This is an old but true story of my very own.
Back in the day, I worked for a computer firm that had a unique piece of hardware and software called the Contents Addressable File Store, or CAFS for short. I was the marketing manager for this remarkable piece of technology and, for the benefit of those wondering what it was, it did this amazing thing. You see, you could store documents on the CAFS system, and it would index every word of every document.
That meant you could have megabytes of data to search in documents and it would find every word that contained the word Aborigine, for example. It was incredible and the reason I use that word search, Aborigine, is that it was purchased by the Australian courts systems for the original Aboriginal land rights debates back in the day.
Of course, you can now search gigabytes of documents on your laptop or smartphone using Cortana or Siri but hey, it’s a generation of developments and times have moved on fast.
Anyways, when I was marketing this system a large organisation based in India, who will remain nameless, came over for a visit to the Head Office to hear of my firm’s latest developments. I took great delight in presenting this new shining gadget and, half way through, the CEO stopped me saying we don’t need this. I coughed and urmmed and aahed, and asked him why. He said, and I still remember his comment:
In India, we already have a contents addressable filestore. It’s called the document archive. We have this in a large room, and it is manned by 10,000 people. Each person is responsible for two filing cabinets and we have over 5,000 filing cabinets. Any time of any day, I can walk in there and shout: “Get me all the files that contain the word ‘Aborigine’”, and people will scurry back to me in less than a few minutes with all the documents that contain that word. And that system of 1,000’s of people with 1,000’s of filing cabinets is far cheaper than what you are presenting, as we would rather keep these people employed for the few rupees they earn, than get rid of them with your damned machines.
Lesson learned, I duly absorbed his comments into my future presentations by making it clear that if you have unlimited land storage for physical documents and unlimited human resources to look after them, then you don’t need CAFS.
Why do I share this story today?
Well, I was recently discussing artificial intelligence and a similar comment was made by a similar person. They told me that not all automation is good, and sometimes it is cheaper to keep humans in the process than to try to eliminate them with technology. They explained that human resources were cheap in their country, and they felt better about having humans doing drudge jobs than replacing them with machines if that means they would have no jobs.
It was food for thought and I still don’t know what I really think about it. I think it’s better to automate jobs that humans should not be doing, such as looking after a filing cabinet, but at the same time feel it is better if a human has some job than no job.
I will watch and wait and see how that one pans out.