by Jan Baughman
(Swans - February 28, 2011) Watson and Wisconsin have been hot topics in the recent news, behind the protests breaking out throughout Northern Africa and the Middle East. IBM followed its development of Deep Blue, a computer that in 1997 beat Garry Kasparov in chess, with Watson, whose artificial-intelligence abilities were tested in a two-day Jeopardy! match against the game show's winningest humans. Wisconsinites took to the streets and filled the state Capitol to protest Tea Party- (i.e., Koch brothers) financed Governor Scott Walker's attempt to strip teachers and child-care providers of collective bargaining rights under the guise of budget cuts. His logic holds no water, as other unions who supported him -- the police, firefighters, and state troopers -- were left untouched, and he summarily dismissed the teachers union's offer to negotiate the financials. Watson's logic prevailed, and he mercilessly beat the humans. We humans need to take very seriously the implications of both Watson and the situation in Wisconsin, and their potential impact on the future of labor in America.
Loaded with four terabytes of data, voice recognition software, and lightening-fast computing speed, Watson was able to search his memory, calculate the probability of a correct response, and buzz in faster than his human opponents. What does "his" technological victory mean for us mere mortals? Day one of the match was a veritable IBM infomercial, interspersed with vignettes of the scientists who spent years creating him, and doctors who touted his potential for analyzing vast amounts of data to diagnose patients and determine the best treatment option.
There are myriad examples of technological advances in recent decades, from allowing for deep water and deep space exploration and intervention in environments inhospitable to humans, and improvements in surgical procedures, even allowing skilled physicians to perform remote-control surgeries on people in rural venues. Yet consider the impact of high-tech inventions intended to optimize production. Assembly-line jobs have been outsourced to robots. ATM machines have diminished bank tellers. Automated call centers have replaced operators, and made it virtually impossible to get assistance from a human being. And on, and on. Just imagine Watson in the hands of insurance companies, supplanting humans with his split-second decision-making to deny medical treatment or coverage... Are people, generally programmed with ethics and compassion, doomed to obsolescence in the work force?
Turning to Wisconsin and the ongoing demonstrations against Governor Scott Walker's union-busting bill, the answer may very well be "yes." With the education system already in shambles, teachers -- the once revered and now embattled caretakers of our children's future -- are being scapegoated for their "costly" pensions. They stand to become the latest victims in the systematic dismantling of the US labor movement, which resulted in child labor laws, safe working environments, and the much-revered two-day weekend, among other benefits. The corporate coup that has caused wages to stagnate for over 40 years, diverted pension plans into the stock market, outsourced jobs to increase profits, and has taken control of the political process is systematically destroying the American workforce and thus the American Dream.
Americans watched the protests in Tunisia and Egypt with applause for their respective fights for a better life -- protests that took place with neither permits nor fenced-in, designated protest zones. Protests in which the military and police refused to harm the people they are there to protect. Kudos to the Wisconsin police for doing the same, and to the state's Democratic senators who fled rather than permit a vote on this regressive and repressive bill. The fact that they had to do so is a stain on the very democracy that we wish to "export" to the rest of the world.
Watson and Wisconsin: two seemingly unrelated stories yet both important with respect to the future well being of we the people. Watson's impact may be decades away. However, the events in Wisconsin are a significant turning point for labor unions and the protection of the middle class from the corporate elite and the politicians who serve them. Workers of the world -- public or private sector, unionized or non-unionized -- unite against Watson and Walker! An injury to one is an injury to all. We are all Wisconsinites.
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