Last Friday I had the very great pleasure of attending the Google IO extended presentation organised by Dhruv Valera. Dhruv put on a great event and there was a lot of interesting conversation forthcoming afterwards (along with a slight hangover). I found the content of what Google is doing absolutely fascinating, especially the concept of moving from a mobile first to an AI first approach. But the one thing that was missing was a coherent idea of what the future will look like. Google is making staggering progress, but it is incremental progress on where we are now, and I like to think the other way. Where do we want to end up, and how do we get there.
My own role is currently increasing the level of automation within our service offerings. When I get to do that it’s alot of fun. In one recent POC I automated 40 hours of work down to ten minutes, and even that 10 minutes was running time for automated processes, so the human interaction was around 30 seconds. That’s nice for a business, because they can charge 40 hours and pay for 30 seconds. And sure, there’s a bunch of development work that goes into that, and stuff can always go wrong with automation and all the rest of it, but one thing that is a bit scary is that 40 hours is a significant number. It’s a work week. Which means I can think about things in two ways. I can kick off this process and not bother showing up to work this week, log my hours, work bills the client and everyone is happy. Or alternatively, my employer can get someone else to kick off this process 20 times, pay them for 10 minutes work and there’s me and 19 of my co-workers out of a job.
When we talk about automation we don’t tend to talk about job loss, and in my particular business I don’t think that’s an immediate concern. I’m trying to fit everyones work tasks back into the 40 hour work week we actually get paid for rather than squeeze people out of jobs. There’s plenty of work to go around. But taken to it’s natural conclusion where do we end up? Back when I ran the internet cafe I used to joke that I could probably write a pretty simple program to do most of what I did. But what if that’s not a joke? Family aside, it’s quite possible for me to go through an entire week without interacting with another human being. I can pay at the pump with a credit card so I don’t need to go and see the service station employee, I can go through an automated checkout at the supermarket, I can order whatever I want online and have it just turn up. Where Internet Cafe’s do exist they probably have been fully automated by now. How difficult would it be to fully automate a cafe, or a bar, or a restaurant? Not too difficult. And even if the machinery to do that cost $50,000, or $150,000 – that doesn’t actually break down to that many annual wages. Just think if you owned a cafe and could spend $150,000 to never have to pay wages again… you wouldn’t need to think too hard. With minimum wage for a full time salary in NZ being a shade over $30K – That’s 5 employee/years and the equipment pays for itself. And you don’t have to worry about staff being sick, taking holidays, changing jobs, needing training, wanting raises and so on. It’s actually a pretty easy equation . Then you can add in the advantages – you could actually be open 24×7, because your staff never need to go home and sleep. You’d never need to recruit or train new employees, and you could scale your business up like crazy!
So when I see Google’s natural language processing advances, and see a phone that you can hold up to a plant and have it identified a bunch of stuff happens. The geek in me says “That’s so cool!”, but the philosopher in me starts to ask where it stops and how the world looks even 10 years in the future. For anyone who ponders the same questions I recommend you read Marshall Brain’s “Manna” – it’s free on his website and details two possible futures for mankind. The first is depressingly likely, the second euphorically enticing. Fair warning, if your brain works like mine you will also want to devour everything else on his website. It’s all fantastic stuff.
I am, often in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, an optimist. I believe that fundamentally humans are good. I believe that technology should make us happier, smarter and more free. We can do amazing things if we set our minds to them, and the technology we have is going to make that easier and easier. So thank you Dhruv for organising the Google IO extended event in Nelson, and thank you Google for continuing to push the limits of what we are doing and can do.