March of the Machines (Automation)

Saw a tweet about and interesting piece in ABC News Australia Digital disruption: How science and the human touch can help employees resist the march of the machines. Basically, many jobs are going away due to automation. W.I.R.E.D. has a similar story: Robots Will Steal Our Jobs, But They’ll Give Us New Ones.

One of the long struggles I have ever pushed in my career is automation of machines. My approach falls along the line of: if it is going to be done more than once or will take a really long time by hand, then it needs to be automated. This is hard to do. The temptation is to do it by hand once, see how it went, then write a script which does it for the next time. The trouble being that if this is done between having completed the first one and the second, then there is little incentive. Best is to make the automation part of doing it the first time, the second time can include any remediation necessary to make it more perfect.

All this automation makes us more effective employees. My team of three managed hundreds of web servers and dozens of database servers for ten sites. Without automation that would have been a nightmare. The replacement product was more difficult to automate so with fewer servers we needed more people. Yet the drive to better automation is making lives easier. (Technically I left that program about a year ago when my replacement was hired and took over my spot in the on-call rotation.)

A fear I hear about automation is that people will lose their jobs. It reminds me globalization and manufacturing moving overseas to China. Highly repetitive, mindnumbing jobs were the most at risk and as those work forces got better, what was at risk moved up the complexity ladder.

The fear of both globalization and automation led to books like A Whole New Mind. The idea is that if your job is highly repetitive or analytical, then it is at risk to these forces. Becoming the person who designs, describes, coordinates, or finds meaning in stuff (aka “right brain” activities) is the way to survive the coming storm. This book very influenced how I started thinking about my work.

Back in 2003, I automated everything I could because I was overwhelmed with work and little resources beyond great computers and my own skill to make it better. My supervisees focused on meeting with the clients to talk about the web site they wanted and build that. I wrote code to report about or fix problems to prevent people needing to call or email about problems.

Where I wish we would head is more like You Really Don’t Need To Work So Much. I meant to send this to my boss (maybe he’s reading this blog)? All our efficiencies should mean we have less to do not more, so why do we work so hard?

The past fifty years have seen massive gains in productivity, the invention of countless labor-saving devices, and the mass entry of women into the formal workforce. If we assume that there is, to a certain degree, a fixed amount of work necessary for society to function, how can we at once be more productive, have more workers, and yet still be working more hours? Something else must be going on.

From my experience, the to-do list gets ever larger. Not because there is more to do, but because more is possible. I’d just rather spend more of my time on solving hard problems than easy repetitive tasks.

P.S. This post really only exists because I loved the phrase “March of the Machines” enough I wanted it as a title for something on this blog.

Global Higher Education Trends

According to Trends in Global Higher Education (PDF), we should pay attention to globalization, massification,

Globalization is an interesting trend. As a college student, I enjoyed hanging out with international students and as an employer of student workers, half were international students. Exposure to different cultures, meaning values and perspectives and rituals and (the best) food was a great experience for me. It is harder to hate another culture when one has real friends among them. Such ties often become the basis of international diplomacy. But those students also mostly went home and are doing great things as part of the growing middle class.

Employers looking at post-secondary degrees as signals for middle class jobs drives massification. If this signal were terrible, then perhaps employers would seek an alternative. But I don’t think it means what most expect. The expectation is it means highly educated within the major. Instead, I see the bachelor’s degree as a demonstration of successfully navigating the world’s worst bureaucratic disasters. Having the tenacity, patience, and soft skills to deal with process failures all over the place. Secondarily, the degree means the ability to demonstrate some learning on demand to pass an evaluation.

Turning to look at how we here in Georgia compare to rest of the world, the crises facing least developed countries are constraints on research university budgets, constraints on student financial aid, increases in tuition, more part-time faculty, larger class sizes, a freeze on books & journals, construction, etc. This may not be solely a problem for least developed countries. Most of these are happening here in Georgia.

  • State funding was stagnant before the recession and been dropping since. Per student funding state funding has plummeted from about half to a quarter. The legislature and the governor have to make hard choices about what to fund. Higher education does not rank high enough compared to keeping people safe and healthy. Is there a Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for government funding?
  • A big source of financial aid here, HOPE, used to pay for all tuition for students who maintain a B GPA. It is lottery funded, but revenues were not able to keep up with the 10%+ annual growth of students. So now the awards are reduced for all but the top most students and may continue to drop.
  • My librarian friends lament about their severely reduced budgets for purchasing journals. Combine this with skyrocketing costs for these same journals and maybe by 2030 the research universities should just sell their collections and close the libraries?
  • The one positive is construction has not stopped. Though buildings are not built fast enough. (Some schools schedule class days to happen on the online class system I help run because they lack the classroom space.)

Even when the Georgia economy fully recovers, the lost ground is unlikely to be regained. But there is also increasing pressure to improve graduation rates and the number of graduates. Interesting problems we get to solve.