Monday, December 12, 2016

Guest post by Samir Khuller on Humans, Machines, and the Future of Work (a workshop)

Guest Post from Samir Khuller on

Humans, Machines, and the Future of Work
(A Workshop)

On Dec 5th and 6th I attended, at Rice University,
a workshop on Humans, Machines, and the Future of Work.
I had a wonderful lunch with John Markoff  of NY Times,
and Moshe Vardi of Rice University (Moshe is the brains
behind this workshop).

I have rarely ever attended such meetings, that are so different
from the usual conferences I attend where the talks are all
rather technical and half the audience is lost half way through the talk.

The main theme poses the speculative question about the evolving
nature of work and how technology, and especially recent
advances in AI and Robotics (Self driving cars, Robots to look
after the elderly, self checkout machines that can simply
recognize your shopping order) can render huge categories of
jobs redundant. Why hire a human, when a robot will cook
dinner, and clean your home every day? What will people spend their time doing?
Will the work week reduce greatly? Yet, for many, their devices and
24/7 connectivity means we are working more than ever! The
speakers had varied backgrounds, from Economics to Social Science
to Roboticists.

In the end, its clear that the nature of work is constantly evolving.
Our children could have job titles, our parents could never dream of
when they were selecting a profession. However, the rapidly growing
interest in Tech and Computing is clear - these are powerful societal
forces at work. New job titles - Robot fixer, Robot Programmer,
Virtual Reality Expert, Lawyer for the protection of Robots. Demand
for graduates with those skills will continue to increase, and the
Universities that invest quickly and early will become the dominant
players. CMU,  Georgia Tech and others invested very early in colleges
of computing, and this has paid of handsomely for them. The demand for
CS degrees is going to increase even more in the next decade
with research moving more closely to the impact that technology is
having on society. We as researchers, need to pay attention to
societal impact, since its very real and immediate.

The workshop speakers were pretty amazing - talks were accessible,
and extremely well delivered. I suppose such talks meant for a really
broad audience (there actually were not many CS people in the audience)
and thus the points being made are pretty high level.

I would recommend that we all become better acquainted with some of
the social issues that interact with Computer Science, and going
to workshops like this is a great start.


  1. Why do we accept conference formats where 1/2 of the audience can't follow the talk? (and 1/2 is generous)

  2. because theorists like to live in their bubble....

  3. That goes to the fundamental issue with theory where a work is not considered worthwhile if it was not difficult enough technically. I have seen reviewers rejecting papers just because they could come up with the solution in less than an hour. In other fields which have observable impact on people's lives the simpler is better. Not in theory.

  4. I agree with this last comment. One time, I was working with a student and we had a pretty complex algorithm, spent several days trying to write a proof down, and we were convinced it works, just writing the proof was a challenge. Our collaborator suggested a pre-processing step which caused the algorithm to become much simpler and the proof was also much easier now. My immediate reaction was "Unfortunately now we are going to struggle to get this work published." Just as predicted, getting the simpler algorithm published was not easy and the paper was initially rejected by multiple venues, with exactly the comment that the algorithm was not complicated enough! (Eventually we added many more results to the paper and published the work.)