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Don't let that robot steal your job

November 28, 2011 |  2:26 pm

As Internet junkies and smartphone addicts know all too well, technology has changed the way we connect with people -- for better and for worse. We may be out with our friends, for instance, but really more engaged with the person we're texting with across the country.

As technology continues to change our behavior, questions arise: Are we losing our ability to be present,  to connect with what's in front of us? Tech innovator and Webby Awards founder Tiffany Shlain explores these questions in her new documentary "Connected." In an interview with Op-Ed columnist Patt Morrison, Shlain said we've arrived at a stage where "everyone feels they need to be more conscious of is just being plugged in all the time." She elaborates:

I'm connected to people in beautiful ways through technology -- like my mother-in-law. I'm constantly sending her videos of [her grandchildren's] cute little moments she misses in Pennsylvania. I can stay more connected with my family; I'm up to date with my friends, and that's very powerful.

Any technology -- I could tell you three really great things about it and three really bad things about it. I think we just need to be having a conversation [about the] fact that everyone's moving so quickly.

It's nothing I'm proud of, but there was an eight-year period that I smoked. Now I look back and think, "Oh my God, I can't believe I smoked in that situation -- when I woke up, or on a plane. That's so horrible." I wonder whether we're going to look back on this period and say the same thing about the way we're using technology.

For Shlain, here's the true gift that today's technology provides:

The big concern when the written word was invented was that people would lose their memory, and we certainly have lost a lot of oral tradition and culture, but we've gained so much with the written word. I believe we are in a transition period [to] a new way of understanding and sharing information. Our brains can only grow so big, so we hooked up into the computer.

One of my favorite stories about Einstein is that he was being interviewed, and at the end the reporter said, "If I have any follow-up questions, can I call you?" And Einstein went over to the bookcase and looked up his phone number [in a phone book] and gave it to the reporter. And the reporter said, "You're the smartest man in the 20th century -- how do you not know your own phone number?" And he said, "Vy fill my mind with such useless information if I know vere I can find it?" Was that why he was able to come up with the theory of relativity -- he wasn't filling his mind with useless information?

So our children come up with new ideas we can't even imagine because they're not trying to hold onto all this information. When I was in school, the person who memorized the most facts was the smartest person in the class. Now it's going to be all about re-contextualizing ideas and recombining ideas.

It's that spirit of innovation that may just revive our economy. In two separate pieces about technology's impact on the economy -- one in our Editorial pages, the other in the New York Times -- the writers come to similar conclusions: As computers and robots replace humans in the workforce, it's become increasingly vital for people to learn skills that technology can enhance but not replace.

Here's Adam Davidson in the New York Times:

Picture the advertising agency in "Mad Men," and think about the abundance of people who were hired to do jobs that are now handled electronically by small machines. Countless secretaries were replaced by word processing, voice mail, e-mail and scheduling software; accounting staff by Excel; people in the art department by desktop design programs. This is also true of trades like plumbing and carpentry, in which new technologies replaced a bunch of people who most likely stood around helping measure things and making sure everything worked correctly.

As a result, the people whose jobs remained valuable in that "Mad Men" office were then freed up to do more valuable things. A talented art director could produce more work more quickly with InDesign. A bright accountant could spend more time thinking of new ways to make and save money, rather than spending endless hours punching numbers into an adding machine. Global trade works much the same way. It's horrible news for a textile factory worker in North Carolina, but it may be great for a fashion designer in New York.

A general guideline these days is that people are rewarded when they can do things that take trained judgment and skill -- things, in other words, that can't be done by computers or lower-wage workers in other countries.

Here's our editorial board:

Computers still aren't very good at creative tasks, such as generating ideas or finding ways to apply lessons from one experience in a totally different context. But [at the recent Techonomyconference] in Tucson, [MIT economist Andrew] McAfee asserted that "the list of things humans are demonstrably better at than computers is shrinking pretty dramatically." [Fellow MIT economist Erik] Brynjolfsson observed that about 60% of U.S. workers perform "information processing tasks," and "it's hard to think of any of those that won't be profoundly affected and possibly eliminated by these technologies."

At the same time, the ability of computers to make humans more productive is growing exponentially. Jeffrey Katzenberg, chief executive of DreamWorks Animation, said at the conference that an expert animator can create only about 3 seconds' worth of a movie in a week because of the many hours spent waiting for computers to render the images in 3D. With the next generation of computers, he said, those workers will be able to animate and apply effects in real time, creating scenes 50 to 70 times as fast.

That's astounding, and it's great for DreamWorks and its animators, who can turn ideas into movies faster. The challenge for the United States -- and every other country -- is helping more people to take advantage of that leap in power rather than being left behind by it. The same could be said of any technology-fueled change in society, including the advent of commercial farming and the industrial revolution. What's different this time, Brynjolfsson and McAfee say, is that the changes brought about by the new technology are happening much, much faster.


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Surveillance by machines, not people

A futuristic fix for Alzheimer's disease?

Social media -- if you 'like' jobs, you're in luck

iPads at restaurants: Can we have a side order of jobs?

--Alexandra Le Tellier

Illustration by Randy Enos / For the Times

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