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Friday
Apr072017

What human ability makes you irreplaceable? 

The question each of us has to ask is simple (but difficult): What can I become quite good at that's really difficult for a computer to do one day soon? How can I become so resilient, so human and such a linchpin that shifts in technology won't be able to catch up?

It was always important, but now it's urgent. - 23 things artificially intelligent computers can do better/faster/cheaper than you can Seth Godin

Robots are people too! Or at least they will be someday. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Robots

There are a number of workers I just don’t see much of anymore…

  • I don’t see parking lot attendants when entering or leaving the airport anymore. My credit card talks to a machine on the way in and again on the way out.
  • I don’t talk to check-in people at the airline counters anymore. My credit card talks to a terminal that prints out my boarding pass. That is if I’ve not already checked in online and printed my pass at home.
  • I am seeing fewer bank tellers and grocery clerks. My cash card talks to the ATM and to the cash register at the supermarket after I have scanned my own groceries.
  • I don’t hear the voice of a human telephone operator, tech support, or reservation clerks until I’ve waded through a half dozen phone menus.
  • My children think I am telling tall tales when I tell them that I once had “people” who pumped my gas, washed my car windows, filled my tires and sometimes gave me a free tumbler as a gift when I went to a service station. Gone Missing, LMC, May/June 2010

Automating a subset of a position’s tasks doesn’t make the other ones unnecessary — in fact, it makes them more important. David Autor Will automation take away all our jobs?

What do I do that a robot cannot? We should all have been asking ourselves that question for at least the past 10 years.

Below is a chart labeled with the sexy title “Trends in Tasks Done by the U.S. Workforce 1969-1998 (1969=0)” that appeared way, way back in 2004. (Levy. Frank and Richard J. Murnane. “Education and the Changing Job Market” Educational Leadership, October 2004.)

We've known the need for humans in the workforce has been evolving for some time. As this chart indicates, eventually the remaining jobs will be those that require a high level of complex communication and expert thinking. And, I would add, creativity.

Personally, I am happy to have a robot fix my teeth or book a flight for me. There is a reason we have the term "human error" and I know from personal experience that my robot built car of today is a heck of a lot more reliable and long-lasting than my human built car of the 1970s.

It's only when I have a problem with my teeth that standard procedures won't fix that I would like the human dentist to intervene. And while a computer can get me on a plane from point A to point b efficiently, I'd just as soon a human travel agent would recommend a nice hotel at point b.

I had a too-often occurring conversation yesterday with my home Internet provider. An email revealed that my CenturyLink bill somehow went from the normal $33 a month to $67 a month in April. Hmmmm, worth a call. I punch in the 1-800 and find that automation, of course, gives me lots of choices, identifies me, and gives me simple information like my account balance. All "routine cognitive work."

Finally, I find the right number to push and a human (I think) gets on the line. "Jim" is jovial and chatty and tells me that my special introductory rate has expired which is why my bill doubled. So, old friend, how do I get this rate extended? Oh, sir, I do not have the tools to do that, Jim from Boise laments. Then I will cancel my service agreement since I know I have other, lower cost providers available. "Let me transfer you to the agent who handles cancellations. And have a nice day."

I am quickly connected to Randy, who while not quite so chummy, quickly realizes that I am serious about canceling my plan and quickly finds the correct "tool" to continue my plan for another two years with only a five dollar a month increase in cost. Randy works in the realm of expert thinking. While he, I am sure, has guidelines to follow, he intuits and finds the solution to problem of keeping a customer.

You have entered the realm of expert thinking and complex communications as soon as you utter the words, "May I talk to your supervisor, please."

I suspect artificial intelligence will increasingly have the ability to make judgement calls. Solve problems. Figure stuff out. Robots will eventually trouble-shoot and repair or re-engineer robots. We may find our only value in life is to be amusing to our computer overlords.

If your job requires you act or respond in a single correct way based on pre-defined criteria, start thinking about finding another line of work.

Oh, and if your kid's tests call for a single right answer, start looking for another school.

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Wednesday
Apr052017

Never forget your keys, never have your privacy

I got two blocks from home this morning and had to turn around and go back. I realized I'd left my phone charging in the kitchen.

Damn phone.

The local paper recently ran a story from the AP about a company in Sweden that implants chips in its employees "that function as swipe cards: to open doors, operate printers, or buy smoothies at the wave of a hand." The process seemed somewhat horrifying when I read the article, but as I was hustling to grab my forgotten phone, it sounded rather practical.

My phone replaces an increasing number of devices. Camera, calendar, compass, loyalty cards, bike computer, playing cards, boarding pass, pedometer, map, computer, flashlight, book, etc. Now it is poised to replace my wallet and keys as well.

So wouldn't it be wonderful if most of these functions were imbedded in a few implanted chips instead of a separate device one must remember, charge, and not drop in the toilet? Pretty hard to forget your fingers at home (although I am guessing there are 8th graders who will be able to figure it out.) No more fumbling for your phone to scan in your supermarket loyalty card before scanning in your bananas. No worries about balancing your coffee when looking for your keys. Sweet.

There will, of course, be a price to pay - a diminution of privacy. Like our puppies with chip implants, we can and will be tracked. And not just where we go and what we buy, but how regular we are our potty breaks and percent of alcohol in our blood. While one can always leave one phone at home (another tracking device) when off to do something immoral, illegal, or stupid, the chips in the bod will be always be there.

Were I younger and had the energy to be immoral or illegal, I would question whether to have a chip implant. But chips instead of keys, cards, and phones sound pretty good to me, even though I still seem to have the energy to be stupid. And I just may be easier to find when I wander away from the nursing home.

Monday
Apr032017

Ethical budgeting, security, and playing the odds

There is only so much money in a school budget. David Lewis calls the public budget picture a “zero sum game,” and states that decision makers can’t give programs money they themselves don’t have. (Lewis, 1991) In tight financial times, I believe school districts with inadequate budgets should drop some programs totally rather than watch all programs become mediocre as a result of 10% cuts year after year. You may have to make a case for the media/technology program strong enough to take money from other departments. Prepare to make enemies. You had better sincerely believe that your program offers to children knowledge and skills and opportunities no other program in the school can. You’ll need a professional mission and the courage to do the right thing. Budgeting for Lean Mean Times, MultiMedia Schools Nov/Dec 1995

I have always seen budget-making as an exercise in ethical decision-making. As I stated in the article above, education budgets are usually zero-sum which means spending more in one area means spending less in another.

As I work on my district's technology budget for next year, I am acutely aware of some difficult choices that will need to be made. Our basic operation costs for things like salaries, Internet bandwidth, district-systems like the SIS and HR/Payroll, and equipment replacement keep creeping (or sometime surging) upward. We need take a closer look next year at our security and business continuity plans, spending dollars on both consulting services and perhaps on monitoring programs and increasing redundancy. But our tech budget is static.

So unhappily, the only source of those funds may be in "discretionary" areas such as student resources. Fewer learning materials, less student technology, fewer instructional technology specialists? Even if we can shift the dollars to the technology budget from other places in the general fund, that will mean someone else will get less - larger class sizes, older textbooks, fewer band instruments, etc.

I'm sure this realization is why my techie colleagues sometimes view me as a security "skeptic," openly questioning the need for some of the more costly protection and prevention efforts used by businesses. I openly ask: Does a school need the same level of data protection as a bank? Are we as susceptible to hacking as a business? Are the records we maintain as sensitive as those kept by a medical clinic or insurance company?

The real trick here is to figure out what can be considered an acceptable risk. Doing little or nothing is foolish since crashing networks don't serve anyone in the school, and students and families need to feel secure in the care we take protecting their data. Yet on the other end of the spectrum are hugely expensive and often times limiting and inconvenient policies, programs, and hardware that can decrease (but never eliminate) the downtime and security breaches.

Personally, I am happy to play a little bit longer odds on systems failures if it means getting more resources in the hands of students and teachers. And I can live with that ethical decision.