Delivered 2016-12-13 at APIDays Paris 2016, Paris, France



Prepared Talk





WAV (unedited)



Transcript (unedited)

Okay. So, I’m going to try to stay close. You can hear me okay? Yes? I’ll try to stay close so you can hear me. But I might get excited and someone might have to remind me. So I’m very excited to be here, again, for the 5th API days, and especially enjoying this topic very much. Chatbox, the future, and I come with a talk that I hope you will find interesting and thought-provoking. This is something that I’ve been thinking on for the last few years and I wanted to bring it to you because I thought this would be the group where I could begin this discussion.

So, the name, Coming to Terms with Our Autonomic Future, we’ll talk about that in a minute. There’s actually a sort of a subtitle to this talk. And that is, "If We Dare." And this is based on the notion that I keep talk to many people. And I think there’s something going on in our community, in our business, in our world, in our technology space that means that we have to dare to discuss something that might make us a little uncomfortable. So I want to do that. That’s one of the things I wanted to do today. But before that, I wanna give you a little bit of back story and why I bring this talk to you today.

So a few years ago, I was in Silicon Valley talking to another person, a very intellectual person in this API space, in the space that we work in. And I made the comment, in sort of in passing that one of things that concerns me a little is that one of my tasks is to help other companies get rid of jobs, get rid of people, whether it’s the company directly or the technology that they built that will remove jobs from the market space. And this makes me a bit nervous. Now I was assured instantly, "Oh, you needn’t worry. That’s okay. Everything will work out fine." But there’s something that bothers me about that. I’m not sure that it’s really true. In fact, I think a lot of things that we’re experiencing today in community in general, in society, in economy and politics relates to the role that technology is playing in our lives. And in fact, Stephen Hawking said so much as this just a few weeks ago in The Guardian, where he basically said, "We can’t go on ignoring what’s going on around us. And in fact, we are so much responsible for its condition."

His comment was that the automation of factories has already killed a huge sector of economy over the last half century. And now, we’re going to have to deal with more of it as our artificial intelligence appears as well. And that’s our work. That’s what we do. I think that kind of makes us part of the challenge. In fact, what we found in the last 10 years is suddenly, this change in it, in the way the economy works, we now can gain more productivity without adding jobs. And this is not a bug in the system. This is actually a feature. This is the way it’s going to be. We’ve gone through some of these before and we’re experiencing this again. This chart, by the way, is from a book by Brynjolfsson and McAfee who are working at MIT. This book is called "The Second Machine Age" and they have a very interesting idea that we are starting what’s called the second machine age.

The first machine age happened when we suddenly figured out how we could go beyond our muscles. How we could use energy, coal, oil, gasoline. We could suddenly change the equation. We beat this what’s called the Malthusian Trap, the idea that the world can only hold so many people, can only support so many people. So suddenly, this energy economy begins. And that begins the first set of machines. But now, we’re in the second machine age. And that’s where we can figure out how to go beyond our brains. And that’s the work that we are doing. We are multiplying our brain power. And we can commoditize and sell, you know, create an economy about brains.

So why is it my friend from Silicon Valley two years ago was thinking it’s not a problem? Actually many people think it’s not a problem if we could just get more jobs, if we could just get less unemployment, if we could just get more distribution of wealth. But I think, it’s a bit more than that. And I wanna get to that in just a minute.

I just want to explain the word autonomic in the title instead of autonomous, or automatic, or automated. So you may recognize the word autonomic from the autonomic nervous system. We all have this system in our body where there are all sorts of things that are automatically controlled for us. Our breathing, our rate of respiration, our heart rate, all sorts of things. Kidneys, all these other things. And they’re managed without us. So we say unconsciously, but actually, it’s without our control. And it turns out, it’s a bit complicated. It turns out this autonomic system responds to things around us and that’s called the flight or fight response. But it’s not just all those story. There’s also the rest in digest. There’s the other side of the coin that helps us rest, helps us relax, helps us dilate our pupils and so on and so forth.

And this creates this system where there’s actually this homeostasis, this idea that there’s a balance involved. So balance is very, very important. And I think, right now, we’re a little out of balance. And I think we’ll get back to this.

Okay, so, let’s look at the first one. The idea that we have these irrational fears about technology in our society. And some of us know people who are like this, they don’t understand what’s going on, they don’t understand the world. We’re worried about the rule of robots, that robots will take over our lives in various ways. And in fact, this idea of robot is a kind of an interesting story. Just recently, I think it was about a year ago, Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, they all warned us about this onslaught of robots, of how artificial intelligence as Elon Musk put it, "was an existential threat to humanity." And this really drawn up a lot of excitement.

The word robot actually comes from an author Karel Čapek in his play, "Rossum’s Universal Robots." He’s a Czech playwright, and Rossum’s is actually a play on the word reason in Czech, and robot is a word invented very close to what a Czech word called Robota, which loosely translated means indentured servant or someone forced to do labor. And this is where we get the word robot, and robot enters the lexicon with Karel Čapek. Karel has written a lot of material, RUR, this play is probably the best known. He’s got several others. By the way, he was also nominated for a Nobel for literature seven times, never won. I’m not sure how that works. I don’t know who’s nominating him.

In his play, I won’t ruin the whole thing, but in his play, they figured out how to create robots and robots begin to do all the work for humans and the value of labor goes to zero. And in fact, what happens is the robots rise up and create a revolution and kill all of humanity. That’s not the end of the play. So this idea that these robots would completely decimate culture and society and value, and then overtake the world starts from this 1920s play.

Now there’s another story that reader like, it’s the British story, it’s called "The Forbin Project." And this is in 1970s, early 1970s movie, and it features this idea that in the Cold War age, we build these giant, thinking machines that are hidden inside mountains. The one we build is called Colossus. And it turns out, it’s going to manage all of our nuclear weapons and make sure we don’t make any…human doesn’t make a mistake. Colossus discovers that the Soviets have also built a giant computer. It turns out the two computers get together, cooperate and dominate mankind. At least we didn’t die this time.

Finally, the ultimate scare-tale, right? James Cameron’s version of Frankenstein, basically. This is the idea, right? The drones, Skynet drones send a machine back into the past, our present, in order to murder the possible human that will cause the human uprising. It’s reverse of Čapek. Now, the machines rule the world and we’re gonna get rid of, we’re gonna make sure the humans don’t rise up.

All of these things play on our fears. All these remind us of things. And what do they remind us? Things that we don’t understand. How do they work, how does this part of society work, how does technology work? We all know people who deal with this very experience. I don’t understand this technology. Family, friends, neighbors, politicians, all sorts of people who don’t understand how technology works. In fact, Japan who works a lot on robots have specifically focused on trying to create cute or friendly robots that we feel good about. It’s a very important aspect of…as you know in a lot of other projects they do. They also create some rather creepy-looking robots that are just not quite human and it kinda freaks people out a little bit.

Now finally on this topic, Isaac Asimov, a great science writer had read Rossum’s Robots and he was really upset at this notion that robots were always killing us. So he specifically set out in the '40s to create a kind of system where robots could be trusted and be friendly. And he worked very hard to even create a series of, sort of axiomatic laws that could assure readers that in the future, robots couldn’t be built that could hurt us. And he called them, the three laws of robotics and released a whole series of short stories and movies are being made based on these short stories. And this is sort of meant to assure us. And he thought we have to get used to this notion that we will have robots because they will exist no matter what we do.

So despite the fears, despite all these things, we need to get beyond this and we need to think more about the role that technology plays. Should we be afraid of robots? The short answer is no. But what they cause, the effects, we need to pay attention to.

So that sort of leads us to the second part of the conversation. And that is what I would probably characterize as wild enthusiasm. Everyone gets excited about the notion of robots and automation in the future and for good reason. There’s another part of us just like the part that’s worried about us, there’s another part of us that loves the future that’s romantic about the possibilities. In fact, in one of the characters in Čapek’s play explains that in the future, once robots are doing all the work for us, everybody will live only to perfect themselves. Do whatever you like, whenever you like, however you would like it, without worrying for want of food or clothing or anything.

And doesn’t that sound nice? I mean, it sounds very nice. In fact, we know a relatively large class of people who actually operate on that idea. They work in this world where they don’t have to worry about anything and they can do what they like.

Now, I grew up as a child of the Space Age. I was given a lot of promises. I was told that there would be flying cars and jet-packs and lots of leisure time, you know. It hasn’t really worked out that way. In fact, we were always shown pictures in the '60s and even into the '70s about this amazing future where there’s lots of travel and lots of neat things in the homes so on and so forth. But you know, as I worked through this material, I had a terrible time finding any examples of what work would look like. It’s almost as if people understood work would not be so important, or possibly that work would not look very good.

Now, I did find this film which I thought was pretty good. You may have a difficulty telling what this is, but this is a farm. If you look carefully, the north section and the south section and the weather and the milking machine and all these other things, this is what future farming could look like. I love that he’s wearing some hat. There’s something going on with the head here.

I found a wonderful video called Leave It to Roll-Oh which is this video from the late '40s sort of explaining what automation and technology would be. And you can see on the left the housewife with the helpful robot because we used to say back in the middle of the century robit, not robot, but robit. And what I love is that this robot is actually just helping around the house. What I love even more is there’s this push button set of things not yet have done. Here’s what I love. Don’t we love the notion of one button, one button deploy, one button task, one button build. We know this idea perfectly, right? We would just need to change the names a little bit and this is exactly what we’re trying to build today, right?

Now, there are also people building some amazing things today, not just imagined things from the '40s. I met a group of people at a company called Zipline. Anyone heard of Zipline before? This is an amazing organization. Zipline builds drones and programs drones to deliver medicine and blood in places where automobiles can’t go, saving people’s lives, changing their lives in fundamental ways. In fact, based on what they’re doing in the range of their drone, they’ve set up in Rwanda where they can fly to almost anywhere in Rwanda in a matter of minutes, of like 30 minutes, and drop a supply of medical supplies. During the rainy seasons, even if it’s only just a few kilometers away, sometimes cars can’t get to someone if they’re sick, if they’re hemorrhaging, if they’ve had a difficult birth and they die. Now, we have drones solving this problem.

And this is a great team based in San Francisco. It’s a small group. These drones are not delivering beer or pizza, they’re actually delivering medical supplies that change people’s lives in fundamental ways. There are lots of things to be excited about. There’s so many more but I just don’t have time to talk to you about all of them. So wanted to pick them.

I wanna go back to the Roll-Oh story because I love this part of the Roll-Oh story. Roll-Oh story actually explains how many robots we have in our lives even in the '40s. The automatic sprinkler robots, the robot in the plane that makes sure we don’t crash, the robot in the car that makes sure the carburetor works properly, or the brakes or the steering works properly. The robot that feeds your pet. We have to remember that these are all robots, these are all technology, there are all sorts of pieces all over our lives. Often, we don’t think about them, but we have robots doing all sort of things for us right now, even this one little clicker device, this magical thing.

And you can ask questions, do we depend too much on technology, and obviously, some people online thought so. You can actually join this discussion at if you like. But when people are saying yes, we’re kind of dependent, I’m not sure if they were thinking of automatic lane assist on your car, or they were thinking about the variable speed cruise control that actually matches speed with the rest of the traffic that you can get on cars today. Or even the phone in your pocket that will reroute you based on what it determines is happening up ahead. These are all robots that we use everyday. These are all robots that are an important part of our lives. So that’s cool, right? We’re good. Everything’s going great.

That leads me to the last step. And that is the idea that there’s some daunting realities to the kinds of technology we are building. And we need to talk about them. So, there’s this notion in the play where someone explains, you know, "Things could go bad." And the main character says, "Yes, but that cannot be avoided." And this is where part of the play really hinges.

Now, there’s this great book called The End of Work by Jeremy Rifkin, 1995. This is a 20-year-old book and he lays out what the future is going to be like and how jobs are going to change in a fundamental way. Even better, he lays out the last 100 years to help you understand it. Here’s one example from the last 100 years, actually went a little bit further back. In 1890s in the United States, 75% of the labor jobs were farmer labor. Seventy-five percent. Fifty percent by the half century, by 1900, 33% and by the year 2000, less than 3% of the labor force was related to farming in the United States. And yet, we have orders of magnitude more foods, so much food, we have to install price support systems because we had done what? We had driven the cost of food towards zero. So we had to create a little cartel in the U.S. to keep the farm prices up.

Now, farmers aren’t the only ones that have experienced this in the last 100 years. I love this category from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, operatives. What are operatives? Drivers, manufacturing production, miners. Why are they called operatives? Because they actually tend the machine that does the work. They don’t do the work anymore. They tend the machine. And notice how they cut in half. Notice there’s one bright spot however in that picture. There’s one category that’s gone up in the last 100 years. Drivers. Interesting. How about clerical workers? They experiences huge boom when we first sort of automated everything after the war, but notice as soon as we get to 1970, 1980, it starts to taper off, the computer comes in, there’s all sorts of things that have to change. In fact, if you look more closely, you take away just the big number and you look specifically at individual things like stenographers, and bookkeepers, and telephone operators, and bank tellers. Bank tellers have gone to zero. But there’s one category that’s grown. What category is that? Cashiers.

So what Jeremy Rifkin tells us is that we’re on this fundamental edge where things are going to change. Just the same kind of talk that Brynjolfsson and McAfee talked about. But he says, "We are gonna need fewer workers. That’s a feature. We need to get ready for that." And a lot of what we do is get rid of the need for future workers. We are part of doing this. So think about this, at the turn of the century when Rossum’s robots is murdering the planet and decimating all of society, farming falls apart. When the guardian and the Colossus are planning to make all of the leaders of the world impotent, all of a sudden, manufacturing is done. Robots do everything and people just sit around in their unions. When the machine comes back to kill off the future leader, businesses and corporations are terminating. Clerical workers, middle managers, stenographers, all sorts of people replacing them with email, spreadsheets, and PCs. And that’s all happened in the last 100 years. Most of it is speeding up in the last 50. We already knew about this 20 years ago.

So what does he say about the future? Well, it’s really hard to tell but let’s look at just a couple of things. I’ve looked up some labor statistics. Here are the statistics for the long-haul trucking driver. This is not just the local. This is the ones on the major roads. Almost 2 million people, $40,000 a year is a pretty good wage in the United States. It’s above the poverty line. It’s pretty damn good. Of course, just this year, [inaudible 00:20:18] announced that they were going to do what? They’re gonna retrofit existing trucks with driverless technology. All total that amounts to 3.5 million people who will be affected, most of them out of their job completely within the next 5 to 10 years. How about cashiers? Cashier is pretty well. In U.S., that’s below a living wage. But there are 3.5 million, I am not even counting the indirects and what was just announced in the last week? Amazon is gonna create stores that don’t need cashiers. And they have this nice explanation about how cool this is gonna be.

So I just talked about as many as 10 million primary and secondary jobs just in these two categories. And there are many more categories in that. Citigroup and Oxford [SP] have released a study that says over the next two decades, over the next 50 years, these are the percentages of jobs that could likely be replaced by machine. Seventy-seven percent Chinese jobs, 85% of Ethiopia, 47% of U.S., 35% of U.K. That’s huge. That’s huge and that’s what we’re doing.

One factory alone in China has reduced their workforce by 50% with robots. We used to think that China was cheap enough that, you know, that wouldn’t happen. It’s happening. All right, so what does these all mean? What do we do? Do we stop it? Let’s go to Nick Hanauer. Nick Hanauer was staying in the U.S. He was one of the first investors in Amazon. He’s written several books. He’s a sort of an investor that gets involved in politics. And he’s sort of the architect of the living wage. What does he say? "I see pitchforks in our future" when he talks about the so-called elite. He’s talking in the same way that Hawking was talking about.

The thing is we own it. We created the economy, we create the society, we create the politics, we create the wage levels, we create all of these. We own it. And as Werner Vogels of Amazon says, "You build it. You run it. We’re responsible. We can make choices. We can do things to make things different." So what do we do? We need to get past the irrational fear of technology expansion and not just ours, it’s everyone’s. We need to help people figure that out. We used to spend a great deal of money on society, helping people figure out what the future would be like so they’d be comfortable. I don’t think we’re doing that as much anymore. We need to recognize all the robots around us and realize that they’re already parts of our lives and take advantage of them. We need to start thinking about, we need to separate jobs from work. We may not have jobs, but everyone is going to want to work. That’s what entrepreneurs do. That’s what all sorts of people do. We can create all sorts of things where we can have microloans and all sorts of things where anyone can start a project anywhere. And they can be very localized. They can be micro-services of bike repair and auto-repairs, just locally, don’t have to be massive, Walmart investments.

And we need to figure out how to stop measuring the progress by the employment rate because the employment rate is continuing to drop and it will continue to drop while productivity goes up. We need to start changing the way people talk about this and think about this. And we need to also be mindful of the effects of technology. Grady Booch, for example, the person who’s been credited with being a father of UML just last week said, "Maybe we need a carbon tax for robots." If your technology puts a lot of people out of work, maybe you’re on the hook for a little bit of cost involved.

Get involved with projects that improve people’s lives. There are lots and lots of projects that you can get involved in that will fundamentally change the quality of life for millions of people. And consider working on the big problems. The big problem is not delivering beer. The big problem is figuring this out. The big problem is not getting the thing to build faster or with less bugs. Those are not big problems. This is a big problem. And think of the problem as autonomic. Think about both sides when you create something, what are the effects? What is the other constraint you need? We’re system’s thinkers, right? We’re developers. There are all sorts of technology in autonomic computer systems. Things that can help balance things out. Use this design in designing everything. In designing our society, designing our community, designing our economics, even our politics. The biggest autonomic system that we know of is the planet we live on. And we can learn a lot. And we have lots of opportunities and incredibly resilient system. But it is finite.

So no matter what fears you have, no matter how enthusiastic you are about anything, it’s important to face the realities ahead of us. And how do we do that? Jeremy Rifkin says, "People make history. We make it. We own it. We build it. We’re in charge." And that means, as long as we come to terms with what that means and where we’re going, we’re gonna have a great future. Thank you very much.