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13 September 2011

Rise of the robots?

By Andrew Clifford

The purpose of IT is to impose structure, not just to make computers easy to use.

A chatbot is a computer program which can converse like a human. I recently came across an entertaining article about two chatbots having an argument. Although amusing, articles like this worry me because they make me wonder how much computers will eventually take over from us.

I do not worry about total computer-led slavery of the human race, as in the Matrix films. I worry about something much more mundane. If computers can already have semi-intelligent conversations, it is only a matter of time before they can have convincing conversations. Once they reach that point, how long before computers take over a lot of knowledge-based industries and jobs, not least the IT industry itself. If a business can discuss its IT needs directly with the computer, and the computer can configure itself to support the business, what future is there for the IT department?

I know nothing about developments in artificial intelligence, but what I know about human intelligence and IT makes me think that this is an unlikely future.

Most of our experience with IT is far from ideal. Organisations are stuck with IT that does not do exactly what they want, but the costs and disruption of changing it are too high. Governments struggle with implementing major systems like tax or healthcare. Even on a personal level, we struggle to use the programs on our PCs.

It is tempting to think that a more human interface to the computer could fix these problems. It could interpret what we mean, rationalise our requirements, and configure IT to support business. It could weight up competing political interests. It could even format pages properly.

Although there is certainly scope for applying new technologies to make computers easier to use, I do not think that they will be taking over any time soon.

Because we are human, we have complex motivations, we are emotional, we are ambiguous, we do not express ourselves clearly, we misunderstand each other, we forget what we are doing, and we don't do what we are told.

However, to support our sophisticated lifestyles, we have to overcome this human nature to an extent. To help us do this, we have created many different structures: language, mathematics, science, politics, organisations, laws, finance, contracts, procedures, the highway code, fishing licenses, and so on. Over the past few decades we have added to these with computer systems.

These structures help us live more complicated, sophisticated lifestyles. However, because of who we are, we resent the structures we put on ourselves. We do not want to be completely consistent, rational and structured.

This fundamental antagonism between the need for structure and our unstructured nature is at the root of our role, and any knowledge-based role. Our job is to bridge the gap between the real, irrational, empathetic human world and the artificial structures that we create.

This role is extremely hard, which is why we continue to have problems with IT. It takes much more skill than just being a good conversationalist. And this is why our jobs are not going to be taken away by computers any time soon, no matter how chatty they are.

Next: Bootstrapping 1: Speed and consistency

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