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,

Education for the future: Key tools

Here are some tools that don’t go out of date:

  • Tools for thinking, learning and understanding (the tools that help you acquire new tools);
  • Tools for communicating and teaching (the tools that help you find and enlist others in your work, and help them to learn new tools);
  • Tools for planning, organising and leading (tools that enable you to work effectively with others);
  • Tools for making new tools (all of these tools fall into this category, but it applies to more technical skills too, from using a hammer to building a website).

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

Wisdom, for now and later


Eat honey, my child, for it is good;
    honey from the comb is sweet to your taste.
1Know also that wisdom is like honey for you:
    If you find it, there is a future hope for you,
   and your hope will not be cut off.

Proverbs (of Solomon) – Tanakh / Old Testament

I read this the other day, and got to thinking: I could do with a bit more of two types of wisdom.

Wisdom for now

When you sit to dine with a ruler,
    note well what is before you,
and put a knife to your throat
    if you are given to gluttony.
Do not crave his delicacies,
    for that food is deceptive.

Most of the time I think about wisdom as short term: knowing the right (or best) thing to do in a given situation, and being able to do it. Things like judging fairly, or staying calm in a disagreement, knowing when to let something drop or when to fight your point, and how to do it well. And this type of wisdom is really important – there are loads of proverbs about it.

Wisdom for later

Put your outdoor work in order
    and get your fields ready;
   after that, build your house.

Critical path theory, c. 600 BC

But this proverb gets at a different sort of wisdom: the make-good-decisions-when-it’s-not-urgent-to-avoid-difficulty-later sort of wisdom. And proverbs is full of these too. On reflection, maybe they’re the same kind of thing, and only different because the consequences are felt in the short or longer term – easier today or easier tomorrow.

This wisdom for later is about doing the right things daily, about building things for tomorrow, about doing the boring work of maintenance or the hard, slow work of building foundations so that tomorrow will be better. It’s about staying away from the things that will hurt us now, and also about making decisions now that will help us to avoid the risk or temptation of trouble later – about applying the right kind of thin end of the wedge. It’s about investing in important things so that you can enjoy treasures that are all too rare, and things that are necessarily rare, because they’re what you built:

By wisdom a house is built,
    and through understanding it is established;
through knowledge its rooms are filled
    with rare and beautiful treasures.

May your treasures be beautiful and rare, and the honeycomb sweet.

Tim O’Reilly on structural literacy

Access to an unlimited world of information is a powerful augmentation of human capability, but it still has prerequisites. Before she could make an exquisite dessert by watching a YouTube video, my stepdaughter had to know how to use an iPad. She had to know how to search on YouTube. She had to know that a world of content was there for the taking. At O’Reilly, we call this structural literacy.

Users without structural literacy about how to use computers struggle to use them. They learn by rote. Going from an iPhone to Android, or the reverse, or from PC to Mac, or even from one version of software to another, is difficult for them. These same people have no trouble getting into a strange car and orientating themselves. “Where is that darned lever to open the gas cap?” they ask. They know it’s got to be there somewhere. Someone with structural literacy knows what to look for. They have a functional map of how things ought to work. Those lacking that map are helpless.

The level and type of structural literacy required differs with the type of work you do. Today’s startups, increasingly embedding software and services into devices, require foundational skills in electrical and mechanical engineering, and even “trade” skills such as soldering… Teachers are far more effective if they are broadly familiar with the culture and context of their students.

Tim O’Reilly – WTF?: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us

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.

W. Brian Arthur on combinatorial innovation

The idea … that we have is that there’s some genius in an attic… cooking up technology and coming up with inventions.

But it started to become clear to me having looked in detail at some inventions is that technologies in a way come out of other technologies. If you take any individual technology, say like a computer in the 1940s, it was made possible by having vacuum tubes, by having relay systems, by having very primitive memory systems… All of those things existed already.

So it seemed to me that technology’s evolved by people not so much discovering something new or discovering, but by putting together different Lego blocks so to speak in a new way. Once something’s been put together, like say a radio circuit for transmitting radio waves, it can be thrown back in the Lego set. And occasionally then some of the new combinations would get a name and be tossed back in.

Things like gene sequencing were put together from existing molecular biology technologies and then that becomes a component in yet other technologies…


W. Brian Arthur – a16z podcast

What’s already out there that you could combine to do something in a new way?

How do you keep an eye out for new Lego?

What do you make that you could throw into the Lego set for others?

Podcast recommendation: Marc Andreesen on The Moment with Brian Koppelman

I’ve already shared an extract from this episode about systems thinking here, but the whole interview is fascinating and everyone I’ve recommended it to has thanked me for it.

Marc Andressen more-or-less invented the web-browser as we know it and made Netscape (the biggest internet browser of its day, which was sold for a profit), which seeded the development of Mozilla Firefox, which you might be using right now. These days he’s a really influential venture capitalist, a quick (and very smart) thinker and fast talker.

This interview is full of useful and interesting gems, and Brian Koppelman does a great job of pulling out some interesting applications to art and pop culture. Apart from systems thinking, highlights (to be unpacked in future) include:

  • The importance of networks and scenes (‘scenius’) in fostering and spreading innovation
  • How to make your way, taking as a given that many things of life are unfair or wrong
  • The relative value of ideas versus work
  • Marketing, sales, and how to get your ideas in front of people
  • The Test – the ability to get a ‘warm referral’ to investors or key players not as cronyism but as an excellent test of the qualities needed to be a successful entrepreneur

Highly recommend.

You can listen to the episode here, download it here or read the transcript here.