27 03 2013
Why software accelerates technology innovation, and why you should care
Innovation in technology has always driven major changes in society, both at the individual scale—our everyday experiences—and at the macroscopic level, including growth in the economy. Today, software is at the core of most technology, and software is evolving ever more quickly due to a number of trends discussed in The Software Society. The book discusses the impact of software and the technology acceleration it creates on both our culture and economy. The cultural impact influences our everyday experience, even what it means to be human; the economic impact drives to a large extent much of our freedom to enjoy being human.
The Software Society is my attempt to delve into these issues in depth. It’s not a quick read. For this note, I asked myself whether it was possible to explain briefly why I believe most readers would find the subject relevant to their lives.
One aspect that can impact every day of our lives is the handling of human language by software. For decades, there has been slow progress in technologies such as speech recognition and interpretation of human language by computers. The relative success of Apple’s Siri suggests that that technology may have finally exceeded a threshold of utility. As the technology steadily improves, human language will become a growing part of our interaction with computers. In the not-so-long run, most of us will become dependent on our “personal assistant,” most often addressed with a mobile device like a smartphone, to help us do many things such as create appointments, maintain our social communication channels, and give us easy and quick access to the deep information resources of the Web. There will be specialized assistants from companies and that address specific subtasks, with our personal assistant able to find and use these specialized resources. The personalized assistant will evolve into a consistent resource available to us on many platforms, making our connection with computers require less adaptation to the platform.
Technology has always changed the human experience, from the development of farming equipment and techniques that allowed urbanization to the impact of the Internet on how we communicate and obtain information. In the past, the impact of major technology innovations on society has been relatively slow. Software acceleration is making those changes more rapid, with the explosive growth in smartphones a symptom of how fast societal norms can change today. The impact of language technology in tightening our connection to computers is a fundamental technology breakthrough that will change the human experience more quickly than most people expect.
The impact on individuals is of course related to the impact on the economy. As individuals seek to gain increasing advantage from this trend, it creates business opportunities. The opportunities come from products and services that serve individuals, but also from products and services that help companies cope with the trend. I believe that the combination of language technologies and connected mobile devices—exemplified by the digital personal assistant—is the next big technology innovation that will drive economic growth.
But this same acceleration in the capabilities of computers to handle things like language brings an economic downside. Software can do more, and many jobs are being replaced entirely by automation. Productivity improvements are necessary for long-term economic well-being, but productivity can be improved by giving an employee better tools, rather than automating away the job. In fact, the language connection can make software tools more accessible on the job, making employees more effective. And companies can afford to pay more to more effective employees.
But employees come with what is perceived as higher overhead than computers, e.g., payroll taxes and medical plans. In the current recovery, there is evidence that companies are looking at full automation—hiring computers—rather than rehiring employees as the recovery proceeds. While it may appear to make sense for an individual company to resist adding employees when possible, the long-term collective effect of such decisions overall is to reduce the number of people with jobs that allow them to buy from the company. The collective impact of over-automation is a declining economy, leading to even more over-automation and job loss—a dangerous downward spiral. The Software Society examines these issues in depth and suggests some solutions. We will all be hurt by the economic malaise that will result from the current misunderstanding of the underlying problem.
I’ll return to the implied question in the title of this posting: Should you care about the software-driven acceleration in technology? Only if you’re human.