Frederick Douglass on the Problem With Too Many Robot/AI Policy Discussions

In the last few weeks, there have been a slew of pieces on robots, AI, and the future of work. What they all have in common: when talking about problems they talk about inequality, but when they talk about solutions they seem incapable of talking seriously about power. I’m too wiped out from a death in my extended family to do a deeper dive today; more on this next week. But for now, Fredrick Douglass‘ got it covered:

Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters….

Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both.

McKinsey: Buckle Up for a Whole Lotta Retraining!

McKinsey says we don’t need to worry that AI, robots etc will create mass unemployment — there will be plenty of new work. The catch: not enough people will know how to do it.

By 2030, according to the a recent McKinsey Global Institute report, Jobs lost, jobs gained: Workforce transitions in a time of automation, as many as 375 million workers—or roughly 14 percent of the global workforce—may need to switch occupational categories as digitization, automation, and advances in artificial intelligence disrupt the world of work. The kinds of skills companies require will shift, with profound implications for the career paths individuals will need to pursue.

How big of a disruption are we talking here?

it’s akin to coping with the large-scale shift from agricultural work to manufacturing that occurred in the early 20th century in North America and Europe…. Those earlier workforce transformations took place over many decades, allowing older workers to retire and new entrants to the workforce to transition to the growing industries. But the speed of change today is potentially faster. The task confronting every economy, particularly advanced economies, will likely be to retrain and redeploy tens of millions of midcareer, middle-age workers. As the MGI report notes, “there are few precedents in which societies have successfully retrained such large numbers of people.”

And that was just one transition. As AI and robots keep getting better, even if there are enough new jobs to be had, it’s quite possible millions will go throgh this trauma over and over — assuming, of course, that this unprecedentedly massive retraining efforts can pull it off the first time.

Who’s going to pull off this moumental task? According to CEOs, not the government.

While they clearly do not expect to solve this alone—forging creative partnerships with a wide range of relevant players, for example, will be critical—by a nearly a 5:1 margin, the executives in our latest survey believe that corporations, not governments, educators, or individual workers, should take the lead in trying to close the looming skills gap. That’s the view of 64 percent of the private-sector executives in the United States who see this as a top-ten priority issue, and 59 percent in Europe.

But are they begnning to take actions anywhere near the scale needed to back up their beliefs? Not that I’ve seen. And they don’t think so either; only 16% said they felt very prepared to kick into gear.

Not to worry, says McKinsey.

But for now, we simply take comfort from the clear message of our latest survey: among large companies, senior executives see an urgent need to rethink and retool their role in helping workers develop the right skills for a rapidly changing economy—and their will to meet this challenge is strong. That’s not a bad place to start.

I feel so much better.

What Can Excel Teach Us About Smoothing the Learning Curve?

In most organizations with a good-sized IT department, one of the banes of their existence is Microsoft Excel. Ironically, this is even more of a problem in the age of analytics, Data Science, etc. The IT staff and their consultants spend a lot of time lovingly crafting solutions so that with a touch of a button, users can produce gorgeous, powerful analyses. And yet IT still has to contend with users who squirrel away nuggets of data in ratty old Excel spreadsheets.

It often drives IT staff like me nuts, because these spreadsheets are often built on data from God knows where and that aren’t connected to the main data systems. So those spreadsheets end up producing numbers that don’t jive with other departments’ numbers — and guess who has to waste far too much of their time figuring out why? Hint: it’s not the person who created the Excel spreadsheet. But despite IT’s best efforts, they can never get rid of all of those ratty old Excel spreadsheets.

There’s a good reason for that. Those shiny, click-a-button solutions? They’re both powerful and easy to use — but only so long as users stick to the well-marked trails these solutions were designed to support. If you want to go where the trails were designed to take you, you’re all set. But if you need to step off those trails even just a bit, it’s like falling off a cliff. If you can’t solve the problem clicking a few buttons, you need to be a full-blown, skilled developer to cut your own path.

But with Excel? Excel’s motto ought to be, Git ‘Er Done. If you know the basics of Excel and you’re a little adventurous, it’s amazing what you can get it to do with a little help from Ms. Google. You can start by learning a trick or two, then gradually add more tools to your toolbox of tricks as needed. The results aren’t always pretty; sometimes it feels like Excel is duct tape for data. But like duct tape, you don’t need to be incredibly skilled to solve a remarkable range of problems.

And when people who have squirreled away Excel spreadsheets aren’t driving me crazy, I have to admit that in the past few years Microsoft has done a terrific job: modern Excel can often easily produce analyses that are gorgeous. In fact, when I need to get something done quick and dirty, even with all the fancy developer data tools I have at my disposal I often reach for Excel. Now that I’m self-employed, for example, I know I should take the time to learn a more sophisticated tool for handling my finances, and my inner data geek hates how sloppily I’m handling my data, but I never get around to it — it ain’t always pretty, but Excel spreadsheets are just so easy to tweak and extend.

If we’re going to create an economy where lots of people in every community are able to make a living off of the emerging worlds of robotics, AI, virtual and augmented reality, digital fabrication, wearables, etc., I think Excel has a valuable lesson to teach us. Tools that let us point-and-click to easily do amazing things are great. But we also need to start building our tools so they can do what Excel Excel does so well.

So long as the worlds of point-and-click and serious coding are completely separate, I don’t see how emerging tech will ever be truly democratized. And that’s nuts, because as Excel has shown, it doesn’t have to be that way. If we can create a smooth learning curve between learning how to use the tool, becoming a “power user,” and becoming a skilled developer, it won’t just make life easier in using the tech. Done properly, it could have a deep and profound impact on how just and equitable we can make our economy.

Mixed Reality for All Has Launched!

I haven’t blogged much recently because I’ve been busy with prep for the kickoff of Makers All’s first project, Mixed Reality for All. The kickoff went really well, and over the next few weeks it’ll be eating up most of my time until things settle into place. I’m hoping by then end of this week I’ll get back to writing a weekly substantive blog post; you can also catch me on Twitter at @raschneiderman.

And if you’re in the D.C. area and you’re interested in getting involved, please join our Mixed Reality for All DC Tech Team Meetup. Should be a lot of fun!