I recently read an article about the business philosopher Clayton Christensen. His core idea is about how well established businesses are overtaken by disruptive innovations at the bottom of their market. A classic example is the steel mills being overtaken by mini-mills. At first big steel was happy to cede the low end of the market to the new mini-mills. The low end of the market was re-bar (reinforcing bars) that were buried inside concrete to add strength. It was the cheapest steel and had the lowest profit margins. The big steel companies were happy to cede this aspect of the business. But the mini-mills started getting better, moving up the ladder of sophisticated and profitable products until they were challenging big steel at the top of their game. Big steel had enormous physical plants and sunk costs and suddenly could not compete.
This has happened in industry after industry according to Christensen. When transistor radios first came out they were junk compared to the sophisticated vacuum tube radios, but they were cheap. Teenagers, who didn’t have any money, bought them. Over time the transistor radios improved and tube radios basically don’t exist anymore.
This also occurs in military affairs. When the Bronze Age Greek civilizations were over-run by the iron using Dorians, it wasn’t that the Doric iron weapons were better. The bronze weapons of the sophisticated Greek civilization were quite advanced – but they iron weapons were much cheaper and easier to make.
Here is what struck me as I read about Christensen. Computers are getting better and better at what they do and automation is replacing a lot of jobs humans do – and not just in clerical tasks – but also potentially in some sophisticated ones.
Watson, the IBM computer that defeated several Jeopardychampions (and my old boss) equaled the human mind in a very specific area and occupies several rooms. But, soon enough Watson will be living in your phone (Siri is a very bad, but relatively cheap, fore-runner).
Your Personal Robot DJ
The Muzak Corporation no longer develops the cheesey, bland sound-track known as elevator music. They generate sophisticated packages of music for different environments, including custom-made selections that add an audio dimension to a carefully tailored environment (retailers are the major customers.) In this New Yorker profile, one of the Muzak architects asks the author a series of questions about himself and creates a “personal audio imaging profile” and a six-song personalized CD. The author is struck that while he hadn’t heard of any of the artists on the CD, he really liked it and even bought some CDs of the artists.
Could a computer do that?
Not yet, but consider the automatic iTunes recommendations based on past purchases (personally, I know very little about this). Right now they may be of limited utility to serious music aficionados appear eons away from the sophisticated capacities of the Muzak Corporation. But the algorithms of iTunes and other online music sellers will become continually more sophisticated. What happens to the company when an individual or business can subscribe to a highly personalized music selection service for a far lower price?
This example is at the high-end, but there are innumerable examples at the low-end as well. Automated cars are close to being a technological reality. How many people work as drivers around and what will they do when robot vehicles do all of the driving.
One can imagine the Muzak architects finding new and interesting things to do. But what about the many, many people who drive for a living? Will they start writing screenplays or becoming research scientists?
This scenario will play out in industry after industry. The very best maps are still made by hand, but computer generated maps are cheaper and usually good enough.
This would seem to be the argument of the “buggy whip makers” who were put out of business with the coming of the automobile. But I don’t think so. Most inventions replaced human brawn – which isn’t what people are best at anyway (pound for pound most animals are far stronger.) People still had hands, minds, and mouths, which could (particularly in combination) perform functions that were not easily automated. But these new capabilities are edging into core human functions.
Are we sliding into the world of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Player Piano in which machines do all the work and people are left with nothing to do?