Computers taking over: Examples

I am currently thinking about how computers are taking over more and more of what we humans can do, in ways we did not think about just a few years ago. The impetus for this, of course, is Brynjolfsson og McAfee’s recent e-book Race Against The Machine, where the main examples given are Google’s driverless cars, instant translation software, and automated paralegal research. I’ll use this blog post as a repository for examples of this, so here goes:

  • automated authors: Many “content farms” automate the task of writing text, primarily for web sites which want to generate Google traffic. But Robbie Allen, a writer of software manuals, found that he could write a program that automated the writing of certain kinds of text, such as basic sports journalism. His company, Automated Insights, is now taking this to other areas such as finance, weather, real estate and healthcare.
  • automated drivers: Google Cars, which now has logged more than 100,000 miles, do not need human drivers. (Though, at a recent seminar on this, Rodney Brooks pointed out that the roads these cars were driven on relied on a much more extensive mapping – down to location of potholes – than what is available elsewhere. Still, miles are miles.
  • imageautomated translators. Google Translate provides low-quality, very cheap translation of more than 50 languages. Clearly not replacing human translators, it (and similar services) allows for automated translation of web sites (thus enabling internationalization of web services by translating text into localized web sites and then driving the user towards the base language (normally English) site. More specialized translators (such as Lionbridge’s Real-time translations, exemplified in the book) should allow for, say, technical user support to be given over chat lines – so the person answering in your native language (say, Norwegian) may in fact be a Chinese or Indian person who only speaks his or her native language.
  • automated traders: As noted by Mark Buchanan in this blog post, high speed trading might now account for as much as 70% of all stock trades. This form of trading is only possible using very high speed computers and ditto connections – and as a consequence, markets may be more volatile (or, rather, not have changed in range of volatility but rather the time span during which it takes place).
  • automated pilots: Drones are commonly used by air forces nowadays, but here is an interesting little tidbit: When the German air force took delivery of (a prototype of) its new 15-ton “Euro Hawk” spy drone it flew from Northrop Grumman’s production facilities in California to the Luftwaffe base by itself. To me it seems rather obvious that this type of unmanned flight can be extended to cargo planes and, eventually, to passenger flight as well.
  • imageautomated customer support: Search technology in general is replacing customer support, but IKEA’s “Ask Anna” goes the other way and looks creepily human. It occasionally gives rather stupid answers (I asked it “What colors are available for the Ekstorp 3-seater?” and the answer was “The EKTORP product line includes a number of independent but related products, available in number of colours. Please feel free to click on the one you want in order to see which colours are available,” which indicates to me that more programming certainly wouldn’t hurt. For simple questions, however, it is much faster than trying to navigate the web site or actually placing a phone call.
  • well, this is a start – other suggestions?

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