19 Jul 2017 19:27 IST

The dumbing down of our minds

Computers, sensors and systems can conduct fact-based analysis faster and better than humans

During the recent Wimbledon championships, IBM, a tournament sponsor for decades, heavily advertised its Watson brand of business intelligence solutions.

And in every broadcast, the message was clear — the human mind, so capable of decision-making, will soon be ably supported by technology systems like Watson. In many cases, the human mind may even be replaced by Watson-like technology.

Making skills redundant

This column has written about how technology is making many blue collared jobs irrelevant . If work is repetitive, manual and does not require much skill — think of an agent at an airport issuing boarding passes — it will most likely be replaced by technology.

We also discussed how white collared jobs at BPO firms are slowly becoming obsolete . Using Robotic Process Automation (RPA), the industry is automating jobs involving repetitive tasks in the back office, such as entering data, looking up information from websites and sending emails.

Decision making

Now, technology has turned its attention towards managerial jobs. As MBAs, we all went to business schools to learn about problem-solving techniques and the complex art of decision making. We were taught that this process was never arbitrary or gut-based. We were trained to look at underlying facts, use human ability to analyse those facts, and then arrive at a decision.

But systems like Watson are slowly challenging us humans in what we are best at. They use millions of data points in the past — and the resulting outcome, also from history — to statistically predict future outcomes. These systems don’t just exist in the bowels of business and industry — nearly every Indian who has ever watched an interesting cricket match on TV is already familiar with a version of this technology.

Computing cricket

When India went up against Pakistan in the ICC championship game last month, the broadcast team, just before India started its chase, was discussing what India should do to win the match — how many runs the opening pair should score; how fast the run rate should be during the batting power play; how many runs Virat Kohli should get, and so on. This may have been supplanting the managerial thinking of the team coach, but the TV commentators went ahead freely with their advice for the whole world to see.

What they were doing was entrusting a computer system to look at hundreds of historical games and thousands of data points when India had won against opponents, filtered down by different conditions — pitch, location and opponent team. The system then came back to say that if India, chasing a huge total, could establish an opening partnership of at least 90 runs and get Kohli to score more than 80 runs, victory was possible. India failed on all these pre-conditions, and lost miserably.

Info trivia

Even everyday situations can expose us to the tremendous powers of technology. Who was the female star paired opposite Amitabh Bachchan in the 1973 movie, Saudagar? A trivia question like this even a few years ago would test someone’s Bollywood knowledge. But today, anyone with a smartphone and an internet connection can instantly Google the answer, the speed of the response being directly proportional to the person’s ability to type — and of course, the internet connection.

In fact, home assistant devices like Google Home and Alexa (from Amazon) can even voice out the answers. Try doing a voice search by speaking out your question to ‘Ok, Google’ and wait for the results. While these tricks may be amusing, at its core, this is nothing more than voice translation technology coming to maturity.

Of zeros and ones

The device understands your initial question, translates it into text, and to the zeros and ones that only computers and networks understand, and returns the result in voice.

All of these intermediate steps have been performed by Google for years. While these solutions are great, at their core, they are simply retrieving straightforward factual information already stored in them. In fact, if an answer doesn’t exist in the table, the system apologetically responds, “Sorry, I don’t know the answer to that one!”

Watson-like systems, especially those enabled with Internet of Things (IOT) technology, are a lot more complicated. They have a vast database of historical facts (much like Google does), but they also use advanced sensors to constantly measure millions of basic parameters, like weight, temperature, humidity and force on a system. And they have the ability to compute outputs based on input data points and business rules.

An elevator pitch

Imagine an elevator that silently goes about performing its dull chores of ferrying people up and down a building. Unknown and unseen to us, there are thousands of moving parts supporting it. Perhaps a circuit board is getting too hot, the tension on a cable is getting too tight, or the doors are opening and closing too slowly. Such deviations could result in the elevator being forced out of service, or worse, an accident.

Watson-like systems automatically summon help from an elevator service team if data points fall into the yellow danger zone. No human interaction needed. The place where human inputs may be required are while replacing the failing component and bringing the machine back into service.

All these technologies point to a dumbing down of human ability. Computers, sensors and systems are able to conduct fact-based analysis faster and better than humans can. Think of the autopilot systems on a huge wide-body aircraft on a transcontinental flight, which, these days, can even land the plane without any human interaction.

And in a strange twist, this development is good for society as a whole.

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