The AI menace that no-one talks about

He wants your job.

File:Bradypus torquatus BCN.jpg

The maned sloth (Bradypus torquatus), also known as the ai (/ˈɑːi/),[3] is a three-toed sloth that lives only in Brazil. It is one of four species of three-toed sloth. Source: Wikipedia

Podcasts: starting points for learning about AI

Stuart Russell on After On with Rob Reid

A thought provoking interview and excellent introduction that sounds a note of caution about AI and gives good reasons for doing so.

Highlights include:

  • some interesting stuff about how people and robots process goals and the huge number of actions and priorities that make up a single ‘simple’ action (around 32 minutes);
  • Discussion about recent progress with AI learning to play real-time strategy video games that are far more complex than chess;
  • A definition of ‘beneficial’ AI and some other nuances beyond standard ‘general artificial intelligence’ around 43 minutes;
  • A brilliant illustration about robots cooking cats at 1 hour and 16 minutes.

Rodney Brooks on Econtalk

Brooks is less concerned, and takes an ‘AI will take a lot longer to develop than anyone thinks’ approach to the topic, with some good points about how developing AI forces us to clarify our own ethics and priorities.

Start the Week with Yuval Noah Harari

Harari paints an unsettling picture of a post-human future.

Amy Web on Econtalk – Artificial Intelligence, Humanity, and the Big Nine

On my hit list. I’m a Russ Roberts fan and expect this will be a useful addition, in particular on “the implications and possible futures of a world where artificial intelligence is increasingly part of our lives.”

See Also

Resources in WtF from Kevin Kelly, Tim O’Reilly and James Gleick,

More about that monkey

This is a brilliant illustration from William Oncken, Jr. and Donald L. Wass about avoiding taking responsibility for other people’s problems.

Where Is the Monkey?

Let us imagine that a manager is walking down the hall and that he notices one of his subordinates, Jones, coming his way. When the two meet, Jones greets the manager with, “Good morning. By the way, we’ve got a problem. You see….” As Jones continues, the manager recognizes in this problem the two characteristics common to all the problems his subordinates gratuitously bring to his attention. Namely, the manager knows (a) enough to get involved, but (b) not enough to make the on-the-spot decision expected of him. Eventually, the manager says, “So glad you brought this up. I’m in a rush right now. Meanwhile, let me think about it, and I’ll let you know.” Then he and Jones part company.

Let us analyze what just happened. Before the two of them met, on whose back was the “monkey”? The subordinate’s. After they parted, on whose back was it? The manager’s. Subordinate-imposed time begins the moment a monkey successfully leaps from the back of a subordinate to the back of his or her superior and does not end until the monkey is returned to its proper owner for care and feeding. In accepting the monkey, the manager has voluntarily assumed a position subordinate to his subordinate. That is, he has allowed Jones to make him her subordinate by doing two things a subordinate is generally expected to do for a boss—the manager has accepted a responsibility from his subordinate, and the manager has promised her a progress report.

The subordinate, to make sure the manager does not miss this point, will later stick her head in the manager’s office and cheerily query, “How’s it coming?” (This is called supervision.)


William Oncken, Jr. and Donald L. Wass – Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey? in the Harvard Business Review

Five Questions: Victoria Patience

1) Introduce yourself: who are you, what do you do, and why is it important?

My name’s Victoria Patience. I’m a freelance Spanish-to-English translator and author’s editor, and am also a mother, reader, cook, runner, lapsed cargo-biker, and on-off vegetable grower. Professionally, I help Spanish-speaking government organizations, nonprofits and researchers communicate effectively with English-speaking audiences. Most of my translation and editing work focuses on development, human rights, and environmental issues. Translation is important because it opens up conversations and allows many more people to take part in them. Editing work helps people say what they mean more clearly so that they can be heard better. If there is to be any hope of our finding solutions to the global problems that affect all of humanity, albeit differently, we need to be able to talk to each other and understand each other despite the linguistic and cultural chasms that separate us. Good translations are an essential part in this.

2) What’s your most valuable skill?

Solving clients’ needs/requests/problems with a minimum of fuss.

3) Describe a tool, technique or practice that makes a difference to your work.

A collaborative working arrangement that I started with two colleagues I met online. We take it in turns to send each other short texts and give each other feedback and discuss interesting issues that come up. What started as a simple exercise to improve the quality of our translations has grown into an all-encompassing professional support network that I couldn’t do without. Through it I have learned that a sure sign of good collaboration is when the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
More here.

4) What advice do you most need to hear?

You don’t need to say yes to everything. Think, breathe, and think again before accepting projects, responsibilities, deadlines — anything, really. It’s much easier to say no than to say yes and try to back out later (or wish you could).

5) Suggest a humorous or endearing question for question number five – and answer it.

This is neither humorous nor endearing but I’m your sister so I can flout your rules.
Question: Share a quote from a film, book or record that applies to your work (and hint at how it applies).
Answer: “A relationship, I think, is like a shark. It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark”  (Woody Allen in Annie Hall). The final sentence is how I’d like to phrase the “it’s not you it’s me” emails to clients that you know you need to break up with but just haven’t quite done it.

One last thing…

Suggest one or two people you know whose answers you’d like to read, and who you think would enjoy answering.

Step out of the picture

If you’re up to your eyeballs, and your team isn’t getting the job done, it’s sometimes necessary to do the work yourself so that it gets done and done right.

Sometimes necessary. Always dangerous.

You’re taking work back – work that presumably you took time to spec and explain to someone else – but worse than that is taking the responsibility for getting things done.

Often you’ll find that if you explain whose job it is to get something done, point them to a resource or two, and step out – remove yourself from the picture – people find amazing ways to get things done.

Do whatever you can to make sure that whoever’s got the monkey keeps it.

Marcus Borg on unending conversation

Where does the drama of history get its material? From the “unending conversation”* that is going on at the point in history when we are born.

Imagine you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before.

You listen for a while; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.

Marcus Borg – The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith

*Borg owes this metaphor to Kenneth Burke

See also Clay Shirky and Niall Ferguson on networks

Buckstop (find friends)


You can only carry the can so far.

If you started an organisation or business and the buck ultimately stops with you and no-one else, you need to make it a priority to find some friends to share the load. Find people who will make what you’re doing theirs as well as yours, own it and take responsibility for its continuation and success.

Ideally, you need more than one friend: as Clay Shirky points out in this excellent set of videos about network theory, three people in conversation is fundamentally different from two. If one side of a two-person conversation leaves, the conversation stops. With three people in the conversation (or more), people can leave and be replaced, and the conversation continues. In fact, every single participant can change, and it can still be the same conversation.

If you’re a free-lancer, and one day you can deliver your last piece of work, get paid, and close up shop, then you need friends for a different reason. But if you’re building something bigger than yourself – especially if it’s in service of a cause – you’ll soon have responsibility for other people’s work and salaries, and it will get old fast if you’re alone at the top.

Find friends.

Champion (2)

Noun
2 A person who vigorously supports or defends a person or cause.
‘he became the determined champion of a free press’
2.1 historical A knight who fought in single combat on behalf of the monarch.

Verb
Vigorously support or defend the cause of. ‘he championed the rights of the working class and the poor’

OED

Now this type of champion is worth having. Not necessarily a winner in themselves, but someone who helps someone else to win. They know you – probably including a realistic assessment of your flaws – but know that you, your team, your purpose are still worth fighting for.

Your organisation needs friends, and it needs allies, but it would really benefit from some champions. Champions help you out, tell you what you need and help you get it – often by telling others about what you need and suggesting that they give it to you.

If you’re not sure if you’ve got a champion, you don’t. Ask other people if they’ve got any amazing board members, friends, mentors or supporters, and try to get to a meeting (breakfast of champions?) and see them in action.

Don’t try to convince the lukewarm – find a champion. They’ll fight for your success, and they might just change the game.

If you can find a champion, well… that’s champion.*

*Adjective. British , informal, dialect: Excellent. ‘‘Thank ye, lad,’ the farmer said. ‘That’s champion.’’

Spec-ulation

If you’re asking someone to do something for you, an appropriate spec goes a long way.

A good spec saves everyone time and effort* and demonstrates that you value the work and other people’s time and energy.

You might include answers to the following questions:

  • Big picture, what needs to happen?
  • Why is it important – what will doing this thing achieve?
  • What are the details that you need to specify? (Mainly focused on the outcome. This will vary depending on the task, the skills of the person doing the job and your relationship to them – i.e. what can you take on trust – but must include anything that would cause you to reject the product.)
  • What are the details you don’t care much about? (Probably about the process.)
  • What suggestions or resources can you provide?
  • When should it finished by?
  • Who is responsible for getting this thing done?

The last question is critical – it’s really easy to hand over a task and still have it be your responsibility. In which case you will be the one filling in the holes and chasing up last details, which defeated the point of getting help in the first place.

*Perhaps that should read “a good spec given to a competent person, where competence includes knowing how to read, follow and question the spec where needed.”

Champion, or Ways to Win (1)

There are a couple of types of champion:

Noun 1 A person who has surpassed all rivals in a sporting contest or other competition [as modifier‘a champion hurdler’ [OED]

This is the winner, the vanquisher of foes. We all enjoy being this kind of champion – as individuals (probably especially as individuals) and as part of a team (“We are the champions”).

There are good champions and bad ones – heroes and villains, magnanimous victors and churls – but champions are a good thing. It’s fun to strive for something, it’s motivating to compete, and more often than not we like it when someone wins.

It’s also fleeting (“This year’s champions”), and – if you think about it in the wrong way – sets you up for inevitable failure. Sooner or later, someone else will be the champion.

And the things that we can win definitively are rarely important, and rarely satisfying in the long run. They are small, clearly defined, rule-constrained, finite games*.

When we’re striving to win these games, it’s worth double checking what we’re burning up to get there – time, energy, materials, relationships, opportunities – and weighing carefully what we get in return, because ‘fun’ is really the main thing we get from being a champion.

In the morning, life goes on.

All the other rewards of being a champion – prizes, status, the stories we tell ourselves about who we are as winners, and what we say about everyone else – take their meaning from other games we play.

More on this tomorrow.

*See this post, or go straight to James Carse‘s Finite and Infinite Games