Robot Overlords or Robot Colleagues?


Money Quote Mon. Oct. 23

The endless debate over whether the future of work will actually include humans.


A slew of pieces over the past few days only add to the debate over the future of work. First, let’s tackle the WeWork news above. I’ll believe this when I see it actually happen, but WeWork promises it will roll out a coding curriculum across its entire base of hundreds of locations worldwide. I’m skeptical because I’m not convinced the world needs millions of vocationally trained coders — I’m more convinced the world needs all of us to be minimally literate in how digital computing works, and the jobs of the future will more likely require us to understand how to work with computers, rather than how to code them. It’s a bit like writing a century or so ago — we should all learn how to read and write, but only a small fraction of us became professional writers of one kind or another. The rest of us got very good at reading the code of writing — the output.

That’s why I’m a fan of requiring coding and basic computer literacy in all elementary through high schools, just like we do with reading and writing. Those who want to go deeper from there can then decide if they want to go to a WeWork vocational school, or dig deeper in the world of university level CS, which, let’s be honest, is quite removed from the coding academies popping up all over the place. Money Quote: “At a time many experts and politicians are questioning the assumption that college is for everyone, the deal bets on a fashionable form of vocational education — coding — as a route to well-paying software jobs. The plans are to expand Flatiron from its single location in New York’s financial district into most of WeWork’s approximately 170 offices, which would further test the growing idea of bypassing college, at least in the U.S. tech world.”

Here’s a more deeply reported piece on much the same theme. It argues that we’re no longer being helped by automation on the job, rather, our job is to help automation. The article uses Steelcase, a major manufacturer with a decades-long history of manufacturing and automation, as a case study in how automation has changed over the years. In short, the fruits of automation are going to the folks who own the factories, not to the workers in them. Shocker. Money Quote: “This process, Autor and other economists argue, can also exacerbate inequality. The labor market is built around the idea of labor scarcity: each person has a bundle of labor — his or her own capacity to work — that employers need and that she can sell in the job market through employment during the course of a career of thirty years or so. That model is eroding. “It doesn’t mean there’s no money around, but it’s just accruing to the owners of capital, to the owners of ideas,” Autor says. “And capital is less equitably distributed than labor. Everyone is born with some labor, but not everyone is born with capital.”

Here’s an in-depth special report on the future of work from Nature that’s worthy of your review. It includes several side pieces (check out the essay from Yuval Harari, for sure) and polls throughout that allow you to check your responses on related questions with those of other readers. Money Quote: “Indeed, many people might find themselves working alongside AI systems, as the Udacity salespeople did, rather than being replaced by them. Self-driving cars, for instance, are not yet able to navigate all situations on their own, so car manufacturer Nissan is developing a human-powered solution. If one of its autonomous cars encounters a situation it doesn’t understand, such as roadworks or a traffic accident, it will contact a remote command centre where a human ‘mobility manager’ can take control until the car has passed the trouble spot. “Machines think in a very different way, fundamentally, than humans do, and each has its strengths,” says Pietro Michelucci, executive director of the Human Computation Institute in Fairfax, Virginia. “So there’s a real natural marriage between machines and humans.”

It’s about time this topic got its moment in the sun — old school freeways are a blight on nearly everything future cities will hold dear. A vestige of our transition to individual automobiles for all, and our embrace of the suburbs, freeways are increasingly being understood as archaic artifacts of a civilization past its prime. Money Quote: “And because of a confluence of factors, including the embrace of ride-hailing services like Uber and the rebirth of cities as places to live, work, raise families and retire to, advocates like Ms. Richards see an “incredible opportunity” to remove even more pavement. “When we put out a call last summer for freeways without a future, we got almost 75 recommendations,” she said. “This can kick-start a conversation about the best way to spend infrastructure dollars.”

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