Wednesday, March 18, 2015

You won't trust a human to do that

In the future it will be effectively impossible to find a human to pay to drive you in a car, pick vegetables, or diagnose a disease. It might seem hard to believe but radiologist, cab driver, fruit picker, MRI technician, truck driver, and phlebotomist could easily join the list of jobs that effectively don’t exist thanks to technology.

Computers/robotics won’t simply be able to do these current jobs cheaper and faster than humans, they will be able to do these jobs dramatically better. It would be seen as stupid or even dangerous to let a person perform these tasks. Doing these jobs might be illegal or at least leave one open to huge legal liability.

We already have several examples of jobs that were fully replaced because machines are so clearly better in every possible way. There used to be people employed as “knocker-uppers,” who would physically go around waking people up in the morning, but the job disappeared thanks to alarm clocks. Human telephone switchboard operators aren’t just slower and more expensive than automatic systems, they are also more prone to error. The best example is the job “computer.” The name originally referred to people who would do rather basic calculations by hand. Machines are so much better and faster at this task, that not only has the job basically disappeared but so did its original meaning.

There are two big reasons to suspect that medical, truck driving, and farming professions are all primed for dramatic replacement by automation. The first is that numerous companies are already working on automation in these fields. The second is that up to now, we have been forced by necessity to accept what should be a shocking level of dangerous human mistakes from these industries.

There were over 33,000 motor vehicle deaths in the United States last year. Almost all were caused by driver error. We accept this incredible number of deaths because cars are a necessity, but once self-driving cars reach their potential, letting an error-prone human control two tons of fast-moving steel will be viewed as an act of madness.

Similarly, some estimates put the number of premature deaths associated with preventable harm to patients at over 400,000 a year. The simple truth is that doctors, nurses, and hospital staff can be terrible at their job of keeping people alive and well. Providing health care is an extremely complex task, and it is impossible for humans to do perfectly. We go to these humans because they are still better than no treatment, but there is vast room for improvement by removing humans (and human error) via the increased use smart technology, diagnostic programs, and automation.

According to the CDC, every year an estimated 1 in 6  Americans (48 million) are sickened by foodborne disease. Part of the problem is how our fruits and vegetables are picked by hand. Humans are naturally covered in bacteria, so a quality system that removes humans from the equation could reap serious public health gains.

These current advancement though will have huge economic and sociological impact. Truck driving is the most common job in much of America at the moment and the healthcare industry makes up about 17.4 percent of the entire economy. In a few decades we may not trust millions of Americans to do the jobs they are currently employed in. It won’t just be cheaper to replace them with machines but dramatically safer.

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