Will Object Recognition Drive Growth or Slash Jobs?

As we enter 2013, prognostications abound regarding object recognition technology and its likely impact on the economy, jobs and the human condition.

Some paint a grim picture of human obsolescence and slow growth. Others, a Utopian image of humans and machines extending each other’s capabilities that unlocks new economic vistas for the benefit of all.

In the less sanguine camp is Nobel Prize-winning economist, Paul Krugman who takes issue with the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) seemingly pat assumption that long term growth will occur at about the same rates we’ve seen for the past few decades.

Google Glasses

Google Glasses Courtesy of Google, Inc.

On the more optimistic side is Bianca Bosker, Executive Tech Editor for the Huffington Post. She does a masterful job synthesizing a wide array of sources to make a balanced case.

Writing in the New York Times, Krugman points to Robert Gordon of Northwestern University and his contention that the age of growth that began in the late 1700s may be drawing to a close. He sees Gordon’s reasoning as a useful basis for doubting the CBO’s projections, however, Krugman does not agree with Gordon.

Gordon contends that growth has occurred unevenly owing to several discrete industrial revolutions that took us to the next level of major growth. The first was the steam engine. The second was the internal combustion engine, electrification and chemical engineering. The third is the information age and the Internet where smart machines are the payoff for fewer people than was the case in the second revolution.

Krugman posits that machines with ever-improving artificial intelligence and object recognition capabilities will likely fuel higher productivity and economic growth. He even states it would be “all too easy” to fear that smart machines will bring about the mass obsolescence of American workers.

If so, is Krugman saying the CBO’s long term projections are too conservative? Could this be a silver lining of sorts? He then asks the more unsettling question, “Who will benefit from this growth?”

Krugman promises in a future column to take up why the conventional wisdom underpinning long run budget projections is “all wrong.” And when he does, we should get a clearer view of his take on the roles object recognition, machine learning and human beings will play in the economy of tomorrow.

Bosker, in striking a balance between human obsolescence and human empowerment, seconds Kevin Kelly’s prediction in Wired that “robo surgeons” and “nannybots” will surely take over human jobs.

She then explores Google’s Project Glass as an example of wearable computers soon to arrive that observe and record our surroundings like an add-on brain.

Bosker quotes AI researcher Rod Furlan who speculates that Google Glass could soon help us find misplaced car keys. She predicts facial recognition will help us remember people’s names as soon as they come into view and bypass a potentially awkward encounter. And that object recognition could encourage us to skip an indulgent food we’d best not eat.

Ultimately, Bosker holds that big data married with gut instinct offers us an opportunity to stake out new professions as laid out by New York Times writer, Steve Lohr in his story, “Sure, Big Data Is Great. But So Is Intuition.” 

So what’s your gut telling you? As wearable computers become more affordable, how do you see them revolutionizing your business?

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