Playing with the Future of Work

This month the big news in computer science circles was that Google’s AlphaGo software beat the world’s top player in the ancient game of Go, winning four out of five games in a million-dollar contest.  

The win is significant because Go is a far more complex game than chess.  Computers can win at chess simply by computing all the implications of every possible move on the board--that’s millions of possibilities, but entirely doable by a fast computer.  Go, on the other hand, has so many possible moves that human Go champions develop a kind of intuition that has been impossible to imitate in software.

Until now.  The AlphaGo program has intuition--a broad sense of the game that it learned, first by studying the records of previous matches and then by playing millions of practice Go games against itself.  And the computer’s intuition appears to be better, or at least different, than the human version.  As one high-level Go player commented: “It’s like another intelligent species opening up a new way of looking at the world...and much to our surprise, it’s a new way that’s more powerful than ours.”

This so-called cognitive computing--the ability to learn from data and experience and develop new skills--is a key piece of artificial intelligence.  And it has the potential to impact a broad range of white-collar jobs. 

This will start with entry-level jobs.  Take law as an example.  As the saying goes, law school doesn’t teach you to practice law.  So, traditionally, law firms keep new lawyers busy doing work like research, sorting through evidence in cases, and drafting contracts.  Along the way, they learn the practical aspects of law.  

Now, however, intelligent software can do many of those entry-level legal jobs, often better and always more cheaply.  Big accounting firms are going through a similar transition, as more and more accounting tasks are automated.  And many entry-level corporate jobs also turn out to be easily automated. 

These perturbations in the white-collar world are early warning signs of a much broader social issue.  Sooner or later, artificial intelligence and robots will eliminate a broad swath of well-paying jobs and it’s not at clear where new jobs--with equivalent salaries--will come from.  The challenge from smart computers will be very real, and this time, it won’t be a game.