Algorithm Problem

United Airlines has been having it’s problems since recently ejecting a passenger to facilitate crew members getting to their next flight.  As the Wall St. Journal article points out this is a result (in part) of employees following a fairly strict rule book — i.e. an algorithm.  In many areas from safety to passenger relations United has rules to follow, and employee (i.e. human) discretion  is reduced or eliminated.   It is somewhat ironic that the employees who made the decisions that lead up to this debacle could have been fired for not taking this course of action.  But how does this relate to Technology and Society?

There are two immediate technology considerations that become apparent.  First is the automated reporting systems.  No doubt the disposition of every seat, passenger and ticket is tracked, along with who made what decisions.  This means that employees not following the algorithm will be recorded, ,may be detected/reported.  In the good old days a supervisor could give a wink and smile to an employee who broke the ‘rules’ but did the right thing.  Now-a-days, the technology is watching and increasingly, the technology is comparing the data with history, rule books and other data.

The second aspect of this is “gate attendant 2.0” — when we automate these humans out of their jobs, or into less responsible “face-keepers”. (i.e. persons present only to provide a human face to the customer while all of the actual work/decisions are automated, akin to the term “place-keeper”.)  Obviously if there is a “rule book”, this will be asserted in the requirements for the system, and exact execution of the rules can be accomplished. It is possible that passengers will respond differently if a computerized voice/system is informing them of their potential removal — realizing there is no “appeal”. However it is also possible that an AI system spanning all of an airlines operations, aware of all flight situations, and past debacles like this one may have more informed responses.  The airline might go beyond the simple check-in, frequent flyer and TSA passenger profile to their Facebook, credit-score and other data in making the decisions on who to “bump”.  One can envision bumping passengers with lower credit ratings, or who’s Facebook psychological profiles indicate that they are mild-mannered reporters, or shall we say “meek”.

The ethics programmed into gate-attendant 2.0 are fairly important.  They will reflect the personality of the company, the prejudices of the developers, the wisdom of the deep-learning processes, and the cultural narratives of all of the above.

Humans, Machines, and the Future of Work

De Lange Conference X on Humans, Machines, and the Future of Work
December 5-6, 2016 at Rice University, Houston, TX
For details, registration, etc. See


  • What advances in artificial intelligence, robotics and automation are expected over the Next 25 years?
  • What will be the impact of these advances on job creation, job destruction and wages in the labor market?
  • What skills are required for the job market of the future?
  • Can education prepare workers for that job market?
  • What educational changes are needed?
  • What economic and social policies are required to integrate people who are left out of future labor markets?
  • How can we preserve and increase social mobility in such an environment?


Ethics and Entrepreneurs

The Wall St. Journal outlined a series of the ethical issues facing start-up, and even larger tech companies: “The Ethical Challenges Facing Entrepreneurs“.  Having done time in a few similar situations, I can attest to the temptations that exist.  Here are a few of the key issues:

  • The time implications of a startup – many high-tech firms expect employees to be “there” far more than 40 hours per week. Start-ups are even more demanding, with the founders likely to have a period of their lives dominated by these necessities – families, relationships and even individual health can suffer.  What do you owe your relationships, or even yourself?
  • Not in the article, but in the news: in the U.S. many professional employees are “exempt” from overtime pay.  This means they can be expected to work “when needed” but often it seems to be needed every day and every week, yielding 60 hour work weeks (and 50% fewer employees needed to accomplish the work.)  I did this for most of my life, but also got stock options and bonus pay that allowed me to retire early … I see others in low paying jobs, penalized for not being “part of the team” as an exempt employee even when they have no work to actually perform.  Start-ups can project the “founder’s passion” onto others who may not have anywhere near the same share of potential benefit from the outcome.  This parallels a point in the article on “Who is really on the team?” — how do you share the pie when things take off?  Do you ‘stiff’ the bulk of the early employees and keep it to yourself? Or do you have some millionaire administrative assistants? It sets the personality of your company, trust me, I’ve seen it both ways.
  •  Who owns the “IP”? — it would be easy if we were talking patents and copyrights (ok, maybe not easy, technologists often get short-changed when their inventions are the foundation of corporate growth and they find they are looking for a new job.) — But there are lots of grey areas — was a spin-out idea all yours, or did it arise from the lunch table discussion? And what do you do when the company rejects your ideas (often to maintain their own focus, which is laudable).  So is your new start-up operation really free and  clear of legacy IP?
  • Mis-representation is a non-trivial temptation.  Entrepreneurs are looking for venture capital, for customers, for ongoing investors, and eventually to the business press (“xyz corporation fell short of expectations by 13% this quarter”.)  On one hand, if you are not optimistic and filled with hopeful expectations you can’t get off the ground. But ultimately, a good story will meet the test of real data, and along with this your reputation with investors, suppliers, customers, and in the worst case, the courts.  There is a difference between “of course our product has ‘abc'” (when you know it doesn’t), and “if that’s what it takes, we will make it with ‘abc'”. I’ve seen both – it’s a pain to do those overtime hours to make it do ‘abc’ because the sales person promised it. It is more of a pain to deal with the lawyers when it wasn’t ever going to be there. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt (but not the book I’m glad to say.)
  • What do you do with the data?  A simple example – I worked for a company developing semi-conductor design equipment, we often had the most secret designs from customers to work out some bug they discovered. While one aspect of this is clear (it’s their’s), there are more subtle factors like some innovative component, implicit production methods or other pieces that a competitor or even your own operation may find of value.
  • What is the company role in the community? Some startups are 24/7 focused on their own operation. Some assume employees, and even the corporation should engage beyond the workplace.  Again, early action in this area sets the personality of an organization.  Be aware that technologists are often motivated by purpose as much as money – so being socially conscious may be a winning investment.
  • What is the end game? — Now that you have yours, what do you do with it? — Here I will quote one of the persons mentioned in the article: “The same drive that made me an entrepreneur now drives me to try to save the world.”

I will suggest that this entrepreneur will apply the same ethical outlook at the start of the game as he/she does at the end of the game.


Internet 3.0?

Steve Case, founder of AOL, has a new book out “The Third Wave: An Entrepreneur’s Vision of the Future“.  As a leader in the “First Wave” (remember dial up modems?… and getting a floppy disk from AOL every month in the mail? — that was SO last millennium) — Steve has some perspective on the evolution of the net.   His waves are:

  1. Building the Internet – companies such as AOL creating infrastructure, peaking circa 2000 (remember the dot-com bubble?)
  2. Apps and Services on top of the net. (the currently declining wave)
  3. Ubiquitous, integrated in our everyday lives — touching everything

This seems to ignore a few major ‘game-changers’ as I see it, including the introduction of the Web and Browsers, Altavista/Google for search, and Amazon for retail. But, that does not diminish the reality of the social impact of whatever Internet Wave we are on at this point.  You might tend to align his assertion with the “Internet of Things”, where very light bulb (or other device) has an IP address and can be managed over the net.  But Steve points to much broader areas of impact:
education, medical care, politics, employment and as promised in his title, entrepreneurial success.

Another way to look at this is “what fields, if any, are not being transformed by networked computing devices?” Very few, even technology that does not incorporate these devices (genetically modified whatever), they depend on networked computer technology at many points in their invention and production.

Steve suggests we need a “new play book” for this emerging economic reality.  I suspect he is only half right.  This was the mantra of the Internet Bubble, where generating income was subservient to new ideas, market growth, mind-share, etc.  What is clear is that it will be increasingly difficult for existing corporations to recognize, much less invest in the innovations that will disrupt or destroy their business. AOL and my past employer, Digital Equipment, are both examples of companies that had failed transitions, in part due to their momentum in “previous generations” of technology. (AOL continues as a visible subsidiary of Verizon, Digital has been subsumed into HP.)  What is happening is that the rate of change is increasing, The challenges associated with this were documented in the 1970’s by Alan Toffler in his book “Future Shock” and it’s sequels, “The Third Wave“, “Powershift” and most recently in “Revolutionary Wealth” (2006).  Toffler’s short form of Future Shock is: “too much change in too short a period of time” — a reality that has traction 50 years later.

What examples of disruption do you see coming? (But beware, it’s the ones we don’t see that can get us.)

Technology for Jobs for Technologists …

Employment is a key aspect of society, and using technology to help folks connect with jobs is an appropriate consideration for SSIT.  It is also an area where IEEE is now developing tools for IEEE members and employers. — IEEE is creating web site,, to serve as a virtual “job fair”.  This is targeted at helping IEEE members and student members to connect with jobs that relate to their skills and interests.    What makes this different from a classical “job board” is the introduction of real time interaction opportunities with employers (ergo the Job Fair analogy) ….

While you can sign up and build a profile at any time via the link above, there will be real time events on Jan. 20, April 20, June 15 and Sept. 21st where participants can connect with employers.   Companies wishing to participate can go to :!companies/mxfq6 to register to participate on the employer side.

Why is IEEE a particularly great opportunity for career development?

  • Our focus is on providing professionals with ongoing education (local seminars, publications, webinars, conferences, etc.)
  • Our members demonstrate by their engagement a commitment to ongoing education, and continuing to develop their knowledge.
  • Our engaged members (participants and leaders of events, publications, etc.) are acquiring essential applicable soft-skills in terms of team activities, leadership, communications and exposure to new ideas.
  • It is not surprising that IEEE publications are the most cited in U.S. patent applications.  Engineers and Technologists innovate — IEEE is the worlds largest technical professional society — our members are, appropriately, the most sought after potential employees on earth.


Humans in a Post Employment World?

There are many sources suggesting that productivity (including robotics and A.I. interfaces) will increase enough to have a significant impact on future employment world wide.   This includes:

Geoff Colvin, in his new ‘underrated’ book suggests that even in a world where most if not all jobs can be done by robots, humans are social animals and will prefer human interactions in some situations.  The Atlantic, focuses on what the future may include for jobless persons when that is the norm.  “The Jobless don’t spend their time socializing or taking up new hobbies. Instead they watch TV or sleep.”  A disturbing vision of a world which currently includes, according to this article, 16% of American men ages 25-54.  The article did not discuss the potential for younger men who see limited future opportunity to turn to socially problematic activities from crime and drugs to radicalization and revolution.

As with any challenge, the first step is recognizing there is a problem. This may be more difficult in the U.S. where work is equated with status, personal identity (“I am a <job title here>”), and social responsibility.  One suggestion is the creation of civic centers where folks can get together and “meet, learn skills, bond around sports or crafts, and socialize.” These might be combined with maker-spaces and start-up incubators that become a catalyst for creator-consumer-funder collaborations.

So — what’s your future “job” — will you be in the “on-demand” economy?  Perhaps engaging in the maker-world? — How might this future differ in various countries? Will Europe or India or ?? yield different responses to a situation that is expected to affect global economies over this century?

Employee Cell Phone Tracking

An employee in California was allegedly fired for removing a tracking APP from her cell phone that was used to track her on-the-job and after-hours travel and locations.  The APP used was XORA (now part of Clicksoft).
Here are some relevant, interesting points.

  • Presumably the cell phone was provided by her employer.  It may be that she was not required to have it turned on when she was off hours.
    (but it is easy to envision jobs where 24 hour on-call is expected)
  • There are clear business uses for the tracking app, which determined time of arrival/departure from customer sites, route taken, etc.
  • There are more intrusive aspects, which stem into the objectionable when off-hours uses are considered: tracking locations, time spent there, routes, breaks, etc. — presumably such logs could be of value in divorce suits, legal actions, etc.

Consider some variations of the scenario —

  1. Employee fired for inappropriate after hours activities
  2. Detection of employees interviewing for other jobs,
    (or a whistle blower, reporting their employer to authorities)
  3. Possible “blackmail” using information about an employees off hour activities.
  4. What responsibility does employer have for turning over records in various legal situations?
  5. What are the record retention policies required?  Do various privacy notifications, policies, laws apply?
  6. What if the employer required the APP to be on a personal phone, not one that was supplied?

When is this type of tracking appropriate, when is it not appropriate?

I’ve marked this with “Internet of Things” as a tag as well — while the example is a cell phone, similar activities occur with in-car (and in-truck) monitoring devices, medical monitoring devices, employer provided tablet/laptop, and no doubt new devices not yet on the market.

Emoti Con’s

I’m not talking about little smiley faces :^( ,,, but how automation can evaluate your emotions, and as is the trend of this blog – how that information may be abused.

Your image is rather public.  From your Facebook page, to the pictures posted from that wedding you were at, to the myriad of cameras capturing data in every store, street corner, ATM machine, etc. And, as you (should) know, facial recognition is already there to connect your name to that face.  Your image can also be used to evaluate your emotions, automatically with tools described in a recent Wall St Journal article (The  Technology That Unmasks Your Hidden Emotions.)  These tools can be used in real time as well as evaluation of static images.

So wandering though the store, it may be that those cameras are not just picking up shop-lifters, but lifting shopper responses to displays, products and other aspects of the store.  Having identified you (via facial recognition, or the RFID constellation you carry)  the store can correlate your personal response to specific items.  The next email you get may be promoting something you liked when you were at the store, or an well researched-in-near-real-time evaluation of what ‘persons like you’ seem to like.

The same type of analysis can be used analysing and responding to your responses in some political context — candidate preferences, messages that seem to be effective. Note, this is no longer the ‘applause-meter’ model to decide how the audience responds, but personalized to you, as a face-recognized person observing that event. With cameras getting images though front windshields posted on political posters/billboards it may be possible to collect this data on a very wide basis, not just for those who chose to attend an event.

Another use of real time emotional tracking could play out in situations such as interviews, interrogations, sales show rooms, etc.  The person conducting the situation may be getting feedback from automated analysis that informs the direction they lead the interaction. The result might be a job offer, arrest warrant or focused sales pitch in these particular cases.

The body-language of lying is also being translated.  Presumably a next step here is for automated analysis of your interactions. For those of us who never, ever lie, that may not be a problem. And of course, being a resident of New Hampshire where the 2016 presidential season has officially opened, it would be nice to have some of these tools in the hands of the citizens as we seek to narrow down the field of candidates.


Technologists who Give a Damn?

I’ve been using Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in classes for a while now.  One key message of the book is that professionals (well everybody) needs to care about their work.  Perhaps more in Zen terms, to be mindful while they work.  The author asserts that one of the reasons technology is so alienating now-a-days is that the lack of care is evident in the workmanship, robustness, etc. I’ve also been working on an update of the SSIT Strategic Plan, and one element of that discussion has been what catchphrase should we use?… Like on business cards.  IEEE’s is “Advancing technology for humanity” which is a good one.  Currently we are using “Where Technology and Society Talk” … but it is tempting to use: “Technologists that Give a Damn” … a bit demeaning to imply that some (many?) don’t, but unfortunately this is at least occasionally true. There are at least two levels of caring.  The obvious one for SSIT is paying attention to the social impact of inventions and products (the “should we make it” as opposed to the “how we make it“).  There is a lower level that is also critical, in software we might ask “is this code elegant?”  Oddly, there seems to be a relationship between underlying elegance and quality.  Clean, simple design often works better than a ‘hack’, and it takes both a level of mastery, and a level of mindfulness to accomplish.  Some number of cyber security holes are a result of code where folks didn’t care enough to do it right. No doubt many “blue screen of death” displays and other failures and frustrations emerge from this same source.  Often management is under pressure, or lack of awareness, and is satisfied with shipping the product rather than making sure it is done well.  I’m not aware of any equivalent in most development facilities of the Japanese “line stop buttons” that make quality a ubiquitous responsibility.  The reality is we need technologists who invent and produce products that are right socially, done right technically — technologists who embrace “care” at all levels. A retired career counselor from the engineering school at one of our ivy league schools in my Zen class observed that we were more focused on ‘career skills’ than ‘quality’ in our education, and may be suppressing student’s sense of care.  We then observed that this apparent lack of care, evidenced in so many consumer products, might be a factor in why girls are choosing to not enter STEM education and careers. I suppose the question  that remains is “do we care?”

Diversity– the key to the 21st century

Recently Intel announced that it was not just investing in expanding the diversity of it’s work force, but also that executive compensation would be tied to success here.  My own research based on social capital (see concepts of Robert Putnam) development indicates that diversity is a key to innovation, so Intel’s emphasis makes sense.

But, diversity is a two way street. Each individual can expand their personal “diversity index” (I just created that term for this discussion) by expanding their range of contacts, classes, readings, etc.)  The 21st century will be dominated by multidisciplinary requirements — and technology fields will often be a key component here.  There are very few aspects of society that are not influenced (if not dominated) by computer technology.  Another entire area of interactions is emerging in health care, biology, genomics and evolution.

Productive employees, citizens and innovators will cultivate their awareness in these diverse areas so they can be effective at contributing to, or critiquing the challenges we will face.  I anticipate employers (at least enlightened ones) will recognize and seek individuals with this diversity.

The Wall St. Journal, 11 Nov 2013, argues that focusing too much in college can backfire — students (parents, advisers – and even committees creating new majors or certificates) can be lured by last years job market and end up with limited (or non-existent) opportunities. Part of this is the inability to predict the future job market, but another key aspect is the reality that the exciting growth careers ten years from now do not exist today.

This is a opportunity for every professional (technologist or not).  IEEE has a key strength here with the diversity of fields it addresses.  You can participate in (some) IEEE meetings where folks in the room are experts in intelligent vehicles, solar power, medical technology, software engineering, sensors, etc, etc, etc. If you take the time to build your network to include these folks your potential diversity expands dramatically.  Other IEEE meetings will span every part of the globe, and some will span in both dimensions (Sections Congress for example).

There are paths outside of IEEE as well, and folks who take the time to develop these experiences, contacts, and understandings will bring critically needed insight to the table wherever they work.