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What If Technology Does Destroy Jobs?

By Shlomo Maital

Summers

Larry Summers

   Larry Summers was Treasury Secretary under President Bill Clinton, President of Harvard, and is one of the world’s top macroeconomists. In a recent New York Times article on how technology is disrupting the world, the author recalls how Summers spoke in November at a conference, about his undergraduate days at MIT in the 1970s. Nobel Laureate Robert Solow made the case then that new technology boosts productivity and overall creates jobs, employment and wealth. Sociologists at the time responded that new technology often destroys jobs and wealth.

   “It sort of occurred to me,” Summers recalled, “suppose the ‘stupid’ people (sociologists) were right, and the ‘smart’ people (economists) were wrong. What would it look like?   Well – pretty much how the world looks today.

     Uber is eliminating taxi-driver jobs. Internet news is destroying print journalism jobs. Digital education will soon eliminate my job (as professor).   Long ago, software made the entire mid-level managers’ jobs (focused on processing and interpreting data) redundant. Add to that globalization and world trade, which led America to outsource its manufacturing to Asia.  

       What if technology really does eliminate jobs? What if, like Finland and Switzerland, we will need to consider providing a basic minimum living wage for everyone, when unemployment becomes widespread? (The referendum in Switzerland on this idea was soundly defeated…but nonetheless, the mere fact it happened is important).   What if in future, work itself will be a huge privilege and a luxury, granted only to a very few highly skilled, highly productive people who somehow are not made redundant by very smart machines?  

       The late MIT Dean and Professor Lester Thurow, who passed away recently, liked to say that sociology trumps economics. If sociology is about how people live and work together, and economics is about how money and capital procreate and proliferate,   then surely he was right. Perhaps it is time that economic policy should be shaped by the sociologists.

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Does YOUR doctor listen to you? But, really listen?

By Shlomo  Maital

 Ear

Does your doctor listen to what you say? I mean, REALLY listen? And ask you a lot of questions?

   I’ve just finished reading a fascinating book, Reaching down the Rabbit Hole: A Renowned Neurologist Explains the Mystery and Drama of Brain Disease, by Dr. Allan H. Ropper, and Brian David Burrell. (St. Martin’s Press, 2014). Basically Burrell, a wonderful writer, was a fly on the wall, and wrote down stories about how Ropper figured out what went wrong with people’s brains.

   A key point Ropper stresses is this:   The technology for scanning brains has advanced tremendously. MRI and CT scans reveal a great deal. But nonetheless, a great doctor still needs to listen to the patient, observe and ask questions.   Dr. Ropper writes:

   “Many [patients] have driven for an hour or two, even three, to [Boston], and they want to be heard. What they hope, what they expect, what they decree, is that we take the time to listen, because the act of listening is therapeutic in itself. When we do it right, we learn details that make us better doctors for the next patient. The residents may not get this yet. They are focused on diagnosis and treatment, on technology, on scales, titers, doses, ratios, elevation, and deficiencies. All well and good, I tell them, but don’t forget to listen!

   Does your doctor listen to you. Really listen? If not – and who can blame them, many times they are required to see X patients per hour, leaving no more than 10 minutes per patient — try to find one who does.

   As I’ve noted before, even in modern medicine, technology comes last, not first.

Technology comes LAST

By Shlomo  Maital     

Tangle

  My wife and I are in Brazil; yesterday I gave a seminar at Univ. of Sao Paulo, titled “Technology Comes Last, Not First”.  This was hutzpah, impudence, because it was a seminar for Management of Technology.  When you see a surgeon with a medical problem, they often recommend surgery. Naturally. When you study Management of Technology, they teach you – well, how to manage technology. 

   But the audience got the message and understood.  And it is so simple.

   Great startups begin by identifying an unmet need.  This is done not by asking people what they need, but by keen close detailed zoom-in observation and listening – not a skill engineers tend to have.  Only after a clear unmet need is identified, should technology be pulled in,  and only technology that can simply, quickly and appropriately be applied to meet the need, as part of a sustainable business. 

   I’ve seen countless startups driven by genius engineers, who create magical technology (recall Arthur Clarke, “truly advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”),   and launch a startup, and – their technology meets needs that do not exist at all.

    How do you find a true need?  Maybe, you YOURself need it.  And if so, others do too.  Spanx started when Susan Blakely needed something to tuck in her bottom. The technology?  Spandex.  She made a batch and knocked on doors until it began to sell. She’s now a billionaire.  Lady Gaga records new songs after exhausting performances, in her bus.  Technology? Her engineers insist, you cannot record high-quality sound in a bus.  Lady Gaga?  DO IT!!  Because she needs the inspiration and immediacy of her audience.  Sound studios are sterile.   

    The paradox is:  Technology-driven startups cannot be led by, driven by, and directed by, technology, even though they are generally led by engineers.  The principle is:  Start with Why!  Why make this?  Who needs it? Why do they need it?  Only if you have very strong clear answers, can you proceed to the technology that will satisfy it.  This is so simple. Yet violated by many businesses and entrepreneurs,  for big and small companies.

Will Your Well-Paying Job (And Your Kids’) Soon Be Obsolete?

By Shlomo   Maital 

          slide rule

Slide Rule:  Will Your Skill Soon Be As Obsolete?

  One test of a futuristic prediction is to spot in several independent sources.  After my previous blog on how we’re failing to teach our kids the right 10 skills – The Economist has a lead editorial on how technology will affect our future jobs.  (See the Jan. 18 edition).

According to the Economist:  “ Innovation,  the elixir of progress, has always cost people their jobs. In the Industrial Revolution artisan weavers were swept aside by the mechanical loom. Over the past 30 years the digital revolution has displaced many of the mid-skill jobs that underpinned 20th-century middle-class life. Typists, ticket agents, bank tellers and many production-line jobs have been dispensed with, just as the weavers were.”

       “Why be worried? It is partly just a matter of history repeating itself. In the early part of the Industrial Revolution the rewards of increasing productivity went disproportionately to capital; later on, labour reaped most of the benefits. The pattern today is similar. The prosperity unleashed by the digital revolution has gone overwhelmingly to the owners of capital and the highest-skilled workers. Over the past three decades, labour’s share of output has shrunk globally from 64% to 59%. Meanwhile, the share of income going to the top 1% in America has risen from around 9% in the 1970s to 22% today. Unemployment is at alarming levels in much of the rich world, and not just for cyclical reasons. In 2000, 65% of working-age Americans were in work; since then the proportion has fallen, during good years as well as bad, to the current level of 59%.”

 What should be done?  What can be done?  “Innovation has brought great benefits to humanity. Nobody in their right mind would want to return to the world of handloom weavers. But the benefits of technological progress are unevenly distributed, especially in the early stages of each new wave, and it is up to governments to spread them. In the 19th century it took the threat of revolution to bring about progressive reforms. Today’s governments would do well to start making the changes needed before their people get angry.”

      It will take a long time for people to get angry…and by the time that happens, society will be in deep trouble.

     But individuals can act.  Ask yourself,  what is your main skill?   Could it be made obsolete (like the skill of middle level managers who once processed data, now available on the screen of senior managers instantly) by technology?  If so, how?  When?   Can you develop a new skill?  Should you start now? 

    And get your kids to ask the same questions.   That nice fat paycheck of today could be a green slip tomorrow.   Prepare yourself and your loved ones.   Remember the slide rule. 

 Technology in 2014: What’s Ahead

By Shlomo  Maital    

        2014

 

 What does 2014 hold in terms of new technology?  According to New York Times columnist Nick Bilton, 2013 was a yawn.  Apple just updated its existing devices all year.  Nothing much happened.

   2014 may be different.  Technology is like sprinters – they pause, prepare, crouch – and then dash, only to repeat the process.  

   Smartwatches will grow rapidly.  Today the global watch industry totals $60 b.  Smart watches could add greatly to that.  They could change the way we relate to the device on our wrists. 

   Cell phones will change.  Improved location sensors mean our phones will start letting us know when we need to look at them, and actively suggesting things we need to do, based on where we are.  

    Corning has developed new flexible screens for TV.  These screens could wrap around poles, even wrap around our clothing or “the packages we buy”, notes Bilton.

    Use of drones will expand.  The FAA will issue rules that enable expanded use of drones for farming, rooftop inspections and a thousand other uses. 

   3D printers will begin to become home appliances.  Gartner says companies and consumers will spend $600 m. on 3D printer related products in 2014.  One key use might be to ‘print’ parts for broken appliances, with instructions downloaded from web sites.

   Most of this still sounds rather humdrum.  Technology often surprises. Maybe, just maybe, some great innovator will think of something truly novel and useful – or perhaps, simply revive something old that has sadly disappeared.  Will YOU be that innovator?

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
June 2019
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