Friday, January 17, 2014

Disappearing accountants

The Economist this week has a feature on the changing nature of work. Just as machines displaced agricultural workers in the fields and craft-artisans in their homes, so a new generation of smart computer systems are displacing middle-class intellectual workers.
"Even after computers beat grandmasters at chess (once thought highly unlikely), nobody thought they could take on people at free-form games played in natural language. Then Watson, a pattern-recognising supercomputer developed by IBM, bested the best human competitors in America’s popular and syntactically tricksy general-knowledge quiz show “Jeopardy!” Versions of Watson are being marketed to firms across a range of industries to help with all sorts of pattern-recognition problems. Its acumen will grow, and its costs fall, as firms learn to harness its abilities.

"The machines are not just cleverer, they also have access to far more data. The combination of big data and smart machines will take over some occupations wholesale; in others it will allow firms to do more with fewer workers. Text-mining programs will displace professional jobs in legal services. Biopsies will be analysed more efficiently by image-processing software than lab technicians. Accountants may follow travel agents and tellers into the unemployment line as tax software improves. Machines are already turning basic sports results and financial data into good-enough news stories."
How likely is your job to be taken over by automation? The Economist article includes this chart.

Lose your job to a machine?

In previous rounds of automation, displaced workers were able to get an education and populate middle-class jobs (as clerks, and later as the famous 'computer programmers') which were pleasanter and better-paid than their previous jobs which automation had killed. But as the computers get smarter, perhaps a lot of people can't compete anymore - they're just not that smart or conscientious. And personal trainers, in general, are not fantastically remunerated.

The process of intellectual displacement is interesting. The machine systems are not, again in general, particularly good social actors (which explains the chart above). They can, however, automate large parts of the informational, computational and process-rich components of a middle-class job. A few highly skilled practitioners - expert accountants, if you like - can use these highly-capable tools to solve problems which used to be tackled by small armies of lesser-skilled accountants. Productivity has risen but those displaced 'average accountants' appear to have nowhere else to go. A life of benefits and endless video games beckons.

Oh, did I say automation hasn't produced good social actors? We progress one step at a time.

The elite of the Roman Empire didn't do a lot of work, manual or otherwise. They managed the great affairs of state, and slaves or lesser mortals did everything else. It raises a question of whether we should embrace or fear ubiquitous automation. The pessimists amongst us will recall 'bread and circuses'.