Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Have You Met Siri?

Have You Met SIRI?

Quietly in the Fall of 2011, Apple planted a seed that will shift the way we work and live in the future. The release of SIRI, a program on the Apple platform that answers questions, schedules appointments and does other computer tasks just with the user telling it what to do, represents the death of the need for didactic information.

Questioning is a basic human characteristic. We have always wondered why the sky is blue and what makes the wind blow. Our need to question has never changed, but our ability to answer those questions has dramatically changed in just the past decade.

During most of the 20th century, the proliferation of primary sources (encyclopedias, almanacs and dictionaries) made access to information as close as the nearest library.

The computer will do more thinking than us within our lifetimes.
Ray Kurzweil, a technology and computer speech innovator, said that “The vast majority of computation is done by computers and not by human brains by 2029.” The consequence of this statement isn’t necessarily immediately apparent. It will be extremely convenient to have a computer do a lot of cerebral heavy lifting. No more having to remember birthdays, calculate change or decide which shirt goes with what pants. As consumers, pushing off the majority of our thinking to computers will be an amazing change to all of our lifestyles. But as producers or workers in the collective economy, this will have very prolific and dramatic effects.

When you go to a gas station to pick up some gum and something to drink, the clerk scans those items, gives you a total and then makes change for you. In 2029, do you think this person will be necessary? Imagine a worker that works 24 hours a day, doesn’t ask for a pay raise, doesn’t take breaks, constantly monitors the systems of the stores and never makes a mistake. What Kurzweil is saying is that in 2029, that worker can easily be a computer. The computer will make decisions like a human would and need very little other than power to operate.

If what Kurzweil says becomes reality, and we have a lot of data that says it will, we are preparing kids for jobs that will not only be dynamic, but quite possibly won’t even exist in 20 years. We already use technology for things that we used to rely on for people: getting money, manufacturing, paying bills, and renting/watching movies. These low skill jobs for our kids like working in a bank, a convienence or video store won’t even be an option when they are only a couple of years into their careers. Kindergartners in the 2011-2012 school year will graduate in’s hard to even speculate what the job force will look like then.

Take an example. Imagine a student that will graduate from high school in 2012. This student is an average student and takes some classes at community college after high school then takes a job tearing tickets at a movie theater as a part time job that turns into a full time job. Wages are low, but for now he has steady work. 3 years down the road, he has progressed to assistant manager but things are changing at the theater. Instead of having cashiers to sell tickets, customers just tell a kiosk outside of the theater what show they want to go to and it prints them out tickets or they purchase their tickets at home. This happens a lot now with ticket purchasing sites like Fandango, but it isn’t putting anyone out of work yet.

Then in another couple of years scanning technology has come to a point where once a user goes to a ticket stand, they scan their QR code ticket that is packed with data about that patron: height, weight, skin tone and other demographic data if the patron chooses to divulge it. There isn’t anyone at the ticket stand anymore, just a machine that tells you what theater to go to and can answer any other questions like: the movies running time, where the restrooms are, and what the expected weather is at the close of the show. The patron is then rescanned at the theater doors to ensure they are the right persons and they are going to the correct movie.

So even within six to ten years, our 2012 graduate still has a job, but his duties are changing. He is lucky to have a job as technology has put a lot of low/no skilled people out of work. The majority of our graduate’s time is spent ensuring that the machines are working. At first he spent a lot of time showing people how to use the new machines, but now people are very familiar with them as they are seen everywhere.

After about a decade at the theater, our graduate is still luckily working there and spends the majority of his time in the only section where machines don’t totally run the show: the concession stand. Machines do a bulk of the work now though. A machine asks you what you like as you approach. It will give you suggestions if you ask. Through facial recognition it will remember what you ordered last. If you tell it your name it will scan your preferences on Facebook and look for what you like as well as the likes of your friends. It will also store that information for you and like it on Facebook later if you enjoyed it. There isn’t a cashier here either. Instead, all items get stored in a virtual cart and the machine will interact with you on how to pay. If you want to store your banking info with them for your next transaction that is fine. So next time you go to the theaters, you just grab what you want and walk out. The machines will take care the payment.

Our graduate is working behind the counter. Robotics aren’t good enough to replace him yet, but he’s sure they are coming. He and the janitor are the only two people that work there. He doesn’t even have a manager on-site. The manager manages 24 different theaters all from one office. Through cameras, smart software and live data, he always knows what is going on. If there is a problem at one of the theaters where a patron needs to talk to him, she just tells a machine and that machine flips over a screen and camera so she can tell her problem to the manager. The manager can relay what he wants to have done back to the computer just through his voice and it is done.

After 15 years, our graduate is finally laid off. He is unskilled and not able to compete in this job force.

This example, although speculative, is a pretty decent forecast on what the labor force will look like in five, ten and twenty years. I fear for many of our students as the labor market will be so different for them than it was for us. We have a genuine educational crisis on our hands. It used to be fine for someone to graduate, get some hourly job and survive, but technology is going to make that go away. In twenty years, the vast majority of our workforce will be people that build, fix and program the machines and people that assist consumers in using the technology. It’s time to be worried that we need to prepare our kids for a 21st century world.