They’re (not quite) taking our jobs: Tim Harford on robots, spreadsheets and automation in the workplace

These are two great episodes from the BBC’s excellent 50 Things that Made the Modern Economy.

Episode: Robot

The robots are coming! Sort of. Featuring Baxter and the Jennifer headset.
More on Baxter here at WIRED.

Episode: Spreadsheet

Fantastic discussion of how the humble spreadsheet destroyed over 400,000 American jobs… and helped to create 600,000 more.

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,

Use, repair, copy, make: Tim Harford on bicycles and technological development in Japan

In a recent episode of 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy Tim Harford uses the bicycle to illustrate – among other things – how new technologies and industries grow out of old ones, and how technology and industries develop:

The first safety bicycle was made in 1885 at the Rover factory in Coventry, England. It’s no coincidence that Rover went on to become a major player in the car industry. The progression from making bikes to making cars was obvious.

The bicycle provided stepping stones for modernising Japanese industry too. The first step was the importing to Tokyo of Western bikes around 1890. Then, it became useful to establish bicycle repair shops. The next step was to begin making spares locally, not too much trouble for a skilled mechanic. Before long, all the ingredients existed to make the bicycles in Tokyo itself, in around 1900. By the outbreak of the second world war, Japan was making more than a million bikes a year, masterminded by a new class of businessmen.

Tim HarfordBicycle Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy

Rover wasn’t the only car company to start out making bicycles: Peugeot, Opel and Skoda – and a few more listed here.

Funnily enough, I can’t find any clear examples of bicycle companies making this leap in Japan. Soichiro  Honda’s dad was a blacksmith-turned-bicycle repair man, and early Honda made motors for bicycles, and Toyota and Suzuki started out in the textile industry.

Resources: Software is eating the world

WTF?! In San Francisco, Uber has 3x the revenue of the entire prior taxi and limousine industry.

WTF?! Without owning a single room, Airbnb has more rooms on offer than some of the largest hotel groups in the world. Airbnb has 800 employees, while Hilton has 152,000.

WTF?! Top Kickstarters raise tens of millions of dollars from tens of thousands of individual backers, amounts of capital that once required top-tier investment firms.

WTF?! What happens to all those Uber drivers when the cars start driving themselves? AIs are flying planes, driving cars, advising doctors on the best treatments, writing sports and financial news, and telling us all, in real time, the fastest way to get to work. They are also telling human workers when to show up and when to go home, based on real-time measurement of demand. The algorithm is the new shift boss.

Tim O’Reilly –The WTF Economy

This phrase comes from a 2011 Marc Andreessen article in the New York Times, which you can read here. In it he describes how software was – and is, and will continue to – take over the economy. Here are a few more WTF illustrations:

  • The world’s largest bookstore is a software company
  • Two of the world’s three biggest retailers are software companies
  • Five of the U.S.’s eight biggest companies are software companies (Alphabet/Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook)… some of them even make and sell software.
  • The world’s biggest Encyclopedia is mainly software… and not even a company

Conclusion / Questions:

  • How are you using software in your non-software organisation?
  • What would it enable if you thought of your organisation as a software company?

See Also: WTF? Technology and you

Listen to the technology: Kevin Kelly and the giant copy machine

Technology often has built in biases, certain ways that it wants to be used. So the internet is the largest copy machine in the world by nature. It’s inherent in the thing. Anything that can be copied it that touches it will be copied.

So don’t fight that – work with it. Work with the fact that copies are promiscuous and it’st just going to go everywhere, it’s a superconductor for copies. You can’t battle against that, you have to say “okay, we can see how it is.”

Within the first four or five years it was clear that this was the way it was going to be… can you imagine if the music industry had accepted that from the front? It would have been amazing. They’re just coming around to it now, but [imagine] how far ahead they would have been if they’d just said “okay, this is inevitable, this copy thing. We’re just going to try to work with it. There’s thing to adjust, but let’s accept it.”


Kevin Kellya16z podcast: Not If, But How – When Technology is Inevitable

Further reading: The Technium: Better Than Free – 8 ‘generatives’ to thrive in a world of free copies.

See also:

Learning through use: Kevin Kelly on technology finding its way

I’m a big believer that the way we steer technology is through engagement, by use. I find that most of the inventors don’t even have any idea what the technology will ultimately be used for.

Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, and we have his journals of… what he thought this new ability to record sound was going to be, and his very first idea was that it would be used to record the last words of the dying, and then his second idea was that we could record sermons and distribute them. And he had a whole list of things, and at the very end he was like, well maybe we could do music – and he was the inventor of it.

So I think it’s only through use that we can find out what these things are…

Kevin Kellya16z podcast: Not If, But How – When Technology is Inevitable

Marc Andreesen: Scenius

Here’s another highlight from Brian Koppelman’s interview with Marc Andreessen on The Moment.

This time they’re talking about the importance of ‘scenes’ – groups of people working on similar ideas, sharing inspiration, encouraging each other and pushing boundaries and promoting each other’s work.

This seems to be true in art, technology and politics, and I think it’s true of sciences and other research communities. There’s huge value in a network of colleagues sharing work, building on each other’s ideas and cheering each other on.

See also Where’s the scene?

This extract is from a little after five minutes into the podcast. You can listen to the episode here, download it here or read the transcript here.

Marc: So, Brian Eno has a term, you may have heard, called “scenius”, have you heard this term?

Brian: No, but I love Eno’s work.

Marc: Okay. So Brian Eno has this term called sceners. Kevin Kelly and Stewart Brand and others have talked about this at length and I think it’s right, which is, it’s this… Let’s start with it is it’s an amazing coincidence. It’s an amazing coincidence how when there’s a major new artistic movement, it’s an amazing how there’s a scene. There’s quite literally a scene. And so Hemingway was part of a scene… There’s an example —

Brian: Patti Smith’s book talks about this, right? “Just Kids” talks about it in a great way, being in New York at that time.

Marc: I mean, one great example, you know, I’ve spent a lot of time with our friend Michael Ovitz over the years understanding kind of how this has worked and how creativity works in entertainment, and he says, basically, he says 100% of the time it’s a scene. So for example, he cites the great scene in comedy, when he was coming up was “Saturday Night Live”, you know, The Second City/ Saturday Night Live phenomenon in the mid 70s. And it was it was this, you know, Saturday Night Live shows up on TV in, you know, 1975 and people are like, Oh my… you know, this is like a brand new thing. Like, where did this come from? And it turns out, it was all these people. It was, you know, Chevy Chase, and Gilda Radner, and Bill Murray, and, you know, John Belushi, and all these… Lorne Michaels —

Brian: And the Canadians, the SCTV scene —

Marc: Yes, the Canadians, the SCTV scene, exactly right. And like, they all knew each other; they all knew each other coming up. And basically you find this — like, comedy is actually a great example of this, you just see this — inevitably, like, there was the Judd Apatow scene, like, there was a set of those people; there’s like the Seth Rogen, you know, kind of they’re at the center of these networks. And then these people then spin off and they do their own work and they became become very successful. Um you know, most recently like the Tina Fey, Amy Poehler kind of thing was a scene. <Brian: Sure. Absolutely.> Upright Citizens Brigade [Theater] and Second City. And so, it’s this… these are clearly creative geniuses on their own, but like, they weren’t out in the wilderness somewhere.

Brian: Well, what I took from the article — I didn’t read the study but I saw the Times article about it — was that artists will recognize other… Part of what happens, this amplifying effect is that, if you’re good… if you’re really good at this stuff, don’t necessarily think about people, always think about the buyer. People are always like, “How can I get an agent? How can I get a buyer?” As opposed to, “How can I show my work to other artists who can help platform it?”

And that’s what I took from that article was that, there are, that in fact, … The best way to get an agent is to have some artist who thinks you’re great, who’s represented by that agent, tell that agent, right? Do you think systems thinking — because like, if you look at Dylan as an example, just to try to put it in my world a bit, right — he did come here, come to New York and then enter and take over this scene that existed. Do you think someone has to calculate that stuff… or do you think there are people who just naturally do it?

Marc: So I think it’s a complex adaptive system. It has feedback loops, what are called feedback loops. You know, and some people get in the position of the feedback loop starts to hit. It’s almost a little bit… feedback loops are funny things… There’s this concept in economics actually derived from something out of the Christian Bible called the Matthew Effect, right? It’s sort of like, in a lot of these fields, recognition begets recognition, success begets success, reputation begets reputation, right? So it’s a positive feedback loop. And you see this when kind of people are on the rise in their careers, right?

Brian: I was with people from Twitter the other day and they were talking about this too, about one of the challenges at Twitter in terms of growing it, right, is that the people who are verified and have a good following are able to very quickly make their following bigger. <Marc: Yah> But for someone who’s just starting, it’s really hard now to amass an audience.

Marc: Just like, by the way, it’s very hard to become a new recognized painter, it’s very hard to write a screenplay that gets made, right? It’s a… these are so-called nonlinear dynamical systems, technically, and they have these feedback loops.

And a lot of this goes back to kind of the human attitude of the people involved in doing the work, it’s like, there’s two ways to look at that. One is, oh my god, life isn’t fair. And like, this is just fundamentally, you know, horrible. And we should figure out a way to, like, reform these systems so there’s a much more equal distribution of, you know, returns and results. Another way to look at it is, it os the human system, it is humanity, it is how… we are social animals, we do care what other people think. To your point, we care what the other experts think. We do care what our friends think. And we respond to those things. And part of what makes a creative project valuable is the fact that people appreciate it. And, just the nature of it is people are gonna tend to appreciate the things that other people are appreciating.

And so it is what it is, and therefore, if you’re going to be a creative professional, you should lean into that you should. You should take that seriously and you should consider that part of the challenge. Because I think that… the alternate path is bitterness. And we see this in the Valley, one of these billion programmers. They’ve been working for 10 years on some project and like they’ve got the code running. It’s all working and like nobody — you know, it’s not out there, nobody appreciates it, it’s sitting on a shelf in a lab somewhere — and they’re just furious, right?

And it’s like, “Well, what have you done to try to inject this into the world?” “Well, nothing.” “Why not?” “Well, because my work is genius and people should appreciate it. And it’s their fault if they don’t.” As an individual, that will poison you, right?, <Yes!> that will destroy you.

And so that’s… why you have to be really careful in these things whether you’re talking about society or whether you’re talking about the individual. Because from a societal standpoint, you can level all kinds of accusations about unfairness. From an individual level, you really want, in my view… individually, you wanna think, “I can do this. I can go change the world. I can go affect things.” It’s going it be real —

Brian: And you’re saying, you shouldn’t just rely on the fact that your work alone privately will do it, you should be proactive in trying to get it out there.

Marc: And part of it is you should get into a scene. So this is part of it. By the way, this also goes to another kind of view of unfairness right now which is like, okay, why do all the great movies and TV shows get made… why do the vast majority get made in LA.? Like, that’s so unfair to people. There are people who, like, try to make movies in San Francisco, and they’ll tell you like, “It’s so unfair. Like, it’s just so much easier to do this in LA. Like, it should be easy to do this…” We get this in the startup world, like, why are a disproportionate number of startups built in Silicon Valley? Isn’t it unfair that you don’t have equal odds of doing this if you’re in Topeka?

Well, that’s one way of looking at it. The other way of looking at it is, if I’m the indiv– you know, I grew up in rural Wisconsin — like, if the job is to get enmeshed into the system, right, into the network, then basically, what you wanna do as an individual is you wanna get yourself into the scene.

Brian: Yah Tony Hsieh calls them “collision spaces”.

Marc: Yeah. You gotta get in the mix, right. And if you’re not willing to get in the mix, it’s not their fault. It’s your fault, right?

Kevin Kelly – what is technology?

Not just shiny new stuff

It was clear (at least to me) that technology was an extension of natural life, but in what ways was it different from nature? (Computers and DNA share something essential, but a Mac-Book is not the same as a sunflower.) It was also clear that technology springs from human minds, but it what way are the products of our minds (even cognitive products like artificial intelligences) different from our minds themselves? Is technology human or nonhuman?

We tend to think of technology as shiny tools and gadgets. Even if we acknowledge that technology can exist in disembodied form, such as software, we tend not to include in this category paintings, literature, music, dance, poetry and the arts in general. But we should. If a thousand lines of letters in UNIX qualifies as technology (the computer code for a web page), then a thousand lines of letters in English (Hamlet) must qualify as well. They both can change our behavior, alter the course of events, or enable future inventions.

A Shakespeare sonnet and a Bach fugue, then, are in the same category as Google’s search engine and the iPod: They are something useful produced by a mind.

A Shakespeare sonnet and a Bach fugue, then, are in the same category as Google’s search engine and the iPod: They are something useful produced by a mind.

We can’t separate out the multiple overlapping technologies responsible for a Lord of the Rings movie. The literary rendering of the original novel is as much an invention as the digital rendering of its fantastical creatures. Both are useful works of the human imagination. Both influence audiences powerfully. Both are technological.

Kevin Kelly – What Technology Wants (amazon)

If you haven’t read any of Kevin Kelly’s writing, check out New Rules for the New Economy (where in 1998 – the year Google was founded and seven years before Facebook) he set out most of the trends of the new ‘connection’ economy. Or read the opening chapter of What Technology Wants on Kindle and see if it tempts you.

AI and us: Kevin Kelly on ‘centaurs’

In 1997 Watson’s precursor, IBM’s Deep Blue, beat the reigning chess grand master Garry Kasperov in a famous man-versus machine match. After machines repeated their victories in a few more matches, humans largely lost interest in such contests. You might think that this was the end of the story (if not the end of human history), but Kasparov realised that he could have performed better against Deep Blue if he’d had the same instant access to a massive database of all previous chess moves that Deep Blue had. If this database of tools was fair for an AI, why not for a human? … To pursue this idea, Kasparov pioneered the concept of man-and-machine matches, in which AI augments human chess players rather than competes against them…

You can play as your unassisted human self, or you can act as the hand of a supersmart chess computer, merely moving its board pieces, or you can play as a “centaur”, which is the human/AI cyborg that Kasparov advocated… In the championship Freestyle Battle 2014, open to all modes of players, pure chess AI engines won 42 games, but centaurs won 53 games. Today, the best chess player alive is a centaur. It goes by the name of Intagrand, a team of several humans and several different chess programs.

But here’s the even more surprising part: The advent of AI didn’t diminish the performance of purely human chess players. Quite the opposite. Cheap, supersmart chess programs inspired more people than ever to play chess, at more tournaments than ever, and the players got better than ever…

If AI can help humans become better chess players, it stands to reason that it can help us become better pilots, better doctors, better judges, better teachers.

Kevin Kelly – The Inevitable