Machines Want Your Job

I’ve been planning for a while to write a series of posts on this blog about how advances in science and technology have the potential to make certain current jobs carried out by people unnecessary. This topic gets some thoughtful coverage in the media from time to time but usually it’s just short throw away stories on some funny looking robot (ahem…see below). But the bigger picture for people’s careers and the economiy are important to think about as well. That is because if you know technology is being developed which could make your current job disappear in 5 or 10 years you may have time to consider a new career. Or imagine you see on the horizon that 20 years from now we may not need human bus drivers in cities because of self-driving cars. Then you wouldn’t encourage your children or any young person to get into that job for the long term, even if the benefits are great, because it’s fundamentally unstable in the long run due to technology.

So as a public service, and to give me a theme to write about, I’m going to try to regularly post here to raise awareness about advances in science and technology that have the potential to do away with entire careers completely. Or to give it a pithy Twitter hashtag:  #MachinesWantYourJob.

What to do about it

Some of these trends are obvious to a lot of people, such as repetitive factory work jobs being replaced by robotics. But a lot of cases aren’t so obvious. Personally, I think people are underestimating how disruptive self-driving cars will be on many jobs once the technological, safety and regulatory kinks are worked out. This may take a long time, but it’s progressing faster than some expected. Also, there is a lot of scientific research and technology development that is not so widely covered or understood by the media, so people don’t realize that some jobs could be just doomed in the long run. Another example is grocery checkouts, the current clumsy self-checkout lines in supermarkets are only a first step.  It is perfectly feasible with existing technology to build a supermarket or big box store with no checkout lines at all by using RFID tagged merchandise, QR code printouts from scales and object recognition on digital cameras. No cashiers would be needed, just pillars near the exits to confirm your purchase and pay.  It’s seems to be just a matter of time before it’s cheap enough that some store will implement it and do away with those cashier jobs.

Just to be clear, the intention in pointing out these trends is not to necessarily stop them in order to save existing, 20th century style jobs. The intention is to raise awareness about what may be coming and encourage people to prepare themselves for the future, to retool, to consider new careers while working in old ones so that when the hammers falls, they are prepared. Because it is unlikely anything going to stop these changes, and if you want to know you certainly can’t stop them if you don’t see them coming.

A more positive and inspiring way to think about this future as an opportunity to have many careers over your life is summed up much more eloquently than I ever could by this comic on Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, take a look.

Ok, Show us the Funny Robots

Entry number one – I hope you weren’t banking on being a noodle cutting chef in a Chinese restaurant, because the robots are all over that:

The best thing about this is how he felt the need to make it look like a 1970s stereotype of a robot. It’s actually really simple, barely a robot at all, anymore than the windshield wipers on your car are.

Now I’m hungry…noodles. mmmm.

See you next time, if you have any ideas for topics on this theme reply in the comments or tweet me @compthink.

You Can Tweet Us on Twitter, Where the Heck Else Could I Tweet You?

I’ve got a nagging pet peeve about how the media are explaining all the  new ways of communicating with them. I’ve heard CBC and CTV doing this but I’m sure everyone does.  Maybe this happens with all new forms of communication but its time to recognize the pattern and learn from it.

It is completely redundant to say “You can tweet us on Twitter at  …”.  Well that’s nice, exactly where else could I tweet you?  Either people know what Twitter is and can tweet you, or they don’t know what Twitter is and now you’re just confusing them.  Depending on which of these people you care about more you should say one of the following:

  • “You can tweet us at …”
  • OR “You can contact us via Twitter at …”

You see? This isn’t confusing or redundant and the second one has the advantage of letting people know that Twitter is a communication system rather than a “tweeting system”, whatever the hell that is.

Think about how silly this redundancy is in terms of other communication media, it’s exactly like saying:

  • “You can email us using you email program at …”
  • “You can call us with a telephone at …”
  • “You can write us a letter and mail it to us through the postal system (or a private courier is you desire) at this address…”
  • “I spoke to Bob Smith today in our Toronto studio via modulated air vibrations.”

There are words like speak, write, call, email, tweet that tell us what the communication medium is.  If you are worried that not that many people know how to use said medium you can just say “You can also contact through UnfathomableNewTechnology at ….”.

Is that clear? Or do I need to come down and tell you in person via translating my body to your location in physical space?

Google Takes a Step to Reclaiming “Do No Evil” Status

Sometimes you think the world can never chance, companies and governments won’t ever really improve or open themselves to scrutiny, they’ll never backtrack because in the end all they care about are money and power.  Well, maybe that’s true.  And maybe, Google’s famous desire to “Do No Evil” is naive, pie-in-the-sky silliness.  But today, Google did something good.  They released a new feature, called Government Requests, that lists requests from national governments to either see Google’s user data or to take down items from their search results.  Some of these requests could be for really good reasons, like removing child pornography or catching criminals under court order.  But google doesn’t comply with all the requests, and they tell you how much they do for each country.

So the stats are bound to prove interesting for citizens in lobbying their governments to be more open.

Check it out, then go ask your government to be open about what the requests were for:

On Predicting the Future of Science and Technology

We must be wary not to overestimate the progress of science and equally wary we not underestimate the progress of technology.

Just a thought that occurred to me today. People are always eager to predict that science will be ‘pretty much done’ in the next 30 years, answering all the hard questions and progressing at a steady pace. It usually falls short of our expectations and take huge right turns we weren’t expecting, recasting the question in a different form, creating new insights but mostly illuminating how little we truly know (dark matter, dark energy, climate change, neurobiology)

Similarly, people are generally very bad at predicting how far technology will advance in the next 30 years, to the point where often the technology that seemed unrealistic becomes merely mundane by the time ‘the future’ has arrived. And we are usually very bad at predicting exactly what technology will be available.  (cellphones, airplane industry, computers, internet, brain scanning)

So technology predictions should be: I don’t know, but probably nothing anyone has thought of and sooner than you’d think.
While scientific predictions should be: We seem close to solving this so you, know who know’s how long it will take, it may turn out we’re asking entirely the wrong question.

Continue the Conversation on Buzz

Google WaveBots – Enough Smiley Bots Already, Can We Have Something Useful?

Join the Conversation about this post on google wave or buzz.

I’m a programmer and a certified tech geek, so of course I’m playing with Google Wave. I say playing, because there isn’t much you can do at this point on wave except play. This is partly because there aren’t enough people with access to wave yet that communication is useful. But more importantly, there simply isn’t a rich enough feature set yet to commit to using it for anything important. Much has been said elsewhere about what essential features wave needs to have be ready for primetime, including :

  • administrative access control – This is needed  over waves so that people can leave, be removed, have their write access restricted or monitored. Essential, showstopper, I assume google is working hard on it right now.
  • integration with email – Wave may want to be an email-killer but that won’t be possible without connecting fully with email and showing wave is better, which it may or may not be. So complete back and forth integration with non-wavers via email is essential. If google isn’t working on this, well, they are miscalculating.
  • speed and stability – annoying, but wave is still in preview so this will get fixed.

All these things can’t really be fixed until Google decides to do it. But there are a number of other things wave could have right now if developers put their minds to it and made some useful robots, well ok, maybe next week.

Robots in wave in simply little applications that get a user address and can be added to waves to alter the content. This may sound strange but its actually a very powerful idea. Some robots that already have been created add results from twitter to a wave, pass blips (atomic portions of a wave) back and forth to some email address or blog, add smiley faces and convert urls in the text to http links.

Robots seem to be relatively easy to program and are easy to add. Any content a user can see in a wave, the invited robots will see and they can alter it as well. I am interested in making some wavebots of my own but alas it looks like the sands of time will delay that for a while. The problem with the wavebots that exist so far is that most of them are toys and don’t do anything actually useful. I have an idea or two for useful wave robots that I think would be a lot more useful. If you are so inclined and skilled please make these forthwith and let me know.  If you really hadn’t thought it until you read this post, consider it a gift and cite me as your inspiration.  But what I really want is these bots in my contact list, yesterday!


We need a robot to highlight and alter keywords in the text so that the document can be used for notetaking and brainstorming. For example:

  • TODO, MOVETO(doc), LOOKUP, address, recipe, call, -> becomes an arrow , ? becomes highlighed to denote an as yet unanwered question
  • “TODO text….” could become a check box with the text following it. Hopefully even checking the box could cause a formatting change?
  • the robot could create a blip at the bottom that shows all the mappings and lets the user alter them or add more
  • can you save an instance of the robot as a separate contact? The emaily robot seems to imply you can. If so, then an instance of keywords mappings could be saved in the contact book and readded to later waves. You could have one annotatebot instance for psych class, another for your journal, another for recipes.


One major problem with wave right now is you can’t collapse parts of a wave and see the structure or the big picture. Replay is cute but frankly its useless for document editing. Its only useful for introducing someone to the flow of a conversation. I see Wave as much more of a collaborative document editing platform. Like Social-google Docs on steroids (without the access control? sheesh). Replay will play a minor role in this view, since the current best doc is what really matter. The fact that there is no way to collapse all repsonse blips or view a timeline is a huge gap. I don’t know if the API allows it, but it might be possible to create a bot that hides or removes parts of the converation below some level in the tree, or creates a summarized copy of the wave that can be perused to get the idea, with links to the full detail in the original wave. Sort of like a table of contents with hyperlinks. That should be doable.


This one would be great. I am already experimenting with using wave for a research journal. It seems ideal, it automatically timestamps each blip, lets you respond and annotate as you go. Lets you go back and edit. Again, collapsing by date would fantastic here. But a wavebot could help a lot with journalling. For example, a bot could take each new blip added at the bottom as a reply and cut and paste the text in to the first main blip so that their is a final formatted document. Each new day could be automatically titled and all new blips entered that day would be appended under that date. Edits of previous blips would not get moved and the header date wouldn’t change. This gets around the limitation that the timestamp on a blip indicated the last edited time, not the creation date. Which is exactly what you want for geenral document editing. But in a journal you also want to know when it was added since edits are largely minor. Any robot that simply turns some key word into the current date or timestamp, with formatting options would be an even simpler solution to this.

The great thing about these bot ideas is they could be combined easily simply by adding each bot to the same wave. Then you could have a journal that annotes TODO comments to format them differently, keeps track of the creation date and lets you explore the document at an abstract level.

I don’t know, is it just me, or wouldn’t these kinds of bots be a better use of your time than developing another smiley bot or eliza-hack chatbot or voting gadget. These are productivity basics that wave needs so it can crawl as a useful tool before it flies as a social media, 21st century email killer.

Those are my ideas.  If you have already made something similar, let me know. If you haven’t, get working on it, before I do!  If its good, then I won’t have to do it myself.

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