The fear of losing your job to AI
A look at how computing replaced manual human calculation.
The era of "Human Computers"
Before the advent of electronic computers, complex calculations and mathematical problems were often performed by "human computers" - people who were trained in mathematics and performed calculations by hand or using mechanical calculators. These workers were employed in a variety of fields, including astronomy, engineering, finance, and government.
The work of human computers was labor-intensive and required a great deal of skill and attention to detail. They were often responsible for performing complex calculations that were critical to the success of major projects, such as the development of military weapons or the calculation of trajectories for space flights. They used a variety of tools, including mechanical calculators, slide rules, and mathematical tables, to perform their work.
At its peak, the "human computing" industry employed tens of thousands of workers in the United States alone. Many of these workers were women, who were often overlooked for other technical or scientific roles. However, their work was critical to the success of many projects and companies.
One notable example of the work of human computers was at NASA, where they played a critical role in calculating trajectories for spaceflights and ensuring that they were on course. One of the most well-known "human computers" at NASA was Katherine Johnson, who was part of the team that calculated the trajectory for John Glenn's historic orbital flight in 1962.
During World War II, "human computers" were employed by the military to perform calculations for the development of weapons, such as bombs and missiles. For example, the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb, employed many "human computers" to perform complex mathematical calculations.
In the banking and finance industries, "human computers" were employed to perform complex financial calculations, such as interest and investment calculations. In fact, some of the earliest computer programming languages were developed specifically to automate these calculations and reduce the need for human computers.
"Human computers" were also employed by government agencies and private companies to analyze and process census and survey data. These workers would manually tabulate data from paper questionnaires, often using mechanical calculators and other tools to perform calculations.
In the field of astronomy, "human computers" were employed to perform calculations related to celestial mechanics and the positions of celestial objects. One example is Henrietta Swan Leavitt, who worked as a "computer" at Harvard College Observatory in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and made important discoveries related to the brightness and distance of stars.
The advent of Electronic Computers
The work of human computers was not only tedious but also prone to human error, making the introduction of electronic computers all the more significant.
Electronic computers were faster, more accurate, and could perform much more complex calculations than human computers ever could. The first electronic computers were developed in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and by the 1960s, electronic computers had become ubiquitous in many industries. As a result, the need for human computers declined rapidly.
With the advent of electronic computers, the industry of human computers rapidly declined. Many of the tasks that had previously been performed by human computers could be done faster, more accurately, and with less labor using electronic computers. As a result, the demand for human computers fell sharply. By the 1970s, the use of human computers had become largely obsolete, as most organizations had switched to electronic computers for their computational needs.
Despite the decline of human computers, their legacy lives on. Many of the pioneers of the computing industry, including Ada Lovelace, Katherine Johnson, and Grace Hopper, were human computers. Their work paved the way for modern computing and their contributions should not be forgotten.
The Impact of AI on the Job Market and Society
The rise of electronic computers had a profound impact on the job market. Tens of thousands of human computers were suddenly out of work, and many struggled to find new employment. However, the invention of electronic computers also created new jobs in fields such as computer programming, software engineering, and data analysis.
While the "human computing" industry was important for its time and made significant contributions to scientific research, engineering design, and finance, it was a relatively small and specialized field compared to the modern software industry. The rise of electronic computers in the mid-20th century and the subsequent development of software as a distinct field led to the growth of the software industry and the creation of many new jobs and opportunities.
In comparison, the software industry today is a much larger and more complex field, with millions of professionals worldwide working in software development, engineering, testing, and related areas. According to industry reports, the global software industry is worth trillions of dollars and is expected to continue to grow in the coming years.
Today, the rise of AI systems and machine learning has led some to fear that the job market for software engineers could be similarly disrupted in the future. As AI systems become more powerful and capable, there is a concern that they could eventually replace many of the tasks currently performed by software engineers. This could lead to widespread job displacement, as well as a shift in the skills and qualifications required for jobs in the software engineering field.
The rise of electronic computers and AI systems has transformed the way we live and work. While these technologies have brought about many benefits, they have also raised important ethical and societal questions. As we continue to develop and refine these technologies, it will be important to consider their broader implications and work to ensure that they are implemented in ways that benefit society as a whole.
Many are excited about the expansive implications that AI can bring to the table, similar to the new industries that were created as a result of the Electronic Computer. But the number of potential current jobs that could be impacted is significantly larger than the ones impacted by computers. And the scale of the impact may be a reason big enough to prioritize the creation of directives on how to deal with the collateral damage these new technologies can bring to the world.
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