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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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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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 Educator’s Dilemma: Three questions on technology and education

There are always people talking at Oxford.  You could make it your full time mission to hear all the interesting talks and still miss more than you catch.  I thought it would be valuable, both for myself and whomever finds time to read this, to share my impressions from these talks.  Views and opinions here will be my own, and don’t necessarily reflect the presenter’s point of view.

The following is my response to a lecture entitled “Personalization, Backpacks Full of Cash, and Rockstar Teachers: The Intersection of Technology, Free-Market Ideology, and Media Hype in U.S. Education Reform.”  It was presented at the Oxford Internet Institute by Justin Reich, Phd, Fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and Founder of EduTechTeacher.

The Educator’s Dilemma:  Three questions on technology and education

1) Is education delivered or emergent?

The education system in the United States is broken; there seems to be little argument here.  What people do argue about, however, is what to do about it.  We’re forced to ask fundamental questions about what education is and what it should be.  Should education aim to produced informed citizens?  Workers for the labor force?  Critical minds?  Can it do all three?  Should the education system produce anything, or is that a fundamental misconception in itself?

Reich briefly discussed two schools of thought in U.S. education policy, formed around two early education theorists, Edward Thorndike and John Dewey.  Thorndike believed in “education as the science of delivery”; Dewey conceived of “education as life” (Reich).  Thorndike’s vision won the day, and our education system today largely incorporates his conception of learning.  Young minds are empty containers to be filled with facts.

Dewey’s vision for education hasn’t been forgotten though.  Reich remarked that educators in the U.S. dream in Dewey and live in Thorndike.  As we are forced to reimagine education in the U.S., I think the question deserves another look, particularly as technology offers new ways of educating.  Do we believe that education is delivered?  That students are to be taught in an industrial, assembly-line manner?  Or do we believe that education emerges through experience and discovery?  How we collectively answer this question will inform our policy decisions.

2) Where does technology fit in?

There are countless passionate and intelligent people working to fix education; this is the one glimmer of hope for a broken system.  These teachers, administrators, policy-makers, activists, are increasingly joined by technologists and investors.  Technology is not a silver bullet.  iPads do not equal education reform.  But I think it’s unequivocally positive that some of the talent and capital of the technology sector are focusing on education.  The question is how can technology help?  Where does it fit in?

Reich made an important distinction between technology that transforms how we educate and technology that puts a shiny veneer on an old, failing model.  He’s right to suggest that improvements at the margin won’t be enough to make an impact.  However, another example Reich gives illustrates a problem that technology encounters in entrenched systems like education.

We point to Wikipedia as an example of the marvels of peer production.  It is just that, but we forget about the online encyclopedias that failed.  Why did Wikipedia succeed where others fail?  Reich suggests (based on a forthcoming paper by his colleagues), that Wikipedia succeeded because it developed an innovative process around an established product.  Other attempts failed because they made no process improvements or tried to develop an innovative product that was incompatible with users’ entrenched expectations about encyclopedias.  When people expect things to work a certain way, it’s hard to disrupt their habits with technology.  Education faces a similar barrier, where norms and expectations of how education should be conducted are so deeply ingrained, particularly in parents.  This could prove an obstacle for real technology-driven innovation in education.

One answer may exist in systems like Khan Academy, which preserves traditional teaching practices (like lectures and tests) but reimagines delivery methods (by enabling personalization of lessons).  Here again we encounter the delivery vs emergence debate, but as I’ll discuss later, I think there’s a middle ground.

3) How do we test and implement new technologies for education?

Product development requires an iterative process of release, review, and improvement.  Startups are told to build a “minimum viable product,” get it in the hands of real users, see what works and what doesn’t, and rebuild or pivot as necessary.  This model can be effective for building quality products quickly , and education would benefit from adopting it.  However, any iterative process anticipates and accepts failure.  While this failure may be celebrated in the context of product development, it becomes a problem in education.

When six online encyclopedias fail and one succeeds, we say the market functioned as it should.  We value Wikipedia and are generally no worse for the failure of the others.  In education, those failures affect the development of children.  Failure, a necessary component of developing a quality product, can’t be accepted and celebrated in the same way.  The response may be that the system fails certain children so badly and predictably, as indicated by zip code, race, socioeconomic status, etc, that we might as well try something else.  It seems unethical, though, to experiment with new practices on an already underserved population just because the status quo is so inadequate.

Where do we go from here?

First, passionate and intelligent people need to keep trying.  Technology won’t solve anything on it’s own, but introducing new people and ideas to the education debate can’t hurt.  In that spirit, I’d like to make a suggestion.

Let’s start with a perspective that views technology as a supplement, not a replacement to classroom interaction and teacher engagement.  For core curricula, particularly in math and science, a system like the Khan Academy can deliver lectures and assessments.  Teachers, therefore, are free to work more intensively with students that need it, either for remediation or advanced work.

The model then becomes a hybrid of the delivery and emergence philosophies.  Students receive instruction in a standardized form but are able to progress through the material at their own pace.  As we learn more about how students use the system, we can develop mechanisms for allowing them to chose topics that they find most engaging.  They learn by exploration as well as delivery.

For implementation, we direct a fraction of education budgets to funding small pilot programs.  The programs should be small and targeted particularly to those most in need of improved education programs.  However, the programs should be an option, something parents and children could opt-in to.  Funding should be available to ensure that economic factors don’t impede children from enrolling.  That would likely mean transportation assistance and potentially after school programs, as the pilot programs may be located at a greater distance from home than local schools.  By making the programs voluntary and free, we might mitigate as much as possible the complex ethical questions discussed earlier.

These are meant as humble suggestions.  I suspect that programs like this probably exist already, in some form or another, and that things are always more complicated than they appear from the outside.  But the more fresh perspectives we can bring to the education discussion, the better off I think we’ll all be.

I’d also like to point out a serious gap in using technology to educate in the humanities and arts.  Despite the dire need for scientists and engineers, to forsake english, history, theology, philosophy, music and all the wonders of the humanities would be a travesty.  We need people who can think, who can act as citizens of the world and approach questions of science and nature from an informed and ethical position.  These things cannot be achieved in math and science alone.

The most hopeful thing that Reich presented was a single number: 15,000.  There are about 15,000 school districts in the United States.  If we can supply these districts with the framework, technology, and funding to innovate as they see fit, we can make this work.  We have to.