Privacy Versus AI

There is a widespread assumption in tech circles that privacy and (useful) AI are mutually exclusive. Apple is assumed to be behind Amazon and Google in this race because of its choice to do most data processing locally on the phone, instead of uploading users’ private data in bulk to the cloud.

A recent example of this attitude comes courtesy of The Register:

Predicting an eventual upturn in the sagging smartphone market, [Gartner] research director Ranjit Atwal told The Reg that while artificial intelligence has proven key to making phones more useful by removing friction from transactions, AI required more permissive use of data to deliver. An example he cited was Uber "knowing" from your calendar that you needed a lift from the airport.

I really, really resent this assumption that connecting these services requires each and every one of them to have access to everything about me. I might not want information about my upcoming flight shared with Uber – where it can be accessed improperly, leading to someone knowing I am away from home and planning a burglary at my house. Instead, I want my phone to know that I have an upcoming flight, and offer to call me an Uber to the airport. At that point, of course I am sharing information with Uber, but I am also getting value out of it. Otherwise, the only one getting value is Uber. They get to see how many people in a particular geographical area received a suggestion to take an Uber and declined it, so they can then target those people with special offers or other marketing to persuade them to use Uber next time they have to get to the airport.

I might be happy sharing a monthly aggregate of my trips with the government – so many by car, so many on foot, or by bicycle, public transport, or ride sharing service – which they could use for better planning. I would absolutely not be okay with sharing details of every trip in real time, or giving every busybody the right to query my location in real time.

The fact that so much of the debate is taken up with unproductive discussions is what is preventing progress here. I have written about this concept of granular privacy controls before:

The government sets up an IDDB which has all of everyone's information in it; so far, so icky. But here's the thing: set it up so that individuals can grant access to specific data in that DB - such as the address. Instead of telling various credit card companies, utilities, magazine companies, Amazon, and everyone else my new address, I just update it in the IDDB, and bam, those companies' tokens automatically update too - assuming I don't revoke access in the mean time.

This could also be useful for all sorts of other things, like marital status, insurance, healthcare, and so on. Segregated, granular access to the information is the name of the game. Instead of letting government agencies and private companies read all the data, users each get access only to those data they need to do their jobs.

Unfortunately, we are stuck in an stale all-or-nothing discussion: either you surround yourself with always-on internet-connected microphones and cameras, or you might as well retreat to a shack in the woods. There is a middle ground, and I wish more people (besides Apple) recognised that.


Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

How To Run A Good Presentation

There are all sorts of resources about creating a good slide deck, and about being a good public speaker – but there seems to be a gap when it comes to the actual mechanics of delivering a presentation. Since I regularly see even experienced presenters get some of this stuff wrong, I thought I’d write up some tips from my own experience.

I Can’t See My Audience

The first question is, are you presenting to a local audience, or is your audience somewhere else? This seriously changes things, and in ways that you might not have considered. For a start, any sort of rich animation in your slides is probably bad for a remote presentation, as it is liable to be jerky or even to fail entirely.

You should definitely connect to a remote meeting a few minutes ahead of time, even if you have already installed the particular client software required, as there can still be weird issues due to some combination of the version of the plugin itself, your web browser, or their server-side software. If the meeting requires some software you have not used before, give yourself at least fifteen minutes to take care of downloading, installing, and setting that up to your satisfaction.

Even when people turn on their webcam (and assuming you can see something useful through it, as opposed to some ceiling tiles), once you start presenting you probably won’t be able to see them any more, so remember to stop every few minutes to check that everyone is still with you, that they can see whatever you are currently presenting, and whether they have any questions. This is good advice in general, but it’s easier to remember when the audience is in the room with you. When you’re just talking away to yourself, it can be hard to remember that there are other people listening in – or trying to.

Fancy "virtual meeting room" setups like Cisco’s TelePresence are all very well – as long as all participants have access to the same setup. Most times that I have used such systems, a few participants were connecting in from desktop devices, from their computers, or even from phones, which of course gave them far less rich functionality. Don’t assume that everyone is getting the full “sitting right across the table from each other" experience!

My Audience Can’t See Me

In one way, presenting remotely without a webcam trained on you can be very freeing. I pace a lot; I do laps of the room while talking into a wireless headset. I think this helps me keep up the energy and momentum of a live presentation, which otherwise can be hard to maintain – both when I’m presenting and when I’m in the audience.

One complication is the lack of presenter mode. I rely on this heavily during live presentations, both for speaker notes on the current slide and to remind myself about the next slide. Depending on the situation, I may also use the presenter view to jump around in my deck, presenting slides in a different order than the one they were saved in. Remote presentation software won’t let you do this, or at least, not easily. You can hack it if you have two monitors available, by setting the “display screen" to be the one shared with the remote audience, and setting the other one to be the “presenter screen", but this is a bit fiddly to set up, and is very dependent on the precise meeting software being used.

This is particularly difficult when you’re trying to run a demo as well, because that generally means mirroring your screen so the remote audience sees the same thing as you do. This is basically impossible to manage smoothly in combination with presenter view, so don’t even try.

Be In The Room

If you are in the room with your audience, there’s a different set of advice. First of all, do use presenter mode, so that you can control the slides properly. Once you switch over to a demo, though, mirror your screen so that you are not craning your neck to look over your own shoulder like a demented owl while trying to drive a mouse that is backwards from your perspective. Make it so you can operate your computer normally, and just mirror the display. Practice switching between these modes beforehand. A tool that can really help here is the free DisplayMenu utility. This lives in your menu bar and lets you toggle mirroring and set the resolution of all connected displays independently.

Before you even get to selecting resolutions, you need to have the right adapters – and yes, you still need to carry dongles for both VGA and HDMI, although in the last year or so the proportions have finally flipped, and I do sometimes see Mini DisplayPort too. I have yet to see even the best-equipped conference rooms offer USB-C cables, but I am seeing more and more uptake of wireless display systems, usually either an AppleTV, or Barco ClickShare. The latter is a bit fiddly to set up the first time, so if you’re on your own without someone to run interference for five minutes, try to get a video cable instead. Once it’s installed, though, it’s seamless – and makes it very easy to switch devices, so that you can do things like use an iPad as a virtual whiteboard.

Especially during the Q&A, it is easy to get deeply enough into conversation that you don’t touch your trackpad or keyboard for a few minutes, and your machine goes to sleep. Now your humorous screensaver is on the big screen, and everyone is distracted – and even more so while you flail at the keyboard to enter your password in a hurry. To avoid this happening, there’s another wonderful free utility, called Caffeine. This puts a little coffee cup icon in your menu bar: when the cup is full, your Mac’s sleep settings are overridden and it will stay awake until the lid is closed or you toggle the cup to empty.

Whether the audience is local or remote, Do Not Disturb mode is your friend, especially when mirroring your screen. Modern presentation software is generally clever enough to set your system to not display on-screen alerts while you are showing slides (unless you are one of those monsters who share their decks in “slide sorter" view, in which case you deserve everything you get), but that won’t save you once you start running a demo in your web browser. Some remote meeting software lets you share a specific application rather than your whole screen, but all that means is that instead of the remote audience seeing the specific text of your on-screen alerts, they see ugly great redacted rectangles interfering with the display. Either way, it does not look great.

I hope these tips have been useful. Good luck with your presentations!


Photos by Headway and Olu Eletu on Unsplash

When Robots Kill

This is not a breaking-news blog. Instead, what I try to do here is bring together different strands of thinking about an issue – hence the name: Find The Thread.

This is why I’m going to comment on the tragic story of the woman struck and killed by a “self-driving" Uber car in Arizona, even though the collision occurred more than a week ago.

A Question Of Levels

We generally talk about levels of autonomy in driverless cars. Level 0 is the sort of car most of us are used to. Particularly high-tech cars – your Mercedes S-classes, Audi A8s, many Volvos, and so on – may have Level 1 or even 2 systems: radar cruise control that will decelerate to avoid obstacles, lane-keeping technology that will steer between the white lines on a motorway, and so on. Tesla also attempts Level 3 with its Autopilot tech.

In all of these cases, the driver is required to still be present and alert, ready to take over the driving at a moment’s notice. The goal is to get to Level 4 and 5, which is where the driver can actually let go of the wheel entirely. Once Level 5 is commonplace, we will start seeing cars built without manual controls, as they will no longer be required.

The problem, as Benedict Evans points out, is that this will not be a universal roll-out. As I have written myself, autonomous driving technology is likely to be rolled out gradually, with easy use cases such as highway driving coming first.

This is the nut of the issue, though: as long as human drivers are required as backup to self-driving tech that works most of the time, we are actually worse off than if we did not have this tech at all.

In the first known fatal accident involving self-driving tech, the driver may have ignored up to seven warnings to put his hands back on the wheel. That was an extreme case, with rumours that the driver may even have been watching a film on a laptop, but in the Arizona case, the driver may have had only between four and one seconds of warning. If you’re texting or even carrying on a conversation with other occupants of the car, four seconds to context-switch back to driving and re-acquire situational awareness is not a lot. One second? Forget it.

In tech circles, self-driving tech is mostly analysed as a technology problem. Can we do this with cameras and smarter processing, do we need expensive Lidar rigs, who has the smartest approach, and so on. This is all cutting-edge stuff, to be sure, and well worth investigating anyway. You can then start speculating about the consequences if this tech all works out, and I’ve had a go at thinking about what truly self-driving cars may imply myself.

Beyond The Software

There is a whole other level beyond the technological one, which is the real-world frameworks in which these technologies would have to operate. The sorts of driving licenses we issue to humans already focus more on the rules of the road than the techniques of driving. You can learn the mechanics of driving in a few hours, especially with an automatic gearbox. The reason we don’t give people licenses after a day of instruction is that we also require them to understand how to drive on public roads shared with others.

This tragic accident in Arizona has shifted the conversation to whether it is possible to sue an autonomous car. I am working with some major automotive manufacturers, and all are developing self-driving tech – but none are prepared to roll it out, or even discuss it much in public, until these aspects have been sorted out. Car-makers are a fairly conservative bunch, used to strict product liability laws.

In contrast, the software industry by and large accepts the idea that a click-through waiver absolves you of all responsibility for your products. That is not at all how the automobile industry operates. Even strictly software faults are held to a level of scrutiny unknown in the general software industry, outside of specialised applications. In the case of Toyota’s unintended acceleration problems, the car-maker was ultimately held responsible in court for a fatal accident, due to identified bugs in its electronic throttle control system – and to the fact that code metrics indicated the probability that other, as-yet unidentified bugs were still present in the codebase for that system.

Jamie Zawinski has some typically acerbic commentary:

Note that the article's headline referred to the woman killed by the robot as a "pedestrian" instead of a person. "Pedestrian" is a propaganda term invented by the auto industry to re-frame the debate: to get you to preemptively agree that roads, and by extension cities, are for cars, and any non-car-based use is “other", is some kind of special-case interloper. See The Invention of Jaywalking.

Semantics aside, I have one question that I think is pretty important here, and that is, who is getting charged with vehicular homicide? Even if they are ultimately ruled to be not at fault, what name goes on the court docket? Is it:

  • The Uber employee - or "non-employee independent contractor" - in the passenger seat?

  • Their shift lead?

  • Travis Kalanick?

  • The author(s) of the (proprietary, un-auditable) software?

  • The "corporate person" known as Uber?

Good question, and one that so far remains unanswered.

Why The Rush To Autonomous Cars?

Finally, let’s remember that there are two reasons that the industry is storming ahead with self-driving tech. The public reason is the presumption of increased road safety through the removal of distracted human drivers from the road. However, as the complexities involved in moving beyond simple demos in an empty parking lot become clear, people are starting to suggest ridiculous solutions like "bicycle-to-vehicle" communications – in other words, instrumenting cyclists so that they will advertise their position to cars. And if you give sensors to cyclists, why not pedestrians too?

This is a typical technology-first fix: if you can’t solve the problem one way, by detecting cyclists through sensors, you solve it another way, by fitting sensors to the cyclists themselves. Here again, though, we are not in a purely technological domain. This blinkered view is why self-driving cars won’t save cyclists, at least until the thinking shifts around the whole issue of cars in general.

Here is where we come to the second reason behind the urgency in the development of self-driving tech: Uber’s business model depends on it. Right now they are haemorrhaging money – over a billion-with-a-B per quarter in 2017 – in a race to achieve market dominance before they run out of cash (or investors willing to give them more). Much of that cost goes to their human drivers; if those could be replaced with automated systems, the cost would go away at a stroke, and they would also achieve much higher utilisation rates on their fleet of vehicles.

In this view, self-driving cars are both an offensive move against Uber’s competitors, and a defensive one in case the likes of Google get there first and undercut Uber with their little pod-cars.

This sort of thing is catnip for futurists and other professional speculators, existing at the nexus of technology and business model that is Silicon Valley distilled to its purest essence. However, as the real-world problems with this project become more and more visible, people are starting to question whether self-driving cars are actually a distraction for Uber.

The bottom line is that right now we are pushing forwards with self-driving tech in the hope it will make our roads safer. This is a valid and important goal, to be sure – but those claims of increased safety from self-driving tech are still assumptions, very much unproven, as the tragic death in Arizona reminds us.

Along the way to full Level 5 autonomy, we must pass through an “uncanny valley" of partial autonomy, which is actually more dangerous than no autonomy at all.

Adding the desperate urgency of a company whose very survival depends on the success of this research seems like a very bad idea on the surface of it. It is all too easy to imagine Uber (or any other company, but right now it’s Uber), with only a quarter or two worth of cash in the bank, deciding to rush out self-driving tech that is 1.0 at best.

It’s said that you shouldn’t buy any 1.0 product unless you are willing to tolerate significant imperfections. Would you ride in a car operated by software with significant imperfections?

Would you cross the street in front of one?

And shouldn’t you have the choice to make that call? This is why, despite claims that the EU’s strategy on AI is a failure, I like their go-slow approach. Sure, roll out 1.0 animoji or cat-ear filters, but before we rely on computer vision not to run people over, or fine them for jaywalking or whatever, we should maybe stop and think about that for a moment.

Becoming An Adult

Here is how you become an adult.

One day, you need to do a thing.
First you panic. Then you learn how to do it.
Then, you need to do the thing again.
So you do it, and you do it like a boss, because now you know how to do it.

That’s not how you become an adult.
You become an adult when you teach other people to do the thing.

The same applies to becoming a good professional. It’s not about being the best at doing something. It’s about sharing that knowledge around.

If you haven’t learned this yet, you’re not an adult – or a good professional.


Photo by Marco Secchi on Unsplash

Work From Home

I was reading an interesting blog post about working from home, by Julia Evans. I also work from home, so it was interesting to compare my experiences of remote work with hers.

The two main benefits are the obvious ones – I get to live where I want (Montreal) and have the job that I want. And San Francisco tech companies in general pay a lot more than Montreal tech companies, so working for a SF tech company while living outside SF is great.

I can confirm this 100%. I live in Italy rather than in Canada, but the same factors apply: I’d rather be here than there, and the salary is very competitive with what I could make locally.

  • I have a lot of control over my working environment. It’s relatively easy to close Slack and focus.

True! I hated working in an open-plan office, and wore headphones a lot so that I could get some peace and quiet. It did not help that none of my team were in that office, so I was only going there to satisfy some HR mandate.

  • I basically haven’t had to set an alarm for 4 years.

Ha. Nnnope – I still have my alarm set far too early every weekday to take the kids to school. On the other hand, I can have breakfast with them and take them to school, and still get a full day of work in in. Part of that is down to time zone shift, which is both good and bad; more on that later.

  • There’s a nice community of remotes across the company. I’ve gotten to know a lot of wonderful people.

Yes! My team is spread out across four sites and three time zones, and so are many other teams, so there isn’t the sort of downside to being remote that there can be if it’s an exception.

  • I can work from another city/country if I want (like I went to Berlin for 6 weeks in 2016 and it wasn’t disruptive, especially since my 2 teammates at the time lived in Europe).

I haven’t tried this one (those kids and their schools again), but I know other people who’ve done it very successfully. This also works if your area of coverage gets large enough. I knew someone who was in charge of one particular technology alliance partner across the whole of EMEA, which meant that he spent a lot of his time flying. Soon, he realised that this meant he didn’t have to be anywhere in particular, as long as he was near an international airport – so he decamped to Barcelona for a year. Why not?

  • I live in a slightly shifted timezone (3 hours ahead of many people I work with), so I can get stuff done before anybody gets to work.

I am shifted a lot more than that: the difference from Italy to San Francisco is nine hours. The upside is I get a nice quiet start to my day to read, write, and think, and then the US wakes up and I start getting into conference calls. The downside is that there are only a few usable hours of overlap in our schedules, so compatible time slots go quickly. Sometimes you have to do careful triage of what actually needs an interactive voice call, and what can be discussed asynchronously over email or Slack. I make it a hard rule to keep family dinner time free, but I do take calls after dinner several times a month, when we can’t work out other slots.

Shout Louder

That last point is important: I joined a team that had previously been able to shout across a table at each other, and suddenly half the team was remote. We had to figure out how to communicate and manage projects across the time zone gap, and there were some stumbles and false starts along the way.

What we ended up figuring out was that different channels work for different tasks. Perhaps not revolutionary, I know, but we took the time while we were all together in person and thrashed it out with a whiteboard: what type of requests should go to which channel, what response times could be expected, and so on.

This is what is known as a "communications charter", and is recommended by HBR for virtual teams:

Communication on virtual teams is often less frequent, and always is less rich than face-to-face interaction, which provides more contextual cues and information about emotional states — such as engagement or lack thereof. The only way to avoid the pitfalls is to be extremely clear and disciplined about how the team will communicate. Create a charter that establishes norms of behavior when participating in virtual meetings, such as limiting background noise and side conversations, talking clearly and at a reasonable pace, listening attentively and not dominating the conversation, and so on. The charter also should include guidelines on which communication modes to use in which circumstances, for example when to reply via email versus picking up the phone versus taking the time to create and share a document.

Get In Their Face

Note that when we were working out our communications charter, we did it with a whiteboard. This is because we made it a goal to get together in person once a quarter or thereabouts. Don’t skimp on this! It’s not cheap: airfare, hotels, and meals all add up. However, the time you spend together face to face will pay off over and over. There is so much that gets done when the team is together, and the benefits continue after the remote team members fly out, because that face time has strengthened relationships and clarified questions.

In fact, face time is so important that it’s the very first point in that HBR list:

It may seem paradoxical to say in a post on virtual teams, but face-to-face communication is still better than virtual when it comes to building relationships and fostering trust, an essential foundation for effective team work. If you can’t do it, it’s not the end of the world (focus on doing some virtual team building). But if you can get the team together, use the time to help team members get to know each other better, personally and professionally, as well to create a shared vision and a set of guiding principles for how the team will work. Schedule the in-person meeting early on, and reconnect regularly (semi-annually or annually) if possible.

Feed The Mind

However, there is one final point that I have not seen listed anywhere else, and that is food. When I work from home, I can make my own meals, and share them with whoever else is around: my kids if they don’t have school, my wife if she is also working from home, or friends who might be taking their lunch breaks at the same time as me.

What do you think? Beats a soggy sandwich at your desk, right?


Top image by Seemann via Morguefile; bottom image courtesy of author.

Don't Tell Me What I Can Or Can't Do

So I was watching that Spike Jonze-directed HomePod ad, and I noticed something odd:

See it? No?

How about now?

See, the funny thing is – this was a full-screen video. However, I could not dismiss the warning, which also meant that all the controls stayed visible on the screen, instead of disappearing as they should.

What is this, incompetence, or malice – or both? This was a video embedded on a third-party site. Was Google attempting to prevent me viewing it full-screen unless I clicked through to youtube.com, presumably for some adtech or tracking reason of its own?

Anyway, it’s a good thing that Safari is quite happy to ignore these sorts of shenanigans. It also lets me do picture-in-picture, though I have to click twice to dismiss Google’s useless context menu.

While we’re on that topic, Google’s menu is not just in the way, it’s also insulting: “Stats for nerds"? What is this, elementary school? If I want statistics on the video or the stat of my buffer, just give them to me, without silly names.

Google are of course hell-bent on taking over absolutely everything about your browser, whether it’s constantly nagging you to use Chrome, trying to get you to agree to some T&C document before you can do a search, or actually hijacking your keyboard commands:

Can’t we just go back to Google giving good search results and leaving it at that?

Surprise: Uber, Lyft Actually Increase Traffic

A big part of the promise of the "ride-sharing" companies was that they would reduce congestion by increasing utilisation of cars. Of course, this idea of vehicles in near-constant use for a sequence of rides was hardly a great innovation, being previously known as a taxi, but there you are. However, now it turns out that Uber et al might actually be increasing congestion:

One promise of ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft was fewer cars clogging city streets. But studies suggest the opposite: that ride-hailing companies are pulling riders off buses, subways, bicycles and their own feet and putting them in cars instead.

I am glad that at least the description for these services has switched from ride-sharing to ride-hailing. As I have written before, Uber is nothing to do with sharing:

It is of a part with other examples of "sharing economy" (scare quotes very much intended). Very little of Airbnb is people renting out their spare rooms; much of it is people renting out stables of properties, purchased for the explicit purpose of renting them out through Airbnb. There are even companies like Airsorted that will take care of the whole process, letting landlords sit back and take in the proceeds - while conveniently forgetting to pay taxes on their earnings.
This is not "sharing" economy; these are fully professionalised marketplaces. The real sharing economy equivalents are BlaBlaCar or Couchsurfing. These offerings really do enable non-professionals to share something.

The article is fairly reasonable and balanced, if hardly ground-breaking. CityLab has been covering Uber’s unsustainable impact on traffic for a while now.

What I found really disingenuous was the last paragraph of the AP piece:

At least one study did not pin increased congestion on hailing services. Seattle-based firm Inrix scoured data from 2012 to 2015 in London and found the number of passenger vehicles, including Uber cars, remained the same or even dipped slightly. Reasons for increased congestion included a surge in road construction and delivery trucks dropping off online purchases.

This misses the point entirely. The whole premise according to which Uber et al were going to reduce congestion was that, by increasing utilisation (trips per vehicle), they would reduce the number of cars needed for those trips, and therefore the need for parking spaces and so on and so forth. If the number of vehicles remains the same, but utilisation is way up (Uber drivers gotta eat!), congestion will certainly increase!

It’s the same effect as those online purchases being delivered: instead of being chunked into a small number of large deliveries to shops, all those packages are being dropped off one by one at people’s homes, and probably by different delivery companies too. It’s more convenient for shoppers, sure – but it is not more efficient.

Anyway, I have to wrap this up and go get on the Metro, which is still the best way to get around.

See you underground!


Image by Hanny Naibaho via Unsplash

Unbundling and Rebundling

What is a plumber, anyway?

Tim Harford, better known as the Undercover Economist, always has reliably entertaining thoughts. His latest piece explains Why Microsoft Office is a bigger productivity drain than Candy Crush Saga. Drawn in by that title like moths to a flame, we find the following critique:

Microsoft Office may be as much a drag on productivity as Candy Crush Saga. To see why, consider Adam Smith’s argument that economic progress was built on a foundation of the division of labour. His most celebrated example was a simple pin factory: "One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points" and 10 men together made nearly 50,000 pins a day.
[…]
In a modern office there are no specialist typists; we all need to be able to pick our way around a keyboard. PowerPoint has made amateur slide designers of everyone. Once a slide would be produced by a professional, because no one else had the necessary equipment or training. Now anyone can have a go — and they do.
Well-paid middle managers with no design skills take far too long to produce ugly slides that nobody wants to look at. They also file their own expenses, book their own travel and, for that matter, do their own shopping in the supermarket. On a bill-by-the-minute basis none of this makes sense.

Superficially, this take is amusing as ever, but on reflection, I do find it a little disingenuous. Leaving the slides out of it, because actually those are part of my job, nowadays it is true that we all book our own travel and so on – but on the other hand very few of us office drones keep our own vegetable gardens or even know how to, and those that do mostly treat it as a hobby.

All that has happened is that the frontier of specialisation has moved, and what was once common knowledge for everyone is now a specialised job, while what once required specialists is now expected of everyone. Where once everybody knew how to grow their own food, now we delegate that to small groups of professionals using specific tools. Meanwhile, data processing, which used to be literally the preserve of a priestly caste, has been democratised to the point that any office job will require people to know at least the basics.

I would love to have an assistant to do my expenses and so on, and instead here I am toiling in the salt mines – but let’s face it, if your expense platform is at all decent, and you have reasonable IT skills, this should take roughly no time at all. Booking your own travel ensures that you get what you want, making your own compromises inside of the corporate travel policy.

This definitional error has some interesting consequences, as it is certainly true that most people are probably slower typists than professionals who worked in typing pools, when such things still existed. If your measurement of productivity is words banged out on keyboard per minute, it is almost certainly less efficient for professionals to do it themselves. And yet, hitting the keys yourself is always a far quicker way of getting your ideas out than dictating to even the fastest typing pool. How do you measure the productivity difference between an exec tapping out three lines on their iPhone while waiting to board a flight, versus having to wait until they get back to the office on Monday? Sure, those three lines are terse, jargon-filled, and probably stuffed with typos or interesting autocorrect-isms, but they get the point across.

All of this transformation informs Tim Harford’s predictions for 2118:

In an insightful essay from 1996, Paul Krugman predicted that there would be "no robot plumbers" in 2096. I agreed with him then. I am no longer so confident. It seems quite plausible that in 100 years’ time — and perhaps much sooner — plumbers, taxi drivers and many journalists, too, will simply have nothing serious to contribute to the labour market.

I would be seriously impressed by a robot with the combination of agility, strength, and inference reasoning required to work as a plumber. I may well be proved wrong by events (and if so, I will take refuge in probably not being around to be embarrassed by my wrongness), but I expect it won’t quite work out that way. Instead, I suspect that the job of "plumber" is one of the safest out there, and for many of the same reasons that it was impossible to outsource: in addition to knowledge, it requires great situational awareness, problem-solving capabilities, and flexibility – all of which are weak points for automated systems.

More vulnerable are the jobs that delaminate neatly into separate tasks, some of which will be re-bundled into new and different jobs, while others are automated away. The job of "typist" has gone the way of the dodo because it encapsulated a single task which could either be made part of other jobs (we all do our own typing) or automated (mail merge and variables make it easy to generate and circulate even quite complex documents, without human typing).

The job market will certainly be radically different in 2118 – that prediction is fairly safe – but I expect that there will still be jobs, and people doing them - people augmented by automated capabilities.


Photo by Jouni Rajala on Unsplash

War of the World Views

There has been this interesting shift going on in coverage of Silicon Valley companies, with increasing scepticism informing what had previously been reliable hero-worshipping. Case in point: this fascinating polemic by John Battelle about the oft-ignored human externalities of “disruption" (scare quotes definitely intended).

Battelle starts from a critique of Amazon Go, the new cashier-less stores Amazon is trialling. I think it’s safe to say that he’s not a fan:

My first take on Amazon Go is this: F*cking A, do we really want eggplants and cuts of meat reduced to parameterized choices spit onto algorithmized shelves? Ick. I like the human confidence I get when a butcher considers a particular rib eye, then explains the best way to cook that one cut of meat. Sure, technology could probably deliver me a defensibly "better" steak, perhaps even one tailored to my preferences as expressed through reams of data collected through means I’ll probably never understand.
But come on.
Sometimes you just want to look a guy in the eye and sense, at that moment, that THIS rib eye is perfect for ME, because I trust that butcher across the counter. We don’t need meat informed by data and butchered by bloodless algorithms. We want our steak with a side of humanity. We lose that, we lose our own narrative.

Battelle then goes on to extrapolate that "ick" out to a critique of the whole Silicon Valley model:

It’s this question that dogs me as I think about how Facebook comports itself : We know what’s best for you, better than you do in fact, so trust us, we’ll roll the code, you consume what we put in front of you.
But… all interactions of humanity should not be seen as a decision tree waiting to be modeled, as data sets that can be scanned for patterns to inform algorithms.

Cut Down The Decision Tree For Firewood

I do think there is some merit to this critique. Charlie Stross has previously characterised corporations as immortal hive organisms which pursue the three corporate objectives of growth, profitability, and pain avoidance:

We are now living in a global state that has been structured for the benefit of non-human entities with non-human goals. They have enormous media reach, which they use to distract attention from threats to their own survival. They also have an enormous ability to support litigation against public participation, except in the very limited circumstances where such action is forbidden. Individual atomized humans are thus either co-opted by these entities (you can live very nicely as a CEO or a politician, as long as you don't bite the feeding hand) or steamrollered if they try to resist.
In short, we are living in the aftermath of an alien invasion.

These alien beings do not quite understand our human reactions and relations, and they try pin them down and quantify them in their models. Searching for understanding through modelling is value-neutral in general, but problems start to appear when the model is taken as authoritative, with any real-life deviation from the model considered as an error to be rectified – by correcting the real-life discrepancy.

Fred Turner describes the echo chamber these corporations inhabit, and the circular reasoning it leads to, in this interview:

About ten years back, I spent a lot of time inside Google. What I saw there was an interesting loop. It started with, "Don't be evil." So then the question became, "Okay, what's good?" Well, information is good. Information empowers people. So providing information is good. Okay, great. Who provides information? Oh, right: Google provides information. So you end up in this loop where what's good for people is what's good for Google, and vice versa. And that is a challenging space to live in.

We all live in Google’s space, and it can indeed be challenging, especially if you disagree with Google about how information should be gathered and disseminated. We are all grist for its mighty Algorithm.

This presumption of infallibility on the part of the Algorithm, and of the world view that it implements is dangerous, as I have written before. Machines simply do not see the world as we do. Building our entire financial and governance systems around them risks some very unwelcome consequences.

But What About The Supermarket?

Back to Battelle for a moment, zooming back in on Amazon and its supermarket efforts:

But as they pursue the crack cocaine of capitalism — unmitigated growth — are technology platforms pushing into markets where perhaps they simply don’t belong? When a tech startup called Bodega launched with a business plan nearly identical to Amazon’s, it was laughed off the pages of TechCrunch. Why do we accept the same idea from Amazon? Because Amazon can actually pull it off?

The simple answer is that Bodega falls into the uncanny valley of AI assistance, trying to mimic a human interaction instead of embracing its new medium. A smart vending machine that learns what to stock? That has value - for the sorts of products that people like to buy from vending machines.

This is Amazon’s home turf, where the Everything Store got its start, shipping the ultimate undifferentiated good. A book is a book is a book; it doesn’t really get any less fresh, at least not once it has undergone its metamorphosis from newborn hardback to long-lived paperback.

In this context, nappies/diapers1 or bottled water are a perfect fit, and something that Amazon Prime has already been selling for a long time, albeit at a larger remove. Witness those ridiculous Dash buttons, those single-purpose IoT devices that you can place around your home so that when you see you’re low on laundry powder or toilet paper you can press the button and the product will appear miraculously on your next Amazon order.

Steaks or fresh vegetables are a different story entirely. I have yet to see the combination of sensors and algorithms that can figure out that a) these avocados are close to over-ripe, but b) that’s okay because I need them for guacamole tonight, or c) these bananas are too green to eat any time soon, and d) that’s exactly what I need because they’re for the kids’ after-school snack all next week.

People Curate, Algorithms Deliver

Why get rid of the produce guy in the first place?

Why indeed? But why make me deal with a guy for my bottled water?2

I already do cashier-less shopping; I use a hand-held scanner, scan products as I go, and swipe my credit card (or these days, my phone) on my way out. The interaction with the cashier was not the valuable one. The valuable interaction was with the people behind the various counters - fish, meat, deli - who really were, and still are, giving me personalised service. If I want even more personalised service, I go to the actual greengrocer, where the staff all know me and my kids, and will actively recommend produce for us and our tastes.

All of that personalisation would be overkill, though, if all I needed were to stock up on kitchen rolls, bottled milk, and breakfast cereal. These are routine, undifferentiated transactions, and the more human effort we can remove from those, the better. Interactions with humans are costly activities, in time (that I spend dealing with a person instead of just taking a product off the shelf) and in money (someone has to pay that person’s salary, healthcare, taxes, and so on). They should be reserved for situations where there is a proportionate payoff: the assurance that my avos will be ripe, my cut of beef will be right for the dish I am making, and my kids’ bananas will not have gone off by the time they are ready to eat them.

We are cyborgs, every day a little bit more: humans augmented by machine intelligence, with new abilities that we are only just learning to deal with. The idea of a cashier-less supermarket does not worry me that much. In fact, I suspect that if anything, by taking the friction out of shopping for undifferentiated goods, we will actually create more demand for, and appreciation of, the sort of "curated" (sorry) experience that only human experts can provide.


Photos by Julian Hanslmaier and Anurag Arora on Unsplash


  1. Delete as appropriate, depending on which side of the Atlantic you learned your English. 

  2. I like my water carbonated, so sue me. I recycle the plastic bottles, if that helps. Sometimes I even refill them from the municipal carbonated-water taps. No, I’m not even kidding; those are a thing around here (link in Italian). 

Travel Observations (An Ongoing Series)

When you travel enough - a status I remember with vague fondness, the childhood before entering the adulthood of Travelling Too Damn Much - it’s all a blur, and it’s the little differences that begin to stand out. The hazelnuts you get when you fly with Turkish Airlines. The deep-voiced prayer before take-off from Saudi. The generalised contempt from Air France cabin crew. These are colour notes, expressions of their national character. Where it gets interesting is beyond this space.

I have been awoken - several times - from a sound sleep by British Airways cabin crew because my bag was not shoved far enough under the seat in front of me for their exacting standards. Fine, it could be a hazard in an evacuation – except that I was sitting in a window seat, the only hazard was to me, and I still have no idea why BA, and only BA, are so excessively devoted to verifying the position of cabin baggage.

They are also distressingly nervous about the whole refuelling procedure. If you’ve ever boarded a BA flight during refuelling, you will know about it, because about once a minute there is a blaring warning to KEEP YOUR SEAT BELTS UNFASTENED while the aircraft is being refuelled. Most other airlines recognise the complete futility of worrying about seat belts during fuelling, as any mishap involving avgas will see the aircraft engulfed in a fireball long before it could be evacuated, seat belts or no seat belts.

Lest this start to turn into an anti-BA rant, what is up with non-English-speaking airlines hiring people with atrocious - nigh on incomprehensible - accents to record in-flight announcements? In every instance the announcer is one of the worst English speakers of that nation that I have encountered, equalled only by the country’s railway announcer. Look, it’s a one-shot recording; hire someone people will actually understand. I remember getting more information from the Greek-language announcement than from the English one on the late unlamented Olympic Airways.

On the topic of announcements, all airlines’ cabin crew just love the sound of their voice. Look, it’s very nice of you to welcome us and so on, but many of us have heard the same message roughly once a week (if not more) for many years. By the eighteenth announcement that interrupts our in-flight entertainment, always at EAR-SPLITTINGLY LOUD VOLUME, we are about ready to storm the galley and risk explosive decompression to throw you out of the plane at ten thousand feet. The worst is the multi-lingual crew, who feel the need show off every. single. last. language they speak, including ones utterly irrelevant to the route being flown. If you must make these announcements, at least give us the chance to skip them, once we’ve heard one language we understand?

I know, I know, first-world problems, but here we are.


Photo by Marco Brito on Unsplash