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Deep Thought Is Dead, Long Live Deep Thought

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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On Tuesday, March 19th, Alan Jacobs posted a technology article for The Atlantic titled “Jobs of the Future: A Skeptic’s Response.” In the article, he voices his doubts that a skillset promoted by the internet and social networking would usher in a new wave of future employment:

‘Where are these jobs that will require such rapid “searching, browsing, assessing quality, and synthesizing the vast quantities of information”? We don’t need those skills to drive a truck or manage company accounts or sell clothes or do IT customer service or write novels or write code or give inoculations to patients or teach seven-year-olds how to read … so what do, or what will, need them for? And how many of us will need them?’

We might not need those skills to drive a truck, but if you are responsible for a whole fleet of trucks, you may need to search a database that tracks every truck’s location and cargo. Online retailers of clothes have huge customer databases that they can use to selectively target promotions to those they think would be most responsive to them. A typical call to IT tech support goes to a first tier agent, whose first task is to request your information so they can find you in a database. Then, when it comes down to the actual support, if they don’t know how to fix your problem, they search through forums, help documents, and bug databases to try and find an answer.

In my own field of bioinformatics, the trend toward “searching, browsing, assessing quality, and synthesizing the vast quantities of information” is driving a shift of focus (more on that in a future blog post) that is real science, not science-fiction.  The advancement of machines that sequence DNA has progressed so rapidly that it’s broken Moore’s Law , and we can now sequence an entire human genome in a ‘matter of weeks’.

All of these facts point to a single trend: our ability to produce data is outstripping our ability to understand it. In fact, the need to make sense of these mountains of information is so great that it’s given rise to one of the hottest interdisciplinary fields on the market: data mining and predictive analytics.

Data mining, loosely defined, is the process of analyzing data and shaping it into useful information. But how does a data miner know which piece of data matters and which doesn’t? They must cleave through those mountains of information in order to find data diamonds, and that requires the skills that Alan Jacobs questions.

Later in his article, he calls on employers of the future to seek individuals capable of slow, patient, and careful thought. Rest assured, these skills will not fall by the wayside. Let’s set aside the fact that we’ll always need this kind of thought to drive innovation. This kind of ‘deep thought’ (and no, I don’t mean the Jack Handy variety) is the next logical step after data mining, and it is called predictive analytics. Using a statistical skillset, analysts try to predict future trends in everything ranging from the business forecasting to political unrest.

In the field of bioinformatics, we produce more genetic sequence data than we can analyze. The fact is that before we can do any deep thinking about this data, we have to mine out the really difficult problems, to separate the wheat from the chaff, so we can turn them into diamonds. I suspect this trend applies to just about any field that collects data, and what field in this century doesn’t? As the cliché goes, knowledge is power, and this is one cliché that proves truer day by day.

So what do jobs of the future look like? Yes, we’ll still need truck drivers, teachers, and novelists. I won’t argue that their core competencies will include data searching, though they can all benefit from these skills. For the growing workforce that deals with data, however, these skills are mandatory, and of those people, it will be the deep thinkers who make that data precious.


Amr Abouelleil About the Author: Amr Abouelleil is a bioinformatics analyst with The Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. He holds a BA in Psychology and an MS in Neuroscience. He describes himself as a scientist with the soul of an artist, and he expresses his art through writing. When he isn’t surfing digital genomes, he spends time with his wife and son, blogs, and writes speculative and contemporary fiction. You can follow him on Twitter (@AA_Leil_Tweets), Facebook, or at his homepage and blog, Follow on Twitter @AA_Leil_Tweets.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 11 Comments

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  1. 1. Markuf 7:11 pm 03/24/2012

    As with any trade, specialists dumb down the arena. I say we should use all the tools provided and be better at what we do as a whole. I’m in the trades, 30 yrs’ now and I can lay out the house or addition, dig the footers (I mean dig and shovel the dirt) pour the concrete, frame the plates and frame the walls that will support the roof, plumb it, electrify it, heat it, and close it in. I hate painting but I can paint straight lines, then i throw my clothes away.
    Why anyone in the construction field or any other field would limit their experience by being a specialist is so limiting to ones self and the whole.
    Learn and practice the entire job with all the tools available, key word “learn”, always keeping an open mind to learn.

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  2. 2. ArthroPatient 9:07 pm 03/24/2012

    Well said Markuf.

    In terms of healthcare research (including bioinformatics), what are the right questions to ask? As far as I an concerned, we as a nation are still not asking the right questions.

    And unfortunately, the researchers who have most of the money are paid by the companies who sponsor their paycheck — and are asking the wrong questions.

    Why are chronic degenerative diseases in the US exploding? How do we address the root cause? Why is this not a matter of public discourse?

    I fear the organizations who profit from sick people are all-too-happy to not address these questions.

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  3. 3. GreenD 9:08 pm 03/24/2012

    To be honest, I disagree Amr, to an extent. This generations ability to search and analyze massive amounts of data will be great for companies that are purely based on money accumulation (i.e. stocks & banks) and, like you said, genetic analysis. Signal versus noise are other opening fields, but really these aren’t going to change the world. We still need innovation, and we still need deep thought.

    In a world where you simply google everything, and books are slowly getting phased out for articles like this, the patient thinker is a minority. The entire culture of facebookers and bloggers are losing the patience of (nostalgic) thinkers such as edison, jefferson, einstein, etc.

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  4. 4. Mikej2u 8:58 am 03/25/2012

    Not far from Harvard Square, at the closest Truck Stop on I-95, Amr will discover that truck drivers live or die by their Internet search skills. Owner Operators search for, and bid on, loads to haul which are posted to the Internet by shippers.

    For years the deft use of the laptop in the cab has eliminated unproductive “load less” runs, created a more nearly perfect market for over the road freight, and provided truckers with their bread and butter.

    In fact the next time Amr sits down for lunch with his buddy’s at MIT, he might be surprised to discover that’s how he got HIS bread and butter too.

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  5. 5. Pugsley 5:48 pm 03/25/2012

    “So what do jobs of the future look like? Yes, we’ll still need truck drivers, teachers, and novelists.”

    Not really. Truck driving could be soon done by robot systems, teachers are already being supplanted by computer programs and canned lessons, and it won’t be so very long before the most profitable types of novels such as romances and action thrillers might be written by programs that simply swap around pre-fab plots and randomly named characters, lightly edited by a few human editors (which is what formula writing is about anyway).

    It would all be done less expensively by artificial intelligence combined with robotics. There will probably always be some work done by humans ….. but how many will be needed? Maybe it will become difficult to maintain 10% employment in the entire population. And they’d better be well paid for doing nothing, else there won’t be any demand for most consumer goods, and that will undermine the economy enough so that even robots will become unemployed.

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  6. 6. Jerzy New 4:28 am 03/26/2012

    If you have worries like this, I guess you need to change a career ;) . Preferably to one with several times bigger salary.

    This is common problem in many institutions – people at the early steps of career are given dumb tasks, then the company complains it cannot find talent and innovations.

    Academia is one of many here – M.Sc., Ph.D. and a postdoc is forced to be, basically, a pipette machine for 10 years or more. Then he is supposed to transform into a creative thinker. So the brightest either leave early in career, or are outcompeted by skilled pipette machines.

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  7. 7. MDowning 2:39 pm 03/26/2012

    …We don’t need those skills to drive a truck or manage company accounts or sell clothes or do IT customer service or write novels or write code or give inoculations to patients or teach seven-year-olds how to read …

    I’m a soon-to-be K-12 librarian who used to do a lot of interesting work before she found her calling. Let’s see if reality matches the commentary.

    Trucking. Worked in that field and there’s an emphatic “no.” If you are an owner-operator, in addition to all the road knowledge, mechanical knowledge and attentiveness required to drive you rig you need business sense, sales knowledge, basic accounting and some legal to get by.

    Managing company accounts. I used to specialize in this for a reason. If sales people had to take time out to learn everything about their clients and then store it somewhere useful they’d never have time to make sales.

    Sell clothing. I worked selling men’s formalware. This comes in one form – the tux – so it should be easy, right? Try again. Thread count, proportion, orders for everything ranging from 1 tux to 50, basic sewing, fashion trends for the last 100 years so you could get that perfect costume tux or please a fashion-minded bride, knowing every black tie restaurant and theater company in the city and just enough male psychology to try to make the experience pleasant. I should note I was there when the store was starting to incoporate tech into their business plan. Exciting times!

    IT customer care? This doesn’t even dignify a response if you work at a small to mid-sized company. (Big companies, you can fudge) If you want to do it well and stay employed, you assess and keep assessing like it’s the only thing that will put out a fire in your pants. Period.

    Coding? Sure! If computers and coding language stayed the same, which they do not. Next.

    Write novels? I should respond to this, but I’m too busy laughing. Let’s just say I got my start in the field by operating a reference service for mostly SF writers in my spare time and I still have a darn good pool of clients. They often don’t think they need a librarian until they are on the rapids without a paddle. Again – hillarious.

    Med tech? My aunt trains them. Not having current information isn’t funny in this instance. It’s scary.

    Teach 7 year olds to read. We’re back to funny. I have two Master’s degrees in this and both require continuing education in order for my state licences to stay current. Must be nice to be a tenured English professor.

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  8. 8. MDowning 2:56 pm 03/26/2012

    Oh, and note to Pugsley. You so do not work in education. they were saying classes would be replaced by radio broadcasts in the 40′s and VHS tapes in the 70′s-’80′s. Such experiments were laughable failures. Such commentators also keep thinking the school librarians are going to be replaced by Google and an espresso machine.

    The thing is, if deep thought AND rapid-fire data analysis are going to be needed, which I suspect, libraians might be one of the only groups trained to teach both.

    Finally, I’d watch what you say about the art department. Formulatic writing is also amazingly grounded in details because that’s what sets individual books apart. Also turning off a human’s impulse to create and seek out art is nearly impossible because it’s *fun*. Dopamine is awesome like that.

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  9. 9. way2ec 5:51 pm 03/29/2012

    Have to go with MDowning. In particular, I want to take exception to the teachers not needing the deep thinking… if and when education DOESN’T need its teachers to be avid and capable deep thinkers, the education system is doomed. Do I hear those that say it already is? And if our greatest thinkers of all time did their deep thinking before there was such a wealth of information available, seems that the abundance or overabundance of information works against deep thinking. Back to how do we “teach” deep thinking skills? Or do we just wait for it to occur, like waiting for the next genius to appear?

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  10. 10. bucketofsquid 2:38 pm 03/30/2012

    Many of us in the technology and science arena are hoping to eliminate the vast bulk of unskilled labor. Many jobs that required humans only 10 years ago can now be done better with low cost devices. Highly skilled jobs are increasingly being done via a human supervising a robot or computer. The real hold up isn’t the science or tech. The delay is people being afraid of an improved way of doing things and a relatively inflexible economic model.

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  11. 11. BuckSkinMan 1:55 am 03/31/2012

    What 9. way2ec says makes sense to me. In 1980 I listened as former Poet Laureate of the United States, William Stafford, told of leaving his best poems in his desk drawer for periods ranging from months to years. He was really “deep thinking” those poems to perfection.

    I felt a connection with Stafford’s method, having started contemplating ant hill communities around age five. I continued thinking about those ant hills for years – deriving lessons which evolved and then sprang to mind.

    I strongly agree with bucketofsquid about: “The delay is people being afraid of an improved way of doing things and a relatively inflexible economic model.”
    I have for years been badgered by court clerks attempting to force me to comply with jury duty summons. Recently, I saw that this is one of those things which people are afraid of improving. Our justice system is in a stasis which originated in 13th Century England. All the assumptions of those who created the Constitution during the 1780s are still forcefully maintained in place. Jury clerks, acting on judges’ orders, “decide” that doctors’ letters are irrelevant and that men and women are merely quota fillers regardless of their lack of ability to perform as jurors. Trials are actually dramas designed to sway and manipulate juries toward pre-planned verdicts. Having certification in a field related to the trial gets people disqualified from juries many times each day – it’s completely accepted by our “justice system.”

    We have inexpensive, proven technology (VOIP) which eliminates the need for jurors presence in the court room. Video conferencing would eliminate jury boxes and remove much of the manipulative drama and would serve for jury deliberations better than punitive confinement. Caching of proceedings would also allow instant review for jurors needing to jog their memories. Yet – here we are, still “riding horses” through wilderness to get to courthouses which themselves are now fortresses designed to slow or deny access.

    The President and Congress and the U.S. Justice Department should be reforming our justice system for the 21st Century, but of course most of them got started as lawyers: the very people who perpetuate this 13th Century anachronism.

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