Can a computer do your job better than you? If so …

Thursday was one of those days. Being a mere human I did not get around to reading the op-ed page of The Wall Street Journal until rather late in the evening. Not sure whether it was coincidental or intentional, but the news hole was greater than the sum of the two parts on page A19.

The lede item by Andy Kessler asked “Is Your Job an Endangered Species?” and the intriguing drop quote on the page stated, “Technology is eating jobs — and not just obvious ones like toll takers and phone operators. Lawyers and doctors are at risk as well.”

Kessler explains, “Tellers, phone operators, stock brokers, stock traders: These jobs are nearly extinct. Since 2007, the New York Stock Exchange has eliminated 1,000 jobs. And when was the last time you spoke to a travel agent? Nearly all of them have been displaced by technology and the Web. Librarians can’t find 36,000 results in 0.14 seconds, as Google can. And a snappily dressed postal worker can’t instantly deliver a 140-character tweet from a plane at 36,000 feet.”

He ominously warns there “is no quick fix for job creation when so much technology-driven job destruction is taking place.”

Below this cheery tale of obsolescence for workers in retail and media is a piece by Ray Kurzwell  titled “When Computers Beat Humans on Jeopardy” about IBM’s computer system called Watson, which just beat two human champions on “Jeopardy!”

“With computers demonstrating a basic ability to understand human language,” Kurzwell writes, “it’s only a matter of time before they pass the famous ‘Turing test,’ in which ‘chatbot’ programs compete to fool human judges into believing that they are human.”

What Kurzwell doesn’t say about Watson relates back to what Kessler was saying, because an AP story tells us Watson’s next challenge is no game. IBM has agreements with the Columbia University Medical Center and the University of Maryland School of Medicine to use the computer program to help diagnose patients.

Eliot Siegel, a professor at the Maryland university’s medical school, remarked, “In playing ‘Jeopardy!’, there is one correct answer. The challenge we have in medicine is we have multiple diagnoses and the information is sometimes true and sometimes not true and sometimes conflicting. The Watson team is going to need to make the transition to an environment in which it comes up with multiple hypotheses — it will be a really interesting challenge for the team to be able to do that.”

If Watson can be a doctor, I bet it could write a pretty good legal brief, based on what the Constitution actually says, instead of what some administration hack wishes it said. Heaven forbid, it might even spit out a decent blog, column, editorial or news story. Shall we play a game?

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