Watson + Capitalism = ???


This week, I’d like to continue my series of provocations by posting another short piece about a topic that raises questions I can’t easily answer.

Earlier this week, a piece of natural language processing software, dubbed Watson, developed by IBM, successfully and decisively defeated two human opponents on the game show Jeopardy. The potential implications of this technology seem immense. Wired reports IBM, “sees a future in which fields like medical diagnosis, business analytics, and tech support are automated by question-answering software like Watson.” One of the humans Watson trounced, former Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings, mused in in the same article, “‘Quiz show contestant’ may be the first job made redundant by Watson, but I’m sure it won’t be the last.”

The question, for me, is what are the larger implications of this emerging automation of intellectual work for our political economy? What happens when we automate vast numbers of service sector jobs? The same jobs that had absorbed (some) of the manufacturing jobs automation had eliminated from the manufacturing sector? Are we on the cusp of a moment, predicted long ago by cybernetics pioneer Norbert Wiener, when “the average human being […] has nothing to sell that’s worth anyone’s money to buy?”

I find the notion all too plausible. Blame my time spent reading Peter Watts. Emerging media scholar David Parry, always a bigger optimist than me, suggested a skill that may remain the unique domain of human beings during a discussion of Watson’s victory on twitter. In response to a half-joking tweet in which a fellow academic questioned her own employability a in post-Watson world, Dave wrote, “well yeah, that’s why we need academics who can do critical thinking, computers aren’t so good at that yet.”

Critical thinking is a good thing, and indeed something computers still struggle with. However, under capitalism, meaningful critical thinking, the ability to evaluate arguments, reflect on the big picture situation, enact alternatives to the status quo, is exactly what has been denied the working class. Critical thinking is for capital, the cognitive resources of the working class have been employed in quite a different mode, and one that machines like Watson will likely find all too easy to replicate. This is not to say, of course, that working class people are incapable of critical thought, or that they don’t employ critical thinking in their daily lives, only that this thought has not been granted economic value under capitalism.

The question we must ask, then, is what sort of shifts could be made in our political economy to accommodate technologies like Watson, and what sort of shifts are we likely to actually make? Could we shift our productive mode to value critical thinking by ordinary people? Will we devalue the labor of a vast cross-section of humanity, further destroying the middle class? What tactics or moves might make one shift more likely than the other?

Clearly, I don’t know. What do you think?

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4 Comments

  1. Here’s an interesting article in Time magazine that pairs really well with the questions Andy is posing here: http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,2048138,00.html. A few questions raised for me in thinking about all of this: Can a computer experience wonder, awe, or terror? Can a computer experience pleasure? Can it have goosebumps? Can it pace across a room in front of a chalkboard, before stopping suddenly to land on a loosely-formed epiphany? Can a computer lay in a hammock and pinch back the spine of a book between the thumb and fingers of one hand, holding up the book at just the right angle to block the sun from its eyes? Can it feel the warmth of that sun on its skin while it reads *Moby Dick* or *Jane Eyre*. To what extent is what we do dependent on these things? Are they more integral to what we do in some important way than critical thinking? If we believe that computers are relatively close to attaining a level of what we might describe as critical thinking, are they also close to attaining awe and goosebumps and epiphanies. I’d say they need to before they can replace us.

  2. There certainly isn’t any evidence Watson can experience goosebumps and epiphanies, or much evidence that we are about to develop a machine that can. For me, that is exactly where the terror lies, because for capitalism, goosebumps and epiphanies were always an inconvenience, at best. Workers’ desire for these things was a bug, not a feature. It made them do inefficient things like ask for time off and demand to be treated with dignity. It did not generate economic value.

    So if you have machines that can fill the economic role of human workers, but that handily lack those worker’s desires and emotional needs, why shouldn’t capitalism deploy them? And where would that leave us working people, who would like to have some time in the sun to read Moby Dick and maybe even have an epiphany, and need to find a way to keep body and soul together?

    The informative sci-fi authors here, for me, are Peter Watts and Charlie Stross, both of whom explore the terrifying possibility that the link between human consciousness and feeling and economic production was always a sort of accident of history, and that the technological ability to separate the two may be downright apocalyptic.

  3. As someone who is interested in computers and their ability or lack of ability to process natural language, I have been following l’affaire Watson with great interest. While I agree that Watson is a huge breakthrough and is almost humanlike in its ability to process and sift through information (which makes it a great “Jeopardy” player), I do not think that we are anywhere near the scenario where Watson-like computers will take over our jobs. For one, no computer, even Watson, can process language like humans do. Humans do not always mean what they say and, very often, the literal meaning of what we say is very different from our implied meaning. For example, when we sit down for dinner, we often say, “Can you pass the salt?” Here, we are not questioning our dinner companion’s ability to pass the salt, but are actually requesting that she give us the salt. Can a computer be programmed with the cultural and social knowledge that humans acquire over years of cultural acculturation to process and respond appropriately to communication? Can a computer figure out, like humans do, that when we say “It is cold in here” to our dinner host, we are really requesting that that person close the window? Witness how Watson responds to a Final Jeopardy clue in the category “U.S. cities” with “Toronto”:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lI-M7O_bRNg&NR=1
    So, will computers replace us? May be for some tasks, but unless someone figures out how to program all those messy, difficult to categorize parts of the human experience we call “context’, not for long time.

  4. stopping suddenly to land on a loosely-formed epiphany? Can a computer lay in a hammock and pinch back the spine of a book between the thumb and fingers of one hand, holding up the book at just the right angle to block the sun from its eyes? Can it feel the warmth of that sun on its skin while it reads *Moby Dick* or *Jane Eyre*. To what extent is what we do dependent on these things? Are they more integral to what we do in some important way than critical thinking? If we believe that computers are relatively close to attaining a level of what we might describe as critical thinking, are they also close to attaining awe and goosebumps and epiphanies. I’d say they need to before they can replace us. sorryyy not

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