Saturday, June 27, 2015

When machine replace human

Recently, a good friend sent me an article from Harvard Business Review called "Beyond Automation", written by Thomas H. Davenport and Julia Kirby.  The article talked about how automation affects our job forces and displacing values from human workers.  It proposed 5 strategies in how we can get prepared to retain competitiveness in the automation era.  This is a very good article and triggers me a lot of thoughts.

I want to explore a fundamental question:  "Can machine replace a human in future ?"

Lets start looking at what machines are doing and not doing today.  Machines are operating under a human's program, and therefore it can only solve those problems that we, human can express or codified in a structural form.  Don't underestimate its power underneath.  With good abstract thinking, smartest human in the world has partitioned large number of problems (by its problem nature) into different problem categories.  Each category is expressed in form od a "generic problem" and subsequently a "general solution" is developed.  Notice that computer scientist has been doing this for many decades, and come up with the powerful algorithm such as "Sorting", "Finding shortest path", "Heuristic search" ... etc.

By grouping concrete problems by their nature into a "generic, abstract problem", we can significantly reduce the volume of cases/scenarios while still covers a large area of ground.  The "generic solution" we developed can also be specialized for each concrete problem scenario.  After that we can develop a software program which can be executed in a large cluster of machines equipped with fast CPU and a lot of memory.  Compare this automated solution with what a human can do in a manual fashion.  In these areas, once problems are well-defined and solutions are automated by software program, computers with much powerful CPU and memory will always beat human in many many orders of magnitude.  There is no question that the human job in these areas will be eliminated.

In terms of capturing our experience using a abstract data structure and algorithm, computer scientist are very far from done.  There are still a very large body of problems that even the smartest human haven't completely figured out how to put them in a structural form yet.  Things that involve "perception", "intuition", "decision making", "estimation", "creativity" are primarily done today by human.  I believe these type of jobs will continue to be done by human workers in our next decade.  On the other hand, with our latest technology research, we continuously push our boundary of automation into some of these areas.  "Face recognition", "Voice recognition" that involves high degree of perception can now be done very accurately by software program.  With "machine learning" technology, we can do "prediction" and make judgement in a more objective way than a human.  Together with "planning" and "optimization" algorithm, large percentage of decision making can be automated, and the result is usually better because of a less biased and data-driven manner.

However, in these forefront areas where latest software technology is unable to automate every steps, the human is need in the path to make a final decision, or interven in those exceptional situation that the software is not programmed to handled.  There are jobs that a human and machine can working together to make better outcome.  This is what is called "augmentation" in the article.  Some job examples are artists are using advanced software to touchup their photos, using computer graphics to create movies, using machine learning to do genome sequence processing, using robots to perform surgery, driver-less vehicles ... etc.

Whether computer programming can replace human completely remains to be seen, but I don't think this will happen in the next 2 decades.  We humans are unique and good at perceiving things with multiple level of abstractions from different angles.  We are good at connecting the dots between unrelated areas.  We can invent new things.  These are things that machine will be very hard to do, or at least will take a long time if at all possible.

"When can we program a machine that can write program ?"

The HBR article suggests a person can consider five strategies (step up, step aside, step in, step narrowly and step forward) to retain value in the automation era.  I favor the "step forward" strategy because the person is driving the trend rather than passively reacting to the trend.  Date back to our history, human's value system has been shifted across industry revolution, internet revolution etc.   At the end of the day, it is more-sophisticated human who take away jobs (and value) from other less-sophisticated human.  And it is always the people who drives the movement to be the winner of this value shift.  It happens in the past and will continue into future.