Markman Capital Insight

This is what the rise of robots really means

What worries me the most about the current economy is not corporate masters keeping entry-level workers down overtly but simply the trend toward robots, artificial intelligence and machine learning replacing the good old flesh and blood human.

This is not a faraway idea anymore; I think we will look back in ten years and conclude it was happening at lightning speed.

Just look at how artificial intelligence is changing the investment world, as "smart beta" funds deploying algorithms slowly claw into favor, beating human fund managers. Or even better, look at our very own Gemini futures systems, which have provided lights-out returns that are the brainchild of a small team of financial researchers and developers. Would you rather have four floors of a Boston skyscraper full of Fidelity sector analysts working for you, or one Gemini program? Nuff said.

The path of development makes me worry about Seattle more than any other city. The city is growing by leaps and bounds as, Google, Facebook and Microsoft hire developers by the thousands. They need bigger office buildings, apartment buildings and shopping facilities, all of which are emerging in this city at incredible speed.

That's great in the short-term for property values but in the long run they are coding up their own demise. A good, imaginative AI program focused on, say, advertising or buying or warehouse distribution synchronicity will ultimately do the work of ten programmers, or a hundred, or a thousand.

Won't it be interesting if it turns out that this age of technology turns out to be just as cyclical as the prior age of boom-and-bust cycles for aerospace? In 1971, in the depths of a recession, when Boeing had reduced its payroll to 38,690 from 100,800 four years earlier, there was a famous sign near the Seattle city limits that said, "Will the last person leaving Seattle -- turn out the lights." (True story). In 2025 we might really have a hard time remembering what all those young coders used to do.

-- Jon D. Markman


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