Why Computers Will Never Replace Us


Even if machines do take over the world, economic theory suggests it will pay for them to keep humans around


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A reader comments in a New York Times blog on the announcement of a radically new kind chip with a "neurosynaptic core" inspired more closely than previous semiconductors by the human brain and under development by IBM with funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects agency and a consortium of research universities. Shades of the Sputnik era! "JR" writes from New York:

I believe we're 40-50 years off from most humans being phased out, with most every task automated. This ridiculous line of thinking that keeps harping on how technology always creates new jobs is coming to its end. Just because something was true in the past does not mean it will always be true in the future. That was mostly based on the fact that technology was still trying to keep pace with humans, but now there is an exponential explosion that seems to be growing faster and faster, and much of the technology is cutting humans out of the equation, simulating skills that were once strictly the purview of humans.

Maybe 300 years from now humans will not be needed at all....

Let's say JR is right and computers will eventually be able to surpass people in everything, even so-called right brain, emotional processing. Will people be obsolete? I doubt it. The economic theory of comparative advantage explains why. Assuming there will still be people, even if the computers are running everything, it will pay for them to let people do what they are relatively better at. There's likely to be a higher opportunity cost for computers to do more intuitive analysis for which human brain-body system has evolved and concentrate on tasks at which their abilities are an even high-multiple than people's. In the case of computers and people, as I suggested about IBM's Watson and Jeopardy! there will always be elements of tacit knowledge and common sense that will be extremely expensive to achieve electronically. In fact, as impressive as Watson's replies were, it missed a question that was relatively easy for human common sense. So even if, for example, computers surpass physicians on diagnostic reasoning, it will be cheaper, more effective, and safer to have their judgment double-checked by a real doctor. One possible result of the growth of computer intelligence might be, in fact, that human professionals will spend relatively more time developing the intuitive side of their work. Which was one of the points of the computing pioneer Norbert Wiener in the 1950s.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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