IBM's Watson Has a New Brother With a Bigger Brain

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Jeopardy! champs Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings went against IBM's (IBM) supercomputer Watson and got whomped. But at least that experience didn't put them out of a job.

Consumers may not be as lucky as Big Blue delves deeper into artificial intelligence with a new generation of computer chips.

Meet Watson's New Sibling

IBM's Watson demonstrated the ability to understand questions asked in natural language and quickly respond after trolling through reams of data in its system. Watson's new cognitive chip brother -- code-named TrueNorth -- is designed to mimic some of the human brain's functions like perception, action, and cognition.

Systems with these chips -- so-called cognitive computers -- have the potential to exhibit behavior learned through interaction with the environment rather than through pre-programmed instructions, said Kelly Sims, an IBM spokeswoman, in an email interview. IBM announced last week that it completed testing the neurosynaptic chips and is now working on scaling production.

A Robot Moved My Cheese

Such souped-up computing power raises the bar on which jobs may be at risk in the future.

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"With Watson, IBM said it could be applied to medical and legal fields where you have lots of information that you have to base a decision on. That puts pressure on any knowledge-based job that requires expertise," said futurist Marshall Brain, author of the "Robotic Nation" series. "Should people in higher-paying jobs be worried? Absolutely."

Brain says there will be a seismic shift in the labor market once IBM or another technology company figures out a way to give computers a vision system or module. We're getting closer to achieving that every day. Google, for example, has developed technology that allows a Toyota Prius to drive itself, as seen in this video by blogger Robert Scoble.

When it comes to using robots for highly scientific work, Joel Burdick, a mechanical engineering professor at the California Institute of Technology, says technology may be there in the distant future -- at least 20 years out -- for use in certain narrow applications.

IBM, for one, believes its big brain chips could one day be used in cognitive computer systems that could issue tsunami warnings derived from its decision-making skills.

Corporate America, however, has mainly been looking to use intelligent computer systems and robots as a means to save money on labor costs, Burdick said, as well as to bring consistency and safety when pumping out products.

Human Wanted on Aisle 11

We've seen the man vs. robot labor war play out over the decades.

In the early formation of the country, 90% of Americans farmed but eventually migrated into factories during the industrial revolution, Brain said. As automation began to replace factory workers -- from painters and welders in the automobile industry to people who boxed goods in the retail industry -- people moved into the service industry. And once vision technology becomes advanced, it's likely to displace a number of workers in the service industry, too, Brain said.

In some ways, however, corporate America may not need to rely on vision technology to save money. The era of self-service is upon us, and it's pervasive. Look around at the banks with their ATMs, gas stations that have attendant-free pumps, and grocery stores with checkout stands without checkers.

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, for one, is aware of this shift as more grocery stores put in a bank of self-checkout stands where consumers can scan, bag, and pay for their groceries with the need for only one human clerk to stand watch and answer customers' questions when they arise.

"This issue, I imagine, comes up a lot at [contract] bargaining situations with our members. It's definitely something we fight against when it affects the number of people who are hired or takes away jobs," said UFCW spokeswoman Nicky Coalberth. "I don't want to come across anti-technology, but there is a balance between technology and good union jobs."

IBM offered up one example of how its cognitive computing system could be used, and that's as a tool for a grocery stocker, who wears an instrumented glove to monitor sight, smells, texture, and temperature to determine if produce has spoiled or is contaminated.

Here and Now -- and Tomorrow

But for Michael Vassar, president of the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, the technology that exists today could replace the vast majority of Americans' jobs. That's because, Vassar says, 80% of the work performed today would not have to be done, if people made the things they need and want themselves.

Professor Burdick, however, has the attitude that as workers are replaced by robots, it will force them to consider retraining their skills and push them up the "intelligence chain."

Even then, however, they may bump into the likes of another Watson from IBM or its new cognitive chip brother.

Motley Fool contributor Dawn Kawamoto does not own any shares in IBM. The Motley Fool owns shares of International Business Machines.

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