for, sorting, and organizing information. Computers are great at that already, and soon software will bridge the gap from today’s web search, e.g. “Seth Greenberg San Francisco lawyer,” to “Find the phone number of the lawyer I talked to at the conference in San Francisco last month.” Pattern recognition systems are already widely used in areas such as finance and medicine. A.I. — again, not strong A.I., just better — will give us general-purpose pattern recognition systems that can be applied to any type of data. Internet research is already very useful, and “search agent” software that can learn to recognize items of interest will be eventually be more thorough than a human researcher. Currently, the public web lacks sufficient accurate information for serious research. The really good sources are locked up in proprietary databases with their own restricted search interfaces. Those interfaces will need to be opened up to third-party search systems — which does not preclude charging for the content in the database itself — to remain competitive in a software agent-driven research market.
The third major function of my job is basically minor physical labor: printing, photocopying, stuffing envelopes, mailing, and generally trasporting physical documents from one location to another. Once we more fully embrace digital communications, this task will dwindle down to nothing. This embrace will depend on a few things: 1) computer displays that are equal or superior to printed text for reading long documents, 2) a legal framework that accepts electronic “signatures” as valid, and 3) a generational change of attitude.
So I will, within a couple of decades, be replaced by a robot. There will not be an android sitting in my cubicle, but a combination of better hardware, smarter software, and cultural changes will leave me with nothing to do. Hopefully by then I’ll be doing something more interesting.