Spreadsheets, Jeopardy, and Automation

At first blush, Jeopardy and spreadsheets might seem like they don’t have a lot in common. However, together they illustrate the quantum leap economic automation is poised to take. NPR’s Planet Money recently ran a great episode on the genesis of computer spreadsheets. In a nutshell, before computer spreadsheets accounting clerks kept giant paper spreadsheets by hand. This was a laborious, error-prone system. Once computer spreadsheets arrived on the market, those clerical positions began to evaporate. However, non-clerical accounting positions expanded rapidly. The computer spreadsheet also allowed the financial sector to grow rapidly. So there was a loss of jobs due to automation, but it was accompanied by the creation of new opportunities. Economists sometimes refer to this phenomenon as “creative destruction.”

Recently, IBM’s Watson supercomputer handily defeated Jeopardy star Ken Jennings at his own game. Although this might seem… ahem… trivial, I think that it exemplifies a trend vastly different from the type of automation we’ve seen in the past. Consider the advent of spreadsheets. That automation harnessed computers do best: plain computation and rote repetition. However, modern automation ventures into sovereignly human territory. As Jennings discusses in a recent TED Talk, he did not expect Watson to succeed at Jeopardy. The questions are presented in (often obfuscated) natural language; even understanding those questions is a complex task. Watson’s feat also required it to make sense of information sources designed for human consumption for answers to those questions. Modern automation promises much more than clever question-answering gameshow-winning algorithms. I was surprised to find that teaching computers ethical reasoning, the epitome of a uniquely human skill, is an active area of research. The effects of modern automation have yet to play out. However, the mere prospect of modern automation raises important questions. Will automation ever fully supplant, rather than augment, human labor? Will we continue to see the same creative destruction we’ve seen in the past? And what will that mean for our economy and social order?

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