Wednesday, August 26, 2009


A few years ago, I read an interesting little article by Kenneth Rogoff, the well known professor of economics at Harvard, called "Artificial Intelligence and Globalization" in which he says:

But I wonder whether, even within the next few decades, another factor will influence our work lives even more: the exponential rise of applications of artificial intelligence.

At the time I read this, I found it funny. I have worked for many years in AI and related fields. We have an inside joke: "if it works, its not AI". Now I am less sure.

I have recently started watching an interesting show called How Its Made on the Science channel. As it's name suggests, this show is all about manufacturing technologies. I was struck by the high level of automation in many of the manufacturing processes that they present. Clearly the level of productivity must be high in these automated factories.

This then led to consider other examples of highly productive organizations:

1. Craigslist: Serving millions of daily requests with just 30 employees.
2. The UPS Worldport sorting system in Louisville, Kentucky: check out this this amazing video about how they handle vast numbers of packages with just a few employees to keep watch.
3. Google's data centers: Consider the vast number of machines in one of their data centers supervised by a handful of employees.
4. Plentyoffish: This is a very popular match making web site that was created and run (for the most part) by just one person. Apparently, the founder just hired the first employee recently (only after the company had grown amazingly large).

I don't think I am alone in beginning to wonder where this will lead us. I just came across an article in the Economist web site in which he author makes some interesting points. In a nutshell, the author says that jobs are ever more specialized requiring a lot more training. And even when trained, the skills become obsolete ever more quickly.

I would add a couple of points to the Economist blog posting:
  • As one gets older, retraining gets harder. This is partly because distractions (house children, finances etc) increase as one gets older. Another factor is that many people are resistant to learning things from people younger than themselves.
  • Another source of concern is that many of the new job opportunities are in the discretionary side of the economy. I think that jobs based on discretionary expenditure are much more vulnerable to downturns.