Robot Replacement or Robot Assistant?

March 20, 2015 Zac Ernst

When there is a discussion of artificial intelligence (AI), a debate sometimes arises. One side argues that AI will never be able to replace human workers, especially in highly skilled jobs. The other side maintains that it’s just a matter of time before AI takes over, putting people out of work.

What’s surprising about this debate is that we’ve already seen the impact of AI in the workplace, and so we ought to be past this issue already. Yet newspapers, magazines, and blogs are still caught up with speculations about what AI will do to the nature of work. Let me explain with an example.

Although it may sound quaint now, there used to be a group of very smart, well-informed people who were staunchly opposed to the human genome project. They just thought that even if we could collect all of that genetic data, it would never prove useful. Biologists could never sift through that mountain of data to find anything that would help them understand human biology. This view wasn’t held by a small number of skeptics — it was a mainstream opinion held by smart, well-intentioned specialists.

Fast forward to now, when genetic data continues to revolutionize medicine and biology, with widespread excitement  that it will allow medical treatments will be far more personalized and effective. What happened to mainstream’s  staunch opposition?


The most important reason is that machines can rapidly search for patterns in all that data; they find the patterns that indicate useful places where a biologist can direct her time and attention. They come up with theories that a skilled biologist can investigate, which prevents her from wasting time exploring dead-ends. She can spend her time doing more interesting work because the machines assist her in her research, revealing the most useful lines of investigation, at enormous speed and at great scale. Biology has been revolutionized by machines that are assistants to biologists, not by machines that replace them.

Most of us aren’t in a position to appreciate this sea of change that’s occurred in biology because most of us aren’t biologists and so we lack the expertise to see this happening. But similar changes are also going on in other technical fields, including mathematics and finance, where machine assistants are becoming increasingly valuable in much the same way.

Now the challenge is to get AI assistants to those of us who work in non-technical fields, who aren’t specialists in data science, statistics, biology or other areas. But the only way to do this is by building assistants that can communicate to us in plain, ordinary language. This is what Narrative Science is doing.

So when people start debating what happens when AI comes to the workplace, it’s not necessary to speculate about whether the machines will take our jobs away or else prove useless. We’ve already seen what happens, and it’s neither of those two options.  AI as an assistant will become a more and more integral part of our work.


Zac Ernst is a Software Engineer at Narrative Science. Connect with Zac on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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