Creative AI – maybe not quite yet …

Can AI get creative? I have been thinking and writing about creativity since the nineties. The current state of play seems to be that collaborative creative AI can deliver elements of ‘technical excellence’, with context and creative judgement uniquely provided by humans. But as we co-create with our ever more intelligent, useful and responsive machines there will be potentially profound effects on the human creative process – just as we shape our machines, so they shape us.


Apparently the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority wants to introduce so-called robo-marking next year of NAPLAN assessment, arguing that there is evidence that automated marking “met or surpassed” the quality of human markers. I was intrigued the other day to see reports that the NSW education minister said it was “preposterous” to suggest computers could do a better job of marking assessments than teachers.

Followers of this blog (thank you very much for your time) will be aware that I have recently paid a fair amount of attention to AI and its implications (AI – where are we now and how did we get here?, AI and future of work, & Thinking about education, work & AI). From that familiarity I would say that it is far from preposterous that suitably tuned AI software could reliably assess writing assignments, particularly those designed to give standardised comparative outcomes. In fact given the vast data sets that would be generated from testing all school children in Australia it would in fact probably be an almost perfect environment for data driven algorithms.  Indeed one does not have to look too far to find examples of AI actually writing similarly ‘algorithmic’ texts – one chosen more or less at random notes that:

The Washington Post started using its homegrown artificial intelligence technology, Heliograf, to spit out around 300 short reports and alerts on the Rio Olympics. Since then … in its first year, the Post has produced around 850 articles using Heliograf.

Frankly I find it preposterous that an education minister should be quite so ignorant!

Just as I was about to publish this blog, in a moment of serendipity and confirmation that this is indeed a current topic of interest, a news email from consultants McKinsey & Company arrived in my email feed – the title: AI in storytelling: Machines as cocreators! It details recent research by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab investigating the potential for machine–human collaboration in video storytelling using machine-learning models that rely on deep neural networks to “watch” (not just the plot, characters, and dialogue but also more subtle touches, like a close-up of a person’s face or a snippet of music) small slices of video—movies, TV, and short online features—and estimate their positive or negative emotional content by the second.

They concluded:

Machines can view an untagged video and create an emotional arc for the story based on all of its audio and visual elements. That’s something we’ve never seen before – machines that could identify common emotional arcs in video stories.

My incredulity was further heightened when last Wednesday I attended what was styled as ‘The Great Debate: Humans, Data, AI & Ethics’ organised by the UTS Connected Intelligence Centre.  Using a classic debate format two teams presented the positive and negative cases for the proposition that:  ‘Humans have blown it: it’s time to turn the planet over to the machines’.


It was both entertaining and informative stuff. The negative team, that is the pro-humans, (that’s not them in the photograph!) had a convincing win. They presented well-argued humanist propositions that humans are indispensable and hence perhaps would seem to be on the side of the good minister. However the subtle difference was that these folks are well versed in the algorithmic data-driven world of today – they well accepted that the world of the future is one of human-machine collaboration and possibly even partnership.

The critical and unique contribution from humans was argued to be creativity, which machines cannot recreate.  It is a fascinating area of contention as to whether that will always be the case. To some extent at least it depends on what you define as creative. It is something I have been thinking and writing about since the nineties. I noted back then as a challenge in considering creativity that a lot of traditionally artistic activity isn’t necessarily all that ‘creative’, in the sense of producing something novel or unexpected. How come?  Because much painting, drawing, poetry making and creative writing are functioning at a technical level, where skill is important: blissful flow states are achievable; beautiful works can be created. And indeed these ‘merely technical skills’ are what AI is being aimed at, with increasing success. But this is often not technical skill, as such, that marks out ‘more’ creative artists at work.

The suggestion here would be that it is that these people are pushing the ‘grammar’ or patterns of their field, inventing whole new worlds or universes of discovery and discourse. That is why Picasso is a genius, if not a prodigy working exceptionally high in the stack, where he opened and explored entire new universes of artistic expression. The question is not usually his technical skill although his draughtsmanship and painterliness cannot seriously be questioned. His gift was that he introduced into modern art (among others) the art of Africa, Surrealism and the unconscious, Cubism. He was always changing and exploring further. David Bowie is perhaps another more contemporary example of artistic invention and reinvention.

A contrast can perhaps be made with Salvador Dali, who, while consummately competent at his Surrealist paintings, stuck with these until they were a genre, and he its epitome. Once he was established in that grammar he stayed in it, creating in established patterns rather than making new grammars. Jackson Pollock also produced singular work but in one frame after which he tragically and sadly flamed out.

I recently read a similar observation in a review of the Hyper Real exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia (thanks for sharing Loes), which noted that “manual dexterity, so valued only a generation ago, is growing increasingly redundant. As in most good art, it is the conceptual framework that is of higher value than the virtuosity of the execution and, as a matter of fact, many of the hyperreal artists leave the manufacture of their work to technicians.”

I also found interesting resonance with this topic in a presentation about the work of Hubert Dreyfus and his model of skill acquisition at last month’s facilitators’ network meeting. This model proposes five stages of skill acquisition ranging from novice to expert. There is a pretty good Wikipedia page on it which I can leave you to peruse but the key take-away in this context is the way in which the expert can transcend reliance on rules, guidelines, and maxims and instead rely on an intuitive grasp of situations based on deep, tacit understanding. It is this deep tacit understanding that can then lead the expert to become a domain innovator and inventor of frameworks of novel rules, guidelines etc.

It is also interesting that Dreyfus as a philosopher was a long-standing critic of artificial intelligence, particularly the philosophical naive and mathematically formulated versions attempted in the last century. I suspect the deep learning, neural based, data driven approaches common today would be less susceptible to his humanist objections – the topic for another day perhaps, interesting to me since his philosophical approach used thinking I explored extensively in writing my Sociology Master’s thesis in the late seventies.

However to my mind there is much more to the currently unique human creative capacity than that of expert skill mastery… for example I identified a paradox of creativity in my previous thinking, which was that in some ways the more familiar you become with a particular field of work, the less creative you become. Specialists may take choices early in the mastery of the discipline, and rarely if ever revisit the taken for granted aspects of the practise, forgetting or never realising that some of their basic assumptions are actually choice based.  As skill and mastery increases, one makes conscious reference to the domain framework less and less ad certain skills become wholly automatic and habitual – no thought required. Great skill perhaps, but at the same time the creative envelope has narrowed. The best experts in Dreyfus is scheme can and do achieve innovative thinking but it is manifestly not easy. Breaking through and recovering creative naivety toward acquired and mastered subjects can be very difficult.

One solution is to recruit and teach neophytes, and to observe them carefully as they learn. It is a commonplace observation that people new to a field can often offer significant innovations and insights, although they may lack the ability to fully realise them.  As we cover the elementary ground that specialists left behind years before, we make observations and explore directions which emerge early in the problem space of the discipline, and may have being laying fallow.  A non-altruistic reason to pass on your skills and to be patient with learners! Working out what you do well enough to teach it to others can force a re-evaluation sufficient to jolt insight.

The other thing here is that as we learn a new subject or revisit a current domain from first principles, we can cross over previously acquired knowledge and generate novelty from that collision – something I touched on in my blog about the specialist generalist.

This ‘crossing over’ was something I demonstrated for myself in a modest way when I combined my recent charcoal sketches from the U3A drawing group with various photographs of flowers and street art – e.g.


The drawings have been essentially for practice and the photographs relatively run-of-the-mill – neither particularly creative in themselves. However integrating and overlaying the individual images has generated results which I have found to be genuinely creative, the emergent consequence of combining two different skill sets and impulses.

I recall there was a discussion at a UTS Hatchery AI meeting about the social dimension to creativity, that AI technology, like other technologies, can help a person (human) deliver ‘better’ more technically polished work.  This resonates with the conclusions of the MIT work reported above, which said:

These insights will not necessarily send screenwriters back to the drawing board—that would be like asking George Orwell to tack a happy ending onto 1984 to cheer things up. But they could inspire video storytellers to look at their content objectively and make edits to increase engagement. That could mean a new musical score or a different image at crucial moments, as well as tweaks to plot, dialogue, and characters. As storytellers increasingly realize the value of AI, and as these tools become more readily available, we could see a major change in the way video stories are created. In the same way directors can now integrate motion capture in their work, writers and storyboarders might work alongside machines, using AI capabilities to sharpen stories and amplify the emotional pull.

That is the collaborative dimension of creative AI – the essential ingredients provided by the human are context and creative judgement, which will perhaps remain uniquely human.

But I also note that as we co-create in partnership with our ever more intelligent, useful and responsive machines, they will be learning about our context and judgement, perhaps ultimately to appreciate the former and exercise the latter.   As they do so there will be potentially profound effects on the human creative process – just as we shape our machines, so they shape us. Dreyfus was cited at the facilitators’ network meeting as expressing this reciprocity between humans and their technology thus:

“As the carpenter shapes the desk, so the desk shapes the carpenter.”



Regulating your way into paradise?

We like to think that a sustainable economy will be inclusive and prosperous – some seem to think that somehow an enhanced regulatory intervention is required to tie economic activity to sustainable practice. However for me it is difficult to think of a better mechanism to achieve that than marketplace processes. Only the market, subject to reasonable democratic control, can process the information, generate the wealth, encourage innovation and manage the risk necessary to sustain a complex society. You are never going to produce excellence, originality or innovation just because a regulator thinks it’s a good idea. It may well be that there is a clear dynamic and perhaps necessity for the rewriting of the social contract between corporations, markets and society. It has to be fervently hoped that our democratic institutions and processes are even halfway up to the task.

Over the last couple of weeks focusing on fitness and networking outings has again distracted from blog writing. Usefully so, because balance is critical, something confirmed in the pursuit of Tai Chi.

One networking event / learning opportunity I went to recently was a public forum on ‘Building a sustainable economy’ put on by the Centre for Policy Development. I was pleased to catch up with a couple of people who I had not seen since the early noughties and my time at CHOICE.

High above the city at Level 40 of  Governor Macquarie Tower, in the finely appointed offices of law firm Minter Ellison, we listened to serious people discussing serious issues around the questions of socially inclusive, environmentally sustainable and economically viable futures, seriously. There was talk of the need for re-imagining the social contract for corporations and business in the transition to a sustainable economy, in which the roles of social, environmental and economic capital are recognised and balanced.

It was particularly interesting to hear Geoff Summerhayes, an executive board member of the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA), speaking about how the transition to a low-carbon economy is in motion, and that local companies can opt to float with the transitional current or fight against the rising tide.

APRA is taking seriously the need for insurers and other custodians of funds to factor in the risks of climate change to their deposit holders. Their foray are into this category of risk was flagged in a February 2017 speech by him: Australia’s new horizon: Climate change challenges and prudential risk.  Apparently this did not meet with universal approval and there was suggestion at the time that APRA may have been moving outside it’s regulatory remit.  A familiar problem for regulators in a difficult space seeking innovative directions.

There was a general sense in the panel discussion of industry and regulators making progress irrespective of, and to a large extent despite, the operation of politics as usual Some of the questions from the folks assembled on the 40th floor suggested that somehow an enhanced regulatory intervention is required to tie economic activity to sustainable practice. It was not entirely clear what regulatory body might be suitable vehicle for such intervention. But of course, that is only a preliminary and quite shallow problem in the proposition, which led me to a couple of reflections which I shared in conversation over drinks and canapes (I do love  a  good law firm hosted seminar!) after the panel discussion and Q&A.

Firstly regulators in today’s world cannot think of themselves as somehow ‘outside’ the system, looking in – that is the conceit of supervision. In an overwhelmingly networked world regulators of any domain a very likely to find themselves embedded within the network; as a privileged node with special resources and a necessary stance of independence but nevertheless interlinked and certainly with no monopoly of knowledge.

Secondly, and related to that final point, however well-intentioned, you cannot effectively regulate what you do not understand.  That takes investment and resources – which tend to be thin on the ground for the average reglator! It also means knowing what you do not know, and many contemporary systems are so complex, and evolving so rapidly, has to be literally beyond comprehension – even by the direct industry participants, let alone supposedly aloof regulators sitting above the fray.

This is not a counsel of despair –  there are effective avenues of intervention available that recognise and draw on the premises of complexity theory.  These go beyond  the simple  proposition of unintended or perverse consequences and recognise the essential primacy of self-organization in complex systems. Hence an emphasis on the importance of self-regulation and the likelihood or perhaps even inevitability of sudden shifts (think Butterfly Effect, cascades and tipping points). It is also evident that complex systems are fragile, and the more complex they are the more fragile they are.  Fragility requires increasingly large investments of information and energy to keep the complex system functioning and to reap the rewards of that complexity a potentially vicious circle for all concerned.

There was further commentary from the floor of the meeting which suggested an even deeper disillusionment with the viability of corporate moves to sustainability. There was a feeling among some that a sustainable economy was beyond the capacity of markets to deliver and that we were witnessing the failing of capitalism. To some extent these perhaps echoed the views recently reported of the former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, who has claimed capitalism is coming to an end, in his view because it is making itself obsolete with the rise of giant technology corporations and artificial intelligence.  “And then what happens?” he is reported to have said – “I have no idea”, and of course that’s the thing, isn’t it, none of us do.

It’s fairly easy to conclude that the messy market system is failing because it’s not doing it exactly what you want it to do. At that point people’s thoughts turn inexorably to ‘command and control’ – let’s just tell people what’s good for them and what to do. I’m reminded of a timeless remark by one of the first systems analysts that I worked with 35 years ago: he would say “We wouldn’t have all these politics if people would just do what I say”.

We like to think that a sustainable economy will be inclusive and prosperous – however for me it is difficult to think of a better mechanism to achieve that than marketplace processes, subject to reasonable democratic control. Only the market can process the information, generate the wealth, encourage innovation and manage the risk necessary to sustain a complex society.


One thing I am certain of is that you cannot simply command yourself to be wealthy. That’s a difficult trick for an individual, let alone a complex society in a global context. It is a rule of thumb for regulators that you cannot create good behaviour by regulatory fiat. Markets can be messy and periodically interventions are required in an attempt to focus the minds of participants on the greater collective good. There need to be  effective mechanisms  to address  complaints  resolve disputes  and settle grievances.  That can certainly include trying to encourage good behaviour through education, guidelines and encouraging best practice – but you are never going to produce excellence, originality or innovation just because a regulator thinks it’s a good idea.  Actually in my experience and from my time spent working and advocating in various regulatory context, regulators are as often moved by markets and the expectations of society and culture in general as the other way around.

Basically the goal to which regulatory energy is best directed is the mitigation of harms – that is stopping bad stuff rather than trying to induce the good stuff.

Those that command usually do just that and that has the real potential to deliver significant adverse distributional effects, far worse than free market excesses (which is why the prevention of monopoly is one unimpeachable goal for regulatory intervention).  In these circumstances, channeling my friend the systems analyst, democracy may well prove inconvenient. Winners have a nasty habit of deciding who prospers, who the losers will be and what penalty they may pay – and indeed probably what counts as ‘sustainable’, and for whom.

This may well be a classic case of be careful of what you wish for, unless perhaps you expect to be an unprincipled winner.  It may well be that there is a clear dynamic and perhaps necessity for the rewriting of the social contract between corporations, markets and society.  It has to be fervently hoped that our democratic institutions and processes are even halfway up to the task, since the zombie which is likely to arise from the grave of capitalism will probably be a pale imitation of that which was joyfully interred, but yet have a potential to be far more fearsome.

Creation: line & form

Take a wander through my creative thinking as I try to complete at least one charcoal drawing on paper each day over the last fortnight or so – and have a look at the results.

This blog post is a little delayed. I enjoy writing and so I have been enthusiastic about keeping my commitment to a Charles 6.0 post every week – doing so has engaged my creative energy more than adequately. But (and there is always a ‘but’ isn’t there) I have found that this work has to some extent been absorbing creative energy from other things I have wanted to pursue.

A specific example is my wish to engage further with drawing – as I noted in an earlier blog, ‘Back to basics’, I have been going along to a U3A drawing group every fortnight for the last couple of months, revisiting the fundamental skill of free-hand drawing.  I noted that I found it a bit challenging – my engagement with this skill was longer ago than I first thought – but that I would persist , strongly feeling the need to relearn the basic skills of seeing and constructing images by hand.  While I have engaged happily with the group now, to improve I really needed to do more.

So a couple of weeks ago I decided to prioritise drawing over blog writing, to try to make time to do at least one drawing each day, with  a view to sharing the results in a blog somehow. I have focused on the most basic drawing technique using black charcoal on paper, using objects scattered about the house, some of which I have used for creative inspiration in the past.  For a number of them I have gone on to use the drawn image in creating digital collage with photographs from the streets, adding a layer of interest and complexity.  Other events have conspired to divert my focus over the last fortnight, but on as many days as possible I have attempted a drawing.  These are what I will focus on sharing in this blog, interspersed with digital play with some of them, and also a few random notes or jottings accumulated on my travels during the couple of weeks -apologies for more or less adequate segues 😉

20171109_090307.jpgSo to my first drawing, of a retro china ballerina figurine which offered the opportunity to explore solid object modelling – a black figure in a pink dress,garnered from a op shop a couple of decades ago.

The next drawing was of a less substantial object, being one of a pair of brass butterflies, with filigreed detail best gestured at rather than precisely rendered.  I like the idea of something as delicate and insubstantial as a butterfly being expressed in a material as solid as brass and I had captured a rather interesting light effect  on the pair a couple of months previously that echoed that thought on transience…


On the subject of ephemera, I saw Facebook an “occasional address” from comedian Tim Minchin for a graduation ceremony at his old Uni, The University of Western Australia – gosh, I just noticed that his robe echoes a butterfly!

While witty and amusing, his nine life lessons resonate enormously with me – in summary:

  1. You don’t have to have a dream
  2. Don’t seek happiness (keep busy and make someone else happy, and you may get some as side effect)
  3. Remember, it’s all luck
  4. Exercise
  5. Be hard on your opinions (Identify your biases, your prejudices, your privileges)
  6. Be a teacher (Even you are not a teacher, be a teacher)
  7. Define yourself by what you love (be demonstrative and generous in your praise of those you admire. Be pro-stuff not just anti stuff)
  8. Respect people with less power than you.
  9. Don’t rush (there is only one sensible thing to do with this empty existence, and that is, fill it).

20171109_090522.jpgBut back to the drawings – next I attempted a rendition of a china Buddha figurine which once again I picked up in an op shop a long while ago.

While not formally an adherent, from what little I understand I am sympathetic to many Buddhist tenets, framing the possibility of a joyful embrace of the emergent universe – echoed in Tim Minchin’s riff on our ’empty existence’. Such was the intent of my subsequent digital employment of the sketch …



One lunchtime I went along to  the presentation  by Mark Deuze, Professor of Journalism Studies at the University of Amsterdam. It was an engrossing presentation – an interesting and engaging hour or so well spent. He spoke about journalism start-ups & his forthcoming book, Beyond Journalism, which was the basic theme of his talk.

20171115_111047.jpgHe described the operating environment for journalists as being ‘liquid’, meaning that conditions are changing faster than ways of acting can consolidate into habits and routines.  He was essentially describing the hollowing out of institutional journalism. He described the situation of media workers in terms of precariousness or precarity; that is not knowing and not having control over what will happen next.

There was discussion of the journalist as a DJ, able to mix and match roles and value systems, of portfolio careers and cross subsidised work styles, of journalists as individual brands, of how contemporary media workers are never ‘not at work’.  Coincidentally, the next day the Productivity Commission published a report is called “Shifting the Dial” which looked a range of public services in Australia, but had some damning observations around higher education. While acknowledging the important role universities play in society it also pointed out that the way they are funded and operated is leading to less than ideal outcomes for students.  The report I read noted that:

Only 70 percent of graduates are employed in full-time work. That’s the lowest level since records began in 1982, and we’ve been on a steady decrease for the past decade. Also, nearly one-third of the graduates who are employed are working in jobs that don’t require their degree.

But wait, there’s even more! Graduate starting salaries have been declining when compared to average earnings, which means degrees are becoming less valuable at the same time the cost of study is increasing.

I found this profoundly interesting in the context of Tim Minchin’s address and given the observations I had made in my recent blog Thinking about education, work & AI, with the long story short  view that the world of information (how it is stored, distributed, navigated and utilised) has changed immeasurably over the last couple of decades, and the tertiary sector has struggled / is struggling to keep pace and stay relevant.

I guess we might just have to armour-up … I enjoyed sketching the suit of armour figure that I have treasured as a birthday gift from my eldest son many years ago. If it looks a little robotic, I guess that guys in armour actually did look a bit like robots.


My next subject perhaps also holds a shield – this was a kitsch china figurine I found by the roadside, which I painted into more basic colours and augmented with other found objects to create a sculptural assemblage that engages enigmatically with time and change.


I blended the drawn image with a recent photograph of weathered street posters to good emergent effect, while I have used the assemblage in photographic studies from time to time as well …


Nearing the end of the report into my adventures with charcoal, I drew this small wooden Balinese bust that I  picked up somewhere on my travels.  Perhaps an earlier photographic study captured something of the calm and reflective air it conveys …


… while the experimental combination of the sketch with a image of a dilapidated street poster  produced an image, that for me, somehow provides a powerful abstract summary of what this blog is trying to do and say.






Thinking about education, work & AI

The world of information (how it is stored, distributed, navigated and utilised) has changed immeasurably over the last couple of decades, and the tertiary sector has struggled / is struggling to keep pace and stay relevant. An important challenge is sustaining the commercial pressures of running large institutions, exacerbated by the accelerating end of the monopoly on knowledge by traditional education institutions. A key question is how participating in university education can remain primary or indeed useful in equipping students to participate in the workforce. ‘Just-in-time’ education seems like the best contemporary strategy. Perhaps the future utility of might be best seen as equipping people with the fundamental literacy to be able to devise and guide a learning path as closely aligned to their career and vocational aspirations as possible – ‘Literacy 4.0’. Smart people in future will need to understand and work across skill clusters and the various dimensions of the smart society – smart educators will help them …

This blog has its origin in a workshop I attended week or so ago about AI and the future of work – you may recall a blog from me on that topic a short while ago.  One of the exercises we undertook was a group conversation about what university education might look like in 2025. There was a fair bit of lively discussion about technology, collaboration and equity of access, but I must say without any definitive insights.

I think one participant hit the nail on the head when they posed the question; will there actually be universities in 2025. The obvious answer is ‘Yes’, but really the question was rhetorical, because while universities will in all probability continue to exist as institutions with that name for decades, the role, constitution and structure of the university is changing, and will continue to change.  It is doing so not just under the pressure of technology but from social, cultural and economic developments.

Tertiary education is something I have thought about and discussed with many intelligent people over the years.  The main things I got from tertiary study were the importance of structuring my thoughts and learning how to learn – both pretty much learnt by doing.  I guess long story short my view is the world of information (how it is stored, distributed, navigated and utilised) has changed immeasurably over the last couple of decades, and the tertiary sector has struggled / is struggling to keep pace and stay relevant.

A key concern, of course, is the question of how participating in university education can remain primary or indeed useful in equipping students to participate in the workforce.  There was acknowledgement and some excitement around the current move in university circles to offer micro-credits or if you like ‘à la carte’ selection of elements from their portfolio of offerings. The sensible idea is that students can fine tune their learning as close as possible to their specific needs.  This comes close to the position I have arrived at; that ‘just-in-time’ education seems like the best contemporary strategy – a little bit at a time, focussed on a tangible goal or to take the next step or getting that necessary credential.  The days of imbibing a large body of knowledge early and living off that for years seems long gone (if it ever really worked).

I reckon there is no wrong pathway but there are multiple pathways.  While I respect people who commit to even extended academic journeys, my feeling is that an integrated work and learning pathway will track better in an environment of uncertainty about work futures.  One obvious example is the apprenticeship model.  In the past this worked similarly in essence for the degree model, in the sense that the apprentice/student gained a body of knowledge that was meant to last a lifetime of employment.  One important development for both over past decades has been the recognition of the need for constant skill maintenance, however this still operates within the original silo. What is increasingly necessary is the ability to chart a course between learning models and across spheres of employment, to create an individualised trajectory of knowledge acquisition and value creation.

University of Melbourne has launched a brand campaign showcasing what it regards as its distinctive curriculum, the ‘Melbourne Model’.  Its YouTube video presents the idea of education that equips students with world knowledge, so that they can adapt and be ready for every possible future.

As slick as this is, it does strike me however that an important challenge with this approach is sustaining the commercial pressures of running large institutions, exacerbated by the accelerating end of the monopoly on knowledge by traditional education institutions – universities aren’t the only ones using YouTube!  How often have you heard someone say, ‘Oh I learnt how to do that from a YouTube video’?  The ‘University of YouTube’ might serve as an umbrella term for the ready and instant availability of knowledge and ‘how-to’ instruction on the Internet.  Not to mention the access to the vast storehouse of human knowledge Google (and other search engines) have given over the last couple of decades, and the power of social media to foster the rapid emergence of communities of interest and practice to share and develop knowledge.  Sure there are quality and trust issues, but that doesn’t stop people successfully using these information resources all the time, in both their personal and professional lives.


In some ways it’s perhaps analogous to the problems facing subscription television – a classic fixed cost versus variable income problem.  As their offering is increasingly unbundled and contested by ‘watch only what you want’ streaming services, maintaining the integrated network infrastructure becomes increasingly difficult. Similarly universities require significant financial logistical and educational agility to sustain a coherent offering from a swarm of micro-learning opportunities.

One key aspect of the modern knowledge equation is the advent of AI and big data, and it will be interesting to see how the application of data analysis to educational design and experience will play out. AI will not be monolithic, various actors and agents will contend and contest and are unlikely to be perfect. Humans are likely to be the adults in the room for quite some time to come. In fact it occurs to me that governance will be a growth area in AI-world along with curation and editing of AI-based products to best fit human needs. One very interesting area will be learning and developing ways to interface with AI based systems – the common office screen and mouse systems are likely to go the way of the command line DOS prompt of old, and perhaps work interfaces will come to resemble contemporary digital game environments?

Students will definitely need to get accustomed to an increasingly data dense educational environment. A positive outcome could well be better management of diversity and complexity in catering to individual student needs and wants, enabling a better matching of learning environment, methods and partners. Perhaps AI assisted ‘adaptive education’ could assist managing these multiple pathways?

In this context it was interesting to note the 2017 report from the AI Now Institute at New York University, focused on the use of AI in government and the law.  It suggests that “the design and implementation of this next generation of computational tools presents deep normative and ethical challenges for our existing social, economic and political relationships and institutions.”

It cautions that “Core public agencies, such as those responsible for criminal justice, health care, welfare, and education should no longer use ‘black box’ AI and algorithmic systems”, since difficult decisions need to be made about how we value fairness and accuracy in risk assessment. It is not merely a technical problem, but one that involves important value judgments about how society should work. These concerns, expressed particularly about the legal system in the report would seem to be as applicable to educational institutions, which would seem as susceptible to perpetuating AI-driven harm as any other.  Thinking about this leaves me to an observation that education can largely be seen as a lagging institution: that is rather than driving our massive social and economic shifts, it is essentially driven by them, adapting and configuring it’s offerings to suit the times.

One notable exception that observation which occurs to me however is the fundamentally role of literacy as a social and economic enabler.  Perhaps that is one way of conceptualizing the future utility of education rather than providing intellectual toolbox or skill set it might be better seen as equipping people with the fundamental literacy to be able to devise and guide a learning path as closely aligned to their career and vocational aspirations as possible. Dr Josh Healy Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Workplace Leadership, Faculty of Business and Economics, University of Melbourne writes about what researchers are calling the new literacies, what he terms ‘Literacy 4.0’.   Educational institutions and educators will need to consider how they can anticipate to the new and changing lattice of options and adapt themselves to best assist their students to navigate that environment.

The Foundation for Young Australians (FYA) spells out where that literacy might be used (without using the term) when it discusses 7 ‘clusters of work’ – skills that are transferable across jobs – to help young people (and I would suggest people of any age) navigate the new work order. Their conclusion:

By understanding the skills and capabilities that will be most portable and in demand in the new economy, young people can work to equip themselves for the future of work more effectively. Our mindset needs to shift to reflect a more dynamic future of work where linear careers will be far less common and young people will need a portfolio of skills and capabilities, including career management skills to navigate the more complex world of work.

The FYA analysed skills requested by employers across 2.7 million online job advertisements posted over the past two years and the occupations were then grouped based on whether employers demanded similar skills from applicants. These clustered in the following seven groups (take a look at the report to explore them further):

  • ‘The Generators’
  • ‘The Artisans’
  • ‘The Coordinators’
  • ‘The Designers’
  • ‘The Technologists’
  • ‘The Carers’
  • ‘The Informers’

A glimpse of the future smart society that these clusters of skills might be used in is given a World Economic Forum (WEF) piece titled: The society of the future looks nothing like you might imagine.  A ‘smart society’ is defined as one where digital technology, thoughtfully deployed by governments, can improve on three broad outcomes: the well-being of citizens, the strength of the economy, and the effectiveness of institutions.  A natural group of countries to use as role models was the Digital 5, or D5, nations, representing the most digitally advanced governments in the world. The group comprises Estonia, Israel, New Zealand, South Korea, and the UK – sadly Australia does not seem to rate a mention.

The D5 nations are used by the WEF to define a global benchmark for a smart society organized them so that each indicator could be classified under one of 12 broad benchmark components. These broad components are:

Citizens/People Components:

  • inclusivity,
  • environment and quality of life,
  • state of talent and the human condition,
  • talent development.

Economy Components:

  • global connectedness,
  • economic robustness,
  • entrepreneurial ecosystem,
  • innovation capacity.

Institutions Components:

  • freedoms offline and online,
  • trust,
  • safety and security,
  • public services.

It would be an interesting exercise to map the seven FYA skill clusters more precisely across these WEF smart society benchmarking components – something for another day perhaps.  In any event, smart people in future will need to understand and work across both these dimensions – smart educators will help them …


Croquet conversations

Sometimes when ask what I am doing in retirement, I say I am seeking to have ‘interesting conversations’. For this blog I have taken a different approach to usual, weaving various fragments of recent conversations on the sidelines of the week-long Manly Croquet Club Seabreeze tournament into a single fictionalized exchange

By the lawn at the Manly Croquet Club Seabreeze tournament:

It’s taken us ages to drive here, there was an horrendous accident on the parkway that held up traffic for over 30 minutes – it took us an hour and a half to get here this morning.

Yes, we were faced with a three bridge problem coming from Marrickville: the Anzac Bridge the Harbour Bridge and the Spit Bridge each with their own particular idiosyncrasies.  So rather than drive to Manly every day, we decided to stay over for the week of the tournament and rented an Airbnb granny flat just on the other side of the golf course – about 20 minutes’ walk to here.


Wow, that’s a good idea!

Yes, we figured that people actually used to go to Manly for the holidays – back in the day, before they invented Tuscany…

How have you found it … Airbnb that is?

It was a great decision – we’ve called it our ‘cruise on dry land’ and it’s worked out brilliantly. The young couple who own the house have a young toddler – actually one thing that might have bugged me in the past, but that I’ve enjoyed in grandparent mode, has been the literal pitter-patter of little feet overhead.

It seems to me with all this development adding more and more people, generating ever-increasing traffic that Sydney is drowning in its own prosperity.

“Into every life a little rain must fall” as my mother often said as she counselled resilience in the face of adversity.  You know, watching this very welcome spot of rain sprinkling on the dry croquet lawns, it occurs to me that it can also true in the positive alternative – that is, whatever adversity one might face, a little relieving rain will ultimately fall.

Yes, but it’s hard to see where the sprinkling of rain to ease the pain of the Sydney traffic might come from – it certainly a paradox that the more capacity and infrastructure we add, the more traffic we seem to generate.

I agree, that certainly seems the case. You know, I fully get the idea that the best solution to congestion is actually congestion, eventually it will be self-managing.  But that is completely politically unsaleable, since everyone wants their particular connection problem solved, which walks us back into the problem.

A wicked problem!

Indeed! Perhaps technology will help us through better traffic management and perhaps congestion charging by location. Of course technology in the future often doesn’t get such a positive spin – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

[Puzzled look]

The original sci-fi novel that was inspiration for the movie Blade Runner.  I am really looking forward to seeing the sequel that was released recently.

Is that so?  I’ve not seen the original movie.

It’s well worth seeing – it seems to me to be quite an important work, not exactly a prediction but it looked at important and pressing issues, which are still relevant today, maybe even more than when it was first released.  A bit like what Mark Twain said about the past – history doesn’t repeat but it rhymes. Maybe in the same sort of way good thinking about the future won’t predict it, but is likely to rhyme with it?

I don’t think that I’m that march in tune with modern technology – it all seems a bit much to keep up with frankly.

I don’t think that you sound as much of a techno-sceptic has the woman at my U3A drawing group. When asked if she had received the newsletter said ‘No!’  Told that it was sent as an email attachment in a PDF file, she observed with considerable vehemence that if it was not on paper she did not want it and that in any case that she did not have email. I must admit I was impressed and surprised by such a closed mind in a group that is supposedly engaged in creative practice.

Well yes, I wouldn’t count myself as such a digital refusenik – I wonder if they are digitally disenfranchised or just living with their heads in the sand?

I am reminded one point made an interesting sci-fi book I finished reading recently – by Iain M. Banks called Excision – about what he called ‘the dependency principle’.  He said however smart you are (and here he was talking about hugely advanced AI Minds) you should never forget where the OFF switch is located. He makes the point that base reality remains essential – the electricity that makes computers work and the basic physiology that enables the human mind to functions.  Lose that base reality and you lose everything constructed on top of it! So there is a danger in being dependent on technology …

So there’s nothing wrong with staying in touch with day-to-day reality … for a different take on what laughingly passes for reality, I just finished Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, which was a fantastical cornucopia of detailed insights and observations.  To me there is a compelling comparison between this work and The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass. I don’t see it as derivative but rather a member of the same genre, whereby a preternaturally gifted child observes and influences the great tapestry of history – Saleem by virtue of his telepathic gifts and acute nose and Oscar with his glass shattering voice and insistent drumming.

Wow, interesting … I guess reading and appreciating literature is perhaps also a form of conversation, both with the author and with yourself, as well as then being material for conversation with other people. Something I’ve done in the few months since retiring has been to re-watch all seven seasons of the television series called ‘The Shield‘. Watching it in its entirety across a reasonably short time-frame, I found it quite Shakespearean in the depth of the drama of a man acting very badly while striving to fulfill good intentions of comradeship and family – perhaps even better than the legendary Breaking Bad.

Really? I don’t actually watch much television myself.

We don’t watch broadcast television much at all anymore either but I think that the long form television series, delivered by pay or DVD or streaming, is arguably the preeminent literary form the first couple of decades of the 21st century. Just like the serial works of Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy became literary icons of the 19th.

Hmmmm, maybe … anyway how is the croquet?

I’ve been making a few tournament updates on Facebook illustrating each with a photograph of a flower from the fine garden beds surrounding the lawn.


When I mentioned this to someone from the club, the response was that the gardeners who put in a lot of work would be very pleased for the acknowledgment of their efforts.  I also mentioned the croquet-themed men’s room sign I employed for one update, and was quite staggered that a long-standing club member had never noticed such unique signage – same for the women’s by the way.


Interesting what people don’t see. How’s your play been?

Oh, I managed make a break with 9 hoops in a row in my last game – lost the game but that made it worthwhile.

Congratulations! Becoming one with the mallet …  I’ve had a few shorter breaks, but my current specialty seems to be making my opponent play their worst game … sometimes I win, sometimes they do, but often low scoring, scrappy games. As I commented to one of my opponents, it’s like being stuck in bronze hell…

Oh well, such is life, as Ned Kelly told his gang!

Not such a wicked problem I guess. Oh, I think that’s my turn on the lawn – been good talking to you.

Likewise, good luck!


The specialist generalist

Over the years I have come to understand that my real aptitude lies in helping to explore and define problems rather than to craft specific and technical solutions. Do this well, as I have at various stages, and you’ll find yourself in positions where the latitude to sit and think is extended significantly and can in fact become the accepted reason for your continued employment and contribution. At that point you have actually moved beyond simply being a simple, practical generalist and have started to engage with the role of the specialist generalist. This is someone who, rather than simply bringing together a variety of specialties, works in the world of the complex and the unknown, to define and appreciate problems and then to architect the shape of possible approaches and solutions. I must say I am enjoying the freedom of Charles 6.0 to suit myself as to those problem domains and chaotic edges in which as a specialist generalist I choose to dwell.

Since ceasing full time work, and starting my Charles 6.0 transformation, I have met a number of people (some more significantly advanced in years than my own) that continue employment on a consulting or contracting basis. It has sometimes been suggested that perhaps that’s something I would like to do. Quite apart from being pretty fully occupied without having any work-like obligations, one reflection on this has been that these people normally have a highly specific and singular expertise that is valued in the marketplace, such as database programming, construction engineering or town planning.  The world of the consultant contractor is the world of the dedicated specialist.  Quite reasonably most clients are looking for someone to undertake a specific task with well-defined outcomes – that way they know they will get at least an approximation of what they are paying for.

At various times during my working life I have worked as a self-employed consultant/contractor. To be completely frank I’ve never really been all that good at it.  While I easily discharged the usually IT related tasks (such as application coding or database design) entrusted to me by various clients, I generally wanted to do more and often found the focused, repetitive aspect of the work they wanted me to specialise in frustrating and somewhat unfulfilling – when I’ve done something once I generally want to solve a different problem or acquire a fresh skill. The basic problem is that I’m interested in too many things.

Over the years I have come to understand that my real aptitude lies in helping to explore and define problems rather than to craft specific and technical solutions.  However, usually people either feel they have a good handle on what needs doing or they lack the trust necessary to commission someone else to explore the problem space.

By and large there is also an inclination to ‘rush to solution’ – there is little appreciation of the art and skill of sitting with a problem long enough to understand its true demands and dimensions – which quite frequently are more or less different to the immediately presenting issues.   Newsflash: that is not a proposition easily sold into a competitive market place – there are not many clients willing to pay someone to sit with a problem – they want them solved – ASAP!

I actually found the best place to practice that particular art is as a full time employee – oftentimes you can layered the necessary time spent sitting and thinking in among all the busy work that employers seem delighted to visit upon their workers. It is here you can cultivate the position of the generalist employee, easily deployed to various tasks but sometimes lampooned as the ‘jack of all trades that is master of none’.  However as the Wikipedia entry about that saying notes, such an individual may be a master of integration, knowing enough from many learned trades and skills to be able to bring the disciplines together in a practical manner – what I would call a practical generalist.

Do this well, as I have at various stages, and you’ll find yourself in positions where the latitude to sit and think is extended significantly and can in fact become the accepted reason for your continued employment and contribution. At that point you have actually moved beyond simply being a simple, practical generalist and have started to engage with the role of the specialist generalist. This is someone who, rather than simply bringing together a variety of specialties, works in the world of the complex and the unknown, to define and appreciate problems and then to architect the shape of possible approaches and solutions.

One conceptual tool I have found useful to frame complexity in this context is what is commonly known as the ‘Stacey diagram’, so named after the British organizational theorist and Professor of Management Ralph Douglas Stacey. It has apparently been frequently adapted by other writers, as noted by Wikipedia often in ways not consistent with Stacey’s – to the point that apparently ‘he dropped the diagram and now argues against its use’.  I am as guilty of appropriating and extending his original thinking as anyone!  But I find it incredibly useful as framework for analysis and thought, and so I have sketched my own take on it, as illustrated here.


There are two axis to the diagram – Uncertainty and Disagreement:

  • The horizontal x-axis is Uncertainty. When an Issue or decision is close to certainty it is because cause and effect linkages can be determined.  This is usually the case when a very similar issue or decision has been made in the past, you can then use past experience to predict the outcome with a good degree of certainty. The other end of the certainty continuum is ‘far from certainty’. This is when the situation is unique or at least new to the decision makers.  The cause and effect linkages are not clear.  Using past experiences is not a good method to predict outcomes in the far from certainty range.
  • The vertical y-axis is Disagreement. This measures the level of agreement about an issue or decision within the group, team or organisation.  The degree of agreement on what should be done is an important factor in determining success.

I have found a very useful and succinct exploration of the Stacey matrix in relation to art of management and leadership, on this GP training resource archive.  It maps various forms of decision making onto the matrix: Technical rational in the ‘simple’ region which is close to certainty and close to agreement – in terms of this blog the place for the specialist; Political for the area having a great deal of certainty about how outcomes are created but high levels of disagreement about which outcomes are desirable; Judgmental for the opposite set of issues with a high level of agreement but not much certainty as to the cause and effect linkages to create the desired outcomes.

Political and Judgmental for my purposes here are the realm of the ‘practical generalist’.

And then there is the Complexity zone which lies between these regions of traditional management approaches and chaos and is the natural home of the specialist generalist.


A few observations on what is required to work as this close to the edge of chaos – for it to be a ‘zone of opportunity’ …

  • Be prepared to have absolutely no idea what you’re doing much of the time!  The qualification is to be able to ascertain rapidly what needs to be known and to acquire that knowledge rapidly rather than to have a stored repertoire of specialist knowledge to hand.
  • Work on the basis of principles rather than rules. I like this recent post I found on LinkedIn – ‘Burn Your Rule Book and Unlock the Power of Principles’, which observed “Principles, unlike rules, give people something unshakable to hold onto yet also the freedom to take independent decisions and actions to move toward a shared objective. Principles are directional, whereas rules are directive.”  But a specialist generalist needs to be prepared for uncertainty even here: paradigm shifts in terms of the set of principles to be applied in a given space, to find space for innovation and novel principle to emerge.
  • Be a systems thinker – I like the following illustration of the Tools of a System Thinker (attached to a tweet by @SYDIC_ITALIA Chapter Italiano della System Dynamics Society Internazionale – no further reference to acknowledge). However a specialist generalist must be an open-ended systems thinker, sensitive to emergent systems and to proto-systems at the edge of chaos.  You cannot insist on systems at all costs, but need to utilise the insights systems thinking can generate.  Be a network systems thinker, value the connections in the models you will perceive and generate as well as utilizing networks of skill and knowledge around the problem space.


It took me a long time to recognize and name myself as a ‘specialist’ generalist.  It is a very difficult and demanding role, one that is difficult to sell and articulate, but one which can deliver dividends with multiplier effects well beyond the contributions of specialists and practical generalists, since it is the role that seeks innovation, requires agility and rewards resilience.   That said, in the end with respect to my specialist computer-related skills, I decided to employ my abilities to my own ends rather than to try to meet the often poorly articulated and often contradictory needs of clients, be they internal or external.  I must say I am similarly enjoying the freedom of Charles 6.0 to suit myself as to those problem domains and chaotic edges in which as a specialist generalist I choose to dwell.


AI and future of work

‘Work’ is a fundamental shaper of everyday life. There is widespread agreement that AI technology is making possible the automation of a wide range of non-routine cognitive tasks, with obvious consequences for those currently doing those tasks. The orthodox economics proposition that a general equilibrium will prevail, however the live and urgent question today is whether this time it is different … maybe the historical pattern of compensating job creation has broken. Planning for how society, nationally and globally, might need to respond would seem like a useful insurance policy.

Last week’s blog explored Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology – broadly defined – and this week I am looking at the implications of this technology for the future of work. I encountered AI tech first when researching the impact of technological change on the employment context and prospects for visually impaired people while at the Royal Blind Society (RBS) in the early 80s.  I observed that it was a time of considerable technological excitement, but that there was also considerable anxiety about the impacts of automation on jobs.

It’s no new thing for people and society to stress about the impact of changing technology on jobs and employment – apparently Queen Elizabeth I refused a patent for a knitting machine because of the poverty it could cause and in the early 1800s the Luddites, poster children for technological resistance, destroyed weaving machinery.  It is worth noting that it is a misconception that the Luddites protested in an attempt to halt progress of technology but rather were trying to gain a better bargaining position with their employers.

The late seventies – early eighties was a time of relatively high unemployment and the Australian debate was framed by a Senate Committee of Inquiry into Technological Change in Australia, culminating in the Myers Report.  Many of the headlines of those times would not be out of place today – perhaps the more things change, the more they stay the same?

The conclusion of the report, and outcome we can see today is that while micro-processor driven technology innovation might destroy jobs it would also create them, and usually in greater number and with better pay.  In defense of his Committee’s report Prof Myers gave a good summary of the orthodox economics proposition that a general equilibrium will prevail:

When technological change lowers the price of goods by cutting labour, families will spend the money so saved on other goods and services and in doing so will generate jobs often in quite unrelated areas of the   economy. (AFR 30 Sept 1980)

However, the live and urgent question today is whether this time it is different … maybe the historical pattern of compensating job creation has broken. The critical debate is whether the past pattern of technological change generating wealth and supporting work as a distribution mechanism will hold or whether there has been some kind of de-coupling. The case for such a de-coupling is persuasively and succinctly argued in this brief video piece that explores the consequences of an increasingly automated workforce, worth watching: “Humans Need Not Apply” by C.G.P. Grey.

In 2013 Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne used a functional analysis to show that with the availability of big data a wide range of non-routine cognitive tasks are becoming computerisable, and they estimated “that sophisticated algorithms could substitute for approximately 140 million full-time knowledge workers worldwide”.   The Bank of England built on this in a study reported by their Chief Economist Andy Haldane.  Using the Frey and Osborne methodology, the Bank did its own exercise for the UK to produce a broad brush estimate to suggest for the UK up to 15 million jobs could be at risk of automation. In the US, the corresponding figure would be 80 million jobs.

Lending support to the idea that this time it may be different, Haldane noted:

… new-age machines will be thinking as well as doing, sensing as well as sifting, adapting as well as enacting. They will thus span a much wider part of the skill distribution than ever previously. As robots extend their skill-reach, “hollowing-out” may thus be set to become ever-faster, ever-wider and ever-deeper.  As digital replaced analogue, perhaps artificial intelligence will one day surpass the brain’s cognitive capacity, a tipping point referred to as the “singularity” (Stanislaw (1958))). Brad Delong has speculated that, just as “peak horse” was reached in the early part of the 20th century, perhaps “peak human” could be reached during this century (Delong (2014)).

It is worth noting, for balance the OECD Social, Employment and Migration Working Paper, ‘The Risk of Automation for Jobs in OECD Countries: A Comparative Analysis’ by Melanie Arntz, Terry Gregory, and Ulrich Zierahn. The paper specifically addressed the “occupation-based approach proposed by Frey and Osborne (2013), and argues their approach might lead to an overestimation of job automatibility, as occupations labelled as high-risk occupations often still contain a substantial share of tasks that are hard to automate.”

Overall, they find that, on average across the 21 OECD countries, 9 % of jobs are automatable.  They critically reflect on the recent line of studies that generate figures on the “risk of computerisation” and argue that the estimated share of “jobs at risk” must not be equated with actual or expected employment losses from technological advances because:

  1. The utilisation of new technologies is a slow process, due to economic, legal and societal hurdles, so that technological substitution often does not take place as expected.
  2. Even if new technologies are introduced, workers can adjust to changing technological endowments by switching tasks, thus preventing technological unemployment.
  3. Technological change also generates additional jobs through demand for new technologies and through higher competitiveness.

A similarly balanced yet cautionary view is adopted by Merrill Lynch in their A Transforming World report:

The limiting case here would be general purpose robots that are effective substitutes for human labor but at a fraction of the cost. In that case, widespread unemployment could be an outcome – it depends on whether there develops a large enough sector in the economy where humans have a comparative advantage. This could be the arts and entertainment, or personal care services, or areas that involve deeper analytical thinking that is not amenable to existing forms of AI.

How all this will play out in labour markets and more broadly is obviously a matter of speculation, or more productively perhaps scenario analysis and planning.   That latter approach is exemplified by a PWC report published recently “Workforce of the future: The competing forces shaping 2030”, which examines 4 possible scenario ‘worlds’ of work by that time, shaped by Collectivism versus Individualism and Integration versus Fragmentation.  The worlds are: Yellow, where Humans come first; Green, where Companies care; Red, where Innovation rules and Blue, in which Corporate is king – again, worth taking a look at the report.

Central to their thinking for all these is the impact of AI, which they discuss in term of 3 levels: Assisted intelligence, widely available today, such as car GPS navigation systems; Augmented intelligence, emerging today, for example, the combination of programmes that organise car ride‑sharing businesses; and Autonomous intelligence being developed for the future, an example of which will be self‑driving vehicles, when they come into widespread use.


One of their take-away messages is that organisations can’t protect jobs which are made redundant by technology – but have a responsibility to their people. They urge organisations to protect people not jobs, by nurturing agility, adaptability and re-skilling.

In an up-to-date assessment of the rapid strides being made in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, titled “A CEO action plan for workplace automation”, McKinsey Consulting notes tech advances in everyday activities:

For instance, researchers at Oxford University, collaborating with Google’s DeepMind division, created a deep-learning system that can read lips more accurately than human lip readers—by training it, using BBC closed-captioned news video. Similarly, robot “skin” is able to “feel” textures and find objects by touch, and robots are becoming more adept at physical tasks (such as tying a shoelace) that require fine motor skills.

One key to thinking about the future of technology is to focus on what is taken for granted or has merged into the background of daily life.  Changed technologies or behaviours are only seen as novel for a brief window, and then become unremarkable, either because they have been discarded and forgotten, or because they have merged with the fabric of everyday life and are not thought about or explicitly valued as such. Once we use something every day, we do not call these things technology anymore. Whether a stone or a drone, it simply becomes a tool we apply to a task.

However, ‘work’ is a fundamental shaper of everyday life. A perspective on this debate might well be the notion that the change is a transformation of how work is defined, not just a shifting of work from one means of production to another.  The Bank of England economist Haldane discussed a re-shaping of the labour market, rather than a simple projection of increased absolute unemployment. He wondered if “a fundamental reorientation in the nature of work could be underway.”

Calum Chace, author of Surviving AI and the novel Pandora’s Brain was quoted in a Guardian article as saying:

“I think our best hope going forward is figuring out how to live in an economy of radical abundance, where machines do all the work, and we basically play.” Arguably, we might be part of the way there already; is a dance fitness programme like Zumba anything more than adult play? But, as Chace says, a workless lifestyle also means “you have to think about a universal income” – a basic, unconditional level of state support.

The idea of providing everyone with a basic income has been the topic of some considerable interest of late.   To me at least there is significant tension between this idea of providing a significant sum of money to all and sundry irrespective of their other means and the fixation of our current political culture on targeting, means testing, and micromanagement of welfare payments. While-ever our society continues to see a moral virtue in working, and work remains the primary methods of wealth distribution, to me it seems unlikely that we will be able to easily implement the notion of universal basic income, even if it is a good idea.

I actually find it hard to improve on the conclusion I reached writing my position paper on Unemployment, technology change and visual impairment for the RBS in 1982 – “While a great deal needs to be said about technology, its change and its impact, little of this can be said with confidence.”

It may be that the familiar nostrum of economic growth, expanding employment opportunities in new fields not prey to automation, will mean that the technological changes under the umbrella of ‘AI’ will essentially be ‘business as usual.  However, as McKinsey put it “In the past, technological progress has not resulted in long-term mass unemployment, because it also has created additional, and new, types of work.  [However] we cannot know for sure whether these historical precedents will be repeated.”

If these historical precedents do not hold, then without a ‘good public policy idea’ it would seem highly likely the role of work in providing significant and predictable income to large numbers of people will be severely challenged and disrupted. So will the social structures and institutions dependent on that effective wealth distribution. Planning for how society, nationally and globally, might need to respond would seem like a useful insurance policy.