Jeopardy! champs Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings went against IBM's (IBM) supercomputer Watson and got whomped. But at least that experience didn't put them out of a job.

Consumers may not be as lucky as Big Blue delves deeper into artificial intelligence with a new generation of computer chips.

Meet Watson's New Sibling

IBM's Watson demonstrated the ability to understand questions asked in natural language and quickly respond after trolling through reams of data in its system. Watson's new cognitive chip brother -- code-named TrueNorth -- is designed to mimic some of the human brain's functions like perception, action, and cognition.

Systems with these chips -- so-called cognitive computers -- have the potential to exhibit behavior learned through interaction with the environment rather than through pre-programmed instructions, said Kelly Sims, an IBM spokeswoman, in an email interview. IBM announced last week that it completed testing the neurosynaptic chips and is now working on scaling production.

A Robot Moved My Cheese

Such souped-up computing power raises the bar on which jobs may be at risk in the future.

"With Watson, IBM said it could be applied to medical and legal fields where you have lots of information that you have to base a decision on. That puts pressure on any knowledge-based job that requires expertise," said futurist Marshall Brain, author of the "Robotic Nation" series. "Should people in higher-paying jobs be worried? Absolutely."

Brain says there will be a seismic shift in the labor market once IBM or another technology company figures out a way to give computers a vision system or module. We're getting closer to achieving that every day. Google, for example, has developed technology that allows a Toyota Prius to drive itself, as seen in this video by blogger Robert Scoble.

When it comes to using robots for highly scientific work, Joel Burdick, a mechanical engineering professor at the California Institute of Technology, says technology may be there in the distant future -- at least 20 years out -- for use in certain narrow applications.

IBM, for one, believes its big brain chips could one day be used in cognitive computer systems that could issue tsunami warnings derived from its decision-making skills.

Corporate America, however, has mainly been looking to use intelligent computer systems and robots as a means to save money on labor costs, Burdick said, as well as to bring consistency and safety when pumping out products.

Human Wanted on Aisle 11

We've seen the man vs. robot labor war play out over the decades.

In the early formation of the country, 90% of Americans farmed but eventually migrated into factories during the industrial revolution, Brain said. As automation began to replace factory workers -- from painters and welders in the automobile industry to people who boxed goods in the retail industry -- people moved into the service industry. And once vision technology becomes advanced, it's likely to displace a number of workers in the service industry, too, Brain said.

In some ways, however, corporate America may not need to rely on vision technology to save money. The era of self-service is upon us, and it's pervasive. Look around at the banks with their ATMs, gas stations that have attendant-free pumps, and grocery stores with checkout stands without checkers.

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, for one, is aware of this shift as more grocery stores put in a bank of self-checkout stands where consumers can scan, bag, and pay for their groceries with the need for only one human clerk to stand watch and answer customers' questions when they arise.

"This issue, I imagine, comes up a lot at [contract] bargaining situations with our members. It's definitely something we fight against when it affects the number of people who are hired or takes away jobs," said UFCW spokeswoman Nicky Coalberth. "I don't want to come across anti-technology, but there is a balance between technology and good union jobs."

IBM offered up one example of how its cognitive computing system could be used, and that's as a tool for a grocery stocker, who wears an instrumented glove to monitor sight, smells, texture, and temperature to determine if produce has spoiled or is contaminated.

Here and Now -- and Tomorrow

But for Michael Vassar, president of the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, the technology that exists today could replace the vast majority of Americans' jobs. That's because, Vassar says, 80% of the work performed today would not have to be done, if people made the things they need and want themselves.

Professor Burdick, however, has the attitude that as workers are replaced by robots, it will force them to consider retraining their skills and push them up the "intelligence chain."

Even then, however, they may bump into the likes of another Watson from IBM or its new cognitive chip brother.

Motley Fool contributor Dawn Kawamoto does not own any shares in IBM. The Motley Fool owns shares of International Business Machines.


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17 Comments

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SPQR

we have no time to make anyhting because all of our time is spent on here and writing emails and twittering

August 24 2011 at 10:12 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
SPQR

If we have the computer made in China they will all be crap. The decisions will be the same as the ones we get from the government

August 24 2011 at 10:10 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
SPQR

Mkae sure we send it immediatley to China to produce it

August 24 2011 at 10:08 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
goldaxe

Congress will always be the ultimate job killer.

August 24 2011 at 6:12 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Scott

It would help to know who's got the power to pull the plug. If its Washington or Big Business, you might as well light up and grab the Captain Crunch!

August 24 2011 at 5:45 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
JOHN DERBY

NO WE HAVE THE ULTMATE JOB KILLER IT'S CALL CHINA

August 24 2011 at 5:14 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to JOHN DERBY's comment
Robert & Lisa

Our huge debt by our overly burdensome government is the problem. It has put us in a position where we can't compete.

August 24 2011 at 6:50 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
dabrownman

Yes, of course technologies of all kinds kill 97.5 % of jobs lost. What we as a nation has faild to do is realize that more and more technology is being held in the hands and controlled by fewer and fewer people who no longer need blue collar workers of any kind - since they can find them, better educated, more willing to work, with fewer restrictions at 5 times less costs in China, Vietnam and Indonesia. The MM's Meaning of the Media is clear - There will never be enough work going forward for those that want jobs. Sorry to break it to you this way but the truth hurts most always.

August 24 2011 at 5:14 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
jnett9944

The super computer can have my job. I will buy one and live off the Market lol

August 24 2011 at 5:08 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to jnett9944's comment
dabrownman

That's what I did in 2008 and I will never regret it. It is the best thing I ever did. Start working for yourself instead of someone else. Learn to pay yoursef first as a business owner.

August 24 2011 at 5:45 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
mtheeye007

In The Year 2525 your arms will lay limp at you side

August 24 2011 at 4:22 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
goldaxe

Make one that speaks spanish to tell all the workers what to do.

August 24 2011 at 4:20 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply