The heyday of Artificial Intelligence (AI) was in the 1970s and 1980s.  Here was the logical evolution of office and industrial automation that would put an expert into every computer and by doing so both replace and augment employees, changing forever the world of work.  Only it turned out not to function that way because we underestimated the effort involved.  It was easy to imagine putting intelligence into a computer but very difficult to do so in practice.  There wasn’t enough processing power available for one thing, nor were there even enough experts, since it seemed to require having one on-hand to keep the machine in tune. Now IBM appears to have a plan to do it all again, though with a twist.  And this time, thanks to Moore’s Law and high costs for employee health care and pensions, it might even work.  God help us.

Today’s computers are smaller and thousands of times more powerful than the ones we worked with during the AI boom, but the problem is still one of programming — getting knowledge into the system in an efficient and usable manner.  For that matter, it is hard to envision computers other than robots performing many of these workplace functions, and robots aren’t ready. The better solution then, according to a just-published IBM patent filing (US29228426A1), might be to find a way to suck knowledge out of the experts then inject it into younger, stronger, cheaper employees, possibly even in other countries.

IBM’s proposed Platform for Capturing Knowledge describes how to use an imersive gaming environment to transfer expert knowledge held by employees “aged 50 and older” to 18-25 year-old trainees who find manuals “difficult to read and understand.”

IBM also discusses how its invention could be made available for customers’ use in return for “payment from the customer(s) under a subscription and/or fee agreement.”

What we’re talking about, then, is a possible revolution in workplace training, one where a lifetime of experience would ideally be sucked from the mind of an experienced worker to be injected into a trainee and then the older worker discarded.

There are several thoughts that came to mind as I read this patent application. Could IBM really be serious about such a plan? Then I imagined how enthusiastically the idea must have been received at IBM intergalactic HQ in Armonk.  What a great idea! Transfer knowledge from old to young, American to Argentinian, or even just hold it in machine storage for later use, disposing of the expert in the meantime.

To see it this way you have to understand one recent IBM mindset, which is that culturally IBM does not believe in job specialization.  Anyone can manage anything.  Anyone should be able to perform any job.  For a company whose motto used to be “think,” IBM is trying to reduce it to “do as instructed.”

This patent is a natural extension of that culture.  Though part of being an expert is the ability to figure out new stuff and master it.  But when you get rid of the real experts, who is going to figure out the new stuff?That doesn’t automatically fall out of this computer gaming scenario, which teaches functions and techniques, not intuition or actual experience.

Then I thought about that moment late in the tenure of IBM CEO John Opel when someone came up with the bright idea of urging companies that leased IBM mainframes to buy them, creating a huge revenue bubble that grew the company to more than 400,000 employees, setting it up for its 1990s crash.  Converting the leases was not, in itself, a bad idea. What was bad was assuming that such huge, essentially one-time, revenue would continue perpetually, which is exactly how IBM saw it.  Really.  Isn’t this the same thing, only now they are converting employees into some more disposable form? What happens when there are no more experts to convert?

IBM’s greatest threat is its ability to stifle innovation.  The way the company is off-shoring jobs and minimizing the value of its support workers demonstrates this.  The threat will be when a group of smart folks in China or India realize how things could be done better, then starts taking work away from IBM.  They will have access to an army of IBM foreign workers, too, who will bring customer contacts with them.

On the other hand, this application is also typical of an IBM patent.  There are many aspects to implementing such a training process — data gathering, information management, software, hardware, etc. — and IBM has patented every part.  So if anyone makes a something similar, IBM could sue.  If you create gaming software to teach almost anything to almost anyone, this patent may trump you.

In the end it may not matter then whether IBM runs out of experts or not.  Just so long as they don’t run out of lawyers.

I, Cringely readers from the Boston area who want to see if I reflect light in person can run that controlled experiment next Thursday, September 17th, when I speak to the Society for Information Management’s Boston Chapter.  Here’s the link. My topic is Consumerization of IT: Is Corporate IT about to Lose Control Again? The answer of course is “yes,” but the devil is in the details. Please attend if you can.