Robots at the gate: Humans and technology at work


Barclays – Humans have often had a cautious relationship with new technology, particularly when it causes widespread disruption in the workforce. Yet historically, technological advances have not resulted in fewer jobs available to humans, but rather have led to the creation of new opportunities. Farriers and saddlemakers were hit hard when cars replaced horse carriages, but the petrol stations, mechanics, motels and related industries that sprung up created new, yet different, types of jobs.

More recently, the smartphone is a great example of technological advances creating new forms of work. Twenty years ago, mobile app developer was not a job; today, millions of such developers are at work around the world.

One of the most influential economists of all time, David Ricardo, flip-flopped on the issue. In 1821, he stated that while was a general good, he was now more worried about the substitution effect on labor. And the discussion was not always academic – the Luddite movement was an early example of workers resorting to violence to protest the use of technology in textile factories.

As the decades passed, the Industrial Revolution led to a visible, massive improvement in living standards. But the debate – on how technology affects work and whether it is an unequivocal positive – continued to wax and wane.

Machine learning represents a fundamental change. It is a subset of the much-abused term ‘Artificial Intelligence’ and is grounded in statistics and mathematical optimization. The computer is fed vast data sets and a few general parameters to point it in the right direction. Then, the machine executes simulations of how biological neurons behave, uses that to recognize recurring sequences in the data, and writes its own rules.

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Suddenly, it is no longer limited to applying algorithms that
a human wrote; the machine is designing its own. more (pdf)>

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