Please vote. Just so you know my bias before reading further, I’m voting for Hillary Clinton.
This post is not aimed at you if you have already decided to vote for Clinton or for Trump. It is aimed at you if you haven’t voted, are considering not voting, or are voting for someone other than Clinton or Trump.
“Oh, what a glorious task we are given, to continually try to improve this great nation of ours.” — President Barack Obama
Public service is championed across many professions. In law, clerking for a federal judge is considered an important part in many lawyers’ careers. Doctors across the country compete for prestigious research and policy roles within government. Their contributions have pushed us forward and made our country stronger. And they’ve become better lawyers and doctors as a result. Now, there’s a huge opportunity for far more technologists to improve the way government serves Americans everywhere. To make vital services like healthcare and benefits more accessible for millions. To add our voice to policy debates on issues of national or local importance. To accelerate our progress and remain the world’s leader in innovative thinking. But this won’t happen on its own.
The first and most important step is for techies to get engaged. This can take a lot of different forms. It can include getting involved in our local communities. Or it could mean applying your rarefied skills as an engineer, designer, UX researcher, product manager (you get the idea) in collaboration with other experts to make the country work better. Our involvement in the future of our country is crucial.
Earlier this week I was reading Ben Thompson’s always thoughtful musings about Apple and Netflix, titled Apple Should Buy Netflix. He subsequently wrote a counter point in his private newsletter, to which you must subscribe, arguing Apple shouldn’t. In any case, in the original public piece, I came across a phrase that stopped me cold. He writes:
I am, as a rule, skeptical of large acquisitions: they are all too often a byproduct of management empire-building, and value-destructive for shareholders.
But what’s the problem with “management empire building”? Isn’t that how….empires are built? After all, Google bought Android (and Applied Semantics, and DeepMind, and…). Facebook bought Instagram (and WhatsApp and…). P&G bought Gillette. Deeply lodged in Thompson’s statement is another fundamental business truism: That anything “value-destructive to shareholders” is strictly verboten.
Guess what? All that populist resistance to free trade seems to be working: The volume of global trade stopped growing in the first quarter of 2016 and actually dropped in the second — marking the first time since the Second World War that trade volume declined during a period of economic growth (The New York Times).
Don’t expect that to change any time soon, writes Binyamin Appelbaum: The Walmart revolution is over, India’s trajectory is different from China’s, and the only thing that’s spreading round the world right now is resistance to lowering trade barriers.
One big problem is that when free trade was riding high, its benefits, in Western democracies at least, went mostly to the very rich. The economy globalized, and all we got was this lousy pay cut! Another problem was that politicians and policymakers oversold trade’s benefits in the first place. Says economist Dani Rodrik: “If the demagogues and nativists making nonsensical claims about trade are getting a hearing, it is trade’s cheerleaders that deserve some of the blame.”
Ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft have earned praise for serving minority neighborhoods that old-school taxis often shunned. Now a study for the National Bureau of Economic Research has found evidence that Uber and Lyft can also discriminate against African American riders and women (Bloomberg).
Professors at MIT, Stanford, and the University of Washington collected data in Seattle and Boston and found that black Uber users had to wait longer for rides and got cancelled more frequently. (Lyft drivers see riders’ names and pictures before they accept a fare, whereas Uber’s drivers don’t.) Women riders in Boston were given longer rides and higher fares than male riders headed to the same destination.
A British employment tribunal (basically a court) ruled that Uber drivers could not be treated as self-employed. Rather they should be treated as workers, a class which acquires certain employment rights, such as minimum wage and holiday pay, not present in the self-employed. The Court did not class them as employees, a status which would have conferred even more rights.
It’s easy to believe we’re living in the golden age of startups. If you live in a tech hub like San Francisco or Seattle or a cultural magnet like Austin or Portland, that’s the water you’re swimming in. But the data doesn’t always bear out this perception. Startup formation in the U.S. has actually been declining slowly and steadily since the 1980s, according to The Wall Street Journal.
How can that be? It might be a side-effect of the demographic moment, with boomers heading into retirement and millennials not quite hitting their company-founding stride. Some businesses blame new regulations passed in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis — though the decline started well before those changes. Maybe its just a sign of a maturing national economy.
The other day, I got several letters in the mail. One was from the healthcare marketplace, reminding me that enrollment for 2017 coverage begins on November 1st. The rest were medical bills, some of which are about to go to collections, that I can’t pay for. This isn’t new to me. When I first got sick back in 2010, I wasn’t insured at all. I have so much outstanding medical debt that subsequently went to collections that I’ll probably never be able to get loans for school, a house, a car, or anything else. My credit is under 600, and I don’t think it’s ever actually been over 600. I didn’t even have enough time to build credit — I was only 19 years old when I got sick.
We’ve got a lot of work to do, and it’s not on the technology
Here in the Valley, we’d prefer our technology to be free of annoying social complexities. We’re extremely good at imagining a world where a particular innovation has won the day, but we’re also pretty talented at ignoring the messy transitions necessary to actually get there.
Our most current case in point is the autonomous vehicle. The received wisdom in the Valley is that the technology for self-driving cars is already here — we just have to wait a few years while the slowpokes in Washington get with the program. Within five years, we’ll all be autopiloted around — free to spend our otherwise unproductive driving time answering email, Snapchatting, or writing code.
Except, come on, there’s no way that’s gonna happen. Not in five years, anyway.
ISIS turns toy drones into killing machines. On the battlefield in Iraq and Syria, ISIS is using hobbyist drones — the kind you can buy on Amazon — to send explosive devices behind enemy lines. Last week they used one to kill two Kurdish fighters (The Washington Post). The development is hardly a surprise; from the smelting of bronze to the splitting of atoms, humanity has always turned its technological breakthroughs into war-fighting tools. The U.S., of course, has been deploying relatively large killer drones for a decade. Now we’re seeing this type of combat make the equivalent of a transition from mainframe to PC scale — and it’s going to be in everyone’s hands. In warfare as in any other kind of competition, every time an innovation comes along, you need to weigh how someone with ill intent might use it against you. Because, sooner or later, they will. As technology writer James Gleick asked on Twitter: “Did we think we were going to perfect a cheap, lethal technology and keep it to ourselves?”
Obama wants a government stake in our AI future. As artificial intelligence and machine learning move into the mainstream of our lives, driving our cars and our business decisions, how do we make sure they have human values embedded in them? President Obama ponders that question in conversation with MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito (the interview is part of the issue of Wired that Obama has guest-edited). There have been times, during Obama’s eight years in the Oval Office, that you might have mistaken the president, a formidably rational decision-maker with a Spock-like cool, for an AI himself. Here he talks about open data, cyber-security, and post-automation employment with an easy familiarity and depth that suggests his interest lies deeper than a briefing memo. If we rely only on the private sector to build the AI future, Obama warns, we could end up with systems that don’t fully represent our society. As Ito says, “It’s been a predominately male gang of kids, mostly white, who are building the core computer science around AI, and they’re more comfortable talking to computers than to human beings.” Obama’s response: “If we want the values of a diverse community represented in these breakthrough technologies, then government funding has to be a part of it.” Today the White House also released two reports on AI (Quartz), focusing on human-machine collaboration, how to boost jobs, and ethics and transparency.