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Automation on the Job

Computers were supposed to be labor-saving devices. How come we're still working so hard?

Brian Hayes

The Future of the Future

What comes next in the march of progress? Have we reached the end point in the evolution of computerized society?

Since I have poked fun at the predictions of an earlier generation, it’s only fair that I put some of my own silly notions on the record, giving some future pundit a chance to mock me in turn. I think the main folly of my predecessors was not being reckless enough. I’ll probably make the same mistake myself. So here are three insufficiently outrageous predictions.

1. We’ll automate medicine. I don’t mean robot surgeons, although they’re in the works too. What I have in mind is Internet-enabled, do-it-yourself diagnostics. Google is already the primary-care physician for many of us; that role can be expanded in various directions. Furthermore, as mentioned above, medical care is where the money is going, and so that’s where investment in cost-saving technologies has the most leverage.

2. We’ll automate driving. The car that drives itself is a perennial on lists of future marvels, mentioned by a number of the automation prophets of the 50s and 60s. A fully autonomous vehicle, able to navigate ordinary streets and roads, is not much closer now than it was then, but a combination of smarter cars and smarter roads could be made to work. Building those roads would require a major infrastructure project, which might help make up for all the disemployed truckers and taxi drivers. I admit to a certain boyish fascination with the idea of a car that drops me at the office and then goes to fetch the dry cleaning and fill up its own gas tank.

3. We’ll automate warfare. I take no pleasure in this one, but I see no escaping it either. The most horrific weapons of the 20th century had the redeeming quality that they are difficult and expensive to build, and this has limited their proliferation. When it comes to the most fashionable weapons of the present day—pilotless aircraft, cruise missiles, precision-guided munitions—the key technology is available on the shelf at Radio Shack.

What about trades closer to my own vital interests? Will science be automated? Technology already has a central role in many areas of research; for example, genome sequences could not be read by traditional lab-bench methods. Replacing the scientist will presumably be a little harder that replacing the lab technician, but when a machine exhibits enough curiosity and tenacity, I think we’ll just have to welcome it as a companion in zealous research.

And if the scientist is elbowed aside by an automaton, then surely the science writer can’t hold out either. I’m ready for my 15-hour workweek.

©Brian Hayes


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