Education key to ensuring equality in future work
WHAT’S the future of work? Will gigs replace salaried employment, and will robots eventually leave humans with nothing to do? I see reason for scepticism, but also for concern.
Technology, of course, is already making independent work easier. It puts workers into contact with customers and helps them run a back office. More importantly, it allows individuals to build and promote their reputations at low cost.
Customers used to rely on a taxi company’s reputation, or choose a washing machine by the manufacturer’s brand. Now, each worker has a brand: on Uber, customers can reject drivers based on their personal ratings. A firm’s collective reputation, with the concomitant control of its employees’ behaviour, is becoming less important.
That said, technology can also favour standard salaried employment. The economists George Baker and Thomas Hubbard, for example, have noted how on-board computers could change trucking. By monitoring behaviour, they would solve a moral hazard problem: drivers have little digitised, call centres use software to shorten the length of conversations between customer and employee, or replace humans with bots.
These changes have global repercussions. They threaten the low-salary, outsourced jobs that emerging and underdeveloped countries have counted on to escape poverty. In developed countries, as the economist David Autor and his coauthors have demonstrated, they tend to benefit those employees whose skills complement the new digital tools. This ‘hollows out’ the distribution of jobs into either high-paying skilled positions or low-paying basic service positions. In the US, the difference in salary for those who hold university degrees has grown enormously in the past 30 years.
It’s still not clear, however, which human tasks computers will be able to replace, and what the effects will be. Deductive problems, in which the particular is deduced from the general rule in a logical way, are the easiest.
An ATM verifies a card number, the PIN code, and the bank account balance before issuing money and debiting the account. Nonetheless, total employment in banking rose even as the ATM network spread, because demand grew and teller jobs were replaced by new tasks.
Computers have also made great advances in induction, which starts with specific facts and works toward a general law. Similar techniques are enabling automated facial and voice recognition, diagnosis, and other tasks that previously only humans could perform.
The most difficult tasks for computers involve unforeseen problems that do not match any programmed routine. Rare events cannot be analysed inductively to generate an empirical law.
Frank Levy and Richard Murnane offer the example of a driverless car that sees a ball pass in front of it. This ball poses no danger to the car, which therefore has no reason to slam on the brakes.
A human being, on the other hand, will probably foresee that the ball may be followed by a young child, and will therefore have a different reaction. It illustrates the obstacles computers still encounter.
So humans and computers face different challenges.
Computers are much faster and more reliable when processing logical and predictable tasks. Thanks to machine learning, they can increasingly cope with unforeseen situations, provided they have enough data to recognise the structure of the problem. On the other hand, the human brain is more flexible: A fiveyear- old child can handle some problems better than any computer. So the people best-equipped to succeed in the new world will be those who have acquired abstract knowledge that helps them adapt to their environment, while those with only simple knowledge preparing them for routine tasks are most in danger of being replaced.
This is why education is crucial. If we don’t have a system that gives everyone a chance to gain the necessary skills, differences in education and family background will lead to even greater inequality. (Bloomberg View)
THIS is the fifth article in my weekly startup diary. I’m writing down my business decisions as I make them, and then writing about how things play out.
At this point I feel we should review some of the decisions so far, and see what we can learn.
The first big decision was to write this column. The most immediate positive effect has been an increased number of former contacts reaching out.
Some of those contacts are interested in building deeper business relationships. This is better than just making new contacts – old friends really are the best.
On the other hand, since I have declared a policy of openness about my startup, I now need to be clear with everyone about what is going to be printed in this column.
That’s a complication I did not foresee, which I guess is pretty naïve in hindsight.
My rule is that conversations are private by default, and I’ll ask permission before writing about anything I discuss. A great deal of business does depend on customer and supplier confidentiality, even if you’re prepared to share your own numbers.
The second big decision was to start a newsletter for a segment of my intended customer base. The newsletter has been going for seven weeks, and now has 133 subscribers, and a 32pc open rate (the proportion of subscribers that open and read the newsletter when it arrives in their Inbox).
Last week I had 119 subscribers. I also wrote last week that I would be trying a number of different promotion tactics. In the end, I only tried a single tactic, the reddit.com ads. I realised that trying multiple tactics at the same time would conflate results
To avoid this I refrained from any other promotion, apart from a few regular tweets.
Sadly, the reddit.com ads have not been effective. I’ve spent about $150 US Dollars for an extra 14 subscribers – yikes! My click-through rate (the proportion of clicks to views) is 0.03pc, which is pretty miserable. I’m going to declare this a failure. Now I could start attempting to refine the ad copy and targeting, but I would need a 500pc improvement to get to my target of 500 subscribers on January 1, 2018. That’s unfeasible.
I’m going to focus on personalised emails for next week – again just using a single tactic to avoid conflation.
The third decision was complementary to the second: not to build a software prototype, at first.
Instead I have focused on talking to as many people as possible in the industry, and refining my pitch.
I’m still in the process of doing this, so have not collected the information into a structured form. I hereby decide that the time is now ripe to do so, and will report back on my customer discovery efforts in future columns.
A software prototype will have to be built. There has to be a real product to make this business work.
My plan has been to spend the first three months of the business validating the idea and working out the business model.
At this point we are about 10 weeks in (you have only been exposed to the last five weeks), so software development is due shortly. We’ll leave all that to later columns too.
A fourth decision that I have not discussed yet is the decision to set up a little event management agency.
Yes, you read that right. We are also in the business of running technology meetup groups, and other events for technical types.
We run the Dublin Microservices meetup, and will soon be helping to launch the Cork Artificial Intelligence meetup. Tech meetups are small gatherings of between 50 to 100 tech enthusiasts who meet once a month in the evening to hear two or three speakers give presentations about the topic of the group.
You can find all the meetups on meetup.com. Meetups are a fantastic way to connect with your community and I could not recommend them highly enough.
So what business does a Software-as-a-Service startup have running events? Because we need to “eat our own dog food”. Eating your own dog food means using your own product to solve the same problems your customers have.
It means experiencing the same growing pains with bugs, poor performance, and lack of features. It is one of the most powerful strategies you can adopt. You know your customer intimately, because you are your own customer.
I am a conference speaker,