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Thank You for Being Late: a Summary of What We Should Do in a World of Robots

Thank You for Being Late

“The Dutch chess grandmaster Jan Hein Donner was asked how he’d prepare for a chess match against a computer like IBM’s Deep Blue. Donner replied: “I would bring a hammer.” From Thank You for Being Late, Chapter 7, by Thomas Friedman, which itself has pulled from The Second Machine Age.

This is a common feeling among people not in the tech industry. People fear being left behind.

The world is changing rapidly and we don’t know what will happen with the coming onslaught of automation and robotization. There is a lot of fear and that fear is part of the reason for the rise of nationalism and isolationism in the developed world. However, according to the author, cutting ourselves off from the “flow” of information and innovation will cause us to fall behind, just like when China shut itself off from the world during the 15th century. By the time 19th century rolled around, China was considered a backwards country.

Thank You for Being Late is the second book of three books that I’ve been reading. The first book was Mindware by Richard Nesbitt and it provided some tools to use to aid in thinking. It is important that we strengthen our thinking abilities in this age of fake news and to bolster our skills for the automation era. The section below lists some of the tools to use.

Other thinking tools:

  1. Be aware that we don’t always know what is going on in our thinking process.
  2. Take into account of the fact that the situation may be driving people’s or even your behavior.
  3. Rely on your unconscious to solve some of your problems because there are certain kinds of problems that your subconscious is best at solving.
  4. Use economic tools such as cost-benefit analysis.
  5. Don’t fall into the sunk cost fallacy. Think: the rest of your life starts now when doing the cost-benefit analysis.
  6. Also consider your opportunity cost when doing cost-benefit thinking.
  7. When listening or reading statistics from others, think of the law of large numbers and random assignments. The larger the number of samples and the more random the assignments or selection, the greater the confidence you can have in the results. This kind of thinking applies to interviews or assessing skills (football or theater tryouts as examples).
  8. Ignore "I know of the man who..." stories.
  9. Think regression to the mean: anytime someone performs superlatively or really badly the first time you encounter that person, then expect the next encounter will show either a so-so performance or dramatic improvements. This concept of regression to the mean is very closely related to the law of large numbers.
  10. Some key ideas about standard deviations for normal distributions: 68% of the population falls within 1 standard deviation, 96% within 2 standard deviations, 1 standard deviation is 84th percentile while 2 standard deviation is just below 98th percentile.
  11. We are not very good at doing correlations so watch out.
  12. Perform experiments such as AB testing or “before and after” design.
  13. Use Venn diagrams to work your way around logic problems.
  14. For things of the human heart, as opposed to the scientific, use dialectical reasoning.
  15. Pick the simpler theory over the complicated one. Any ad hoc theories that are meant to handle situations not fitting in the main theory means the main theory is probably not it.
  16. The theory has to be tested both for whether the theory is true and whether it is falsifiable. We tend to just seek situations that prove our theory as true but ignore those that would make our theory false.
9 Principles and 5 Metaskills

The second book talks more about how to prepare ourselves to compete against the machines. The approach is different from Metaskills by Marty Neumeier or Whiplash by Joi Ito and Jeff Howe. Both Metaskills and Whiplash discuss specific kinds of skills that we will need in the future. Those skillsets are enumerated in the section to the left. If you can't read the image, the post is here. Thank You for Being Late, on the other hand, focuses more on the attitude and discipline you will need to bring. Thomas Friedman doesn’t really prescribe any particular skills other than stempathy which is a combination of stem knowledge and social skills.

The book is very meaty so it actually took me a couple of days of note taking to cover chapters 5, 7 and 8 because there is so much interesting material there. The book is actually more than just a discussion on what we need to do to prepare for automation: the book talks about the three major challenges that are accelerating and causing perturbations in our world today. Those challenges are, of course, the acceleration of technological innovations, such as software, which in turn produces the challenges of globalization where we have accelerating connections and flows of information and data, thus increasing competition and decreasing privacy. Finally, we have the accelerating crises of climate change.

I’m just going to focus on the challenges of what we should do to prepare for the robot age.

First and foremost, we going to have to develop the discipline to do lifelong learning since we don’t know what the future will bring. The future will most likely bring a series of changes such that jobs today will no longer be in existence five years from now and those in existence five years from now may disappear in ten years. In the face of these rapid changes, we have to develop the discipline and the skills for learning. In addition, we will probably have to develop our own education or learning path based upon our natural talents and interests. Aiding us in this venture, there is a possibility of some kind of intelligent assistant, but it will be up to us to grab a hold of these intelligent assistants. That self-motivation and discipline will be the determining factor for our success.

He gave some examples of intelligent assistants that are being created today:

  • Khan Academy and the College Board, which administers the PSAT and SAT, are collaborating to bring a new kind of test preparation where students take a test and some kind of intelligent assistant identifies what the students need to work on. The intelligent assistant, or maybe a human, will also coach the students. The PSAT test will also be connected to this intelligent assistant to provide further clues on what the students need to hone in on. But, the student will need to bring the discipline to concentrate and practice.
  • LearnUp.com is a website/organization that seeks to help those without a college education and don’t really know much about working because the milieu around them is full of the unemployed. Apparently, there are many who do not have the basic knowledge of job hunting and holding a job. LearnUp seeks to help them. The organization has teamed up with some employers to identify the necessary skills needed to perform the jobs and then has created training modules on how to perform those specific jobs for a particular company. Based upon perusing the site, the job seekers look for a job that they might be interested in, they learn the job skills via modules, and then apply for the job. LearnUp works with the employers to set up interviews and then after being hired, LearnUp continues to provide coaching to make sure the new employee succeeds. Nice! I hope they succeed.
  • LaunchCode.org is for those who have tech skills but don’t have the degree. There could be any number of reasons why a person does not have a degree: had to drop out of college due to finances or to take care of family or is self-taught, etc. But many companies, who complain of not finding skilled candidates, ignore those who already have the requisite skills because they don’t have the degree. LaunchCode aims to change that. You can sign up for free training and/or apply for apprenticeship with one of nearly 500 employer partners. There will be mentors that will help grow your skills and provide feedback on your progress. The LaunchCode site says that 4 out of 5 apprenticeships end in full time hires.
  • Although the book doesn’t mention this, for those who already have a degree and find themselves out without a job due to changing circumstances (or maybe discrimination) and they now have to obtain new skills, there are MOOCs. This might be another route.

So, we will need to do some continuous learning and mapping out our own education program; however, there are some hurdles that we need to overcome.

For starters, a lot of companies expect you to work long hours. So between the 9/10/11/12 hour days, the long commute (for some) and family responsibilities, there is just very little time left for learning on your own time. This cult of work-work-work needs to change. A lot of companies really don’t have jobs that expand skillsets or take the risk to allow you to expand your skillset, so you are forced to do it off-hours. Pursuing education takes time and practice.

A lot of companies also no longer provide training due to the shareholder mentality. For a long time, companies said that work training was not providing the return on value as per the shareholder mantra, so training had been reduced greatly. This sorry condition may be changing: AT&T is now investing in their employees to continue their education because the company need new skills and they just can’t throw away all of their employees. It’s too costly to turnover 100% of employees to get new skills. Maybe other companies will return to valuing training but for right now, I don’t think there is a big push for it.

It is not just companies that need to be open to training or allowing employees time for training but government and organizations need to get in on the act. But, we have a Congress (currently full of Republicans) who wants to shrink the government via tax reductions. Right now we are facing cuts in the budget for job training programs because we have a business minded mentality of cost cutting. It goes back to people not wanting to pay taxes but I believe those taxes do fund needed things such as education. This tax cutting trickles down to state and city levels.

The providers of the education, colleges and universities, are also going to have to make some changes: make their programs more affordable and accessible. If people are going to be required to do lifelong learning, then the training needs to be accessible without getting into severe debt.

Speaking of degrees, companies will have to stop hiring people based on whether they have a degree or not. There are too many talent wasted because of this requirement for a degree. The author gave a great example of the colossal stupidity of this degree inflation:

“Message from employers: if you are a working secretary today without a BA and want to change jobs, another employer will consider you, but first you need to quit, go into debt for eighty thousand dollars to get a BA, and then interview for another opening for the exact job you are already doing. Welcome to the American job market today, where, Burning Glass notes, an “increasing number of job seekers face being shut out of middle-skill, middle-class occupations by employers’ rising demands for a bachelor’s degree” as a job qualifying badge, even though it may be irrelevant to the job or your true capabilities.” Thank You for Being Late, Chapter 8.

Another hurdle I can think of is that there are some people who are just don’t have the innate technical or social skills. The most promising prospects with wage growth are those occupations that are both technically oriented and requires social skills. If the job is just technical, well, that job can then be automated. If the job is just being empathetic or flexible, there are way too many people who can fill in that position. Unfortunately, not everybody can learn the technical side, and I wouldn’t be surprised that some who are very good on the tech side have social skills that leaves to be desired. So what do we do with these people? We can’t just throw them away.

Finally, even if people invest in their education and keep pursuing their education, companies need to change their attitude and do their part. As somebody said in the book, “we can steepen the slope of the learning curve, but if that learning and those skills are not recognized in the labor market, there is no incentive and no payoff. Too many companies today are investing in screening software to keep people out, based on pedigrees, rather than learning and matching software that can tap everyone’s highest and best use.”

In closing, to summarize the skills we need to get and what we need to do: we will still need to know our reading, writing, arithmetic but also need to add coding. Those will be table stakes. Supplementing those basic skills, we will also need to have creativity, critical thinking skills, communication skills and collaboration skills. We need to bolster our grit and self-motivation in order to pursue lifelong learning. We need to be able to concentrate and practice our new skills. And we are going to need to have entrepreneurship and improvisation skills.

That’s a lot.

You can’t be average anymore. You may have to invent your job. And you have to pursue lifelong learning.

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