Robotic Takeover

Years ago, I read this fictional story by Marshall Brain called Manna. It talked about the robotic takeover of a fast food chain by an intelligent system.

Marshall Brain, as you may know, is the founder of and a well known speaker, teacher, writer etc. Although he wrote Manna as fiction, he was so certain that it was the way of our future that he actually patented the system he described (if memory serves). Of course, he was right. I just got this link from a friend about how fulfillment centers work — how do you get the same-day or next day delivery on all those mountains of things that you order from the Internet? Here is how. It is astonishing how similar this scenario is to what Marshall Brain described in Manna.

The theme of Manna is how a computer system can efficiently micromanage the workers of a fast food chain. What it replaces are the middle level managers, like the store manager or the supervisor. After all, it is their job to micromanage the workforce. But soon the system moves up the value chain, to more highly skilled jobs such as airline pilots and surgeons. Anything that can be broken down to a series of instructions (i.e., anything that can be replicated in an expert system) can, in principle, be implemented on Manna.

This reminds me of the race to the bottom of computer programmers. It used to be one of those dream jobs when I started my undergraduate degree thirty or so years ago. But now, with those large hordes of Java programmers being churned out from engineering schools/factories in India and China, programming is really menial labor. Sure, the quality of the software developed by these Java armies may not be as impressive as that developed by those star engineers of the previous generation. But what does it matter? What you lack in quality (optimization, for instance) can be more than compensated for in quantity (computing power). Besides, rigid development practices aided by smarter development environments can in fact ensure acceptable quality — much like Manna can ensure a base-level quality in a surgeon.

It is scary how the world is evolving. While Manna and the Internet sweatshops tell stories of diminished human values, they also point to an economic transformation of a disturbing kind. That is the topic of the next post.

Photo by Dan Ruscoe cc