I’m spending my summer writing in the farm country of Sicily, a place that usually seems very far from the future. It’s the land where ancient Greek myths lurk in the landscape and the local language, still widely spoken in lieu of Italian, is the oldest in Europe.
The other day I was talking to a young friend, Fabio. Fabio deftly uses all the latest tools of technology to promote his agriturismo business, but keeps them in a clear perspective. “The future,” he told me over a lunch of pasta con limone, “is sometimes the past.”
Fabio offered an example: when he inherited his grandfather’s citrus orchards they had fallen into disuse. Cheaper fruit from Spain and Morocco and Egypt had flooded the European market. But then organic food became popular and Sicily proved to be the gold standard for organic; most farmers there had never used chemicals in the first place. Now Fabio’s lemons are profitable again.
In a similar way I suspect that as artificial intelligence and robotics remove the human element from more and more of what we do, we will find skills from the past become more relevant again. The resurgence of handcrafted goods and food is one example; the art of conversation is another.
When we use new technology to reshape how we work or live, we shouldn’t forget the value of what has come before. As Fabio learned: sometimes the future turns out to need the past.
Recently, an HR director told me that her company is planning a “remedial social skills” course for some of its new employees.
What exactly, I wondered, does that include?
For starters, she said, how to decide when to text, when to send email, when to make a phone call, when to show up in person for a chat.
That makes sense, I said. It’s a kind of business etiquette. After all, someone had to teach the Baby Boomers not to type in ALL CAPS.
But the real focus, she said, would be this: how to start a conversation, and how to know a conversation is over.
I found that disturbing--until I thought about it a bit.
The generation entering the workplace now is the first to grow up with texting and instant messaging as central ways to communicate. Both are ”asynchronous”--you always have time to think about your reply, even if all you text back is “LOL.”.
Face-to-face conversation, on the other hand, is real-time and spontaneous. Some kids, of course, are naturally social. But not all. If you’re an awkward adolescent, a bit unsure about what to say, which communication method would you choose?
This doesn’t mean the problem is with the technology--texting and IMing are here to stay. The problem is that we adults didn’t realize that now there may be another skill we need to start teaching, probably as early as elementary school.
The question of what we should teach will become ever more crucial as artificial intelligence enters the workplace. Skills like empathetic communication (which includes, among other things, conversation) and creative problem solving are two of the unique human abilities that machines won’t easily replace.
But at the same time, kids who grow up with one foot in the virtual world may have less and less opportunity--or need---to practice those skills. Some of the abilities we once took for granted, like conversation, may now need a bit of extra help in the classroom.
Can government keep up with the accelerating rate of technologic change? The answer is, usually not. In the US, at least, government moves slowly and is captive to multiple conflicting influences. Legislators react after problems arise, and even then may not fully understand the underlying technology.
Instead, insurance companies may become the real regulators of new technology.
Consider autonomous vehicles. Some states are passing legislation to allow self-driving cars, in part hoping to attract Google or Tesla or Uber dollars. But insurance companies are taking a wait-and-see attitude. They’re already planning how they’ll insure self-driving cars (who has the liability?), but they’re in no rush to do so--there are still too many unknowns.
As one insurance executive told me: “Politicians can make self-driving cars legal. The real question will be: can you insure one?”
Or take climate change. One immediate step, given increased extreme weather and sea-level rise, might be to limit construction on low-lying coastal land in hurricane zones. But government doesn’t want to tell voters, no, you can’t build a house there. Insurance companies, on the other hand, are perfectly willing to say they won’t insure it.
And insurers aren’t just saying “no.” One company I work with, for example, has a laboratory that tests building materials in extreme weather conditions. The goal: requiring resilient materials as a prerequisite for insurance coverage.
A very recent example is computer security. Security experts will tell you that most corporate hacking cases are not the result of brilliant hackers. They’re the result of careless security. And bad cybersecurity is starting to impact the market value of companies.
Sounds like another role for insurance. But until recently, cybersecurity insurance was a tricky proposition--insurance companies weren’t sure how to assess the risk. Now, however, insurance companies are beginning to formulate security requirements for companies who seek cyberattack coverage.
In the early 20th century, insurance companies had real impact on increasing factory safety, because they required certain levels of safety before issuing workers’ compensation insurance. A full century later, they may well do the same with cybersafety.
For the international tourism industry, this past summer brought mixed messages.
Business was good, because it’s never been easier to be a tourist: discount airlines, massive cruise ships, Internet price competition, Airbnb, even the rise of English as a more-or-less standard tourism language (and when that fails, Google Translate.) And the growing middle class in Asia and Latin America have proven to be eager tourists.
Yet at the same time, local antagonism to tourism is growing quickly.
Grumbling about tourists, of course, is nothing new--just ask New Yorkers what they think about Times Square in August or December.
But now anger is turning into action--even where tourism is key to the economy.
In just four years the number of hotels on the small Greek island of Santorini grew from 35 to 141; this summer the mayor halted further building and announced: “We have reached saturation point. The pressure is too much.” Two thousand residents marched in Venice protesting impossibly high rents and giant cruise ships. In Barcelona, activist groups slashed tires on rental bicycles and tour buses. Dubrovnik installed cameras to count visitors and will stop tourists from entering its UNESCO-listed old town when the streets are too crowded.
And the number of tourists is likely only to increase.
If there is a solution it may lie in how younger travelers are moving away from mass-market sight-seeing tours to more customized “authentic” local experiences.
But how to find those local experiences?
An example in Italy is an project called Eloro District, that focuses on a small area in southeastern Sicily. The app pulls together local lodging, food, and experiences with a simple location-based interface that lets tourists easily assemble itineraries. A website reaches tourists while they’re still at home, and ads and flyers promote the app locally.
What’s interesting, says founder Fabio Santuccio, is that the app has proven to be equally valuable as a way for traditionally fragmented local tourist businesses to think of themselves as a larger ecosystem--working together to establish the area as a destination.
In a sense, the giant Internet sites like Expedia, Airbnb and others, have organized global tourism from the top down--and helped create a massive corporate business. Now, local entrepreneurs are creating sites that organize the local tourist infrastructure from the ground up.
With luck, the future will not just be more tourists, but intelligently distributed tourism.
When both The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times do the same non-breaking-news story within the same week, a media cynic suspects the gentle hand of corporate public relations.
And so it is with Workers: Fear Not the Robot Apocalypse in the Journal and As Amazon Pushes Forward With Robots, Workers Find New Roles in the Times.
Both are well-reported on-sceners about Amazon’s rapid expansion of robot technology in their giant warehouses.
Many observers, however, contend this is not good long-term news for human employees. And that conflicts with another wave of stories earlier this year (including again both the Journal and the Times). Those earlier articles suggested that as employees lose their jobs in bricks-and-mortar retail, they can find even better jobs working at e-commerce warehouses. The prime example, once again, being Amazon.
So, not surprisingly, both of these most recent Amazon robot stories have happy endings. The Times suggests that robots mean that workers will get more interesting jobs. The Journal goes further to claim that robots will actually create more jobs for humans.
As Jake Barnes says in The Sun Also Rises: “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
Amazon has a ferocious enemy in the White House (Jeff Bezos also owns one of those “enemies of the people” that so enrage the commander in chief). Thus Amazon is certainly wise to spend as much media horsepower as possible to position themselves as job creators and thereby indispensable to economic growth. And whoever is doing their press relations deserves a big Christmas bonus, for so deftly handling the robot issue.
But it doesn’t change the fact that long-term, robotics and artificial intelligence will fundamentally alter the face of work in ways that our society is very poorly equipped to handle.
And, come to think of it, neither will it change the fact that our President really, really hates The Washington Post.
For decades now climatologists have agreed that the first symptoms of global warming would be extreme weather events. (Here’s my 1989 Los Angeles Times article on the early researchers in the field.)
And I’ve argued that it will be extreme weather events that catalyze public opinion to demand further climate action from both governments and corporations. As humans, we really can’t perceive “climate”--it’s just too long a time frame. What we do understand is weather.
We’ve always named the traditional forms of extreme weather: cyclones and hurricanes. But in 2015 the UK started also naming severe storms (Angus, in 2016, disrupted transportation throughout the country). And severe storm names are growing more popular in the US (Jonas, the same year, set numerous East Coast records).
This summer, Europe is in the midst of a record-setting heatwave, and it’s been named as well: Lucifer. In the act of naming extreme weather events, we take them more seriously, and perhaps we will ultimately demand that our governments do the same.
I worked last week with a major credit card company, and one topic was whether cash will disappear. Will there come a day when all transactions are electronic, perhaps using your smart phone--or even, say, just your fingerprint--and cash will be kept only in museums?
Some countries are almost there--in Sweden, for example, half the banks keep no cash on hand. Many restaurants and coffee houses no longer accept cash and churches, flea markets and even panhandlers take mobile phone payments.
For merchants, going cashless lessens the threat of robbery and eliminates daily treks to the bank. This summer in the United States, Visa International announced it will give $10,000 grants to selected restaurant and food vendors who agree to stop accepting cash. (Merchants, of course, also pay a fee for every electronic transaction, significantly more in the US than in Europe.)
So is this the end of cash? As the saying goes, it’s complicated.
Electronic payments may be more convenient, but cash is still anonymous. As a result cash fuels criminal ventures as well as tax evasion. Large bills, in particular: $50,000 in $100s is a convenient stack only about 4 inches high. The EU will stop printing €500 notes, a criminal favorite, in 2018 and there are calls to eliminate the $100 bill in the US. And cash also powers the underground economy for tax evasion.
Governments, in short, might be just as happy to get rid of cash entirely. But many law-abiding citizens consider the privacy of cash a valuable option--even though they may not actually take advantage of it very often. It’s comforting to know that it’s there, and they’re likely to complain loudly if it’s threatened. When India removed some large bills from circulation in late 2016, the result was a months-long national crisis that nearly brought down the government.
My guess is that governments won’t go to the trouble of eliminating cash. What they will do is make cash increasingly less attractive to use. In southern Italy, where I spend part of the year, the “black” economy is huge--work is done off the books and paid for with cash. But the Italian government has gradually made it harder to withdraw or deposit even moderate amounts of cash at the bank without paperwork and questions. (The U.S. has similar bank regulations but for much larger amounts. For now.)
On the other end of the scale, next year Italy will also stop minting 1 and 2 cent coins. Merchants will still be allowed to price merchandise at, say, €1.99--but you’ll only get that price if you pay electronically. For cash, the price will be rounded up to €2. The result is another subtle nudge toward cashless transactions.
Cash is likely to be with us much longer than many futurists predict. The real question may be: who will bother to use it?
Sometimes I joke that we’ve been talking about the Millennial generation for so long, they got old.
Old enough, at least, to start families. And thus Millennials were a central focus at the Juvenile Product Manufacturers Association conference in California, where I spoke earlier this month.
The JPMA represents companies that serve the prenatal to toddler phase of parenting--car seats, strollers, feeding, furniture and, increasingly, baby monitors. And not just baby monitors, but really smart baby monitors.
The “Connected Nursery” was a big topic at the show. Sleep trackers like the Mimo, integrated into little kimonos or body suits, now connect wirelessly with, for example, your Nest thermostat, so if baby is too warm, the nursery heat turns down. Or your video monitor will notify you when baby starts to move. Smart scales track and record baby weight precisely. And smart diaper clips will let you know when baby needs changing.
There is even a smart sound machine that detects when baby is stirring and will play soothing natural sound, or lullabies, or project animations on the ceiling...and if all else fails, puts Mom on the line to have a two-way chat. All, of course, controlled by a smartphone app.
Clearly it’s early days for these devices and physicians warn they’re no substitute for vigilant parents. There is even suggestion that some of these devices should be approved by the FDA. But as a trend, it’s inevitable.
And there’s more in store. Besides watching and enjoying baby, of course, the other new parent activity is worrying and asking for advice. Already there are simple applications for Amazon’s voice-powered Alexa that will verbally answer a limited range of parenting advice questions.
It’s not hard to imagine a future in which an artificial intelligence--like IBM’s Watson or Google’s DeepMind--can be loaded with an encyclopedic body of baby and childcare information. Mom or Dad will be able to ask aloud, any time, day or night, their crucial questions: “Is this rash normal?” And get an immediate, authoritative answer.
Or, that intelligent baby advisor in the cloud could monitor the smart scales and other monitors in the “Connected Nursery” so it can answer questions like “Is my baby’s weight normal today?”
The only question it probably can’t answer is whether your baby is the cutest baby ever. For that, you still need grandparents.
As a science writer I always looked for stories about the future, so it’s no surprise that I started covering global warming and climate change during the late 80’s. Recently going through my files I ran across one of those stories, from 1989, that ran on the cover of The Los Angeles Times Sunday magazine.
What’s interesting now is how clear the science was, even back then--and how relatively uncontroversial the topic seemed. I wrote about the researchers at Scripps Oceanic Laboratory, who were then arguably the leaders in atmospheric research.
The Scripps researchers seemed confident that there was still time to slow or even stop the warming trend, as long as society acted relatively quickly. I think back then, the success in the Seventies of the global community at banning Freon--to prevent atmospheric ozone destruction--was still a recent memory. Of course the world would rally to prevent an even bigger hazard.
And back then, there were no climate change skeptics for me to quote--something I would have done in my normal science-writing practice. Certainly there was no one from the fossil fuel industry to quote: back then, their own researchers were also concerned about global warming.
What strikes me now about the story is its calm innocence, given how politically charged and divisive the issue has become in the United States. Back then, I don’t think anyone on the science side suspected what kind of opposition waited ahead as the fossil fuel industry moved to protect its commercial interests.
Ironically, they learned quickly. Within a couple of years two of the Scripps researchers I profiled in the article were deep into the political thickets. Roger Revelle, sometimes called “the father of global warming”, under dubious circumstances was made co-author of an article that questioned the need for action on the issue. His young assistant, Justin Lancaster, publicly protested that his professor hadn’t been fully aware of the content of the article and that it didn’t reflect his views.
Very quickly, an early group of global warming deniers sued Lancaster. To avoid a lawsuit he couldn’t afford, the young researcher withdrew his statement--although years later, as Revelle’s apparent skepticism was repeatedly cited, he went back on the record.
But perhaps we should have suspected back then just how powerfully the fossil fuel industry would attack the science. It was, after all, much earlier in the century that another writer, Upton Sinclair, observed that "It's hard to get a man to understand a thing when his paycheck depends on his not understanding it."
For anyone interested in a bit of scientific nostalgia, a PDF of the article is here.
I recently helped with a research paper on the future of “algorithms”--a once-techy term that now generically refers to computer software that uses rules to make decisions. Software, for example, that takes complex data like your financial information and then generates a credit score. Algorithms now do everything from pricing airline tickets in real time to perfecting long-term weather forecasts.
The basic question of the research was simple: is the increasing use of algorithms to manage society good or bad? As with almost any technology, the answer, of course, is both--but for the most part algorithms are invisible.
There’s one technique, however, that I think will attract increasing attention: the combination of smart algorithms with computer vision.
Video surveillance cameras, for example, in airport parking lots, can now be connected to smart algorithms to analyze movement. They can tell the difference between a traveler returning to their car and someone who is casing vehicles for smash-and-grab thefts. In the latter case, the software will alert a human security guard who comes out to check the situation. The system never dozes off or gets bored or distracted. It’s always watching.
So too are the cameras in a recent retail store application, where the security cameras observe not only the customers, but the employees as well. Using facial recognition, the cameras track every interaction each sales clerk has with the public.
At the end of the day, algorithms produce a report on just how the clerk performed--did they ignore customers? Were they shy about approaching people? How did their behavior relate to the sales they rang up on the register?
As the creators of the system put it, the report give managers the opportunity of a “teachable moment” with each employee at the end of the day.
Or maybe it’s more of a threatening moment.