Lee Pitts: Computer Cowboys
I had an interesting conversation with a guy who said he was an “emerging technology specialist.” Or, was it “emerging technology officer?” Anyway, I do remember him specifically telling me that I’d better start getting in line for welfare and food stamps because I’d soon be replaced by a computer.
“Really?” I replied. “You think a computer can write a semi-humorous humor column?”
“Trust me,” he said, “if they can make a computer that will drive a car, steer a rocket into space or vacuum your carpet they can make one to replace the senseless dribble you write. You do know that already there are computer linguistic engineering programs to correct your spelling and grammar and rewrite poorly written sentences?”
“Yeah, I know. I once ran a column I wrote through one of those computer programs and it said I was writing for an audience at the eighth grade level!” With my knees knocking and my heart palpitating I asked the emerging technology specialist, “How long do you think I have?”
“A year, at most. You’re already on life support,” he said. “I just read a book, for example, that was written entirely by a computer.”
“You’re kidding me? Was it any good?” I asked.
“No. But that’s not the point. Neither is most of the stuff in bookstores now. The point is, no industry is safe from the computers and robots.”
“I know. I never thought that there’d be a machine to pick wine grapes or mow a person’s lawn. And I never would have ever believed in a million years they could make a computer-driven robot to milk a cow!”
“Any farmer or rancher,” he said, “that is having a hard time finding labor now will either buy a computer/robot to do the job, or cease to produce that crop. It’s that simple.”
“Wow. You’re really smart. I bet your services must be very much in demand. But I know one occupation that’s safe: the cowboy. You can’t tell me,” I said, “that a computer will ever pull a calf, build fence, castrate bulls, get into the mind of a colt, fix a spur strap, shoe a horse, out think a cow, train a cow dog, give a vaccination or put a prolapse back in and sew it up with a needle, leather punch and some whang leather. And I doubt that calves will voluntarily load themselves on a cattle truck or sit down on a hot iron to brand themselves.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure if I were you,” said the emerging technology specialist. “You do know that computers are already grading carcasses? I’ve no doubt the scientists will come up with water troughs that tell a manager back at headquarters when a ball valve is broken, or there is no water in the tank. Just as helicopters are now being used to gather cattle in some instances, I’m sure there will be drones that will do the same thing. It’s quite easy to imagine a computer system where computers open and close gates to sort cattle.”
“You sure are intelligent,” I said. “What was it you said you do?”
“I’m an emerging technology specialist.”
“You must make a lot of money and have a corner office in a tall building somewhere.”
“I do all right,” said the blushing emerging technology specialist.”
“I guess I’d better start looking for another job,” I said, downhearted.
We parted ways and I spent a lot of time thinking about what the emerging technology specialist said. That is, until we accidentally ran into the smart guy recently when we were shopping in a big chain drugstore that shall go nameless. There standing by the self-checkout lines was the emerging technology specialist.
“Hey, how are you doing? Remember me?” I asked. “What are you doing here?”
“This is where I work,” he mumbled and looked dejectedly at the ground as if he’d been caught stealing money from the plate in church. “I help people if they have trouble in the self checkout line.”
And sure enough, that’s what it said on his name tag, “Emerging Technology Specialist.”
“Wow, this is not what I imagined. Tell me, do you like your job?”
“It’s all right. I get minimum wage and it’s part time, but it does leave me plenty of time to play video games.”
These are not the best of times In America. Our country is in tatters. It feels like the greatest experiment in Democracy the world has ever seen is dying a slow and ugly death. Perhaps…
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