Automation and a Jobless Future

The greatest threat to American jobs in this decade isn’t foreign competition. Although companies shipping jobs to Mexico or China make an easy target for the Trumps and Sanders of the world, the real threat is automation.

In Silicon Valley and SF, self-driving cars are everywhere. Google, Uber and others are testing their fleets of prototypes on local roads every day. This wave is coming, and though it hasn’t yet crested and may take longer to get here than we might think today, when it comes it’s going to hit hard. 


Most common jobs in each state, 2014. Source: NPR

My lifetime will see a second radical change in the American jobs market. The first happened at the end of the 20th century, when hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs moved abroad or were automated themselves. This time, the pool of jobs at risk is far larger. Truck drivers, cab / ridesharing drivers and municipal transit operators may be the first affected. But any job that’s largely routine could come next, and that includes many white collar functions like certain routine surgeries and legal work.

We saw in 2017 the political and cultural ramifications of structural changes to the economy. This second wave could be even worse. Managing the economic and political fallout of what today seems like an inevitable event will be one of this generation’s greatest challenges.

How We Use Names

Dictionaries are collections of names. They collect the names of all the things we do and say to define them and standardize their usage.

I never used to think of dictionaries that way. When I was younger, especially as I was learning my spelling and grammar, dictionaries seemed not like a collection of words that people use, but as the source of those words. When you needed a word, you just looked in the dictionary. I never thought to think of where the dictionary came from in the first place.

Lots of the words we use are like dictionaries. In retrospect, they seem like the source of something; in truth, the name came after the thing or action it describes.

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How much would Bernie 2016 cost you?

In Thursday’s Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton challenged Bernie Sanders on his spending proposals, suggesting that they were unrealistic and even irresponsible given the real challenges of turning proposals into policy. Sanders’ response was consistent and on message: his spending proposals will be paid for by the rich, Wall Street and large corporations. For the rest of us, he just describes the benefits: universal healthcare, free college tuition, expanded family and medical leave, etc.

Does that mean that the middle class will be unaffected by his tax increases? Probably not, according the Tax Policy Center and most other groups who have analyzed his proposals. But how much will you pay?

Over the past month, Vox and The Nation released calculators that predict how each presidential candidates’ tax policies would affect you based on your income. They’re both interesting and I’d encourage you to check them out. But they come to very different conclusions, despite being based on the same underlying research.

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Spotify Running changed how I run, literally.

Spotify Running is how motion-aware software is supposed to work. And it can still get better.

What was great about it?

As you start your run, Spotify Running detects your running cadence, which it maps to the tempo of its playlists. I clocked in at 160 BPM and started out with their Epic playlist.

I was unconvinced for the first 30 seconds of the run. The opening of that playlist builds slowly and it was too melancholy at the start. But after about a minute, the music grew to a resounding cinematic score, dialed in to each stride. I felt connected to the music in a new way — it felt like running through a movie.

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Rise. Personal nutrition coaching made affordable.

When I got back from Oxford, I was looking for two things. First, I wanted to join a mission-driven company, to work for a cause I believe in. Second, I wanted the opportunity to learn a lot, and quickly. Which really means I wanted to work with great people.

I’m very fortunate to have found both. Nearly eight months since joining Rise, I’ve seen our team grow, our product launch, and most importantly, I’ve seen our members begin to reach their goals.

What is Rise?

Health, nutrition, and weight loss are very personal things. These are humanproblems, and we’re using the expertise and empathy of real people to solve them. Diets will come and go, but we believe that working with a real, expert nutritionist is the most effective way to achieve sustainable, long-lasting health goals.

This insight itself isn’t revolutionary. Registered dietitians and health coaches have been helping their clients lose weight and be healthier for years. But working with a nutritionist was expensive. Most nutrition coaches charge between $150 and $300 per month, putting their service out of reach for most people who need it.

Rise delivers personal, one-on-one nutrition coaching from these same experts for a fraction of the cost. We’ve built a platform that enables our clients to develop meaningful relationships with their coaches through technology. The core interaction is simple: members take pictures of their meals and receive timely, insightful feedback from their coaches. We’ve found that the consistent feedback our coaches provide reinforces the small habits that lead to lasting change.

Over time, we’ll be adding features to make the experience even richer for both members and coaches. We recently released the first of those features, a dedicated messaging tab for extended, one-on-one conversations with your coach—it’s almost like having a nutritionist in your pocket.

In the months since our launch, feedback from members has been incredible. We’re hearing stories of meaningful lifestyle change and real results. It’s what makes it all worth it.

Where are we now?

Rise launched in February. After selling out of coaching availability in just days, we’ve recently reopened our service to new members. It’s an exciting time for Rise as we continue to grow the number of members and coaches on the platform.

MOOCs, Educational Technology, and an Oxford thesis

Last year I completed an MSc at the University of Oxford, where I wrote my thesis on MOOCs. This post talks a little bit about my research and why I think it’s important.  The full version of my thesis can be found here, and an abridged version here.examschools

What a difference a year makes.

The New York Times proclaimed 2012 the ‘Year of the MOOC.’  Massive open online courses, with their hard-to-take-seriously acronym ‘MOOCs’, had become the fascination of New York, Silicon Valley, and thousands of universities in between.  As university officials scrambled to hop on board, a debate was brewing over the efficacy of MOOCs.  While some technologists and educators were predicting a revolution in higher education, others warned of displaced professors and for-profit education run amok.

Fast forward a year.  As the first studies and analyses about MOOCs have since been published, much of the hype has abated.  As it turns out, retention rates have been low, usually between 10-15%, and MOOC students are more likely to be well-educated than disadvantaged, despite the rhetoric of accessibility and openness.  Even Sebastian Thrun, CEO of Udacity, one of the leading MOOC platforms, has acknowledged the shortcomings of current MOOCs.  This dampened rhetoric is a welcome change—these technologies are young and need improvements—but MOOCs remain, in my view, an incredible opportunity for improving education.

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Teaching music to our kids…it’s not pointless.

141286730_05699b0e44_zMark Oppenheimer’s recent piece in The New Republic likened learning the violin to playing foosball and equates ‘pointless’ music lessons with his annual viewing of Dazed and Confused. Perhaps realizing he had missed the mark, or at the very least been misunderstood, he later wrote an apology. But his apology fails to address the faulty premise of the original article.

Mr. Oppenheimer proposes a simple test to judge the usefulness of music lessons:

“Go on Facebook and ask your friends to chime in if, when they were children, they took five years or more of a classical instrument. Then ask all the respondents when they last played their instrument.”

Maybe a few will chime in, maybe none. He’s suggesting that if we won’t do something in adulthood, we shouldn’t have our kids learn it during childhood.

Now, ask your Facebook friends if they use calculus or recite Shakespeare regularly in their adult lives. Mathematicians and english professors notwithstanding, you won’t hear much. But we wouldn’t extend his argument to math and literature, would we? Of course not, because learning calculus and Shakespeare is important not only for the content we absorb, but because it changes how we think. Only by understanding math and literature can we appreciate how science and culture evolved to their present moment. And in the sometimes painful process of learning, we develop the tools necessary to make our own contributions.

The same holds true for music. Learning an instrument is difficult and there can be no guarantee that kids will continue to play throughout their adult lives, but the process of learning music itself has value. And not just for the appreciation of music, but for the hours of practice and patience required to learn a musical instrument. Anything worth doing takes years to master, and our kids won’t come to understand that playing foosball.

Threats and Opportunities for Journalism Online

Rasmus Nielsen is post doctoral research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford.  The following is a reflection on his lecture at the Oxford Internet Institute on Feb 13, 2013.

What does the Internet mean for journalistic content creation and the business model that supports it?  Rasmus Nielsen attempted to shine some light on the threats and opportunities posed by the shift to online journalism.  His talk focused on the threats but was informative nonetheless.

He draws an important distinction between the effects of online journalism on individual journalists, the organizational norms of journalism, and the journalism industry as a whole.  As he explains it, the Internet has increased the capabilities of individual journalists in a transformative way.  The access to information and means of communication available to the individual journalist today are far superior than what they were in the past.  These new capabilities have become the norm within news organizations.  Journalists are expected to get answers quickly and produce content in time with the quickening pace of 24-hour media organizations.  This has mixed effects, Nielsen says, as rapid digital content creation crowds out more traditional journalistic practices.

Where the effects of the Internet on individual journalists and news organizations have been either positive or mixed, Nielsen sees its effects on the industry as largely negative.  The traditional business models that supported journalistic content creation are crumbling; whatever online revenue these organizations are capable of generating cannot keep pace with declines in print revenue.

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The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver [Book Review]

signalnoiseWhat happens when you predict the winner of all 50 states in the presidential election?  If you happen to write for the New York Times, you become famous.  Indeed, you become a celebrity statistician.  (Yes, it’s a real thing.)  Nate Silver did just that in 2012.  He correctly predicted the winner of each state and became famous.  As Rachel Maddow of MSNBC put it, “You know who won the election tonight? Nate Silver.”

Nobody thinks this is more ridiculous than Nate Silver himself.  In interviews after the election, he was quick to point out that an eighth grader could have predicted about 40 of the 50 states.  The other swing states became increasingly clear as Election Day drew near, despite pundits on both sides predicting a nail-biter.  Silver held his prediction in perspective and with humility.

Humility in prediction is the theme of Silver’s book.  He describes a host of examples where predictions were made with inappropriately high levels of confidence.  At times, as in the financial crisis, there were disastrous results.  Silver sees this as a growing problem caused by the emergence of “big data.”  Given an exponential increase in the availability of data, the ability to extract the signal from the noise becomes increasingly important, and failure to do so efficiently can have serious consequences.  Complex systems, like the climate or the economy, are incredibly difficult to predict either because we lack the necessary data or because we lack a theory to make sense of the data.  At no point does Silver suggest we should stop making predictions, he simply (and wisely) advises that we make and consume predictions with greater humility and understanding.

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The “Usefulness” of Patents and Copyrights

What does it mean to be useful?  IP law once provided protection for “useful” works of invention, innovation, and information.  Today, it is useful for preserving the interests of large, powerful rights-holders, often at a cost to creators, consumers, and the economy.  IP law should be made “useful” once more.

CopyrightWestern copyright finds it’s philosophical roots in two documents, the Statute of Anne and the U.S. Constitution.  The Statute of Anne, which was enacted by the British Parliament and predates the Constitution by almost eighty years, provides the protection of copyright “for the encouragement of learned men to compose and write useful books.”  The Constitution, no doubt borrowing from the Statute of Anne, secures for authors and inventors the exclusive right to their work, in order “to promote the progress of science and the useful arts.”  These documents both explicitly qualify their protection as governing only those works that may be called “useful.”  Why?

Intellectual property law is designed to promote economic progress.  If the law can protect the right of innovators to profit from their work, there will be a strong incentive for future innovation.  It’s a sound theory, but modern IP law has lost its way.  The role of IP law in promoting useful innovation is diminishing.

Technically, there is still a usefulness requirement in U.S. IP law.  New inventions must be deemed useful to earn a patent.  But we ought to be asking, “useful to whom”?  Where patents were once used to reward innovators, they are now often used by large companies to restrict competition.  Is Apple’s patent of rounded corners on the iPad really useful to consumers or to future innovation?  Or is it just protection against future competitors, like Samsung?

The usefulness distinction is even more important in copyright.  Copyright incentivizes the creation of information goods in the same way that patents incentivize the creation of physical goods.  But there is an important difference between information goods and physical goods that should change how we measure the economic value of copyrights and their usefulness.

Information goods are non-rival.  If you know something and explain it to me, my new knowledge doesn’t diminish yours.  There are no marginal costs for distributing knowledge from one person to another (or to a thousand others).  Therefore, any cost imposed on the distribution of information goods is economically inefficient.  Copyrights impose such a cost, as they require payment to access information for which the marginal cost of distribution should be zero.

By pointing out this inefficiency, I don’t mean to argue that copyrights should be discarded.  Taxes are economically inefficient as well but there are strong arguments for reasonable taxation, and we as a society have decided that they are necessary.  But we have to consider the burden these costs impose on the production of new information goods.

The creation of information goods requires two things: the time and ingenuity of a knowledge producer and the input of other information goods.  By creating additional costs for access to information goods, like expensive fees to academic databases, we’ve constrained the production of future information.  This counterintuitive effect is one of the negative externalities of copyrights, and it’s all too often overlooked.

The time and ingenuity of knowledge producers needs to be rewarded; they deserve a mechanism to recuperate the opportunity costs of their work.  However, the copyright system as it exists today has been coopted by the interests of large, commercial rights-owners.  For example, the copyright on works published in the U.S. now runs for seventy years after the death of the author.  Copyright for that duration does little to reward the author; any royalties go to the rights-owner instead, which is likely to be a publishing label.  Instead, it imposes significant costs on the aggregate production of future information goods.

Again, we should ask ourselves, “useful to whom.”  Does a seventy-year copyright “promote the progress of science and the useful arts”?  Or does it present an obstacle to further progress?

Intellectual property law must be recalibrated to a standard of usefulness that prioritizes incentives for creativity and innovation.  Patents and copyrights should reward innovators and knowledge producers.  They should not be used as weapons in ever-escalating corporate feuds.  Nor should they be used to extend the ability of corporate rights-holders to profit from the creativity of others.  When that happens, when IP law is useful only to the large, well-lobbied few, we all suffer as a result.  In a global economy where innovation drives economic growth, getting this question right couldn’t be more important.

If interested, The Wealth of Networks by Yochai Benkler and Remix by Lawrence Lessig are great books that include discussions of the shortcomings of today’s IP systems.  Benkler’s work informs my discussion of the economic inefficiencies of copyright and Lessig’s many books on the subject first introduced me to IP law.