It's no secret that computers have changed our lives completely.
In the personal realm, we are more connected than ever before. We are sharing more ideas, "chatting" more with friends, and performing our lives out loud via constant status updates, even if, (paradoxically), we are also lonelier than ever.
In the professional realm, computers have also upended our lives. It's no surprise, perhaps, that with the advent of technological change, certain once-vibrant professions -- like copy boy and lamplighter -- would be rendered obsolete.
But increasingly, we are delegating tasks to computers that even now, seem like they couldn't possibly be automated.
Here are five surprising roles computers now play in our lives:
1. Teacher. Of all the new computerized trends, this one is probably the least surprising. The rise in Online learning has been well documented. In the year 2000, roughly 45,000 K-12 students in the United States took an online course. In 2010, roughly 4 million did. A lot of this is due to the skyrocketing success of the online tutoring service, Khan Academy, which is now being incorporated into classroom learning. But the online teaching revolution has hit the university level as well. Virginia Tech has recently launched something called the Math Emporium. This is a huge classroom, located in a shopping mall, in which hundreds of students take computerized college math courses at one time, with roving teaching assistants there to answer questions. The jury is still out on how much real, live classroom instruction still matters, but early results at the Math Emporium suggest that students are both learning more and paying less.
2. Babysitter/Parent. Again, no big surprise here, given how many of us -- even those with qualms about video games -- have succumbed to their inevitability -- even desirability -- especially when caught in a long and tedious layover at an airport between flights. But the numbers are staggering. A Nielsen survey released a couple of months ago, titled "American Families See Tablets as Playmate, Teacher and Babysitter," found that in households that contained both children and tablet computers, seven out of ten kids under the age of 12 used the tablet -- a 9 percent increase compared with just three months earlier. As Huffington Post writer Lisa Belkin points out, a computer or laptop or tablet has "simultaneously become our children's source of communication, procrastination, education and entertainment." And in performing these multiple roles, these gadgets have supplanted much of the work we used to pay babysitters to do... or did as parents.
3. Lawyers. Another area where computers are increasingly doing some of the heavy lifting is the law. The latest trend here is something called e-discovery, software that can both furnish and analyze documents relevant to a law suit and deduce patterns of behavior. If this sounds a bit 1984-ish to you, it is. It's also putting scores of lawyers out of work. Thank goodness computers still can't replace trial lawyers (though I bet John Edwards wishes they could.)
4. Writers. A former colleague sent me a fascinating -- and chilling -- article in The Atlantic about Narrative Science, a Chicago-based startup that has developed an innovative computer platform that writes reported articles in a human-like tone. While their early work focused on stories with lots of data and repetitive story lines -- e.g. finance, sports -- the company is increasingly focusing on applying the program's underlying model: i.e., analyzing facts to generate an over-arching narrative -- to all sorts of topics. Fortunately, the company still employs real-life writers alongside their coders but one must wonder: for how long?
5. Drivers. Ok, so here's the creepiest trend of all in labor outsourcing: drivers. Yup, you heard that correctly. Apparently, Google engineers are quite close to perfecting the driverless vehicle. At a recent conference in Detroit, a spokesperson from Google said that, with further improvements, software and sensors could drive cars more safely than a human driver. Already, cars using this technology have traveled more than 200,000 miles without interference from a driver. And other major automakers and suppliers are pursuing some form of autonomous vehicle technology. Wowza.
How about you? What roles do you see computers taking on that you never thought possible?