Archives for February 2017

Snobots, shoveling and changing the way we think about things

Today is our second snow day this week, and yesterday the schools had a delayed opening due to weather. I grew up in this area so I’m used to the snow, but lately I’ve been thinking about it differently.

Live look out my office window

If you live in an area where it snows regularly you’ve probably developed your own approach to snow removal. You can ignore the next part and skip down to where I ask you to think. Our driveway is one that the plow truck operators refer to as a blower only drive. So before you tell me to “get a plow” it’s not an option.

If you’ve never dealt with snow, let me explain a few things. Snow is like a living organism, it’s constantly changing. Temperature, sunlight, wind, kids, pets, you name it and it has an effect on the snow. This means clearing the snow, so that you can get on with life, has an intuition aspect to it that’s hard to quantify (sounds like something A.I. would struggle with).

On Tuesday, when we last had school canceled, it didn’t start snowing until mid-morning, around 9:00. But then it snowed all day, dropping 4-6 inches. It was cold, so the snow was light and fluffy making it relatively easy to clear. BUT! Wednesday was forecast to warm up and possibly rain. So I had to clear it. Otherwise it would have packed in and frozen into a sheet of permafrost, not to be removed until May.

I timed my shoveling to about an hour before the snow stopped falling; roughly 4:30. This allowed me to get it done in the last drops of daylight and while it was still light and fluffy. On Wednesday morning there was a dusting coating the driveway and walk but I knew it would melt with the sun and rising temps.

Today we’re scheduled to get 10-16 inches with temperatures in the mid to upper 20’s. I just got home from running some errands and the snow is wet and heavy.

There is a huge difference between shoveling or snow blowing 5 inches of wet snow and 10 inches of wet snow. The effort curve is non-linear. Dealing with double the snow requires more than twice the effort. Instead of planning to go out close to the end, I have to figure out when we’re about half-way and get out there.

In fact, I like to wait until we’re a little past half way. That makes the second pass a little easier than the first. This is a good thing because by the time I’m doing the second pass I tend to be tired and grouchy.

Here’s where I start the thinking part.

I can clear up to 6 inches of snow from our walks and driveway in about an hour. If it’s really wet and heavy it might take 90 minutes. The issue us more about how much ground there is to cover than the snow itself. Walking the snow blower up and down the driveway simply takes time.

So even if I went out to clear snow every time it accumulated to 3 inches it would take me an hour. On a day like today thats 4 or 5 hours outside in the cold and snow. It wouldn’t bother a Snobot, but for me it would bring new meaning to the words grumpy.

That means that all the snobot has to be able to do is clear the maximum amount of snow in an hour – 6 inches if you don’t want to check.

But the other challenge of clearing a foot or more of snow is where to put it. In years when we’ve had multiple storms the driveway and walkway get more narrow with each snow. Three and four foot high snow banks are not unheard of. Lifting or throwing snow up and over a four foot high bank requires some muscle.

And this is where I remember we have to think differently. The problem statement is simple – how do I keep the walk and driveway free from snow?

The challenge isn’t about automating the snow blower or creating a robot to use one of the snow shovels. The snobot could be a tracked electric vehicle with a heating element underneath. It could be a flying drone that relies on the wash from it’s rotors to blow the snow away. Or it could be some crazy combination of heating, pushing, blowing and throwing that I can’t name.

A snobot would be connected, getting real time updates on both hyper-local and regional weather conditions, as well as smart. It would understand the ground temperature and topology and it would be tireless.

Artificial intelligence and automation doesn’t simply mean having computers take over existing machines. It’s about re-thinking how we solve problems.

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Artificial Intelligence, Automation and jobs

As you dive into artificial intelligence it’s hard not to come across news and opinions about how it will be taking over jobs. While there are concrete examples like automated beer delivery if you compile a report, follow a route or repeat a task A.I. will impact your life.

I can remember once when I was like 8 years my mom yelled at us about offering to help. She said that if we walked  into the kitchen and she was working on making dinner of cleaning we should ask if there was anything we could do to help. It was the least we could do to contribute she said.

Later, when we were older she yelled at us about asking if we could help. “You’re old enough now to know what needs to get done. The best way to help is to just do it. You don’t have to ask me!” she told us.

Simply following instructions didn’t add a lot of value, we had to think and act. That’s what artificial intelligence is starting to do and what we as humans have to get back to.

Image courtesy of Ilya Pavlov via Unsplash

There was a recent NY Times article about Siemens not having any jobs for high school graduates. They need people who can creatively solve problems and work with technology. It made me think about the kids who are in high school now with plans to go into a field that will be automated out of existence in the next 5 – 10 years.

For example, right now there is tremendous value in the ability and willingness to drive a tractor trailer truck from Sacramento to Chicago. Motor freight is a cost effective way to get a product from point A to point B. But the human is the most expensive part of the equation. Automation isn’t interested in getting rid of the person driving, it wants to get rid of the expense associated with the person. So humans need to look for other ways they can add value.

For those of us who sit in front of a computer all day it’s easy to see this with detachment. But regardless of whether your job is compiling reports,  writing copy or assembling components artificial intelligence is looking for ways to perform that function better and cheaper.

The good news is that it won’t happen overnight. There will be places where automation makes too much sense to ignore and it will be implemented quickly. A straight clearly marked super highway is easier for A.I. to navigate than narrow, twisty and unmarked back roads. Analysis based on intuition and off-line data sets will be far more difficult for A.I. than a forecast for standard, everyday necessities.

We have to stop thinking about getting paid to follow a process. What we all have to start thinking about is where we can add value. Asking what you can do that wouldn’t be the same if a computer did it will lead you to opportunities that may not have existed before. Future opportunities won’t come from doing things that a computer can’t do, they’ll come from doing things that humans would rather have done by another human.

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Super hang over

I was planning to do an update post today and let you know about the project I’m working on (Vapor Day a Stewards of Humanity origin story) but I’m feeling a little banged up after the Patriots big win last night.

Image courtesy of Serge Esteve via Unsplash

 

When the Patriots were losing 28-3 I had my first glass of wine. I promised that if they lost I would go to bed sober and get up ready to work. After Hightower stripped the ball, I had another glass because I knew things were about to get exciting.

After that well, let’s just say there is more than one empty wine bottle in the recycling bin today.

So the good news is that I’m about 20,000 words into Vapor Day. Not quite half way but it’s coming along nicely. It’s a little more timely than I originally planned, but sadly I was working on a dystopian story and I think the times have changed a little more than my idea. I think you’re going to like the two main characters. They’re real and they struggle with flaws and aspirations.

I’ll share more on Friday, but for now, I want to thank Tom Brady and the New England Patriots for an entertaining football game last night and congratulate them on another championship!

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Getting open

Don’t just go through the usual motions. Combine effort, creativity, and awareness every day. Get open.

My kids have a basketball or lacrosse game almost every weekend (usually at least two games) so I watch a lot of youth sports. Last weekend I was watching the younger kids, grade 2 or 3, play basketball. Right when I walked in the gym the ball was knocked out of bounds and the kids lined up for an inbounds play.

I heard a couple of parents in the stands calling ‘get open’ and a few others asking ‘who’s your man’ but it was mostly casual, positive chatter. Stuff like ‘good work guys’ and ‘keep going you’re doing great’ generally positive and generic for the younger crowd.

Before I could even check the scoreboard to see how much time was left in the game there was a flurry of activity. One of the kids on court was working to get open. He was running, juking, dodging and screening like a swarm of bee’s was after him. It was a blur of unbridled effort and creativity. His defender was no slouch either, sticking with him through every cut, stutter step and burst of speed.

But the ref was still holding the ball. The other team was trying to figure out a sub. By the time the ref was ready to give the in-bounder the ball, the kid on the court was spent. When his teammate slapped the ball and yelled “Break!” all he could do was jog in one direction, not even looking at the ball.

One of the other kids on his team was standing a few feet in front of the player with the ball. He jab stepped left and then hopped to the right, his friend made the easy pass and the game continued.

At first I thought that the kid who was working so hard to get open was exactly who I would want on my team. Anyone who shows that kind of heart and hustle can play for me any day. Then it was obvious that the smart, heads up play made much more sense. That was the player I wanted and the one I wanted my kids to play like. Truth be told I want them both.

I wound up thinking about this later in the week. Like that first kid, I’ve been trying hard to get open. I’ve been writing my next novel, blogging, sharing interesting stuff on social media and taking a class on Udacity. But I’ve been wondering if the ball is even in play yet.

When it comes life though, the ball is always in play. You need to be both types of player. Every day requires unbridled effort and creativity, but you have to pay attention too. Always be ready for the smart heads up play. It may not take much effort in the moment, but it will be possible because of all the effort put in beforehand.

 

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I used to be a chatbot

I used to be a chatbot. Obviously not the artificial intelligence kind you see popping up on websites all over, but that was effectively my function.

© Far Max | Dreamstime.com – Chatbot icon concept

My first real job out of college was answering the 1-800-2-BANYAN marketing line for Banyan Systems a network operating systems vendor. Before there were websites, people used to call 1-800 numbers to learn more about a company. Whenever Banyan ran a marketing program — magazine ad, direct mail piece, trade show flyer etc. — the call to action was literally for the customer to call 1-800-2-BANYAN. And I had to answer that line, along with three other people.

We answered questions like “Can you help me set up email at my company?” and “If I have 2 offices will you’re software let me share documents without having to fax them or print and mail them?” Lots of rudimentary stuff, but it was early days of computer networking. The Internet “arrived” about a year into my time with Banyan but I answered that phone for another two years.

Another thing we did on that line was answer questions about model numbers and licensing. Existing customers would call when they needed to increase the users on their network or add a piece of functionality. We became experts at licensing even though that wasn’t our primary role.

After I had been there about 6 months I was invited to an operations meeting. The senior person on our team collected all the data about call volumes, talk times, leads passed and a few other typical call center statistics. She asked to go first and presented to management. Obviously we were very busy and doing a wonderful job. In fact we couldn’t really stay for the whole meeting because we were needed on the phones. I was young, new and clueless so I left with her, pleased that my job felt secure.

A quarter later I was able to go back to the operations meeting. I was a little more comfortable with what I knew and how things were working. I was also ambitious so I had a question — “Are we doing anything to simplify licensing? Lots of customers call about licensing and they’re pretty frustrated.”

This wasn’t the data they were used to getting from the kids working the 1-800 line (and it probably wasn’t appropriate for an operations meeting but that’s a different issue). Licensing was a problem and they were working to address it. I agreed to sit down with the product team and explain some of the customer sentiment we were hearing. Our feedback and customer conversations turned out to be very helpful in creating new license options.

While it may seem like a bit of a jump, this is the difference between a chatbot and an auto-responder. The chatbot allows for natural language processing and has an idea of intent. Reporting doesn’t need to be purely numerical — times engaged, length of engagement,  branches on the decision tree, next hop, etc. — it can cover keyword frequency, related terms, positive and negative words and more. You get information about customer sentiment without needing a human to filter it.

And a chatbot can do this 24/7 with no call queues.

Like any technology chatbots are not flawless. They’re still evolving and getting better. But just like when I was the young employee learning the ropes on a 1-800 line a chatbot will get there and soon provide you with customer details you didn’t used to get.

On top of all this, they are supposedly “easy” to implement.

I’ve never coded for my paycheck, but I did do quite a bit back in high school and college. I was lucky that I got to start coding with C (even though people were working for Fortran and Pascal) and as one computer science professor put it, the language is fungible, it’s the concepts that matter.

As I continue to work at relating my interest in #AI to my work writing and selling science fiction books I’m going to try and implement a chatbot on my site. Hopefully it will become sort of a student becomes the master moment for me. though I suspect that it will be more of the student realizing they still have a lot to learn.

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