The machines are coming – 2049?

It is notoriously difficult to predict the future. I lived my life at IBM, following Alan Kays 1982 aphorism

The best way to predict the future is to invent it

In my career I got many things right, and many things wrong. While Amazon was still a small time bookseller, and Youtube for the most part didn’t exist, it was obvious both business models would thrive. While I couldn’t convince IBM to pursue either of these opportunities with ny success, we demonstrated the technology perfectly. My “Wired for Life
Presentation contains some of my wins, and many of my losses.

It was much easier to build on these, especially the societal impact in my 2003 “Trends and Directions” presentation.  Societal impact is much easier to predict as you can demographic data, current trends and it’s pretty easy to extrapolate. Technology adoption is much harder.

Many of these predictions are not useful, after all who needs  a robot to write high school essays? Many though will continue to fundementally change work and life as we know it.

What they are though is a signal in the way the World Economic Forum predicts the technology will develop, and to some degree it’s a self fulfilling prophecy. Watching this and reading many of the “machines are coming” articles that have been published over the past 5-years, it’s easy to become depressed about the rise of automation, AI, and robots. In a year when the sequel for Blade Runner will finally appear on our screens, there are some key things to remember.

  1. There is no magic, no silver bullet – If they can’t explain it, or worse don’t understand it, they have not invented it. Machine learning is great, but the machines can only learn with the machine learning constraints they have.
  2. Listen to the doubters – Doubt is very different to dismissal. People who dismiss possibility out-of-hand either don’t understand the opportunity and the potential, or are afraid of the change. It’s the doubters who have thought things through and understand the problems and the weaknesses.
  3. Don’t fear automation – If you do, you will be left behind. Learn, adapt, change; if possible work to invent the future By all means be a doubter, don’t be a dismisser.
  4. Find a problem, don’t start with a solution – AI, Robotics, Big Data, Machine Learning, Algorithms, Neural Networks are all speciality fields, grabbing onto them and asking how can we use them isn’t useful. The more specific you can be about a problem that needs solving, the easier it will be to identify the correct technology.
  5. Be Human – the more we automate, the more important human interaction becomes. The more empathy you have for someone who has a problem, the more likely you are to be able to understand how to solve it. Empathy, the arts, sports and human interaction are all fields where robotics and automation are least likely to take over.

More Human than Human – Dr Eldon Tyrell, The Tyrell Corporation

Organizational chaos or Conspiracy?

[Updated: This post was updated at 11pm Central to include the link to Matt Macowiacks tweet as a great example.]It’s easy to fallback on the current debacle in the US administration as a massive conspiracy. Conspiracies work for people who are afraid, and lack experience, conspiracy theory assumes someone is in charge.

Organization chaos theory was a big thing at the end of the 1980’s, Tom Peters book “Thriving on Chaos: Handbook for a Management Revolution” blazed a path of revolution for the newly minted management consultants through the mid-1990’s. I’ve no idea what they teach in business schools these days, but it’s fallen out of favor. It would again be easy to ascribe the current administrations chaos to a few people with out of date ideas based on Peters chaos theory, especially since Peters ascribed a lot of the justification for chaos theory on a changing global economy and technology.

I’ve experienced organizational chaos. I worked on 12 corporate acquisition projects. Many went ahead, some didn’t make financial sense, and others just were not a good business fit. They included small and large, including a $2.4 billion dollar company with some 4,000 staff, to another with just 60 employees.

In many, especially startups, either before or during acquisition if it proceeded, the management and organization went into chaos meltdown. This could often be sensed by the lack of clarity from the top, either in CEO or in Management. They couldn’t quantify how they were going to achieve the goals and objectives they’d claimed, or the product or technology didn’t do what they claimed.

In the acquisition due diligence you could spot tell tale signs. They were spending too much time in meetings and staff briefings on handling things that had already happened. Insufficient resources were applied to actual problems, it seemed cheaper to deploy marketing to attempt to distract from the cause of the problem that admit the problem and put plans in place to fix it.

As I wrote in “How False Stories Spread And Why People Believe Them

Constantly making false or inaccurate claims, using false data, or more importantly watching something on cable news and then twisting it to fit your own agenda is a dangerous game.

What it appears is that rather than being a massive conspiracy in action, the administration is exhibiting all the classic symptoms of an organization in chaos. Not good chaos as described by Peters

An organization should go back to the core of their existence, review their vision and mission and work and adopt a more customer-responsive approach.

By being curious in doing business and dealing with problems creatively, they can survive in the chaos theory.

Instead in a purely chaotic way.

The President has fired or lost many key staff for the smooth running of any administration, let alone a new one. It’s not just the headline staff, it’s some of the key underlying staff, like Cory Louie, the White House’s now former chief cybersecurity officer.

Louie “was forced to resign,” according to an editor at The Atlantic, who was the first to report his exit, despite initially saying that he was a member of the Secret Service. The story was apparently corroborated by ZDNet, who spoke to unnamed sources on the matter. There are many other examples.

Losing key staff, combined to having a number of alpha male types in charge of entirely new departments, with ideas and a catalog of actions against the very departments they now head; combined with a leader who can articulate nothing more complex than grand but simple ideas, results in exactly what we see, chaos.

You can hope that Steve Bannon is really in charge on the conspiracy, but in reality, that probably isn’t happening. He is likely just another pillar of a collapsing system, wanting to do big things quickly and competing with other alpha males to get the attention they so desperately crave and causing chaos in their wake.

This tweet is a prime example. Mistakes were made, the amount of time spent covering up, debating, and otherwise obfuscating the mistake would be out of proportion to the initial mistake, it also sews distrust, and bolsters the conspiracy theorists.

Whatever you think of the current administration’s politics, policies and programs, so far they’ve done very little except sign a bunch of pandering political executive orders. The “muslim ban” was ineffective in implementation, and probably illegal. The worst thing about it was that it just picked on “easy” countries, least likely to fight back. The Wall, Healthcare reform and almost everything else is just hot air. None backed by actual legislation. By this time in the Obama and Bush administrations, they’d got both solid, published plans, or written, and in the case of Obama, actual approved legislation.

Let’s see what form the legislation takes and who it benefits before coming back to conspiracy theories.

The 3Minutementor, founded and run by former colleague and personal friend, Nigel Dessau, has a useful guide to why strategy fails. It’s a useful checklist to compare the administration’s actions.

Episode 130: Why do strategies fail? from The 3 Minute Mentor on Vimeo.

Finally, here are some useful references on organizational chaos and complexity.

  1. Applications and Limitations of Complexity Theory in Organization Theory and Strategy – David L. Levy, University of Massachusetts, Boston, Massachusetts 
  2. Chaos Theory and Organization – Raymond Thietart, École Supérieure des Sciences Economiques et Commerciales. Bernard_Forgues, EMLYON Business School

Creeping automation

Automation is everywhere, but most of us don’t notice it. Every product we buy, every service we use has been touched by automation, some more than others. Think about the products you buy about the grocery store? Come in a package? Packed by machine!

I’ve had some interesting emails from regular followers/readers about automation. I don’t think people quite understand how invasive and creeping automation is.

Here is a perfectly simple example. I live on a new development in Colorado. Some 70 single family homes, and now they are moving into the multi-family condo and town homes. They’ve built two condo buildings, and a 3rd 12-plex is going up now, literally right across the street.

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Pressed Siding, Floor and Ceiling Boards from Canada
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Crane lifts pre-constructed parts into place

First, let’s be clear, this isn’t a pre-fabricated building. It’s a unique design to this location, that most would consider “traditional construction”. Only it isn’t, it’s massively labor free, and largely “skilled-labor” free.

The construction is typical timber frame, in the old days, there would have been an army of craftsmen working on site, the continuous sound of saws and hammers. While there are some professional craftsmen on site, the bulk of the construction is being done by “nail gun jockeys” using pre-cut, assembled panels and components. They just nailed them into place.

Of course, walking pass this, you’d never normally take a second look. Since it’s directly opposite my home office, everytime I look out the window I see it. What do I see?

Creeping factory assembly and automation. All the major parts arrive pre-cut to size; the joists and all the boards for the side that need holes for windows and door arrive pre-cut. The original boards come from Canada and Mexico. Anyone who has seen the home improvement shows knows that the boards are not cut by craftsmen and craftswomen, but simply cut by operator assisted laser cutting machines. What do all these things have in common? Automation.

It would be easy to simple, let’s at least bring back the board creation, prep and the component assembly to the USA. Indeed easy to say. That assumes we have the raw material, and that the factories exist that can manage the increased workload. If they can’t then let’s assume they can be built.

What happens then? Well, the businesses that do the manufacturing either produce the same goods at the same price as they are available overseas, which will be hard. The US no longer has the same wealth of natural resources. Those that we do have are harder to extract, or come with environmental, planning or development restrictions. Even if these were lifted, they would still come with a price tag.

Those costs, plus any for plant construction, or increased raw material cost would be passed onto us. Effectively doing a “Carrier” and raising prices to cover their increased costs.

Automation is everywhere, but most of us don’t notice it. Every product we buy, every service we use has been touched by automation, some more than others. Think about the products you buy about the grocery store? Come in a package? Packed by machine! Ready made meals, the whole production line from animal slaughter to food prep and cooking are all now largely automated. It’s invisible, invasive and all encompassing.

Government US style

It’s clear that many Americans view “Big government” as a bad thing, it seems though that they are OK with lots of branches of small government, that is ineffective, costly and open to misuse, and often technology challenged.

Given the size of the USA, any government is going to be a big government. With over nearly 320-million people, and almost the largest country in geography in the world, most people clearly are clueless about the scale and the challenges of delivering services in what was the worlds most advanced country. Listen to this 10-second clip from NPR’s Morning Edition today, a piece by Frank Morris of KCUR on the FBI and Apple privacy debate.

Seems to be a pretty widely held view. I heard it on the way back from going to trade-in my state of Texas Drivers License for a state of Colorado Drivers License. I had to drive some 12-miles to Longmont CO, wait in line outside for 30-mins until it opened at 8a.m.; go in and explain to a clerk/assistant/helper what I was there to do, exchange my drivers license and trade-in my state of Texas car plates and register my vehicle with the State of Colorado.

I was helpfully told that I was in the wrong office to register my vehicle, and asked for the relevant ID etc. in order  to get my license. I was given a number of told to wait. When I was called, I spoke with a clerk who was helpful and polite, I glanced over at the desks of the other clerks, you could see from the windows on the PC terminals that they were using dated text mode applications. Credit card processing had to be done by hand, typing numbers in. Questions had to be spoken in English and answered in English, there were no touchpad or tablet interactions. I had to say, outloud, with little privacy my social security number, and after checking my eye sight, and paying I was told to go and wait again.

After a short wait, I was shown a printed version of the questions I was asked, the information I had given, and ask to sign “wholly” within a box at the bottom. If the signature wasn’t entirely in the box it would “invalidate” the application as it couldn’t be scanned in. That done, I went through the take a picture exercise, was given my documents back and told the new license would show up in the mail in 7-10 days.

I left some 70-minutes after arriving. Not bad I guess.

Compare that though to many other Western countries, and many emerging economies, and you get a different picture. Change address in the UK? It’s done online and free. Pictures, signatures and details are held securely centrally.

In the clip above, it’s claimed that the government can’t run USPS, healthcare or anything else. Yet, despite being severely constrained in the services it offers, the US Postal Service is actually pretty dam good, reasonably efficient and pretty cheap. Anyone who thinks that private companies, like FedEx, or UPS and some magic form of new state regulated and/or run service would do better simply isn’t thinking about or is clueless when it comes to understand that scale problem, and the investment needed.

The US Government doesn’t run Healthcare, it never has. It it funds the medicare and medicaid programs. Yes, the US dept. of Veterans Affairs does run medical care and benefits for veterans, given the US has been in a constant state of war of one form or another since 1940, and given the physically size and scale, it is again a pretty decent operation. A good friend of mine, Lee, actually is looking forward to the veterans benefits and healthcare  for the rest of his life. Yes, the VA has its’ problems.

But still, most Americans seem to think it’s better to deal with things “locally” even if that does mean inefficiency, a mistake prone system, lack of privacy, time wasting, out of date technology, duplication, cost and more.

Meanwhile, later this week I’ll be heading to Boulder County to office to register my car; right before I start looking for State of Colorado healthcare market place, trying to resolve the naming error on my City waste management account; filling my taxes with the US Revenue Services and the property taxes with a county in Texas…. and yeah, most Americans have the least amount of vacation time, work the longest hours, and get fewest paid benefits, and things like paid maternity leave. So, no problem waiting online then?

In stark contrast

texasWhile a lot of todays action in the Texas Capital, as covered by social media, is about the “open carry”  bill being sent back for procedural reasons, given we still have a full 7-weeks of the Legge before they remount their horses and get out of dodge for the next 1.5 years(I know, how weird is that?), there is no doubt the bill make to it the Governors desk, where Governor Abbott has said he’ll sign it.

I’m left feeling pretty empty and hollow about Texas today though. I heard the news today on the Texas Standard about SB 204. I don’t know anything about this subject, but when I saw the justification

that the state could “no longer afford” the cost of operating all of its 13 state-supported living centers.

I was left wondering how. in what universe can Texas not afford to run these? Neither the Texas Tribune or the Texas Standard had any details on how the some 3,000 beneficiaries of these State Institutions would be cared for.

A few minutes later the Texas Standard went on to cover this story, about Sex trafficking and human slavery. The article makes a number of claims, all of which are appalling and repugnant.

the Polaris Project says 100,000 children are trafficked a year for sex in this country. The Polaris Project maintains the national human trafficking hotline. Texas ranks second in the number of calls to that hotline.

It seriously makes you ask, why are we not focusing on this as a problem, are there State programs, State hospice care, State rehab centers?

But most of all, what kinda of Men are the “buyers” and facilitate this in Texas? It’s just disgusting.

Almost as bad though is that the Legge is busy debating open carry, meaningless tax cuts, and closing State institutions because it can’t afford  them. A fine example of “you get what you vote for”.

Austin Traffic: Congestion

Irrespective of f the rail bond passes today, this is where I’d be spending money in the next few years, make a serious attempt of creating an inclusive, flexible work hours business environment and it won’t cost $1.4 billion.

So, Austin traffic is terrible, lots of reports hightlight Austin as having the 4th worst traffic in America, especially those advocating for the road/rail on being voted on today.

Austin traffic among worst in hemisphere, study shows

However, if you sit down and do the numbers, what you’ll see is apart from I35, which I’ll come back to in a later post, almost none of the roads are at or near capacity. What Austin has, in a commuter traffic problem. This matches exactly my anecdotal experiences.

Traffic on S 1st
Traffic on S 1st

I took this picture this morning after my run. The traffic wasn’t there at 7:15 a.m. an it was gone a 9:15 a.m. South 1st was blocked all the way from City Hall, to up past W Oltorf. I’m sure the same would have been true on North and South Lamar; South Congress, Mopac, I35, East Riverside et al.

This is key when it comes to today’s vote on the rail and road bond. If you vote for the bond, what you are in essence be approving is a route that is a hail mary pass where we have to see significant growth to give the trains any real passengers outside of commute time. Even at commute time it’s not entirely clear that the ridership will meet the targets that Project Connect have claimed will be achieved.

This is why route selection is vital. On Sunday I was cycling up on Parmer Lane. I had to stop where the Red Line aka Metrorail crosses Parmer just west of R620. As the train passed, I strained to see the passengers, there were none. Even if the current proposal passes, this is likely to be a regular scene, since for the most part, apart from the medical buildings, the train doesn’t go where anyone will want to go during the day, unless the growth comes with the train.

If the route doesn’t get the riders, isn’t seen as a viable benefit to the city for the cost, it is highly unlikely that other bonds will be approved off the back of what will be seen as another expensive rail project.

The route isn’t going to reduce congestion at commute time, it will simply encourage more growth and more sprawl. Julio Gonzalez Altamirano has a great summary of all the issues, but even he, along with both the proponents and  critics have not discussed or talked about is the cultural issue of commuting at the same time.

Austin, Texas embodies an almost macho, work at all costs, be in early culture. It may not represent Texas, but it’s much worse here than almost anywhere else that I’ve worked(London, New York, Moscow, Berlin, Beijing). We are in the middle of the country, so we have timezone drift from both the east coast and the west coast. It’s not unusual to have calls at 7 a.m., meetings regularly start at 8 a.m. That has a massive impact on families, getting kids to school, getting to work.

Lately I’ve been tracking my commute times. I live in the central downtown and work in Round Rock, a 20-mile drive. I try to work at home Fridays, and every now and again I bike home from work and then the next day, bike back.

automaticOver the past month, whenever I can I’ve been leaving my drive to work until after 9:30 a.m. I have been using the AUTOMATIC driving app for a year or so, it makes it easy to look at your driving, trips, times and speed etc.

Trying to get out of my road anytime after 7:30 a.m. gets difficult, the traffic is streaming 2-lanes north towards downtown. It stays that way until 9 a.m. or so. The reverse is true in the evening.

Getting through downtown, a distance of just 2-miles can add 8-minutes to my commute time. However, if I leave outside the peak commute times, I can easily make it to work in less than 30-minutes, because apart from the downtown commute there really isn’t any traffic, even on I35, unless you are coming south from Pfllugerville, Round Rock and further afield.

It would seem to me, tackling this wouldn’t be free, but encouraging flexible working would be a great start. Sure, lots of businesses like schools, restaurants and other service based organizations need to have set hours staffed, and can’t have everyone show up at 9:15, but even they can be more flexible at setting roster times.

Flexible working has a large number of direct benefits, but also avoids the roads becoming clogged up all the time, with the noise, smell and cost associated with that. Even if you could extend the commute by just 45-minutes it would significantly reduce the actual congestion.

For the individual, it comes with a load of benefits, with flexible work schedules, employers also get a significant benefit. But when it come down to it, flexible working is about trust. Are Austin businesses ready to trust and encourage employees? And are Austinites prepared to shift their schedules?

Irrespective of f the rail bond passes today, this is where I’d be spending money in the next few years, make a serious attempt of creating an inclusive, flexible work hours business environment and it won’t cost $1.4 billion.

Why Nations Fail, does this apply to Texas?

Why Nations Fail is a fascinating book, by Acemoglu of MIT and political scientist, James Robinson. They posit that economies that have abundant natural resources can be easily captured by groups that become politically powerful. The authors view is that an abundance of natural resources, which may seem like a blessing, often turns out to be a blessing for a select few and, for the rest of a country’s citizens, a curse. It’s called the natural-resource curse.

east-texas-oil-field[1]The natural-resource curse is well understood economic equation, there are a number of papers on it, this one by Sachs and Warner, the show that countries with great natural resource wealth tend nevertheless to grow more slowly than resource-poor countries. Resource-abundant countries tended to be high-price economies and, benefited by the few.

With the media here in Texas, and especially Austin, currently focused, on prices, the tax burden; the impact of the thousands of people moving  Texas;  and John Stewart Daily lampooning Texas, from inside Austin itself; and an increasing sense of conflict among ordinary people, I wonder if Texas, through it’s natural abundance of land, oil, shale oil isn’t in fact setting itself up to fail?

Certainly ahead of next weeks mid-term elections, the 10/1 Austin City Council election, the vote on Prop-1. all the signs are there. While the abundance of natural-resources has lulled people into a false sense of security, allowing various groups to drive conflict in order to gain control of the State Institutions. Classic theory in practice.

While this would normally be something you’d expect in 3rd world countries such as Sierra Leone, Angola, Venezuela and Nigeria, is it so impossible that it could happen here?

The signs are that it is. Texas is increasingly dropping in national ranking, and internationally worse still. Despite the abundant wealth garnered from the Oil boom, and the more recent Gas/Shale boom, the bulk of that money resides indeed in the hands of the few. Texas has

Oxfam has a solution paper to the natural-resource curse. It starts by saying “get your hands on the money”. In this case, I think rather than get our hands on the money, it would be better to follow Norways lead and create a world leading Sovereign Wealth fund and use that to improve the State, and services that Texas itself has. What are we currently doing?  Raiding the rainy day fund to improve the roads, the rainy day fund aka The Economic Stabilization Fund, or the Texas version of a sovereign Wealth Fund, nice.