Wednesday, 19 November 2014

The robots are still coming

“Two pizzas sitting on top of a stove top oven”
Automatically captioned picture from Google

News stories often link themselves together in your mind. Two stories recently mated in my mind and you can make of that what you will. Remember my age though.

Firstly there was the BBC story on a comment made by the chairman of the John Lewis Partnership.

More than a fifth of UK jobs only require the educational level of an 11-year-old, the chairman of the John Lewis Partnership has highlighted.

Sir Charlie Mayfield drew attention to figures showing 22% of jobs demand only primary school-level skills...

This dwindling of middle-ranking job opportunities - which can provide a stepping stone for people advancing their career, could limit social mobility "at a time when we need more of that, not less", he said.

He contrasted the picture in the UK with that in the US and Germany, where the proportion of jobs which can be performed with just primary school-level attainment is much lower, at 10% and 5% respectively.

The quoted numbers from the US and Germany might suggest that the UK simply has more low skill jobs than the US, but another story popped up which again suggest a much more intractable problem is on the horizon.

From the Google Research Blog we have:-

“Two pizzas sitting on top of a stove top oven”
“A group of people shopping at an outdoor market”
“Best seats in the house”

People can summarize a complex scene in a few words without thinking twice. It’s much more difficult for computers. But we’ve just gotten a bit closer -- we’ve developed a machine-learning system that can automatically produce captions (like the three above) to accurately describe images the first time it sees them.

On the face of it the two stories are only very loosely connected in that we all know how technical advances can and do destroy jobs. However, if computers can accurately describe what they see then we move another step closer to two things we have feared for a long time.

In principle and potentially, this level of automated recognition does away with the need for the human function of keeping and eye on processes and people. It does away with one aspect of supervision - knowing what goes on.

In itself this is just another successful technical development, a piece in an evolving jigsaw, but that jigsaw also includes those observations by the chairman of John Lewis. It isn't necessary for computers to match human intelligence before they compete with us in areas we once thought were exclusively human. They merely have to make the best use of their intrinsic advantages.

Who else could use an army of intelligent, unwinking watchers?


Demetrius said...

A couple of hours ago I walked past what had been the County DVLA office. At one time there had been a couple of hundred skilled staff. It is not the only office in town like that. County Hall itself is dumping staff.

Sam Vega said...

Extremely thought-provoking. It occurs to me that if lots of people have been made unemployed by computers, then they will require a lot of watching. It's also interesting how we are beginning to talk about computers and automated processes as if they are one big uniform process - almost like a conspiracy, with a purposeful mind behind their spread. They aren't, of course, any more than evolution "wants" species to evolve into something more efficient, or capitalism "needs" to maximise profits. But I think that such ways of conceiving of the problem means that we might be approaching some kind of tipping point.

A K Haart said...

Demetrius - remember typing pools? Our solicitor took two weeks to make some simple alterations to our will. A web app could have done the job. We'll look at that next time.

Sam - I don't think there is a purpose behind it either, but as the consequences become obvious behaviour becomes intentional.

Parents must already worry about careers for their kids and the possibility that IT systems will do away with whatever they choose in a couple of decades or less.

Yes, I think we are approaching a tipping point. Perhaps not as close as we fear, but only a decade or two I imagine.

Sackerson said...

I've thought for quite a while that the link between labour and money has been getting tenuous. The future debate may be about redistribution.

A K Haart said...

Sackers - yes I think it is tenuous. It's as if the circulation of money has become a habit and will remain so until the minority who do something useful get their heads together.