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Computers getting closer to replacing people?

With over 800,000 federal workers taking a forced vacation (although some have been ordered back), and signs of the government shutdown everywhere on and offline, it's probably not the best time to talk about computers replacing humans.

But the fact is that predictions of computers replacing humans has been around almost as long as there have been computers. NBC recently did a story about nine jobs that are potentially threatened with by robot replacement. In some of those cases, computers have already made inroads, such as with self-checkout systems in retail settings. Others, like babysitting, seem a little far-fetched, as I don’t know many parents who would leave their children in the hands of a robot. I mean, you did see the classic Tom Selleck movie Runaway, right? KISS singer Gene Simmons may have been the bad guy in the film, but thinking robots did all the damage.

One area where computers are making unexpected inroads in replacing workers is the legal profession. Yes, lawyers — at least, junior lawyers and paralegals. While we probably won't see terminator-like robots wearing barrister wigs arguing a point before a jury, VentureBeat reported that law firms are "accomplishing the impossible" by using computers and data mining technology for e-discovery

The law firm in the story used kCura’s Relativity machine-learning software  to mine data stored in thousands of documents. In this case, junior lawyers fed the documents into a computer running the software and then marked pages that were relevant to the case. After a while, the software knew what to look for, and the humans were relegated to just feeding the machine, which is pretty much the theme to most dystopian sci-fi stories. It's nice to know we would still have some value to our computer overlords.

The government seems particularly interested in machine learning. In fact, one of the key pillars NASA wanted to explore with its D-Wave quantum computer was machine learning. Given the nonlinear way the quantum machine works, it could be uniquely suited for that task, making even the gains in this area with traditional computers seem trivial.

Then again, with almost all of NASA going dark because of the shutdown, the quantum computer is probably not doing much of anything in this or any other parallel universe. Looked at like that, with computers still subject to the flaws and politics of people, perhaps our jobs are safe after all – at least from machines. Or at the very least, the computer overlords will need a little more time before they can completely replace us. 

Posted by John Breeden II on Oct 07, 2013 at 12:02 PM


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