IBM’s Watson technology, now playing Jeopardy on TV, represents a marvelous advance in the ability of computer systems to analyze questions and figure out what is being requested. The commercial prospects for such programs are endless. John Markoff has a piece in today’s New York Times in which he makes a fascinating claim: that the IBM technology will throw large numbers of people, world-wide, out of work.
His claim could be correct. The opposite is possible as well, that this new kind of technology will create large numbers of jobs. But Markoff’s misapprehension comes to focus in a few paragraphs. Let’s take a look at these and see if we want to trust his judgement:
Virtually any job that now involves answering questions and conducting commercial transactions by telephone will soon be at risk. It is only necessary to consider how quickly A.T.M.’s displaced human bank tellers to have an idea of what could happen.
To be sure, anyone who has spent time waiting on hold for technical support, or trying to change an airline reservation, may welcome that day.
The way that A.T.M.’s deal with humans is much, much simpler than anything resembling the Watson system. The A.T.M.’s have automated a job that was begging to be automated, just as Craig’s list has databased an activity that was begging to be put into an online database. If there’s some human Q&A activity that’s begging to be computerized, perhaps a Watson-style system can do it, but technical support is not one of those activities.
The technology that is necessary to replace 95% of all tech support was invented in the mid-20th century; it’s called a Flow Chart. When you call tech reps for any technical device, they read a script that is in a flow chart form, jumping from question to question depending on your answers. Most of this tech support process could easily, and I mean EASILY be stored on web pages so that most people never had to talk to a human in tech support.
Those tech support humans are there for the few cases that escape the boundaries of the flow chart, and, more important, because we, the people, desire to talk to a human being when a device fails us. Watson will not replace those support people until it gets awfully good at conversing, just like us folks.