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software substitution

Contributor(s): Ivy Wigmore

Software substitution is the use of computer programs to conduct tasks that have traditionally been performed by a human.

The replacement of workers by software is an ongoing trend. Well-established examples include automatic teller machines (ATMs) and automated checkouts. An increasing number of tasks can be automated, including many that have not been considered possible to develop software for. Robojournalism, for example, is the creation of articles and other types of writing by content generation software. Content generation products combine artificial intelligence (AI), data analytics and machine learning to produce content that can be hard to differentiate from that written by a human. Although the current technology is most successful for brief and formulaic content, it is likely to become sophisticated enough to generate more complex works.

In an article in the New York Times, Anna Lowrey explains how data from crowdsourcing platforms like Amazon's Mechanical Turk can also be used to enable software substitution. For an image recognition task, a company might hire humans to identify, for example, the cutest pictures of cats from among a large number of images. Once the humans have completed that task the data can be analyzed and used to develop software that replicates the human task. Then, the next time they want to sort cat pictures according to cuteness, it won't be necessary to hire anyone for even the extremely low fees typical of MTurk tasks. The company can then  sell the software to other businesses so that they too can automate the task. 

In January 2014, The Economist identified twenty jobs that were likely to be fully automated within the coming twenty years. These were, ordered according to likelihood of replacement: telemarketers, accountants, retail clerks, technical writers, real estate agents, word processors and typists, machinists, commercial pilots, economists, health technologists, actors, firefighters, editors, chemical engineers, clergy, athletic trainers, dentists and recreational therapists. 

 

This was last updated in April 2014

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