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That robot took my job!

February 15, 2011 |  1:30 pm

Watson
Sure, Watson the robot beat one of the winningest men on "Jeopardy," Ken Jennings, in a match last night. But that doesn't mean robots are smarter than we, that they're going to take over the world and massacre us until John Connor comes to save us. Does it?

Maybe. If you ask economist Martin Ford, author of The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future, that robot might soon take your job. Maybe it won't be Watson, whose voice is honestly a bit snooty, and who probably isn't making any friends by beating Mr. Nice Guy Ken Jennings, but perhaps one of his robot brethren.

"Technologies like this will find their way into 'the cloud' and that they’ll eventually be deployed to automate a great many tasks and jobs (call centers, customer service, tech support) throughout organizations," Ford wrote on his blog.

In an IBM video about Watson on the company's website, Katharine Frase, vice president of industry solutions and emerging business for IBM Research, says she believes "Watson has the potential to transform many industries."

To Ford, this means in the jobs arena. Many of today's jobs are specialized, he said, which means training a robot such as Watson to do highly specialized tasks will be within the reach of many companies soon. A MIT researcher is developing a trainable manufacturing robot that will cost as little as $5,000, Ford said, which would save employers significant money in salary and benefits.

The robots aren't just limited to manufacturing. Ford argues. In an essay in the Atlantic, he speculates that robots could even be trained to do a lawyer's job. After all, lawyers research case law and summarize past decisions; one research area in artificial intelligence creates algorithms that can search and summarize information. 

Further, since most lawyers make a lot of money, there's a significant incentive for employers to replace lawyers with robots to save costs, Ford contends.

Is Ford just being paranoid? Or will computers and robots soon be able to do a wide range of jobs, including the one that you spent $100,000 to learn how to do in law school?  It's still up in the air. Maybe we should ask Watson. What is the future, Alex?

-- Alana Semuels

Photo credit: p_a_h via Flickr

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