Answer: He will likely be your boss in three years.
Watson: Who am I?
Last week many of us watched, and maybe even cheered for, contestant ‘Watson’, the IBM supercomputer on Jeopardy! When it was all over and Watson won the $1 million prize, it was obvious that we had just witnessed a significant step in the evolution of robotic engineering. The research that went into building and training Watson has dramatic consequences for the future of work, as well as education. However, since Watson has a “statistical brain” and not an analytical one, probably those of us in positions managing Human Resource Departments or day care facilities are still safe; at least for today.
Technology Advances; Workers Remain Nervous
The Jeopardy! showdown pitted computer chips and bytes against brains. Watson challenged two of the greatest Jeopardy! champions in history: Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings. As I watched Watson win, I couldn’t help reflecting back on a Turner Classic Movie, Desk Set. This 1957 classic comedy stars Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. It‘s unique, being the first and only movie to examine the impact of the advancement of automation in the workplace, along with the fears experienced by the workers concerned about losing their jobs. Ms. Emmy, the computer’s name in the movie, could have been Watson’s “grandmodel.”
For IT and robotic engineering professionals, the accomplishments of Watson were certainly significant, but probably not a big surprise. However, for those of us not as close to the progress and impacts robotics are having on our everyday world, this was definitely an eye-opener, leaving many of us with the question – “What’s next? Will a computer be doing my job in the future?”
According to Gerald Greene, a contributing author to suite101.com the contest was ‘an excellent’ test of the progress being made with artificial intelligence. “Not only did Watson have to demonstrate a mastery over an incredible range of knowledge, he also had to correctly interpret nuances and subtleties in the English language.” Watson, the supercomputer, is equal to 6,000 high-end desktop machines! Apparently the breakthrough responsible for Watson’s excellent performance is a technology called “machine learning.”
And as if that isn’t enough, there’s more. Eduard Hovy, Director of the Information Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California, whose work contributed to the development of Watson, recently shared with the Wall Street Journal that RACR (Reading and Contextual Reasoning or Reading and Contextual Reasoner – they haven’t decided on the name yet) will add a subtle but important difference to the next generation of supercomputers. With RACR, the computer will be able to learn information and then perform reasoning functions. Wow, and that’s going to be available in the not too distant future. So what does that advanced technology offer to our businesses, as well as our children trying to answer the question, what job would I like to do when I graduate?
Martin Ford, a contributing writer to CNN Money writes that “automation has been kept at bay for many lower wage jobs by a human worker’s unique ability to recognize complex visual images and then respond accordingly. But as machines and robots grow increasingly dexterous and better at seeing and understanding the world around them – that will change.” Already robots in
are able to autonomously pick strawberries, selecting only the ripe ones based on color. Japan
More Rapid Change
We have experienced a lot of change brought on by technology since the 1960’s, causing the work environment to evolve at a rapid pace. And it is true that as some jobs become extinct, others are created. However, it doesn’t appear that the ratio is balanced.
- Most companies no longer employ ‘real’ people to answer their phones anymore; it’s all automated.
- We’re comfortable using ATM’s and directing our own on-line banking, no longer requiring banks to employ as many tellers per bank as they used to.
- Airlines have embraced technology in such an aggressive way that we now book our own flights, check ourselves in, and print our own boarding passes.
- Most workers to do their own word processing, which has allowed the elimination of the jobs once offered by central word processing centers.
- And even our grocery stores are using technology to displace checker and bagger positions, by allowing us the privilege of using the self-check out computer equipment.
Our economy has transitioned from a manufacturing-base to a knowledge-base. So how does that influence the impact of these new technology capabilities on the way work will be performed? When Mr. Hovy explains that the next generation to Watson “will be able to find answers to questions by understanding context and reasoning based on background knowledge, and be able to make more sophisticated decisions about which pieces of information are trustworthy by using qualitative ‘indirect measures,’ what does that mean to the jobs we now think of as stable?
I’m not sure what it means other than change is traveling at light speed towards us and we have to be ready with strategic plans and actions to address the resulting impacts. If we aren’t ready with qualified employees to transition and successfully perform in this new environment, other leading technology countries will be there to offer the solutions.
So What’s Next?
Although we can envision a demand for some jobs related to the changing technologies, (see below) it’s safe to say that many of the jobs that will be required as computers like Watson evolve are unimaginable today.
- Programmers who understand the new technologies such as machine learning, RACR and their next generations
- Project managers who are capable of leading technical teams with excellent people skills, mastery working with virtual teams, and methodologies to keep projects on time and within budget
- Robotic engineers who can integrate technologies and work processes to deliver quality outcomes in an efficient manner
- Educators to raise the bar for excellence with expanded curriculums in math and science
We are already reading reports of IBM’s success to partner Watson with Nuance Communications to “explore, develop and commercialize” the Watson computing system’s advanced analytics capabilities in the health care industry. Can you imagine the ramifications for health care if robots begin to take the place of doctors, nurses and surgeons?
There has also been news that the features of this type of technology will be useful in other fields such as government responses to pandemics, aviation safety, call centers, and terrorism risks. As IBM’s CEO Sam Palmisano said, “As exciting as Watson’s victory is, we didn’t invest four years and millions of dollars simply to win a television game. We did so because this remarkable system represents the new frontier of information science.”
HR and OD professionals, as well as business thought-leaders and academic leadership got a taste of the changes coming via the Jeopardy! challenge. So now that we’re aware of what’s coming, how can we prepare? Here are a few suggestions:
- Be aware of and stay informed to the progress being made with technologies, and the next generation of the supercomputer. One article estimated the timing at about five years from now. Naturally that won’t have an immediate impact on all organizations, but it will be a sign of what is to come.
- Build a collaborative team of business leaders, HR and IT professionals to envision how robotic technologies could play a part in the evolution of your business and link with technology partners to build these into your operations and/or stay tuned to trends in those areas.
- Identify and implement career paths to position employees for the next generation of jobs, especially for those envisioned as a possibility for extinction.
- Partner with technical and university system leaders to build curriculums to prepare workers for the future and entice technology companies to locate and bring new jobs to your locale.
- Embrace the new technologies of telepresence – communication tools that let people “meet” remotely with high-def conference rooms and robots. This transition will help workers get comfortable with advancing technologies, as well as robotic interfaces.
- Build a strategy to raise the awareness of your workers about advancing technologies and engage them in planning for how these technologies can be utilized in your operations. This relationship can also be helpful to transition their thinking about what these changes mean to the competencies that will be required in the future.
What are some experiences or ideas you have to help organizations and leaders prepare for and embrace the next generation of Watson-type computers headed to the workplace? As business professionals what do you think we should be focusing on to help with these types of business transformations? I’m curious about how the ‘robot’ workplace of the future looks to you? Please add your comments below.