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Communications of the ACM

The profession of IT

Avalanches Are Coming

Avalanches Are Coming, illustration

Have you noticed how profoundly information technology is affecting jobs and professions? Previous waves of technology innovation mostly automated manual work: machines displaced blue-collar workers, leaving relatively untouched the white-collar "knowledge workers" celebrated 50 years ago by Peter Drucker. The current wave of information technology innovation is different. It is automating knowledge work and taking jobs away from the middle class. It is producing the greatest financial returns for the designers and builders of the machines, thus contributing to income inequality that troubles so many people.2,6

Ubiquitous mobile computers deeply connected into vast networks of information efficiently automate cognitive tasks. For example, Apple's iPhone can talk, answer spoken questions, and recognize fingerprints. Laws in four U.S. states now authorize Google's driverless car. Google Glass overlays real-time displays onto visual scenes, eerily reminiscent of the Star Trek Borg. Graphics processors make virtual worlds look breathtakingly real. IBM's Blue beats world chess grandmasters and IBM's Watson matches natural language patterns faster than the best human "Jeopardy!" players. Supercomputers now pore through huge databases of phone and email metadata to produce detailed reports of any person's movements—and predict their future movements. Facial recognition software does remarkably well at identifying persons in surveillance videos. None of these things seemed possible two decades ago.


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