‘Player Piano’, the first novel by American author Kurt Vonnegut, describes a dystopian future in which humans have been rendered obsolete by intelligent machines that dominate both manual and knowledge work. Recent developments in workplace technology have made Vonnegut’s work, published over sixty years ago, look ominous.
Machines and robots are, of course, already familiar sights in factories and assembly plants, augmenting, and in many cases replacing, human workers in the low and semi-skilled parts of the economy. Now though, advances in artificial intelligence, machine learning and big data are poised to impact the office and take the place of knowledge workers. Accountants, journalists and managers will soon find themselves competing with software that can work faster, smarter and at a fraction of the cost.
London-based startup Receipt Bank, for instance, has developed a software platform that automates the process of compiling and updating expense reports, usually seen as the preserve of entry level accountants, and uploads the data into major accounting tools. Elsewhere, software designed by Chicago-based Narrative Science is able to take raw data and convert it into prose. The software was initially used to convert statistics into sports and news stories, but is now being employed by financial institutions, government departments and automotive firms. Credit Suisse uses the programme to generate summaries of stock activity for its brokers, a task which was formally undertaken by a team of twenty employees.
The impact of intelligent software is being felt even in those professions which require a high level of expertise and training: IBM’s Watson, an artificial intelligence supercomputer, can diagnose lung cancer with a 90 per cent success rate, compared to 50 per cent for human doctors. Advances in technologies like neuromorphic computing will only further accelerate this trend, enabling computers to rapidly learn and think creatively.
Whether these new technologies will bring about a world close to that described in ‘Player Piano’ will depend on how they are applied in the workplace. In some cases they will augment, rather than replace, workers, while others will free employees to focus on more complex and interesting tasks. As mathematician and inventor of the Stepped Reckoner G W Leibniz wrote in the seventeenth century, ‘It is unworthy of excellent men to lose hours like slaves in the labour of calculation, which could be safely regulated to anyone else if machines were used.’
This post was written by Owen King, and is part of a series on the future of workplace technology.