Ministry of Prose: making words work for your business

One in a semi-regular series of ponderings, musings and contemplations on the interaction of words and psychology in business. Just don't call it a blog...



March of the machines

March 2014

It doesn't seem popular to say it these days, but I'm a scientist. Wherever possible I apply rational scientific principles to my life decisions, using probabilities to determine the best course of action.

(In case you're worried about me, dear reader, I do allow myself complete emotional freedom in specific circumstances, but not when making life-changing long-term decisions.)

Often the science conflicts with my emotional conclusions: in those circumstances I've found the science is usually right. Because although humans are well adapted to a particular environment, much of that environment doesn't exist any more. And what's left is disappearing fast.

A tide of automation is sweeping around us as machines become more advanced and capable. White-collar workers might have sneered - or not even noticed - when thousands of blue-collar workers lost their jobs due to the automation of mechanical processes. They're not sneering now.

Clerical and admin work is increasingly being outsourced to computers. It won't stop there. I keep a close eye on developments in artificial intelligence, neural networks, brain module simulations and suchlike. Things are moving fast, with big projects geared towards replicating ever more complex aspects of human cognition. Machine learning is getting better, faster.

The developments are exponential, which is doubly alarming because humans are rubbish at coping with exponential functions in real life. If you want a trivial example, that's why sliced kicks at goal in soccer/football are so hard to save. The real-time maths defeats our linear arithmetic minds. It's not just the rate of change that matters, it's the rate of change of the rate of change. We can't compute that.

Machines can, though. Which should be wonderful. Remember the utopian predictions from our youth, when labour-saving devices would leave us free from drudgery to concentrate on the meaningful and pleasurable things in life? But while automation has lifted some people out of poverty, many others are just running ever faster on the same old hamster wheel. So what went wrong?

Future predictions are always naive (you can probably prove this scientifically). They are biased towards the positive and they assume altruistic behaviour, or at least the absence of selfish behaviour. Which is, of course, nonsense. Economic systems act in favour of the rich: they have to, because money is power and the human psychological characteristics required to become rich are overwhelmingly non-altruistic. Logically, any other outcome would be highly improbable.

I can't do anything about this. Nor can you. We can only adapt to the situation.

If you're a high-level engineer who calculates materials stresses in the construction of civil engineering projects, you probably already know that the machines are catching up, fast. You no longer have a job for life. GP? ditto: computers are already better than you at some aspects of your job (the diagnosis, not the bedside manner). Computer programmer? Don't feel smug: you might have ten years left before machines can program themselves efficiently.

Some of this will sound ridiculous, but again that's because humans can't easily think in exponential terms. Even when faced with overwhelming evidence to the contrary and the memories from our own experience, we still somehow manage to believe that nothing much will change in the future. It's another useful archaic survival skill that's totally detrimental to our existence today.

My job involves the use of high level brain functions to interpret the conscious and unconscious knowledge of my clients' customers and then write prose content that's perfectly targeted to those customers. I'm safe only until whole-brain computer models are viable and relatively cheap. Call it 20 years, then, if I'm lucky.

What to do... what to do... Well, barring dramatic social and economic upheaval (for the better), I think I'll be investing in nail parlours and hairdressing salons. See if you can work out why.

Alex Cruickshank is CEO and Chief Wordsmith at Ministry of Prose and he for one welcomes our new machine overlords.

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