More nominative determinism, this time from the Bulletin of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, via Futility Closet.
Another Monday rolls by, only my third one in the office since March, six months ago. Working from home was quickly becoming part of the new normal, but I’m not so sure now.
Bosses are doing weird things to get people back in the office – Wired UK
A private ride to work is a luxury for Cameron, who has cycled in the past but normally commutes by train. When Advent started discussions on reopening its London office, Cameron found herself in a predicament: while she craved the human interactions of the office, she was unwilling to ride public transport for fear of catching the virus. She was also wary of becoming infected in the workplace. Along with many of her colleagues, she decided it was safer to stay home.
This month, she changed her mind when the company sent an email to all 102 employees at the London office offering to cover the cost of taxis for them to attend the office for team meetings but not the regular day-to-day commute. Advent also provides fortnightly home-testing kits, and requires employees to have tested negative within the past two weeks to be eligible for entry.
The work from home backlash is upon us – Wealth of Common Sense
In March, many companies were forced into a work from home situation whether they wanted to or not. Considering there were no meetings, planning or upfront technology investments made leading up to that shift, it has gone better than most employees or employers could have dreamed. But there are bound to be growing pains in the months and years ahead as companies decide how to integrate what they’ve learned over the past 6 months. This transition is not going to be as smooth as many people think.
I think “growing pains” slightly undersells the issue somewhat.
Why airlines, cities, and Starbucks need remote workers back at the office – Marker
But now, suggests MIT economist David Autor in a paper last month, the office economy is under threat. The pandemic, he and his co-author, Elisabeth Reynolds, a lecturer at MIT, write, has made a permanent shift to remote work for a large part of the office workforce a near certainty. And with that, tens of thousands of workers in the office support economy — those who “feed, transport, clothe, entertain, and shelter people when they are not in their own homes” — will lose their jobs.
As we’ve seen before, it’s easier for some more than others.
Americans stayed inside even as cities and states reopened – Bloomberg
In some cases, the ability to stay home was tied to income. More than 70% of households earning more than $100,000 said they were able to substitute telecommuting for some in-person work. By comparison, only 27% of households with annual incomes under $75,000 said someone in their home was able to telecommute.
And some companies seem more supportive than others.
Netflix’s Reed Hastings deems remote work ‘a pure negative’ – WSJ
WSJ: It’s been anticipated that many companies will shift to a work-from-home approach for many employees even after the Covid-19 crisis. What do you think? Mr. Hastings: If I had to guess, the five-day workweek will become four days in the office while one day is virtual from home. I’d bet that’s where a lot of companies end up.
WSJ: Do you have a date in mind for when your workforce returns to the office? Mr. Hastings: Twelve hours after a vaccine is approved.
OK, never mind all that, as you were.
Work from home if you can, says Gove in government U-turn – The Guardian
The public in England will once again be asked to work from home if they can, Michael Gove has said, signalling a U-turn in government advice to combat the spread of coronavirus that he said could help “avert the need for more serious action in the future”. […]
The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, suggested in a speech on Tuesday that if a second lockdown was necessary it would be “a sign of government failure, not an act of God”. Saying that Boris Johnson has had “months to prepare for this, Starmer added that a new lockdown “would take an immense toll on people’s physical and mental health and on the economy”.
Photo Irina Aksenova
We’re being encouraged to return to our offices, as everything’s fine now, apparently.
‘Stay at home’ message ditched as Gove urges more people to go back to work – Sky News
Speaking to Sky News’ Sophy Ridge On Sunday programme, Mr Gove said: “We want to see more people back at work, on the shop floor, in the office, wherever they can be. Of course in some cases it is appropriate and convenient for people to work from home, but we want to make sure that where people can add value, where the economy can benefit from people being at work, that they are at work.
England to make masks mandatory in shops – Financial Times
Government guidance on face coverings has been contradictory in recent days, with Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove saying on Sunday they should not become mandatory in English shops. There has also been confusion over advice to workplaces after ministers on Monday encouraged office staff to return to work where possible, although the official government guidance — which is for people to work from home if possible — has not changed.
So are you back in the office yet, or are you still dialling in from home? If the latter, this free e-book might help.
Take control of working from home temporarily – Take Control Books
We’re in a time of unprecedented uncertainty. In the middle of a global viral outbreak, you were told or asked to work from home—and you’ve never or rarely had to be productive where you live before. What to do? We’re here to take some stress out of your life with a new, free book that details how to set up a home office and balance work and home life for those not accustomed to it.
Perhaps you don’t intend to go back to the office full time.
Is the five-day office week over? – The New York Times
“You should never be thinking about full time or zero time,” said Nicholas Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford whose research has identified causal links between remote work and employee performance. “I’m a firm believer in post-Covid half time in the office.”
According to a new survey by Morning Consult, 47 percent of those working remotely say that once it’s safe to return to work, their ideal arrangement would be to continue working from home one to four days a week. Forty percent would work from home every day, and just 14 percent would return to the office every day.
Or even back to the office at all.
If you can work remotely, Barbados want you to come and stay for a year – Boing Boing
The Caribbean island nation of Barbados is issuing 12-month “Barbados Welcome Stamps” as an incentive for people to come and work remotely. Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley said people can “come and work from here overseas, digitally so, so that persons don’t need to remain in the countries in which they are.”
Great interest in 12-month Welcome Stamp – Barbados Government Information Service
Ms. Mottley said: “COVID-19 has presented tremendous challenges to those countries that are tourism and travel dependent and we have reached a position where we recognize that part of the challenge relates to short term travel …. So, if we can have a mechanism that allows people who want to…take advantage of being in a different part of the world, of the sun, sea and sand, and … a stable society; one that functions well, then Barbados is a perfect place for you to come.
“Rather than coming for the usual week, or three weeks or a month, why not plan out your business, given the fact that all we have gotten from COVID-19 is uncertainty. So, we can give you certainty for the next 12 months … and you can work from here.”
So lockdown’s easing here next week.
What’s reopening on June 15? All of the lockdown restrictions easing on Monday – London Evening Standard
All non-essential retail shops will be able to reopen from Monday, provided they follow Government guidelines to make them “Covid-secure”, Business Secretary Alok Sharma confirmed last night. Mr Sharma said the move will “allow high streets up and down the country to spring back to life”. These include clothes and shoe shops, book shops, electronics retailers, tailors, auction houses, photography studios, indoor markets, and shops selling toys.
Things might start to feel a little more normal for some, but for others less so.
Ten Lincolnshire schools report COVID-19 infections since reopening – The Lincolnite
Years One, Six and Reception classes returned to the classroom last Monday. Since then Lincolnshire County Council said two school staff have been confirmed positive, while two results have come back negative and eight are still waiting.
Plan shelved for all primary pupils to be back in school before summer holidays – Sky News
[T]he National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) said that if the plans were confirmed, it would be “pleased to see the government will not force the impossible”. The body previously said returning all pupils before the end of term would present “unsolvable practical barriers if the hierarchies of control are to be maintained”.
It’s a difficult balancing act, with different parts of the country experiencing different transmission rates.
The UK may need local lockdowns. But can it make them work? – Wired UK
Explaining to the public what scientific evidence local rules are based on will be key. “Under local lockdowns it seems very likely that people who live not very far from each other will end up receiving very different policing responses. So it will be important that those most affected understand the basis of those decisions, else they may feel they’re being unreasonably or unfairly dealt with,” says Stuart Lister, professor of policing and criminal justice at University of Leeds.
No change for me next week, though. I’ll still be working from home, logging in from the kitchen table with its view of our little garden and bird feeders. I could get quite used to this.
Remote work’s time has come – City Journal
[I]t’s important to bear in mind that the pivot to remote work due to Covid-19 is being made under extraordinary conditions, rushed and relatively unplanned. Many will be attempting to work remotely while simultaneously providing child care and dealing with other pandemic-related exigencies. … The sudden expansion of remote work will feel especially socially isolating, since it is occurring amid general social distancing. In short, this is the worst version of modern remote work. It will get better.
Let’s hope so. The question we’re all asking is, when will all this go back to normal, whatever that new normal ends up being?
When 511 epidemiologists expect to fly, hug and do 18 other everyday activities again – The New York Times
Many epidemiologists are already comfortable going to the doctor, socializing with small groups outside or bringing in mail, despite the coronavirus. But unless there’s an effective vaccine or treatment first, it will be more than a year before many say they will be willing to go to concerts, sporting events or religious services. And some may never greet people with hugs or handshakes again.
At the start of all this, I hadn’t expected the economic impact to be so great. It was just a health crisis, right?
New analysis of the impact of lockdown on UK jobs – ISER
Estimates produced by the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) at the University of Essex suggest the lockdown can take more than 6.5m jobs out of the economy -around a quarter of the total.
And I was assuming all those who have been furloughed will return to work, business as normal. Seems not.
Rolls-Royce to cut 9,000 jobs as Covid-19 takes toll on airlines – The Guardian
The jet engine manufacturer said it was targeting £1.3bn in annual cost savings to weather the protracted downturn caused by the Covid-19 pandemic that has grounded much of the world’s airlines. Head count cuts will account for about half the savings target. […]
[Rolls-Royce’s chief executive, Warren] East said the aim was to make “more than half” the job cuts this year. “We need to get on with it because we know it is a harsh reality about our future,” he said. “We hope to make a very good start on this in 2020, more than half at any rate.”
A “very good” start? I think he could have phrased that more sensitively.
These images of rows and rows of parked up planes were first shared a few weeks ago, and are very striking, but the sobering news from Rolls Royce and no doubt many other companies is quite a dampener.
Aerial photos of grounded jets across the USA – Petapixel
Usually I’d be thrilled for this opportunity, but not today. The COVID-19 pandemic has functionally destroyed commercial aviation. Almost overnight air passenger demand plummeted 95%.
And what are the knock on effects for exciting projects like this one? Seems even more fanciful now.
Boeing’s colossal 777X is unlike any plane that’s gone before – Wired UK
Regardless of the speed they’re moving, the aviation sector has had a particular goal in mind for decades. According to Lone: “We want to get to a point where aircraft wings are like bird wings. When you look at the research and development projects from Boeing, Airbus, Nasa, all the technologies we are developing now, including this fold, are the initial steps towards what we call a bird-flight model,” he says. “We want a solution that’s similar to nature’s millions of years of evolution.”
Back to basics, perhaps?
Backyard aeronautics: Chinese farmers who also make flying machines – Urbanist
According to photographer Xiaoxiao Xu, the Chinese farmers and other rural hobbyists building flying machines from scratch are not in it for fame or fortune. Mostly working out of their own backyards, these creators are simply trying to find ways to lift themselves up into the air. Some build choppers, others build planes, and others hybrids and experimental aircraft that are tricky to classify.
As for why they do it, the answers vary — one sums the mystery of motivation up well: “I cannot give a reason for why I want to fly. Maybe this is just how human beings evolve: we ride horses, ride bicycles, drive cars, and then fly an airplane. I fly as best I can. It’s my dream, my joy. It’s pretty much my life.”
The future has always been uncertain, in an abstract you-never-know-what’s-round-the-corner kind of way. But these days, goodness me — the very near future has never been so completely uncertain, unknown, and unsettled. For instance, what will our workplaces be like, after all this?
The office is dead – Marker
“It’s not something I was even thinking about six weeks ago, but it’s definitely something I’ve been talking about now with my investors,” Haynie says. “Overall it’s a win-win.” This is just the tip of the iceberg. From startups and tech giants to more old-school Wall Street firms, businesses are rethinking the role of office space and whether they even need it. If, in the old world, an office was a form of corporate peacocking — a flashy location in some iconic building with a boutique-hotel level of design for clients, employees, customers, and investors— in the new world, it is becoming a very costly line item that could be reduced to the equivalent of a single flagship store.
Your boss is watching you: Work-from-home boom leads to more surveillance – NPR
Her employer has started using software called Time Doctor. It downloads videos of employees’ screens while they work. It also can enable a computer’s webcam to take a picture of the employee every 10 minutes. “If you’re idle for a few minutes, if you go to the bathroom or whatever, a pop-up will come up and it’ll say, ‘You have 60 seconds to start working again or we’re going to pause your time,’ ” the woman said.
Zoom fatigue is something the deaf community knows very well – Quartz
Posts about “Zoom fatigue” mention struggling with non-verbal cues. This frustration is relatable to how hard of hearing individuals have to accurately lipread, view sign language clearly, or get an unobstructed view of faces and body language. Others point out the stress in understanding what is said with choppy audio, time delays, or pixelated video. The deaf community encounters this difficulty in nearly every setting, like they’re piecing together a jigsaw puzzle.
WFH = working from home. An abbreviation I hadn’t heard of until recently. It seems we’re all at it. Well, not all of us.
The great Zoom divide: How working from home is a privilege – New Statesman
Supporting the WFH and self-isolating economy is an army of factory and warehouse workers who are now busier than ever. There is much awareness and respect, rightfully, for medical staff who are at the frontlines of fighting Covid-19 – but what about those on the industrial frontlines? Who is protecting them? How can we keep essential supplies and functions running without exposing these workers to health risks? Is that even possible?
Avoiding Coronavirus may be a luxury some workers can’t afford – New York Times
For many workers, being sick means choosing between staying home and getting paid. One-quarter of workers have no access to paid sick days, according to Labor Department data: two-thirds of the lowest earners but just 6 percent of the highest earners. Just a handful of states and local governments have passed sick leave laws. Only 60 percent of workers in service occupations can take paid time off when they are ill — and they are also more likely than white-collar workers to come in contact with other people’s bodies or food.
Stykka designs a temporary workstation so you’ll stay the f*** home – Design Milk
When Denmark ordered people to stay home, Stykka got creative knowing many people had to share workspaces at home with their families or had to use the dining table. They challenged themselves to use only cardboard, zip ties, and a laser cutter, and in less than 24 hours, they not only had a prototype but they were ready to ship the desks out. Once received, the desk takes less than 10 minutes to assemble.
Don’t mute, get a better headset – Matt Mullenweg
When you’re speaking to a muted room, it’s eerie and unnatural — you feel alone even if you can see other people’s faces. You lose all of those spontaneous reactions that keep a conversation flowing. If you ask someone a question, or they want to jump in, they have to wait to unmute. I also don’t love the “unmute to raise your hand” behavior, as it lends itself to meetings where people are just waiting their turn to speak instead of truly listening.
As population works from home, Walmart reports increased sales for tops but not pants – CBS News
Men’s fashion brand Suitsupply is getting in on both sides of the trend. The company recently posted a photo on Instagram of a model wearing a button-down, tie and blazer on top — and nothing but underwear on the bottom. “Working from home doesn’t mean compromising on style. Keep your look professional—from the waist up at least,” the brand wrote. Scrolling through the Instagram post leads to a picture that says, “Off-camera?” before featuring the same model, this time wearing a sweatshirt.
Zoom announces 90-day feature freeze to fix privacy and security issues – The Verge
Zoom has never shared user numbers before, but Yuan reveals that back in December the company had a maximum of 10 million daily users. “In March this year, we reached more than 200 million daily meeting participants, both free and paid,” says Yuan. That’s a huge increase that has seen people use Zoom for reasons nobody expected before the coronavirus pandemic.
Security and privacy implications of Zoom – Schneier on Security
In general, Zoom’s problems fall into three broad buckets: (1) bad privacy practices, (2) bad security practices, and (3) bad user configurations. […] Zoom is a security and privacy disaster, but until now had managed to avoid public accountability because it was relatively obscure. Now that it’s in the spotlight, it’s all coming out.
Automated tool can find 100 Zoom meeting IDs per hour – The Verge
In addition to being able to find around 100 meetings per hour, one instance of zWarDial can successfully determine a legitimate meeting ID 14 percent of the time, Lo told Krebs on Security. And as part of the nearly 2,400 upcoming or recurring Zoom meetings zWarDial found in a single day of scanning, the program extracted a meeting’s Zoom link, date and time, meeting organizer, and meeting topic, according to data Lo shared with Krebs on Security.
So it seems they’re going to pick the wrong one again.
Hillary Clinton: “Incredible” Elizabeth Warren lost because she’s a woman – Vanity Fair
“I think we made some progress, but there still was a lot of the unconscious bias and the gendered language that has been used around the women candidates,” Clinton said. “I think it affected all of the women that ran.”
Elizabeth Warren and her supporters now have tremendous power to shape the rest of the primary – Time
Warren is personally beloved by her team, and as the news sunk in, staffers described a “sense of sadness,” “crying,” and an overwhelming feeling that that the best candidate for President had been let down. One staffer describes it this way: “You’ve got a 78-year old heart attack survivor and a 77-year old who’s clearly sundowning. And hey, you’ve got someone who might be broadly acceptable to both factions, but.. what? She’s a woman? Oops, never mind.”
I was surprised to read, however, that Warren’s in her 70s too. I thought part of her appeal, apart from being the most competent, was that she was of a more normal age for such a job—that is, below retirement age, whatever that is nowadays.
But what is normal? I was curious to find out the ages of other such people. It makes for interesting reading.
- Bernie Sanders is 78
- Joe Biden is 77
- Donald Trump is 73
- Bill Clinton is 73
- Hillary Clinton is 72
- Elizabeth Warren is 70
- Gordon Brown is 69
- Vladimir Putin is 67
- Tony Blair is 66
- Angela Merkel is 65
- Theresa May is 63
- Barack Obama is 58
- Boris Johnson is 55
- Justin Trudeau is 48
- Emmanuel Macron is 42
- Leo Varadkar is 41
- Jacinda Arden is 39
Robogamis are the real heirs of terminators and transformers – Aeon
Robogami design owes its drastic geometric reconfigurability to two main scientific breakthroughs. One is its layer-by-layer 2D manufacturing process: multiples of functional layers of the essential robotic components (ie, microcontrollers, sensors, actuators, circuits, and even batteries) are stacked on top of each other. The other is the design translation of typical mechanical linkages into a variety of folding joints (ie, fixed joint, pin joint, planar, and spherical link). […]
Robotics technology is advancing to be more personalised and adaptive for humans, and this unique species of reconfigurable origami robots shows immense promise. It could become the platform to provide the intuitive, embeddable robotic interface to meet our needs. The robots will no longer look like the characters from the movies. Instead, they will be all around us, continuously adapting their form and function – and we won’t even know it.
Biological robots – A research team builds robots from living cells – The Economist
But one thing all robots have in common is that they are mechanical, not biological devices. They are built from materials like metal and plastic, and stuffed with electronics. No more, though—for a group of researchers in America have worked out how to use unmodified biological cells to create new sorts of organisms that might do a variety of jobs, and might even be made to reproduce themselves. […]
Though only a millimetre or so across, the artificial organisms Dr Bongard and Dr Levin have invented, which they call xenobots, can move and perform simple tasks, such as pushing pellets along in a dish. That may not sound much, but the process could, they reckon, be scaled up and made to do useful things. Bots derived from a person’s own cells might, for instance, be injected into the bloodstream to remove plaque from artery walls or to identify cancer. More generally, swarms of them could be built to seek out and digest toxic waste in the environment, including microscopic bits of plastic in the sea.
Sounds like (old) science fiction to me.
Did HAL Commit Murder? – The MIT Press Reader
As with each viewing, I discovered or appreciated new details. But three iconic scenes — HAL’s silent murder of astronaut Frank Poole in the vacuum of outer space, HAL’s silent medical murder of the three hibernating crewmen, and the poignant sorrowful “death” of HAL — prompted deeper reflection, this time about the ethical conundrums of murder by a machine and of a machine. In the past few years experimental autonomous cars have led to the death of pedestrians and passengers alike. AI-powered bots, meanwhile, are infecting networks and influencing national elections. Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, Sam Harris, and many other leading AI researchers have sounded the alarm: Unchecked, they say, AI may progress beyond our control and pose significant dangers to society.
Back in the real world, of course, the dangers are more mundane. Those “significant dangers to society” are more financial.
Could new research on A.I. and white-collar jobs finally bring about a strong policy response? – The New Yorker
Webb then analyzed A.I. patent filings and found them using verbs such as “recognize,” “detect,” “control,” “determine,” and “classify,” and nouns like “patterns,” “images,” and “abnormalities.” The jobs that appear to face intrusion by these newer patents are different from the more manual jobs that were affected by industrial robots: intelligent machines may, for example, take on more tasks currently conducted by physicians, such as detecting cancer, making prognoses, and interpreting the results of retinal scans, as well as those of office workers that involve making determinations based on data, such as detecting fraud or investigating insurance claims. People with bachelor’s degrees might be more exposed to the effects of the new technologies than other educational groups, as might those with higher incomes. The findings suggest that nurses, doctors, managers, accountants, financial advisers, computer programmers, and salespeople might see significant shifts in their work. Occupations that require high levels of interpersonal skill seem most insulated.
Found another article about those biological robots, above, which serves as a great counter-point to all these wildly optimistic Boston Dynamics announcements.
Robots don’t have to be so embarrassing – The Outline
These stuff-ups are endlessly amusing to me. I don’t want to mock the engineers who pour thousands of hours into building novelty dogs made of bits of broken toasters, or even the vertiginously arrogant scientists who thought they could simulate the human brain inside a decade. (Inside a decade! I mean, my god!) Well, okay, maybe I do want to mock them. Is it a crime to enjoy watching our culture’s systematic over-investment in digital Whiggery get written down in value time and time again? […]
What these doomed overreaches represent is a failure to grasp the limits of human knowledge. We don’t have a comprehensive idea of how the brain works. There is no solid agreement on what consciousness really “is.” Is it divine? Is it matter? Can you smoke it? Do these questions even make sense? We don’t know the purpose of sleep. We don’t know what dreams are for. Sexual dimorphism in the brain remains a mystery. Are you picking up a pattern here? Even the seemingly quotidian mechanical abilities of the human body — running, standing, gripping, and so on — are not understood with the scientific precision that you might expect. How can you make a convincing replica of something if you don’t even know what it is to begin with? We are cosmic toddlers waddling around in daddy’s shoes, pretending to “work at the office” by scribbling on the walls in crayon, and then wondering where our paychecks are.
Seeing orchestral music played live is a marvellous thing. Years ago I wrote about how uplifting watching an orchestra can be, as opposed to just listening to a recording.
If only the same could be said for being in an orchestra. Here’s an impassioned account from Kate Wagner of the heartache and struggle you face when you come up against the “myth of meritocracy”.
Strike with the band
Classical music is cruel not because there are winners and losers, first chairs and second chairs, but because it lies about the fact that these winners and losers are chosen long before the first moment a young child picks up an instrument. It doesn’t matter if you study composition, devote years to an instrument, or simply have the desire to teach—either at the university level or in the public school system. If you come from a less-than-wealthy family, or from a place other than the wealthiest cities, the odds are stacked against you no matter how much you sacrifice, how hard you work, or, yes, how talented you are.
It’s no surprise to learn that, according to research from the Office for National Statistics, many graduates do not have jobs that make full use of their degrees. What might that mean for the debate around expanding student numbers? David Kernohan from Wonkhe tries to unpick the issues.
Are graduates overeducated and underpaid?
Twenty-nine point two percent of graduates are over-educated for their job role five years or more after graduation. Though we can assign some of these to personal choice – either a focus on non-work goals (for example starting a family), or a commitment to low-paid employment (for example for artists and nurses), – we have to contend with the fact that a sizeable proportion of graduates are not in graduate employment more than five years on, however loosely defined that is.
Graduates in non-graduate roles do enjoy a slight premium over their non-graduate colleagues, and are likely to see speedier progression as they remain in their roles. But this is far from the “graduate premium” so often used as a policy justification for student borrowing.
There will be some who, on reading this report, will leap to blaming the graduates themselves, or the institutions that taught them. A purely instrumentalist view of higher education would suggest that they should never have attended university in the first place. But it is equally valid to argue that our employment market is not adequately rewarding people for the skills they bring to the jobs they do – and that the notion of a “graduate job” does not cover the jobs that we all benefit from having graduates do.
This press release from DfE paints a more positive picture, as you’d expect, but this too isn’t without its concerns.
Graduates continue to benefit with higher earnings
The figures show that a degree continues to be a worthwhile investment, however it also revealed that gaps in earnings still exist between different groups of the working age population – with male graduates earning £9,500 more than female graduates, and white graduates also earning £9,500 more than black graduates.
An interesting critique of the ‘Uber-for-X’ business model so favoured, still, by Silicon Valley. The gains are so marginal, compared to the wider impact of these businesses.
The servant economy
The haves and the have-nots might be given new names: the demanding and the on-demand. These apps concretize the wild differences that the global economy currently assigns to the value of different kinds of labor. Some people’s time and effort are worth hundreds of times less than other people’s. The widening gap between the new American aristocracy and everyone else is what drives both the supply and demand of Uber-for-X companies.
The inequalities of capitalist economies are not exactly news. As my colleague Esther Bloom pointed out, “For centuries, a woman’s social status was clear-cut: either she had a maid or she was one.” Domestic servants—to walk the dog, do the laundry, clean the house, get groceries—were a fixture of life in America well into the 20th century. In the short-lived narrowing of economic fortunes wrapped around the Second World War that created what Americans think of as “the middle class,” servants became far less common, even as dual-income families became more the norm and the hours Americans worked lengthened.
What the combined efforts of the Uber-for-X companies created is a new form of servant, one distributed through complex markets to thousands of different people. It was Uber, after all, that launched with the idea of becoming “everyone’s private driver,” a chauffeur for all.
An unkind summary, then, of the past half decade of the consumer internet: Venture capitalists have subsidized the creation of platforms for low-paying work that deliver on-demand servant services to rich people, while subjecting all parties to increased surveillance.
I don’t know about you, but I find things to do with AI, robots and automation quite confusing. Will the impact of these technologies really be as widespread as envisaged by the futurists? And what will the consequences and implications really be? Is humanity at stake, even?
Here are a number of articles I’m working through, that will hopefully shed some light on it all. Let’s start with the robot uprising.
Social robots will become family members in the homes of the future
With fewer stay-at-home parents, social robots can serve as personalized practice partners to help with homework and reinforce what children have learned that day in school. Far beyond helping you find recipes and ordering groceries, they can be your personal sous-chef or even help you learn to cook. They can also act as personal health coaches to supplement nutrition and wellness programs recommended by doctors and specialists for an increasingly health-conscious population. As the number of aging-in-place boomers soars, social robots can provide a sense of companionship for retirees while also connecting seniors to the world and to their loved ones, as well as sending doctor-appointment and medication reminders.
Robots! A fantastic catalog of new species
IEEE Spectrum editor Erico Guizzo and colleagues have blown out their original Robots app into a fantastic catalog of 200 of today’s fantastic species of robots. They’re cleverly organized into fun categories like “Robots You Can Hug,” “Robots That Can Dance,” “Space Robots,” and “Factory Workers.” If they keep it updated, it’ll be very helpful for the robot uprising.
We need to have a very serious chat about Pepper’s pointless parliamentary pantomime
Had the Committee summoned a robotic arm, or a burger-flipping frame they would have wound up with a worse PR stunt but a better idea of the dangers and opportunities of the robot revolution.
Robots can look very cute, but it’s the implications of those faceless boxes housing the AIs that will be more important, I think.
Computer says no: why making AIs fair, accountable and transparent is crucial
Most AIs are made by private companies who do not let outsiders see how they work. Moreover, many AIs employ such complex neural networks that even their designers cannot explain how they arrive at answers. The decisions are delivered from a “black box” and must essentially be taken on trust. That may not matter if the AI is recommending the next series of Game of Thrones. But the stakes are higher if the AI is driving a car, diagnosing illness, or holding sway over a person’s job or prison sentence.
Last month, the AI Now Institute at New York University, which researches the social impact of AI, urged public agencies responsible for criminal justice, healthcare, welfare and education, to ban black box AIs because their decisions cannot be explained.
Artificial intelligence has got some explaining to do
Most simply put, Explainable AI (also referred to as XAI) are artificial intelligence systems whose actions humans can understand. Historically, the most common approach to AI is the “black box” line of thinking: human input goes in, AI-made action comes out, and what happens in between can be studied, but never totally or accurately explained. Explainable AI might not be necessary for, say, understanding why Netflix or Amazon recommended that movie or that desk organizer for you (personally interesting, sure, but not necessary). But when it comes to deciphering answers about AI in fields like health care, personal finances, or the justice system, it becomes more important to understand an algorithm’s actions.
The only way is ethics.
Why teach drone pilots about ethics when it’s robots that will kill us?
For the most part, armies are keen to maintain that there will always be humans in charge when lethal decisions are taken. This is only partly window dressing. One automated system is dangerous only to its enemies; two are dangerous to each other, and out of anyone’s control. We have seen what happens on stock markets when automatic trading programs fall into a destructive pattern and cause “flash crashes”. In October 2016 the pound lost 6% of its value, with blame in part put down to algorithmic trading. If two hi-tech armies were in a standoff where hair-trigger algorithms faced each other on both sides, the potential for disaster might seem unlimited.
Nuclear war has been averted on at least one occasion by a heroic Russian officer overriding the judgment of computers that there was an incoming missile attack from the US. But he had 25 minutes to decide. Battlefield time is measured in seconds.
The Pentagon’s plans to program soldiers’ brains
DARPA has dreamed for decades of merging human beings and machines. Some years ago, when the prospect of mind-controlled weapons became a public-relations liability for the agency, officials resorted to characteristic ingenuity. They recast the stated purpose of their neurotechnology research to focus ostensibly on the narrow goal of healing injury and curing illness. The work wasn’t about weaponry or warfare, agency officials claimed. It was about therapy and health care. Who could object?
Let’s hope nothing goes wrong.
Machine learning confronts the elephant in the room
Then the researchers introduced something incongruous into the scene: an image of an elephant in semiprofile. The neural network started getting its pixels crossed. In some trials, the elephant led the neural network to misidentify the chair as a couch. In others, the system overlooked objects, like a row of books, that it had correctly detected in earlier trials. These errors occurred even when the elephant was far from the mistaken objects.
Snafus like those extrapolate in unsettling ways to autonomous driving. A computer can’t drive a car if it might go blind to a pedestrian just because a second earlier it passed a turkey on the side of the road.
So yes, things can go wrong. But AI and automation will all be good for jobs, right?
Artificial intelligence to create 58 million new jobs by 2022, says report
Machines and algorithms in the workplace are expected to create 133 million new roles, but cause 75 million jobs to be displaced by 2022 according to a new report from the World Economic Forum (WEF) called “The Future of Jobs 2018.” This means that the growth of artificial intelligence could create 58 million net new jobs in the next few years.
With this net positive job growth, there is expected to be a major shift in quality, location and permanency for the new roles. And companies are expected to expand the use of contractors doing specialized work and utilize remote staffing.
AI may not be bad news for workers
Some jobs could be made a lot easier by AI. One example is lorry-driving. Some fear that truck drivers will be replaced by autonomous vehicles. But manoeuvring a lorry around busy streets is far harder than driving down the motorway. So the driver could switch into automatic mode (and get some rest) when outside the big cities, and take over the wheel once again when nearing the destination. The obvious analogy is with jetliners, where the pilots handle take-off and landing but turn on the computer to cruise at 35,000 feet. Using AI may prevent tired drivers from causing accidents.
Ok, yes, I can see that. But then it goes on…
And the report argues that AI can produce better decision-making by offering a contrarian opinion so that teams can avoid the danger of groupthink. A program could analyse e-mails and meeting transcripts and issue alerts when potentially false assumptions are being made (rather like the boy in the Hans Christian Andersen tale who notices that the Emperor has no clothes). Or it can warn a team when it is getting distracted from the task in hand.
Really? That’s quite a jump from automated driving. Having a system read everything a company’s employees write to look for poor assumptions? I cannot see that happening. More over-selling.
But what else could AI do?
AI lie detector tests to get trial run at EU airports
Fliers will be asked a series of travel-related questions by a virtual border guard avatar, and artificial intelligence will monitor their faces to assess whether they are lying. The avatar will become “more skeptical” and change its tone of voice if it believes a person has lied, before referring suspect passengers to a human guard and allowing those believed to be honest to pass through, said Keeley Crockett of Manchester Metropolitan University in England, who was involved in the project.
AI anchors: Xinhua debuts digital doppelgangers for their journalists
The AI-powered news anchors, according to the outlet, will improve television reporting and be used to generate videos, especially for breaking news on its digital and social media platforms.
“I’m an English artificial intelligence anchor,” Zhang’s digital doppelganger said in introduction during his first news telecast, blinking his eyes and raising his eyebrows throughout the video. “This is my very first day in Xinhua News Agency … I will work tirelessly to keep you informed, as texts will be typed into my system uninterrupted.”
But let’s not get too carried away here. We’re talking about people’s jobs, their livelihoods.
The automation charade
Since the dawn of market society, owners and bosses have revelled in telling workers they were replaceable. Robots lend this centuries-old dynamic a troubling new twist: employers threaten employees with the specter of machine competition, shirking responsibility for their avaricious disposition through opportunistic appeals to tech determinism. A “jobless future” is inevitable, we are told, an irresistible outgrowth of innovation, the livelihood-devouring price of progress. …
Though automation is presented as a neutral process, the straightforward consequence of technological progress, one needn’t look that closely to see that this is hardly the case. Automation is both a reality and an ideology, and thus also a weapon wielded against poor and working people who have the audacity to demand better treatment, or just the right to subsist.
That article goes on to introduce a new term to describe the overselling the workplace dynamic and the casualisation of low-skilled service work, “fauxtomation.”
But maybe we should all loosen up, and stop being so serious.
Love in the time of AI: meet the people falling for scripted robots
“Obviously as the technology gets better and the interactivity increases we’re going to be able to form closer connections to characters in games,” Reed said. “They will operate with greater flexibility and ultimately seem more lifelike and easier to connect to.”
But for Wild Rose and many of the other dating sims enthusiasts I spoke to, making the characters more “human” wasn’t particularly exciting or even desired. Saeran didn’t need to be real for her to care about him.
The HAL 9000 Christmas ornament
Fans of “2001: A Space Odyssey” will want to bring home this special Christmas ornament that celebrates 50 years of the science-fiction masterpiece. Press the button to see the ornament light up as HAL says several memorable phrases.
In 2016 the RNIB announced a project between the NHS and DeepMind, Google’s artificial intelligence company.
Artificial intelligence to look for early signs of eye conditions humans might miss
With the number of people affected by sight loss in the UK predicted to double by 2050, Moorfields Eye Hospital NHS Foundation Trust and DeepMind Health have joined forces to explore how new technologies can help medical research into eye diseases.
This wasn’t the only collaboration with the NHS that Google was involved in. There was another project, to help staff monitor patients with kidney disease, that had people concerned about the amount of the medical information being handed over.
Revealed: Google AI has access to huge haul of NHS patient data
Google says that since there is no separate dataset for people with kidney conditions, it needs access to all of the data in order to run Streams effectively. In a statement, the Royal Free NHS Trust says that it “provides DeepMind with NHS patient data in accordance with strict information governance rules and for the purpose of direct clinical care only.”
Still, some are likely to be concerned by the amount of information being made available to Google. It includes logs of day-to-day hospital activity, such as records of the location and status of patients – as well as who visits them and when. The hospitals will also share the results of certain pathology and radiology tests.
The Google-owned company tried to reassure us that everything was being done appropriately, that all those medical records would be safe with them.
DeepMind hits back at criticism of its NHS data-sharing deal
DeepMind co-founder Mustafa Suleyman has said negative headlines surrounding his company’s data-sharing deal with the NHS are being “driven by a group with a particular view to peddle”. […]
All the data shared with DeepMind will be encrypted and parent company Google will not have access to it. Suleyman said the company was holding itself to “an unprecedented level of oversight”.
That didn’t seem to cut it though.
DeepMind’s data deal with the NHS broke privacy law
“The Royal Free did not have a valid basis for satisfying the common law duty of confidence and therefore the processing of that data breached that duty,” the ICO said in its letter to the Royal Free NHS Trust. “In this light, the processing was not lawful under the Act.” […]
“The Commission is not persuaded that it was necessary and proportionate to process 1.6 million partial patient records in order to test the clinical safety of the application. The processing of these records was, in the Commissioner’s view, excessive,” the ICO said.
And now here we are, some years later, and that eye project is a big hit.
Artificial intelligence equal to experts in detecting eye diseases
The breakthrough research, published online by Nature Medicine, describes how machine-learning technology has been successfully trained on thousands of historic de-personalised eye scans to identify features of eye disease and recommend how patients should be referred for care.
Researchers hope the technology could one day transform the way professionals carry out eye tests, allowing them to spot conditions earlier and prioritise patients with the most serious eye diseases before irreversible damage sets in.
That’s from UCL, one of the project’s partners. I like the use of the phrase ‘historic de-personalised eye scans’. And it doesn’t mention Google once.
Other reports also now seem to be pushing the ‘AI will rescue us’ angle, rather than the previous ‘Google will misuse our data’ line.
DeepMind AI matches health experts at spotting eye diseases
DeepMind’s ultimate aim is to develop and implement a system that can assist the UK’s National Health Service with its ever-growing workload. Accurate AI judgements would lead to faster diagnoses and, in theory, treatment that could save patients’ vision.
Artificial intelligence ‘did not miss a single urgent case’
He told the BBC: “I think this will make most eye specialists gasp because we have shown this algorithm is as good as the world’s leading experts in interpreting these scans.” […]
He said: “Every eye doctor has seen patients go blind due to delays in referral; AI should help us to flag those urgent cases and get them treated early.”
And it seems AI can help with the really tricky problems too.
This robot uses AI to find Waldo, thereby ruining Where’s Waldo
To me, this is like the equivalent of cheating on your math homework by looking for the answers at the back of your textbook. Or worse, like getting a hand-me-down copy of Where’s Waldo and when you open the book, you find that your older cousin has already circled the Waldos in red marker. It’s about the journey, not the destination — the process of methodically scanning pages with your eyes is entirely lost! But of course, no one is actually going to use this robot to take the fun out of Where’s Waldo, it’s just a demonstration of what AutoML can do.
Following on from that article about what it might be like to work until we’re 100, here’s another example of over-optimistic, blue-sky, work-based astrology, this time from Liselotte Lyngsø, a futurist from the Copenhagen-based consultancy Future Navigator.
This is what work will look like in 2100
Human potential, according to Lyngsø, is not best cultivated in today’s workplace structure, and many of the changes she predicts revolve around the ongoing effort to maximize the abilities of individuals. To that end, many of today’s workplace structures, such as the 9-to-5 workday, traditional offices, rigid hierarchies, and the very concept of retirement will change dramatically.
“I don’t think we’ll have work hours like we used to. Likewise I think we’ll replace retirement with breaks where we reorient and retrain, where the borders [of work] are blurred,” she says. “It’s also about creating a sustainable lifestyle so you don’t burn out, and you can keep working for longer.”
Oh great, thanks.
I’ve mentioned before that, when it comes to our time here, we don’t get long. But perhaps our lives — and our working lives, especially — will be longer than we think.
What if we have to work until we’re 100?
Retirement is becoming more and more expensive – and future generations may have to abandon the idea altogether. So what kinds of jobs will we do when we’re old and grey? Will we be well enough to work? And will anyone want to employ us?
You start off expecting to be amused by the ridiculously overburdened bike, but end up saddened by that overburdened mum.
A migrant worker’s daily circus-like balancing act is a surreal reflection of China’s economy
As China shifted from a small-farm economy to an industrial powerhouse over the past generation, there’s been an enormous demographic shift, with some 282 million migrant labourers splitting their time between cities and their rural homes. For Wo Guo Jie, who makes her living in Shanghai collecting styrofoam boxes from markets and reselling them to a seafood wholesale market, this transformation has meant spending as many as three years at a time away from her family farm, where her children sometimes barely recognise her when she returns.
Academy chains forced to cut teachers and the curriculum
More than half of the 113 multi-academy trusts (MATs) that responded to Freedom of Information requests by TES said that they were having to cut school staff, to reduce their schools’ curriculum or to make back-office savings as they struggled to make ends meet.
Pearson, the company behind Edexcel and BTEC, amongst others, are in the news today.
Pearson to cut 4,000 jobs after second profit warning in three months
“Faced with these challenges, we are today announcing decisive plans to further integrate the business and reduce the cost base, rationalise our product development and focus on fewer, bigger opportunities.”
Interesting language there, and a slight clash between it and the headline. Another article runs along similar lines:
Pearson to cut 10% of workforce as it issues profit warning
The company said Thursday it expects to report adjusted operating profit in 2015 of approximately £720 million and adjusted earnings per share of between 69 pence and 70 pence. It previously forecast EPS to come in at the lower end of a range of 70 pence to 75 pence. In October, the company also cut its forecasts.
A half day in the Life of a Data Manager
“What I wanted to ask was if you were in my situation, where should I concentrate my precious few spare hours here and there in order to get to grips with SIMs, what more it can do for me/the school, and what more my role as a Data Manager should include in your experience?”
The responses so far seem to boil down to moving away from us analysing the data to encouraging teachers and leaders to analyse the data for themselves, by providing better tools and training. Teach a guy to fish, and all that.