Humans need not apply... or do they?

So I watched the "Humans Need Not Apply" video earlier today:

It brought to mind an article by Marc Andreessen I had read some time ago:

One of the most interesting topics in modern times is the “robots eat all the jobs” thesis. It boils down to this: Computers can increasingly substitute for human labor, thus displacing jobs and creating unemployment. Your job, and every job, goes to a machine.

This sort of thinking is textbook Luddism, relying on a “lump-of-labor” fallacy – the idea that there is a fixed amount of work to be done. The counterargument to a finite supply of work comes from economist Milton Friedman — Human wants and needs are infinite, which means there is always more to do. I would argue that 200 years of recent history confirms Friedman’s point of view.

Marc's article offers a perfect counterpoint to the video. A couple points from the video seem to contradict Marc's take though. Marc states that "just as most of us today have jobs that weren’t even invented 100 years ago, the same will be true 100 years from now."

CGP Grey's counterargument is that:
Here is one final point to consider. The US census in 1776 tracked only a few kinds of jobs. Now there are hundreds of kinds of jobs, but the new ones are not a significant part of the labor force. [...]

Going down the list all this work existed in some form a hundred years ago and almost all of them are targets for automation. Only when we get to number 33 on the list is there finally something new. [...]
This list above is 45% of the workforce. Just what we've talked about today, the stuff that already works, can push us over that number pretty soon. And given that even our modern technological wonderland new kinds of work are not a significant portion of the economy, this is a big problem.
Both of them identify the same outcome:
This video isn't about how automation is bad -- rather that automation is inevitable. It's a tool to produce abundance for little effort. We need to start thinking now about what to do when large sections of the population are unemployable -- through no fault of their own. What to do in a future where, for most jobs, humans need not apply.
But do not reach the same conclusions:

Thought experiment: Imagine a world in which all material needs are provided for free, by robots and material synthesizers.

Housing, energy, health care, food, and transportation – they’re all delivered to everyone for free by machines. Zero jobs in those fields remain.

Stick with me here. What would be the key characteristics of that world, and what would it be like to live in it? For starters, it’s a consumer utopia. Everyone enjoys a standard of living that kings and popes could have only dreamed of.

Since our basic needs are taken care of, all human time, labor, energy, ambition, and goals reorient to the intangibles: the big questions, the deep needs. Human nature expresses itself fully, for the first time in history. Without physical need constraints, we will be whoever we want to be.

The main fields of human endeavor will be culture, arts, sciences, creativity, philosophy, experimentation, exploration, and adventure.

Reading this actually reminded me of the descriptions of Athenian Democracy. A society of peers discussing the fate of their cities, sustained by the work of slaves. The description of a society where all of the grunt work is done by robots, leaving humans to pursue their higher aspirations (arts, culture, politics...) looks pretty close to that ideal.

In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt argues two points that directly mesh with this topic:
Labor is one of the three fundamental forms of activity that form the vita activa. It is repetitive, never-ending and only includes the activities that are necessary to the sustenance of life, such as the production of food and shelter as well as physical reproduction, with nothing beyond that. [...] The products of Labor is thus consumed as soon as it is produced without leaving any lasting trace behind. [...]

The third activity, that of great deeds and great words, is specifically political and properly construed can only take place in the public realm potentially leading to the only form of immortality properly accepted in ancient Greece, that of creating something lasting within the world. [...]

Other actions exist of course, such as bartering goods in a market, that do not require such a unique declaration. These however are products of the subject's necessity (ex. obtain food to survive) and not some unique individuality which is properly his. In this sense, worker's equality is almost a tautology, since it equates people through the basic human condition of need, while citizen's equality is by definition equality of unequals that are trying to create a common world.
As pointed out by Marc, human aspirations would not disappear nor significantly change:

I’m talking about democratic capitalism to the nth degree. Nor am I postulating the end of money or competition or status seeking or will to power, rather the full extrapolation of each of those.

Thanks to robots, humans would be free to truly live their lives as political animals. The repartition of wealth and income would probably remain a tough and disputed question. New ways to split the fruits of economic growth might need to be invented. A basic income system could be instituted. I'll leave the closing words to Marc:

Imagine 6 billion or 10 billion people doing nothing but arts and sciences, culture and exploring and learning. What a world that would be. The problem seems unlikely to be that we’ll get there too fast. The problem seems likely to be that we’ll get there too slow.

Article: Do You Feel Pressure or Do You Apply Pressure?

I read this article before going on holiday and didn't take the time to post about it:

Let's begin by looking at the overwhelming spiral. As your company grows, people start complaining about everything from your sales efforts being underwhelming to there not being enough organic snacks in your free food section. In the meanwhile, you are trying to wrestle serious product strategy questions posed by scary competitors to the ground. You don't know the answers to most of the complaints, so you defer them and focus on what you know. The problems related to the complaints fester and grow. Your employees get frustrated that the issues are not being fixed and complain louder. They begin to lose confidence in you as CEO.

The Best Defense is a Good Offense

The key to breaking the cycle is to stop feeling pressure and to start applying it. The most basic way to do this is to assign the problems to your team. This transfers the pressure from you to the organization and has the added benefit of empowering the team.

Although this is most definitely true at the organization-wide level, I found it to apply within a team as well. Forcing yourself to push things off your plate when you can't handle them is also a good way to give others a chance to shine and prove their worth by rising up to the occasion.

Article: The surprising secret of happier, more productive organizations: conflict

Very interesting article about conflicts in the workplace:
  • Tension between two groups might be a symptom of conflict so intense that it impedes working together. Alternatively, it might be a sign that people are doing the hard work of cooperation.
  • Good interpersonal relationships might be a sign that people feel that the costs of cooperation are worth it.  Alternatively, good relationships may be a sign that people are carefully avoiding cooperation in order to avoid straining relationships.

This is something I've had a hard time understanding and accepting. For the longest time, I have been (and unfortunately still am) trying to avoid conflicting situations, mistaking them for a sign that something is going wrong.

The truth is, whether with colleagues, managers, clients (and even with your significant other!), conflicts can and should be a sign of a relationship moving forward in the right direction. One should not be afraid of getting into the right fights at the right times. Now let's practice what I preach and go argue with someone :-)

Open Source Econ 101: Bull view versus Bear view

There are two conflicting takes on open source business models. The first one, exemplified below by Peter Levine, believes that there is no serious money to be made directly on open source projects. The optimist take, in the voice of Mike Volpi, outlines a strong opportunity for open source companies. As an employee and investor in XWiki SAS, an open source company, this subject rings close to home.

Peter Levine's (from a16z) fairly negative outlook on open source companies :

Yet there’s a vocal segment of software insiders that preach the looming failure of open source software against competition from proprietary software vendors. The future for open source, they argue, is as also-ran software, relegated to niche projects. It’s proprietary software vendors that will handle the really critical stuff.

The success or failure of open source is not the software itself – it’s definitely up to the tasks required of it – but in the underlying business model.


Mike Volpi from Index Ventures comes out with pretty much with the opposite outlook on things:

At Index Ventures, we have been investing in open source for 12 years, and we’ve never seen such a “perfect storm” moment for open source companies to make the jump from scrappy-and-free to large-and-profitable. [...] it’s clear that the industry is finally ready to accept and value open source startups as real businesses poised for long-term growth.

Why — after decades of entrepreneurs trying to use free open source technology to build profit-generating companies — is now the breakout moment for billion-dollar open source companies?

What's your take?

The impact of technology

I've read 2 articles recently that touch on the impact of technology on everyday life and the political and societal implications this entails.

The first one is from Ludovic Dubost, my boss at XWiki (FR):

Nevertheless, I think that today we have still not seen the changes that technological innovation will have on society. The impact on the old economy is accelerating. New business models continue to emerge not only in the technology world but especially in the non-technological world. Innovations continue to arrive and things you never thought possible just 10 years ago are emerging today. [...]

These books say the same thing about technology. The possibilities offered by technology arrive sooner than we think and the changes to society and the economy are likely to be faster than society's ability to absorb sudden changes.

Ludovic makes the point that technological change will have and ever-increasing impact on society over the long term. No part of the economy is immune to change: technology will touch more and more parts of the economy, oftentimes with a negative effect for existing industries that are getting disrupted.

The second article is from Ben Thompson of Stratechery:

The ease of communication and distribution on the Internet is rendering vast swathes of the economy uncompetitive, even as certain sectors, companies, and individuals reap absolutely massive profits. I am by no means saying this is a bad thing, but I am certainly sympathetic to those who can no longer compete. I am also extremely concerned that recourse for these changes will increasingly be sought through the political process without tech having a seat at the table, much less a coherent solution for dealing with the human fallout of technological progress.

We as an industry absolutely need to wake up. SOPA, net neutrality, the Google bus protests – all of these are of a piece, and they are only the beginning. [...] The world is changing because we are changing it, just like we all wanted to, and now it’s time to grow up and deal with the consequences in a serious way. I truly hope that the fight for net neutrality will only be the beginning.

Ben takes the viewpoint of the tech industry: the industry will have to organize itself if it is to try and have influence over society's reaction provoked by the changes that society brings to our lives.

Ludovic also quotes Eric Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee:

"Kurzweil’s point is that constant doubling, reflecting exponential growth, is deceptive because it is initially unremarkable. Exponential increases initially look a lot like standard linear ones, but they’re not. As time goes by—as we move into the second half of the chessboard—exponential growth confounds our intuition and expectations. It accelerates far past linear growth, yielding Everest-sized piles of rice and computers that can accomplish previously impossible tasks."

Paul Graham has similar thoughts in "Farming Black Swans":

In startups, the big winners are big to a degree that violates our expectations about variation. I don't know whether these expectations are innate or learned, but whatever the cause, we are just not prepared for the 1000x variation in outcomes that one finds in startup investing.

That yields all sorts of strange consequences. For example, in purely financial terms, there is probably at most one company in each YC batch that will have a significant effect on our returns, and the rest are just a cost of doing business. I haven't really assimilated that fact, partly because it's so counterintuitive.

This is related to the 2 previous points: most people are not really prepared to grasp the full meaning of "winner takes all" situations and the impact is has on society at large. Redistributive policies could be a way to balance out the need to motivate innovators while trying not to leave people on the side of the road.

Article: Drive development with budgets, not estimates

Great article from DHH:

A more common case is that you can get 80% of the feature for 20% of the effort. Which in turn means that you can get five 80% features, improvements, or fixes for the price of one 100% implementation. When you look at it like that, it’s often clear that you’d rather get more done, even if it isn’t as polished.

I would love to find a way to convey this more efficiently to clients, especially when writing project proposals. It should be noted that it can be tough to convince clients that a 80% feature actually answers all of their core needs when they have a 100% feature in mind.

Article: The Surprisingly Large Cost of Telling Small Lies

Interesting article:

As our conversation drifted from an update of my company to a deep discussion about life itself, I asked him what he thought was the secret to success. I expected the standard “never give up” or some other T-shirt slogan, but what he said took me by surprise. “The secret to success in business and in life is to never, ever, ever tell a lie,” he said.

On the face of it, it sounds obvious. Yet in practice, this is very difficult to do 100% of the time. Still pondering the implications...