Asimov, programming and the meta ladder

One of my favorite stories by Isaac Asimov is Profession. The following is a
spoiler, so please read the story before proceeding if you don’t like spoilers.

In the futuristic society of year 6000-something, people no longer need to learn
their profession from books, lectures or hands-on experience. Each person has
their brain analyzed at a certain age and then the know-how for the occupation
that’s best suited for them is simply uploaded into the brain using special
cassettes (hey, this story is 60 years old) and electrodes. The folks who end up
the best at their craft (determined via competitions) end up with high-demand
assignments on “Class A” outer worlds.

The protagonist, George Platen, has a dream of getting “educated” in a certain
profession and reaching a desirable assignment. But he runs into trouble when
his brain assessment determines that no profession is a good fit for him, and
he’s placed in a special “house for the feeble-minded” to spend his time however
he wants, even reading books.

Long story short, after some adventures George discovers the truth on his own;
someone has to create these training cassettes, advance human technology and
update training materials to account for these advances. There’s a
“meta-profession”, something akin to scientist, and George was selected for this
meta-profession.

I always loved this story for the meta aspect; many occupations are prone to
automation, and this has become much more true since Asimov first put the plot
to paper. But some human professions are necessarily “meta”; you can automate
them, but this just generates new professions that have to develop said
automation. Ad infinitum, or at least until Singularity.

In the course of my career, I’ve heard the promises of “no code” programming
many times. These tools didn’t cause the demand for programmers to plummet, but
to simply shift in other directions. More recently, I treat the hype about AI
coding assistants like GitHub Copilot with similar calm. These are
great tools that are going to make some programmers’ lives easier, but replace
programmers? Nope; only move programmers another notch up the meta ladder.

By the way, do you know what profession George Platen was aiming at before he
knew the truth? Computer programmer. That’s a pretty far-sighted move by Asimov,
given that the story was written in 1957!

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