Wednesday, 29 March 2017

AI to Replace all Humans by 2030

Today, I attended an event organised by the CIPD to explore the future of work. It was heavily biased towards the UK of course, with our typically imperialist attitude towards globalisation. “Oh no! Globalisation is taking our jobs to the Far East!” No concern for the damage that our working practices are doing to other cultures, though.

But enough of that. The big question was about the future, and in particular what role HR professionals play in the workplace of the future. One of the interesting questions was about the impact of Artificial Intelligence. Robots, in both mechanical and software forms, will replace many menial jobs and take control out of the hands of mere humans.
Except they won’t.

Let’s understand what AI is. It’s a fancy name for decision making software, and that’s been in use for 30 years. Its predecessor, the flowchart, has been around for longer. AI is an abstraction of a human ability, taking a set of rules out of a human brain and putting them into an external tool. In that regard, AI is no different to an abacus or spinning wheel. A tool, by definition, has its purpose, and is only activated when that purpose must be served. I wear spectacles, but I don’t wear them when I am asleep. Or in the shower.

Help desk software, for example, has been around for a long time, enabling self-service by customers, ‘improving’ service through faster response times and reducing costs by removing humans from the service chain. After all, what difference does it make whether a human or a machine tells you to switch it off and back on again?

“Big data” is simply the use of greater storage and processing power to include more data points in statistical analysis. It doesn’t dictate what we do in our lives, and it doesn’t mean that the machines are making our decisions for us.

One way that we can predict what the world of work will be like in 2030 is to look at what it was like in 2004. Hmm. No different, really. 13 years either way, and I’m still typing on a laptop on a train. OK, so I paid for my lunch with a contactless card and my train ticket is on my mobile phone, but these are gentle, iterative changes. I’m still drinking tea and eating biscuits. People are still moving from one place to another. We are not all sitting at home with our brains plugged into a computer network that creates our reality. OR ARE WE? No, I don’t think we are.

What, then, are the big themes affecting employment? The ‘gig economy’ is a response to diminishing job security, which is a response to the drive for greater organisational flexibility. Well, if employers are going to hedge their bets, employees are doing the same, because employers are employees too. We all want ultimate security and ultimate flexibility. I want a job for life when and where I want it, and when I’ve had enough of it, I want another job for life. We all want one-way commitment. The only difference with millennials is that they’ve been told that they can have it. They’ve been told that they have a right to it.

Through the mass redundancies of the 1990s, technical people in particular converted their employment contracts into short term self-employed contracts where they found they could get paid for their expertise instead of their presence and they could take every Monday off if they wanted to. The redundancies of the late 2000s dumped a whole new group of people onto the contract/freelance market, and further weakened the whole employment proposition.

Let’s step back from AI and look at technology in general. McDonald’s have been refurbishing their ‘restaurants’ and replacing customer facing staff with giant iPads. Instead of asking a human being for a McBurger and chips, you tap a screen and then wait at the order point. It’s fast food meets catalogue shopping. When they call your number, it’s like winning the lottery. “Number 97! That’s me!”

What’s interesting is that the level of interaction between staff and customers is now almost non-existent. In the old days, you could have a chat, maybe a bit of banter as you enquired about the number of chicken nuggets in a box, or what flavour sauces are available.

The logical next stage of evolution is for food to be produced and delivered mechanically. Why not do this now? Because the visual feedback required to make sure that the delivered product looks nothing like the photo on the ordering screen is beyond our programming ability. Rest assured, this will happen. If you can get sandwiches out of a vending machine, there’s no technical reason not to get a freshly warmed burger and an apple pie with that. 

The systemisation of processes means that we don’t need to train people to know when a burger is cooked, we only need to make sure that the burgers are identical, the oil is at the right temperature, and the burger is in the oil for the right period of time. Machines didn’t put us out of jobs, people did. Not evil corporate executives either. We did it. Customers. Every time we chose the cheaper option, we put someone, somewhere out of a job. Businesses exist to make money, and to do that they have to make profit, and when consumers demand lower prices, those profits have to come from somewhere.

We’ve been told that we can everything we want at twice the size and half the price, and we were stupid enough to believe it. Now we’re paying for that spiral of demand.

I was asked to share the greatest personal contribution that I had made. It’s nothing in particular, it’s just the ongoing process of sharing knowledge. We seem to have become obsessed with extending our individual lives at the expense of leaving the world a better place for our children. That’s the goal of any species, and technology has made us forget why we’re really here. We live to learn, to nurture, and to die. We spend our lives figuring stuff out and we can’t bear the idea that all of that is lost when we’re gone.

So protect the future, share what you know. Whether you’re teaching children or programming robots, you’re working to the same aim. Don’t fight AI, or whatever the next big thing is, devote yourself to it. Take your lifetime’s knowledge and make it permanent.

Be proud of what you leave behind.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

You Can't Love Yourself

Last night, I presented at a local NLP Practice Group. It was a smashing evening, made so by the highly intelligent and engaged audience.

The discussion raised a very interesting point about self-worth, which I want to explore further here.

The essence of the situation was that many people dream of pursuing work of value and purpose, however they 'go round in circles' and fail to achieve their dream, citing lack of money as the barrier. The average man in the street would stop listening at that point and start giving advice on how to get more money, how to save more money, how to economise and so on. But we are not the average man in the street, are we, dear reader?

We know that the issue of 'money' is a red herring for a very simple and obvious reason - 'money' does not exist. Money is a concept, a trading system created to swap pigs for wheat via an abstract intermediary. Therefore, money is not the issue, the issue is what you want to do with it.

However, the important point of the evening was the relationship between money and the value of a person. We explored the issue of self-worth and self-love, and I said that it's not possible to love yourself. A lady in the middle row challenged, "That's not true!", so I want to explain further.

A grammatically correct language structure, in English, must have a Subject, a Verb and an Object, exclusively in that order. Language is flexible enough that we can move things around, or understand the language of a tourist who asks, "Me tell way the Piccallily Surface, yes please?". Critically, we can leave words out, and the receiver still understands what we're talking about. Or do they? Actually, they fill in the gaps from their own expectations and experience, so in a way, what they actually understand is themselves.

Now, the 'SVO' language structure reflects our observation of life; someone or something does something to someone or something. Note that the subject and the object are different, they cannot be the same. A chair cannot sit on itself. A person cannot carry themselves. We use that phrase as a metaphor for the way that a person moves with confidence, but a metaphor is not the same as the literal structure of the language.

Let's explore some things that I love.

I love my car.

I love my children.

I love myself.

The word 'my' indicates a possession, a separate object that is somehow secondary to the subject. You know right away that my car is not me, and my children are not me. So, logically, my self is not me. My self is some kind of representation of me. A projection. "I love the way that I look in my new orange shirt" is different to "I love me".

The action cannot be recursive, it cannot apply to itself. I can love you, and you can love me, these are two distinct transactions. I can love someone who does not love me, someone can love me who I do not love back.

The notion of value has three dependencies; a valuer, a thing to be valued and a unit of currency. An employer does not own you, they do not buy you, they offer you compensation for an amount of your time within a contractual relationship which specifies the things that you do and the things that they will do in return.

A Ming vase cannot value itself, and in any case, who decides that it is worth a million pounds, or whatever it is?

You cannot love yourself, and you cannot value yourself, so here is the central paradox.

You can be loved by other people, and for that to be possible, you must accept that they have free will and can love whoever they like, and if they choose you then that's their lookout.

You can be valued by other people, for your time, for your skills, for your sparkling wit, and for that to be possible, you must accept that they will find their own value in their experience of you, and if they don't then they can shuffle off somewhere else, and that's fine.

If you do the things that you think other people value or like then you are trying to be who they want you to be, and you are not being yourself, and in fact this is not a way for you to pander to that other person, it's a way for you to control them. If I do what this other person likes then they will give me what I want.

If you have to do something in order to get someone to love you, it's because your default position is that they don't, and if that's someone you don't know very well (i.e. everybody) then that can't be because of them, it must be because of you. It must be because you are unloveable. However, people learn to be unloveable at such an early age, before their episodic memory starts working, that they unknowingly create scenarios in their lives to prove that they are lovable, and in so doing, prove that they are not, which is true.

It's true because you are not inherently lovable or unlovable. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, there's someone for everyone and so on. You are just you, just the way you are and so on. If someone else relates to that and values you or loves you, great. That's their free choice. The vase doesn't get to choose its valuer, and you don't get to choose who falls in love with you.

The bottom line is very simple, and it's what the gurus have been telling us for thousands of years - if you want to feel loved, allow yourself to love. If you want to be valuable, find value in others. Be the change that you want to see in the world.

Now, we could break this down into a more modern metaphor, about neuroscience, and the way that our minds and bodies form an electromechanical 'servo system' which self corrects to achieve a target state by comparing inputs and outputs in order to resolve differences between the current state and the target state, and we could see from this that the way to feel loved is to see love in the eyes of another person, and if you just think logically for a moment, if everyone only loved themselves, they would still be very lonely, then you might see why we can't love ourselves. I can try to project love towards a representation of 'me', but that's just not the same thing as expressing love, and seeing, hearing and feeling the result of that love come back from the outside world. Remember, the song is "Two hearts", not, "One heart".
At the NLP group, our kind volunteer offered the question, "How can I attract more money?" and someone else restated the question as "How can I be more attractive to money?" which is a great metaphor, but actually avoids the main problem which is that attraction is an active process, and since money is an inanimate concept, a piece of paper or a number on a screen at best, it cannot attract or be attracted. Iron can be attracted to a magnet because both share certain chemical properties. A person can be attracted to another person because they share certain properties. The key is in the sharing.

The overall message, then, is this. Give, and ye shall receive.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Business Scams and How to Spot Them

A small PR 'agency' offers a service to small businesses - access to journalists and support in getting your story out there. Their proposition is that you actually do all of the work yourself, therefore it's a fraction of the price of a full PR service.

They organise a networking event, 'meet the journalists', in partnership with the business and marketing school of a local university. Instant credibility. They offer a line-up of 7 local journalists, good names. More credibility.

"Have you ever wondered how to get your story out to a wider audience through the media? Join us at “Meet the Journalist” and ask the panel directly. Over 80% of those who pitched their story at the last event secured publicity on TV, Radio and in Press."

Sounds great! The cost? £49. Minus a £30 discount for booking through the university. That's the first alarm bell - discounted pricing is a trick that we know that retailers use. At the very last payment stage, VAT gets added, another 20%. Ah well, I've filled out all my details now. As an aside, the invoice that they sent has no VAT number on it, so the chances are they're not actually VAT registered, and this is a sneaky way to increase your income by 20% on every invoice.

An email confirmation arrives containing a terrific offer. A 14 day free trial.

"As a thank you for purchasing your ticket we would love to offer you the chance to access Daily FREE PR Leads for the next 14 days. If you haven't access this already please click here to add your details.

(name) secured a three page spread from replying to one of our PR leads in a (Magazine) plus he has secured coverage with the (media) reaching over 500 thousand unique users a day. Watch (name's) interview here and find out the exact simple steps he took to secure national publicity."

Great! Except where it says "click here", there's no link. Ah, a simple error, a mistake. It's interesting that the link to watch the testimonial works, though. So in fact, there's no way to access the 'free trial'. I emailed the owner about this, no reply.

At the event itself, the 'owner' of the PR 'agency' (actually self employed, it's just her), talks about how important PR is for businesses. Everyone nods. She talks about how difficult it is to reach journalists. Everyone nods some more. And we'd all love to get our story in the media, wouldn't we? Everyone nods feverishly. So far, it's following the pattern of a timeshare pitch. Only special people are allowed in, and a slowly building series of questions that demand a 'yes' answer lead us towards an inevitable outcome.

Questionnaires are handed out by helpers, asking us to fill out our details and pitch our story. At the bottom of the page is this:

Getting people to make written commitments is the next stage of the timeshare sale. It's also how American soldiers were persuaded to embrace communism during the Korean war.

After everyone has handed their forms back in, the owner reveals the prices of these services. Eye watering, considering that we have to do all the work ourselves, the basic premise of her proposition. In fact, what she's actually doing is reselling someone else's PR marketing database.

The evening ends, we go home. Outside of the room, people are talking to each other about how conned they feel, paying to listen to a sales pitch.

The next day, an email arrives, containing this little teaser, "I will also be in touch with you again personally within the next 24 hours if you ticked the box to work together for either the xxxx Group or Media Database or both. I will be processing everything through and will send you further details."

Processing everything through? What could that mean?

Two days later, another email arrives. "Congratulations on joining xxxxx Media Database & xxxxxx and Coaching Programme"

Joining? I didn't join anything.

The email continues...

"This is a three-month programme starting at the end of March (date to be confirmed during our call), membership is £495 plus VAT per month paid monthly in advance. ...

This is a 12 month membership offering you full access to all UK media outlets, Journalists and Media Influencers. Membership is £220 plus per month paid monthly in advance.

Your first payment have been allocated for March to your account and payments thereafter will be taken on the 10th of each month. Full terms and conditions are outlined on our website"

Payment? Allocated? I emailed straight back. "I've made no such commitment. A mistake surely?" Not surprisingly, I received no reply.

Then I noticed that £858 had been removed from my bank account using the details that I gave when I bought my £19+VAT ticket.

I emailed again to say that I had not authorised this payment and I'd like an immediate refund.

"You signed up to the services for xxxxx at the event and as confirmed on the evening and with the emails following we would process your order through"

No, no, no. "I will be processing everything through" does not mean "I will be taking £858 from your bank account without authorisation".

Telling someone that you told them something is not the same as actually telling them. Hoping that they won't remember that you didn't tell them is not the same as being honest.

I explained this, and the next reply clarified my mistake.

"The boxes explains that it's to sign up to the services and I explained verbally and in the email that the order would be processed and then during the skype call if either party no longer feels its right and that we will cancel the order and refund payment. I can see the emails have reached you and have your signed order here"

I pointed out that, since she knows her emails reached me, she must have seen my emails saying that I did not agree to joining her service. I also pointed out that the pricing was revealed after the forms were collected, and therefore her 'paperwork' does not constitute an order or a contract.

"thats not correct, the price was offered prior to collecting the forms as I would not want to waste anyones time if the price was point was not suitable"

Really? Why would I tick a box for more information after discovering the ludicrous pricing of the service? Why, upon hearing the pricing, would I have thought to myself, "I wouldn't have ticked the box if I'd known that."

More to the point, if there is a "100% satisfaction guarantee" then why argue? Why prove that you're right and your prospective client is wrong?

I've been to timeshare presentations. It's really a beautiful process, built upon the principles that Robert Cialdini explains so neatly in 'Influence: Science and Practice', along with the fact that human beings have terrible memories.

This is really a great business model. From now on, when a prospective client enquires about my services, I'll ask for their bank details "for security verification and anti fraud reasons", then I'll take a year's worth of money from them as a "convenience charge" and then argue with them when they ask for it back. Brilliant.

The lesson? If you treat everyone as if they're stupid, you'll probably get lucky enough, often enough to make a living.


Peter Freeth is an author, consultant and trainer who seems to spend an inordinate amount of time chasing other people to simply do what's right and what they promised. Sometimes it's a futile battle but at least he still has his dignity.