Define the Role of the Computer, and Yourself

The question remains unanswered: Where does the role of a computer end and the role of a human begin? Or, maybe I have it backwards: Where does the job of a person end with the computer taking command?

Assuming that data isn't close to making all of our decisions for us, I guess the best answer is "somewhere." The human/machine issue has been popping up more frequently of late, although not in a bad way.

Consider these recent developments:

An All Analytics Quick Poll, Look Into the Future: Analytics in 2025, revealed that the A2 community does see some balance between machines and people, even looking out 10 years. Forty percent of our respondents said, "We will keep analytics as a key adviser, not decision-maker."

However, plenty of other voters (32%) said, "Analytics will make half our decisions for us and advise us on important ones." If that doesn't tip the balance toward machines, then consider that a number of voters (19%) believe that 10 years from now "Analytics will drive us to work and make all our key decisions for us."

So, what becomes of people? Techcrunch shared some ideas in Big Data Still Requires Humans To Make Meaningful Connections. The author noted, "While the rate of technological change is increasing ever more rapidly, we still tend to overestimate just how advanced we are. Clearly, we still need humans to help make sense of the data we are collecting."

An earlier TechCrunch piece highlighted how analytics on their own would not have prevented the horrible terrorist attacks in Paris, saying, "Effective counter terrorism policy requires spending money on physical, on-the-ground resources -- putting more agents on the ground, within local communities, where they can gain trust and gather intelligence...The data is useless without the human element to connect the dots."

I would make the argument that human knowledge still matters. Let's say that a knowledge database can capture much of what a repair person has learned over the course of 30 years. That can help other repair people do a better job when that 30-year vet is unavailable or retired. But for that computer to keep learning it will have to tap into the fresh, hands-on knowledge that all of the repair crew acquires in working with new technologies. Plus, someone still has to handle the wrench that turns bolts on a broken machine.

Similarly, a computer can collect the institutional knowledge of sales people and meld it with customer research data to direct the sales team on the best message to deliver when facing prospects, particularly when the potential customer tosses out an unanticipated question. Computers increasingly learn how to think, but thinking on one's feet remains a human characteristic.

What will be fun to watch in the years to come is how human and computer roles evolve, not only in terms of where the balance is but also how new jobs emerge. We've already seen plenty of examples of shifting roles over the past decade. What jobs -- or at least aspects of a job -- have you seen that will remain strictly human?

James M. Connolly, Editor of All Analytics

Jim Connolly is a versatile and experienced technology journalist who has reported on IT trends for more than two decades. As editor of All Analytics he writes about the move to big data analytics and data-driven decision making. Over the years he has covered enterprise computing, the PC revolution, client/server, the evolution of the Internet, the rise of web-based business, and IT management. He has covered breaking industry news and has led teams focused on product reviews and technology trends. Throughout his tech journalism career, he has concentrated on serving the information needs of IT decision-makers in large organizations and has worked with those managers to help them learn from their peers and share their experiences in implementing leading-edge technologies through publications including Computerworld. Jim also has helped to launch a technology-focused startup, as one of the founding editors at TechTarget, and has served as editor of an established news organization focused on technology startups and the Boston-area venture capital sector at MassHighTech. A former crime reporter for the Boston Herald, he majored in journalism at Northeastern University.

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Re: What to expect in 2016
  • 12/20/2015 10:16:11 PM

Jamescon, sorry to have missed this one. What were the big takeaways?

What to expect in 2016
  • 12/18/2015 9:20:19 AM

Folks, just a reminder that today's All Analytics Radio program starts at 1 pm EST, not the usual 2 pm. Bloggers Tricia Aanderud and Maryam Donnelly will join me as we discuss where we see the world of analytics going in 2016 and what we have learned in 2015.

Re: Jobs for humans in 2025
  • 12/18/2015 9:06:32 AM

@kq4ym. True, we will find a balance for the roles of computers/robots and people. However, that balance point will continue to shift. For example, robots today are designed for a single set of tasks (often just a single task). Even the companion robots thta are selling in Japan are developed to play the role of a friend. You can't easily adapt those into something like a home health aide taking vital signs and dispensing drugs. Factory robots follow certain routes along a warehouse floor, stopping at designated spots for other bots to load them with products; or they are little more than a smart arm helping to assemble a designated car part.

Will such limited functionality be a long-term thing? Will the combination of machine learning and interchangeable parts allow a companion robot of the future to also dispense daily medications and take blood pressure readings? Will robots be able to adapt to multiple roles? That's something that people do well (at least most of us). The balance point in human/machine roles is bound to keep moving. The only question is how far and how fast.

Re: Jobs for humans in 2025
  • 12/17/2015 12:18:36 PM

I would agree that "thinking on one's feet remains a human characteristic," and assuming computers are never going to be able to "think" it's a sure bet that at some point the balance between human decision making and machine action will be more well defined to allow the balance for best economy, simplicity, and compassion for others. The health and education fields, not to mention parental home care of those children will find the best balance over time between humans and machines.

Re: Jobs for humans in 2025
  • 12/9/2015 12:46:02 PM

I quickly read three articles you referenced in your comment. Research work on DNA-based robots are not new to me. What may be new is the latest DNA-based robots may have built-in (almost human-like) analytics mechanism. I was going to write about them but I didn't think the audience of this site would be interested in it. 

Re: Jobs for humans in 2025
  • 12/9/2015 10:02:41 AM


Jim points out that "Researchers are already approaching the bio robot in one way from the nanotech side of things."

Yes, the rapid developments in nanobot technology are one of the reasons I'm speculating that this path to high-level, humanoid robot development may outstrip the conventional hardware path.

Here are some interesting articles on this:

Scientists have created a robot made entirely of DNA, and it could be used to treat cancer

Scientific team creates molecular robot from DNA

Sending DNA robot to do the job

Those nanobots need to become a gazillion times bigger to fulfill my expectations. But that may be on the way.

The rapid advancement in DNA manipulation seems to hold considerable potential for creating robots to replace most of us ... or our professional functions, anyway. Sort of like those replicas in Invasion of the Body Snatchers... 


Re: Jobs for humans in 2025
  • 12/9/2015 9:10:45 AM

I've known about the nanotechnology side of robotics for a while. I am sure you know about robotics assisted surgery that can be performed remotely by a human.  Nano-based robotics have been used in the manufacturing industry to check the quality of the parts.  If the robot finds the part doesn't meet the expected quality standard, it removes the defective part from the assembly line. But not all manufacturing facilities have adopted this approach. I still think some kind of predictive analytics tool a robot could use or has used to predict if the part that appears to be well formed to a human eye is about to degrade in quality. Once the robot gets the information, it should be able to get the part from the assembly line and alert its human counterpart. 

Re: Jobs for humans in 2025
  • 12/9/2015 8:56:27 AM

@Lyndon. Researchers are already approaching the bio robot in one way from the nanotech side of things. I wrote about it occasionally a few years ago, and it definitely is one of those "how do they do that?" concepts. Basically there are drug delivery systems that when administered (probably intravenous) release multiple doses or even multiple types of drugs on 1) a time release basis 2) a staged basis, one following the other or 3) a trigger basis as the medical condition demands. All that on a platform the size of the head of a pin.

On robot assisted surgery, yes, the robots assist. They can make more precise cuts than a human can but need the human to show them where to cut. That seems like a fair compromise.


Re: Jobs for humans in 2025
  • 12/9/2015 4:40:15 AM

A robot resembling a real human's voice will be welcome. Today's hardware-based robot's voice can be difficult to understand.

-- Judith, Blogger, Master Author Level 3 (one of the two to get the highest level out of 300 authors)

Re: Jobs for humans in 2025
  • 12/8/2015 8:59:34 PM


Jim writes "Robotics are already assisting, not replacing, some of those professions, such as surgeons."

Yes, robots (i.e., automation) are assisting physicians, including some surgeons, as well as attorneys and various other professionals. However, I don't expect robots to fully replace these positions within the next 10 years. If ever — because humans would have to develop confidence and trust in robotic machines to serve or represent them on the operating table, in litigation, etc., and whether that would ever happen is debatable.

I'm also beginning to think that the technology of robotics as we currently conceive of it will change dramatically, from hardware-based to biologically based. Researchers are already focusing on DNA as a possibly superior data storage medium. I'm starting to speculate that (a la sci-fi fiction) it will be possible to engineer a biological robot by manipulating human DNA to create hybrid androids integrating neurological and electronic (or quantum particle) components.

That should bypass a lot of technical problems, such as trying to make a robot's speech sound human or facial expressions look realistic when they're approximated by manipulation of synthetic materials. This approach might also make it easier to endow robots with behavior resembling real human feelings, so that even grief counselors can eventually be replaced...


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