Seattle Week in Review: Facing Displacement from AI

Xconomy Seattle — 

When will the technology arrive that makes you obsolete in your current job? [Checks watch.] It’s no idle question, and one that none other than Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella took up this week in remarks to hundreds of Seattle technology and business leaders.

We’ll explore his comments, a new offering from Textio, the media’s failures in covering the presidential primaries; have some fun with drones, Star Wars, Disney’s Frozen, and STEM education; and wash it down with a cold home brew in this edition of Xconomy Seattle’s Week in Review:

—Nadella was the main draw to the Technology Alliance’s annual State of Technology Luncheon in downtown Seattle.

He shared his view of Microsoft’s unique culture, and how that gives the company an advantage. One aspect is Microsoft’s global mindset, which Nadella, born in Hyderabad, India, talked about in a personal way.

“I wouldn’t be CEO of Microsoft if it was not for Microsoft’s technology being a global force,” Nadella said.

He added, “There isn’t a single immigration line anywhere in the world that doesn’t use something from Microsoft. How do we make sure that they upgrade from XP is an important thing, but it is a sense of how we build a global company that is changing the world.”

It may seem obvious, but sometimes Microsoft needs to remind itself of this, which is why Nadella chose Kenya to launch Windows 10 over New York, he said.

Nadella was also frank about the displacement that many people fear from current and coming waves of technology. Past technology revolutions have been “very painful,” Nadella said. “But this is perhaps one of those times where the displacement doesn’t just lead to jobs in another sector,” he said. “Just being a technology utopian is probably not the right approach. We should actually be concerned.”

He does not claim to have the answers, but wants Microsoft to be involved in the debate.

“Focusing on education is perhaps the action that we can take,” he said.

He also suggested a reexamination of the economic surplus he believes will be created.

“If economic surplus is getting created, but jobs are not getting created, then that’s another place where there needs to be new policies on how that economic surplus gets distributed so that people are able to in fact be taken care of,” Nadella said.

—I stared that displacement in the face while reporting on Textio’s new “opportunities” feature. This innovation from a Seattle startup uses machine learning and natural language processing, among other technologies, to offer suggestions to improve writing—basically what an editor does.

Textio’s technology is focused on a narrow subset of writing—job listings and recruiting e-mails—and only suggests improvements to a handful of words or phrases. So it’s not taking my job just yet, but it made clear to me that even what once seemed like the most subjective of human tasks can be done by a computer.

Textio’s co-founder Jensen Harris pointed out that the combination of technologies necessary to create “opportunities” is relatively new. Textio couldn’t have been built just a couple of years ago. And that’s what makes me nervous. The pace at which these new capabilities is advancing makes it hard to predict what they’ll be able to do just a few years down the road.

—The tech utopian in me hopes for a world that pairs the best of machine and human intelligence. A Textio editorial assistant, perhaps? Then, in the wake of Donald Trump’s elevation to presumptive Republican nominee, I read New York Times media columnist Jim Ruttenberg’s takedown of reporting on the presidential primary campaign.

“It has been ‘Dewey Defeats Truman’ on a relentless, rolling basis,” he writes.

Ruttenberg spreads the blame around, but he notes in particular the failure of data journalism, and polling-based predictions. He harkened back to the 2014 midterm elections, specifically the race in Virginia in which then House Republican majority leader Eric Cantor was ousted by David Brat, new to politics, despite polling that gave Cantor seemingly insurmountable leads.

The lesson there, Ruttenberg writes, “was that nothing exceeds the value of shoe-leather reporting, given that politics is an essentially human endeavor and therefore can defy prediction and reason.”

That lesson, he argues, has yet to be learned. He also allows that problems in predicting the rise of Trump were not due only to over-reliance on data. “Mr. Trump has rendered useless the traditional rule books of American politics,” Ruttenberg writes.

If we build our algorithms on the traditional rules and feed them on data from the past (because what else do we have?), how well can we expect them to predict the black swan events, or futures that are substantially different from the past?

So, perhaps we need more shoe-leather reporting, but with an AI editorial assistant.

—By the way, you can get all of Xconomy’s reporting on artificial intelligence, robotics, drones—including the new metamaterials drone radar system unveiled this week by Bellevue, WA-based Echodyne—and related technologies on our new national Robotics and A.I. channel. This is a great resource for tracking what’s happening in this fascinating and fast-growing space in Seattle and the 10 other innovation clusters Xconomy covers.

—This week we celebrated May the Fourth be with you (known to our physics-loving friends as May the Mass Times Acceleration be with you). On the local front, the Washington Department of Transportation released footage of a drone flying through the State Route 99 tunnel. Bertha, the giant boring machine, is now chomping away at the ground beneath the Alaskan Way Viaduct, now beginning its second week of closure.

The drone video was cool.

Cooler is creative guy Sam Veatch’s “Death Star Viaduct” mashup video, which cuts together the drone footage with… well, just watch it yourself:

—Apropos of nothing, when I searched for “May the Mass Times Acceleration be with you,” I found this Penn State blog, and specifically the post “Frozen: A Thermodynamic Analysis.” Sample passage:

Freezing is an exothermic process, which means that heat is removed from the object and released into the surroundings. That heat has to go somewhere. When Elsa froze the water around Arendelle, that should not have caused an eternal winter—the heat in the water should have been released into the atmosphere, increasing the temperature. It’s also possible that she absorbed the energy herself, but if she did, she would have been so hot as to melt the ice around her (and her clothes too).

I’ve lately been debating with one of my daughter’s pre-school classmates whether Elsa is a superhero. I found a lot of good stuff to support my case here. So, Frankie, get ready to hear about Elsa’s super-human ability to control massive exothermic processes at pickup today!

—Speaking of STEM education, here’s something cool to look forward to this summer: New computing and robotics workshops for families are planned at places like the Pacific Science Center, Red Eagle Soaring, and Seattle Public Library. Instead of it ending there, families will be able to continue their explorations at home by checking out backpacks with projects and activities.

The National Science Foundation is providing $2.4 million to fund work by the University of Washington Bothell’s OpenSTEM Research collaborative, UW Seattle’s Institute for Science + Math Education, and the workshop hosts listed above for this three-year effort called Backpacks for Science Learning.Backpacks for Science Learning

“Many families haven’t had the opportunity to get inside things like engineering or computer science, especially in ways that honor and build on families’ cultural practices and interests – our Backpacks program aims to do just that,” says Megan Bang, a UW associate professor and co-primary investigator on the project, in a news release. (In the photo above, she’s instructing the project team on e-textiles.)

Photo courtesy of PicoBrew

Photo courtesy of PicoBrew

—The home brewing revolutionaries at PicoBrew raised a $10.6 million funding round to advance its mission of putting a microbrewery in every home, or something along those lines. Clearly we need to do more research. More from GeekWire, which is holding its annual tech awards next week. PicoBrew’s Pico unit is up for Gadget of the Year.