I’ve Been Replaced by an Analytics Robot

A veteran statistician reflects on the journey from a statistician of the past to data scientist of today, how the work he used to do became automated, and what future can data scientists can expect.

By Bob Muenchen (r4stats)

It was only a few years ago when the N.Y. Times declared my job “sexy”. My old job title of statistician had sounded dull and stodgy, but then it became filled with exciting jargon: I’m a data scientist doing predictive analytics with (occasionally) big data. Three hot buzzwords in a single job description! However, in recent years, the powerful technology that has made my job so buzzworthy has me contemplating the future of the field. Computer programs that automatically generate complex models are becoming commonplace. Rob Hyndman’s forecast package for R, SAS Institute Forecast Studio, and IBM’s SPSS Forecasting offer the ability to generate forecasts that used to require years of training to develop. Similar tools are now available for other types of models as well.

Countless other careers have been eliminated due to new technology. The United States previously had over 70% of the population employed in farming and fewer than 2% are farmers today. Things change, people move on to other careers. KDnuggets recently asked its readers,

“When will most expert-level Predictive Analytics/Data Science tasks – currently done by human Data Scientists – be automated?”

Fifty-one percent of the respondents – most of them data scientists themselves – estimated that this would happen within 10 years. Not all the respondents had such a dismal view though; 19% said that this would never happen.
My brain being analyzed by the machine that replaced my brain!

My brain being analyzed by the machine that replaced my brain! (Photography by Mike O’Neil)

If you had asked me in 1980 what would be the very last part of my job to be eliminated through automation, I probably would have said: brain wave analysis. It had far more steps involved than any other type of work I did. We were measuring the electrical activity of many parts of the brain, at many frequencies, thousands of times per second. An analysis that simply compared two groups would take many weeks of full-time work. Surprisingly, this was the first part of my job to be eliminated. However, our statistical consulting team supports many different departments, so I didn’t really notice when work stopped arriving from the EEG Lab. Years later I got a call from the new lab director offering to introduce me to my replacement: a “robot” named LORETA.

When I visited the lab, I was outfitted with the usual “bathing cap” full of electrodes. EEG paste (essentially K-Y jelly) was squirted into a hole in each electrode to ensure a good contact and the machine began recording my brain waves. I used bio-feedback to generate alpha waves which made a car go around a track in a simple video game. Your brain creates alpha waves when you get into a very relaxed, meditative state. Moments after I finished, LORETA had already analyzed my brain waves. “She” had done several weeks of analysis in just a few moments.

So that part of my career ended years ago, but I didn’t really notice it at the time. I was too busy using the time LORETA freed up to learn image analysis using ImageJ, text mining using WordStat and SAS Text Miner, and an endless variety of tasks using the amazing

R language. I’ve never had a moment when there wasn’t plenty of interesting new work to do.

There’s another aspect to my field that’s easy to overlook. When I began my career, 90% of the time was spent “battling” computers. They were incredibly difficult to operate. Today someone may send you a data file and you’ll be able to see the data moments after receiving it. In 1980 data arrived on tapes, and every computer manufacturer used a different tape format, each in numerous incompatible variations. Unless you had a copy of the program that created a tape, it might take days of tedious programming just to get the data off of it. Even asking the computer to run a program required error-prone Job Control Language. So from that perspective, easier-to-use computing technology has already eliminated 90% of what my job used to be. It wasn’t the interesting part of the job, so it was a change for the better.

Will the burgeoning field of data science eventually put itself out of business by developing a LORETA for every problem that needs to be solved? Will we just be letting our Star-Trek-class computers and robots do our work for us while we lounge around self-actualizing? Perhaps some day, but I doubt it will happen any time soon!


Bio: Robert A. Muenchen , @BobMuenchen is the author of R for SAS and SPSS Users and, with Joseph M. Hilbe, R for Stata Users. He is also the creator of http://r4stats.com, a popular web site devoted to analyzing trends in analytics software and helping people learn the R language. Bob is an ASA Accredited Professional Statistician™ with 30 years of experience and is currently the manager of OIT Research Computing Support (formerly the Statistical Consulting Center) at the University of Tennessee.