We all want servants

I think a lot about automation, and work in the trenches on it daily.

The value each of us actually want with automation is:

  1. Simplification, from tiny directions into broad strokes
  2. ideally, an outcome vs. process directions
  3. and eventually, prediction of likely desires based on unstated patterns

We’d all like a servant to just make us breakfast or dinner, chauffeur us to meetings, and handle our taxes.

A good butler (say, Carson in Downton Abbey), would learn the whims of his / her employer and implement them without even a direct request.

To know what the common people want, just look to the lifestyles of the wealthy.

In business, one can just look at more successful competitors and specifically their HR structure to get a sense for what the market needs.

Ideally, I should be able to tell my e-bot to get me real estate leads via any method possible with parameters of up to $100 per real live, non-induced, phone verifiable lead.

This of course, is a tall order for robots as of today, but where things are unquestionably going, because it’s what we (SwiftCloud / SwiftMarketing) are working on.

The outcome vs. process mind set is key, but in all real-world applications, parameters are required for any of this to be of value. Producing real estate leads at a cost of $800/each is pointless – unless your average listing is $1mil+ ($30k commissions). A robot that could take out a frozen meal and microwave it for you, then bring it to the table isn’t terribly valuable – the implied parameters include something good and preferably fresh.

To know the cost-per-lead, the robotics must know not just the ad spend, but the conversion ratios on landing pages and offers, have API access to traffic methods, and some API based method of running campaigns. For now, human oversight is required – though technically, just for the ad campaign itself, which could even be outsourced.

Ten years from now, coders like me will have figured out how to make what’s essentially a Von Neumann probe for money: self-replicating bots that run a lean-canvas experiment autonomously, figure out the profitable limits, and scale up a campaign via programmatic media. One could almost build this now using dropshipping and outsourced gig-economy workers for fulfillment, running programmatic split-tested media.

And so, it’s back to work for me. For today, I’m the servant, working toward building my own replacement army.

Beyond Truth

Humans are deeply flawed. We may well have it in our heads that you we’re right, but the more scientific evidence any of us have for our beliefs, the more likely it is we are polarized on a given issue.

Why? “Biased assimilation”

Think I’m wrong on a given matter? Really wrong, and it makes you wonder how I / they / he / she / X party could be so off base? This graph explains:

knowledge polarity

A search for truth is a necessity, but rarely convinces anyone with opposing views.

This graph reflects recent work by behavioral economist Dan Kahan, who has spent north of a decade studying rational thought as reconciled with partisan beliefs. He summarizes this as “People will selectively credit and discredit information in patterns that reflect their commitment to certain values.”

You do it too. So do I.

Some of our most fiercely held beliefs may well be accurate, though we dismiss evidence to the contrary. There’s a silver lining, however: curiosity, and listening to someone with an opposing view and an open mind.

The recent election was clear evidence of how each of us live in bubbles over time, surrounded by whatever we have clicked on the most, and by people much like ourselves. We then become successively convinced and entrenched in our world-views.

Solution? More time over a beer.

Obama, whom I’ll miss, was wise to invite two gentlemen who’d argued to the white house for a beer. Face to face, we tend to be a bit more polite, more understanding, and have an inkling to find common ground. This desire to connect even without curiosity can bring healthy debate and at the very least finding underlying issues. The men set aside their differences and moved on.

Online, we’re surrounded by our echo chambers, but to some degree wearing masks of technology, making us a bit less human, less understanding, and more prone to defending a worldview that our peers (social connections) will agree with and relate to.

I do think issues are often loaded, psychologically motivated. Henry Ford famously quoted that had he asked customers what they’d wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.

People’s answers aren’t to be taken literally necessarily, but in person, we’re more likely to understand a more nuanced view. The real answer is there – to travel and arrive faster – it’s just buried.

In high school a wise colleague gave me an analogy I’ve held on to, which is that truth is like a fire. Standing in a single place gives you just a single view of that fire, and until you’ve considered many different perspectives only then does one have a better – but still not comprehensive – idea of what a fire is.

We need to be challenged. We need to go beyond “truth” and whatever we’ve convinced ourselves, for the sake of insight and our own humanity.

The Cha-Cha of Progress

Progress is rarely linear.

Bubbles have been written about in economic circles since probably before the great tulip boom of 1637. The dot-com boom of the 90’s followed the classic pattern, which goes like:

  1. The world has changed! I’ve got to get in on this! Everything we knew was wrong because now XYZ has changed the fundamental rules of the game.

    Everything becomes overbought, but at the time, this seems like a rational and sound decision. (see also: Internet stocks in 1999, Bitcoin in Dec 2013)

  2. We were wrong, and boy, were we ever. This is all smoke and mirrors. There’s very little of value in this – sell now before it’s too late.

    The market crashes below it’s intrinsic value. If you missed the first pop, this is when to buy. (see also: Internet stocks in 2001, Bitcoin in July 2015)

  3. Ok, this is indeed useful. The world has changed, but not as much as we thought. Optimism returns, albeit tempered. (see also: Internet now, Bitcoin now)

I believe machine intelligence is beginning a bubble. Don’t get me wrong, machine intelligence / AI will indeed revolutionize our world.

From what I see though, we’re at a point of narrow, focused AI being truly useful at one specific task. We’re still a long way off general intelligence and having deep discussions about meaning.

One of my fundamental philosophies is that things are rarely as good or as bad as most people think. That said, one can definitely profit from the herd.

During times of heady optimism, sell shovels to gold rush miners. When the blood is in the streets, there’s value – good prices – on crown jewels.

Furthermore, we need the heady optimism. It causes the investment which really does create the long term value and growth.

One look at Nvidia ($NVDA) stock of late and you can see the enthusiasm for AI. Will it overshoot and drop? Almost certainly, but nobody knows how far or how fast that run-up will go. The company has a wealth of patents that may truly create substantial shareholder value for decades to come.

Politically, bubbles now occur in the same fashion. We all are surrounded by social media of our own choosing, via direct subscription, or indirectly via click tracking, polarizing human attention into camps.

The dark ages are a reminder that human progress is never linear, and yet, the world, slowly, is indeed getting better – just not in a smooth predictable line.

Progress

Source + more reading: https://ourworldindata.org/a-history-of-global-living-conditions-in-5-charts/

I, Human

In high school I was one of a small percentage who scored as INTP, which at the time I didn’t think much of. Later, I realized this makes me less human*.

Or does it?

What it is to be human, in a face of rapidly growing machine intelligence?

Values? A balance of feelings and cognition?

Human values are often directly contradictory. Why do we treat a family dog one way, but many (most) kill and eat animals? Or a staunchly pro-life voter outwardly reject amnesty from even children fleeing war?

It is in my nature to go immediately to algorithms.

I was considering buying a beautiful Beneteau sailing boat / yacht on a timeshare, but how would one fairly distribute time on it? Naturally, everyone wants 4th of July weekend – so I immediately starting thinking of a weighted scoring system in which users could build up and bid points (pseudo-currency), or algorithms involving an inverse time-multiplier so that prime dates far in advance require more points…. you get the point.

Yesterday I bet my wife that by the year 2100 a nonhuman will sue to run for president, arguing that being “born” in the USA includes assembly. Will it win? That’s irrelevant: by then machine intelligence will have surpassed us, including careful manipulation of our predictably human foibles – creating a physical mashup of Ronald Reagan, JFK, and Barak Obama who is capable of monitoring the internet in real-time to perfectly calculate not just what to say, but how to say it.

Think I’m joking? Listen to Google’s Deepmind compose and play piano – in real time**:

AI and machine intelligence today is like the computers of the 1960’s. When AI writes it’s own successors, within minutes we’ll have engineered our own obsolence.

Perhaps then to be human then will be to be obsolete.

HBO’s new show Westworld shows the next step: blurring the lines:

 

I don’t have the answers and welcome yours below.

My best guess is transcending ourselves to some greater cause. In that moment of flow, when we disappear and our mission supersedes our biology we are at our highest and best, and it’s questionable if or when machine intelligence can or will do that. Ultimately, self-transcendence is a choice of mission.

But how many humans operate in that state at any given moment?

Then again, how many humans ever get the chance? The majority of humanity is stuck handling the basics of a comfortable existence.

Perhaps, just maybe, AI / MI will allow us to rise to the challenge.

*  I may be joking. I might live in The Lattice.
** Real time, though apparently it rendered the computations for 9 hours, though this is clearly insignificant in light of Moore’s law for the topic above.

Bad Employers Want You Broke

Your employer only has a few ways to keep you doing what you do for them.

  1. Offer money, but this only works if you need it. The more you need it, the more control they have.
  2. Inspire you.
  3. A balance of these, which shows up as “engagement” or other terms – i.e. the work is interesting, makes a difference in the world, you feel like a needed part of a team you admire, etc.

Finding great employees to work for cheap is difficult.

Good ones leave, moving up the chain, if not provided with true advancement opportunities.

Solution? Keep ’em a little bit broke, so they need the money.

Recently, REI came under fire for the disparity between some romantic ideal that people assume or observe in the store – specifically, that rugged late 20’s guy who’s out kiteboarding and mountain biking when not at the store, or that hip 20’s girl who surely must be teaching rock climbing in addition to working there.

The truth is a bit more gritty according to actual employees.

In the end, capitalism includes a war between capital and labor. The war is over: Capital won.

Wal-mart has a fiduciary duty to its shareholders, and money can flow to stock holders or employees, but not both.

For low end “brute force” jobs like retail, the employer secretly wants you broke, and getting your health insurance from the government, not them. It’s pretty difficult to keep someone in retail inspired about how their service in housewares is truly making the world a better place.

The problem is money only works if you’re motivated to get it. Most people just want to pay their bills, have a few good times on the weekend, have a house and some basic material possessions… but for many, if they had all that gifted to them, and a magic trust fund of a few thousand a month suddenly endowed on them, would they continue to work … in retail?

Cleaning up baby vomit in aisle 12?

They need someone broke for this who won’t complain and will get the job done, until robotics can reliably do the job for cheaper.

Can you fault the employer?

Fortunately, there’s a solution out of it: if you’re working a “low end” job, move frequently and strategically. Retail’s fine – if you learn about some business you actually want to be in, and move up. Change jobs every six months until you’re happy. Some employers will tell you they want 2 years.. well, you want a career. Your on-going employment is a daily transaction –  you sell your time for money (if an hourly worker).

Wal-Mart doesn’t apologize for limiting hours to 29.5, so they don’t have to pay for health insurance.

Should they? No. Why pay for health insurance when it’s so much cheaper to just get the taxpayers to do it?

Is it morally wrong? Yes.

Should it be illegal? Yes, and there’s the problem. The law – not the corporations.

We live in democracy, and while politics is often infuriating, labor has one key overlooked power it hasn’t been wielding: sheer numbers. There are a lot more workers than employers.

So why don’t people vote accordingly?

Why Web Browsers Are Dangerous

After reading the thousandth click-bait post about politics, I have only one conclusion:

People are idiots.

Including at times, even myself.

Will you admit you – at times – are too? If not, then you’re part of the problem. Call me a jerk, but we all have a finite limit to what we actually know, whether you acknowledge it or not.

The problem is, as Bukowski clearly stated, that idiots are full of confidence, and smart people are full of doubts.

Smart people know what they don’t know, or at least more of what they don’t know. Smart people also handle complexity, and the world is almost never as black and white enough to make good simple headlines.

And there’s the rub. Headlines.

Headlines grab attention. They get clicks. They create ad-views, and thus revenue. Increasingly, the most profitable headlines either make you angry, and thus more likely to comment, refute, flame – or they’re in the realm of confirmation bias – agreeing with your pre-existing beliefs, proving to yourself that yes, you are smart and “right” (right as in both morally superior and factually correct).

Web browsers, facebook, and search engines have the power to save us from ourselves.

Facebook won’t do it. It’s too profitable for them to not do it – they’d rather you get angry, and keep checking your rebuttal twenty times in two hours to see the flame-fest updates – creating more ad views.

Google and Chrome could, barely. It’s an interesting challenge from an AI perspective, requiring something close to general intelligence capable of finding actual data sources and correlating them back to the article or post in front of us.

For society’s sake, we need a browser that’s perfectly neutral and non-judgemental, but with the wisdom and perspective of a monk.

Without it, for economic reasons, I see nothing more even more Brexits, as people fall into polarized camps, and eventually, WWIII as beliefs are hardened through thousands of videos, articles, and friendships that reinforce whatever belief fits the user’s view.

Until we get this, check your sources. Assume everything you read is an attempt to get you to click – to make you angry, or fit your existing biases.

Twenty years ago, mass media was mostly created by professional journalists who vetted articles – cross-checked facts, cited sources, and did their best to present truth.

These days there’s more money in un-truth.

And therein lies the problem. If you spread that un-truth or half-truth, you become part of the problem, and given our schedules and barrage of media fighting for attention, even smart people end up reposting something that weakens the collective intelligence of the world, not improves it – gently polarizing the world into camps that will inevitably end up fighting.

And yet not posting anything leaves only the idiots speaking.

Slack: Another Phone Call

Managers love Slack.

They get instant answers.

CEOs and other top level people, and the impatient love it. “Driver” sales types who are happy to interrupt if it means a faster answer love it.

Engineers hate it, unless it’s part of a scheduled meeting that absolutely cannot be avoided. Thinking deeply requires focus, and focus is fragile. In order to solve certain problems, I need to hold the business-logic equivalent of 10,000 lines of code in my head. It’s hard enough to keep out my own internal distractions without someone asking me something trivial that could easily have waited 3 hours.

As a CEO, I can’t help but be jealous of Slack’s meteoric rise to glitter-covered unicorn status in just months. I wish them well, for what it is, it’s a truly great tool.

That said, in the end, people loved email in the beginning too. Now, not so much.

Slack and others (Hipchat, etc.) are quick to tout “network effects” to their investors. Personally, I’ll never allow open distraction to our staff. Most companies do not: it’s why they have a receptionist, to weed out those sales calls. Phone companies touted network effects too.

Obviously the phone is a useful tool, and so is #IRC or any other reincarnated business chat platform.

But tools cut both ways.

What’s the solution? Personally, I’d like to see “scheduled escalation”… guarantee an answer within X hours or N days: if no response, escalate method, first with successive emails, then chat, then phone calls. Usually it’s not needed – emails I truly need often get returned.

Except cold sales pitches.

See the pattern?

If you’re a surgeon and a patient might die on the table, or in a real estate closing and you need an immediate answer, then phone calls – and slack – are warranted.

If you want to use Slack, Hipchat, or any other chat solution that turns all conversation into a limitless never-done quasi-meeting that creates one more subconscious loop of undone-ness in my head, fine. But don’t expect there’s no price to pay – and the price is far beyond whatever they charge.

To me, it’s another phone call, which I’ll ignore if I can.*

* to clients: Just as I “go dark” on others when I’m with you, it’s not personal when I go dark on you. We’ll have staff escalation policies if a server truly is on fire to get you immediate help, but these firewalls are designed to keep us effective, so if you want to break through them, expect to pay. That’s intentionally designed – we want to be as effective as possible for us and you.

Why Facebook Wants Us To Be Dumb

Forgive the clickbait-sounding headline for just a moment.

I see a repeated pattern on Facebook that has turned me off to a point I’ve substantially reduced my use: A range of misinformation from outright stupidity to literally federal offenses (threatening statements expressing a desire to kill the president*)  to general BS supporting a bias.

I’ve even inadvertently been part of this cycle, reposting unvetted BS.

I even briefly worked in TV news as a college student and should know better – but here’s where we get to the real issue: posting truth requires time, more time than most are willing to invest. Truth is messy, and should even be used in air quotes in conversation, because there is no single truth most of the time, simply dubious facts, degrees of truth, perspective, values.

I wish Facebook would buy Snopes.

They won’t. There’s money in misinformation, and more specifically, anger.

Anger is probably the single most psychologically-activating hook-trigger there is. In Nir Eyal’s book Hooked, he outlines how Facebook is very carefully designed to keep you addicted. They’re really, really good at it.

But only if you don’t think too hard.

If you do think deeply, you’ll post insightful, balanced, truthful info. This won’t make anyone angry. It gets a handful of likes, but doesn’t go viral, and is quickly lost in a sea of signals.

Meanwhile, Kim K “breaks the internet” with moronic pictures, and galvanizes millions of dollars worth of attention over nothing.

We have AI bots that can write news well – you already read it and don’t even know it. But what’s the purpose of news, really? I want only the big headlines. I use font size to gauge importance, but why? To seem informed at cocktail parties? Investment insights for personal gain? Why do any of us watch the news?

News isn’t “fair and balanced” either – their goal is sell ads, and ride some line to hold viewers. There’s no money in “truth”, just in the flow of information that holds your attention enough to sell ads.

Britain’s BBC was fascinating in that it wasn’t ad supported, it was paid for by a tax on TVs. There are alternatives, but most of the internet media is ad-driven.

It started harmlessly enough, Facebook, but it’s time to break up. Let’s go back to just being friends.

Until you curate some intelligence.

I miss the neighborhood non-chain coffee shop, and yes, that ages me. At least points of view were tempered by politeness afforded face to face conversations with real people. If you’re one of them, let’s have a beer. Even if we are diametrically opposed politically, a free spirited disagreement supported by facts makes us richer humans.

Not trolls.

 

Further reading for smart people:

*I took this as 100% spewing off, not a serious threat, however, I found it incredibly disrespectful. My personal opinion is that President Obama has been great, is hands down the smartest we’ve had in a while, and cool to boot. Regardless, amidst the dumbest decisions of George W. Bush, never would I disrespect the office regardless of how vehemently I disagreed with his positions.

Actively Seeking Being Mistaken

I recently had a great conversation with someone I would like to hire*, and in it, discovered some mistakes I was making in my marketing strategy.

Good conversations will do that.

Originally I’d title this “Actively seeking being wrong”, but “wrong” can mean either morally unjustifiable or factually mistaken. By uncovering mistakes as fast as possible, one can get closer to truth, or if there isn’t a single “truth”, then a superior strategy or point of view.

First, a few ironies:

  1. “… fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts” – Bertrand Russell
  2. More simplistically, idiots think they’re smart, and smart people know they’re not.
  3. Anyone who’s a do-er is more likely to get “lost in the woods”, as a byproduct of being too close to the problem and/or swayed from course.

In my “bad news insight” referred to above, I wasn’t thinking enough about change management – i.e. how resistant or receptive organizations are to change and thus adopting our software. In short, I was asking clients to bite off too much change too fast.

With a slight adjustment to how we sell, the uptake and conversations are easier. My mistake was being too attached to my own vision, instead of putting the client first – obvious, in retrospect, but easy to do for an engineer type like me.

In sales coaching, celebrating mistakes is key to avoiding sales pro burnout. Embracing the mistake as simply another lesson and point in the game helps keep it all in perspective.

Most startups and small businesses fail due to traction, not failure to execute some software – this represents a fundamental mistake in premise.. the classic “if you build it, they will come”. While this truly may work on occasion for true disruptions, most businesses are innovations, small improvements to existing ideas, versus truly disruptive. Google, Ebay, Amazon, Facebook – none of these were first to market in their respective spaces, and all required marketing (audience growing) even if just carefully engineered virality. Each took missteps along the way (Google’s customizable “be everything” homepage, Facebook’s privacy issues), but recognized the mistake, recovered quickly and stayed focused on their missions.

My final takeaway? I’m scheduling mistake discovery, for just a few minutes of reflect each Sunday. Perhaps my mistake, relayed to you, of not actively seeking mistakes enough will help you. Smart people plus a culture of embracing truth over pride can lead any company to growth and victory.

And a healthy marriage.

* We’re not ready.. and I’m unwilling to chase investment, as I view it as a distraction.

Sheep & Wealth Creation

I’m at my core an inventor.

While this is easy to romanticize in the age of Sergei Brin and Mark Zuckerberg, these highly successful stars are the visible tip of an iceberg, in which, fitting the metaphor, many more are underwater.

The problem is historically, inventors are more likely to end up like Nikola Tesla (brilliant, broke) than Thomas Edison. Extracting the value from inventions requires the attitudes of Carlos “Slim” Helu or at the very least, Steve Jobs whose cash motivation was far greater than his co-founder, Steve Wozniak. Steve Jobs’ genius was his ability to shape Apple products enough, then stir consumer desire enough to “overpay” for them, i.e. engineer products worth far more than the sum of the required parts.

May we all learn from his model – RIP.

Peter Thiel in Zero to One mentioned he has an interview question in which he asks founders where the world is mistaken. I think this is more than just an interview question – it’s critical to thinking about founding a business.

Since I’m already over-using metaphors, I need to drop another: Wayne Gretzky’s now over-used but still true cliché “skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been” – and this is where it comes together.

In short, there’s only a few ways to get this metaphorical puck: (1.) execute faster, so you simply reach it first, or (2.) the competitors are all mistaken about where the puck is in fact going, which happens, or (3.) be lucky and simply already in the right position.

While none of the above are inherently defensible, they can of course lead to a short term gain which can be capitalized into a working moat.

Steve Jobs believed the world was mistaken, and actually did want a tablet computer, contrary to Microsoft’s previous endeavors.

Mark Zuckerberg had the forsight to believe MySpace and Friendster were both mistaken in their execution of connecting people.

Larry Page and Sergei Brin believed Yahoo’s human curation, Alta Vista’s crude spidering and other players were all mistaken.

None started as obvious successes. A steady capitalization of wins led each to dominance.

So, in your business, what is the world mistaken about?

To date, I’ve been bootstrapping SwiftCloud, patiently building component applications, which stand on their own. Individually, they’re just innovations, not truly disruptive. The value will become clear as multiple separate components (all in the B2B space – CRM, marketing, e-signature, etc.) come together into a tightly integrated whole and mini-brand.