Far Better Science

How to Be a Technology Optimist

Posted by Randall Julian on 10/29/14

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This blog is about automation, robotics, artificial intelligence and their role in laboratories and health care.  There are some pretty big ideas behind that goal.  Until recently, machines have only been able to replace human muscle.  I am interested in how they can augment human brains (“replace” is another big open question). The rate at which technology is advancing is making it very hard to predict what will happen next. That does not stop people from trying:

If you managed to finish all of Humans Need Not Apply, you might find yourself a bit pessimistic. Unfortunately, for the fearful, much of what the video predicts is true. We are at the beginning of the age of cognitive robots.  Automation is now very capable of performing cognitive tasks. The labor market is going to be dramatically impacted. This is not science fiction: the robots are here.We are at the beginning of the age of cognitive robots. 

Automation is now very capable of performing cognitive tasks. 

Many say the age began when the IBM computer Deep Blue defeated World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov. In the wake of that event, and the more recent destruction of the Jeopardy champion, Ken Jennings, by IBM's "Watson", it appears that even smart people might have something to worry about. 

There are, however, some problems with the main analogy of the video, and the flaw shows how to be a technology optimist. The video suggests that horses are unemployable and that in the future many humans will also be unemployable. This is a very pessimistic view of the future, which the video falls far short of proving is inevitable. In fact, the claim misses the point spectacularly and overlooks how people should really be thinking about technology.

Nearly all the horses on the planet are fully employed.  They live longer, have a happier existence, better health care, and are in a far better state as a population than ever before. Horses entertain. They are, according to Seth Godin, producing art. They are doing something that connects with people.  Godin’s book, The Icarus Deception, is not about technology but the more important topic of connecting and making a difference.


Horses are not unemployable at all, and they are not forgettable. If we were in the old economy, where getting and keeping a stable, middling job until you retired (i.e. died) was really an option (it’s not), then perhaps "Humans Need Not Apply" would be relevant. I, however, choose to follow Winston Churchill’s quote: “I am an optimist - it does not seem to be much use being anything else”.

It is time to move past the pessimistic view of advancing technology and consider how much easier it makes it to succeed in the new economy: one where imagination, creativity and connection matter more than obedience, conformity and playing it safe.

We have amazing technology: now it's time to make a difference.  Let's start with what matters most: our health.  I close this post with Andrew McAfee's 2012 TED talk, which acknowledges that the growing pains described by Godin are real. Growth is required, but McAfee concludes with what we at Indigo Biosystems believe: "you ain't seen nothin' yet."


Topics: Innovation, Automation, Humans, Computers, Technology, Workforce, Healthcare, Robots, Big Data