In my four-part posts on the emerging markets, I suggested that one reason for caution on those markets longer term is that the development model for emerging societies may be breaking down. (“Submerging Markets, Part 2” post of 8/1/13.) That model, which has worked nicely since the Industrial Revolution, relies on the fact that capital is much more mobile than labor. Thus, capital tends to flow from wealthy developed societies, where labor is expensive, to poor emerging societies where labor is cheap.
But as the labor component of just about everything declines into invisibility, this model breaks down. There is no reason to build steel in China and then ship it halfway around the world to the US if the labor costs involved in making steel are minimal.
As I was writing that post my heart was going out to struggling people in the Third World, people who wanted desperately to improve their lives but whose employment options were being slowly eliminated by machines. I finished that post and went on to other matters, it never once having occurred to me that my thesis might also apply to me.
Indeed, if someone had suggested that your humble scrivener could be replaced by a machine I would have laughed in his face. “Ha, ha, ha!” I would have said. “You have obviously forgotten that you are speaking to the top of the food chain, my friend, an alpha competitor before whom mere machines shrink in terror!”
Oh, sure, I was aware that some stupid machine with the ridiculous name of “Watson” (why not “Holmes?”) had beaten the Jeopardy champions on television. Big deal. All Watson was was a huge database(1) along with a processor that could search the database quickly. Ask me if I’m impressed.
Then there was that other ridiculous machine named Deep Blue (why not “Deep Purple?”) who beat Gary Kasparov in a chess match. So? What is chess but a fancy version of Jeopardy? A grandmaster like Kasparov differs from my son, who was the Pennsylvania 3rd Grade Chess Champion, only in that Kasparov has seen a lot more games. He knows instantly when someone is mounting the Sicilian Defense or responding with the Alapin Variation. Once he knows that, he knows what the next ten moves have to be.
So all Deep Blue is doing is “memorizing” tens of thousands of chess patterns and board positions, just like a grandmaster. Deep Blue had a big advantage over Kasparov because the latter couldn’t just concentrate on the game – Kasparov had to think about whether, if he lost, he would get sent to Siberia. All Deep Blue had to worry about was that Kasparov might lean over and pull the plug, shouting, “Шах и мат вы заросшие логарифмической линейкой!”(2)
No, the real Masters of the Universe aren’t the machines, but the guys who program them. Better yet, the guys who come up with the ideas and protocols to program them (and then turn the actual programming over to some grubby twenty-something who works for Cheetos and Red Bull).
Way back when I was a kid in college and computers were the size of houses, we had to learn to program using a computer language called BASIC.(3) Being an English major, I naturally programmed my house-sized computer to spit out semi-random words into lines of poetry. The results, shall we say, weren’t pretty. That said, we did come up with a couple of good lines, my second favorite being “Strawberry dance flakes!” (Deep, really deep.)(4)
In other words, there are people who can be replaced by machines and there are people who can’t. I knew, with great confidence, which camp I belonged in. (But see “Replaced by a Machine, Part 2.”)
(1) 200 million pages of data – four terabytes! – including the full text of Wikipedia.
(2) “Checkmate, you overgrown slide rule!”
(3) BASIC is a high level programming language so simple even an English major could learn it. It was designed at Dartmouth by the College’s subsequent President, John Kemeny.
(3) I can’t tell you what my favorite line was because I used it in a poem that won the Academy of American Poets Prize, and the good folks over at the Academy think I thought it up myself.
Next up: Replaced by a Machine, Part 2
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