Posts Tagged Wired

Living in the robot economy

Robotic Jimmy Fallon as published in Wired. Photo by Peter Yang.

Robotic Jimmy Fallon as published in Wired. Photo by Peter Yang.

Apparently, the robots are coming for our jobs. On the cover of the January 2013 issue of Wired is a story about how robots already have the capability to do human work. The robot takeover is even endorsed by Jimmy Fallon.

It’s easy to speculate about whether Wired’s Kevin Kelly is right or not, because none of this has actually happened yet. What’s really interesting to consider is what human life will be like when robots start doing all of the work.

A Life of Leisure

Let’s start out with a relatively positive side effect. If humans get pushed out of jobs that require a lot of manual labor they could, in theory, be moved up to supervisory or white collar-type jobs that require less actual work. The factory of the future could have robot workers and human managers.

That means more people will have more spare time, which could be wonderful for both individuals and society. After all, who doesn’t want more time to do something that isn’t their job. More people could become less specialized, because they would have the time to pursue hobbies and budding talents. They could get a chance to read Crime & Punishment, or to think of an excuse to not read Crime & Punishment.

People often say that they are too busy to follow important news stories or political issues closely, but with machine assistance, we could have a more educated body politic. The Internet has, if nothing else, made massive amounts of information available. Sorting through it takes time, though.

Pop Culture Meltdown

In the Wired article, Kelly suggests that most displaced workers will become entrepreneurs or artists, starting small companies making custom wares and turning the global economy into Kickstarter writ large.

If that does happen, popular culture may become obsolete. It’s already happening in a way: Nearly everyone in the United States knew “Gangnam Style” before most American record executives had even heard of Psy.

If popular culture is basically a conversation between produces and consumers of media, then a robot economy could give them a hi-def connection. People won’t need to rely on media giants for entertainment, because small organizations (or even individual artists) will be readily available to produce media that are fine-tuned to each person’s specific tastes.

Never having to listen to Brittany Spears again sounds like a good deal, but it could have a negative affect. Pop culture is a bonding mechanism for a large population; its lowest-common-denominator aesthetic reminds us that there are certain basic things that we all enjoy.

Without it, we run the risk of cultural echolalia. If we don’t need to acknowledge what we don’t like, it’s hard to get a read on what other people are thinking. It would also make it hard to discover something new, because we’d have to make a determined effort to leave our comfort zones.

Every Man (and Woman) an Island

If the implosion of pop culture means having less in common with the people around us, then having a robotic workforce also means having less people around us. If robots become store clerks or waiters or repair-bots (Kelly says robot therapists and teachers are even possible), we’ll be spending a lot less time around people.

Of course, that is already sort of happening in the form of social media. Most people have even given up on phone conversations and text instead. Even dating has fallen into the digital realm.

I’m very thankful for the communication social media allows, but I don’t think it can replace a physical meeting. It’s great to be able to talk to a friend in another state or another country instantly, but I can’t imagine pulling that trick off with someone I’ve never met.

The same goes for online dating. I’ve given two sites a try and, personally, I think the Internet takes all of the romance out of romance. I spend the time combing through profiles like I’m a Human Resources director; a very unfulfilling experience. I’m not alone either: in a recent “Room for Debate” piece in the New York Times, a group of experts concluded that online dating is no replacement for the real thing.

So how else will we meet people when most of our daily interactions are with robots?

Some might say that robots will just eliminate the tedious and annoying human interactions from our lives, but that’s a bit of a slippery slope. It’s impossible to eliminate everything unpleasant, irritating, or intimidating from human interactions, because we are who we are. We are as scary, annoying, and boring as we are loving, captivating, and interesting. Maybe that’s why the robots seem like such an attractive replacement.

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Information, data, and the future of journalism

As an aspiring journalist, I’m used to feeling like an anachronism. Many people assume that the revolution in digital technology will eventually kill newspapers, and leave a cacophony of independent bloggers and Twits in its wake. But at least that means people will still be doing the writing. If a new company called Narrative Science has its way, that could change too.

According to a recent story in Wired, Narrative Science has developed an algorithm that can write news as well as a human. The company is currently selling its services to businesses and the parents of Little League players; its computers primarily churn out quarterly reports and coverage of Little League games. However, company cofounder Kristian Hammond thinks that, in 15 years, 90 percent of news will be written by computers.

I’m not so sure about this, and not just because I want to keep my job. In order to write stories, Narrative Science’s computers need to be fed raw data. They can sift through that data much more efficiently than a human, but someone needs to compile it for them. In the case of the Little League games, Narrative Science relies on an app called GameChanger, which parents use to file all the statistics of their kids’ games.

Even with humans doing the leg work, Wired’s Steven Levy believes Narrative Science will capitalize on the importance of data in our lives. In theory, a system that can see every minute detail of an event, from a pitcher’s stance to the precise shade of orange of John Boehner’s skin at a Congressional hearing, can write a more accurate story than a person.

If we focus on data, then the machines win. Computers are unerring and un-judgmental, and they can sift through massive caches of numbers more efficiently than humans. However, there is hope for human journalists: information.

Data and information may seem like the same thing, but they are not. A datum is the building block that a piece of information is made from. That’s why people use the term “raw data:” it needs to be formatted into something that people can understand. That is where humans come in.

A machine can record a player’s batting average with extreme accuracy, but it will never be able to express the feeling of watching that player come out of a slump by hitting a home run. There are also situations that are too subjective for data. Can statistical analysis of past speeches predict what Newt Gingrich will say next? Can anything?

Another advantage information has over data is timeliness. Taking a poll of eyewitnesses at an event will not always be possible, so how will mechanized reporters get the data they need to compile a story? Having a human reporter on site to decide what readers need to know is still the only way.

You can learn a lot by crunching numbers, but it’s hard to tell what it all means. Reporters are more than just meat puppets who string sentences together; they are professionals who figure out what people need to know, and how best to tell them. There is no love lost between the public and the media, but that does not mean that computers can do this job better than humans.

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