Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Humans and machines should co-evolve


When I was asked recently to speak on the subject of whether robots are taking our jobs, I said that’s a given.  If you’re wondering if robots will take our jobs, the answer is ‘yes.’  They already are.

Planes have flown with autopilot for over 100 years, and we’re rapidly extending the list of professions under threat from accountants and lawyers, to medicine and engineering.

If you’re wondering if robots will take your particular job, the answer is ‘it depends’ on how routine your job is (The Economist, 2016).  Hint: If your job is routine, no matter how interesting and intelligent you are, you’re at risk of being replaced with automation and/or machine intelligence. 

In short, if you think a computer can do your job, it probably can.

We love our machines
Back in 1982, we were living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in a little casita next to our landlord’s house.  Our landlord was a professional editor and author, who had purchased one of the first generation word processors (a Kaypro, I believe).  And, I remember telling my writer friend, ‘John, I’ll be the last generation that won’t use a computer.’  And, I meant it. 

Five (5) years later, I bought my first Macintosh (a Mac Plus) when I started working on my PhD and that computer became more than just a machine. It shared its secrets with me as I learned basic programming.  It was there for me when I felt I couldn’t go on. It watched over my work while I was sleeping.  It holds the place of highest honour on my office bookshelf.  Machines in general, and computers in particular, are a part of our family. An extension of ourselves.

So, this is a story not about slaying mechanical dragons. It’s about the quest to be better humans, who happen to work with machines.

Let’s face it, computers are simply better than we are (or will ever be) at certain things.  They land planes more consistently, they are better at facial recognition, they are more accurate at medical diagnoses, and they can of course beat us at games like chess and go.

Worrying about the potential downsides of machine intelligence and automation can blind us to the incredible possibilities and opportunities that such technologies may offer us in the future. We buy and sell, hire and fire, promote and demote with a huge degree of human bias (error). The good news is that machine intelligence is going to be able to help us out.

Rather than worrying about what machines can do, we should worry about what machines can’t do, in part because we still need to build better machines, and in part because that gives us a hint as to what we humans must continue to do well for our part in this co-evolution.

What are humans good for?

Walking down stairs
Even though robots can do amazing things, what they can’t do is equally astounding, like walking down a stairway. (See Nicolas Carr’s Automation and Us). So, let’s celebrate the agility we have as humans, and take care of our human bodies. 

Collaboration:
Ever struggle with astrophysics?  Me too. Most of us find math difficult because our cognitive brains are less developed than our social brains. 

As one neuroscientist puts it, our comparatively large brains were developed to solve complex problems, but they were not the problems of thermal dynamics, they were social problems, like who was in charge in the tribe, how to deal with tribal politics, how to build inter-tribal relationships and so on.

      We are social all the way down: Collaboration is a particularly human skill and our social needs are driving us to use technology—maybe too much. 

      Social mediation may be worse than automation: While many people see automation as the worse-case scenario for humans in relation to machines, media over-use and over-dependence is just as bad as or worse than machine intelligence. 

      We used to worry about how much TV people were watching, but nowadays screen time has become far more pervasive than TV ever was.

      It’s not just that we look at screens so much, but that software and devices mediate—that is go between—us and the world around us. 

As comedian Aziz Ansari says in his book, Modern Romance, when observing on-line dating behaviour, he found that too many people spend too much time working on their profiles and not enough time dating! 

At some point, we have to look up from our screens, if we want to live life to the full.

Cultural intelligence
In a world of diversity and difference, humans are uniquely able to seek common connections between ourselves, even though we differ from one another. In a world of mindless tribalism and nationalism, it is important that humans continue to seek connections with others who are different from us. 

      Context
IBM’s Watson can make a highly accurate diagnosis of an illness, but only the attending physician can sense the patient’s will to live.

            Compassion
            Health ‘care’ means just that, ‘caring’ for people, even while using intelligent systems to         diagnose, and telemedicine (sensors and tablets) to gather data. We must preserve the human qaulity of kindness and compassion.  

Sadly, when we humans interact, we act more like machines than humans. For example, when I rent a car, the rental company’s representative spends the first half of their time with me gathering routine data, and the second half trying to on-sell insurance and other add-ons.  Why can’t better apps do these things and let the car renting human serve as a host or guide, welcoming me to their city and sending me off toward my final destination with style and grace?  Instead, we have turned ourselves into robots.  As Nicholas Carr observes:

“Industrialisation didn’t turn us into machines, and automation isn’t going to turn us into automatons. We’re not that simple. But automation’s spread is making our lives more programmatic. We have fewer opportunities to demonstrate our own resourcefulness and ingenuity, to display the self-reliance that was once considered the mainstay of character. Unless we start having second thoughts about where we’re heading, that trend will only accelerate.” (Carr, pp. 198-199).

The problem is most organisational work doesn’t involve inquiry or critical thinking. As Josh Bersin says in his Deloitte report,
“The future of work is not simply about using technology to replace people. The real “future of work” issue is all about making jobs “more human”—redesigning jobs, redesigning work, and redesigning organizations so that the “people side” of work has even more importance and focus than ever.”
Computers are good at providing answers, but humans are better at asking questions.  
Coupled with the rapid and radical advances in computation, we need to not just preserve, but continue to grow and develop the human character traits of curiosity and courage, coupled with compassion. These are the principals that underpin programs like Outward Bound.  Along with programming skills, we need education to focus on the attributes that makes us more resilient, more resourceful and more ready to make the hard calls when analysis has reached its limits.  Human character, however, is not just about stoicism or tenacity, it's about being both resourceful and interesting
Here's a test: Your friends would never think of taking a long trip without their smartphone, but if they wouldn't take you on a long trip, why not?  
What can we learn from robots?  What can we teach them?

Lifting the bar:  Don’t expect less from machines, expect more from them!

As Tom Peters says, when software doesn’t deliver, it’s not your fault.  For those of us who were not digital natives, we believe that we are idiots when a computer doesn’t do what we want it to do. Things are getting easier for the app generation, but computers still need to get better.  If my healthcare is going to be delivered remotely via a sensing, analytical nurse-bot, then it needs to be pretty darn good.  I don’t want it to be 80% right, or even 90% accurate (even though I would accept that from a human doctor).  Strangely, and unfairly to machines, we need our machines to be better than we are in order to trust them. And, that requires us to be smart and fussy consumers and ‘employers’ of machine intelligence.

What could possibly go wrong?

Things will change, possibly slower than many predictions, but more rapidly than we can prepare for. Headlines in the past year or so have emphasized the link between robots taking our jobs (technological change) and the economic ramifications, in particular the growing income gap in most developed countries.  This has triggered related discussions on universal basic income, and so on.  All this is good, but social changes are unlikely to evolve as fast as technological ones, unless there is a social revolution that accompanies this technical revolution.  If that happens, all bets are off.

Things won’t change – the tendency toward ‘winner-take-all’ economics in technology might see 1 or 2 companies dominating the robotics sector and progress slows; in NZ we understand how duopolies work, and globally in the 1990s we saw how one company’s dominance of the PC world meant that software development slows, or actually gets worse, when there are no rival options.  So, we need smart and fussy consumers of machine intelligence and competition among providers, or we risk having less smart robots.

Shit will happen
The notion of ‘normal accidents’ introduced by sociologist Charles Perrow suggests that when you have complex systems, there is not just a chance, but a high probability that something can and will go wrong (read, for instance, Flash Boys by Michael Lewis, on high frequency trading).  Machines make mistakes too!

A happy ending

One way to think to about it is not so much that machines and humans are in a zero-sum game, where a job is either held by a human or lost to a machine.  Perhaps a more salient metaphor is that of co-evolution, wherein humans and machines are both evolving together, like some believe dogs and humans have evolved in relation to one another. 

As Garry Kasparov says, the fact that machines are getting better and better offers a chance for humans to get better and better.  “Machines have calculations. We have understanding. Machines have instructions.  We have purpose. Machines have objectivity. We have passion.” 

 As Peter Drucker has said, “We don’t know the future, yet we create it.”  When it comes to automation and machine intelligence, humans and technology will co-evolve, but whether humans continue to develop our unique qualities is totally up to us.

You can listen to this talk given at the University of Auckland 'Raising the Bar' event on 29 August 2017. Podcast.

Or, on my Nine to Noon interview with Kathryn Ryan, 5 September 2017.

References
Bersin, Josh, of Bersin Deloitte (2017) “The Future of Work: It’s Already Here... And Not As Scary As You Think,” JoshBersin.com, September 21, 2016, http://joshbersin.com/2016/09/the-future-of-work-its-already-here/

Brynjolfsson, Erik and McAfee, Andrew (2014). The second machine age: Work, progress and prosperity in a time of brilliant technologies. New York: Norton.

Carr, Nicholas (2014). The glass cage: Automation and us. New York: Norton.

Colvin, Geoff (2015). Humans are underrated: What high achievers know that brilliant machines never will. New York: Penguin.





Thursday, July 20, 2017

When a machine out-thinks you - Garry Kasparov's surprising optimism over Artificial Intelligence

The general commentary (and there's lots of it) on artificial (machine) intelligence is just that, 'general,' abstract, hypothetical.

We don't often hear from para-legals who lost their jobs to pattern matching algorithms, or clerks who are no longer needed with accounting software like Xero around.

Think of what it would be like to sit face-to-'face' with a machine and have it beat you at chess.  That's what Garry Kasparov did. He's the Chess Grandmaster who famously faced IBM's Deep Blue computer ... and lost.  Well, actually, as he points out, he actually did win earlier matches, and one match in the final attempt, but that wouldn't be news.

So, you might think Kasparov would be bitter or disparaging of the capabilities of machine intelligence.  Or, quick to point out its limitations.  But he's not.  In fact, his TED Talk on the story of losing to AI is intelligent (of course), but also entertaining (witty), and more importantly to the conversation and debate about how humans can and should respond to the rise and rise of machine (artificial) intelligence, Kasparov's perspective is deeply inspirational about what humans can and should always do, with or without other forms of intelligence.

Watch his 15-minute talk and enjoy!

Friday, June 23, 2017

Simon Sinek on Millennials as connective addicts

Simon Sinek, whose masterful TED Talks and books on motivation are legendary, has come out with a bold and rather brash assessment of Millenials in the workplace.  He bases their attitudes on growing up with adults hovering over them, giving them rapid and almost constant (often unwarranted) praise and promising them control of their world.  Except it doesn't really work out that way when they get their first jobs.

Importantly, in this video interview, Sinek also describes these digital natives as 'addicts' to connective media.  Addiction--as compared to just bad habits or social norms--is based on chemical reactions in the brain, which come from instant gratification from checking social media.  The addict eventually can't stop looking at their screens.

While there is risk in over-generalising generations, and some evidence that young people's reaction to media is explained more from being young than any other significant difference from other generations (which means they will change their behaviours over time), Sinek's commentary raises some serious questions about personal habits, control and connectivity. 

Friday, December 30, 2016

10 years of connectivity

I initiated the 'Connectivity Corner' blog in December 2006.

Looking back, what's changed in the past 10 years?

Here are five (5) major changes.

First was the arrival of the iPhone in 2007.  As the graphics of this blog suggest, it was created during, and in response to, the BlackBerry era, when hyper-connectivity emerged as a personal/professional challenge.  But, the iPhone ushered in a whole new era of 'smartphone' technologies, the 'app generation' and ubiquitous connectivity.

Then there was (and still is) Facebook and other social networking sites, where connectivity moved from the office into our homes, schools and bedrooms, from the most mundane to the most intimate of social interactions.  We have always known how important social networks are, but this past decade has been all about the social dimensions of what we do, who we are and how we make sense of the world.

Third, was the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), where we learned too little and too late the dangers associated with super-fast computers, nano-second game-playing designed by marginally in-control humans, or rather bankers, some of whom considered themselves a race apart.

Fourth, is the rise and rise of automation and artificial intelligence, where what it means to be human in a world of brilliant technologies has captured our collective imagination.  As computers get smarter and more connected (think also of the Internet of Things), we are struggling to know what humans are for.

Finally, when I wrote about the duality of connectivity in 2008, I included forces that keep us apart (disconnects), but observed that we (the human race) were generally were getting closer through connectivity.  Indeed, at the time the world was truly getting 'smaller' as we were becoming more globally connected.  But, in the past few years, the 2000 march of globalisation has hit a snag, held to ransom by fundamentalism, exceptionalism and revitalised nationalism.

It's been a wildly exciting, and sometimes turbulent, decade of connectivity.  Here's looking forward to the future with hope for connections that bring us closer together.


Friday, December 23, 2016

Is nothing sacred?

The answer is 'yes.'

In these troubled, cynical times, when every element of human sensibility and decency seems up for grabs, it is important to see the special, 'sacred' aspects of life around us.

Time with loved ones is sacred.

Time with friends is sacred.

Family time can be sacred.

Quiet time can be sacred.

Time alone can be sacred.

Walks/runs/rides/swims/paddles, etc can be sacred.

Teacher-student (Mentor-apprentice) relationships can be sacred.

Letter writing (including emails, txts, message chats) can be sacred, especially holiday cards, of which we still get a few.

For many years, we used to create a holiday greeting card to send to family and friends.  They often featured special travel destinations (tourist shots), or mountain/river landscapes, or silly shots, like us hanging upside down ('Heading down under' was the caption.) when we got the offer to move to New Zealand.  This has been a particularly awful year on many levels and dimensions.  And, even so, or maybe because of all that has happened this year, I feel inclined to celebrate all the good we still have in our lives...by taking a Christmas photo.

Here's to whatever is sacred to you and yours.
Best,
Darl

Friday, August 12, 2016

WeChat - Super App

Heading to Shanghai tonight for a week of reconnecting with that dynamic city.

Naturally, our group members have all signed up and are using WeChat.

If you don't live or work in or around China, you may have never heard of WeChat, but as the New York Times reports in this excellent video, WeChat is far more comprehensive than any Western app (at least for now).

Check out how much functionality ('virtality') is built into the app.  Watch video.

The NY Time article claims that, rather than imitating apps from other markets, the Chinese are now leading app developers and have expanded what we think about what apps can do.


Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Serious questions about the future of work

Having just completed a series of alumni talks in Melbourne and Sydney on the popular topic of 'the future of work,' I am left feeling the weight of the topic, given the questions that arose in both of these large and growing Australian cities.

Though attendees were generally upbeat and lively over drinks and nibbles, the Q&A after both talks skipped the 'gee whiz' factor of automation and artificial intelligence technologies and centered on the socio-economic concerns of systemic job loss, structural fault lines and uncertainty going forward into a future where technology may not produce as many jobs as it takes away.

Reading the Financial Review over breakfast, I found Jennifer Hewett's observation matches the mood of responses to my talk. She observes that, along with the benefits of global economic growth and development, '...the dislocation being felt by many in the West due to changes in technology, demand, competition, education and jobs is also real.  For all the advantages, disruptive business models and globalisation can become highly personalised and painful concepts.' (The Australian Financial Review, 27 July 2016, p. 2)

Australia's pain and job loss is more about its reliance on commodities like coal and other extractive industries than it is about technology per se, but the fundamental fear is that when jobs disappear people feel adrift.  When we talk about the future of 'work,' we are also in essence talking about the future of jobs in a world where banks don't ask about the work you do when they are assessing you for a mortgage.  What they really want to know is 'what is your job?' and how will it support your financial future?

In my talks on the future of work, I have to refer to Brynjolfsson and McAfee's book, The Second Machine Age: Work, progress, and prosperity in a time of brilliant technologies.  Our Aussie audience actually illustrated a key point made by these authors, namely that the act of asking questions is what will continue to distinguish human intelligence from artificial intelligence.  As they say:

'Computers are not useless, but they're still machines for generating answers, not posing interesting new questions.  That ability still seems to be uniquely human, and still highly valuable.  We predict that people who are good at idea creation will continue to have a comparative advantage over digital labor for some time to come, and will find themselves in demand.  In other words, we believe that employers now and for some time to come will, when looking for talent, follow the advice attributed to the Enlightenment sage Voltaire: "Judge a man by his questions, not his answers."  (Brynjolfsson and McAfee, 2014, p. 192).

We are proud of our graduates for the questions they are asking.  For me, their questions remind me of how little we still understand about the impact of technologies on human lives.
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For an excellent overview of the impact of artificial intelligence and automation on work, see the recent special report, 'March of the Machines' in The Economist, 25 June - 1 July, 2016.