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    Entries in robots (57)

    Tuesday
    Jul312018

    A (slight) pause in the robot job takeover

    Quick report for the last day of July from the robots are taking all the jobs frontier. It looks like, at least for now, one of the important, (and widely held) jobs that has seemed most vulnerable to eventual robot takeover may remain the province of humans a little bit longer.

    The job is over the road truck driver, a job that has been in the news plenty lately, mostly in the context of pretty significant labor shortages. Shipping companies and manufacturers are having a hard time recruiting new truck drivers into what is a demanding profession, the existing supply of truckers are starting to age out of the workforce, and efforts to improve pay and conditions for truckers, (which in theory helps with recruiting and retention), have so far had mixed results.

    These factors, combined with the seeming dozens of high tech companies actively working on self-driving transportation technologies have led many industry observers to predict that self-driving trucks and associated technologies would sooner than later begin to be introduced into the industry. It makes sense for sure, the combination of a human labor replacing opportunity, with a technology that has been in development for quite some time, and a clear economic need that continues to grow have created what most industry experts considered a kind of perfect storm for truck drivers. In fact, all the coverage and noise about how the profession of truck driving is doomed, (for people), probably is contributing to the current truck driver shortfall. Who wants to enter an industry where 5 or 10 years from now you'll be replaced with a self-driving truck?

    But some news broke a couple of days ago that may give this entire narrative pause. Our pals at Uber, long-considered one of the leaders in developing self-driving trucks and technology is stepping back from their development efforts. From a piece covering the news in Venture Beat:

    Uber is shifting resources away from the self-driving truck unit within its Advanced Technologies Group, the company announced today in an email to reporters. For the time being, it’s ceasing development on the autonomous freight platform it acquired from autonomous tech company Otto.

    “We’ve decided to stop development on our self-driving truck program and move forward exclusively with cars,” Eric Meyhofer, head of Uber Advanced Technologies Group, said in a statement. “We recently took the important step of returning to public roads in Pittsburgh, and as we look to continue that momentum, we believe having our entire team’s energy and expertise focused on this effort is the best path forward.”

    It's a pretty interesting move by Uber, who has had a bunch of other problems to deal with over the last couple of years, but to shift their self-driving tech development and focus from trucking to cars probably indicates the trucking problem is much tougher to solve than they realized.

    Truck drivers, as it has been reported, do plenty of other things besides keep the vehicle between the white lines on the freeway. Load inspection and balancing, monitoring vehicle performance, consideration of local weather and traffic conditions, and finally, negotiating the often tricky and challenging last miles of a delivery and plenty more. Uber likely has found that solving all of these problems and delivering true 'self-driving' trucking solutions has turned out to be harder than it seems.

    And that is probably a lesson we can take in other domains as well. As robots and technolgy advance in capability, it can be easy to underestimate all the added value and unique value that humans bring to their work. It's not easy building a self-driving truck that can replace a human truck driver.

    It's probably not going to be easy to build technology to replace you or me either. (Let's hope).

    Have a great day!

    Monday
    Nov142016

    Basketball, media, and robots coming for our jobs

    With the events of last week's election pretty much consuming and subsuming national attention last week you probably missed this really interesting story on the intersection of sports, media, and technology, one that raises some interesting questions about the future or automation and work.

    First a little background on the story from last week, then some thoughts on why it is interesting beyond the narrow, 'sports' focus.

    Last week Mark Cuban, famous rich guy and owner of the NBA's Dallas Mavericks suddenly revoked the media credentials at Dallas' arena for two Dallas based ESPN basketball writers, Mark Stien and Tim MacMahon. From the first reports that came out, Cuban made the decision to revoke the ESPN pair's credentials because he was disappointed that MacMahon would not be covering every Mavericks game, a change from prior years; and Stein, as a national NBA reporter was thought to only want to cover Mavs games to gain access to players and coaches from the Mavs opponents as they came through Dallas. It was reported that Cuban was particularly miffed by the fact that no ESPN media attended and reported on the Mavs opening night game.

    If this story was just about a team owner trying to play strong arm a major media outlet into providing more coverage for his team, it would not be all that interesting, and I would not have decided to write about it here.

    But a day or two after the initial media credential ban was announced, the story became more nuanced, and well - interesting. 

    What Cuban was also protesting, in addition to the reduced coverage of Mavs games in general by ESPN, was what he feels like is going to be the inevitable replacement for at least some human media game coverage - automated game summaries and stories generated by machine learning and algorithms.

    Here's some additional detail from an email Cuban sent to the web site Deadspin, who had been reporting on the Mavs-ESPN kerfluffle: (Note: I edited this some for brevity and clarity, the full email is at the link above)

    Two things triggered this whole thing. First was when I found out they (ESPN) had cut back or had always offered reduced coverage for 19 nba teams I had no idea this was going on

    The second was when espn didn’t cover our opening night and the resultant coverage on their website was a tweet, One highlight and a wire service story

    It made me realize that I had expected to be covered by all media, but it no longer was a given

    Even though espn was covering the same number of games, if they didn’t think it was a big deal to miss opening night. I had a problem. Not necessarily an espn problem , but a coverage problem

    And if it’s 30 games now for 19 teams. What would keep it from being 60 games for 25 teams ?

    What was their long term thinking ?

    When you realize that the hottest area in technology, and it’s not even close , is machine and deep learning , then it’s an easy step to see where this was going

    I told espn this was my concern. They didn’t say they were taking this path. They didn’t say they weren’t. But I voiced these concerns to them

    They said they would run their business . I can run mine

    So the next question is where would it leave Mavs fans who wanted game results coverage of nothing changed and espn didn’t send a reporter for 30 games ?

    It meant for 30 games and inevitably more in the future they wouldn't have a good experience with espn

    It meant it was likely that in the near term when they went to espn Dallas they find a couple videos, tweets and a wire service story

    How is that positive for any nba team or their fans when 30 games have second rate coverage ?

    And what happens and what message is sent to fans when those games are covered by an algorithm in the future ?

    Short term this is a Mavs issue. Long term it’s a certainty that our games will be covered algorithmically. Thats a problem across the board for us and the NBA

    IMO that devalues our brand . It devalues the fans experience. I feel strongly that now is the time to partner with those who commit to the Mavs and to sending real people to cover the games for Mavs fans

    It may seem like we are picking on espn or telling them how to run their business. We aren't. We are trying to protect ourselves and our fans and our future by partnering with those in the written media who commit to us

    I know the whole automation thing may not make sense to some. But to me this is no different than saying that streaming would change media in 1995. Or social media would change coverage of sports , etc

    Machine and deep learning and algorithmic coverage of sports events is going to happen.

    This isn’t about replacing writers. The best writers will always have a place

    This comes down to how do we value reporting on a game . Right now I value it more than espn and others and want to partner with the DMN FWST (media outlets), and use our own writers as our focus

    Really interesting takes coming from a guy who got rich back in the day, selling a technology company, (Broadcast.com) for millions to Yahoo. Cuban is no Luddite or technophobe.

    But at least in 2016, he (probably rightly), feels that despite advances in machine learning and automation that NBA game coverage is still best produced by actual human reporters and not the algorithms. And if you think that the entire idea of an algorithm replacing a human reporter to write sports event coverage think again - it is already happening mostly via technology created by a firm called Automated Insights. You can learn more about what they are doing with automated reporting of minor league baseball games here.

    Let's go back on one line of Cuban's email above - "Long term it’s a certainty that our games will be covered algorithmically. Thats a problem across the board for us and the NBA."

    In the same message where Cuban admits to using some tough negotiating tactics to push ESPN to continue to provide quality, human coverage of Mavs games, he admits that the algorithmic coverage of these games are a certainty. Today while technology like the one provided by Automated Insights is inferior to human reported coverage, over time it seems apparent to Cuban that the difference in quality will matter less to the media company than the sheer cost savings and efficiency gains that could be realized by replacing human reporters with a computer program.

    And Cuban has a problem with that, as it is in his best interests to have top-notch coverage of Mavs games in the media, as he sees that as an extension of his team and of the Mavs brand.

    I know this post has gotten pretty long, especially for a busy Monday, but I thought it important enough to try and lay out the context before hitting what I think is the main takeaway which is this:

    Just because something can be automated away or a job be done by a robot or a machine instead of a human doesn't mean that it necessarily should. Your customers will decide and balance the tradeoffs between costs, convenience, and quality about the products and services you are offering. 

    You might think, or your CEO might insist, that automation is always the way to go, but until the robot or the algorithm can do the job almost as good as the human it is replacing, then don't be too quick to agree.

    Think I am wrong?

    Take a look at the 'self-service' checkouts sometime at a busy grocery store or big box home improvement retailer?

    Anyone using those? Do they provide a great experience?

    Or would you rather wait an extra few minutes and check out with a human cashier?

    Have a great week all!

    Thursday
    Mar242016

    We are pretty sure robots will take all the jobs - just not OUR job

    File this item under the 'We all hate Congress, but we keep re-electing our representative every two years' or 'the roads are full of idiot drivers but no one ever admits to being not such a great driver'. 

    Take a look at a couple of charts from a recent Pew Research Center survey of 2,001 American adults that attempted to gauge American's perceptions and opinions about the automation of work and jobs.

    From Pew Research:

    Let's crack open that nut a little, shall we?

    According to the survey, a large majority of Americans, 65%,  of expect that within 50 years robots and computers will “definitely” or “probably” do much of the work and take over the jobs that are currently occupied by us humans. Kind of makes sense, right? Even if you don't follow the 'robot' beat that closely you have probably at least heard some of the doom and gloom predictions about the upcoming robot takeover.

    But just like no one thinks they are a bad driver, when asked about their own jobs and the likelihood they would be replaced by robots and automation, the results were a little different. An even greater share (80%) expect that their own jobs will remain largely unchanged and exist in their current forms 50 years from now.

    So while 11% of the survey respondents are at least somewhat concerned that they might lose their jobs as a result of workforce automation, a larger number are occupied by more immediate and practical concerns – like being replaced by lower-paid human employees, broader economic and industry trends or bad management by their employers.

    What to take from this, especially as we think about our own careers? 

    Probably the big takeaway is to not be naive about the chances that technology and automation may have on our jobs, companies, and industries in the near to medium term. You can't let yourself fall into the trap of thinking 'Well, I can't be automated. What I do is too special, unique, complex....'. It's only the call center agents and factory workers that have to be concerned.' That's a gamble you might regret later on. 

    Someone, actually many someones are going to be automated out of work in the upcoming years. 

    Don't let it surprise you when the robot comes looking for you.

    Wednesday
    Sep092015

    A reminder that even the world's most admired company has hiring challenges

    Lots of words are spilled in the HR/Talent/Recruiting space that more or less read something like this - 'Oh sure, that (insert HR/Recruiting/Benefits program of choice here), might work for Google or Apple, but there is no way that applies to us, we don't have a sexy, well-known brand.'

    Said differently, it is more or less commonly accepted that companies like Google, Apple, Nike, Goldman Sachs, etc., have incredible advantages in competition for talent by virtue of their brand equity, vast resources, employer brand reputation, and the like. If you are repping one of these companies from Fortune's World's Most Admired Companies list, you would think you pretty much could dial up anyone you need and they would be sold on the opportunity. And that is at least partially, if not mostly true.

    But even the World's Most Admired Company for 2015, Apple, faces the occasional recruiting challenge. Yep, I know, hard to believe.  But apparently in the global fight for scarce data science talent, even Apple has some issues attracting talent. From a recent piece on The Stack titled Apple's privacy policies repel the data scientists it needs to create 'predictive' smart phones:

    Just for once, it seems that Apple ‘can’t get the staff’. According to a Reuters exclusive, the Cupertino-based global device giant is falling behind in the race to create ‘predictive’ services for smartphones because its privacy policies are too protective of the end-user.

    The report has crunched numbers on Apple job openings and talked to various industry insiders, many of whom agree that Apple lacks the best conditions to attract the very limited supply of data scientists necessary to leverage cloud-based services and anticipate the most minute demands of smartphone users.

    The reason for the company’s difficulty in challenging the likes of Google, Facebook and Amazon for the brightest and the best new minds in data science and analysis seems to lie with its commitment to protect the privacy of its users. The report notes that data retention policies on user-centric information gathered into its Siri ‘personal assistant’ product is a reasonably generous six months, whilst information retained from the user’s exploration of Apple Maps expires after only 15 minutes

    So it looks like the world's best talent in the field of data science doesn't like the fact that Apple keeps comparatively less data around upon which to practice their science. Companies like Google and Facebook in comparison, seem to offer these scientists more of a playground for them to challenge themselves with.

    A couple really interesting points I think worth noting in this story, that are probably true for both the World's Most Admired Companies and for your shop as well.

    1. The work, then challenge, and the opportunity to be your personal best in your field still trumps the 'Brand' or the reputation of the company in general. Apple might be the #1 company in the world to work for, but for this group of highly scarce and talented folks it is the work that matters more.

    2. Often the factors that influence a candidate's decision about joining an organization sit well out of reach of the org's HR/Recruiting leadership. No matter how much influence the HR and Talent organization has at Apple, they are never going to impact Apple's customer data storage policies and practices.

    3. For a big company like Apple with lots of resources, acquisition might be the best (and only) way to get the talent that they require. The related Reuters study notes that Apple's 'acquisitions of startups such as podcasting app Swell, social media analytics firm Topsy and personal assistant app Cue have also expanded Apple’s pool of experts in the field.'

    Interesting times out there when even the most well-known, most valuable and most admired companies is facing recruiting issues. I guess that sort of makes the rest of us feel good, maybe a little anyway.

    Have a great Wednesday!

    Tuesday
    Aug112015

    Enterprise Robots

    Most 'Robots are coming to take away all of our jobs' stories usually read something like this one - 'Chinese factory replaces 90% of humans with robots, production soars' - a recent recounting of the now getting familiar tale of automation becoming more and more of a threat to workers and employment.

    You can check out the entire piece on Tech Republic, but here is the essential takeaway:

    The Changying Precision Technology Company factory in Dongguan has automated production lines that use robotic arms to produce parts for cell phones. The factory also has automated machining equipment, autonomous transport trucks, and other automated equipment in the warehouse.

    There are still people working at the factory, though. Three workers check and monitor each production line and there are other employees who monitor a computer control system. Previously, there were 650 employees at the factory. With the new robots, there's now only 60. Luo Weiqiang, general manager of the company, told the People's Daily that the number of employees could drop to 20 in the future.

    The robots have produced almost three times as many pieces as were produced before. According to the People's Daily, production per person has increased from 8,000 pieces to 21,000 pieces. That's a 162.5% increase.

    The increased production rate hasn't come at the cost of quality either. In fact, quality has improved. Before the robots, the product defect rate was 25%, now it is below 5%

    Ooh - that's is the technology double, (really triple), whammy at the expense of workers - cost savings, increased productivity, and better quality. At least in this specific manufacturing example, there just seems to be no way for workers to compete with the robots in this scenario.

    So that is the scary, and kind of obvious aspect of the robot takeover, and perhaps for most of the folks reading this blog not one that feels particularly relevant, at least personally. Most of the audience here (and me too), are not manufacturing workers, or even on the 'front-lines' of our businesses for that matter. We work in the more complex, subtle, nuanced, and emotionally tuned-in parts of the business. We have to understand and deal with people, not rigid manufacturing processes. We need to be able to read people, their language, their facial expressions, their tone, and their mood. We need to be able to connect with people. Robots can't do that.

    Well, not yet anyway.

    Recently Japanese mobile phone operator SoftBank announced the enterprise availability of Pepper - a humanoid robot designed to be a companion able to communicate with people through the most intuitive interface we know: voice, touch and emotions. Launched first as a personal, and in-home companion, the makers of Pepper envision deployment of the robot in many business scenarios - dealing with customer in a retail setting, educating customers on products and services, and perhaps even entertaining them while they wait for service. 

    But the interesting part of this is not just what this particular robot can or can't do today, it is what Pepper (and surely others to follow), is designed to be able to do in general. This is from SoftBank's 'Who is Pepper?' website:

    To be a true social companion Pepper needs to be able to understand your emotions. If you burst out laughing, he will know you are in a good mood. If you frown, Pepper will understand that something is bothering you.

    Pepper can translate what state you are in using his knowledge of universal emotions (joy, surprise, anger, doubt and sadness) and his ability to analyze your facial expression, body language and the words you use. He will guess your mood, and will even adapt to it. For example, he will try to cheer you up by playing your favorite song!

    Pepper also can express emotions, and this is what makes him so cute! We can say he has a real personality conveyed by his body language, his funny gestures and his voice.

    Reading expressions, gauging your mood from analyzing a complex set of human cues, adapting to you as necessary, and finally, learning from these interactions. Let's suspend (natural) disbelief for a minute and assume Pepper can actually do these things, and is likely to get better and better at all of them over time. If that is the case, what might these developments mean for the rest of us, those of us who don't worry about robots taking over Chinese factories, since we, you know, don't work in Chinese factories?

    Robots taking over low-skill manufacturing jobs is only part of the larger automation story, and probably not the most interesting or important part. It is really just replacing one human in a human-process/machine interaction.

    Robots like Pepper substituting for human-human interactions? Now that is a story. One that hits much closer to the mark.