The apocalypse came for accountants in 1979.
That was the year VisiCorp released VisiCalc, the very first PC spreadsheet program, that ran on an Apple II computer.
Before then, accountants spent literally days making each individual spreadsheet on paper, filling out cells with fine pencils and figuring out the math by hand, and later, on desktop adding machines. My father was an accountant and my mother was a bookkeeper; I grew up in the 70s, and I remember the kitchen and dining tables occasionally covered with green sheets of ledger paper and pink flakes from pencil erasers.
With VisiCalc, spreadsheets could be prepared in seconds.
End of the world for accountants, right?
Not so much.
As related on the Freakonomics podcast, since 1980 we have added 600,000 accountants to the economy. Now that spreadsheets are cheaper, businesses want more of them. A lot more. And spreadsheets can be used for so many things -- for anesthesiologists computing doses, middle school teachers tracking class attendance. At Light Reading, we use spreadsheets to plan conference coverage.
VisiCalc "allowed spreadsheet users, not just accountants, the opportunity to become enormously more creative and productive. It created more work opportunities and also made the Apple II personal computer popular," Allen Sneider, an accountant who beta tested VisiCalc, and who was its first registered owner, tells Light Reading.
But the news isn't all good: Since 1980, the US has lost 400,000 jobs related to accounting, namely accounting clerks and bookkeepers, the people who actually did the math to fill spreadsheet cells.
A VisiCalc user with an Apple II. Accountants feared VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet software, would take their jobs.
(Photo: Dave Winer, CC BY-SA 2.0)
Now, we're facing a possible job apocalypse, not just for accounts, but for everybody, brought on by artificial intelligence. Machines that can play chess and Go today will be able to do everybody's job -- and soon -- leaving most of us no way to make a living. Consider these headlines:
Not so fast, say AI proponents. Yes, AI will destroy jobs. But AI will also create them.
For examples of technology destroying jobs, you can go back further than the spreadsheet. Much further.
In the Mad Men era, every middle manager (almost all men) had their own private secretary (almost all women). There aren't many secretaries left.
A "computer" used to be a job, rather than a thing. From the late 18th Century until the digital age, peaking in World War II, computers were people who made calculations now made by the electronic machines we've named for them.
People like Katherine Johnson, a NASA employee shown here in 1966, worked as "computers" for centuries. Johnson later worked as a physicist and mathematician. She's a character in the 2016 movie Hidden Figures.
And computers weren't the first time technology reduced or eliminated jobs. It's been going on for hundreds and thousands of years. 90% of Americans were farmers in 1862, compared with 2% by 1996.
If you want to look way back: In ancient Greek and Roman times, being an oarsman on a ship was a valuable skill, and a pretty good job. Advances in ship propulsion put oarsmen out of work.
And yet, despite thousands of years of technology taking jobs, we still have jobs.
Technology, including AI, changes the nature of work, but it doesn't reduce the need for work, Steve Abrams, VP in the Watson Group and IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM) distinguished engineer, tells Light Reading.
"Technology has changed the nature of work that people could do since the first time that somebody figured out if they hooked a tool up to an animal they could plow more fields with less labor," Abrams said. "At each step along the way, there was initial fear -- 'oh my gosh this will put people out of work.' There was a period that re-skilling was needed. But there was still a need of people doing work. Higher level work."
IBM uses the term "cognitive computing," rather than "artificial intelligence," because it sees machines as working with people rather than replacing them, Abrams says. The company published a set of principles guiding ethical AI and cognitive systems last month.
There are things that computers can't do, and won't be able to do for the foreseeable future. "There is always a need for human judgment, always a need for compassion. There is always a need for things we wouldn't give over to a computer," Abrams says.
"Like any technology, AI displaces jobs and creates new jobs," says Melanie Mitchell, professor of computer science at Portland State University.
As one example of new job creation: AI visual recognition software needs data that is labeled by humans, so AI can learn from it. Humans need to label faces and other objects, so AI knows what they are and how to recognize those objects in other images. "This is a whole new economy for people that can label data for AI programs, so AI programs can learn," Mitchell says.
These are often low-paying jobs. However, AI often creates higher-level jobs for software engineers, computer scientists and people who support them, Mitchell says.
"Right now, if you're a software engineer that knows something about AI, you have a huge number of job opportunities, because there are so many companies investing in it," Mitchell says.
She adds, "AI takes jobs away and creates new jobs, which I think is true for many technologies throughout the history of technology. It's hard to predict where that will go."
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