Deep Thought 6: The Mind in the Machine

I recently read an article about the business philosopher
Clayton Christensen.  His core idea is
about how well established businesses are overtaken by disruptive innovations
at the bottom of their market.  A classic
example is the steel mills being overtaken by mini-mills.  At first big steel was happy to cede the low
end of the market to the new mini-mills. 
The low end of the market was re-bar (reinforcing bars) that were buried
inside concrete to add strength.  It was
the cheapest steel and had the lowest profit margins.  The big steel companies were happy to cede
this aspect of the business.  But the
mini-mills started getting better, moving up the ladder of sophisticated and profitable
products until they were challenging big steel at the top of their game.  Big steel had enormous physical plants and
sunk costs and suddenly could not compete.
This has happened in industry after industry according to
Christensen.  When transistor radios
first came out they were junk compared to the sophisticated vacuum tube radios,
but they were cheap.  Teenagers, who
didn’t have any money, bought them.  Over
time the transistor radios improved and tube radios basically don’t exist
anymore.
This also occurs in military affairs.  When the Bronze Age Greek civilizations were
over-run by the iron using Dorians, it wasn’t that the Doric iron weapons were
better.  The bronze weapons of the
sophisticated Greek civilization were quite advanced – but they iron weapons
were much cheaper and easier to make.
Here is what struck me as I read about Christensen.  Computers are getting better and better at
what they do and automation is replacing a lot of jobs humans do – and not just
in clerical tasks – but also potentially in some sophisticated ones.
Watson, the IBM computer that defeated several Jeopardychampions (and my old boss) equaled the human mind in a very specific area and
occupies several rooms.  But, soon enough
Watson will be living in your phone (Siri is a very bad, but relatively cheap,
fore-runner).
Your Personal Robot DJ
The Muzak Corporation no longer develops the cheesey, bland
sound-track known as elevator music. 
They generate sophisticated packages of music for different
environments, including custom-made selections that add an audio dimension to a
carefully tailored environment (retailers are the major customers.)  In this New Yorker profile, one of the Muzak
architects asks the author a series of questions about himself and creates a “personal audio imaging
profile” and a six-song personalized
C
D.  The author is struck that while he
hadn’t heard of any of the artists on the CD, he really liked it and even
bought some CDs of the artists.
Could a computer do that?
Not yet, but consider the automatic iTunes recommendations
based on past purchases (personally, I know very little about this).  Right now they may be of limited utility to
serious music aficionados appear eons away from the sophisticated capacities of
the Muzak Corporation.  But the
algorithms of iTunes and other online music sellers will become continually
more sophisticated.  What happens to the
company when an individual or business can subscribe to a highly personalized
music selection service for a far lower price?
This example is at the high-end, but there are innumerable
examples at the low-end as well. 
Automated cars are close to being a technological reality.  How many people work as drivers around and
what will they do when robot vehicles do all of the driving.
One can imagine the Muzak architects finding new and
interesting things to do.  But what about
the many, many people who drive for a living? 
Will they start writing screenplays or becoming research scientists?
This would seem to be the argument of the “buggy whip
makers” who were put out of business with the coming of the automobile.  But I don’t think so.  Most inventions replaced human brawn – which
isn’t what people are best at anyway (pound for pound most animals are far
stronger.)  People still had hands,
minds, and mouths, which could (particularly in combination) perform functions
that were not easily automated.  But
these new capabilities are edging into core human functions.
Are we sliding into the world of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Player Piano in which machines do all the work and people are left with nothing
to do?

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