LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
This past week, machine defeated man handily. The IBM supercomputer known as Watson humbled its human opponents on the TV game show "Jeopardy!" Watson was developed to analyze natural language, even humor and riddles.
(Soundbite of TV show, "Jeopardy!")
Mr. ALEX TREBEK (Host, "Jeopardy!"): Now, the last clue. Even a broken one of these on your wall is right twice a day. Watson.
WATSON (Artificial Intelligence): What is clock?
Mr. TREBEK: Clock is correct. And with that, you move up to...
(Soundbite of applause)
WERTHEIMER: You think your job could not be done by a computer? Think again or artificial intelligence may do the thinking for you. Martin Ford has written a three-part series for The Atlantic about the future of AI, artificial intelligence, and he joins me from Stanford, California.
Mr. MARK FORD: Thank you.
WERTHEIMER: We typically associate low skill or low wage or mechanical jobs with the move to automation. You're writing about high-paying jobs, though. You're writing about jobs that require graduate degrees that could be done by machines. An example you give is radiology.
Mr. FORD: That's right. Radiologists basically focus on looking at visual images from medical devices, things like X-rays or CAT scans, that type of thing, and then analyzing those, interpreting the results and making a diagnosis.
Now, machines are getting much better at analyzing that types of visual information. For example, in airports, we've got systems that allow systems to look at photos and compare those to a database of terrorists.
Analyzing all that kind of dynamic information and making a comparison is actually technically very difficult. It may actually be much easier for a computer to look at a very standardized medical image and apply standardized analysis to it and automate a lot of that job.
WERTHEIMER: You suggest that even a lawyer's job could be done by a computer, at least in part. And now, surely, that is the kind of, you know, sort of creative, fast-on-your-feet, intuitive, instinctive, the kind of things that computers are not supposed to be so good at.
Mr. FORD: Well, there are a lot of lawyers that never go into courtrooms. I mean, there are lawyers that are engaged in legal research. They work with contracts. It's all paperwork.
And a lot of that is not really too different than what someone like Watson is doing or even search engines are doing. It's about finding, summarizing information. So a lot of that is certainly subject to automation going down the line.
WERTHEIMER: Now, are we turning into our own worst enemy here? I mean, we have created efficiencies. That is to say, we have created jobs that can easily be done from the comfort of a computer screen. And then, of course, the masters of that particular universe have said: Fine, a computer screen could be anywhere. It could be somewhere where people don't earn that much money per hour.
And now, you are suggesting that the next step is to move it back from the third world country and into a computer, that artificial intelligence can do that kind of job.
Mr. FORD: Right. I think that in many cases, what you'll see is the offshoring type practices going on now that many people are concerned about is kind of the leading edge of automation. They're both similar types of things.
You know, they both are highly dependent on technology, on communications technology. Eventually, a lot of the stuff that's being offshored will be automated, I think.
WERTHEIMER: So, I mean, are we a generation away from radiologists being extinct? Are we - is this going to happen in the middle of next week? I mean, what does the future look like to you?
Mr. FORD: It's hard to pin down. I don't think it's going to happen next week. If I had to guess, I would say that within the next 10 years, we're going to see some fairly definite increasing evidence of this. But it's very hard to say exactly when.
One thing we can say, though, is that things are moving at a faster and faster rate. You know, technology, in particular, information technology, is accelerating. And it's going to have a very big impact at some point, a disruptive impact, I think.
WERTHEIMER: Martin Ford's three-part series about the future of artificial intelligence appears in The Atlantic. You can see it at atlantic.com. It's adapted from his book, "The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future."
Mr. Ford, thank you very much.
Mr. FORD: Thank you very much for having me.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.